by James Sands

In the garden of my planting—

In morning, I am limited.
I have kept my fealty to the sun,
under duress from age and sin,
but the nights have been long.                        

I call this roughly 31 by 97 foot rectangle of earth a resistance garden. It is not my resistance garden; it does not belong to me. It is part of a larger plot of land, just under two acres, passed down through generations, occupied by one tenant or another, the human inhabitants of no relation to me other than in the loose connection of common origin, the plant and the animal occupants seemingly unaware of ownership, yet possessive just the same and with, perhaps, the stronger claim.

I am intimately acquainted with this plot of earth, despite my lack of ownership. I till by hand with a shovel; I do not use a rototiller. My neighbor has offered the use of his on several occasions, but I have always politely refused. I was twelve the last time I used one, some forty-seven years ago. It was my stepfather’s machine. I had no interest in rototillers then either, but one day was given the task of tilling while he was at his mechanic’s job. My introduction to the tiller was as brief as was, it turned out, my tenure with it.

The garden of my youth was almost three times the size of the one I work now. I had made three or four passes with the rototiller, enough to gain confidence, as well as a measure of complacency, bored with the relentless and methodical churning of the soil, when the thing’s forward progress stalled. The tines bound; I did not react in time and heard a loud pop. The tiller relaxed, engine running but refusing to pull. Boredom shot to fear; adrenaline-sick queasiness overwhelmed me. I wasn’t sure what had happened, but I was certain there would be consequences. My stepfather was quick to soul-crushing anger.

My fear was justified. My stepfather was furious. There was anger for not completing the task, anger over the broken shear pin, anger he didn’t have a replacement pin, anger he wouldn’t be able to get one until the weekend was over. I waited for the physical punishment and silently vowed never to touch his rototiller again. He must have made a similar vow; I never had to use his rototiller again. Somehow, the physical retribution I feared did not come; the weeks of dread went by just the same.

Perhaps this garden, now, is my punishment: Every year, foot to shovel, shovel to earth, turning spade full after spade full, methodical, relentless until a majority of the three-thousand square feet has been worked. There is a certain catharsis in it, however, and a defiance. Not against my stepfather, not really. My resistance targets something possibly more pervasive, complex, and maladjusted than generational dysfunction and rage.

I was born and raised in Montana and—after a stint in the military followed by twenty-odd years of trying on various states—ended up in Maine, which is where I began my first garden since that of my youth. There were unexpected difficulties, things I had taken for granted in Montana were not easy here—finding fertilizer being one, rocks being another.

I could do nothing about the abundance of rocks other than gather and move them, but fertilizer, I thought, would be easy. In Montana, there had been a backyard pasture full of Angus cattle and a never-ending supply of composted manure. But I had no farm connections in Maine. After considerable effort, I finally found a guy willing to sell me composted manure.

I had spread the first load and was back for a second when he told me about the agribusiness sales person who had talked him into trying a growth hormone on his cows a few years prior. He assured me he no longer used it; but the thing about cow manure is it needs to age a couple of years before use. I’m not certain why he decided to inform me about the growth hormone, but his confession turned into the catalyst that formally triggered my resistance.

The next summer, I converted a shed into a chicken house and fenced in a small run. In the fall, I moved fifteen Rhode Island Reds I had brooded in my garage into the newly-converted shed. The following spring, I began composting straw and chicken manure. The year after that, I was spreading my own compost on the garden. In the interim, I learned about organic fertilizers, and the OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) seal of approval. Sometime after the chickens were established, I began buying organic wheat berries in bulk and milling my own flour.

My garden started small, around seven hundred square feet; it grew rhubarb, potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, spinach, lettuce, peas, carrots, and onions. In eight years, it has grown to include radishes, kohlrabi, kale, corn, cabbage, peppers, beets, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cranberry beans, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, asparagus, strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries.

Somehow, the number of chickens has grown each year as well. We now keep around twenty-eight laying hens and two roosters. I fenced in about three-quarters of an acre, with welded wire, and cedar posts I felled and cut, to allow the hens to free range. Every summer, I raise thirty broilers to process in the fall. Along the way, seven Indian Runner ducks showed up. The compost from all of these birds has been magnificent for my resistance.

So why? Why this journey of home-grown self-sufficiency? The growth hormone story? My wife and my son, who was a month old when we moved to Maine?

 I suppose the answer in its simplest form might be control.

There are no colorful, bucolic labels suggestive of health and pastoral bliss on the front of my garden gate, nor is there an ingredient list on the backside filled with words I cannot readily pronounce or discern the meaning of without a dictionary. There is no convenience inside the gate, no advertising, no prepackaged promise of health, no processed, frozen, or preserved foods, no added sugars or fats. There are no pesticides, no dead bees, no chemicals. My garden does not grow on a system that places profit above all else, views people as targets to be lured or fooled into buying low-cost substitutions for nutrition; it does not grow on a system in which buying wholesome, nutritional foods is a luxury.  

In my garden, there is truth: truth in the readily apparent; truth in the synergy of sun, water, compost, microbes, and earth; truth in my time and my labor; truth in the leafy green; truth in my control of what I put into my body. I pick and eat directly from the plants; the rich, buttery flavors of fresh spinach and lettuce are something I have never experienced with produce from a grocery store, organic or not. Radishes and carrots require a wash with the garden hose but are just as readily consumed. And, from mid-June through early September, the strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries are the sweetest, outdoor, antioxidant cafe.

I could not have been convinced, when I broke that rototiller shear pin, my punishment would come decades later, ironically replete with blessings from the past. Though I was not made to till, I did have to plant, water, weed, and spread compost every year.

The spring of my eighth-grade year, I spread compost with a manure fork over the entire garden. It was punishment for talking about quitting school like my gas station-working cousin, who had quit two years prior. For two days, I was in the garden when my school mates went by on the bus at seven in the morning and still there when they returned in late afternoon and beyond to supper each night. I learned to labor; I learned that persistence does well in a garden; and I learned to resist.