Rock Gardens


Almost 10 years ago, I sat on the ground in a community garden and watched a man dig deep holes in barren earth.

At first I thought he was looking for things long buried, but as I watched, I noticed that he was painstakingly removing every rock, weed, and bit of trash from the soil he pulled up, neatly piling them in the walkway between the plots. He dug deep- about 4 feet down, with soil removed, cleaned, sifted, and turned back into the land in each section. My thought at the time was that he must be renting the plot for a long time, if he was going to spend an entire growing season just to prep the soil.

As I read more about gardening that year, I learned that the best garden soil, the stuff rich enough to grow a good garden in, is really only the top 1-2 feet, and I was sad. In this man’s attempt to prepare the soil so thoroughly, he was actually degrading it, turning poorer deep soil to the top and burying the hummus-rich soil at the bottom.

By the time I finished harvesting my plot at the end of the season, he was still sorting.

This recollection comes back to me far more frequently than I would have ever expected, usually as a cautionary tale as I am prepping the rototiller and turning my own garden soil each year. I did not expect it to come back so poignantly today, however.

I have spent the last month or so digging my own hole; a dark, deep, and dank circle of depression that feels more oppressive and dire the further I dig for answers. I compared it to the Mines of Moria this morning: “The dwarves delved too greedily and too deep. You know what they awoke in the darkness of Khazad-dum… shadow and flame.” Afraid that I have finally dug so deep into my own inadequacies that I have unleashed something I cannot defeat and cannot undo.

Today, these feelings collided spectacularly with some unrelated bad news and sent me home, shaking, crying, and asking “how do I make being ME so goddamn hard?”

Then I thought of the man in the community garden. A man so trained on an unachievable ideal that he lost an entire season of bounty. Of breathing life. Of serendipity. Of the beautiful and messy ecosystem that can magically turn the earth green and extend it skyward.

I realized quite painfully that I too have been just digging out rocks, desperately trying to create an internal soil so perfect it could possibly be worthy of the blessings already growing on the edges of my emotional deconstruction zone. I have been so focused on a childish understanding of “perfect” soil that I am missing out on exactly the kind of bounty I ultimately seek. Worse yet, I am degrading my own soil– and that where my blessings voluntarily grow already– in the process.

I always wonder what happened to my rock gardener the next season- while the rocks wouldn’t grow back, did the bounty of Oregon rain cover that “perfect” soil with volunteers, debris, and other hummus building blocks? Did he start again, spending another season on hands and knees, extracting every bit of unauthorized plant matter before the rains returned? Did he move his work somewhere more desolate? Did he curse the forces of nature and time for not showing more respect? Did he just resign and settle back in to the new season’s work? Worst of all, did the land not grow anything at all, barren of all the things that transform sand into living earth?

Maybe he just said “fuck it” and planted some seeds. It wouldn’t be “perfect,” but it would be a hell of a lot more soul satisfying than a rock garden.

Time to stop digging.

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