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An Earth Day Reflection from Cynthia Stengel

THE GARDENER | A Reflection for Earth Day 2020

Following the creation of the earth and its soil and waters, flora and fauna,

the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till and keep it. (Genesis 2:15)

And humanity did so, feeding self, neighbors and beasts for millennia. But in time Adam (“the earthling”) forgot the web of connections between the earth, its plants, animals and humans. Over my lifetime, I’ve seen many changes in our use of the land and water we’ve inherited: gone are the cattle and farmyard animals on little family farms, gone the milkman who pumped milk out of the holding tank and took it to the dairy every other day. Gone the bone-chilling winter days and snowbanks higher than my head. Family farms are gone from my Wisconsin county now, buildings demolished, pastures empty of cattle along with the kids who once brought them home at milking time. Now the one-week “January thaw” lasts most of the month, and in some winters snowmobiles stay in their sheds the whole season.

But here and there, some people did continue to till and keep the land. I grew up with one of them. As World War II escalated, warriors had to be fed and American farmers were needed. So my dad left his job in Chicago and bought a farm five miles from the northern community where he had grown up. The farm had been rented out for a number of years, its sandy soil severely depleted by successive crops of potatoes and barley. The first seven years were wracked with drought. But over the years Dad learned and applied new techniques of treating the soil with manure, fertilizer and lime, and rotated the crops to improve fertility: corn one year, oats the next, and several years of nitrogen-fixing alfalfa hay. He spent weeks every spring picking rock from the fields in order to spare the machinery damage, building long, tall piles at the edge of the fields. He gave them away to the highway department, no charge, saying, “I didn’t pay anything for them,” but he was unhappy when they cut down all the trees and brush along the county line road, because they sheltered the greatest variety of songbirds. He planted thousands of seedling trees in patches where no crops would grow and when asked why—since he’d not live to see the benefit of their wood—he’d reply, “There’ll be someone after me.” It was the same logic that saw him invest in fertilizing his fields in the fall, knowing he’d be selling and someone else would be working the fields in the spring. After more than four decades, he left the farm in much better condition than he had found it.

Dad bought a 10-acre patch of woods down the road and built a retirement home there, planting a garden at the back. Deer and other wildlife regularly raided the fruits and vegetables, but he shared without complaint, saying, “They were here before me.” The ground squirrels didn’t move into the house, but they did find a way to get in and store hazel nuts: in shoes, in the pockets of clothes hanging in the closet, and in the back corners of drawers. He didn’t begrudge or try to trap them.

Dad was a hunter, but for him it wasn’t sport, it was the way farm people supplemented their food supply. He aimed carefully, never shot at an animal that couldn’t immediately be felled, and never left a young animal motherless. In retirement, he engaged in good-humored combat with the squirrels who came to steal corn and birdseed from the feeder outside the living room window. He was smart, but no match for the clever animals.With a shrug and a rueful smile he allowed them to unscrew the tightly capped gallon jar of corn kernels and help themselves.

Dad marked the borders of his wooded plot with a row of tiny blue spruce trees, which stood out among the broadleaf trees. When Mom died some five years later, he walked along the border and chose the two prettiest, most symmetrical trees. He dug up and planted them as a memorial in the city park, the larger one for him and the smaller for her. In time, their roots were dusted with both sets of ashes.

On this, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, I remember with appreciation a 20th century gardener who lived in mutuality with the natural world, and did his best to till and keep the piece of the earth that was his share. It has been said, “If everyone would sweep in front of their own door, the world would be clean.” A new version might put it this way: if we each become careful stewards of our garden, its life and resources and beauty, there would be enough for all to enjoy and share. And we, too, can leave our piece of earth a little better than we found it.

Cynthia Stengel

April 22, 2020

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