Smith River Memorial Garden

Excerpt from "Smith River Memorial Garden" in Blackberries in July: A Forager's Field Guide to Inner Peace.

The sun slides effortlessly into the western sky,  stretching the broken shadow of the large apple tree just outside my south fence downward from the knoll toward Johnny’s cabin. No-see-ums begin to bite any patch of exposed skin, so I pull on my long-sleeved work shirt and turn up the collar. The tiny flies still manage to find my ears and a patch of scalp where the back of my hat is open. Two beds have been completed, but there is no more digging left in my arms, legs, or back.

I walk slowly downhill to the pickup. Inside the canopy cover is a plastic grocery bag with five varieties of bean seeds in an assortment of scavenged containers—a cottage cheese carton, a jam jar, some repurposed sandwich bags. The beans all came from Mom, who has diligently grown the plants and saved their seed for many years. They came to her from various sources: Swedish Browns from Grammy; Red Kidneys from cousin Maggie; Tongues of Fire, Yellow-eyeds, and Cannellinis ordered from seed catalogs many winters ago. During the time that Grammy lived with Mom, basketfuls of beans were grown so that Grammy could occupy her winters sitting in the living room shelling seeds from dried pods. The beans occupied her hands, made her feel useful. Now Grammy is gone, and there is talk of Mom and Dad moving to eastern Oregon where the climate is inhospitable to bean growing. Things change and the time has come for the next generation of humans to carry the next generation of beans into the future.

When seeds are saved from plants that have grown for many years in a single place, the plants and the people whom they feed become that place. This plant-human relationship is fundamentally physical. Within a few seasons the genetic makeup of these crops is already being molded by soil and weather and human choice. For Mom’s beans, the strongest plants made more of themselves and the largest seeds were selected and planted the following year. When surplus beans are eat-en, their proteins are dismantled and recomposed into enzymes that activate the myriad chemical reactions that keep our physical selves running, including the firing of our brain cells that become choices that allow the best beans to persist. So Mom’s beans have, in a very direct way, become both her and her place in this bioregion. They will also become part of everyone with whom she shares a handful of seeds, and a simple bean then becomes a fiber in the fabric that binds people to each other and to the land.

I drop beans onto the surface of the two beds, the seeds about four inches apart, marking the boundaries between each variety with upright sticks, methodically pushing the seeds into the fluffy earth with my index finger, smoothing the surface as I go. Now the beans will grow in my hands, a product of Mom’s stewardship, a digging tool welded by Dad, the Kimmel horse byproducts, and the peculiar way that the sun, now gliding to roost below the bare western ridge, shines on this ground.

Returning to the Johnny Gunter cabin, I take up my customary post on the front porch to listen to the land become dark. And to think. A chorus of Swainson’s Thrushes calls into the dusk in a series of ascending warbles spiraling upward on invisible evening drafts, interspersed with short tweets rising hopefully at the end. Growing darkness silences the bird songs one at a time, until only a single thrush calls from the black conifers below the cabin.

That odd shiver runs down my spine, energy that is released when everything is right. Although I’m trained as a scientist, I wonder if we place too much stock in science to tell us how we should feel. Seeing a multidimensional landscape reduced to flat barrenness is emotionally jarring. I don’t understand why this is so, but I have come to believe that my emotions are worth paying attention to, despite their subjectivity. Do we have some innate template that is a basis for recognizing the tolerances of ecological acceptability? One could speculate that our survival over the vast reaches of history preceding civilization would have depended on such ecological intuition. Or do we resonate with the natural world when it reflects a vibrant state within ourselves? We thrive on depth: deep soil, deep shadows, deep connections to people and places. All of these produce intricate, interwoven, interdependent pieces of our personal ecology. Certainly this much is true: a forest that has been reduced to two dimensions will heal by tending naturally toward complexity.

People heal that way, too.