It was hot. There were insects. Spiders stared me down. The quack grass shook its head, chuckling. Yet, I persisted! This patch of not-much-going-for-it dirt by the milk house on Far Field Farm was trying, again, to intimidate my efforts at “gardening,” but I was determined to prevail. (For city folks reading this: the milk house on a dairy farm houses holding tanks for milk which is then pumped into stainless steel vats on trucks. The 60+ year old milk house on our farm is a small cinderblock building attached to the barn.) My spade sliced soil that I’ve been trying to “amend” for years now, though amending the Constitution might be easier. Where were those reported 20,000 microorganisms per tablespoon of topsoil when I needed them?
I overturn an earthworm, a hopeful sign. He’s scrawny, but he arrived to aerate the soil, and is one more than I found here last year: progress! I swear that he gave me a thumbs-up as I took care not to slice the intrepid little fella in half. I have “a conversation” here each spring at the farm because I have zinnias to plant, and they aren’t fussy about where they live. This year, a lovely surprise! My long time Wisconsin friend Kate gave me a tray of zinnia seedlings that she’d started from seedheads harvested last fall as we headed out for a walk on the farm. Like our friendship, they’ll sprout new stories this year.
I plant zinnias to honor Hilda Lillydahl, my mother Roberta’s Swedish mother, who died long before I was born. How I wish I’d known her! She taught her daughters to be great cooks, to garden, and to love birds. She made a mean bread pudding. And she loved her zinnias. This little handful of hearsay is all that I have of her. So I plant zinnias to talk to Hilda. I push those long, flat, brittle-brown seeds an inch into that gnarly soil with thanks for the beautiful traits she passed to my mom and all I’ve learned from them both, including my love of nature. I dig my hands into that earth to pray. My longing speaks through the community of the soil. I love returning to the farm from Baltimore in late summer and picking bouquets of zinnias for my mom, tied to Hilda with invisible roots, holding my identity in a fistful of flowers, my nostalgia for place and purpose coming full circle.
Just around the corner from the zinnias are a few clumps of Arnold’s K.’s hollyhocks that have grown on the barnbank for as long as I can remember. (City folks: a barnbank is the slope of land built up so wagons could deliver crops for storage in the second story haymows of old barns.) Arnold was a farmer friend of my dad Ken’s, and a breakfast club member. Now departed, he was an amazing gardener in his retirement. Years ago, he gave my dad hollyhock seeds to plant in the rough on the barnbank and they’ve reseeded ever since. Pa and I saved them from the quack grass again this spring. Hollyhocks are too big for my small Baltimore garden, so I keep a memory from Arnold instead. He once told me his spectacular clematis vines covered in royal purple flowers “like to keep their feet wet.” Here’s to you, Arnold! I’ve passed that gem of knowledge along many times over.
Here’s to the heirloom seed collectors, the prairie tenders and the community foresters, to the guerrilla gardeners, the small family farmers, to city and country folk who learn and pass on the land’s intimate secrets, who grow to understand what plants and soil need to thrive. Here’s to Hilda and her brilliant zinnias, and to my Baltimore friend Anne who taught me that, “you have to keep moving plants around your garden, until they show you just where they want to be.” Here’s to my Polish grandmother Francesca who taught my sister Robin and I how to weave crowns of sweet clover blossoms out in the summer fields. Here’s to my mom Roberta who carved a wildflower garden for butterflies out of quack grass along the Pasture Lane. Each of you are keepers of the soil, who have taught me the lessons of the land.
Last week, Pa sent me an article, about Dennis Kindschi whose grandparents’ homestead near Baraboo, Wisconsin was razed in 1942 to build a huge WWII munitions plant. While helping to plant apple saplings grafted from a few old surviving trees at the site, Dennis, who never knew them, remarked: “It is super special to me as we’re working in this dirt to think it’s the same dirt my ancestors worked in.” That tie with the land — I hear that. I understand what he means. So did Willa Cather, pioneer novelist, when she wrote: “We come and go but the land is always here…” My own city-raised father had “farming in his blood” from Polish parents back in the Old Country and picked up where they left off when he and my mother started Far Field Farm.
Urban, rural, a farm, a yard, thousands of acres of forest preserve or a speck of dirt: it doesn’t matter who or where we are, or how much “land” we have. It matters that we respect it, do right by it and leave it better than the way we found it. Our rituals of planting and tending the soil and what springs from it – crops, trees, flowers, memories – these rituals sow meaning in our lives, they connect us to that which nourishes us. They are our hopes sprouting, our prayers blooming, our ancestors speaking, deep in the earth itself. Through the soil, we call back and forth to our loved ones across time, nurturing the vast beautiful communities to which we belong.
I owe the inspiration for that last phrase to conservationist Aldo Leopold, whose land ethic inspired my parents on their long journey of learning how to love Far Field Farm. In his groundbreaking book, A Sand County Almanac (1949), Leopold wrote:
“We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, then we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
 Reviving Lost Apple Orchards by Meg Jones, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 5, 2017