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The Wheel and the Inclined Plane

Nineteen days ago, our backyard looked like this:

(You can click on the pictures to see bigger versions) This made me sad because, just a little over eight weeks prior to that photo, I’d drawn up the beginnings of a plan to return to gardening after a 30+ year lacuna. I emailed my plan around to the other residents of our condo, they rubberstamped it, and then it snowed. And kept snowing. And then it snowed some more. By the first day of March, Boston had officially had its snowiest winter on record. Most of the snow had stopped by the time that photo was taken, but we were also having an unusually cold March, so all that snow, all 108.6 inches of it, all nine feet of it, took a long time to melt.

Still, I carried on with my planning, through the long cold tail end of winter. I shopped for raised bed materials, I learned about what plants to plant together, and what plants would keep pests away. I shopped for interesting herbs and vegetables, and I ordered seeds. E and I went to Home Depot and stocked up on tools and supplies. I drew up my garden map, ran it by Farmer Andrew, and revised it, and then revised it some more. E even surprised me with a gift of a couple tools I hadn’t thought of, but which are definitely going to get a lot of use. Surely by Easter weekend, I thought, I’d be able to build the garden.

The biggest variable to me though, was how to get enough soil. In the very early stages of this project, I thought we’d just go to a gardening supply shop and pick up a bunch of bags of soil. But as I did the math, I eventually figured out that I was going to need 1.5 cubic yards of planting mix (50% loam, 50% compost). A little more quick back of the napkin math suggested this could mean well over a ton of soil. Not going to pick that up in bags at the nursery. I called around and eventually found a place that could deliver that quantity, and on a Saturday too.

As Easter weekend rolled around, though, the forecast looked like cold and rainy. Not a good day to have a shipment of dirt delivered, which I would then have to cart by wheelbarrow from the front of the property a hundred feet to the back of the property. That was a little disappointing. I was starting to get a little worried about when I was going to get my peas in, since they like cooler weather. What if this was one of those years that skipped spring and went straight into the heat of summer? I was starting to wring my hands a bit, but then last Monday the forecast for Saturday looked like warm and sunny, a perfect day for gardening, or, at least, for building a garden out of nothing at all. I called the soil delivery place and arranged for the 1.5 cubic yards to be delivered yesterday morning. They told me they’d come by between 8 and 10 am, and give me a call when they were on their way.

So, yesterday morning I woke up at 7:30 and had just started breakfast when the phone rang at 7:53: “Our driver will be leaving in 5-10 minutes.” I rushed through my breakfast, and started bringing the tools out to the backyard, which now looked like this:

IMG_5891 2
8:30 rolled around and I started to think maybe I’d misunderstood the nature and purpose of that phone call. Maybe the driver wasn’t on his way directly to my place, maybe he had other stops to make, though I couldn’t really understand how that would work with a dump truck. I stopped waiting on the front porch like an overeager puppy and went out to the backyard, staked some lines, and started digging out a rectangle. I’d talked to a couple other people about what to do with the ground that I was going to put my raised bed on top of, and googled it extensively, and opinions about this step were pretty mixed. In the end, I didn’t really decide what I was going to do after a little exploratory shoveling.

Our house is a gut renovation, and the backyard was completely re-landscaped as part of that. Mostly they just gave it a new lawn. The sod only went in a few weeks before we moved in last fall. Perhaps since it was so new, the sod actually came up pretty easy, in convenient sheets. I figured just turning the sod over would be enough. By the time I was finished my 4×12 rectangle of future awesomeness looked like this:

Before I finished that, though, the dump truck arrived (license plate MULCH7). Our driveway is too narrow for a fat car, let alone a dump truck, so I directed the delivery guy where in front of our house to drop the dirt:

I didn’t know what a yard and a half of soil looked like, and when I saw it there, I quailed just the tiniest bit. It looked like a lot of dirt. It looked like a dirt monster. I mean, I knew it would be a lot, but this was going to be a lot of work to move. It was also pretty wet, so it was going to be fairly heavy. Nothing for it, though. I left the pile of dirt and went back to my sod, finished that up, then went to the next door neighbor’s backyard. The neighbor is a gardener and landscaper and I’d already arranged to borrow a wheelbarrow from him. He had two in fact, and left them both out for me to choose from. I picked the older, smaller, metal and wood single-wheel model, over the larger plastic, two-wheel model for a few reasons. For one thing I had a couple narrow spaces on my route that I’d have to pass through many times, one of which came awful close to a fellow condo resident’s Beemah. For another thing, a single wheel, while it might take more arm strength to steer, would likely give me a little more maneuverability. Finally, it was just such a handsome, well-worn, well-loved piece of equipment. For this last reason alone I probably would have chosen the single-wheel, neglecting all other factors.

I got to work right at nine, alternating between hauling dirt, and building the bed around the dirt as I went. First I built 3 sides of one square, rolled the barrow back, inverted the barrow to dump it, then repeat. When the pile of dirt started to get too big at its base, I’d build the next square:

By the time I’d moved twenty-two wheelbarrowsful of dirt, I was starting to get a little bleary. I was also a little overwhelmed because at 22 wheelbarrows, I was still maybe only about halfway done. The sun had also come up enough that I was no longer in the shade 100% of the time. I took a little break and took this picture:

I went inside, fortified myself with water, a snack, and some sunblock. After 10 minutes I actually felt pretty refreshed, and went back to it. Except now I had a major problem. I’d closed off my squares too soon. I still had at least another 20 barrows to go, but no good way to just dump the barrow into the piles I was making. I thought about shoveling the dirt from the barrow into the boxes, but that seemed horribly slow and inelegant. I was kind of stumped and discouraged for a few minutes. I went into the basement and looked around for ideas. So glad I did, because I found a perfect, sturdy piece of plywood. Except it wasn’t just a piece of plywood once I picked it up, it was my ramp.

At first I tried ramping the wheelbarrow up to the top of the four-board-high backmost square. That didn’t work so great. Too steep a grade, too tough to pivot the wheelbarrow up and over to dump it. So I moved moved some dirt around, took off two boards, and now I had a perfect setup:

This second half of operations was nowhere near as speedy as the first half, but it helped me get the job done. I had to spend a lot more time fussing with the soil as I offloaded it, and time fussing with the boards, taking them off, putting them back on. But, eventually, after 45 full wheelbarrows, I got the dirt from one place to another, more desirable place:

Now our backyard looks like this!

Today I planted my peas. I already have tomatoes, basil, and peppers starting indoors, and lot of other seeds ready to go when the weather gets just a bit warmer. I also have aches where I didn’t know muscles existed. The backs of my fingers even ache. I googled how much a yard of wet topsoil actually weighs, and it turns out my original estimate of one ton was way under. I actually moved somewhere between 3500 and 5000 lbs of soil yesterday. It amazes me how much the work one human can do gets multiplied by the simple expedients of one wheel and one inclined plane.

And it amazes me that I actually have a garden again. I’m so excited!


It’s been almost four years since I wrote this post, bidding Facebook farewell. Over the past few years, as I’ve occasionally reconsidered this decision, I only had to go back and re-read that blog entry.  The facts of the matter never changed, and those facts, to me, looked like a mountain that I just didn’t want to climb again.  Every one of the reasons I list there still holds true, and they’re all still good reasons not to be on Facebook.  In fact, if I started climbing that mountain, I’d no doubt find it’s even higher than I originally thought, and that the mountain has grown over the past four years.

But, for now, I’ve just decided that rather than climb that mountain, I’m just going to build a little cottage at the foot of it and be ok living in its shadow for a while.  Maybe someday an avalanche will come, maybe the mountain will collapse taking everything and everyone with it, but…. maybe not.

The thing is, there are a lot of people I’d like to stay in touch with, and FB seems like the best way to maintain that particular grade of low-level being-in-touchness that I’m looking for.  I don’t want to call Random Guy I had algebra class with and have conversations with him a few times a year, but it’s nice to see that he’s doing well, and if he ever goes on vacation somewhere I went on vacation, it’d be nice to Like his photo or whatever.

And yeah, I’ll probably be blogging here a bit less. This blog, like all blogs I think, is a bit of a dinosaur.  I’m not abandoning it completely, and I’ll still use it for longer stuff that I don’t feel like posting on FB.  But the writing is on the digital wall, folks, the era of the blog is long gone. Sometimes I feel elderly just telling people I have a blog, like telling people I still haven’t replaced my rotary dial phone or complaining about how hard it is to rent VHS tapes these days.

It’s not that big a deal. I just felt like I had to say something, somewhere, here.  One of the first people who received a FB friend request from me yesterday replied with, and I quote, “!!!!!!!!!!!!” so I just felt some kind of explanation was due.


A Prayer for October

There are these landmarks.

One such landmark is the bite of soybean pods. I was a child who went to a school that rented classroom space inside a convent. The nuns who lived in and ran the convent grew the soybeans. It was part of how they supported themselves, the land they were on, the retreat they ran, the building that housed our school.

This memory is so far back, I can’t tell if I contained the day, or if the day cradled me in its October-lighted care.

The day was gray, so gray you could almost feel metal in the air. The clouds were so heavy, birthing fall, low, swollen and swinging close the ground, close enough almost for this child’s arms to reach. That day was cold enough that we knew recess wouldn’t be outside much longer, and it made us a little wild and reckless. I was playing with one of the only other boys who wasn’t afraid to go this far from the playground, past the hills, beyond the copse, to the soybean fields. His name was Jason and usually we weren’t friends, but today we were compatriots in dangerous adventure, and that added to the unpredictability of the day.

The wind was unkind, but we were young so we ran and ran and ran, and the heat of the veins beat back the wind. I ran headlong into the yellow field of soybeans. I didn’t know anything about them until I was dozens of yards deep, and I ran out of breath, and realized. The bean pods had sharp, dried out little points at the ends of their pods. The hard points were poking and scratching me through my clothes.

Each soybean plant held dozens of seed pods. I examined one single pod, still attached to its plant. It was covered in brown prickly fur, and its seeds were small, almost too small to call beans. I tested the point and found it too sharp, and the sharpness made everything real, made everything I could think of, know, or see harden to a single, point, grown by the world for me to touch. I was in a field of soybeans, that was somehow connected to the work of God the sisters did, a thousand, no thousands, no tens of thousands of sharp real points of beans all around me, each one grown by the sisters, waiting, perhaps for harvest. I was in a crop. I was part of the field. I was part of the work of the nuns, whom we never saw, but knew were somewhere, mysterious forces, who lived a life incomprehensible to us, but here I was touching it, the effect of invisible nuns. This was no moment of unity with all things, but a moment of understanding connections, and also a moment of understanding the impossibility of fathoming all connections. I intuited that there was something deeply spiritual, something Godly, about a community of women supporting themselves by bringing forth the fruits of the Earth by their labor. It was a kind of prayer I understood, maybe my first real understanding of prayer. I was touching faith, I was touching work, and it was touching me back in return. I knew — or chose — that moment of nine years old in October, freighted with potential, lowering out of the future, and up from the ground, I knew that moment would poke at me forever, like a bean, through all the clothes I would ever wear in my life.

I could not communicate this. I could not articulate it. I just felt it. I felt touched and changed, humbled, and lifted up. And of course, with this secret knowledge that all children are prone to, I felt that loneliness that only a child can feel. And then, when Jason found or caught up with me, I shook all of it off, the way only a child can, and started playing again.

What Snow! What’s New!

I just noticed that the last time I had a “life update” here was January 23, a few days before life in Boston changed for the much, much snowier.  It’s funny now to go back and read that, and see that there isn’t even a single mention of the word “snow,” when snow has been the defining factor of our lives for lo these many days.  In case you missed what’s become national news at this point, we got four snow storms in three weeks, so much snow we’ve run out of places to put it, and so much snow that the MBTA has asked its riders to not expect things to be back to normal til mid-to-late March.  It’s the 3rd snowiest winter on record, a foot shy of #1, and 9 inches more than the next snowiest on the record that I remember, the winter of 2004-2005.   But, now, if I recall correctly, that winter of 2004-2005, the snow was actually spread out over a few months, which is a whole different ballgame from what we’re seeing now.

Before this winter, the snowiest I’d ever seen a city was when I visited Minneapolis in 1992, and even that was 10 inches under what we’ve seen in Boston over the past few weeks.  But it’s also much the same: every sidewalk is like a high-walled tunnel through the snow, only some of the streets are plowed, and about half the car owners have given up and just decided to wait til spring thaw to drive again.

Today though, it’s sunny, and I can almost imagine that my dream of growing a garden in our new backyard might actually be possible some day.  I’ve spent the past few weeks, powered by faith alone, drawing up plans, shopping for seeds, estimating the equipment and soil amendments I’ll need, consulting with my friend A., who, along with his wife, has been a backyard vegetable gardener for many years.  As I type this, I can hear the snow running to melt in all the gutters that surround me, a small happy song that promises that some day, we’ll be able to see the ground again, and maybe even see green again. And that maybe the hundreds of dollars I’m about to sink into this project won’t be in vain.

E. and I have both been seeing big work-life changes too, with her starting a new job completely, and mine seeing a radical overthrow of the comfortable old order and the installment of an experimental new order.  Both changes feel pretty huge, and we are both adjusting to the stresses that any big change brings on, while trying to focus on the positives that, again, any big change can come with: the possibilities, the opportunities.

But it’s not all snow and freeze, and life changes.  We also still have each other, and the happiness of our shared life together. We enjoy the winter because it makes our home-cooked meals that much cozier, and it makes snuggling up and watching TV shows together, that much snugglier.  We’ve also been fortunate to have been able to spend a lot of time with our mutual friends, including the illustrious, the inimitable, and indescribably insouciant Miss Fox, who was a wonderful and gracious houseguest of ours, oh, about 2 snowstorms ago. Which is the only way to count time here now, of course.

…annnnd I got a Playstation 4, so if you notice me blogging less, well, I won’t say it’s because of that, but yeah, maybe it’s because of that.

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