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8/22/2006

Nekked in the Garden

For The Herb Companion magazine
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

People who write about gardening sometimes have unusual ways of amusing themselves when they get together. On an annual basis the Garden Writers of America meets, tours public and private gardens, listens to programs and lectures, and smoozes about the craft and work of garden writing. At those yearly conferences there will be 500 or so people including television gardening personalities, magazine editors, radio talk show hosts, newspaper and magazine columnists and lots of garden book authors.

One of the popular entertainments during this annual conference is the night of karokee. I believe the reason it remains popular year after year is the absolute joy of seeing distinguished personalities making absolute fools of themselves.

At this year's conference, after karokee had wound down one evening, a group of us were sitting and talking about gardening. Someone offerd up the question, "What's your most embarrassing moment as a gardener?"

I think the questioner had in mind something like the time you planted parsley and got rhubarb, or you planted the gladiolus bulbs upside down and they grew to China.

That was far from the answers that were soon revealed, however. One garden writer mentioned having fallen asleep beneath a well-mulched bed of sunflowers, only to be discovered by her teenage son who thought she had lost her mind.

"He actually called 911!" she said.

Another admitted to having lost her diamond ring in a patch of turnips and not finding it until after she and her husband divorced. When it was my turn I offered up my story.

"Well," I began, "this may be a bit radical for this group, but here goes." I described having moved to my remote rural area 26 years ago. At that time I would almost never saw a car pass by on my road, sometimes not for a week or more. I was 30, exhuberant at rural life, at having a real garden to tend and of establishing my self-sufficienty.

"Back then," I said, "I was a late-blooming hippy. It was just me and the earth, the basics of life. I wanted to live off the land and be totally at one with the Universe."

I began the habit of gardening without a shirt. Soon I had also left off my shoes, reveling in the feeling of the fertile soil under my feet. I hadn't experienced that since childhood. Then, noting that if anyone did happen by on my road, I could easily hear their car tires on the gravel for a half mile away and be warned, I decided to leave off the rest of my clothes, as well.

The feeling of gardening completey naked in a totally private place was a freedom I had never experienced. It became a habit, a daily routine. The dog and cat at first looked at me strangely, maybe surprised that I could remove my covering and they couldn't, but other than that, I gardened without interruption.

One day as I weeded along a raised bed of bronze fennel, talking to the butterflies, conversing with the bluebirds, I suddenly heard a soft voice nearby. I peeked over the fennel and there, not fifty feet away, stood a smartly dressed, matronly lady, her hand resting on the garden gate. Her car, along with a lady traveling companion were parked nearby in the driveway. I could see that she was driving an old Buick, the kind with big, balloon-like tires, the kind that could glide silently on graveled country roads .

I stood up, keeping the chest-high bed of fennel between me and the unwanted visitor. She wanted to know if I knew some long lost cousin of hers who had lived nearby, decades before. I didn't, I declared politely. She continued asking me questions, but in a soft voice, so I kept having to ask her to repeat her words. Finally she said, "Young man, if you would come a little closer I wouldn't have to repeat myself. It's unkind of you to make me yell.."

I knew she had more voice because she had just squalled at my dog, nearby. I thought to myself, "How rude! You're in my yard, uninvited and you are telling me where to stand so you can talk to me about people I've never heard of. And you are yelling ugly things at my innocent dog!"

But I remained courteously behind the fennel, preferring not to shock the lady. She kept up the banter, telling me about her cousins, their house, their childhood, their divorces, their wayward children, their stint in jail. Once again she insisted I join her at the garden gate, with more force this time.

"Ok," I mumbled to myself. "This is my farm, my garden and you are a pest." I stepped determindly out from behind the fennel and strode to within a few feet of the lady, just as she had requested. Her eyes grew big. She looked at the trees, then the sky, then the power lines over the garden. She watched the barn swallows diving at mosquitoes overhead,. She surveyed the torn roof on the weathered old garden shed behind me, up at the oak trees, over toward the hills beyond. Her voice trailed off in mid sentence.

She didn't apologize, nor did I. But she did refrain from any more tales of her misguided relatives and their woeful lives. Quickly, and quietly she got into her old Buick. The car's silent tires snaked their way up the gravel driveway and over the hill and out of sight. I would have loved to listen in on the conversation between the two ladies as they drove away.

My most embarrassing moment was also a moment of triumph, but after that, I kept an extra pair of shorts in the garden, just in case.

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