From a child-size plot in his family's backyard to the ill-fated "country gentleman" homestead of his post-collegiate years to a faith-based community garden providing fresh produce for hundreds, award-winning essayist and storyteller John B. Marek recounts his circuitous personal journey toward a simpler, more authentic and self-reliant life. Equal parts autobiography, testimony, and how-to guide, Getting Back To The Garden provides step-by-step instructions for growing and preserving your own food, along with dozens of helpful tips for launching a faith-based community garden.
The digital sign behind the US Airways gate agent flashed blank and reset with the disappointing news. Our flight from LaGuardia to Portland, Maine, was delayed even longer, with a new departure time of 5:30, six hours later than planned.
"I suppose I should call the others," my wife Janet said with a note of resignation as she pulled her phone from her bag.
The "others" were a group of Huntersville First Baptist Church volunteers who had flown from North Carolina to Maine the day before to begin a week-long "mission" project. Although part of the same group, Janet and I had a previous commitment that prevented us from traveling with them.
Instead, we planned to arrive in Portland early Sunday afternoon, pick up the van the group would use to get around, and meet up with them in North Scarborough in time for dinner. As it was, we'd be lucky to make it to the 250-year-old farmhouse that would be our base of operations for the next week before dark.
The objective of the mission trip was to assist Pastor Tim, the son of one of our members, in planting a church in rural Maine. He wanted to update a colonial-era farmstead as the physical location of the church and preach sustainability, self-reliance, and food security, alongside the Gospel. So we were literally PLANTING the church.
Janet and I made it to the farmhouse just before sunset and in time for an evening group walk, during which we discussed the work assignments for the week. We divided into three teams: one renovating the kitchen, one providing a Vacation Bible School for the local children, and one clearing an overgrown area and installing a community blueberry patch and garden.
I was assigned to the garden team. We started off Monday morning clearing brush from a ten-foot-wide by 80-foot-long strip that would become the church's communal blueberry patch. That plot was thick with vines, thorns, weeds, rocks, and, most troubling, the stumps of a handful of trees.
We took to the task with the tools at hand - shovels, pruning shears, and a machete. It was tedious and slow-going, but by the end of the first day, we had cleared more than half of the space, except for the stumps. Most of the team continued with the underbrush the next day while a couple of us worked on those. The first stump was maybe six inches across and looked like it had been there for a while. We were able to dig around it, chop at the roots and manually pull it from the ground in about an hour. The second stump, a more recently cut oak with a two-foot diameter, was a more significant challenge.
We tried digging around it but ran into thick roots; the shovel just bounced off. Wielding an ax that looked like it might have been original to the house, we chopped those as best we could, then wrapped a chain around the stump and attached it to our van, the only vehicle we had with a hitch. Despite our best efforts, the stump didn't budge an inch. We dug and chopped some more, and some more, and some more, but the stump was unmoved. We broke for lunch under the shade of a leafy maple and discussed our options, none of which appeared promising because there were two more stumps just like the one that vexed us.
Then, the youngest among us, a high school student named William, came up with an idea. "When we were driving in, I saw a tractor with a backhoe at a farm just up the road. Maybe he'd be willing to drive it down here and rip the stumps out for us."
We all agreed this was the best option, and William, along with one of our older, more responsible-looking volunteers (a.k.a. me), decided to go talk with the neighbor while the rest of the group continued on the underbrush.
The neighbor was from Maine central casting, with a thick Downeast accent. Unfortunately, he was currently working on a project of his own and did not have time, but he offered to let us use the tractor if "any of you have experience with one."
William spoke up immediately, "No problem. I've been on a tractor just like that one." While he was only 16 years old, William was about six feet tall and built like an ox, so any casual observer would assume he was in his early 20s, at least. On the way back to the church/house, I mentioned that it was fortunate he had experience running a rig like that.
"Well," he said with a sheepish grin, "I was on my grandfather's lap at the time, but yeah, I've been on one."
The next day, as arranged, William walked down to the farm and drove the tractor back to the blueberry patch. We all gathered 'round as he backed it up to the stump and switched his position in the seat to access the backhoe controls. He touched one of the levers, and the bucket swung rapidly in an arc to the right, banging hard against its full-stop position. We all stepped back - WAY, WAY BACK - and let Willian get the feel of the controls. While he clearly was not as skilled as he had implied to the neighbor, he did seem to have a general idea of how everything worked and, within half an hour, had the bucket positioned over the stump.
Lowering the thick metal teeth of the leading edge against the base, he pulled another lever. The tractor shook and moaned, but the stump moved. Only an inch or two, but it definitely moved. He repositioned the bucket and tried again. This time the stump moved a full six inches, and something snapped deep in the ground, reverberating a dull thud through the soil under our feet. A half-hour later, the stump sat fully exposed next to a crater the size of an early model Volkswagen Beetle. We would worry about the fill dirt later; this was a time for celebration.
It doesn't take a math or history wiz to understand that a 250-year-old house was built without the benefit of power tools. Perhaps the raw lumber came from a water-powered sawmill, but it more likely came from trees harvested on the property and hand-hewn by the builders. Thinking about the effort and skill required to turn a grove of trees into a house strains my imagination. But the bespoke nature of colonial woodcraft also created challenges for the kitchen remodeling crew:
"There isn't a square corner in this house."
"This board is an inch wider at one end than the other."
"Everything is proportioned for someone five feet tall."
It was reassuring to hear that the garden crew wasn't the only one facing adversity.
The Vacation Bible School team was also responsible for the evening meal. Fifteen minutes before the food hit the table, Pastor Tim would alert us that it was time to put down what we were working on and get cleaned up by playing a recording of chanting Gregorian monks. I suppose he thought it was more appropriate than ringing a dinner bell. After the second time he did this, we turned to each other, covered in dirt and sweat from head to toe, and exclaimed joyfully, "let's monk!"
That week in the old farmhouse in Maine is close as I am ever likely to come to a communal farming lifestyle. Although the garden wasn't far enough along to provide any of the vegetables for our meals, it was easy to imagine working in the fields all day and then consuming the fruits of that labor around a table of friends and family.
On our last workday, the sun came out, and the temperature warmed into the 70s. My task that day was to till a roughly 20' X 40' area for the garden. The tiller was an ancient contraption that required a good bit of jiggering just to get started, but once I was working, the warmth of the sun on my face as a still-cool breeze dried the sweat from my brow and the musky, dark smell of the freshly-hewn earth were quite pleasant.
Since that plot had either never been tiled or hadn't been tilled for a very long time, it was slow going. The soil in Maine is notoriously rocky, and it was a matter of tilling a few feet, then stopping to pick up rocks, then tilling a few feet, then stopping to pick up rocks. From less than a thousand square feet of land, I removed enough rocks, softball-sized and bigger, to build a low border along the whole of the 80-foot blueberry patch, not counting the one I had everyone sign and brought back with me as a memento.
I hadn't realized how much I had missed working in the soil. But there wasn't much I could do about it at the time. Our house in Huntersville was built on a densely wooded lot that shaded all but a tiny rectangle of the front yard. It was a challenge even to keep shade-loving varieties of grass growing. A garden would be out of the question.