“As a child, one has that magical capacity to move among the many eras of the earth; to see the land as an animal does; to experience the sky from the perspective of a flower or a bee; to feel the earth quiver and breathe beneath us; to know a hundred different smells of mud and listen unself- consciously to the soughing of the trees.” –Valerie Andrews
With me constantly while I work at the HAVEN Garden Project is a feeling of gratitude for the little hands helping me do my work. Nearly every time I am in the garden, harvesting, watering, packing vegetables for the fridge, a crowd of eager helpers materializes around me. If I change my schedule, I will be reprimanded for my absence! Our garden time usually involves a “farm walk,” where we check the progress and flavors and smells of all the garden vegetables.
There is a specific group of siblings who are in the habit of narrating complex adventures and “discoveries,” and who refer to me as the “garden teacher!” Last week, they made a straw bale into a giant cake–iced with grass clippings and snapdragons. With a little work, they built a fort out of row cover fabric–complete with chairs, a table, vases of flowers, and squash leaves standing in as dinner plates. They locked all the adults out of the fort, and after several minutes (and much audible giggling), presented their mom with a surprise birthday party. A meal of carefully arranged pea gravel, green beans, and edible flower petals graced the table. When the party was over, the adults were expelled from the fort so they could set up an imaginary “cooking challenge!” These kids–all bright, sharp, and enthusiastic–are undergoing a crisis period in their lives. They are reaching out for support, for praise, for stability and meaning. Given a job to do and a little direction, all of that seems to fall away.
In the shelter kitchen, any kids that show up can take part in preparing veggies for the fridge. When I roll the cart in with bins of greens, children at their cereal bowls bolt to the sink and clamor to help in their pajamas. Lettuce washing turns the floor into a temporary lake, and each young one gets a particular job: running the giant lettuce spinner (always popular), swishing the delicate leaves in the water, holding the bags, transporting them to the fridge. Shy teenagers edge in to assist with management. Two particular kids cry out to their mom, “Look! We have a job! We’re doing our job!” The hunger for praise, for affirmation and purpose, is so palpable.
For all of us, a reminder that we are useful is essential to our decision to get up daily, to move forward. It is especially poignant to those who are small, who have may not have been cared for as they should have been cared for, and valued as important. The work required of human stewards in a garden is abundant and meaningful–the results tangible (and delicious). As Wendell Berry says, “One of the most important resources that a garden makes available for use, is the gardener’s own body. A garden gives the body the dignity of working in its own support. It is a way of rejoining the human race.” The garden is a healing place. It transports us elsewhere: there is work to be done, and games to play. A garden space is a little universe where children thrive.
A few weeks ago, a particular family was in the garden for hours. The children ran barefoot over a familiar circuit we often take, casually, through the vegetables and flowers and trees. The most vocal sibling pronounced that they would be leading the Walk. Today, they were the garden teachers.
“Emily! This is a gooseberry! Watch out for the prickers!” (“They go through your pants and make a hole in your pants!” squeals the youngest.)
“The baby pumpkin is getting bigger!”
“Oh…,” says the oldest gravely, “something is STILL eating up all the cantaloupes.”
We continue on through the site, one little one holding a flag I was using to mark an irrigation issue, leading us on like a marching band, all of us munching raw green beans. I lose them momentarily in the corn and pick my way down the rows. Little hands, smudged with dirt, grab my wrists and pull. “There’s more! Over here! We made a discovery!”
I smile and laugh. How many people are confronted daily with such a beautiful affirmation of their work?