Friday, November 11, 2011

Mirlande's Garden

Photo above by Robbie Pruitt
“Smell this,” she invited with a smile.  Mirlande reached down into the mess of foliage at her feet, and came up with a crushed pinch of green.  She rubbed it between her thumb and forefinger for a moment and thrust it close to my face.  Inhaling deeply, the sweet orangey scent of citronella filled my senses and I met her smile with my own.  

Photo above by Robbie Pruitt
Mirlande is a dear friend who is on the kitchen staff at our school, and a part of the women’s Bible study that we started in September.  Last Sunday, she invited Robbie to speak at her church, located in Thomassin, a little town up in the mountains above Port-au-Prince.  She was eager to invite other teachers, and even welcomed our friends who were visiting from Gonaives.  After church, she guided us down a steep dirt road to her home for a lunch of soup joumou—pumpkin soup.  When we got close, we turned off of the dirt road and onto a narrow path leading up to her house.  But before we could see her home, masked by shadow and trees, we found ourselves walking through her garden.  Not able to contain herself, Mirlande started to name every plant that we passed.  Coming to the herbs, she pinched off a bit and sharing the lovely scents with anyone within arm’s length.

Photo above by Robbie Pruitt
With the smell of citronella still lingering in my nose, I looked back at Mirlande, who had already reached down for the next handful of herbs.  The lighter green color, and the dimpled texture and shape of the leaves were a dead give-away even before I could smell it—mint.  Drawing in that classic smell of summer, I found my memory drifting back to my first experience of gardening in Virginia.

I had rented a 20 foot by 20 foot plot in a Reston community garden.  Perhaps because I wasn’t really convinced that anything would actually grow, I tried to control as much as I could.  Robbie built rectangular beds out of 2x8s. I planted my tomato and squash seedlings in neat rows. I mixed just the right proportion of soil and manure to prepare the rest of the beds for planting.  I studied the detailed planting charts and instructions in How to Grow More Vegetables: Than You EverThought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine. I laid out my bean seeds in a space-maximizing triangular pattern and was sure to cover them with just the right depth of soil.  And after all this careful work, I was still surprised when the tomato and squash plants actually grew and bore fruit which I carried home by basketfuls.  And I nearly squealed with delight when the inert-looking bean seeds peered up through the soil, forming a little grid of green dots against the dark brown. 

Photo above by Robbie Pruitt
Standing in front of Mirlande’s house, it was hard to imagine that her garden and mine were members of the same species.  Her garden was spilling over with organic and unruly life.  Lines between plantings were nonexistent, with a patch of one kind of bean melding seamlessly into the next variety.  Herbs intermingled with each other and with flowers.  Pumpkin vines meandered here and there at will, even climbing up wires and creeping across a tarp roof over the outdoor kitchen.  The trees with their strong branches created a living support for some of the vines, heavy with a local vegetable called militon (pictured above).  Passion fruit vines also climbed towards sunlight and jostled for a place up on the tree, though their season was over already.  

Photo above by Robbie Pruitt
At first glance, many of the plants looked like decorative tropical foliage, grown for their visual drama in the small and sloping yard.  But, pointing to one plant after another, Mirlande noted which fruit or vegetable each plant actually bore.  The lovely tree with the huge feathered leaves bore bananas.  The tall grass with the dark bamboo-like stalk was sugarcane.  The low foliage of different shapes and shades of green connected to underground caches of yams and sweet potatoes (both different than the American varieties of the same names).  The “elephant ear” plant that often appears for decoration in southern gardens actually bore another root vegetable, called malanga.  The shade trees in adjoining yards provided enough avocados and mangoes for the whole neighborhood.  Though the beauty of each of these plants was undeniable, it came only as a fortunate bonus after their true purpose of feeding six growing children and earning a little extra income.

Photo above by Robbie Pruitt
 Stopping for a quiet moment, I gazed out at the view of the steeply climbing mountains across the valley and soaked in the cool moist air.  I thought about my own little garden again.  That experience of cooperating with nature to grow food brought me great delight and satisfaction.  But now I see that, at least initially, it was underpinned with a kind of fear.  I had a certain mistrust of the natural process—of rain, sunshine, the nutrients of the earth and the miraculous potential of seeds.  My inability to believe all this—to trust that anything could possibly grow on its own—made me try to clamp down and micromanage anything I could. 

But here, in Mirlande’s garden, there was no trace of such fear.  The wandering vines, the loosely mixing plantings, the love in her voice as she named each one—they all spoke of something else.  They spoke of trust.  Trust in the rain and sun and earth.  Trust in the innate capacity of each plant to produce in kind.  Trust that even the pumpkin, precariously balancing on that tarp roof, would make it to harvest time.  And most of all, trust in the God who provides for and sustains every living thing, both in the garden and in the little home nestled among its leaves. 

It was with gratitude that I realized that I have a lot to learn in Mirlande’s garden.
  
Photo above by Robbie Pruitt

1 comment:

  1. As I say on every single thing you write, "Great post." They really are all so good. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete

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