When we moved to the country, we kept a vegetable garden for those first few summers. Neither of us knew much about vegetable gardening, though the Baron had a few elemental ideas from watching his father's efforts with his vegetable patch. I had none -- my idea of gardening was to cross pollinate day lilies and see what you got in a few years. It was a hobby I had as a kid, something I did instead of what I'd been sent out to do: mow the grass.
So between the two of us we had a thimbleful of understanding. Our huge ignorance soon bloomed into a disinclination to plant anything since people would inundate us with tomatoes and zucchini, etc. One good old boy swore that the okra I was growing was actually marijuana. Right, you are, Jimmy. And what are those big yellow blossoms on my plants then?
When we did have our garden, we were told to get old Mr. Carroll to come down to plow and harrow the area first. Virginia clay is rock hard where it hasn't been worked or amended, so it needs mechanical assistance to begin to resemble something more like soil and less like brick. Cracked brick, when it dried out.
In late March, we'd call over to his house and his missus would send him over when the soil was dry enough to work. Soon, you could hear the chug of his tractor coming up the driveway, and he'd swing into the front yard and begin his work. First he broke up the soil, going back and forth on the rows longways. Then he attached whatever piece he needed to smooth out the soil and leave it ready for planting. Had we not been so ignorant, we'd have thrown lime and manure into the rows before he made the last pass, but the Baron and I did not come to gardening naturally and back then we didn't know enough to ask.
Maybe old Mr. Carroll thought we had some citified way of doing things after he left. Or maybe he went home and told Mrs. Carroll about those tomfool people over near the colored church who didn't put nuthin' on that clay.
He never did take any money for his labors. All he wanted was a flask of whiskey, which the Baron always made sure to have on hand. When the plowing was done, the old man would stay in the seat of his tractor and reach down for the bottle the Baron held up to him. He'd take a swig, smack his gums, and sigh. Then he'd begin to tell us about life where we lived, about growing things, and about growing old -- the last of which he was doing at a rapid rate.
It's been more than twenty years now, but I still remember Mr. Carroll, and standing by the turned earth, and how it and the smell of diesel oil made that particular fragrance in the cool Spring air which meant "time to get out the radish and the lettuce seeds.
He's gone now. Died years ago. The thing I remember most now (besides the wry recognition of how little we knew about growing things in clay) was what Mr. Carroll said once, after the third swig or so. "Seems like," he sighed, "once you finally know everything it is you need to know to get by, you're too old to make any use of it..."
At the time, he seemed philosophical. Now I know what it was: Mr. Carroll was feeling the pinch of despair that comes with age. He was too old to acquire wisdom and he knew it. Or rather, whatever bit of wisdom was going to come his way already had, and life wasn't going to get any better than it was right at that moment. For old man Carroll, that knowledge wasn't enough to take him over the hump. At some point in the race, maturity begins to be overtaken by dementia and it's downhill from there...
So he sighed, screwed the top back on his bottle and shoved the bottle into the big front pocket on his bib overalls. Then he turned the tractor around in one smooth movement, waved to us behind him, and headed back down the driveway.
Now, of course, I realize that the whiskey was his way of getting past Mrs. Carroll. He could do a little plowing for the innocents from town for "free", and have a nice flask to warm his soul on the way home. Not a bad trade for either of us.
The last few years, I've been thinking about starting another vegetable garden. Only this time, it’s going to be a raised affair, one where I can sit and weed, one which never gets plowed or disturbed. One which attracts the earth worms. A place to throw eggshells and coffee grinds all winter.
Come to think of it, I've been wanting chickens, too, or guinea hens, but I don't know if I'm ready to deal with a rooster. How do you mellow out the mean ones? I guess learning to use a shotgun comes first, hmmm?
Well, that's for another year. For this one, I just want to be able to sit low again and weed the flowers around the house. With enough physical therapy, I'm going to have a left knee with attitude instead of this mess which seems to point out even more than it did before the ladder caught my foot between two rungs and torqued my knee to some whole new plane.
Or perhaps this an old Mr. Carroll moment: I know what I'd need to do the things I like, but I have enough wisdom to know those capacities are not coming back.