A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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Dan Barker has been giving away vegetable gardens in Portland, Oregon, for seven years. Funded by private foundations and trusts, Barker builds gardens in the back yards of recipients — at no cost to them. He constructs soil frames, brings in a trellis, seeds, starts, fertilizer, tomato cages, pest controls, instructions, advice, and cooking tips. Barker does his work in the needier neighborhoods, where the proceeds — material, psychological, and spiritual — can make the greatest difference. To date, Barker has built more than 525 gardens.
Barker is a poet and novelist, who has recently completed a novel based on his experiences as a corpsman in Vietnam.
“A wise man fills bellies.”
— Tao Te Ching
“Idiot wind, it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”
— Bob Dylan
A Crip gang member approached the woman for whom I was building a vegetable garden — an old woman on welfare, an ex-prostitute, ex-waitress, ex-chicken-butchering plant worker. He said he was tired, pimping was hard work. I kept to my hammer and shovel, hearing the woman’s tubercular laugh, and repressed a moral urge to bash his brains in, instead muttering something nonsensical about individuated karma and samsara, knowing and glad that the garden will persist longer than he will.
The man who helps me would have been a great pioneer; he hates lawns, and jobs. He is nearly fifty and has never been able to tolerate employment for longer than three months at a stretch. To him lawns and civilization are the same phenomenon, ass-backwards and fit for no good use. When he and I are working together we are a team; we get it done. We frequently use the language of work learned in Vietnam.
Work starts in March. There is limited time — spring — in which to fulfill the contracts among the Home Gardening Project, the funding sources, the city government, and the new gardeners. The purpose of the work is to foster self-reliance and improved health and well-being.
If the weather is looking like the rains will break, I order the two truckloads of two-by-eights and two-by-twos we’ll need to build the gardens (125 in 1990, as many as we could afford to build), order the mushroom compost to augment the three loads of weed-free organic soil that are mixed and delivered to us each week, beg for a front-loading tractor, then spend a day cutting the lumber to size. Warm up for the next two-and-a-half months of constant build, and move on. Three ten-yard dumps a week are loaded three yards at a time into the back of our pickup, along with soil frames, trellis, tools — and a wheelbarrow tossed on top and tied down. At Ms. Wittingham’s, the house looks well kept. She comes out — a cataract clouding her left eye — and says her husband of forty years used to love to do the garden, but he’s now disabled with a stroke, sorry to hear that, that’s why we’re here. In the back, over the old garden site, she says. We shoulder the lumber back to the plot beside the garage, lay out the two-by-eight-inch frames, bang ’em up, the sound of the hammer drums the neighborhood awake. My helper starts at one end, I at the other; he builds two, I build one, strong-box fashion, the way my old carpenter friend taught me. He builds the trellis while I line out the frames square to the world and knock down lumps of weeds. I leave a three-foot path between frames so the garden can be comfortably tended, then we set the frames by nailing twelve-inch stakes at each corner. My helper does one side, I the other. Work output is divided equally, down to the erg.
We start wheeling in the soil, two wheelbarrows a turn, six to each soil frame: back left, back right, middle back, middle front, front left, front right — times three; the man who started goes second next time. Place and nail the trellis, one man strings while the other rakes the new seedbeds smooth — the zen of that garden, the rest and quiet. While I talk how-to with Ms. Wittingham, my helper cleans up, stows the tools, and plugs in a fresh chaw of Redman, maybe tunes in Paul Harvey. Talk ain’t work as far as he is concerned.
I teach Ms. Wittingham block and succession planting, seed conservation, composting, watering, and fertilizing, and tell her I’ll be by again in early May, when the weather warms up, to deliver starts for tomatoes (four varieties), eggplant, peppers, basil, and flowers. What’s a garden without flowers? She says thank you, she’s shy about the new gardening techniques; she’s never availed herself of a social service before but now she’s older and the money is gone. Careful for her dignity, I accept her thanks for making it so easy, one phone call. This is truly a Christian thing you’re doing, she says, and I say glad you like it; I think, but don’t say, that it’s also Buddhist, Taoist, Pagan, Dyak. Men putting in gardens is a phenomenon 50,000 years deep.
On to the next one. Birdi Johnson has arthritis; she’s been into the wine already this morning, doesn’t come out of the house much. Neither does her fifteen-year-old daughter; too much danger lurks out here. We build the second garden of the morning, slipping on the mud and dog shit in the back yard. All she wants to grow is tomatoes, beans, collards, and corn, and I say great, sure, grow what you like to eat, it’s your garden. If your hands are too painful to do the planting, I’ll send someone by to help you. On to a burger palace that will let us wear rain gear dripping with mud while we eat. At the Burger King the children are proud of their wounds. They take delight in having a close friend who took a bullet in the neck or had the flesh of his shoulder carved off by a glamorous commando knife. Vietnam brain gauze gone crack crazy.
Then on to Roger Kerns; he’s a paraplegic, an ex-athlete whose back was shattered in a drunken car crash. He’s into Seva and lecturing high-school kids on the net results of cars and fun. He tries not to show bitterness at being the dupe of some universal force that took him off at the seventh vertebra. This garden is a double high — one frame on top of the other — so he can reach it from his electric wheelchair. He’s supervising the placement, wants the overhanging maple branches pruned, the yard debris cleared away; we do what he wants, a little extra work because he can’t and we can and we’re here. I do the training talk, he says now he can further advance into vegetarian living, namaste.
And on again to Thelma Cason’s, she’s eighty-eight, still going strong, has done for herself all her life. I’m lucky to know her and her example, but the kids from the crack house down the block busted through her door, knocked her down, broke her hip, stole her thirteen-inch TV, black-and-white to boot, her food stamps. She heard I was a “good man,” and that is what I’m trying to be. At least the little punks can’t steal the garden. I’ll drop by later this summer to see how you’re keeping, and I’ll call Senior Services for you, have them come and fix that back door like they should have last winter; your life and my life is our life, even this brief meeting, but you get to keep the garden, yes it is yours, a gift. A gift should be well made and leave nothing wanting. Art.
Those last two went fast, on the flat ground, time for one more if you’ve got the oomph, sure, why not, long way to go and a short time to get there. Let’s do Kris S., three kids, three fathers, no men around now, Aid to Dependent Children and food stamps, run out of her last two houses by crank monsters. She wants to teach her children vegetable gardening to insure that they will never starve. We build it, bang it up square to the world, put it in the sunny spot next to the kitchen door. She wants to be employed as a part-time planter, and I say here’s Birdi Johnson’s address.
The day is done, we’ll do it again tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, all week the same people, the same stories, until two and a half months pass in a kind of hazy dream exertion that manifests 125 new gardens, renewed lives. On the way back to the operations site where the soil, tractor, and lumber are stored, a BMW misses a stop sign and nearly crunches the truck, our most essential tool; the brothers drinking wine and waiting for customers down on the corner of crack alley stare at us, big dumb white devils.
I invented this work by consolidating my experience working in nurseries, construction, writing poetry, while trying to recover from a divorce and being robbed at gunpoint in a wino grocery store, knocked unconscious by a blow from a .38 butt, the muzzle pressed against my occipital bone for ten minutes, the hammer cocked; the gunman’s accomplices couldn’t figure how to open the computer cash register. Three months later I see the robber buying primo vegetables at the local gourmet produce store, gut-wrenching fear like being back in the war, in a firefight, my only weapon a quarter to call the cops. But they don’t want to go to the trouble of busting him and his girlfriend accomplice; he wore a mask, impossible to visually identify him in court, they contend. But I knew, and vowed never again to put myself in the victim’s position. Meanwhile the schools are failing, the jails are full. The Dalai Lama tells how to quiet the demons grown from hate and fear and act out of compassion, I and thou are one, like it or not.
Out in the suburban slums, where the ground has been in turf for a hundred years, or the housing was built on the gravel of an ancient flood plain, it is not enough just to go in and pass out seeds. To be effective it is necessary to bring in the whole garden. Most of the impoverished, elderly, and disabled, in need of additional sustenance, are no longer able to till that depleted soil. They can plant, weed, water, and harvest, though, if they’ve got a garden to work in. In this city alone there are thousands who need and would use the proceeds from a garden. Any one of us could become any one of them.
You never know how the cards will play: riding high in April, down to the Social Security office in May. If after twenty years of little but bad news, some bozo says, hey, I’ve got a free vegetable garden for you — that’s right, soil frames, weed-free organic soil, seeds, starts, fertilizer, instructions, cooking tips, yes, I’ll come to your house and build it for you, no strings — you might be glad to see me coming. Another spark of human joy alive in the soul-stream.
Most of us have little connection to the manipulations that constitute business/government. Many of my clients’ more immediate concerns are whether the Meals on Wheels girl is going to show up, and if she’ll have time to smile, or better, to chat. They worry that the medical department will cut off their diabetically gangrenous legs. Many say the government just wants them to die. And in their defiance they go out to tend their new gardens. All summer, that is where we find them, outside, working, making sure that the gardens are just right, harvesting their evening meals. For some, so alone, it is all they have. The life-spirit is winning.
The work is religious, there are three sides to it: one involves arduous physical labor — building soil frames, wheelbarrowing soil, four gardens a day, four days a week, until the goal is reached or surpassed. A second side absorbs the incessant tales of suffering, sees the misery and despair, the rotted teeth, the heart problems, the amputations, the disfigurements of body and soul. The third side demonstrates the capacity to run a business dedicated to the alleviation of that suffering. The books and the reports must be straight, so I can circle in with a garden where there wasn’t one before, and with a bit of work a new occupation of time and spirit is opened.
Many observers consider giving away complete vegetable gardens — to the poor, the disabled, the single mothers, the aged — to be the best idea they’ve ever heard. It is real, it works. They tell me so, they bestow their blessings on me. For some, it seems a miracle that another human being would do this work at no cost to them. For others, it is only their due for life having fouled them. How did getting a vegetable garden become possible? I decided to make the gardens available, and they decided to take them. But no matter the motives or reasons, excuses or philosophies, the result is now 525 new vegetable gardens in this city — real change in the real world. The soul, the well-being of several thousand people, has been substantially enhanced. They are lifted by their practice of self-providence into the greater miracle of life.
Some nationally syndicated columnist recently opined that we live in a world that no longer rewards virtue. No reward, indeed. The first lie is that we live in the world. We are the world, the planet spinning, the galaxy, the universe. We are each other. The aged are our mothers and fathers, the young our children, their mothers our sisters. The reward for doing virtuous work is the same as it has always been: you grow out of your own abyss, dissolving the existential distance betwixt I and thou. Nirvana is not a reward, it is a condition.
Vegetable gardening is one of the ways that Americans practice virtue. To grow a vegetable garden is to proclaim your honesty and self-reliance, your dedication to the fundamentals of living a decent life. It is a connection to the seed of life growing and nourishing the body-soul. By my own efforts, in harmony with nature, I am able to sustain myself and my neighbor. I and we are worthy beings.
The charitable trusts and foundations want to know if the gardens work. Do they dissolve the current anguish ripping the dignity from the impoverished? I can’t say with certainty that one gang kid has been deflected from his run toward a violent end or prison, or that I’ve passed out sandwiches to people who have no reason to vote, or given shelter to homeless families. But I’ve saved thousands of people considerable money, time, and trouble, trips to the doctor, despair, sessions with their therapists, longing for death. I tell the gardeners that this is the store you don’t have to go to. You get hungry, come on out and pick yourself a meal. When you plant, use three seeds — one for you, one for your neighbor, one for God. They always laugh when I mention God, or silently let the word slide on by. I go home knowing that I’ve planted the possibility of self-caring. But the donors want a figure; I tell them each garden is capable of producing at least $500 worth of food a summer, if you don’t count gas, time, etc., and that 95 percent of the gardens are productive the first year, 85 percent the second — I don’t keep track after that, though often I run across a garden still producing after five or six years. Some people even load their gardens onto trucks when they move.
What is more difficult to convey is the health and joy alive in a seventy-year-old woman showing me her beans and tomatoes, or the pride of accomplishment beaming from the face of the twelve-year-old son of an ex-prostitute who put him in charge of the garden. Or the envy of neighbors — I put down a garden and the next year two or three neighbors will call for theirs. We’re strictly word of mouth. I wouldn’t know how well it was working otherwise. There’s never been a shortage of recipients, only a shortage of money, time, and energy.
The original idea was the diaspora of the perpetual garden, a way to reverse what is so celebrated now, the deprivation of the many for the gain of the few. Too ambitious a thought. The free market/welfare system victimizes those unprepared for its complexities; it’s too large, too pervasive to be countered by something so small as a garden, extended metaphor or no. Still, the notion contains the whole cycle of life, incorporating use of local materials (dairy and racetrack manures, construction subsoil, compost, surplus seed), reducing use of fossil fuels, reconnecting people with life — thus serving all. Everything necessary is already in place: parks departments have tractors, trucks, working space, and greenhouses, much of the time underused; thousands of people desire to be of service to their neighbors, workers could be recruited from extension agents and agricultural programs. All we have to do is put it together and get it paid for. One announcement on TV and there would be no end to the requests for gardens. People in need need all the help they can get. They will be the ones, and are the ones, who quiet the neighborhood. They will endure and will invite peace from others.
It’s taken me seven years to get the project into the black, and it couldn’t have happened without the goodwill and generous hearts of my wife and friends. We lift ourselves. Accolades go to the foundations and trusts that have sponsored and believed in the work. They call it charity, but it is simply service, a providence that can even be employed by the recipients, as shown by several older women who wanted — and got — double or triple gardens so they could provide vegetables for the entire neighborhood.
They ask me why I do this, and I say it needs to be done. Don’t you need a vegetable garden, one you can get to, one you can use without too much physical effort to maintain? There, now you’ve got one, good luck, happy to do it. Or, once, when I was tired and being interviewed for The Statesman Journal, the young reporter asked why, and I said I’m out to change the world. And when she asked, what do you do in real life, my tact left me, and I replied, don’t you think giving away gardens is real life? Don’t you think trying to lift the weight of suffering by one micron is real? To affirm the good in you, in life, the Tao speaks of neighbors who do not tread on each other, but live their lives in quiet wonder, grow old, and die. And the way to affirm the good life is to deliver it. If such an act challenges the men on the corner, good; shovels are easy to come by.
What is bothersome is not that giving away gardens is so wonderful, but that it is so rare.