Spring Rites, Mar 05

There is a hidden tribe that exists in the middle of the NorthAmerican continent. Unlike his modern cousins, the native Iowa Gardener prefersto obtain sustenance for his family through a series of rituals called "tending" ratherthan through the more modern means of the grocery mega-mart. Unaffected bythe more urbane humans that surround him, the Gardener favors the old waysof his ancestors to those strange, noisy, and very bright places he sees hisneighbors visit on their frequent pilgrimages. Their Gods of Commerce are foreignto him, and perhaps somewhat frightening.

The traditional Dance of Joy that a native Iowa Gardener will do to celebratethe passing of “All Danger of Frost” involves genuflection combinedwith a plunging of the hands downward into the soil. The soil is then tilled,a small hole is formed, and a single plant or “seedling” is placedin the hole as sort of an offering to the Garden Gods. These seedlings havebeen carefully prepared and tended over the colder months in preparation forthis very ceremony. The roots of the sprout are then covered with a mixtureof topsoil, sand, wood ash, and the particular form of manure that is favoredby that garden’s oracle. This dance is then repeated innumerable timesuntil all portions of soil in the garden have their share of the herb, vegetable,and flower “offerings.”

As a final gesture in the Dance of Joy, the Gardener adds water to thesoil, as if to plea for favor with the Rain Gods and to consecrate thisHoly Ground.

Some of the plant life that soon rises from the tilled soil is seen as “unfit” inthe eyes of the gardener, and must be summarily removed, or “weeded.” Weedingis a difficult endeavor, but one that is nonetheless seen as its own reward,the journey being more important than the destination. This is done tothe great consternation of the youngest members of the gardener’sfamily, who are often required to perform this service as a kind of “penance” forearlier misbehavior.

There’s little reward for the hard work during the early days ofthis annual ritual, but the Gardener is undeterred. Day after day he kneelsto the Gods, wearing his customary wide-brimmed hat and colorful plasticclogs as a sign of respect for the sunshine and the holy ground. Rocksneed to be removed from the soil. Insects are inspected. Some are beneficial,such as the contrite-sounding Praying Mantis and the noble Ladybug. Othersare signs of evil spirits in the garden such as Whitefly and Aphid, andmust be washed away with soap, since the Gods frown upon stronger substances.There are other threats from the animal kingdom as well, and the Gardenerhas constructed elaborate defenses against the rabbit and the deer, includingthe use of guard dogs and something called “chain-link.”

March in Iowa does mean small rewards, as the seeds of the radish, mustard,and other greens that are offered to the Gods as a plea to end the frostsare planted in the hope that they will rise like answered prayers in theform of what the Gardener calls “salad.” These salads willbecome more elaborate as the season progresses, including such warmer-weatheritems as cucumber, pea, and bean, leading to the High Holy Days of thetomato.

This particular year in Iowa should prove to be very fruitful for theGardener. But the same Gods that provide favorable weather to the gardenare often fickle, and will provide just the right conditions for the Mosquito,the Gnat, and the Boxelder Bug. For the penitent Gardener, little canbe done in the face of this curse but to light candles scented with theherb citronella and meditate on the merits of the Great Circle of Life.

Many other resolutions to the insect infestation have been used by theGardener’s sophisticated neighbors to great apparent success, butthe truly faithful Gardener sees those who use such chemicals as heathens.They are the same ones who have tempted the Gardener to bring disfavorupon his garden by showering it with deceivingly consecrated-soundingsubstances like Miracle-Gro. These evils can be misleadingly temptingwith their false promise of a better harvest though less work and contrition,but the Gardener has come to this crossroads before and has seen the costof selling one’s soul.

And so, the Gardener trudges on, content in the knowledge that the journeyis its own reward if one cares enough to tend the hallowed soil and mindthe plants that spring forth. Perhaps, though, even the most contriteGardener will keep just a small buoyant gleam in his eye, imagining inMay the feeling of the tomato juice dripping down his chest as he standsin the Garden on a hot August afternoon.

Kurt Michael Friese is the chef at Devotay in Iowa City. Emailhim at devotay@mchsi.com