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Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition
Robert Pogue Harrison
University of Chicago Press, 2008
262 pp., $35.00
Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer
Broadway Books, 2008
240 pp., $24.00
Gardening in the Cracks
A giant jalapeño sprouted from a patch of urban dirt next to our patio in Jakarta. There was little to see and less to hope for when my wife rescued this reject seedling—like Christ's mustard seed—from my potted pepper garden and propped it up with a dollop of potting soil. Four inches beneath the dark humus, we both knew, lay a hardpan of red clay that bent our spades and twisted our gardening forks. Two papaya trees in succession had died near this spot, stifled by concrete, impermeable soil, and a hidden drainpipe. Amidst these enemies, surely sheer survival was a miracle to be hoped for—our piquant fantasy salsas would have to get their zing from my pampered and potted jalapeño in the driveway. As the weeks proceeded, however, my own precious plant gradually wilted while its rejected brother thrived, throwing out thick shoots of leaves and reminding me uncomfortably of the parable's mustard tree. Such is gardening.
Like most of my American friends, I did not grow up a gardener. Unlike them, I grew up in God's own garden, a shadowy and solemn rainforest cathedral choired by birds of paradise and guarded by poisonous vines, stink bugs, and death adders. Power chainsaws have desecrated most of the world's rainforest temples during my own short youth, opening earth-wounds upon which farmers or palm oil companies smear the fertilizers and pesticides of agroscience, hoping to scab off fuel or a little food, survival or bio-profits, before the hard red clay puckers into dusty, sterile scars. Though many of my friends and acquaintances in Manila and Jakarta were exposed to third-eye levels of farming chemicals in childhood, few are interested in sacrificing the enticements of quick 'n easy flower boxes for the perilous joy of a garden.
In the midst of a concrete jungle, Tim Stark and Robert Pogue Harrison have been helpful guides as I begin to discover the relationships between my dinner table, my soul, and the soil. Harrison, a professor ...