Listening to Elizabeth Cotten on repeat the past two days has me missing home, the south, the swampy weather, the spring ephemerals, the smells of a freshly warming greenhouse in spring. I don't think I'll ever not long for home the way my body does for this place, where my ancestors have tended land in different ways for many generations. It really is in my blood. My family has passed on the love of plants generation after generation and the 'green thumb' seems to run in our genes. I just don't feel right not tending plants in some way. There's something to be said about people inheriting the good and bad things our ancestors did into our own bodies. Some of my ancestors didn't use chemicals to grow food, raise animals and cultivate cash crops. More recently, some of them did, with insanely harsh chemicals. Aside from carrying on that legacy from body to body, death to life again, another thing that my ancestors carried seemingly outside of the control of whatever laws make up this physical scientific realm shifting greatly my body's makeup is the work of being outside farming, gardening, and with hands in the soil for most of every day after day. Their entire lives were spent in the soil. Guided by the seasons. Riding the wave of feast and famine. Even my parents have had their hands in the soil, my dad a horticulturist. There has been no 'broken chain' of connection, aside from an informal contract with Monsanto somewhere in there. My love of the land has not ridden to me with a trend of hip floraphilia, but is literally a thing inside myself I cannot undo. All this nostalgia and growing self awareness of all that my body carries, has me thinking about how much my grandmothers shaped my relationship to plants and the land.
I tugged at her thin floral skirt with steam rising from the faded yellow linoleum countertop above me. The air was thick and damp already from long days and nights where the humid heat just wouldn't let up. I tugged at her skirt for a hug, for some attention from her tasks at hand. Retro plastic bowls lined the counters and tables, in all kinds of colors, filled with vegetables of all sorts, in different stages of break down. She put me into my wooden handmade high-chair, hand lacquered many times to seal it from children's spills and the wet parts of life itself. I see where the steam is coming from now that my vision is raised higher. A big metal pot. She, Janie, gum-ma, in her handmade floral dress, always sleeveless in humid summers to let the arm pits breathe freely, lifted glass mason jars in and out of the metal pot, each full of colorful organic shapes. Food. Green beans with the ends snapped off, we did it together on the cement front porch watching the flags flutter in the wind, the crows come by and land on the old cedar fence posts in a kind of coordinated cadence. Washed 3 times. Cucumbers with the skins removed and the pickles cut into thin green slices, stuffed into jars with an array of aromatic herbs and seeds. The ball jar recipe book out, greens, reds, yellow seemed to paint all surfaces. We'd take those strawberries too, eat them before we could even make jelly. Cutting the green leafy tops off, leaving the fruit alone, filling a matching color retro bowl of sweet reds. We'd throw white sugar on them and watch the bowl fill with liquid, waiting patiently to put whipped cream on them as the air full of moisture stuck to our skin and dripped so much sweat we had to wipe our brows with handkerchiefs. We'd laugh. Eat our strawberries covered in sweetness. Walk out into the beating sun, passing the planted Loblolly's in the yard, the thrice struck by lightening cherry tree to pick the sand splashed tomatoes, bringin' them in to be blanched and thrown into the magic pot, too. These were the days of my timeless feeling childhood. The days of day after day with my grandma, my parents at work, my papa out in the tobacco fields. She taught me something about food and putting up crops, even if it was just simply witnessing the act and seeing its importance in a home. She also showed me her version of mending, and cooking, and caring for family. My mom does these things now, later on, but growing up as a small child, it was my grandma who first led me to the plants.
My other grandma, sassy, smart and straightforward was in the business of growing things, starting one of the only nurseries around in the 1960's. Those mazes of shiny thick leaves hit my face as I wandered through, tropical plants in big plastic containers shared a room with spiky cactus' in tiny pots clustered by the south facing window, careful don't touch. A drain on the floor to catch the water and dirt from daily tending, dead leaves picked off and brushed towards the center for clean up. Tiny pink and yellow flowers pop from the spiky cactus' in a cascade of color piled together a herd of sun loving plants who never seemed to need watering like the thick leaved ones. She'd take me to the other rooms, the other universes where dirt and blooms and tools swirled together in an earthen smelling paradise. Those rooms, greenhouses of theme, focus, of friendship and tending of different plants and their kin. The boxwood cuttings, a slow acidic long term meditation. The iris house and their finicky special needs. The herbs that would re-bloom every year despite still being confined to plastic pots, on meshed raised tables, begging me to come over to them and tug out the Wood Sorrel crowding them from their limited nutrients. The tubs of water plants lived in bean shaped vats around the land, with electric pumped waterfalls flowing here and there. The frogs took up house singing a collective song every evening. I have memories of carrying watering cans with long green spouts, faded from being stored in full sun greenhouses. I took them to refresh the hanging baskets of annual flowers, ferns or the succulent gardens let outside for the summer. A Willow Oak drops leaves in the ponds, in the perennial pots, in the Wood Sorrel covered brick walkways. A shade of relief during hot days, we'd sit underneath the tree and sip our colas with ice from the old fashioned in house drink machine my grandma put out back, 25 cents each. Inside we were painting, weaving or sculpting with clay. Three layers of plants around us at all times, a customer comes requesting a tractor to haul fruit trees to his car. Someone gets up out of the shade to load them up.
Later, as a twenty something in between homes and wanderings, the owner--my Grandma Sadie Ruth-- is long gone. Alone, I shovel mulch with my punk boots, and cut off jeans into the back of a beat up Ford truck. I was the only one working that day, the old man asked to marry me cause I did it by hand. I laugh it off and go on with the watering, the pinching of dead leaves from the Echinacea and the Pleurisy Root and the pots with Rose of Sharon. I go to the grove of Long-Leaf Pines she planted when she was alive to pick their needles for making baskets. I go back three years later and the new home owners had cut them down. I cried. I could connect with her through those large and thriving Long-Leafed Pines, a tree that should be worshipped at this point. Alone and tending, remembering. I feel lost without the noticing and feeding and loving.
The gifts of my grandmothers' love of plants to me are immeasurable. If I don't carry these gifts on I don't know what else to do with my body. Some days I am not sure how to carry these gifts given to me, in what form do I best serve the land and that which I am lucky to receive? How best do I honor that genetically bred part of myself that needs my hands in the dirt? I learned the plants' personalities as a child getting lost in the greenhouses, or the boxwood mazes, the rows of tomatoes, becoming friends with Hydrangea, Banana trees, Mums, and Pepper plants. I learned the secret magic of transplanting babies and watching things grow. Of seeing things become blooming life filling the seasons with flowers and vines and ethereal beauty. I've taken those seeds given to me and done different things with them, and some days I feel like I haven't done enough. Or done things the right way. It all comes down to this guiding force, and the love of plants my grandmothers instilled in me in their own ways will follow me to my own elder years.