Up on Hawthorn Hill
William Cobbett published his classic on gardening, “The English Gardener,” in 1829. I turn to it often not so much for its gardening advice, but for Cobbett’s often curmudgeonly, sometimes philosophical, comments about certain plants and how to go about dealing with them.
Interestingly, his section on what he describes as “garlick,” is short and to the point; plant it, dig it up when ready and hang it to dry. That’s it.
It is garlic harvesting time here, an early summer routine I always look forward to. I love digging it up or, as is possible at times, pulling it up out of the ground (always making sure to grasp the stem firmly at the bottom – and stopping if it might be a bit recalcitrant). I had cut off the scapes a while ago, some of which Sandy has used to make a delicious pesto. Some are at rest in the compost bin. Once all have been plucked up out of the ground (very muddy these days!) I transport them down to the barn for my favorite part of the ritual: brushing them off a bit, tying them up into bunches of five, an arbitrary number I decided on years ago, and then hanging each bunch from nails placed along the barn rafters.
Each bunch is tied with hemp string affixed at one end with a loop to go over the nail. The string that I use is the same string that I used last year and some even from several years before. When the bunches are taken down and ready for storage, I make sure to take the strings off carefully, hanging them all up on a nail just inside the barn door where they stand ready to do their designated work the next year.
I especially love reusing the string. A few years back, the poet Donald Hall wrote a memoir, “A String Too Short to Be Saved.” It is a wonderful read, especially when he writes about shifting through stuff in an attic and finding a box of saved string. Most attics overflow with boxes of treasured stuff unvisited for years until someone for whatever reason starts prospecting.
At any rate, a part of this annual ritual that I love is saving that string. It is not that I am particularly frugal, although I do have a hard time letting things go. I may never use any of the bent, somewhat rusty nails in my growing collection, but one never knows. Good to be prepared. I dislike the word ‘re-purpose.’ Just another example of the linguistic shenanigans pervading our discourse these days.
Back to the garlic. The physical pleasures that comprise this whole process are just one aspect of its allure. Once all the bunches are in their assigned places on the rafters, and I have cleaned things up a bit, I sit down in the old office chair I have there, look up at those neatly arrayed bulbs and – well, just let my mind swing and sway as it chooses.
It is quiet. The smell of freshly pulled garlic is sweet. The effect is mesmerizing.
Aside from leaning into this garlic thought trip, I look forward as eagerly to the days not to long from now when onions, red and yellow, and next year’s beans and peas, perhaps some herbs, will join this rafter chorus and I will sit there beneath this bounty feeling very lucky indeed.
I have never been drawn to joys and pleasures of a strident, overpowering kind. The softer, the quieter, the more self-deprecating a pleasurable moment is, the more profoundly it affects me. We live in a world too taken up with large, monumental things. I believe both intuitively and from a reading of history that small movements outlast large ones.
Rituals are necessary. They have what Wordsworth described as “a renovating virtue.” The routines that I follow in the garden, during harvest time and after, are the wellspring of my spirituality.
Putting in the garden is as profoundly meaningful to me as putting it to bed.
Hanging that garlic and all those other small, repetitive activities that comprise our daily lives are the under- girding of our views and actions with respect to larger, more collective issues.
Gabby used to tag along when I went about my daily routines. I miss that.