I haven’t been making much. My mental energy feels low, my creativity dormant, and my intellect dull. A burn out happened at Christmas when I was working frantically to finish a pile of homemade gifts. After the holiday rush there was suddenly no impetus to create things and I let my crafts languish. I have barely taken photographs and have not made a single piece of art, unless helping my son with a popsicle stick house covered in pompoms and Batman stickers counts.
My energy has been elsewhere–in the dirt. This is a story about earth.
We moved into our current home almost a year ago. I live in a Steveston Co-op where we inherited a very overgrown, weedy, muddy backyard with a garden bordered by rotting planks. I was too pregnant to deal with it when we moved in and then too consumed with my new baby to deal with it after. This year we are dealing with it and the whole process has come with a sort of primal satisfaction. I ripped back the yard down to its foundations–the heavy clay earth, and have spent the last few weeks building it back up again. I’ve incorporated endless bags of peat moss and topsoil and compost. I threw out my back digging in the hardpan that existed below a rotten layer of landscape fabric and the aggressive roots of an invasive vine. After resting long enough to let my back heal I was back at it with a newly purchased four prong cultivator, ripping up the ground, separating out the rocks, and turning the soil into something that I hope will support a perennial garden.
I started planting things. First, a Rhododendron bush, next Hostas and Irises and Snowdrops from my mother in law’s garden. I have stood in the rain digging, my rain boots full of soil, and let the repetitive act of turning over the earth drive thought straight out of my body.
The new garden has been an opportunity to talk to my father more. We spent some time discussing the merits of “double digging”–a painfully laborious process that we have concluded is unnecessary. Only a tiny section of my garden has been double dug. The rest of my plants will have to find a way to survive in soil conditioned to a depth of 12 inches. In talking to my father I have felt like I am talking to my grandmother as well. She was an enthusiastic gardener and it’s with a resounding ache that I wish I could ask her advice now as I dig out the border of my very first garden. My father says she was an experimental gardener. She would pick a plant she liked, throw it in the ground, and wait to see if it thrived or perished. She wasn’t much for research apparently, or planning. It was a “wait and see” philosophy, and one that I will likely adopt to some extent because the calculations required to figure out exactly how much sun a spot is getting and what the soil ph is, and the soil composition and drainage and so on, is simply too exhausting and with two kids to chase after I just don’t have that kind of time.
So I dig, and talk to my father, and watch my hands turn grimy from the dirt, and I watch my hands become my grandmother’s hands. I can see them so clearly–my grandmother’s hands with earth under the fingernails and embedded in her diamond ring, the one that I wear myself now, as she came in from the garden. I remember standing in her back yard while she pulled weeds. I was maybe seven and I was chatting with her. I said “Oh my God!” in response to something and she admonished me not to take the Lord’s name in vain. It’s odd looking back on it, because I don’t think she was ever particularly religious.
I dig into the earth in my backyard and pull up endless roots from the vines and trees surrounding my house. At the same time I grasp onto my own roots–my father, my grandmother, all of us cultivating the small plots of land that we get to call our own. I feel my feet sinking into the mud of my own ancestry. Memories suddenly become close, inhaled with the dust of peat moss. I don’t know how my garden will fare, but I do know that it connects me to something larger than myself. I excavate my past one shovel full at a time and do the work of transplanting myself to my present home, thousands of miles from where I was born, but only a few kilometers from my grandmothers birthplace. She was born in Vancouver and I have come back. A boomerang effect. Now I dig in the earth not far from her childhood home and try to remember what I can of her. She comes to me like birdsong–sudden, elusive, then gone again. I come inside and scrub the dirt from my hands.