When I moved back to North Dakota in 2005, I determined to plant a vegetable garden. I moved back to the Great Plains just in case the world collapsed and when it did, I wanted to be near farm country — where I could, like “The Martian,” grow just enough potatoes to survive.
The moment I got all the boxes into my house, I drove to Fergus Falls, Minn., to my grandparents’ old dairy farm, to get some of their rhubarb. They were long since dead, and the farm now belonged to the city of Fergus Falls, but I managed to dig up a few rhubarb roots before they bulldozed everything and transplanted them back at my house here in Bismarck, N.D. For me, this was as important as an ancient Roman transferring the family’s household gods — the Lares and the Penates — to the new hearth.
I’ve harvested rhubarb from that seed stock every year since. Every time I bite into a rhubarb pie or rhubarb bars, I think of my grandmother Rhoda Straus. She kept a garden all of her life, not as a privileged hobby, but out of actual necessity. As someone who lived through the Depression and the Dust Bowl, she needed to grow as much of her own food as possible — every single year — and then to can enough of it to get her family of five through the winter.
She’s my hero: Rhoda Straus. She was as close to a Jeffersonian as anyone I’ve ever met. She paid her taxes, voted every time, belonged to three or four church circles, made quilts, afghans, clothes, draperies, scarves, Christmas decorations, helped organize the annual farm bureau picnic. She had perfect penmanship, spoke and wrote in complete sentences, read all the county brochures on self-improvement and never borrowed a dime. She was what O. E. Rølvaag, quoting the Old Testament, once called a giant in the Earth.
My mother, who is a remarkable woman, walked away from Jeffersonian agrarianism when she was 18 and never looked back — not once. She wouldn’t crochet or make a quilt if you paid her by the inch. When she sees me out weeding my garden, or bringing in vast bushels of tomatoes to blanch and can, she can barely hold back a sneer. At her very-most generous, Mother will say, “Better you than me,” and from time to time, she explains that farmers’ markets are the best of both worlds: high quality, organic, locally grown food — and somebody else does all the work. But she loves, even covets, my creamed corn, and I have begun counting the frozen in my chest freezer before and after she visits.
I am not quite sure why I chose to leap over my mother’s indifference and back into the arms of my maternal grandmother, but I’m not sorry. My favorite meal of the whole year — whether I dine at my favorite restaurant in front of the Pantheon in Rome or at Delmonico’s steakhouse in Manhattan — comes about Aug. 15 when I come home from work, walk out into the garden, snap off two cobs of ripe sweet corn, pull three pear-shaped tomatoes off their vines, grab a cucumber and pull a baseball-sized onion out of the warm earth. I wash them in the kitchen sink, boil the corn, slice up the rest, add a little feta — if I’m feeling frisky — and some zesty Italian dressing, and then I eat what I regard as a perfect meal.
The taste of this salad to the one you get in a restaurant is the difference of hearing Paul McCartney sing “Hey Jude” live in concert or listening to the song on an 8-track tape that went through the wash. It is the Parable of the Mustard Seed, Matthew (13:31). It is, in its own humble way, a kind of agrarian Declaration of Independence. It is to make a sacrament out of the mingling of hands in the soil, modest little seeds, water and the sun.
Farmers are dreamers — and gardeners, too. I have big plans for this year’s garden. I’ve been buying and ordering my seeds. Yesterday, after work, I started up my lawn mower (first pull) and my rototiller (7,000th pull) then, like Romulus among the Seven Hills, I made one round with the tiller to claim my precinct and got started. I spent part of the evening trying to decide where to plant what. I will start my tomatoes this weekend inside — this is North Dakota, where you don’t dare plant a tomato outside until after Memorial Day — including, this year, several Joe Cocker tomato seeds given to me by my friends in western Colorado. I’m not even sure what that means — Joe Cocker tomatoes — but I plan to make them flourish with a little help from my friends. I planted potatoes on Good Friday, as the old wives recommend.
So where does Jefferson come into this tale of Rhoda Straus’ grandson? I think I speak for my friend, David Swenson, the semipermanent — well, you know what — when I say that Jefferson has changed both of our lives in all sorts of ways, including out in the garden. First, we keep careful records, thanks to the master. Second, we experiment with new crops and new varieties even when we know that might not work out. Third, we both truly believe that those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God. And perhaps most of all, we take solace from Jefferson’s letter to Charles Wilson Peale on August 20, 1811. Here’s Jefferson:
“I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the productions of the garden. No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden. Such a variety of subjects, some one always coming to perfection, the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another.”
The failure of one thing repaired by the success of another. If you think about it, this wisdom applies to all of life, not just a vegetable garden up where Lewis & Clark wintered between 1804 and 1805.