I hadn’t sown a flat of seeds in over twenty years, and yet, I was doing it. It was for our Pandemic Victory Garden. The activity seemed ordinary enough until what I would call ‘an exquisite moment’ showed up. Suddenly, there was a stirring of a once-familiar passion, déjà vu from the past. I was clumsily looking down at these tiny dark cabbage seeds and wondering how I would evenly distribute them in organized rows in the seedling tray. Like a lightning bolt, the aha moment showed up. “TWEEZERS. Tweezers, yes – that is how it is done. I know this!”
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I had another moment last weekend when we were at the garden center, attempting to get ahead of the anticipated victory garden crowds. It was a disappointing moment. When I realized that I wouldn’t be able to smell and feel the heavy, moisture-laden greenhouse air through my mask, I was sad. Even though I know that vaper is typically laden with chemical fertilizers, it is one of my favorite smells.
In high school, I found my interest in academics waning. Horticulture was known as a slacker class. It consisted of shop-class guys, me, plus two other girls. I think everyone else registered because they thought they were going to learn how to grow pot. I registered for the field trips. Behind the greenhouse was a convenient and popular spot to skip classes and smoke cigarettes, too.
As a result of taking that class, my friend’s mom, Celia, asked me if I’d like to work for her doing gardening and housekeeping. It was then that I fully realized my passion for the feels and smells of moist organic matter.
Celia was a big fan of Martha Stewart and insisted on using organic practices in her gardens. Her house was on Lake Winnebago, the largest landlocked lake in Wisconsin. There were limestone flower beds along the shore where red poppies swayed in the wind as waves crashed along the rocks. Not normally a cat person, I loved the fat black and white cat, Moo, who often rubbed up against me in the sun. Moo also loved to roll in the dirt next to me. I found weeding around Celia’s rare currant bushes and blue-hued leeks to be very meditative. It was satisfying to start with an overgrown mess and finish with a clean and orderly slate.
It was from those high school agriculture classes, joining FFA (I ended up donning one of those cool corduroy jackets!), and working at Celia’s that I defied my adolescent struggle and made it to college seeking a degree in agriculture.
Once in college, I was quick to discover how unusual my knowledge of horticulture was, and I loved being able to get my hands dirty and smelling that greenhouse smell regularly.
I managed the local food co-op during college and, after receiving my degree, I contemplated what I wanted to do with my career. I actually loved my job at the co-op. I got to work with local organic farmers and formed relationships with our volunteers, staff, and customers. I could ride my bike to work, and life was good. Except now, I had a diploma that I had worked hard for and owed money on. I had seen the salary ranges that I was able to command. That, combined with the early twenty-something restlessness to see what I could make of myself in the world, had me apply to one company.
That company was Ball Seed Company, in West Chicago, IL. It was the company that my college advisor spoke the highest of. I knew that applying to one company was not exactly the wisest way to approach a career search, but only the perfect job could take me away from the community that I built in my college town. And you know you never win any of the chances you never take. I didn’t want to live with that regret.
As fate would have it, I got that job. I worked in customer service with a handful of outside sales reps. In the two short years that I was there, I climbed to the top internal sales position and was involved with two international projects for other company branches. I worked with customers all over the US and executives from Costa Rica, Holland, and South Africa.
I peaked at the one thing I wanted to do in my career. Except that my fantasies of being a young, single, jetsetter did not live up. I quickly discovered that I was working 24 hours a day when traveling, not eight. I often lay in bed in my hotel room, wishing I was home doing laundry, tending my lush container gardens, and playing with my dog, Moscow.
When I left Ball Seed Company, I pretty much left the industry behind and decided that I was going to keep my passion all to myself. I was going to enjoy gardening and love it on my own terms- not on the scientific Ball Red Book best practices terms that I was taught.
I didn’t want my passion to become work. Luckily, it never did.
Sure, I shrink a little bit every time someone asks me the name of a plant and I can’t remember. Or laugh when I can only remember the genus and species of a plant but not the common name. But the magic is present-. the magic of wonder, beauty, and life and death.
Over the years, one of the biggest joys has been planting seeds, vegetables, and perennials and tending to my own garden world. I get to let my weeds go and tend to them on my time. I savor the soil under my nails and take a deep cleansing breath on order restored. I love walking around my hobby farm every day with a dog loping at my side to see who is showing their face. Even watching who pops up in my compost pile – a happy avocado tree here or squash plant there.
No matter what I am doing around plants, I do things half-assed and with a light, but full heart. I’ve been known to cut my garden off from daily watering in an act of tough love. If it was one thing that college taught me, it was that killing plants is ok. Shout out to all the coleus that I dissected! I’m not attached to anything being perfect. It’s about the journey, and where my plants will arrive is often a mystery.
I’m grateful for the things that my college degree has afforded me- the amazing memories, the opportunities, and the appreciation for nature and our food systems. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Regardless of all of the winding roads that my career has taken me (and there are a lot of roads!), I always did something I loved.
I’m back to where it started with that rebel wanting to do things on her own terms and take cool field trips. What I keep for myself is priceless – the joy of the smell of damp soil, the surprise tweezers moment, meditation in nature, and the happy hitchhikers from the compost.
This is wisdom.