It’s been a pretty good year in the garden here at Midkiff Manor. Nobody got snake-bit, in spite of two close encounters with copperheads, and thanks to the electric fence the horses didn’t steal any produce except that one bell pepper from the basket I mistakenly left in the shed. The horses did eat the weeds we tossed outside the fence, which was a win-win. And though I didn’t keep track of the volume of the harvest, I know we ate a lot of oven-fried summer squash and tomato-basil-mozzarella salad. The kitchen freezer is crammed with frozen crooknecks and zucchinis, the laundry room fridge with butternut squash, and I have more butternuts curing on a rack outside. The cherry tomatoes are still producing, and before long the tomato seedlings I started some weeks back will be ready to set out for fall.
There are many reasons for our success, and I’ll gladly take credit for as many of them as I can. I’m particularly proud of our homemade squash trellises, which have been well worth the T-posts, cattle panels, and hours spent in assembly. By keeping fruit and foliage off the ground, we protected the plants from disease and reduced weeding to a fraction of what it would have been with a bunch of sprawling vines. Also, sprawling vines would have meant more hiding places for copperheads.
Early in the season Greg did something clever with trenching and PVC pipe, and the end result was a hydrant in the shed providing us with easy water access for garden and horses. I was almost giddy with delight. I loathe dealing with water hoses—hauling them from here to there, tugging them through tall weeds, laboriously untangling a mass of deceptive coils only to realize the hose I’ve been wrestling isn’t the one that’s screwed into the hydrant, or has been taken apart somewhere in the middle for I know not what reason, or has a nozzle attachment on the end that I don’t need and can’t get off. The whole thing is exhausting and demoralizing. Just knowing I don’t have to deal with all that has made me a lot more eager to work in the garden than in years past.
The garden site itself is a good one, with a rich sandy loam—Bermuda grass and weedy taproots just pop right out of it—and a slight slope that helps the water flow down. We can’t take credit for the soil, but we can for being smart; the main reason we chose to build on this site is because of the successful gardens of people who lived here decades ago. One of these, a former hired man, declared that this location was the best site on the whole farm for gardening.
Some crops were more successful than others. The Black Cherry tomatoes did pretty well, the Jaspers did great, and the Tycoons bugged out early without producing a single fully ripe fruit. The okra seedlings got devoured by grasshoppers almost as soon as they sprouted. The first round of sweet potato slips did too, but we replanted and put on some row cover and are hoping for the best. We would have foiled the grasshoppers altogether if we’d set out the slips earlier in the season, but we couldn’t find any at local feed stores and ended up mail-ordering some from Tennessee. Even if the sweet potatoes do their darnedest from here out, their yield won’t be half of what it should be, but next year we’ll know better. The butternuts and crooknecks had a terrific output; the zucchinis just did okay.
In the garden as in life, the reasons for failure are sometimes clear and sometimes not. Pests, disease, and lack of water produce predictable results, but often things go wrong and you really don’t know why. Why did some of our tomato plants produce so much better than others? The high-performing Jaspers were at the head of the row; the ill-faring Tycoons were at the end; the Black Cherries were somewhere in between, both in location and in yield. Were the Jaspers getting more water than the others, or less? Was the water pooling at the end of the rows or not flowing down enough? Are the Jaspers just better performers? Were the Tycoons devoured by an incredibly selective tomato hornworm?
The climate here in South Central Texas is harsh. Having the right varieties helps a lot but doesn’t guarantee success. Six years ago, when we first started scoping out possible building sites for our future home, we found a little tree surrounded by brush, weeds, and old house wreckage. With help from a Neil Sperry guide, I identified it as a Texas mountain laurel: small, tough, evergreen, drought-tolerant. It produces fragrant purple blossoms in springtime and actually prefers slightly alkaline soil. How awesome is that? Greg’s mom said the tree was probably planted decades back by a former resident, a lady whose house later burned down. This lady had a lot of trouble in her life but she always had a beautiful garden. We took this as a good sign, and I named my blog for the tree long before we started construction.
The tree is still there in what is now our back yard; I can see it from my study window. But some months back it started looking sickly and dropping leaves. I’m always sorry to see a good tree die, and this one has been a sort of symbol to me—not quite on the order of the White Tree of Gondor, but a reminder of God’s goodness and our purpose in being here on the farm in the first place.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House books, writes in The First Four Years about a beloved young cottonwood tree planted by her husband in a sheltered spot north of the house where Laura can see it from her pantry window. A drought ruins that year’s wheat and oat crop, but the little cottonwood survives…only to die later in a fire that destroys the house while Laura is suffering from depression following the death of her second child. This is pretty much par for the course for the Ingalls and Wilder families, as anyone who’s read the Little House books knows. Grasshoppers, blackbirds, bad weather—their farm troubles are legion, and throughout the series wild hope and crushing disappointment follow each other in a heartbreaking loop. The first year of Laura and Almanzo’s marriage, they grow a beautiful field of wheat which, if harvested, will pay all they owe and leave them so well off that when Laura first does the math she thinks she must have made a mistake. One August day, Almanzo goes out to start harvesting, then comes back to the house and says the wheat still needs another day or two to be perfectly ripe. That very afternoon, a hail storm wipes out the entire crop.
Throughout the Little House books there is this sense that if they just hang in there, if they find the right land and the right crop and dig in and work hard and go without new shoes, they will succeed. Those who fail at farming do so because they give up too soon or don’t know what they’re doing or don’t have enough heart. The Ingallses and the Wilders have plenty of heart; their determination and good cheer in the face of overwhelming setbacks, their pure grit, just astound me. Long after the events described in the series, the Wilders did indeed have a successful, prosperous farm in Missouri, with an orchard, dairy cows, grain fields, and poultry. But Laura’s father, Charles Ingalls, with all his energy, optimism, and hard work, ended up packing it in and moving to town, where he supported the family with carpentry jobs. That must have stung.
Farmers live pretty close to the edge, but really all economic ventures are speculative. Some livelihoods appear more stable than others in the short run, but ultimately times change, new markets emerge, and old industries collapse. The early American turpentine orchards of the Eastern Seaboard thrived for a time and then failed, leaving acres and acres of devastated land where virgin forest had once stood. Silk manufacture took a nosedive when polyester became a thing. Some of the most adored actors in silent films couldn’t make the transition to talkies because their voices were untrained or heavily accented, and so their careers ended. Disco flashed and died; within a few years its stars went from adulation to hot scorn. For a few years in 1990s Texas, ostrich farming looked like it might take off, but the market soon cratered, leaving newcomers with birds purchased at too high a price to ever be recouped. Many owners abandoned their birds to the wild, and for a while rural Texans worried about ecological disaster in the form of flocks of well-adapted seven-foot feral birds with powerful legs and four-inch claws capable of killing a lion, or a man, with a single kick. Non-Texans, I did not make that up.
Sowing the seed by the wayside high,
Sowing the seed on the rocks to die,
Sowing the seed where the thorns will spoil,
Sowing the seed in the fertile soil:
Oh, what shall the harvest be?
Oh, what shall the harvest be?
There’s something almost ominous in the repeated line at the end. What indeed shall the harvest be? Who can say? In the words of the teacher, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
Witchcraft and idolatry, both forbidden by God in the Bible, are really methods of manipulating time and chance. The kind of medieval European folk magic that Westerners associate with witchcraft doesn’t put in an appearance in Biblical accounts. Witchcraft in the Bible is about telling the future. Even the necromancy in 1 Samuel 28, where Saul gets a witch with a familiar spirit to call up the spirit of the prophet and kingmaker Samuel, is done for the purpose of asking the outcome of Saul’s upcoming battle. Idolatry is about influencing the future, performing prescribed rituals so the gods will grant what you want, with the usual example being good crops. (Farming has been chancy business ever since Adam and Eve left the garden.) Maybe anxiety is just the witchcraft and idolatry of a rationalistic age. We are fooling ourselves, messing around with worry and fruitless activity that exhausts us without actually qualifying as work.
In Perelandra, C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel set on an Edenic planet Venus, the activity forbidden to the unfallen inhabitants—the forbidden fruit of the realm—is staying overnight on dry land. Ransom, the Earthman protagonist, thinks this is odd at first, but after mulling it over realizes it makes a lot of sense. The planet is oceanic with an unknown number of floating islands. Go to sleep on one of these and you have no idea where you’ll wake in the morning. You might find your plans sidelined and yourself inconvenienced, separated from someone you long for. God wants the Perelandrans to trust his providence and not try to snatch sovereignty for themselves. They couldn’t anyway, any more than we can, but they could sure mess themselves up trying. We none of us can secure the future.
Sowing the seed with an aching heart,
Sowing the seed while the teardrops start…
Throughout the created world laws of cause and effect are always at work, whether we plan and labor with thoughtful diligence or just allow ourselves to be directed by outside forces. But the system is broader than we realize, and things happen that we don’t foresee and can’t account for. Plans go agley; friendships fail; and early promise falls short in execution. Likewise, boons and blessings come unlooked-for from unexpected places, and people emerge from years of sin and sorrow to walk in the light and thrive. Not all surprises are disappointments.
Bell peppers were among the middling performers in this year’s garden. The foliage looked good, but the fruit was small and scarce. And again, we didn’t know why. Online sources suggested fertilizer, but we didn’t want to use the synthetic stuff, and anyway we thought it shouldn’t be necessary on such fresh ground where other plants were doing so well. We talked about adding compost or organic soil amendments, but other things demanded our attention, and we let the peppers go.
Then about a week ago two of the plants suddenly started producing decent-sized fruits of bright yellow and red. I have no idea why. In the words of Lord Robert Crawley upon learning of his wife’s unexpected pregnancy, “I don’t understand what we’re doing differently.” In both cases, there are mysteries involved far beyond human agency.
And he said, So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground; and should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how. For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. But when the fruit is brought forth, immediately he putteth in the sickle, because the harvest is come.
The Bible abounds with agricultural illustrations and parables. Much as our modern world disguises the fact, agriculture is ground zero for human sustenance, economics at its most basic.
A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: and if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.
Luke 13: 6-9
And that’s the end of the parable. Jesus doesn’t say whether the remedial treatment works or whether the owner of the vineyard even agrees to give it a go. He just leaves off with the possibility that this isn’t the end of the tree’s life, and that just because it hasn’t borne for three years doesn’t mean it never will. And this is good to hear, because people go through years of unfruitfulness as well, and we can’t just conclude after a certain amount of time that if they’ve gone so long in a certain state, they’ll remain that way always, any more than you can be sure that those who start well will end well. Where there is life there is hope, and uncertainty too. Whatever happens, it won’t be something we can take much credit for.
A few mornings back, I looked out the window and saw four of the family dogs standing around the mountain laurel tree, pawing it and giving it funny looks. By now the leaf canopy was so thin that I could tell they hadn’t treed any cats, but something had caught their interest, maybe a snake. I went outside to investigate.
I never did figure out what the dogs were so worked up about, but I did see this.
Clumps of glossy baby-green leaves. New growth.
Will the tree continue to leaf out and bless and cheer me? Who can say? I hope so. And whether it does or no, God has good things in store for me, in this life and the life to come. The one who gives chance after chance to a fruit-stingy fig tree can be trusted with my future.
Sown in the darkness or sown in the light,
Sown in our weakness or sown in our might,
Gathered in time or eternity,
Sure, ah, sure will the harvest be.