Last week, when the weather warmed and an hour slipped through our sleep like sand through an hour glass — too quickly, so softly, it seemed a tenderness unfolding — I turned once again to the happily irrational acts of welcoming spring early.
My principal jump-start on a season a good ways off was to open wide the bedroom window, slide a small fan in the frame and sleep every night in refrigerated dream — at least until it got seriously cold again at night. Even a person with my arctic sensibilities had to retreat to the universe of warmth created by the wood stove. Return fire and magic, flames and dream.
But for most of the week I was off-kilter, owing to an old injury, which left me a little clouded by pain. I kept losing track of the day of the week, which was at once inconvenient and inconsiderate, because I had two birthdays — a brother and a best friend — to celebrate and missed each. One by calling too early, the other too late.
I mistook Tuesday for Monday and Wednesday for Tuesday, and I made and missed a number of important appointments, fortunately unrelated to work. But I managed to monitor the important things — the joy of three days of sun and the feeling of refuge that came again with barring the door to the blustery wind late in the week.
And then, the inevitable happened: I started hatching plans for starting seeds indoors. Eyeing plastic containers holding lettuce and watercress tubs, I ate salad like a rabbit all week to free up the containers for recycling. The other requisite items entailed visiting the nearest nursery to purchase a simpleton’s set of seeds and potting soil.
My marginally agricultural venture centered not on the early crops, like sugar and snap peas, bush beans or early varieties of lettuce and spinach. Those will go straight into the soil, no middleman involved. No, I stuck to things like cucumbers and tomatoes, zucchini and summer squash, even sunflowers — all of which could just as easily flourish if planted into slightly warmed ground, following the first full moon after the last frost, soon after Memorial Day. Or something like that.
The truth is I am as annual as the seeds I plant. Each year I get engaged in this tenuous relationship with my family’s Midwestern farm roots that extend way, way back and entertain a certain pleasing delusion that I can grow crops from seed. It is the seeds in packets that fascinate me, because each has its distinctive contour and color, some looking like rosary beads, others like wrinkled ball bearings, still more like flecks of pepper or strands of saffron. I like rolling the names of the seeds, English or Latin, over and over in my mouth, as though I am wine-tasting and inhaling some sumptuous bouquet.
I lay out the packets of seeds, first like a dealing of Texas Hold ‘Em cards or a divining of tarot. I arrange them according to kind, then mix them up and rearrange based on interplantings. Then, I alphabetize them, as if that made any sense — a garden not being a library and all. And finally, I place them neatly and carefully in a brown paper lunch bag, marked with a black Sharpie: Seeds, 2013.
This foolish hopefulness started with my mother’s desire for a family garden, back in Chicago. She didn’t really want to till a garden, just enjoy one’s take. And though there were no nearby Extension offices or local chapters of Future Farmers of America, there were plenty of good libraries and more than enough books. I did the best I could, producing by July more than my fair share of sugar peas and a respectable quantity of string beans — emphasis on “string” in terms of their slender semi-hydrated pods.
I loved small-scale farming, the postage stamp concept of acreage. And though my forbears had fled the farms of Michigan for sprawling big Windy City, I eventually made my way out of Chicago and back to the land of my grandparents and their crushingly conservative form of Calvinism, before heading east for good.
Still, I can’t get the dirt out from under my fingernails.
“You use your hands like feet,” a manicurist once scolded me upon seeing the sorry state of my paws. “Are you walking on them?”
“Only in the garden,” I replied with indifferent pride. She sighed and got down to her own pruning and clipping.
The next week I brought her basil, red leaf lettuce and Bloomsdale Long-Standing Spinach. After that, she tolerated me and awaited the inevitable bounty of August: zucchini in every conceivable size. All of us have a price and reward for silence, and she knew exactly when it would be coming. And I knew, garden-glove or free-hand, exactly how to cultivate calm.
All you have to do is be willing to get your hands dirty, and dig in.
North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: