Cardoons and Zinnias and the Medicine of the Moment

cardoon plantMost times this newsletter comes to you in plural, first-person pronouns; we move the compost, we sow the seeds. Of course only one set of hands types the words, but nevertheless there is a collective sense about the whole enterprise, a combination of all of our experiences and gardens and moments. We work together, tend to each other and each other’s gardens, gather and feed each other in good times and bad. Sometimes a little linguistic dancing is necessary, to make it all make sense. This week, sitting at a table strewn with seed packets that should have been started weeks ago, I, yes I, was tempted to switch to the plainest old first person pronoun. After all, I mused, this experience is my own, and not necessarily what everyone else at Mountain Feed is going through. I’m Jess, writing this. I moved so much compost that I hurt my back again. I should have sowed the seeds weeks ago.

I took a deep breath, for all of us. And in that moment, contemplating a seed-packet picture of zinnias that may not bloom in my garden this year, the sense of community came drifting back into the words like a scent on the breeze. We’ve all been going through it this year.

For my own self, a recurring back injury has changed the way I garden this year. I can’t stop entirely, despite urging from non-gardeners just to let it go. But I have had to reduce the scale and scope of my constant gardening, allowing myself space and time to work more slowly, load the wheelbarrow only half-full, allow myself the grace to plant my winter squash in mid-June instead of May, and start zinnia seeds only now, if ever.

Across a narrow valley lined with trees, (some of them green and tall, some still charred black and orange from fire) I can define the long straight edge of Empire Grade, the smaller creek canyons and ridges that lean up against it like ladders; on one of those my best friend Karla lives beneath the fresh sun of a burned-through forest. This year has been a trying one for her as well, and she has also moved slower than usual this year, even going so far as to tell us that she was not going to put in a garden at all. We didn’t believe her, of course. But she has also had to scale back her usual ambitious expansion and planting schemes, also allowing herself the space to do less as a form of self-care. She has it worse than me, in terms of garden infrastructure; her fences and irrigation burned up in the CZU complex fire, and the entire landscape is changed; sun falls where there used to be shade, and even wind moves differently through the changed landscape. She moves slowly, as I do, but her scaled-down garden is sprouting and even flowering, green beneath the blackened tree trunks.

It’s hard sometimes, for do-ers not to do. Sometimes, the not-doing is the hardest work. But as we age and grow infinitesimally wiser, this practice becomes marginally easier. This year, for many of us, as we recover from fire and pandemic and economic uncertainty, our energy and resources have been stretched. As the state opens back up, and things begin to circle back to a semblance of normalcy, we are pulled in so many directions. Do we rush out and socialize, do we hang back and stay cautious? Do we reinvent our lives anew, or try to subtly adapt to the changed circumstances? How many tomatoes should we plant in this drought year? And amidst it all, from our fallible bodies, we are receiving other signals. Slow down, take a deep breath, don’t push through every pain. Sometimes the medicine is just to sit in the garden, surrounded by unfinished tasks, and allow the smell of earth and air to take precedence over the messy imperfections littering the garden and the house. Sometimes a field has to lie fallow, to replenish itself for the next season.

So this journal is an ode to languid summer. It’s an ode to fallowing, and to allowing, and an ode to a sometimes bitter pill: we cannot do everything, all the time.

This featured recipe features another kind of bitterness; the pale, ghostlike, celerylike stems of the cardoon plant are bitter and crunchy and delicious, once blanched in several rinses of salt water. The bitterness is not removed, but softened, made more palatable by the blanching. And in consuming such bitterness, we nourish our bile-duct as well as our palate, and perhaps our psyche. We take the bitter thing into our bodies, and find the beautiful flavors within it. We find the nourishment even in what seemed unpalatable at first. I’m talking about a deep-fried vegetable here, but truly I could be talking about other kinds of bitterness, as well, as all things are connected, and the kitchen is a microcosm of the world. I could be talking about the way our country is reckoning with racial inequity and systemic racism, or the way we all contribute to climate change, even as we decry it. I could be talking about the fact that it’s Pride Month, and the rainbow flags and celebrations in the street are a direct response to the bitterness and desolation of years of oppressive discrimination. We take the bitter thing in, and slowly, over time, transform it into something we can swallow, even find beauty in. We transform it, to make even the bitterness a form of triumph.
Slowly, slowly, I fill the seed packs with soil, sprinkle the seeds on top, to make a rainbow of primary color blooms. We rebuild the gardens, slowly, surely, eventually. The world is torn by war and pollution, the world is full of flavors and flowers and warm dogs in the sunshine and the kindness of strangers. The grasshoppers have eaten every damn cucumber. The sun feels so good on our faces in the morning. The rainbow flags are flapping all over town. My back aches, but I am taking it easy. Bittersweet imperfections, garden reflections; sometimes the moment is the medicine we didn’t know we needed.