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A Garden of Hope

My New Year’s Day Ritual

by RAOUF J. HALABY

The month of January is named after the Roman god Janus, and his iconic image portrays a dual portrait sculpture (faces only) that adjoin back to back. One portrait bust depicts a melancholic Janus, and the other depicts a Janus with a buoyant countenance. The first visage signifies Janus’ sorrow at seeing the previous year pass by, and the second personifies Janus’ elation at welcoming the New Year. The Romans associated change, transition, and new beginnings with Janus, and they celebrated the New Near by exchanging gifts and good wishes. So important was Janus, the Romans placed his portrait above their front entrances.

In early January and just a few days after January 1, 2007, our Sunday School facilitator commenced the morning discussion by posing the following question: “Where do you encounter God?”   The answers were varied: “in the scripture,” “in prayer,” “in church,” “in the laundry room” (was one housewife’s only private time for introspection), and “in friends” were some of the responses.  Since our group is primarily comprised of professionals and fearing that my comment was too common, I reluctantly responded: “In my Garden.”  In the past 67 years I have been encountering God in the altruistic and selfless actions and deeds performed by millions of people of different faiths across the globe, by attending to the birth of our two sons, by seeing miraculous medical healing, and by the manner in which people across the world respond to collective man-made tragedies and to natural disasters. However, it is primarily in my garden that I see the most tangible emanation of God’s greatness and mystery.

Some forty-two years ago I began an annual New Year’s Day ritual.  After doing the traditional Southern New Year’s Daything (eating pork, black eye peas for good luck, cornbread, turnip greens, bean soup, and pecan pie), and after watching a football game, I head to our backyard garden plot.  Rain, snow or sunshine, I always dig up a small segment, usually a 4×4 area.  Even though I have a garden tiller, I prefer to use a shovel; a tiller is too noisy and disturbs the placidity of this special day.  The shovel, on the other hand, allows me to turn over the soil in large clumps that crumble and don’t kill the earthworms and allows for better aeration.  The slow and rhythmic process also affords me the leisure to think about my New Year’s resolutions and to plan my annual spring garden.

In recent years numerous newspaper and magazine articles have expounded on the positive therapeutic effects (both physical and mental) that gardening bestows.  And numerous observers have pointed out that gardeners are by nature optimistic individuals.  I agree with both notions.

My gardening activities start in late Fall.  First, I spread grass clippings, leaves, ash from the fireplace, mulched materials and composted ingredients in the garden area and allow them to soak in the early winter rains.  In January I turn over the soil; in late February I plant my English peas, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, spinach, onions, and garlic; in late March I plant my potatoes, radishes and carrots; and in April I plant my tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, zucchini and crook neck yellow squash, green beans, eggplants, and corn.  Each year the crops are rotated and planted in hills, rows, or beds.  And each year some new variety of seeds and seedlings are planted, occasionally with outstanding results.

Since I consider my garden to be a creative outlet and an extension of my personality, I am particular about its aesthetic appeal.  I therefore try to coordinate the texture, design, color and space.  The cucumber vines make a wonderful green arbor along the fence, while the broccoli and cauliflower plants create an alternating schema of variegated green and white textures.  The garlic, planted around the perimeter of the garden to ward off insects, creates a miniature bamboo-like cordon of protective natural pesticide.  Because of the enormous elephant-ear like dominance of their leaves, the squash plants are planted in the center of the garden to help create a central focal point that helps accentuate smaller radiating rows of spinach, onions, and beans.

When the vegetables are ready to be harvested, the child in me emerges as I insist that my wife take photographs of me holding some unusually large squash or head of broccoli. One zucchini squash measuring twenty-two inches in length and seven inches in diameter fed the neighbors, a young couple and their three young boys, for three days. The vegetables provide delicious fresh produce that is consumed by the family, shared with numerous neighbors and friends, and put away in the freezer for the fall and winter seasons.

One of my most treasured possessions is a metal sign that was given to me by my wife and two sons as a Father’s Day gift.  On the emblem is the figure of a farmer in a supine position; he is surrounded by vegetable plants, garden tools, a large pumpkin, a rabbit, and a scarecrow.  I proudly display this cherished memento on a metal post adjacent to an antique, Texas, cast iron, ranch bell, and visitors are admonished to read the inscription: “Dad’s Garden.”

My refusal to use chemicals has helped me discover another significant mystery of God’s creation.  Lady bugs, praying mantises, lizards and frogs have helped keep the garden free of destructive pests and insects.  For several years lizards and horned toad frogs dwelled in the crevices of the stone wall and emerged every spring to feed on insects in my garden.  Unfortunately, they disappeared for a while when my next door neighbor adopted a stray kitten. And this year a foot-long garden snake bedded itself in the cucumber patch, and at season’s end I saw it slither away as the withering canopy of protective leaves dissipated.

As I pondered all the aforementioned and as I mulled on the notion that it is in nature in general and in my garden in particular that I encounter God’s majesty, I could not help but think of other folks in other climes who till the land not for leisure, as I do, but for providing meager sustenance, shelter, and clothing for their families.  And I especially think of Pakistani tenant farmers who are exploited by greedy feudal landowners, the Columbian indigenous native farmers whose lives are disrupted by drug traffickers and corrupt politicians, and especially the Palestinian farmers whose lands are confiscated by land-grabbing settlers aided and abetted by the policies of a heinous and brutal Israeli occupation. Denied access to their fields, the Palestinian farmers are incapable of planting or harvesting their crops; worse yet, the thousands of uprooted olive and fruit trees signify not only a heinous crime against humanity, but also an act of rabid malevolence against nature that is fully funded by US taxpayers. Observing Israeli settlers violate his fields with tractors, a Palestinian farmer, denied access to his own land, lamented this violation by stating that this dastardly act was much like seeing “someone violate my wife.”

I interpret my annual ritual of digging the earth as an affirming act, for the planting of a seed is an act of faith and hope.

Those who have suffered natural disasters and those who continue to suffer the daily man-made disasters brought on by wars and drones will no doubt wish the morose 2012 portrait of Janus away. And my wish for 2013 is to see Janus bestow a beaming countenance on the citizens of this world, one that will hopefully herald peace, harmony, good will, and hope.

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor of English and Art. He is a peace activist who loves to write, sculpt, travel, garden, fish and take photographs. halabyr@obu.edu