and the winds long to play with your hair.
-- Kahlil Gibran
Last Friday, the summer people emerged from their long winter's rest. Dressed in baggy shorts, loose T-shirts, baseball caps, floppy straw hats and sandals, their eyes met briefly as they scanned the plant selection at the annual Horticultural Arts Society's plant sale at Monument Park. Their complexions were pale, their fingernails clean, but not for long.
Straining toward the checkout stand, their common urge filled the air like a lilac-scented breeze -- they would go home and dig in the dirt. They would turn the cool earth over and release unfurling earthworms, startled by the light. They would smell the soil and remember themselves.
A few weeks back, a co-worker and I dug a couple cubic yards of rotted horse manure into the sterile soil outside the Independent's new offices. Stringy roots and pockets of dried-up vermiculite indicated previous life, long gone, in the flowerbeds. For most of a Saturday, we plunged our garden forks deep and turned the sweet manure into the weakened dirt, feeding it, feeding ourselves.
Then last weekend, I planted the beds with iris, roses, oriental poppies, penstemon, salvia, Jupiter's beard, vinca, viola, fountain grass, Russian sage, lavender, tomatoes, peppers, basil. For two days, I squatted, bent over, dug holes, spread roots, patted the soil, watered, mulched and surveyed my tiny plot of heaven. I mounded hills of soil, poked my finger in the soft dirt and planted pumpkin seeds.
I took my shoes off and sunk into the soft earth. I got dirty.
Most of us who love gardening crave both the mental repose and the physical exertion. Staring at the ground over long hours, the sounds of news broadcasts, nightmare images of ambushes and abuses in Iraq, concerns over jobs and money, the wailing of the world all disappear. Filling the space are the smells and textures of the earth beneath our feet and a lifetime of sense memory.
Ripping through the surface, plunging the shovel, digging a hole, I am returned over 40 years to barefoot summer days in western Kentucky that started with the damp grass of the front yard and ended in the dusty infield of a Little League baseball field.
We awaken to the stale heat of the bedroom and the sound of the next-door neighbor's dog barking hysterically at the milkman. We pull on our shorts and shirts and brush our teeth only because our mother makes us. We rush out the screen door onto the smooth, cool cement of the front porch, across the prickly field of weeds separating our house from the elementary school.
We meet the college student who runs the recreation program on our school's playground all summer long. She unlocks a big green box filled with kickballs, horseshoes, ropes and tetherballs, sidewalk chalk, jump ropes, basketballs, baseball bats, fat softballs with seams coming unraveled.
We shimmy up a pole and hang the tetherball, then stand in line to push it with our palms, smash it with our fists, send it over our opponents' heads, wrapping the pole to victory. We jump in the swings, digging our bare toes into the hard clay soil to start and stop. We practice cheerleading and cartwheels and backbends. The college student sits in a shady spot painting her nails while we jump rope on the hot pavement and chant:
Cinderella, dressed in yella', went upstairs to see her fella'
How many kisses did she get?
One ... two ... three ... four ... five ... six ...
As the day winds down, the big green box is refilled and relocked, and the wobbly bleachers behind the tall backstop of the baseball field begin to fill with mothers and fathers. We buy penny Pixy Stix candies, rip off the ends, tilt our heads back and drink the colored sugar. We climb the chain-link fence behind right field and leap down to chase homeruns or long foul balls.
The sun sets and we drag our tired bodies home.
Back in 2004, the garden is planted, the sidewalks swept, the newly turned and watered soil settled down for a summer of mysterious underground growth. My arms are loose and exhausted, my shoulders burned, my knees stiff. My feet are dirty, my fingernails caked with soil.
As the sun sets, I drag my tired body home as if from a long, long distance. Night falls and stars light the sky. Thoreau's words capture the day: "Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads."