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Issue Date:  August 27, 2004

-- KRT/Sydney Fischer

A garden's wealth


On the vacant lot behind the Catholic Worker house where I live is a fenced-in patch of earth that we call the garden. We have cultivated this space for the past eight or nine years, filling it each spring with a hodge-podge of ordinary flowers and vegetables.

Every year, I approach the task with a mixture of dread and ambition. In early April, at the first sight of bare ground I remind myself I am too busy to redeem an urban lot. By May, the backyard’s barrenness nags at my conscience. Someone shows up at the door with trays of donated seedlings and I begin to plant out of guilt. And habit.

For a week, I am energized, even visionary about the possibilities of our little patch. But then the momentum of summer sets in. I don’t prune the tomatoes. I forget that winter squash, such a small plant in May, can grow two feet a night in late summer. I let the whimsical morning glories do as they please. By August, the whole place is choking under a tangled mass of vines.

This year was different. I approached the garden out of need rather than duty. By early summer, it was apparent our bills outpaced our income, which meant I had to pare away seasonal luxuries. I cancelled my reservation for the two-week writer’s workshop in Boston. I signed the children up for free programs only and forgot about planning an extended family vacation. This summer, we had to look for adventures closer to home.

So I set out for the backyard, without a blueprint or even a vision, just a strong conviction that I needed the discipline and mystery of growing a garden to keep me from becoming grim.

“Start planting,” I told myself, “and see what happens.”

Now when I survey the plot, I am amazed at its organic evolution made possible by the hands of friends and strangers who have passed through this place. The crop of mint, thriving in the shade of the southeast corner is a gift from my former neighbor, a Cambodian war refugee. Psychologically marred by war, he has not been able to hold down a regular job although he has been in the United States for more than 19 years. Last spring, he found solace cultivating the scrap of packed earth behind his small house. He planted tomatoes, ginger and the mint that he shared with me.

The lofty sunflowers concealing the weathered fence on the western edge of the lot are the work of God and Jim Whittaker, a self-employed carpenter who showed up at the door one Friday in early June and said he had come “to volunteer.” The following Wednesday, the two of us moved a handful of sunflowers from a crowded corner in the garden to the open space along the fence. Jim pulled weeds and excavated stones to soften the soil for the transplants. The morning was unforgivably hot and the once vigorous plants drooped instantly. Looking at them, I thought of displaced persons in a refugee camp.

“I think I killed the sunflowers,” I said to Jim.

“They’ll take,” he said. “Just give ’em plenty of water.” Every night for a week, I poured buckets of water at the base of the plants and now the garden “refugees” are the tallest flowers on the lot.

I owe the garden’s orderliness to a mother from Rochester, N.Y., who helped chaperone a Catholic youth group from St. Joseph the Worker Parish. The teenagers spent a week with us in early July as part of their inner-city immersion experience. This was the woman’s first exposure to the Catholic Worker and she did not agree with our unrelenting criticism of the government. She liked President Bush and thought he was a moral man.

Ill at ease with our politics, she felt at home in the garden.

Her “ex” had taught her about plants and she knew a lot.

Later, in between our conversations about Bush, abortion and the difficulties of raising teenagers, I learned that her “ex” was an abusive alcoholic whom she eventually divorced. As she talked about the disorder of her past life and her recent return to the church, she mulched the paths between the circular beds of basil and tomatoes and laid down stepping-stones. By mid-afternoon the place was transformed.

Sitting down to rest beneath the sunflowers, she looked around and said, “This is heaven.”

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a freelance writer living in Worcester, Mass. This article first appeared in the Today’s Take feature of

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 2004

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