Tilling More than the Ground Beneath You

A pick-up truck. A mostly deserted alley. Two unfamiliar faces quietly loading a tiller from one of the secluded backyards. What could be suspicious about that?

That was the scene a few months after relocating to another small Indiana town as part of my wife’s movement within the United Methodist itinerant system. We were still getting acclimated to the new setting. Circa 1998, I had not yet taken up vegetable gardening as a hobby, but was enthralled with dinner plate dahlias and had grown them at our previous location for a few years. The front yard of this new parsonage was a hill that I had no desire to mow regularly, so I decided to turn it into a large bed for growing those flowers. There was just one problem. The area had been a lawn for years. The ground had not been broken up in some time. Consequently, the soil in the parcel where I intended to plant was rock hard. I only owned a small two-cycle tiller at the time. It was great for soft ground and small spaces, but would nearly beat a person to death when used on hard surfaces. I would need a better solution.

In getting acquainted with members of the new congregation, I had met a gentleman whose yard suggested someone in his family had a green thumb. As we talked one day, I mentioned my plans for the hillside and that I was dreading the attempt to till the ground with my equipment. He offered the use of his larger, heavier tiller – much better suited to the task than mine. He said, “You know where I live. It is around back of the house. Just pull down the alley and get it when you have time. It doesn’t matter if I’m not there.” So, with his permission that is what I did.

I rolled the tiller out to the alley, where Judi and I were about to lift it into the bed of our truck. Just as we prepared to pick it up, someone said, “If you’ll wait just a minute, I’ll help you steal my father’s tiller.” It was a voice and face unfamiliar to either of us, but then again, we were new to the area. We were unknown to him as well. If the use of the term “steal” did not make it clear, it quickly became obvious his words were meant to be sarcastic and he had not come to assist us. As it turns out, he was the son of the man whose tiller we were borrowing. He lived across the alley from his parents, and from that vantage point had been keeping a watchful eye on our movement on his parents’ property. And of course, he had no idea we had permission to take the tiller.

A brief introduction followed. I resisted saying, “The woman beside me is your new minister, which you’d know if you ever came to church.” I have lived long enough to know some things are better left unsaid even if true; sometimes I am smart enough to follow that advice. Once we explained, he actually did help us load his father’s tiller into the back of our truck.

That memory brings a smile to my face every spring when I’m tilling the ground in my garden. I have graduated from that small two-cycle tiller to one pulled by a small tractor. We never travel alone along the road of life. A plethora of memories, some heartwarming, others heartbreaking, accompany us as we go. They often help set the mood of the day, even if we are not aware of their influence.

As I make my rounds breaking up the garden area, the memory of the borrowed tiller is one of several memories likely to be revisited. They come from various stages of life. From as recent as last week all the way back to my beginnings. For instance, it is difficult to dig in the dirt for very long without recalling a story my mother told me of a time before I could walk. She was hoeing in the garden and had set me at the end of the rows where she could keep an eye on me. I was not yet walking but crawling was a different story. A few minutes later, she looked up from her work and discovered I was gone! She spotted me a few yards away, sitting underneath a bull that was tied out for the morning. He was content to graze, and apparently didn’t mind my company. Meanwhile, I was happily enjoying his shade; but there were a few moments of panic until I had been retrieved out from under the animal.

Or I may remember high school years when the only things I cared to plant were tomatoes and watermelon. Not much of a balanced diet, I suppose, but those were my items of choice at that time. Thankfully, my plant selection has expanded significantly over the years.

Or perhaps I remember the day near dusk as I drove past the field where my garden is now located and noticed a homemade sign with orange fluorescent letters reading “Land for Sale.” A phone call later I was on my way to what would become a 35-acre garden plot. (For the record, I do not garden all of it!)

I typically think I enjoy gardening for the feel of the sun and the smell of the soil. That is true, but there is more to it than that. This spring on the first day in the patch, I felt a surge of renewal and vigor after only a few minutes of activity. I find it to be lifegiving. But perhaps it is also because there is a bit of ritual to this practice. One opportunity that comes with ritual is the recollection of events and the stories they inspire. In the remembering comes a clarification of who I am and what paths brought me to where I stand. It is a moment of taking stock of where I have come thus far. There is a mixture of celebration of what is and has been; on occasion there is a mourning of things that have now passed. It is both a rehearsal of my story and a continuation of the next chapter, all packaged into one. That is the truth of each day, buried just beneath the surface of the daily details of our lives.

The supposed stealing of the tiller is but one tale—an episode, if you will—in the ongoing series of my life. The ritual is more than just a remembering for the sake of rehearsal. It is also a reminder of lessons learned. It illustrates progress. I have gone from a dahlia patch to a vegetable garden; a hilly front yard to a field; a walk-behind tiller to one pulled by a tractor.

As one story gives way to another, the emerging chain of memories illustrates the forging of new relationships that occurred over time. The father and son associated with the tiller is one example. But also, the three different families who have lived across the road from my garden spot, and the farmer and family who have rented the rest of our acreage for about twenty years now, and will one day soon own that parcel of land. Each one contributes to the quality of life I experience along the way. With those relationships comes the reminder of the important balance between enjoying and protecting what has been and welcoming at least some of the new possibilities that come with each new chapter.

With all of that, is it any wonder that gardening brings me such enjoyment? What are the rituals and habits that enrich your life? Remember, not all fertile ground is located in a garden, and not all tilling requires soil.

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