I pined, I yearned, I whined. A small garden plot, that’s all I wanted. Not much to ask, just a sunny spot, maybe 3×5 meters. I ached, chafed, coveted, craved. Late at night I’d ogle online seed catalogs like they were Internet porn and filled my cart with hybrid beauties I would never touch. April was indeed the cruelest month, mixing memory and desire, leaving me feverish, sweaty, jittering like a methadone addict as I watched the buds swell and smelled the damp earth effuse fecundity.
When my ten year-old classmates were erupting from school to play baseball in the park, I was racing home to my family’s backyard garden to see how much the corn had inched higher, how many new baby cucumber and squash nubs burgeoned under their yellow blossoms, whether or not there were peas to be picked and popped still sun-warmed into my mouth. There was an element of mystery, of magic for me in the garden. A seed buried in the dark ground turning into something as complex and wondrous as a pepper or a pumpkin was pure alchemy, a transformation astonishing, implausible, seemingly impossible.
Yet every year it was repeated, and every spring I would spend long hours with my father planting rows and hills and waiting breathless for seed, soil, water, and sunlight to metamorphose into food. Green beans that have spent no more than ten minutes between plant and plate, a tomato still warm from the late afternoon sun – these were pleasures I was desperate to recapture.
There was only one problem. I was stuck in the middle of two million people, living in a fourth-floor flat smack in the center of Pest, the business half of Budapest that stretches out in a seemingly endless plain of concrete. My views in all directions were of the adjacent buildings, and the closest we came to soil in my neighborhood was dirty snow and dog shit. Every day I would gaze wistfully across the Danube at the green hills of Buda, knowing that there, there lay the land of my horticultural salvation. And so we moved.
Our new home was the top floor of a 150 year-old house on the leafy slopes of Gellert Hill. It was turreted and terraced and lovely, but most importantly it had a large yard, the primary selling point for me. The view from our windows was a wall of foliage – towering horse chestnuts, ancient, mottled planes, a smattering of spruce, a giant pine outside our kitchen that served as a ladder for the marten that made his home in the top of the turret. There was birdsong instead of sirens, clear breezes instead of smog. It was March, and the rising temperatures made the primal urge to plant burble up in me like sap.
As there are four families in the building, the property is parceled out into four sections; the owner showed me the plot associated with our flat, and, when questioned, assured me that planting a garden there would be the country’s most welcome development since the overthrow of the Communist regime. The spot was perfect. It was, in fact, the only section of the yard that received sufficient sun for growing vegetables. Bordered on one side with grape vines and lilacs, the other side consisted of a low stone wall overlooking a fifteen-foot drop to a dead-end street. And therein lay the calamity, the metaphorical grub in the turf, the blight in the leaf, the rot in the vine, the fungus amongus, the, well, you get the picture.
I went out and bought the basics – spade, metal rake, four bags of peat moss, three hundred pounds of high quality topsoil – hurried home, broke the spade on the second shovelful, went out and bought another. I didn’t care. Finally, I was tilling the earth, reconnecting with both my past and the natural rhythms of generation, maturation, decay. My three year-old son sat next to me in the sun, digging with his toy shovel, picking out worms and watching ants file along their chemical corridors. It was blissful, idyllic. And short-lived.
Lurking directly below out feet was the nascent complication that would mean catastrophe for my garden. Beneath about three feet of topsoil was a row of garages that opened onto the street, each just wide enough to accommodate a carefully parked car. Precisely corresponding to the outline of my future vegetable patch was the garage of our downstairs neighbors.
My first intimation of the brewing trouble was when the wife came out to chat. Dubious, she looked. Slightly perturbed. After a half-hearted hello and without the usual small talk, she asked me what I was doing.
“Planting a garden.” Her stony, inscrutable expression prompted me to add, “I’m from Maine.” This declaration was clearly irrelevant and failed to explain why I was tearing up the yard, but in awkward moments I’m frequently afflicted with idiocy. She lingered a minute or two more, then wandered away after attempting a smile that died halfway through, leaving her teeth bared in something approximating the death grimace of a stuffed weasel.
What did this mean? A moment before I had been basking in the warm glow of working the soil with my son, and now cold clouds of worry lumped on my mental horizon.
It took me two more days to turn over and prepare the soil, and though my back was stiff and my hands cracked, I felt marvelous and my encounter with the grimacing weasel was all but forgotten. I packed the family in the car and drove off to the gardening center for some seed, visions of sugar snaps dancing in my head.
When we returned I was greeted at the gate by the sister-in-law of our landlord. In patchy English and with heavy Hungarian inflection, she said, “Owner garage, veryvery angary.” She pumped her fists and made a cartoon frowny face. My own face must have radiated bewilderment. She explained.
“Vhen rrains come, trrouble, trrouble, vater, destrrooction, garrden no, gaarrden nooo,” she intoned, her brow burdened by the awful import of these words, obscure and portentous as a gypsy curse.
The apprehension came flooding back. What the hell were these people trying to tell me? Had I transgressed some taboo? Was growing your own food subversive? Suspicious? Seditious? I suddenly felt that our new neighbors must loathe us; everyone in the building was probably – intently, venomously, and at that very moment – watching us. What had we done? Oh Lord, WHAT HAD WE DONE?
As it turned out, as it always turns out, the reality was far more mundane. The landlord called that evening to explain. It seemed that the neighbor’s garage had a habit of leaking, and, as it lay directly below my future garden, they were concerned that my digging and watering would exacerbate the situation.
The next morning, I bumped into the nice young husband on the stairs. A new story emerged. It seemed that they were actually looking out for my welfare. Workers were coming to remove the topsoil and repair the garage, and they were worried that if I planted a garden now, all my work would be in vain. The repairs would be done in about two weeks, and then of course I was welcome to plant. Nothing would please them more. They had a deep and abiding affection for vegetation. I was given the greenest light imaginable.
My dreams had received a death-row pardon and, needless to say, I was relieved. Two to three weeks would be getting the garden in a bit late, but it wasn’t too bad. Finally, I would be sharing the enchantment of the garden with my family, I would race home from work to see how things had grown, would pluck fresh produce with my very own hands from my very own land and prepare it for my very own wife and child. All I needed to do was wait a bit.
And a bit more. And more. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day, and I, rife with the lust for fructification, sat and beheld nothing more than weeds steal over my tillage. The workers never came, the garden was never planted. It was all a tale told by an idiot (me), full of sweat and manure, signifying nothing.
“Hope springs eternal,” wrote Alexander Pope, a fool who clearly had never been to Hungary. But I did continue to hope, because: One, I desperately desired to share my love of gardening with my son. Two, like many people, I increasingly feel that it is vitally important to take some of the production of my food out of the hands of agribusiness. Three, I wish my family to eat healthy, pesticide-free food that has been grown in a sustainable and responsible way. And so…
The next spring I planted the garden anyway, and no one said a word. In fact, all of our neighbors would stop occasionally to admire its progress, and when produce ripened I was careful to bring offerings to everyone. It’s been three summers, now, and every year the garden has gotten better and (shhh) a bit bigger.
We try to teach our kids to respect the wishes of others, to work for the common good and avoid offense. Sometimes, though, when something is important enough to you, you just have to plow ahead and hope everything comes out all right. For me, that something was a garden. And you know what? Everything came out all right. Want some squash?
Visit A Word in Your Ear for more of this week’s challenge – “Garden.”