My father had two girls, but I don’t think anyone ever told him we were girls. While other neighborhood girls were busy painting their nails and playing dress up, we were often working as his “go-fors” on any one of his many projects, or we were cleaning the yard, putting fertilizers around the tomatoes, or helping him get his crop of watermelons ready for the market. Though farming was not his primary occupation, dad loved the land, and he was a constant gardener.
My experiences working in my garden this summer, made me reflect on dad and the legacy he passed on to us in understanding the value of “work”– not just any work but of “manual labor”– working with your hands. When I went to boarding academy, “Manual Labor” was a required course in the curriculum. I kid you not! Everyone had a pick of where they would work: on the farm, in the broom shop, on grounds, at the health food store, in the laundry, or in the cafeteria. And as I think of it now, what a valuable addition to the curriculum! Indeed, there is a dignity in work and gifts that come only when we bend our backs in the kind of work that makes curls droop, nails chip, sweat drip, muscles ache, hands chafe—yeah, that kind of work. And that is one of the things to love about it.
When I started posting garden updates on my FB page, one of my friends suggested that I take a picture in a straw hat, with a long white flowing dress blowing in the wind, as I appeared to stare dreamily at the plants in my garden in a “Martha Stewart” inspired moment, I resisted the urge. Why? Because, the truth is that gardening is far from glamorous— and I have the tan, the scars, and the dirty nails to prove it. Yet, there is a beauty to it that is beyond compare.
In the garden we are confronted with “life at the bone”, but it is here according to Thoreau that “life is sweetest”. In the garden we see that seeds shallowly planted can be carried away by birds, a heavy downpour can wash away the potential for life, and young seedlings must courageously battle the elements and bugs to have a chance at survival. In the garden, I grieved the loss of plants—eaten by critters that did not tend them. But then I watched them bounce back when not even one leaf was left on a chewed off stalk. That indomitable spirit spoke to me, inspiring me to replant and press on. It made me recognize that my part in the process was to sow the seed, water it and cultivate the young plant. His part is to do what I cannot– breathe life into death. I saw plants learn to grow where they had been planted—some beds were clayey, some too moist, sandy or lacking in nutrients— yet, they persisted growing and flourishing as best they could.
Though I will admit that I resented it at the time, I am grateful now that dad cultivated in me an appreciation for the dignity of with our hands. I am reminded that in assigning Adam this work God was handing him a gift (pun intended). The first work God gave man was to “farm the land and take care of it”. No doubt, God did not need Adam’s help. He, who made the earth out of nothing, did not need a co-laborer to keep his creation beautiful and “good”. However, in this gift of work, I like to think that God was passing on to Adam a treasure that would nurture his own spirit, that would teach him important life lessons, and ultimately remind him that like the plants under his care, he was himself under the care of a master gardener—God himself.