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Gardening 101: Fighting Racism in Practice

We moved house in 2019, just at the springing of spring. There was untold renovation work to be done, but we managed to get a small garden into the ground. There were enough tomatoes and cucumbers to put back, although to my shame, I over-salted my bread-and-butter pickles to the point of inedibility. This year, though, was to be the year. My in-laws gifted us their old tiller, and my wife and I laid out ideas for the plot: six hundred square feet, well situated in the best sun, while leaving the kids plenty of yard to play in. We would array appropriate companion plants and multifarious heirloom varietals. We would work in herbs and well-timed cold-hardy vegetables in a potager able to withstand the soggy, chill winter. Yet, it was not to be so.

Firstly, I started too early. Hoping to get the jump on things, I seeded kales, snow peas, and shelling peas in a window in little cast-off cans and halves of food cartons. They looked so hopeful, drinking up the light. Then came dogwood winter. We’re in Hardiness Zone 7, but temperatures in April and even in May dipped into the thirties. I had already planted tomatoes outside, and I purchased cheap bedsheets to shield them from frost. The seedlings in the window waited and waited. Having sucked up all the nutrients in their store-bought potting soil, they began to pale and yellow, beginning at the stems and moving outward in a slow tide of papery bleaching.

Finally, the weather turned, and I made a novitiate’s foray with the tiller—by the way, never till wet—and put the plants out, mulching or feeding by turns. It all seemed too little too late. Besides, I was avoiding my least favorite activity, the nemesis of all my procrastination: weeding.

Smart gardeners will tell you that weeds illustrate what kind of soil you have. Dock likes over-wet ground. Wood sorrel and crabgrass show a lack of calcium and generally poor dirt. Henbit is a litmus test for appropriate nitrogen levels. These little harbingers are all helpful, but still the task remains of pulling them. I have to kneel in the heat, Tennessee sun beating down, and wrench up every little tussock individually. Weeding after rain is easier. The soil is looser; you grab the offending sprout just near the ground—by the scruff, as it were—and work it round in little jiggling motions until it comes free with the roots intact.

But they come back. Again, and again. This is me, I thought.

A friend of mine put on a recent online conference, a series of conversations about being black in America. It consisted of black voices, assessing issues. For me and my white experience, it was incredibly eyeopening. I began to see my weeds.

Weeds invade good ground on a regular basis, and we all have work to do. Adam Whipple

I daresay that many of us, prior to the conversations sparked by George Floyd’s death, imagined ourselves as essentially unbiased, as people not given to racism. I know I did, mostly due to fear of the stigmatizing nature of being labeled as racist. However, in the same way that there is no hard and fast divide between good ground and weedy ground, the world isn’t divided into racists and lovers of all mankind. Weeds invade good ground on a regular basis, and we all have work to do. My work begins with me, and lies continuously with me. On occasion, it also lies elsewhere, but weeding one’s own garden is an ongoing process. Racism is a sin, a thought-sin (see The Great Divorce, chapter 5, for Oxford-Inkling theory regarding thought-sins), and like all other sins, it makes continual encroachment upon the redeemed, earth-bound soul. Weeding it out on a regular basis cultivates good ground for the fruitful spirit to flourish.

The labor of imagination is necessary here. With gardens, I must look at the plant and imagine how much dirt it needs to eat from. I must consider what I cannot see—minerals and elements hoarded in microscopic troves within each ruddy clod. This is the food of plants, the making of fruit in a twenty-by-thirty foot kingdom of Knoxville soil. Give plants appropriate ground, un-pilfered by pirating weeds, and they will produce fruit to nourish you. By the grace and labor of God and the patience of my community, as I weed out racism from my soul, I am more fit to serve and nourish my neighbors and my city.

Truth be told, it’s awful. It isn’t just a patch of dirt you’re clearing, it’s yourself. There is due sorrow, shame, and much fear. Yet, the consequences of disregarding this particular brand of what we call sanctification are dire and fearful in their own right—for our neighbors, for our towns. No one is an island, and failing to pluck the offending invaders from our own heart-soil chokes out the life that we may offer others.

I still hate weeding, but I love fresh, homegrown garden pickings. Whatever the case with dogwood winter, soil pH levels, and the like, my desire for fruitful harvests necessitates doing the hard work, enduring the punishment of June and July afternoons in order to bring about something worthwhile. To bring about that which is life-giving, we must undergo personal hardship—a self-sacrifice, as it were. In the Latin, the word is passion. Hopefully, these efforts will pay off, and if you stop by the house this year, we’ll bake some kale into a gratin or whip up some pesto or fry a tomato green, because that’s what neighbors do, and hopefully, with time, we will begin to help each other heal as well.


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