A Garden's Death Diminishes Our Lives

ISAAC REHERT

September 09, 1993|By ISAAC REHERT

Something seemed different, something was wrong. Walking the dog the other morning, I noticed that the little urban vegetable patch along my way was unkempt. Seriously neglected. I hadn't walked that way for several months, so I hadn't noticed what had been happening.

What first caught my eye was a couple of weed saplings that had gotten started in the soil there, their pointed leaves quivering prominently in the gusts made by the passing cars. Weed trees in the vegetable garden? That had always been a neat and well-tended place. Something was awry. I had to have a look. Rags resisted the sharp jerk I gave his choke collar, but he could do little but come along.

What I'm calling a garden is just a small patch -- maybe 15 by 25 feet -- dug out of a bit of grassland between the busy highway that fronts our neighborhood and a scrubby woodlot. I'm not sure who owns the land -- I suspect the city -- but I do know who had been working the garden.

It was an elderly man, gray-haired, with a pleasant lined face. I had seen him often, digging, hoeing, watering, harvesting. He was always serious about it -- gardeners tend to be that way when they are working the soil. He always wore work clothes and a broad-brimmed straw hat, just like a farmer, although he never had that beet-red coloring that farmers get who spend long hours haying in the summer sun.

He started early in the season -- the frost hardly out of the ground -- with onion sets and spinach and peas. Then came his lettuce, cabbages and broccoli, and then when the weather had settled, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, a few squash plants and even a tiny sample of corn.

A couple of times I paused to talk to him -- gardener talk, about the weather, the amount of rainfall and whether it wasn't too early or too late for whatever it was he was doing. He was always pleasant enough, but laconic -- not much to say -- too busy thinning, transplanting or pulling the weeds out from around his plants.

There wasn't much of a fence between his crops and the public land -- just a few metal stakes that looked liked old water pipe -- and a few strands of smooth wire. I asked him if that was protection enough against rabbits, of which our neighborhood has more than its share, and he answered that they never bothered him much. And I asked him about vandals and thieves, and he said the same thing about them, that they didn't bother him much.

I liked seeing the garden there in that particular spot. The stark contrast of it -- this modest open-to-the-public husbandry just a few feet from a never-ending procession of zooming cars, most of them with windows closed for the air-conditioning.

Many times over the years, walking the dog that way, I'd see the gray gardener walking on the sidewalk of a nearby street weighed down by buckets of water for his thirsty peppers and tomatoes. To myself, I congratulated him on his dedication, for I was not as conscientious about that duty as he was.

It had been months since I walked that way. Then the other morning, I did pass there with the dog and noticed that things weren't right. Those weed saplings whose leaves quivered in the wind. The ground dry and brown -- bare where it wasn't bristling with weeds. Cabbages, little nubbins of things with the other leaves burned, or wooshy with disease. No lettuce. No beans. No corn. The few tomato plants stunted, with a few measly green tomatoes about the size of peas.

It was a sick, a dying garden, and as I resumed my walk with the dog, I wondered what might have happened to the gardener. He must be ill, otherwise he'd never let the patch look like this. Or worse. He was elderly -- obviously retired. No telling what might have happened.

Ordinarily I keep to myself, don't go knocking on the doors of my neighbors. but this time, back home with the dog, something wouldn't let me rest. I had to find out what happened. So leaving the dog at home, I walked over to the street where I had seen him carrying those buckets of irrigation water. Fortunately, the weather was pleasant, so I found a woman sitting on her front porch and I asked her, did she know the man who tended the garden down by the boulevard.

Oh, yes, of course she knew him, his name was Bill.

Well, was something wrong with Bill? I'd never seen his garden so neglected.

''Oh, Bill died. It was in June. He had heart failure.''

She told me he was 73 years old and had been a plumber until he retired. His widow still lives up the street. The woman was sure she would be glad to talk with me.

But I didn't look her up. Bill wasn't a relative. I would be stretching it even to call him a friend. And I wasn't interested in composing a formal obituary.

In fact, as I began writing this report, I wondered whether it was worth the effort. Would anyone be interested? People all over the world are slaughtering one another. Children are dying all over the city from being shot in outlaw crossfire. Bill was not a celebrity. I wonder how many in his own block were moved by his passing.

But then I recalled and looked up those wonderful lines of John Donne that, I think, express what we feel on occasions like this, even if we don't allow ourselves to be aware of it.

Every man is a peace of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea. Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine own were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde.

We don't need formal notice of the passing of friends and relatives, and the media dutifully report the death of celebrities. This gentle gray-haired gardener was neither friend, relative nor celebrity, but with his death and the loss of his little urban garden, I know that our neighborhood, our city, our world has been diminished.

Isaac Rehert is a retired feature writer for The Sun.

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