(NB This is an essay from a few years ago I have dug out and rewritten. I guess, having finished the first major rewrite of my first book has left me with a yen to do more re-writing. I stumbled upon this while trying to find something else tonight and repost it with the sense that gardens matter more than just food or beauty. There is a healing that comes to us from gardens and we need a lot more of that in this world today.)
The Learning Garden is an acre project located on the grounds of Venice High School in Los Angeles, CA. We are just across the street from the suburb of Venice, CA, but take our name from being located ON Venice Boulevard, a major thoroughfare from downtown LA to the Pacific Ocean. At one time, what we have as center boulevard islands, was occupied by the tracks of the long gone Red Cars, replaced by the RTD buses which in turn have been replaced by the MTA buses that roar their new CNG (compressed natural gas, but they still sound like diesel) engines up and down Venice Boulevard, loud enough to suspend conversations even in the far end of the Garden. And the area just across from the bus stop gets enough fumes to produce suspect leafy greens - so we don't plant them there.
I am the full-time employee of the nonprofit called The Learning Garden. I became the Garden's first Gardenmaster just after it was started, lo nearly, 10 years ago. I get paid a monthly stipend to keep the gates open, to coordinate different groups using the Garden and to provide a focal point for our day to day activities. My training is in horticulture, but I serve the Garden as a writer and keep a lot of very diverse people reasonably happy with one another - well, at least not killing one another or me. It is my labor of love, but still, exhausting working at this full time with very little time off.
The truth is though, I love this Garden and I love the chance to make this a special place in this city hub bub – after all, it’s tough to find spots around us for miles where green dominates and students can see where food really comes from. Like someplace other than McDonalds. I don't make a lot of money, but then, as I write this, I'm working from a patio in the midst of over 50 fruit trees, vegetable gardens growing food for the food bank, a rose garden and gardens showcasing the medicinal plants of four different cultures. It isn’t all THAT rough.
I came in this morning and painfully found we had been vandalized - it left me feeling sick - like a hard punch to the gut. In what the Hollywood writers call "backstory" I'm going to tell you that I ended a long term relationship last week which is none of your business except to let you know that my frame of mind wasn't the usual "go get 'em" that this job requires. We didn't loose all that much, I was facing mostly a mess of about $200 worth of terra cotta pots destroyed, some with plants in them, but mostly just empty pots. All the more painful to face because I decided to stop depending on plastic pots a few months ago and shifted my meager funds to terra cotta because I feel I have to stop being so dependent on plastic - we're gardeners for God's sake! But now my terra cotta containers of all sizes were pretty well slammed.
In this world of concrete and plastic and the unlimited corn-syrup-sweetened sodas that produce teenagers afflicted with obesity, diabetes and depression, this Garden presents an alternative to the ungrounded “reality” that TV and the internet beam into their lives every day. I realize I should not take the broken pottery personally, but on this morning I didn't have the strength to NOT take it personally. I don't understand destroying things, although, with the society we have right now, I suppose I should understand. For many in this city, and for a lot of the teenagers attending this school, violence is merely a fact of their young lives. I cannot reconcile it. My life at their age was filled with violence and anger – it was the refuge of my Grandfather's garden that kept me moving forward, helping me to heal.
All I could do this morning was to gather my tools; pruning shears, loppers and saw. And thus equipped, step through the broken pottery out to the roses to continue my plan for the day. I needed to prune them back before a predicted rain was to make landfall later in the day.
It was not too much to say I was shaken. The broken pots reminded me of my own brokeness, my fallibility, my shortcomings. In selecting the canes to be cut away, my forearm suddenly speared by a vicious thorn, I cut the wrong one. Maybe I had made the same mistake in my life? Maybe for all my certainty about THIS crossing cane or THAT weaker cane, I still know nothing of love and relationships? I spent my two and a half hours working on the roses with the true gardener's vision that knows today's naked remains would be, by late April, flush with colorful, richly scented blossoms. Even if I took the wrong cane, there would be flowers and I harkened back to a woman who once told me, "no matter what the question, God is present in all the answers" - in other words, no matter our choice, we cannot choose to leave the presence of a Higher Power, by whatever name we use; no matter which cane I cut, I would still be blessed.
I worked in solitude and purpose until I was done with the roses. But still overwhelmed by what I was not and alone with a vision of what a love and a life ought to be, I slumped down to the cool, moist earth. And, alone with the pain of an uncertain life, the tears flowed.
After the sobbing , in the following silence, minutes later, I came to realize that it's not just learning for which the Garden must exist: It is for healing and I need the healing as much as anyone else. A man alone, without the lover I had come to depend on in so many ways, now I had to look at my stark and naked roses and cleave to the truths I knew: they are not dead. There is life and hope (always) and thus it is for one to put one unsteady foot in front of the other.
I blew my nose and wiped my eyes. I gathered my tools and walked back to the mess of broken terra cotta. A teacher volunteered a couple of students to clean up the damage and I carried on with the day. I planted seeds of summer vegetables and then sat down and wrote about my frailties; seeking to be of service, and find a wholeness despite them. I am either too stubborn or too stupid to do life another way. A broken heart, or a broken pot, elicits tears and sadness, but there is compost to turn and earth to plant.
As a gardener, work, and love, are never finished. Again, I had found a healing. And a reason to carry on.