Fertile Ground

canstockphoto15476528It’s gardening time. Be prepared for wheelbarrows of garden metaphors, analogies and similes to seed this blog for the next couple of months. With a side of compost.

The claustrophobia of winter has begun to dissipate. It’s too early to plant seeds outside in Minnesota, but the strawberries are poking through and the buds on the lilac bushes have begun to form. I got hit smack dab in the face by a meaty bug, likely disoriented and newly emerged from the thawing ground. While trimming raspberry canes and Concord grape vines, I stopped frequently, standing motionless, a stupid grin on my face, dirt on my knees and an overwhelming sense of relief.

Something happened to my brain during the sixth month of a moody winter. I haven’t been writing much, as each session culminates in a screw it and me storming off to do housework. I am almost through one of James Joyce’s works, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It’s taken me weeks to work through. Last night I took a break and looked up definitions of the many words that I could not garner from context. I’m pretty sure I’ll be brain-dumping arras, cerements, and woodbegirt, but am excited to keep inanition: the absence or loss of social, moral, or intellectual vitality or vigor. It’s the perfect word to describe my affliction in March.

This morning, on what will be the first of many trips to Home Depot, I hauled bags of dirt. It all starts with the dirt. It’s nothing special. There’s lots of dead stuff in it. It’s messy and just lays there, waiting, ready. But a blank patch of dirt to a gardener is an opportunity and perhaps, a compulsion. Your brain registers the conditions: wet or dry, sunny or shady, clay or sandy. It runs through the catalog of seed packets. What works? What doesn’t? Should it be an experiment? Or something that gets changed every year?

canstockphoto22961553It’s not too far a stretch to make this analogy work for just about anything. Writers often talk about that blank page as if it were something special. It’s just dirt. What we put into it is what makes the difference. So, this barren landscape, devoid of creativity, of ideas and of imagination is the place to start. Some ideas will never take hold, some will briefly raise their heads only to be wilted by a midday sun. Others, though, will put you on the path to meaning, substance and beauty.

canstockphoto5109847Beauty is such a subjective word. For all the reading and writing I did this winter, each round a pale imitation of the last, I was seeking beauty. Knowledge, depth, understanding – these are the aspects of beauty that resonate with me. But beauty in gardening is not just the end result. If that were all that gardening, and writing, were about, then I’d just buy flowers at the market or read other people’s books. It is in the labor of the thing. It is one’s part as a creator, one’s tangling with point of view and weeds. It is rough hands and raw thoughts. It is dirt under the fingernails and raging frustration of translating your story onto paper.

It’s wonderful – that dirt and that blank page. A garden or a story just waiting to be created.

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22 Comments on “Fertile Ground

  1. I can’t wait to plant my vegetable garden! I always loved the feeling of my hands in cool topsoil.

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  2. Out in the garden yesterday, cleaning things up (It was 85, beautiful Spring day). I’m dying to plant some bedding plants, but am afraid our watering restrictions are going to be really grim this year. I love your comparison of writing to gardening. Great thing about gardening, as opposed to the blank page, is sometimes dirt looks like dirt, but underneath something is waiting to come through that you completely forgot you planted the year before.

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    • As someone who has been working at perennial gardening for the last 10 years, your point about something forgotten coming through that dirt is well-taken! I’m anxious to plant, but we usually can’t start seeds until mid-May, unless it’s the cooler weather plants like lettuce and spinach. We still have the possibility of frost at this time of year. I don’t have that same excuse for my writing!

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  3. Thanks for putting some thoughts into the visuals as well as the words. As the snow continues to batter here, they’re welcome.

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  4. Love this! I will now always think of my blank screen as a big pile of dirt waiting to be molded into something great. We sat outside a lot today a 60 degree day in March in Michigan! And like I usually start to do about this time of year, I started to shake off the winter blues and think “damn I love this place!”

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    • It’s fun to watch Minnesotans lose their minds over any weather above freezing. Suddenly we see our neighbors again, the kids are playing in their yards, grills are going. That’s not my favorite part of it. My favorite part is the all the busy critters and birds, the smell of dirt, open windows and being able to walk out to the mailbox without polar gear. I get ambitious, thinking I’ll actually get all the house and garden projects done this year. Until about July…

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  5. That analogy works really well! I’m happy you see the signs of spring and your heart sighs happily again.

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    • It is a special kind of happy. I do hope that it makes my writing more productive, but for now I’m so thrilled to be outside. It might take a week or two before I’m able to stay indoors long enough to knock out a few chapters.

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  6. Well, you inspired me. Again. This time, you inspired me to get the hell outside and finish digging up my asparagus plants. (Yes, I know it’s the wrong time of year to dig up asparagus plants, but we are Starting From Scratch and they were in the way.) I am now IN PAIN. This would not have happened if I’d stayed put on the couch, reading a book!

    You really need to stop doing this. Or not… 🙂

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    • Ha! My back and hands ache this morning after loading and hauling dirt, but that always happens at the beginning of the season. I just have to get myself to settle down a bit. Spring always makes me ambitious!

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  7. Hi Michelle – glad to hear you’re looking up words in Portrait. I had a list going for Infinite Jest, but now I’m at the end of that pocket notepad and moving on to another. “Erumpent” is one I’ll keep from that session. Inanition is good too, well put. We’re going to be leaving our house for a year starting this July, so we won’t be doing much gardening here. I do like the analogy of the dirt and the empty page, that’s good. Enjoy the week…I’m finding this comment box isn’t working for me right now. Ha! Cheers, – Bill

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    • Erumpent might serve the gardening analogy as well. Thank goodness Chapter 5 of Portrait seems more accessible to me. Whatever I get out of of this book, Bill, thanks for recommending it. It feels like some hardcore preparation for more challenging reading and writing.

      We’re only taking short vacations this summer, so I’m all in on the gardening. It feels like another way to “earn my keep” while being an unpaid writer. And there’s no doubt gardening feeds my soul in a way that will likely help the writing. I hope you have a lovely week as well!

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  8. I have noticed that my writing ebbs and flows with the seasons. I do better coming into a season than leaving. Winter is the hardest.

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    • I usually function pretty well up until about February when every task seems like a battle and writing feels like treading snow. The challenge with spring is that writing can easily take a backseat to being outside and in motion. I’m trying to do things in equal measure, but that’s a challenge.

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  9. And sometimes the creation transforms into something we never imagined possible, both on the page and in the garden. Hope the inanition of March has left you and the coming months are full of planting!

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    • Well, there’s still some of that inanition hanging about, which is okay since snow is predicted later this week and we’re all walking around sighing and in sweaters again. Soon enough, I suppose. Still, that glimpse of sun and warmth was tantalizing.

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  10. Ah, those metaphors satisfy. I have other gardener friends and they, too, are jumpy with joy. Sometimes I wish I liked gardening, but my body hurts too much to enjoy the work. I do appreciate the results, though.

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    • The gardening metaphors are so abundant, it would be hard not to use them! With snow coming up in the forecast again, gardening will likely be put off another week. Sigh…

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