GARDEN POETRY - Milton Brasher-Cunningham
When my mother was in hospice she made a point of discussing how her things would be divided between my brother and me, and then what would go to her friends or be given away. Since I was the one who grew up standing beside her in the kitchen, I inherited the kitchen stuff, which included a collection of cookbooks and her recipe file. Among the books she passed on to me were the favorite cookbooks of both my grandmothers. Because I grew up overseas and away from them, I didn’t know them well, but I do have memories of my mother’s mother opening jars in her kitchen in Texas City, Texas—jars filled with things she had made and canned.
My wife Ginger and I live now in Guilford, Connecticut, where she pastors. The town is rich with history. First Congregational Church is one of the oldest churches in the state, founded in 1643. We live in the parsonage behind the church—a building that was the town school in the 1800s. Next to the house is an old barn we now use for dinners rather than farm supplies, and behind it is a large field where we have planted a large fifty by twenty-five foot garden: emphasis on the we. Last summer I tried to tend the garden myself and lost most of it to the weeds. Last spring, a couple of folks from church asked if we could do it together. Our team approach means the weeds did not win, we have grown a lot of food, and I have learned a great deal.
Before we moved to Connecticut, Ginger and I had no idea it was such farming country. Much of the land here has been cared for by families whose names go back to the founding of our town and our church. The place where we planted had been a garden before, but not for many years. Tom, my planting companion, knows a great deal about how to grow things in New England. At his suggestion, we used a “no till” method so we didn’t disturb the soil food web—the network of trace minerals, bacteria, and microorganisms that runs through the soil. The relationships literally run for miles in ways we do not understand. We subdivided the plot into smaller beds using straw walkways so we could pass between them to weed and water.
Every region has its own sense of timing. When it comes to growing seasons, New England starts late and finishes early, and even when it is time to plant, not everything goes into the ground at once. I had to learn to be patient. We planted greens and then we waited. Corn and beets followed. Then zucchini, summer squash, and cucumbers. Since I knew summer is short around here, I was impatient to plant because I knew things take time to grow. Finally, we planted the tomatoes—my reason for having a garden in the summertime. And then we waited some more. We waited and watered and weeded—actions that have marked summers in these parts for more summers than we have been a nation. Actions that find resonance in fields across the planet and even in parables.
Most every morning before work, I have gone out to the garden to water, kill squash bugs, and check the progress of our labor. Some mornings, I read poetry or sang hymns to the seedlings, hoping to urge them into becoming. In the evenings, we weeded and killed more squash bugs. The days moved into weeks before I felt hopeful about what I saw each day. Somehow the little plants that looked as though they were going to be nothing more than evidence of what I had done wrong began to grow. The weeds became less plentiful, if not less determined. And when something ripened, it ripened all at once. And I had to learn how to can.
When the cucumbers came in, I made twenty-four quarts of pickles. I made marmalade out of the Sungold tomatoes, salsa verde from the tomatillos and jalapeños, marinara sauce from the San Marzano tomatoes. And I remembered my grandmother taking the metal ring off the Mason jars and popping the seal on the lid so we could get to whatever was inside that she had made some previous summer. I have canned by choice; our ancestors did it to have food for the winter when they knew nothing of supermarkets. Tom brought me some of the green beans he pickled. The woman who owns the spice and tea shop in town gave me a jar of zucchini relish her family makes every year. The stories were as nutritious as the contents of the jars.
When we planted the garden, we had hopes that other folks from the church would come and plant as well. It didn’t happen this year; just as we had to wait for the things we planted to mature, we will have to wait for our idea to come into its own. We made a point of sharing our produce as much as we were able. We took a bag of vegetables to the Syrian refugee family down the street almost every week. We gave nearly a hundred pounds of produce to the Guilford Food Bank. I even took a couple of bags of tomatoes and tomatillos to the people who park their taco truck in front of our church everyday. Things will not continue to grow in the garden. Even now it looks tired. But while there is an abundance, it feels important—significant—to share it extravagantly, leaning into the abundance. What we can’t save or share, we eat, which means we make plans for people to come to dinner. Our barn has a table that seats sixteen or eighteen and we have gathered to taste and see all that is good. As we gather, I can hear the echoes of meals after days of labor and harvest.
To say history rhymes means it doesn’t repeat itself, but there are resonant themes that return, which, I suppose, can be a thought filled with either hope or despair. Seamus Heaney wrote a poem in honor of Nelson Mandela called “The Cure at Troy” that closes with these lines:
It means once in a lifetime
That justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
I would like to think you can hear that rhyme at dinnertime—in the food prepared, the dishes digested, and the stories shared. Everything in the garden that gives its life for that moment, that meal, gives a rich and generous gift. At the table, we find nourishment and new life.
When we pass the farm stands, or go to our famers’ markets, we are visiting outposts of hope. We are interacting with poets who have soil under their fingernails, and who call us to hear the rhythm of love and the rhyme of hope in what happens between us and the food we eat, even as they call us to feel the tether of resonance and responsibility that ties us to those in places where there is not enough food or hope. They have a place at the table as well.
I suppose it is fair to say that our planting pumpkins in our garden doesn’t change anything in Pakistan or Sierra Leone. My singing to the squash and tomatoes won’t stop a war. Poetry never falls for the language of such direct logic. I hear the rhyme of the soil food web, the connection I cannot see, but I can trust. I will plant hope here and let it grow wherever it can.