Caretaker, Murderer, Undertaker: A Plan B Essay
In the Plan B essay series, writers discuss their contingency plans, extraliterary passions, and the roads not traveled.
Dirt rounds the ridges under my fingernails, making crusty silver moons. I try to clean up before I go out, but once I’m settled at the restaurant, I look at my hands and start to pick at the crud. I notice a smear of green on my calf, a smudge of yellow on my skirt. I tuck the hem under my thigh. What is that? I don’t know, but I know where it came from.
When people who don’t garden think of gardens, I imagine they imagine straight lines, tidy vegetables, and reasonable, reliable, hoed dirt. I see them seeing a steady, predictable rate of cultivation that leads to their lunch, dinner, future snacks.
But that isn’t how gardeners garden. When I close my eyes and think about my garden, I inhale a glorious jumble of earth and rot and chaos. I see baskets of tomatoes, bushels of green beans. I exhale. I inhale.
In my garden, things reseed—borage, cilantro, dill. They do this here and there in convenient and inconvenient places. They also do it unpredictably from year to year. There are multiple planted patches of carrots, broccoli, kale, and Swiss chard. Too many tomato plants staked and strapped to the fence. Volunteer butternut squash vines creep through the arugula. Perennial flowers—lilies and irises, echinacea and black-eyed Susans—pop up each season in the middle of the vegetables and herbs. Blackberries loop and cane themselves into the tiger lilies, into the potato bin. There are some straight rows, yes. But that isn’t the point.
What is the point? I’m not sure, but it’s something instinctual. Some kind of primal drive to fill and create and make flourish and then—well—kill and eat all that stuff that comes from the ground.
A gardener is caretaker, murderer, and undertaker. We work toward death. On the way to harvest, we drown bugs and chase groundhogs. We throw rocks. We actually throw rocks. We make elaborate deer deflectors with Irish Spring soap and tin pie pans and human hair. And then we put everything to rest and begin again.
Hearing my neighbor shoot the bunny with a BB gun? Honestly? I’m relieved. The bunnies are too cute for me. The bunnies win every time in my garden, but not in my neighbor’s, and for that I am thankful.
I remember the first time I actually wanted to strangle a deer with my bare hands. It had daintily consumed all of my hard-to-grow heartbreakingly beautiful light yellow heart-shaped heirloom tomatoes right off the vine, leaving just the vine—vibrant green and inedible. No tomatoes.
Even a baby deer. I would have strangled it.
I’m a vegetarian. You need to understand these garden impulses are impulses that pulse outside of my ethics. In my real life, I type on a computer. I listen to NPR. I cook a lot and can set up a mean mise en place on my cutting board. I play ukulele and drink red wine and Manhattans. I read books, play Scrabble. I stay pretty clean. Wear lipstick when I get dressed up. I don’t touch spiders. I squeal when I see a snake or a mouse. I don’t believe in the death penalty or animal cruelty or guns.
But still. I want to destroy that which destroys my kingdom.
This past year, I let a carrot go to seed in giant, flowering, amoeba-like blooms. These tendrils looked aquatic out there as they bobbed and ducked at the chicken wire fence, so uncarrot-like. I couldn’t bear to pull it up. It grew and grew and now it will become next year’s carrots—reincarnation. I am god here. But I’m not religious either.
Gardening has created in me a kind of fevered unleashing, an opening up. I kill the bugs that try to kill my vegetables, and then I kill the vegetables too and eat them.
If I had a redo, if I had one of those chances to change that you sometimes read about—a lawyer becomes a baker! an accountant becomes a rock star!—I would become a farmer. It would change me totally. I understand this.
In the garden, as I work, big bumblebees and skinny honeybees hum beside me. In a frenzy, they poke every single bloom in sight. They are ecstatic over the sunflowers this year. They are, I am certain, ODing on the sunflowers. I’ve never seen anything like it, except maybe at that one party in New Hampshire in 1989.
And then it’s a gloriously sunny midsummer day—spears of sunlight sneak down through the sorghum leaves as I thin the beets. That’s when I see the spider—I mean, it’s a giant arachnid. She has housed herself in the Brussels sprouts plant with an elaborate conelike web. I learn later that she’s an Orb Weaver. Right now she is furry and mighty and waving her many arms at me, as if to say: GET OUT. With only an ounce of a shudder, with zero squeal, I say to myself: Good. That’s good. She’s good. A good guy. Mean, but good. And I keep working. Same with the giant robotic-faced praying mantis. Same with the thin black snake I see slithering down under the raspberry bushes. Good guys. Good.
I reach for a tomato and my thumb plunges into the splotchy moldy goo that covers its underside. I wipe my hand on my shorts. Later, inside, my hands will be coated in yellow pollen, as if the garden has gilded me, changed my skin into pollen-dusted sandpaper.
Tiny, bulleted gold eggs make a tidy triangle on the back of my zucchini leaves. I rip the leaf and drown the eggs. I smoosh and smear until I feel feral. Bowls of beer drown the slugs. We call the bowls slug parties. We do.
Sometimes when I come inside sweaty and dazed, I look at myself in the mirror and, for a moment, I don’t know who I am. My eyes have become electric blue and I am so alive with dirt and life that I glow.
I know if I were a farmer and not just this urban-gardener-on-a-slightly-larger-scale, I would eat meat. I would have to. I would grow cows and chickens; and how would they eventually be so different from the vegetables I kill on a daily basis? How would wringing one of their necks be different from twisting an ear of corn from its stalk? Some days my hands tingle with this knowledge. The power of cultivation. The power of knowing life and death. BAM—I smash the cucumber beetle against the wooden post. SNIP—I get that cabbage moth before it flits away.
I transport the ladybug gently, carefully over to the green beans, and I drown thousands upon thousands of stink bugs in soapy water each early morning. The dew glistens on the grass, and my little Yorkie runs to bark at our next-door neighbor, again. The bee balm and chamomile sway in the breeze. A neurotic hummingbird takes a big interest in the balm’s bright red petals. Darting, darting. Traffic from downtown Pittsburgh’s commuters zips and unzips on the parkways down the hill. They inch along like the ants on my peony buds. The crickets kick in, sounding like tiny car alarms.
Typing this essay in my nice clean living room, I feel a little itchy. I do feel bad some days for all of those stink bugs. I do. In general, I am a kind and generous person. But just today I saw a troop of tiny stink bugs on my scarlet runner beans and I said out loud: “Get the fuck away from my beans.”
I harvest the vegetables and I make delicious fresh meals and canned goods for my husband and friends. I compost what is left over after the prep. Those leftovers break down and rot in the big black container in my yard, until they aren’t recognizable. Until they pass over to become nutritious dirt. Healthy, beautiful compost that I spread across the beds as I get ready for next growing season. Always cycling everything around in a big, heaving, wriggling worm-filled circle that brings me back to life.
Sherrie Flick received a 2013 Golden Quill Award from the Western Pennsylvania Press Club for her food writing in Pittsburgh Quarterly magazine and has written essays for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Superstition Review. She is author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness (Bison Books, 2009), the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting (Flume, 2004), and a forthcoming short-story collection due out from Queen’s Ferry Press in March 2016. She lives in Pittsburgh and teaches in the Food Studies and MFA programs at Chatham University.