Digging Up the Past

The other day I visited my great-grandparents on their farm. Technically it was a dream, but the sights, sounds and smells were as real as if they were happening right now, and the conversation was even more realistic.

I guess the truth is that the more advanced we become as a society the more I wish I could have lived in the heyday of my grandparents. Or their grandparents. Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate the digital age and all the convenience it affords us (heck, without it I wouldn’t have a job), but lately I find myself longing for a far simpler time.

In the dream I helped my great-grandmother prepare the garden rows for planting. As I dragged the corner of the hoe through the rich, well-worked earth, she followed along, slowly and methodically dropping a kernel of corn every few inches with pinpoint accuracy before gently nudging the earth back into place with her foot.

“Big Mama, would you believe that people actually go the store to buy dirt for their gardens?”

“Now quit telling tales, Michael.  Why would anyone spend money to buy their own land and then spend more money to buy dirt to put on it?”

The simple reasoning of the statement jarred my brain.

“It’s true!  Some people don’t even have a garden at all.”

“Well that’s just nonsense. If they didn’t have a garden at home then what would they eat?”

Rather than confuse her with silly talk about people buying their vegetables in cans at the supermarket, I woke up and sat on the edge of the bed wondering if we’ve really advanced as much as a society as we like to think. Sure, we don’t have to have gardens to feed our families as generations before us did, but I can’t help but to wonder how many people who buy green beans could grow them if they did have to.

We are taught, growing up, that advances happen as the result of learning, and yet for as advanced as we are as a society there are thousands of people going to bed hungry at night—largely because we have forgotten how to feed ourselves. In Big Mama’s day, if someone was hungry, you fed them. If you had extra vegetables from the garden you shared them with friends and neighbors who might not have as much. How many average folks today could grow their own food if they had to?

In the space of just a couple of generations, our society has lost what was once the common everyday knowledge required to feed itself. If that is advancement, I will happily move forward by moving backward. I’ve always been a bit of a history buff, and I’m more than happy digging up the past.

There was a time that I’d feel a twinge of shame when someone poked fun at me for being so old-fashioned as to start plants from seed, grow a garden and then can the produce just like my great grandparents did. Now I remember a conversation that never happened with a woman I barely knew, and I feel like I am part of some secret society, charged with the challenge of never advancing so far that I forget where I came from.


Michael Nolan is a freelance writer and avid gardener based in Alabama. He encourages eco-friendly living and offers gardening info on his website, MyEarthGarden.com. Nolan is also the co-author of I GARDEN: Urban Style.

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11 thoughts on “Digging Up the Past

  1. I spent the day with my 78 year old friend Phyllis the other day.
    Here is a picture http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1827527088980&set=a.1154983515811.2023215.1264395417
    She has an acre lot she purchased with a nice house in 1972 and her garden is established to say the least. Blueberries, raspberries, flowers, vegetables, bee stations (they are not hives?) and she makes her own honey too. I learn so much from her.

    She was making bread from scratch when I got there and was going to make pretzels later. “It’s easy. You take bread, roll in to pretzels, dip in soda water and bake then add salt.” I don’t even know what she means by soda water..Baking soda and water mixed together or carbonated water you buy at the store? I was too embarrassed to ask. It seemed like a big secret to me but so basic to her.

    Her garden is the same way. All these wonderful organic secrets…She mixes shredded paper with straw and covers all her tenders…Garlic planted all over the garden and she says no aphids…

    I have time to write because the cut flower industry has been removed from the United States. My family has been in cut flowers for three generations and we were one of the largest lily and freesia suppliers in the Portland, Oregon area. Only a few of the farmers I grew up with are still in business because they only sell in the summertime and mostly greenery not flowers.
    We are too evolved to grow flowers as noted by Allan Becker. It is much more civilized to import them from third world countries where they are covered in chemicals not to be used in the USA –m In complex, evolved societies, that is the way it is supposed to be, otherwise doctors would not have the time to heal,farmers would not be able to make a living and you might not have the time to write.
    I hope everyone has noticed that by eliminating farming from this country we have created a complete economic collapse because every industry is supported by farmers and if we have no farmers, no economy….

    My grandparents had $300,000 under there mattress when they passed away. They lived a sustainable lifestyle in Holland and acted like they had no money. They remembered the Great Depression and WWII and warned me many years ago that it could happen again so always grow plants and be prepared.

    I have had a few dreams with my Opa Johannes as well where he showed me how to spin wool like he showed me when I was five years old in Holland and how to grow grapes.

    Articles like this make me believe they are still with us and the old ways of doing things will stand the test of time. It is time to live in villages and support ourselves first…Being dependent on third world countries for food is not advancement, it is enslavement and it is up to us to free ourselves…

  2. I appreciate the sentiment of your article. I think that knowing how to provide for yourself and your family is vital. What better way to practice than by growing food. I think our loss goes further than the knowledge of gardening mechanics. Growing and culturing plants is a distinctly human trait. It is part of what allowed us to evolve as a species. When we refuse to tap into our genetic predisposition to interact with the world of plants, to the benefit of ourselves and our species, we deny our humanity. Sad.

  3. Dear Michael, My wife Aurie and I teach vegetable gardening. We teach mainly through the Master Gardeners. We also teach local home school, church and garden groups. We teach those who want to learn for fun. We also teach with the knowledge that our complex society could, at any time, experience a catastrophe that could easily disrupt our current food system. We also emphasize our forgotten contact with plants and the soil.

  4. Thank you for your beautiful words, Michael–I might not bake bread like my grandmother and mother did, or have a farm the way my great-grandparents did, but I’m glad to still be connected to my roots with my little herb garden on my balcony. Of course not everyone wants to, or needs to, garden at all–that’s not the point. The point is to retain a sense of connectedness to the world around us on a very basic level, and growing food is one beautiful way to do that.

  5. Pingback: Guest post for Horticulture Magazine | My Earth Garden

  6. Allan,

    The fact that your family hasn’t grown food for 2,500 years has nothing to do with whether our not you should. If you were the first in your family with the opportunity to go to college and you didn’t do it because no one else in 2,500 years had done so, that wouldn’t make much sense either.

    Further, nowhere did I imply that doctors should not heal, et al. I might not have the time to write about gardening if I was too busy doing it, but if I didn’t spend all that time gardening I wouldn’t have anything on the subject worth reading either.

    Thanks for reading and for the comment!

  7. Although I enjoyed reading about the contrast that you created between now and then, and I appreciate the sentiment that your writing has evoked, I do not understand why I should grow my own food. No one in my family has done so for the last 2,5oo years.
    Throughout history, for the last several thousands of years, advances in agricultural methods have allowed societies to liberate many people from the land so that they might engage in equally important activities. It is called a division of labor and it is part of the evolution of societies from agrarian to urban. Therefore it should not be so surprising that many people do not know how to grow their own food. In complex, evolved societies, that is the way it is supposed to be, otherwise doctors would not have the time to heal,farmers would not be able to make a living and you might not have the time to write.

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