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Gardening 101: Fallow Time

Our backyard is surrounded by blessed groves. There’s a black maple directly behind the house, standing virtually alone in the path of the west wind. A couple of teenaged walnut trees toss their tennis ball fruits to the ground with slack-armed irregularity. At the south end, near “The Swamp,” green ash and cottonwoods spear the airspace, vying for sunlight. Storm-beaten in my neighbor’s yard, venerable poplars and oaks rain down the leathery opacity of their leaf litter. I collect all of it, every scrap of autumn-shed habiliment from these disrobing hardwoods.

Wielding a backpack leaf-blower—and imagining I’m a ghostbuster—I work the leaves into the garden patch, putting the November soil to bed under thick coverlets. Lie down. Draw breath. Shabath from your labors. In Wendell Berry’s exemplary poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” he mentions “the two inches of humus / that will build under the trees / every thousand years.” It’s a fitting set of lines for a poet and philosopher who’s part soil scientist, but two inches every millennium? That’s about as much yield as my first savings account. With the leaves and some attendant compost, I try to amend this accumulation, to give manna to the dearth-wrack of our urban tillage. Ever since I first started growing things, I’ve been haunted not only by the Cherokee system of companion planting, but also by the Torah passages on letting the ground rest. Dirt, like all temporal things, is not inexhaustible.

We all need this. I need it. I need a break, a practicum of stillness—but it isn’t often what I want.

Whatever else the garden teaches me, it teaches me the humility of my limitations. Adam Whipple

I recently read some author’s lament that writer’s block was his default station in life. I figured I had a good idea what he meant. Labor doesn’t get accomplished by waiting for the right feeling. If I need to be in a certain mental place to work, I have to wrench myself into that place by some force of will. Creativity, as Paul Collins writes, is “a pumping of thoracic bellows”— breathing, making the effort. The false ideology that inspiration sometimes sells us is that we must wait until we can spit out something that’s perfect from the very beginning. It’s a lie. Sure, once in a while I guess good art shoots like rainbow-spume from some nostril or other. People do occasionally write songs in flashes of brilliance, but mostly, it’s straight-up work. Waiting on inspiration is a losing game, time being what’s lost. In songwriting, you have to make do with bits of choruses or the recycled stubs of orphaned codas. The muse who will not sew a coat of these patchwork fragments will die of the cold. I believe that working can produce results, that creativity is more blue collar than high school me ever knew or wanted to think. If you want to make art, you often fire a parting shot at the muse and crack on without her. Still, on the other side of work, it has to be said that fallow time—that listless period of uncertain backbuilding—seems to be just as necessary as labor.

It is one of the truths of post-Fall entropy that not many springs in life are ever-flowing. I’ve always wanted a potager. In Scotland, the word is kailyaird—that is, the “kale yard”—the wild-haired kitchen garden meant to flaunt its seasonal flora on the supper table year-round. I want summers with tomatoes like ribald ornaments, bumbershoot leaves of crookneck squash, and curlicues of purple kale. I want to follow it with okra, its siren blossoms debauching the flights of mud daubers and bees. I want autumn and winter squashes, cabbages and greens and endless tendrils of bean plants. I want parsnips curing their sugars with the first frost.

I’m not sure how practical it all is, either in gardening or in the humanities. A friend once told me, in so many words, that those who fail to go out and live life will never have anything to write about. If I spend every waking moment scribbling in a notebook, for example, I’ll soon run out of valuable material to fill the page. Everything needs its Sabbath, perhaps.

My wife and I used to sing this Nichole Nordeman song called “Every Season:”

Everything in time and under heaven Finally falls asleep

Ugh. I hate sleep. Needing it, even—I shudder—delighting in it, seems nearly indecent to me. Even if I’m tired during the day, I reflexively apologize to my wife for taking a nap. She doesn’t require this of me, you understand; I’m just that self-absorbed with my own imagined productivity. Never mind that Jesus slept. I’m almost certain that Jonathan Edwards didn’t. In fifty-four years of earthly pilgrimage, I think Edwards only amassed eighty-six minutes of actual REM. I foolishly love that idea, the thought of piddling away into the night, creating new things while mere mortals sleep, being caught up in the sheer forward motion of whatever fresh challenge is currently holding my attention. Even lying in bed, I tend to strain my mind for some delightful juxtaposition of words, hoping to extract a last ounce of viability from whatever waking moments are left.

There it is: the irritant mote of one of my many hypocrisies. I’m actually happy to preach Sabbath to others, yet hubristic enough to imagine I’m a superman. I love characters who don’t need sleep—or who seem to make do instead with coffee or nicotine or meditation. I enjoy the Lord of the Rings palantír scene in which Gandalf sleeps with both eyes open. The elves walk under the stars and sing all night. Data, from Star Trek, does whatever Data does at three in the morning. Even characters who simply awaken to some inner summons and wander about in the middle of the night are envious to me. There are people in this world who wake up and suffer insomnia. In my idiocy and self-absorption, I’m jealous. Of course, I’ve literally slept through earthquakes before—in the plural.

I haven’t even begun to push my soil to the point of a kailyaird. For now, it needs rehabilitation—a good rhythm of Sabbath, honest labor, and caregiving. Perhaps one day, I will join the talented Scots and the French and work the dance of horticulture all twelve or thirteen moons of the year. I’m certain there’s a good deal of give and take to it. As for myself and for the work of creating, a break here or there will do. Even at the beginning of all Creation, there was a day of rest. Whatever else the garden teaches me, it teaches me the humility of my limitations.

Now, if you’ll pardon me, it’s a bit late.


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