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A Place Of Many Sacraments

April 23, 2006
Commentary By MARK WINNE

I've heard that the best way to introduce a cat to a new place is to coat its front paws with butter. The act of licking its paws clean, which any self-respecting cat will do immediately, soothes it to the point where it soon feels comfortable with unfamiliar surroundings.

Gardens are my butter. Whenever I move, whether it's a few blocks or 2,000 miles, the act of sticking a spading fork in a new piece of ground smoothes out the bumps in my otherwise rattled psyche. Spread a little manure, hoe a little dirt and before you know it, I'm purring like a fat old tomcat in the April sun.

This spring marks my 33rd consecutive year as a gardener. If memory serves me correctly, there have been 12 separate gardens in all, each with its own story, human entanglements and hope that maybe I'll get it right this time.

Connecticut writer Michael Pollan, author of "Botany of Desire" and the recently released "Omnivore's Dilemma," says that a garden is "a place of many sacraments." I agree because I know the many hours of communion I have taken in the gardens of my past. But there are times when gardens make you ask yourself how you got to this place at this time in your life. "Why me and why here?" I have wondered on more than one occasion.

As a child growing up in New Jersey's suburbs of the 1950s, my first experience of gardening came from the Book of Genesis. Though not religious people, my parents believed that man should have dominion over all the Earth, which meant we fought crab grass as fiercely as our nation was then fighting communism. Insects, regardless of their size, function or actual level of threat, were obliterated.

Employing the doctrine of overwhelming force, our trees were sprayed so relentlessly with chemicals that the birds fell dead onto our perfectly manicured lawn. The roses, nearly the only flowering plant on our embattled landscape with the guts to bloom, were so encrusted with white fungicide powder that many years passed before I knew they were red.

It wasn't until our family made friends with a neighboring Swiss-German couple, refugees from World War II, that I had my first sacramental occasion in the garden. At the age of 10, standing only as tall as a mature tomato plant, I strolled one summer afternoon into their vegetable garden, where I suddenly came face to face with my first vine-ripe tomato. Gasping like an adolescent male who has just caught sight of his first naked female breast, I pulled the tomato close for a sniff and a small bite.

I came to associate gardens with both a place and a purpose during my first serious job out of college. On a sloping piece of ground near the banks of the Charles River in one of Boston's outer-ring suburbs, I took up the challenge of convincing the town's under-achieving youths that fruit and vegetable gardening was better than drugs.

Together with my young charges, we learned from the cranky old Yankee farmers who would stop by our plot to visit and lend advice. They would share stories and, of course, complain about the weather.

"April's too wet to plant," they'd assert, bracing their huge, leathery hands against their hips. "It means May will be too dry," they'd predict, squaring their fat bellies off against you, daring you to question their wisdom.

Over time, my rough little band of malcontents learned the language of the fields we worked. Our knowledge took root in that place and our conversation became its vernacular. Frosts, the smell of the soil and the summer rains worked their spell on us and, together, we started to move more slowly and notice the life simmering around us.

When I came to Hartford in 1979 to run the Hartford Food System, it was with the intention of bestowing the benefits of gardening and healthy food on a place that had a paucity of both. The first of many Hartford gardens that I would have a hand in developing was in Bellevue Square, a North End housing project that had some of the harshest demographics in the Northeast.

Besides its people, Bellevue Square's only visible asset was an abundance of vacant land, itself a tacit reminder of the failure of most manmade enterprises to take root there. The fact that the residents expressed a desire for a community garden was a testament to the innate human desire for a little patch of dirt to stick one's hands in. But in that place at that time, the patch of dirt was only sand and rubble, and if you stuck your hands into it carelessly, you might be stabbed by a hypodermic needle.

Though possessed of the belief that I could make the desert bloom, I soon realized that I was just one more well-intentioned white guy who had to learn his place, which Bellevue Square was not. It was the people of Bellevue Square's place, and it was their garden.

I was welcome to visit, to provide resources, to even bring newspaper reporters by to write glowing stories of how a poor community was planting the seeds of its own revival.

But the residents, like the seasons of nature, had their own rhythm. As sons and daughters of sharecroppers and tobacco pickers, they had a far richer store of agrarian knowledge than I did. The garden flourished and eventually won the city's garden of the year award.

On the banks of the Park River at Hartford's western edge, I staked my claim to a 20-by-20-foot plot of bottomland in the Watkinson Community Garden. In a place teeming with birds and other wildlife, I coaxed Brandywine, Rutgers and Sicilian tomatoes from its black, stoneless earth. My sunflowers reached 8 feet high and shaded me as I weeded rows of peppers, dahlias and onions. Flat-hulled Romano beans climbed the teepee structure I had jury-rigged from saplings cut from the river's overgrown embankment.

It's no coincidence that gardening and prayer are more easily performed on your knees. After all, they are both acts of supplication best known for uncertain results. And nowhere has this relationship been more ably demonstrated to me than in New Orleans, where, as a volunteer, I found myself in mid-March pulling weeds and planting tomatoes in a community garden that was under 6 feet of water the whole of September.

In a neighborhood where nearly every house was abandoned or damaged beyond repair, a few of the faithful had gathered to put their hands in the soil. The garden had been amended with imported dirt and manure, and was now tended by volunteers and a handful of returning evacuees, people who were finding hope once again in a place where hopelessness was still the norm.

At the garden's edge, an old wooden garage had been shoved by Katrina's winds so that it now leaned at a 60-degree angle directly over several rows of freshly planted Swiss chard; its eventual collapse was a virtual certainty. When I asked Macon Fry, the garden's leader, why they had placed their plants in such obvious peril, he said, "We had to start somewhere to feel like we belonged here again. I guess it's an act of faith."

Gardens offer us a world of perpetual benediction as well as a place to set down roots after they have been ripped out. Whether it is nature that pushes us around or our own decision to leave town, gardens stay still - durable, reliable, faithful - waiting patiently to give us comfort and the chance to begin again.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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