This post is contributed by Barnaby Porter from his archives. Read the previous post here.
There are things in this life that can bring a guy right up short – zucchini for example. One day I peer at a floppy yellow flower through the lushness of elephant ear-sized leaves and stiff-haired vines; the next, it seems, I’m startled upright by the sudden sight of an 8-pound, dark green bomb the size of my thigh.
As our patches of scratched earth belch forth plump, ripe offerings amid the singing of crickets, I, for one, am repeatedly brought upright in amazement at the miraculous things that happened in my vegetable garden. Back in May, aside from two rows of asparagus, the only noticeable feature in my newly tilled plot was the occasional bit of old corn stubble sticking through the perfect, granular surface. Nothing else, maybe a broken clamshell. For the purpose of discussion, my garden was pure dirt – soft, damp, ready for planting.
I went to the barn and got my wooden hod, which held a dozen or so packets of miniscule germs of life, my string-winder and a measuring tape. I grabbed a bucket of short stakes too, and a rake. And with these few things in hand, I trudged up and down in the soft earth, laying out rows and stooping to dribble my assortment of seeds into neat little furrows.
By early afternoon, I had the garden pretty well planted. My wife offered me a sandwich on a plate and a can of beer, and we sat down, cross-legged, on the greening lawn to admire my garden and to content ourselves with the potential it now held for the months ahead. Neither of us said so, nor even thought it at the time, but that moment was the moment of “ignition.”
As we sat there munching sandwiches, moisture was surely beginning to creep through the walls of those many seeds I’d planted. And the Sun’s warmth on the dark, new earth must certainly have been nudging a wakefulness into their dormant germ cells. At any time soon, the first cell division might take place – then another and another, like popcorn. And then, had we thought about the vegetative explosion about to occur, it might have seemed a smart move to run for the house.
As it happened though, the explosion was contained and controlled over the period of days and weeks following. There was no loud sound, no flying earth and debris – only the restless, pregnant convulsions of the garden soil as it was metamorphosed from dirt to brand new plant cells; some of them pale and white if they were building rootlets; the rest bright and green as they grew into pea vines and lettuce leaves, carrot ferns and tender shoots of corn.
Just the same, had these chain-reaction events been caught on film and speeded up for me, the man tending those plants, who, cultivator in hand, twice-daily inspected and monitored all developments, I’m certain to have been spellbound by the spectacle of unstoppable greenery springing from the soil with irrepressible energy, fueled by streaming rays of sun, pumping with the damp of spring rains. I would have seen seed leaves lurch out of the ground, snap open, twisting and turning, their stems lengthening and swelling, expanding into bizarre, leafy shapes, row by row, reaching unexpected dimensions. And the consequences of neglecting my chores only for a day or two would have been the sudden appearance of flowers and fruit, fat tap roots and tubers, gigantic leaves and tall stalks, taller than a man, and a glorious profusion of weeds – truly, a vegetative explosion.
And it all began with no more than a handful or two of seeds and a patch of dirt. The Sun’s energy and the fluid dynamics of water notwithstanding, and forgetting the influences of earthworms and soil microbes and atmospheric gases for conversational purposes, the MIRACLE is that this heaping bounty from our garden is really no more than reorganized dirt! Think about it.
Seeds are not little balloons that stretch into eggplants and pumpkins. No, they are the magic germs of creation, beyond intellect, beyond genius. Each is an evolved “genetic brain” (for want of a better term), orchestrating a balance of chemical and physical reactions with no more reason than that of a rivulet of water finding its way down a meandering slope, but doing it in such orderly fashion that the results dictated by each species of germ-cell are consistent and predictable.
Thus, a kernel of corn “awakens” to the soil immediately around it and begins to selectively absorb the needed elements and organics available, molecule by molecule. It takes the dirt it’s growing in, mixed with water, and basically turns that solution into a full-blown corn plant – a tall stalk of rustling leaves, with a graceful tassel and swollen husks dangling silk, bulging with beautiful, yellow-beaded cobs. This remarkable vegetative structure is, in actuality, just reorganized, fancified dirt.
My few seeds have become wheelbarrow-loads. The harvest is upon us. We, all of us, have become gluttons for wondrous, glorified dirt in our enthusiasm for the garden’s beauteous offerings. One old neighbor confessed to me the other day she’s eating so many tomatoes out of her own garden that she had to resort to following them down with Kaopectate chasers.
As I say, I am quite regularly brought up short by some of the things that happen in the garden, and once again, carrying my thinking about all my delicious vegetables being just so much dirt, taking it one step further, it suddenly dawned on me that I, too, looking just a few steps back down the food chain, must therefore be not much more than “dirt” myself.
Artist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. On October 7, 2021, Barnaby completed his tenure on Coastal Rivers’ Board of Trustees after six years of service.