Be Cool, Little Seed
by "Mulch Carruthers"
As an intern, half of my days are spent in the Songaia garden, which really is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. It is a hectic, chaotic garden, a riot of flowers and vegetables, both eaten, growing into one another’s territories and getting all quantum entangled. Most things in it I can’t identify and never will. I think this might be a dahlia, but I’m not for sure. This might be a carrot, but who’s to say? Not me, certainly. There are vivid, royal purples and vaguely pervy pinks where you wouldn’t think they’d be. A sudden shock of needless blue speckled in yellow. The omnipresent, weightless mass of green. The garden is a mixture of practicality and whimsy, not big enough or efficient enough for self-sustaining agriculture, but sprawling enough to be gorgeous and strange, to sit there and be weird, to be obsessed over and loved.
Some residents argue that they should only plant utilitarian, high yield foods, the better to survive when whatever inevitable Ragnarok is coming finally gets here, but to most of the Songaians that’s not the point. The philosophy behind the garden is, ‘You have to feed the soul as well as the body.’
I spend my mornings in the garden, weeding, mulching, picking fruit, berries, hauling horseshit, and in the afternoons I’m sent to make things in the barn or tearing down old structures or trying to process the food we picked in the garden that morning. I make dried figs and blackberry pie and blueberry fruit leather and zucchini chips. I’m going full on Little House on the Prairie here, I’m considering wearing a sunbonnet and dying of typhoid.
On my first day working in the garden, I meet Helum*, an older woman who pretty much lives for the garden, it’s human avatar, and I come to really respect her depth and breadth of knowledge.
She tries to show me how to weed the kale beds, a really important job as the people here go nuts about kale, parsing it like Chateau Lafitte, enumerating it’s qualities. The Curly Kale has overtones of pepper, and do I detect faint hints of cardamom? The Siberian Kale has a delicate, rosy-fingered sweetness to it, don’t you think? I can see pairing this with with a crisp apple salad, and a cider dressing would really make it pop. To me it’s all just kale, just barely this side of food, but I enjoy hearing them dissect the finer points of kale fetishism, although it makes as much sense to me as having a favorite brand of iceberg lettuce.
Helum tries to show me how to weed the kale, but it gets real complicated real fast. We kneel in the dirt and she identifies every single green thing. “So we want to weed around these little darlings, but, keep in mind, really nothing is truly a weed, they just lifeforms growing where we don’t necessarily want them to grow. These little ones are called Lambs Ears’, these fuzzy things, and how can you dislike something called a Lamb’s Ear? Let’s just leave her alone. And this fellow right here is Horsetail, which, yes, is technically a weed, but he has a lot of sentimental value for me, so let's just skip him for now. And this is Bindweed which causes terrible problems and is a devil to get rid of, but it’s a living thing and has just as much right to its life as us, so let’s not cut it back too much. It dreams, you know. It has hopes and feelings. This is buttercup, a weed, true, but such a lovely blossom! Would anyone really want to be responsible for ending its life journey?”
“Um,” I stammer. “So what should I actually do?”
Helum stares up at the sky, directly at, as far as I can tell, the sun.
After giving it a think, she says, “I don’t know.”
In another life this dithering would have driven me up the wall, so cloying, but when Helum does it I find it infinitesimally charming.
I come to really enjoy the gardening process, although I have no patience for it. I lack the Zen that comes with waiting gracefully. I fidget, I spaz out easily, I lose interest in anything that takes more than a few days to complete, I wander off, and gardening takes forever. We grow tomatoes, tend them, weed them, protect them from rats, squeeze them every couple of days just for the tactile joy of it, say encouraging things to them, and then, on their own langorous schedule, watch them turn lipstick shade colors, pick them, wash them, chop them, a quick puree, boil them down, can them in steaming jars, all this toil and wait to make something that’s worth $2.49 in the supermarket, practically free in the global economies of scale.
It’s so crazily labor intensive and slow making food in this medieval way, you spend hours working and get a can and a half of peas, or three days to get a couple of jars worth of dehydrated cherries, an eternity for a bland bean salad. By the end you want to howl, ‘Save me, Monsanto! Inject me full of GMOs and gluten and corn syrup!”
I learn that it’s no use planting a crop unless you can tend to it, no use tending to it unless you can harvest it on time, no use harvesting it unless you can preserve it or gobble it all down immediately, and there’s little chance of you eating it unless it tastes good. It doesn’t have to taste superlative, but it at least has to be medium good, because if it doesn’t, you’ll pretty soon fall to the temptation of giving up this life of toil, getting out of the sun, scraping the dirt out from under your fingernails, acquiring a straight job, investing in oil and arms manufacturers and ordering the cheese fries.
But that’s where I and the Songaians differ. Tastes are just a bit altered here, and things are a big hit if they taste a little like soil and dirt. They eat salads without dressing. They eat nut-free collard pesto with nutri-yeast. They eat cold kale soup, and even if I had to conjure something unappetizing up, as a joke, I could not have fathomed this. At first I wondered if I was just being a sensitive little nelly on this point, wondering if these foods are actually bad or just foreign to my palette. I still haven't made up my mind. Sometimes it seems like there's an element trying to prove something with this food. It’s like saying, ‘Look how much old-timey effort and resources we can put into making something that only a Wiccan pixie would dare to eat.” I wonder, can any revolution succeed by eating Cream of Nettle soup? And if it can, would I want to be want to be on the winning side?
But still, the process of gardening is intriguing.
“Gardening is all about sex,” Helum tells me. She’s showing me how to cross-pollinate the zucchini. It involves taking the yellow squashblossom flowers, the male and female, and mooshing them together, sexing them up. You squish the stamen or pistil or whatever it is of the happy yellow penile head into the vaginas of the female flowers. It’s erotic from an inhuman, removed, God’s eye point of view.
She says, “And then we’re going to take a piece of masking tape and tape the female flowers shut in a little chastity belt.”
Afterwards there’s happy, spermy Crayola-yellow pollen on our fingers and we dispose of the used, floral penises, spent and limp.
“Squash are very promiscuous,” Helum explains. “If we didn’t tape them shut they might breed with other strains of squash that we don’t want in this bed, it just ensures that these little darlings keep their maidenly virtue. What hussies, what trollops, these squash are, if given their way. They are proud to announce their place in the oneness of things. ‘Look at my genitals,’ they scream with every bright, garish color, every labial fold.”
I’m 16% aroused.
A week later, a scandal erupts at Songaia as someone has been entering the garden and night and taking all the squashblossoms, especially the male ones for some reason. This means that the females aren’t getting fertilized, leading to little, stunted, erectile dysfunction squash. It’s such a weird crime, and the Songaians are genuinely disturbed by it.
“We can’t let this happen, people! Our squash are suffering!”
Squashblossoms are edible, so maybe somebody is taking them to garnish their salads. Lists of suspects are drawn up, armchair psychology is used to try to identify the kind of nefarious character who would take all the zucchini wangs in the dead of night, this symbolic castration of the community. They have me make a dozen signs to be planted around the squash bed, saying, “PLEASE DO NOT PICK THE SQUASHBLOSSOMS!!!” in an increasingly desperate and pleading font. They go full tilt Agatha Christie. “So, I saw you going into the West Gate of the garden last night, around 7:38. You know, where the squash beds are. Anything you’d care to share? Hmmmm?”
Even I come under suspicion, which shows how little they know of me. I’m the last person here who’s going to willingly stuff flowers into my mouth and gobble them, except if I thought it was funny, which of course I do. I even begin to suspect myself. Maybe I’m doing it somnambulistically.
We’re through the looking glass, here.
Helum is showing me how to plant a new crop of kale, which is much more my speed than weeding the kale. She demonstrates how to poke a little hole in the soft, wet ground with my finger and drop in a couple of microscopic black dot seeds.She says, “They only need to be covered with a thin layer of soil, just like a blanket for these little babies. Such tiny seeds! So much potential! And when you plant them, you tell them, ‘Hello, little seed. It’s time to wake up. We promise to make this as welcoming a home as we can for you and we thank you for coming generation after generation and sharing your lifecycle with us. You are welcome and accepted here, you are loved and wanted. Please bless us with your presence. And...breathe.”
And then she folds her hands and closes her eyes for a moment.
“You want me to say that every time I plant one of these?” I look into my cupped hand, there must be five hundred seeds occupying less than half a cubic inch of space, and I am self-centered and small and weak and stupid, and I don’t know if I’m capable of actually saying those words in that order.
“Well, that or something like it,” she says. “Whatever comes to mind. Just give them a blessing, welcome them to our garden.”
And Helum goes away and does whatever, leaving me on my knees in the deep, brown earth. And I try, I swear to God I try, to say the words each time I plant a kale seed because I’m trying to be a good person and not the monster that I secretly suspect I am. I try, but it’s hard, because I am not a sincere person, I just lack that capacity, I was born without that particular eyetooth. But I repeat Helum’s mantra, as well as I can remember it, which is not very well. I close my eyes when I say it, and have to consciously force my eyes not to perform a scoffing, teenagery roll beneath the eyelids, because maybe if I pretend to be a good person for long enough I’ll wake up one day and transubstantiate into an actual good person.
By the fifth seed, however, I’ve edited the prayer down to, “Little seed, little seed, just be cool.”
And this I am capable of saying with every one of those six hundred seeds, which will eventually grow a crop that I am incapable of aesthetically appreciating, because it’s kale, but I say it anyway, eyes closed like a ding-a-ling. And I’ll end up saying every day at my time in Songaia, maybe thirty times a day, silently, inwardly, when something bothers me, when I just don’t fundamentally understand the good gentlefolk who live here, whenever Cream of Nettle soup touches my tongue, when my personal furies arrive, which is all the time. I say, “Little seed, little seed, just be cool.”
I am the little seed in this clumsy metaphor, just to spell it out. It lacks the poetry of Helum’s blessing, but it still kind of works.
Let’s all say it together, shall we?
Little seed, little seed, just be cool.
*Names in this story have been changed. For purely comedic effect.