Wednesday, June 16, 2010

In the garden

Each summer when I get to our cottage on the hill in Ireland, I set out my little ten-by-ten foot veggie garden. I try to choose plants that have a reasonable chance of harvest in three months -- this year peas, lettuce, spinach mustard, cabbage and cucumber. Still, I'll be lucky to have much of anything for the table. The slugs and rabbits will have their bite first.

That's OK. We all have to eat. And when it come right down to it, my main reason for the garden is to watch things grow. Celebration, not appetite.

Start with a seed. A -- uh -- pea-sized seed for the peas. Lettuce seeds so small you can barely pick one up. Cabbage, spinach mustard, cucumber: each seed its own size, shape and color. And in each seed all the info the earth, water, air and sun need to make peas, lettuce, spinach mustard, cabbage, or cucumbers.

One can think about this for years and still shake one's head in disbelief. Four chemical units called nucleotides: adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine. Arranged in pairs between twisted strands of sugars and phosphates like the steps in a spiral staircase. A always paired with T. G always paired with C. A language of four letters in which to write the instructions for peas, lettuce, spinach mustard, cabbage, cucumber. Or, for that matter, slugs and rabbits, you and me.

I'm not telling you anything you don't know already. I'm reciting these facts with a rote wonder the way we used to recite litanies -- long devotional lists of essentially meaningless words: Mirror of justice, Seat of wisdom, Vessel of honor, Mystical rose, Gate of heaven, Morning star. The point of those repetitions, I suppose, was to reinforce our sense of mystery, confirm there was more to the world than meets the eye.

And so I kneel in the warm, wet soil of the garden, pushing seeds into the earth. Seed of pea. Seed of lettuce. Seed of spinach mustard. Seed of cabbage. Seed of cucumber. Down the rows. A pious litany of devotion.