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“I’m gonna write a book,” my friend Glen Sandusky announced to me when I saw him Sunday morning in the church office.
Glen was grinning from ear to ear, a sure signal he was up to something.
“What are you going to write about?” I played along.
“I’m gonna write about how my preacher kept his garden going in January!” Then snickering to the audience gathered around him, he proudly proclaimed, “No one told him you can’t keep a garden alive in the dead of winter, so he just did it!”
Glen has been my gardening mentor. I’ve been a slow learner at times, so I suppose he has a right to boast. My wife Lori still seems to know more than I do about gardening. She got an early start, spending summers with her grandparents who gardened.
I on the other hand, am a city boy, even though I grew up in a town and not a metropolis. What I’ve learned from gardening has come from friends who have patiently coached me along the way.
During planting season I keep several of them on speed dial, “Now how far apart do I plant okra? How deep should I plant those potatoes? Do you think I should pour more Miracle Grow on them?”
This was the first year I tried my hand at a fall garden. In the past, I wearied of gardening by the middle of September, feeling almost like a slave to the garden’s neediness: it needed weeding; in needed harvesting; it needed watering; it needed weeding, weeding, weeding.
Finally, I would tromp away, exasperated by its demands, fearful that I was descending into a co-dependent relationship. I needed the vegetables. It needed my time.
But this year I caught a second wind and went for it. In September I planted broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, lettuce, kale and my most prized produce: spinach.
And they thrived. I took pictures in November and December and sent them to family and friends who sent me back admiring comments about my fall garden. My nephew Brian, a beginning gardener as well, was especially beholden, amazed at the lushness of fall in Kentucky compared to drought-stricken Lubbock, Texas, where he lives.
I felt like I was on the verge of graduating from gardening grade school, like the 4H boy in his first showing at the county fair, dreaming of blue ribbons.
Spurred on by the possibilities of success, I worked as if my fall garden were my sole source for food, putting row covers on when the temperature dipped into the 20s, pulling them off when it warmed up, then covering the plants again when a hard freeze threatened.
Finally in early January, the week after Glen’s acknowledgment of my accomplishment, I closed the garden, leaving only a few rows of kale and spinach, just in case.
“Why did I do that?” I asked myself as I brought in the last of my harvest, cradling it in my arms like a proud papa presenting his first born to the waiting family. “Why this effort to prolong the garden’s life?”
Is it just a desire to say I did it? Or is it a matter of enjoying homegrown produce, proving that I can weather the weather, protecting my precious plants weeks after the farmer’s markets have closed for winter?
Or is there something else? The end of the growing season, suggesting the ending of life, reveals in me — one who conducts funerals as a part of my job description— the resistance of death as a part of life: I want the greens, yellows and reds of a fruit-laden garden lush with life, not the brown grassed plot of dry deadness.
And anyone who has left an empty, silent schoolroom where there was once laughter and learning or a vacant house where once a baby giggled and a family grew or a locker room where once teammates high-fived in celebration and cried together in defeat knows that saying good-bye to one season of life while the next is yet to be is itself an act of faith, a claim that there is more to come, that the class will reconvene, that the family will stay together somehow and that the team will remember.
And where there is faith, doubt usually lingers in the corner of the next room, or in the adjacent closet.
Or right beside you.
Or inside you.
And so we want to hold on.
But giving in to death is a part of life — a life that gives rise, in time or beyond time, whether measured in three days or three months, or forever — to something new, bright, scary, fascinating, hopeful and mysterious. As I gaze at the setting sun, standing with my feet at the edge of my barren garden, I long for that garden to be: the one for next season.
And while waiting, I see it.
By faith, it works.
Deep in the cold of winter.
David B. Whitlock of Lebanon is a Baptist minister and author of the book “Life Matters.”
He can be reached at email@example.com.