I should have pruned my blueberries months ago, when the winter sun was just starting to rise higher in the sky. I should have broadforked my cut flower bed last fall, then seeded it to a winter cover crop so the soil would be nourished and easier to work this spring. I should have kept up with the burdocks in my asparagus patch all last year, so I wouldn’t face them now. Bob’s no better. He was supposed to pound in new fence posts last year to trellis the grapes. He was supposed to run new wires for the raspberries.
We’re terrible gardeners. If our family had to live off our green thumbs, we’d perish. Some years we do some things right, and things go better. Some years we do many things right, and things go worse.
But every spring, we head back out to our plot of garden. I bring my pruning shears, Bob unloads a truckload of manure, I wield my broadfork. Bob yanks, pulls, swears, mutters about the need to keep up with weeds.
I’m staring at my blueberry bushes, wondering when these mythical new shoots that are supposedly sent up each year will ever show up, pondering if I should have done a better job protecting them for the winter.
“Why do we do this?” I finally ask out loud. “We suck at this. There are so many things we’re better at.”
“But you grow amazing burdocks,” Bob tells me as he attempts to yank one that is taller than him from the ground.
But we also do a great job selling meat. We cook up some terrific food, develop interesting products, find ways to stretch our farm resources as far as possible. All of these are valuable skills when it comes to running a modern small family farm.
Nevertheless, each spring, we head back out to this pitiful failure of a garden, where our imperfections confront us head-on. And this spring, now that I have more farm responsibilities, more hours in the cafe, more hours needed to write, more hours needed to homeschool the kids, I wonder if its time to throw in the trowel. I snip a withered branch of blueberry as a burdock catches on the back of my sweater. I pause to yank it off and half-heartedly begin to tally the amount of time and money wasted on these stupid blueberry bushes. Pampered blueberries, I prefer to think of them.
And as I pick the seeds from my sweater, I’m reminded of the four thousand dollar cartwheel…
One summer night when Saoirse was seven, we were sitting out on the grass when she asked me to teach her to do a cartwheel.
“Simple!” I exclaimed, then jumped up, positioned my arms over my head and demonstrated. I hadn’t done one since maybe the fourth grade, but my body remembered as though I’d been at it my whole life. Saoirse, enthusiastic to learn, stood up next to me, held her arms over her head, launched them to the ground, then stood there, hiney in the air, feet and hands firmly planted in the grass, not moving.
She stood up again. By now Ula was watching. “Like this?” She asked, then turned a nearly perfect cartwheel on her first try.
But Saoirse didn’t get frustrated. She kept trying. I was growing tired, and I hoped that her failures would eventually kill off the subject.
They didn’t. For the next year, she proceeded to beg me for gymnastics lessons, until I finally made an arrangement with my high school gym teacher, Ms. Gayle, to work with both girls. To this day, Saoirse and Ula go to practice with her twice per week. And to this day, while Ula can do walk-overs and splits and one-handed cartwheels, Saoirse still can’t do a cartwheel. A few years back, Bob and I amused ourselves by calculating that we’d spent $4000 over the years in private gymnastics lessons. We quietly dubbed Saoirse’s aspiration “the four thousand dollar cartwheel.” By now it has cost significantly more.
But here’s the thing. I love to watch Saoirse cartwheel. In all these years, she’s never quit. She’s never felt that it wasn’t worth her effort. She stands up each time and gets a big smile on her face, and you can see the optimism and joy just pulse out her long and gangly body. And she launches herself forward, and she kind of does this mule kick sort of thing, then stands up, and looks hopefully at Ms. Gayle, who shakes her head and says, “try again.” And try again she does.
It’s not the physical prowess that wows me when Saoirse steps out on the gymnastics matt. It’s the fact that she is brave enough to keep trying something she isn’t good at, and that she lets herself love it anyhow, with no fear of judgement. When it comes to these cartwheels, she never seems to let her ego interfere with her joy in trying. That, I feel, is the nature of a true student.
I think of that joy as I move on to the raspberries. I pat myself on the back for making the time to cut them back last fall, like a good gardener….Although I’m not sure I’ve done them much good . I wonder how to address the thin patches. But I swallow my discouragement. Because thinking of Saoirse, I am able to answer the question I asked Bob aloud only a few minutes before. Why do we do this?
Because we love it. Because each year we learn a tiny bit more. Maybe we learn slower than other gifted farmers and gardeners. Maybe we’ll never learn as much. But together Bob and I return to this plot of ground the same way we return to each others arms: in love, with joy, and always ready to keep trying and keep learning.