As some of you may already know, I was bitten by the gardening bug last spring.* I’ve never really done any gardening before, so this was a bit of a leap for me, but it was bound to happen eventually. Between hardly ever having fresh produce in the house, being immersed daily in a remote, agrarian society, and because I am often desperate for a mental escape from language-learning, I was a prime candidate for a horticultural hobby.
Mostly, my efforts have been limited to planting lots of seeds and watching entire generations of young plants die before growing out of adolescence, but enough forward progress has been made that I feel justified in referring to myself as an “amateur gardener.” Even if there are, as of yet, few fruits from my labors (literally), I have definitely grown in my understanding of gardening theory over the last 12 months. Through copious amounts of evening reading, I can now launch into extemporaneous speech at the drop of a hat regarding such vivacious topics as “permaculture,” “composting,” “nitrogen fixation,” and “mulching.” Yeah, I’m in high-demand at dinner parties lately, let me tell you.
I’ll be honest though, this whole endeavor has proved to be more of a laborious undertaking than I had originally anticipated, but it has turned out to be more rewarding than I thought it would be as well. Not only have I been able to thrill Rochelle to no end with countless hours of interesting, late-night conversations about the scientific reasons why all my plants are constantly dying, I’ve also been able to relate with our villagers on a more personal level as they politely tell me that the reason all my plants are dying is because I’m doing everything wrong.**
In my defense though, some of my difficulties have been unavoidable, due to my tropical environment. Unlike the innocent portrayal of the jungle that I am constantly presented with in my boys’ children’s books on the subject, the rain forest is actually a brutal environment to try to grow things in. It’s like trying to operate a preschool in the cafeteria of a maximum security prison. Ninety percent of every tree, bush, and plant in the swampy jungle behind my house, where I’m planting my garden, is either covered in thorns that make barbed wire look cuddly, or infested with horrendous insects that bite first and ask questions later. Even the foliage that’s on good behavior and isn’t blatantly violent doesn’t blink at the thought of choking out a nearby resident if it means a few extra rays of sunshine for itself.
Other struggles, I’ll admit, are more the result of my own choosing: Since the iski are very limited in the tools and resources available to them, I’ve decided to only use tools that my neighbors also have access to. That means that all of my clearing, cutting, tilling, planting, and maintenance has, up to this point, been carried out using a bush knife, a shovel, an axe, and a hoe, without any store-bought fertilizers or pesticides. As you can imagine, my experience has been a little different than what you might read about in a standard “Better Homes and Gardens” article.
Nearly every Monday over the past few months has found me nursing wounds from my weekend gardening exploits. A new raw blister or two, with a few sore muscles and fire ant bites is standard fare, but I’m often able to add a little “something special” every other week as well, to keep life interesting. I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve cut myself with my machete, I cooked the bottom of my foot on hot embers when I was burning a brush pile,*** and, just lately, I hacked a fifth of the nail off of my big toe with my hoe.
Normally, I’m able to take these little injuries in stride, but I’ll be honest, I lost my cool a little bit on this last one. I had been planting pumpkins with the boys, and while attempting to uproot a thorny vine with a power-tug with the hoe, I apparently missed the base of the plant and brought the blade right back under my toenail. I yelled “DOGGON-IT!” when it happened (which I was really thankful for, because Manny and Tucker were right next to me, and that was NOT the phrase that was going through my head), and then hobbled up the hill to startle Rochelle with a request for our medical kit.
It turned out though, that it looked (and felt) worse than it actually was. After only 15-20 minutes of self-applied basic first-aid in the bathroom, I was able to head back out and finish up planting my pumpkins, with my damaged foot securely bandaged and wrapped in a grocery bag and duct tape.
Ideally, in the long run, this endeavor will end with me having a flourishing garden in my backyard, fresh food on my table, and a tangible example of sustainable agriculture for the Iski to learn from, but in the meantime, it’s a good hobby. Nothing quite says R&R like regular open wounds and failure, you know?
*Not to be confused with “getting bitten by a bug in my garden,” which has happened numerous times since then.
**Firstly, the main issue is that I’m experimenting with growing different crops than they are used to, that have different growing requirements. And secondly, our people adhere to a “slash and burn” gardening technique, which is very heavy on deforestation and very lacking on any soil amendment efforts. This, combined with a very limited exposure to earth sciences and ecology, leaves them somewhat skeptical of any method that doesn’t involve burning acres of jungle and replanting every few years.
***I was afraid that if I wore my shoes then I would melt them. The logic is inescapable.