(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2012)
“When we express our true nature, we are human beings. When we do not, we do not know what we are.” Shunryu Suzuki
Planting sugar snap pea seeds yesterday, I was thrilled to find the raised bed rife with earthworms, young and old. We garden in soil known hereabouts as pygmy, which left to it’s own devices will not grow vegetables or much of anything except bonsai pines and huckleberries and the nefarious Scotch Broom. Thus we have eight raised beds in boxes and four beds in the ground, all requiring manure and compost in addition to the local soil to give us a decent harvest.
This past fall I scored a truckload of rabbit manure and I surmise it is this precious poop that has proven such an elixir to the worms. When I moved here six and a half years ago and set up my above-ground composting bin (and before the bears demolished that flimsy plastic thing) I was dismayed to find nary a worm coming up out of the ground and through the slots in the floor of the bin to gobble the tasty leftovers and give birth to myriad wormlets. In Berkeley where I gardened a small plot for eleven years, my composting bin (a gift from the city to encourage us to do the rot thing), produced gazillions of worms in collaboration with the local ground. But in pure pygmy soil, earthworms are as scarce as pumas, and it took a good three years of feeding massive amounts of worm food to the soil before any sort of worm population took hold.
This rabbit poop is apparently some sort of earthworm Viagra, for now when I turn the soil, the good earth literally dances with hundreds of little wigglers. May they grow large and happy, and may our vegetables and flowers and herbs thrive on their castings.
“Once you are in the midst of delusion, there is no end to delusion.” Shunryu Suzuki
One sunny day in my Berkeley garden, about ten years ago, I was enjoying eavesdropping on the conversation raging among three teenaged boys and one seventeen-year-old girl gathered around a table on the deck that jutted out from our house and looked down on my garden, the girl being my de facto daughter Ginger, a beautiful and sociable young woman who attracted males as catnip attracts cats and pineapple sage attracts hummingbirds. As a consequence of Ginger’s charms and sociability, our house was frequently overrun by young men, many of them from good Berkeley homes and heading for college, if they were not already in college. Of these three on the deck that day, one was bound for Harvard, one for Stanford, and the third had recently matriculated at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
When Ginger sashayed into the house to fetch drinks for the thirsty lads, two of them came to the railing of the deck and peered down at me as I thinned carrot seedlings in ground next to my verdant broccoli.
“Is that…” began Jeremy, the Harvard-bound Physics major, “…um…hey, excuse me. Is that like broccoli in those little bushes?”
“Yes, it is,” I said, smiling up at him.
“Oh my God,” he said, his jaw dropping. “Jason, you gotta come see this. Broccoli is like growing on a little bush right in their garden.”
Soon to be studying politics at Stanford pursuant to becoming a lawyer, Jason joined Jeremy and Raul at the railing. “Where?” he said, looking down on the mass of greenery. “I don’t see anything.”
“There,” said Jeremy, pointing emphatically at a head of broccoli. “Right fucking there, man. I never knew it grew like that.”
“Me neither,” said Jason, shaking his head. “Jesus. Look at all that food. Is that like lettuce?”
“Indeed,” I replied, wondering if perhaps they were spoofing me. “Would you like a garden tour?”
“I would,” said Jeremy, skipping down the stairs, “but those guys are like totally fixated on you-know-who.”
So I gave Jeremy a ten-minute tour of my patch of vegetables and herbs. He pulled a carrot for the first time in his life, washed it in the hose while watering the parsley, took a bite and declared, “God, that is so sweet I never would have known it was a carrot.” Then he smiled beatifically. “I’m blown away. I never knew how any of this stuff got here. What a trip.” Then he frowned and shook his head. “Hey, not to change the subject, but we were just arguing about the Vietnam War. Jason said it was kind of an extension of World War II and was about trying to get their resources, and Raul said, ‘Like what resources?’ and I thought it was like to stop the communists. But was it the Russians or the Chinese we were trying to stop? Or…like…do they have oil in Vietnam? I mean, if they had oil wouldn’t they be like rich today?”
“Buddha was more concerned about how he himself existed in this moment. That was his point. Bread is made from flour. How flour becomes bread when put in the oven was for Buddha the most important thing.” Shunryu Suzuki
I just returned from the farmers’ market in Mendocino with two vibrant young tomato plants, Sun Golds, orange cherry tomatoes with delicious flavor; cherry tomatoes being the only kind of tomato we can grow in our cool clime without the sheltering warmth of a greenhouse. Buying Sun Golds at the Mendocino farmers’ market has become a tradition for me, five years running now, and though I could easily start my own Sun Golds from seed, I prefer to buy my starts from a grower at the market. I suppose if I had a greenhouse, I would be more likely to start my own tomato plants from seed, but maybe not. I like the tradition of going to market to get plants, and I look forward to hunting for the most promising ones, speaking to the growers as I search, maybe sharing a tomato growing story or two. All of which begs the question: why don’t I have a greenhouse, even just a little one, to enhance my gardening experience?
I have now been a renter for eighteen years following fifteen years as a homeowner following ten years as a renter, and for all twenty-eight years of my life as a renter some part of me expected to become a homeowner any day now. When I rented my house in Berkeley for eleven years, I did not plant a lemon tree for the first five years because I was convinced that if I were destined to live in Berkeley for more than a few years, surely I would find a way to buy a place and plant a lemon tree there. And now I have lived for six years in this wonderful house we rent on a piece of paradise a few miles from the village of Mendocino, and though my rational mind knows we may never own a house in this kingdom of expensive houses, I have yet to plant blueberries or grapes or fruit trees, or to build a small greenhouse because of that same expectation of possibly owning a home one day. Of course, what makes my reluctance to build a greenhouse entirely silly is that I could easily build the greenhouse to use in our garden now and take the blessed thing with us should we ever fulfill our dream of owning our own place.
“When we become truly ourselves, we just become a swinging door, and we are purely independent of, and at the same time, dependent upon everything. Without air, we cannot breathe. Each one of us is in the midst of myriads of worlds. We are in the center of the world always, moment after moment. So we are completely dependent and independent.” Shunryu Suzuki
I vow to be more consciously a swinging door, to do the things I want to do now and with much less care for what may or may not happen in the future. I vow to plant a lemon tree if a place in the ground calls out to me and says, “Hey you with the arms and legs and shovel. We could use a lemon tree right here, whether you stick around after you plant it or not.” I vow to live in this house we rent as if we may never leave here until we die. The moment, as Shunryu Suzuki would say, is what we’ve got. The rest is illusion.
I’ve been here before and made similar vows, which I am just now remembering. Five years ago I was quite ill and wondering if I would be around in this body much longer. I had long been planning to publish my book of short stories Buddha In A Teacup, and I kept saying to Marcia, “I will, I will…after I’m completely well.”
Marcia was wonderfully patient with me through my long ordeal, but one evening she said, “By waiting until you think you are completely well, might you be suggesting to your body and the universe that you don’t entirely believe you will get well? Why not go ahead and publish your book and trust that in doing so you will speed the process of your healing?”
So with great trepidation, I followed her counsel and published my book, and in the process of bringing forth Buddha In A Teacup my health improved and life became rosy again, rosy and suffused with the energy of no longer waiting around for some other moment than this one. And because everything is connected, I have since received a good many letters from people who read Buddha In A Teacup and wanted to thank me for reminding them that when we live in the past or dwell in the future, we aren’t really here; and what fun is that?
Tags: Anderson Valley Advertiser, Buddha in a Teacup, delusion, earthworms, Everything Connected, gardening, homeowner, illusion, renter, Shunryu Suzuki, swinging door, Todd Walton, tomatoes, Under the Table Books