Why I garden

I was a city boy, not a country boy. I grew up in downtown Buenos Aires, a huge city of many million people, in an apartment building. I had a balcony in my room, a small balcony with iron railings, of a style popular 90 years ago, which was the age of the building. As far as I remember, I always kept plants there, along with some caged birds. The flat was right above a busy corner in the historic San Telmo district, with many lines of very noisy buses constantly driving by, sending up clouds of smoke and waves of noise that rattled up the old building. There was a bar downstairs that never closed, it was open 24 hours a day every day except Christmas. Patrons included taxi drivers playing dominoes and chess, families, bohemians and artists, druggies and drunks, whores… it all depended on what time of day, or night, it was. Three old Spaniards had owned it for decades, and they waited on the tables. Three shifts, with no days off. No days off except once a year, for Christmas. They really loved their jobs! They could have retired years ago, they were rich already, could have gone back to Spain or whatever, but no. They kept serving their customers, year in, year out.

 

So my balcony was far from an urban oasis – the vines I had planted may have been growing on the iron rails nicely, and once in a while I’d get a tomato or some basil, but there was always the roar of those old Mercedes Benz buses downstairs, or a drunken fight outside the bar. The police station was a block away, too, so they added their patrol car sirens to the cacophony.

 

Other than the balcony, the closest I came to experiencing ‘country’ life was on summer vacations, when I traveled to a small town to visit my cousins. There, I would marvel at the fact that we could ride our bikes everywhere, without parents being in the least concerned, as the town was really safe. I would enjoy finding hidden spots with my cousins, where we could light fires, steal peaches or sunflowers, tell tall stories and play. They had an older relative there, a teenage kid, and we all looked up to him, as he had rifles, a moped, fishing equipment, and great knowledge of the surrounding farms, woods and rivers. He also had a lot of stories. Most of them, I now realize, must have been bullshit. But when the town priest had to clear the church’s bell tower of a bat infestation, he was the one tasked with doing it, and he went up there and did the job. That’s the kind of kid he was, so us youngsters really admired him.

 

In the summers, I also traveled with my grandparents and younger cousin – different cousin, different side of the family – to a lovely resort in Cordoba province, a mountain area heavily settled by Germans, full of pine forests, Swiss-style chalets, and clear streams. My grandparents were young and very fit when I was a kid, and we would go on these long hikes that took most of the day. We had routes that we hiked every single summer: the waterfall, the tea house in the next village, Cabeza de Indio (a big rock shaped like a native’s head), the cemetery, the dike we kept reinforcing every year to create a bathing pool, and the most challenging, mount Wank (pronounced ‘Vank’, in the German fashion), the tallest peak in the area.

 

My grandfather was the single most important influence of my childhood. He had grown up in Yugoslavia, in a wealthy Macedonian Jewish household, and sent to study in Greece and Switzerland before World War Two started. Then, he went back to his old country and joined the Resistance, taking to the mountains with Mashal Tito’s partisans. He was strong, so he had to carry his unit’s heavy machine gun in endless mountain treks, in stifling heat or freezing cold. He shot Germans, and was shot at – he had a huge bullet hole, and scars, above one of his knees. Many Jews perished during those years under Nazi rule, but by taking to the mountains and fighting, he survived. Eventually, he was able to escape to Italy, which had been liberated by the Allies, and there he married my grandmother. My dad was born in Rome, and they lived there a few years before emigrating to Argentina.

 

He was a giant of a man. Not in the physical sense, as he wasn’t very tall, but in how tough he was, how smart, how determined, how charming and genial and with such a great sense of humor. He had this keen appreciation for nature, and we were lucky, my cousin and myself, to spend many summers with him in the mountains, drinking deep from him: his war stories, his jokes and songs, his commentary about everything under the sun, as he was very opinionated, an avid reader, and not in the least modest or shy. We would walk and walk, many kilometers, many hours, and talk. He always wore shorts and sandals, a little hat for the sun, and a small pack with some water, a Swiss army knife, and a few apples or nuts to share with us when we stopped to rest. He carried a golf club during our walks, and now and then, he would send us boys to collect a few pine cones, line them up along a ridge, and swing at them as he told us his stories and we watched them describe an arc and then tumble downhill. For the most part, we kids were happy and looking forward to our days trekking the hills, but now and then, especially as we grew older and entered our teenage years, we would be bitching about it, wanting to stay back at the hotel to watch TV or whatever. He had no patience for that crap, would kick our butts and get us going, with a smile or without. After a while, us boys would be happy again, glad to be in the woods with Gramps yet one more time, stopping to appreciate a bird’s nest or a discarded skin some snake had writhed out of, drinking from clear streams, resting in the shade of old stone fences, jumping into deep pools at the foot of the waterfalls. We miss him. I miss him.

 

Anyway, except for the balcony, and for vacations, I was a city boy, so it’s kind of surprising to me that I have developed such a passion for nature, and aspire to be a farmer. I can’t think of anything more valuable or more deserving of respect and admiration than being a good gardener, a good farmer, a good beekeeper. I enjoy big cities, and have been able to visit, or live, in several. They are compact, serviced by good transit systems, and thus, energy efficient. They offer many cultural attractions, theatres, museums, bookstores and so on. You can sit at a coffeshop and read a book, meet people or just watch them go by, relax, think about the history and circumstances of the place, whether you’re in London, Toronto, Guadalajara or Athens.

 

Despite being fond of cities, and keen to visit some more of them in the future, if I can, I know, as I approach middle age, that I’m the happiest in a country setting. Ideally, in a small farm that is within a reasonable distance to some urban center where one can go to stock on supplies and bring produce to market, but not in it. Outside. And not a huge town, either. I think I’m tolerably close to that ideal now, with my small homestead in Pine Island. Time will tell…

 

As I approached manhood, I enrolled in college. I consider that one of the biggest mistakes of my life. Perhaps not going to college per se, but the studies I chose: some vague, vapid thing called mass communications: some sociology and linguistics, some writing workshops, a bit of history and politics, a course or two about graphics production, TV and radio, a sprinkling of computers and design. Nothing, in a word, that would have required me to attend classes for several years to learn, nothing that you’d need to show a diploma of in order to prove that you were proficient at it. I should have stayed clear of wasting time with such a thing, and had I really wanted to attend university, should have studied biology, like my younger sister. But she’s smart. Much, much smarter than me. And a harder worker.

 

All I wanted was something easy, that required next to no effort from me, leaving me more or less free to follow my true inclinations at the time: chase girls, do drugs, and above all, take time off to travel. Much, much time off. The first years of college, 3 or 4 months out of every year, during the Southern Hemisphere summer break. Then, whole sabbaticals. My last few courses, and my thesis (yes, you have to write a thesis to graduate from that dreck. No, I’m not kidding) were handled from far away. From Santiago first, and La Paz later, as I was living in those cities, having followed a woman there, who was finishing her own studies in Chile before moving to Bolivia. In mass communications too, if you must know. It seems the damn thing was en vogue during the 90’s.

 

By then, I had been working in that field for a while. I had been doing advertising, and editing a couple of smallish magazines, back in Buenos Aires. In Bolivia, thanks to this woman’s contacts rather than to any talent of mine, I had landed an exciting job with a political campaign, and after that, a gig with a newspaper, with my own office and whatnot. But I already knew, deep inside, that such a lifestyle didn’t really bring any fulfillment to me. Didn’t, as Marley had phrased it, ‘satisfy my soul’.

 

In the course of my travels and adventures, I had experienced other lifestyles, had followed other routines and had had glimpses of what it meant to be close to the land, to be a steward of the land, to plan and work and pray for a bounty from the land. The most important of those experiences, I think, was a period of several months that I spent as a volunteer in an Israeli ‘kibbutz’, or collective farm. There, I worked long hours in the avocado groves, fixing irrigation lines, weeding, but mostly, picking, picking, picking perfect avocados for export to Europe, in the company of other volunteers and some hired Thai workers. I recall the desert sun filtering through the dense foliage, the ocassional chamaleon staring at me from a tree branch, the attack helicopters flying overhead, laden with missiles, towards missions bombing Hizbollah positions in Lebanon. The whole thing was surreal. I had arrived there with a fellow I had just met some weeks before, in Greece, and who would become one of my closest friends. We shared a rustic cabin in the ‘volunteer village’, just behind the kibbutz’s cemetery and an abandoned orange grove. The orange trees still produced, by the way, and us penniless volunteers laboriously hand-squeezed the fruit at the end of the day, to combine with cheap vodka for cocktail hour.

 

There were many other experiences, in different parts of the world: homemade meals in an Italian homestead, prepared the same way and using the same ingredients for hundreds of years. The sights and sounds and smells and flavors of Mexican village markets. Andes highlands peasants preparing chuño, the freeze-dried potatoes that would feed them in the winter, and butchering llamas to make jerky. A stint working with some Germans in what they claimed was their organic farm project in the hills of Samothraki… in fact, all they wanted to do, I found out after a while, was drink and smoke hash all the time, while I painstakingly hoed the field, until the neighbor, a bona fide Greek peasant, picked a fight with us, irritated (rightly, I think) by our intrusion, by the loud Pink Floyd music, or by the fact that we ate one or two of his goats. Fed up, I grabbed my backpack and left. Of that, I remember a cool stream, shaded by old platana trees on its way to the Mediterranean, dotted with small cultivated fields on the banks. A sight, I daresay, that hadn’t changed much in four thousand years. Four thousand years.

 

Chance, luck, or fate, brought me to Southwest Florida as I approached my 30th birthday. A friend had a coffeshop in Fort Myers Beach, and I tried to figure out the seasons here as I prepared lattes and toasted bagels, looking out the window now and then, checking out the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. Still flat. Always flat, it seemed, except when we got those awesome tropical storms. So unlike other beaches I had seen, where the sound of the surf was a constant companion, and the water cool and refreshing. The town worked hard to accomplish a laid back, relaxed beach village look. But it didn’t really work. This is America, after all. Maybe it was the local Hooters that ruined it for me. Or the hellish traffic on the main – on the only – drag, Estero Blvd. Or the many tourist traps, crammed full of Chinese junk.

 

Anyway, long story short. I met a woman, got married, kids followed. What to do? It was time to move out of Ft. Myers Beach and into Ft. Myers proper. Get an apartment. Get a job. I was getting older, had responsibilities now. The Clinton era was at an end. Gore hadn’t gotten enough votes. Hanging chads. Then, 9/11. Time to hunker down. No more fun and games, no more travels and mushrooms and tacos at the village market du jour.

 

I looked for a job doing more of the same, and landed the marketing office of a personal injury lawyer firm. Those ambulance chasers. Horrible. Sucked my energy dry every day, I don’t know exactly how. Maybe it was the necktie. Or the shameless lying on an everyday basis, to get folks who had just had an accident to ‘let us take care of you’. A few years of that. Watch TV at the end of the day, drink beer, get a bit fat. The babies are growing up. Then, thinking I’d move up the foodchain a bit, or at least be able to come to work wearing shorts, I signed up with an advertising agency. More lying, more endless hours in front of a screen, figuring out ways to make people buy cars they can’t afford and don’t need, for the wrong reasons, and never reading the proverbial small-print disclaimers they should be paying more attention to. More wasted time in front of a screen at the end of the day, more ‘Law & Order’ and ‘Chappelle’s Show’, as the beer and the bad food really started to make an impact on my waist (welcome to America!). Kids walk now, talk, surprise me every day with their questions. We get away whenever we can, to the beach, camping, but it’s never enough time. I’m chained to those screens, I have to go back to them soon, or else… besides, my marriage is falling apart. I discover my wife likes church and the mall. I hate church, and I hate the mall. Her friends are royal bores. Are we royal bores, too? Oh, the conundrum. The dilemma. What to do?

 

One fine morning, destiny, or God, or the business world, or someone, decides for me. I’m summoned to the boss’ office, given some explanation about business being way down, and let go, with a bit of severance money and best wishes. In fairness, I must say it was probably justified: I hadn’t really been giving the job my all for a long time, fed up with the routine, with the long and arbitrary hours, with the sheer idiocy of it all. But that paycheck every two weeks kept me going back to the nondescript office park, kept me drinking the bad coffee and laughing at the same old jokes, thinking, ‘this is life, after all, this is what responsible adults do… I’ll hang another year, another month, two more weeks, until the next paid vacation’.

 

I didn’t do anything for a few days. Weeks, months. I just thought and thought. I picked my children up from school, made them dinner, waited for the wife to arrive from her job. I stopped watching TV. I started writing down my ideas. I went back, way back, into my memories, into my life experience, looking for answers to the old questions: who am I? What do I want? What is life all about?

 

I thought of my room’s balcony in the old Buenos Aires flat, of the pleasure it gave me to sit down there and putter around with pots and plants and a bag of store-bought soil. Of the excitement when a seed I had planted finally sprouted, of walking back from school quick to see how much it had grown that morning. I thought of summers long ago, of riding my bike and looking at endless fields of sunflowers and corn on both sides of the road, of the smells of fruit orchards in bloom, and the liberating feeling of not having to go to school or do anything other than roam the countryside for weeks. I remembered my grandfather, happy, smiling, sweaty, shirtless, walking briskly as we boys tried to keep up with him, stopping to point to a magnificent old oak, or to admire the garden of a mountain cottage. Was it childhood, that happiness I remembered, was it being a boy? Or was it being outside? Out of doors? Walking the land, smelling the pines, laughing at a cow farting in her pen? Both, maybe. Childhood, alas, was lost. But being outside? Out of doors? The doors of perception suddenly opened, and I had my epiphany, my moment of truth. No, let me capitalize that. My Moment of Truth.

 

I’m going to use the f word a lot in this paragraph, so if you’re offended by it, skip it. I won’t use it after this, I promise. I decided I wasn’t going back to ‘mass communications’, whatever the fuck that is. I was not going to be involved in any more marketing, editing, or creating fucking ads in front of a fucking screen. I was, I am, going to spend the rest of my working life, or of my life, period, working outside, planting trees and peppers and feeding chickens, weeding, hauling manure, sweating, being bitten by gnats and mosquitoes, stopping to admire a bald eagle or a pileated woodpecker and then going back to fixing the water pump, going back to watering the avocadoes, going back to whatever I’m doing, but not going back to a cubicle or an office, so help me God. My childred won’t starve and I won’t starve, even if I have to eat pinto beans with an onion and a bit of sausage for the rest of my life, drive a piece of shit and mend my underpants rather than buying new ones. I’m turning that fucking TV off and I’m taking the damn thing to the curb. I’ll only use a computer if and when I feel like it, but never too much. I won’t, will NOT, darken the door of church or mall ever again. I will somehow make a living working outside, gardening, farming. I’m old enough to do whatever I fucking well please, and that’s what I want to do, and that’s that. Final. Non-negotiable. Damn the fucking consequences.

 

It felt great, I have to tell you. Everyone ought to have one or two Moments of Truth in their lives.

 

Of course, a nagging, irritating inner voice started torturing me at once: ‘But you don’t know enough, you’re too old to learn, you’re a city boy, who are you kidding?’. I just ignored it. Ignored it and went forward and got started. You have to get started somewhere. So I got involved with things. With people and places I had had no time to check out when I was chained to the screens and the offices. I discovered a fascinating side of this part of the world. I started going to rural areas and talking to farmers. I started volunteering at school gardens and community gardens and beach clean-ups and grassroots organizations. There was no money in it. Didn’t matter. I made friends with an older organic farmer with some health issues who could use the help. And going to his farm to help, and to learn. Two, three times a week, for a year, then for two years. I can’t remember how many gardens, community or otherwise, I helped get started. Some prospered, some didn’t. At some point, I felt confident enough in my skills to offer a service that few others had thought of, creating custom food gardens for people. Surprisingly, customers appeared. A trickle at first, more later. The US Census Bureau hired me for a few months, during the summer, which is a bad time for gardening here anyway, so I made a bit of money with that, and met a lot of interesting folks, going door to door with my forms. More garden work materialized. Someone thought of me to run a small farmers’ market part time, and I took that gig, too. Met a lot more farmers that way. Nursery people, gardeners, poultry people, bakers, tropical fruit people. My marriage ended, on good terms, but ended. I pestered my folks back in the old country for a small loan, and found some cheap land in Pine Island. Bought it, put a trailer in it. Started farming it. My kids come on weekends. They love it. I think they love it. We don’t have a TV here. The rooster wakes us up at 5:30 every morning. I let them sleep a bit more as I drink my hot mate tea and consider the day ahead. Every day is different. Every garden is different. Every season is different. The chores are many. The work, hard. Sometimes I have to work at other people’s farms and gardens, others I can stay and work on my projects here. Everglades tomatoes. Chickens, ducks and quail. A few fruit trees. Stuff breaks down all the time, and needs to be fixed. I use a lot of recycled materials, try not to buy anything. I barter a lot. I help my friends, and my friends help me. I’m outside. I’m out of doors. Most of the time, I’m out of doors. I’m writing this outside, by the fire I built to keep the skeeters away. The south end of Pine Island is really dark tonight.

 

I love it. I love being outdoors, and watching things grow. That’s why I garden.

 

 

 

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