British novels fed my student imagination. I longed to wander the moors in a black dress or watch waves pound a rocky shore in Cornwall. I went to England and raced from castles to cathedrals, taking copious notes on period architecture and stained glass.
After several weeks, my dog-eared, pen-scrawled journal did not satisfy. Something was missing. On a whim, I traveled to the Lake District and took a ferry across Lake Windermere so I could backpack through fields of sheep and clamber over stonewalls. I arrived one afternoon when the sun broke through a mist and the trees stood damp and glistening. A few hundred yards from the train station, a woman lined potted plants along the gravel path that led to her porch.
The scene reminded me of a March day when spring, having struggled against winter, sent the sap rising. My mother hung her ferns on the porch. Swinging in the warm light, they shed the fronds that browned in February.
Suddenly, I knew what I had missed: a southern spring. Images sunk dormant now rose vividly.
I gazed at the Englishwoman’s modest containers of primroses and trailing ivy and rediscovered a season and a people thousands of miles away.
My parents shook off winter sluggishness with dreams of garden bounty. They pored over gardening magazines and seed catalogs. My father inspected the compost, a rich heap of leaves rotting since autumn.
Before Valentine’s Day, Dad began sowing seeds in his early planting zone: the playroom. He outfitted several tiered rolling racks with “grow” lights. Then he planted tomato seeds in small plastic containers and placed them on the rack shelves. A trowel, a watering can, stacks of leftover containers, and small bags of potting soil lay ready on a worn-out gurney he had carted home from the hospital.
With all that rolling stock, the playroom truly was his private playground, not ours.
When dogwoods burst open in snowy four-petal blossoms tipped with tiny red stains, my sisters, brother, and I rushed outdoors to test the water. Ritually, we kicked off our shoes and hosed one another before wading in the rocky creek running shallow in the woods behind our house. Soon we battle-splashed, and at our joyful shrieks, the neighborhood children came running, their abandoned shoes leaving a trail.
By early April, Dad worked feverishly. He cleared his garden space by burning off last year’s dried stalks. To his way of thinking, gardening was the most pleasurable and economical way to expend energy. The country club held little interest. Dad preferred hoeing five rows of beans to playing tennis on a sedate court.
My father’s compulsion to dig and dirty his fingernails stemmed from his childhood. For almost two centuries, his family farmed hilly North Georgia soil, which, once turned, spilled clay red in its furrows. If a man worked that land hard enough, it ground into his skin. As a child, I shook hands with men who worked fields in the Great Depression and noticed fine lines running reddish-brown on their palms.
Aging hands—freckled and knotted with bluish veins—hold the past. When I looked at my grandmother’s hands, I wondered how many times they pressed a child to her body or husked corn and stripped silk from the ears. Her knuckles grew stiff and her fingertips dry. Under a burning sun, she pulled cotton from stubborn bolls, with spring only a sweet, fleeting memory.
Looking back on the Great Depression, Mama Hattie once said they never considered themselves poor. “We had land, a house, a garden, a cow, a mule, a hog or two, and church. Most of all, we had each other.”
Living close to the land, Mama Hattie never forgot Appalachian folklore. “Plant your beans on Good Friday. . . . My daddy always said if you plant corn on Wednesday, the birds won’t take it up. . . . Don’t kill a hog unless the moon is shrinking in the last quarter. Otherwise, your bacon will curl in the pan when you fry it. . . .”
Her words drawl in my memory, turning over like long ropes of homemade pull candy that children twist, shape, and wear down white with buttered fingers.
As a boy, my father milked the cow at dawn and again at dusk and drew water from a 40-foot well. He and his brothers cut firewood from blackjack oak and knotty pine. They took turns riding the mule to Jim Dean’s Mill where their wheat and corn were ground into flour.
Today we buy bed linens online and complain about the power bill. We grab milk cartons at the supermarket and absently turn on the faucet when brushing our teeth. Specialty organic stores abound.
Few people rebuff modern conveniences. Nonetheless, they seek, in small ways, solidarity with the earth. They savor spring onions and just-picked lettuce from the farmers market. Some grow planters of cherry tomatoes on their patios or hover over a modest row or two of beans, squash, and herbs bedded in the backyard.
Everyone has a zucchini recipe to swap with a neighbor. Urban gardens flourish across America—new life in a concrete-steel jungle. Flowers in mason jars and bottles sit in windowsills. Everywhere people grope for the comfort of a rural past.
My father left home at 16, carrying little but his love of the land. This spring, John and I will study color-rich gardening images on tablets. The old hardware store down the street still sells seed packets.
John will turn up a small strip of ground and build a crude chicken wire fence to protect tender, young tomato plants from deer. We will snip herbs from the container garden on the patio.
From our tiny patch of the South, green will grow. And if nostalgia grips the next generation, I will tell them to plant beans on Good Friday.