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THE STATE OF THE GAME

Of Gardens and Diamonds
By Jack Bushnell

My son Zach and I built a high chicken-wire fence around our vegetable garden to keep out the deer. In the winter, which lasts a long time in Wisconsin, it looks a little like a miniature ball field, a solitary enclosed space in the clearing below our house, dormant and full of promise under a cover of snow. In the spring, summer, and fall it grows increasingly riotous, from the first black, wetly fragrant, overturned earth to new shoots of corn, potatoes, squash and pumpkins, carrots, radishes, beans, peas, peppers, herbs and tomatoes, to tangled vines and sagging laden branches and tall rustling stalks. So green, lush green, sometimes overwhelming the senses, filling my eyes and nostrils and hands, filling my brain. When you're in it, even if you straighten up from your work and can see its clear boundaries, the garden is the whole world.

Not long ago, before this garden, I farmed a plot that truly seemed to stretch without limit. We lived in a nineteenth-century farmhouse surrounded by hundreds of acres of crop fields. And my monstrous garden abutted those fields, so that my freshly plowed ground in early spring extended, through a simple trick of the eye, into the dark, deep furrows fanning off in three directions, nearly to the horizon. As I planted each seed by hand, my neighbor drilled corn or soybeans behind his John Deere tractor, and waved each time he made his turn. When I was bent with my hoe, in the warm, dry air of early summer, cleaning the earth between my crop rows or around my squash and tomato plants, he was cultivating his fields, up and back, the sun glinting and dancing off his green engine housing. In the chill of late fall, I dug potatoes, filled my arms with butternut, acorn, zucchini, hoisted a few pumpkins. He maneuvered his combine through walls of ten-foot field corn, and the kernels, like molten gold, gushed into the grain cart driven along beside. And when the snows had come, when our separate fields had become one white field, we each in our houses stoked the fires in our stoves, listened to the icy winds outside our windows, and lived off what we'd grown and harvested, dreaming of warm dirt and the smell of green spring.

 

I remember another field, one that I've nurtured longer than any garden I ever planted. We came upon it in surprise, nestled among houses, but rimmed with trees and honeysuckle. A separate place, and at the same time the sunlit heart of the neighborhood. Not a city park; not even a public space as far as I could tell. It was just there, as if it had always been there, and only children seemed to know about it. I remember standing on the hill above, at the back edge of somebody's yard, my baseball glove dangling by its strap from my fingers, my two brothers beside me. Our new friend Ralph, a Latino boy my age, had brought us here, and now he shared it with us in that proud, proprietary way of anyone who has worked and tended a piece of land for a length of time.

I was thirteen years old. We were living in Winchester, outside Boston, while my father lectured at a local university for the summer. And I'd never seen such a baseball field. It was oddly shaped to be sure, a long, fenced rectangle with a backstop in one corner, a right field that went on forever, and a left field that ended abruptly, with a short fence and a big looming maple behind it. That direction was a hitter's dream, as long as the tree (like Fenway Park's Green Monster) didn't swat the ball back into play. The whole place seemed like a piece of wilderness, a kind of natural formation shaped by time but no longer subject to it.

We cared for it all summer, raking the infield dirt before a game with a local pickup team, cutting the outfield grass with an old push mower, pulling weeds along the base paths. And we drilled. Grounders kicked up dirt, fungo flies dropped lazily from the sky. When we were there, we were "in country," apart from everywhere else but a part of everything, free of clocks and schedules and parents but governed by the arc of the sun, the cadences of weather, the need to stop play in the early afternoon and scatter temporarily in search of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The edge of the world was that fence, those trees, that honeysuckle. And it was more than enough room.

 

In the quiet of a late spring day, I kneel amid the young corn. I admire the glistening pearl of rainwater cupped in the top of a new stalk. With thumb and forefinger, I pull each quack grass shoot, each lamb's quarter or shepherd's purse sprout trying to take root alongside. Nearby, split white seed casings still cling to tiny folded squash leaves. These plants emerged only a day or two ago, one narrow stem each, one leaf; now they stand bowed, as if praying, as if gathering strength. Across the way, in shallow troughs, I see the little humps of soil, the cracks in the earth where potato plants will soon push through. I smell the richness of the dirt around me, still fresh and newly turned after a long winter. I listen to the sounds of spring, the nasal trill of a red-winged blackbird, the hum of hornets recently awakened, the drone of a lawnmower or tractor in the distance. I visit each bed, hoeing, weeding, thinning, watering. Later, when summer has settled in, when the air whirrs with insects dancing like dust motes, I will look for the stunning, yellow and black argiope spider. She will have stretched her web among the branches of a tomato plant, splaying herself in its center, patient and warm and brilliant as a zebra in the sun.

It is in these rituals that I am soothed, for in gardening the tedium is the message. In the repetitive patterns, the familiar motions of tending my vegetables, I transcend repetition. I lose myself in the geometry, the straight rows, the rectangular beds, the circles of pumpkin and squash plantings, the square grids of carrots and radishes. Gardening is personal, solitary work, hours spent on minute details, and it repays me with heightened awareness, of shy blossoms and tender, curling vines, of aching muscles and a clear bead of perspiration falling, falling, to soak into the dry raked earth.

 

Watch the grounds crew taking care of a baseball field before the game, or between games of a doubleheader. It never reminds me of anything so much as gardening. Raking, smoothing, watering. Tending the pitcher's mound, tending the area around home plate. The careful laying out of the base paths. Watch the players themselves. The shortstop, during a lull in the game, picking a tiny pebble out of the infield dirt, tossing it backhand into the outfield grass. A right fielder carrying a scrap of paper that has blown from the stands, dropping it over the fence into the bullpen. The pitcher digging with his spikes in front of the rubber, back and forth, oblivious to the larger world around him, utterly intent on his circular plot of ground. All the scuffing and leveling of the soil that goes on throughout a game, all the tidying of each individual space.

Baseball is the gardener's game. It is life lived in the details; it is about clearing the mind of expectations and focusing it instead on the moment. Hours and hours spent picking up one groundball after another, turning, throwing, bending for the next one. Hours perfecting the slider, the curve, the fastball. Release after release, the ball spinning toward a shadowed pocket sixty feet, six inches away. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. The miles run across cool outfield grass, shagging flies, hitting the cutoff man. And so much time in the batter's box, grooving a swing against a machine, against a batting practice pitcher. So that during a game, each of these motions will seem effortless, each will reflect a sort of mesmerizing and clarifying attention to the small things, to "the basics."

 

In my garden, like the farmer in his field, I recapitulate the great and abiding rhythms of life on this planet. I submit happily to the seasons, to all that time stretching out ahead of me. I celebrate process and patience, and the long, slow round of birth, growth, ripeness, and dormancy. Then, with the first promise of a brand new spring and the warming touch of the sun, birth again.

Oddly, I find that I'm less interested in the produce itself, the size of the harvest, than in all that precedes and accompanies it. I love turning the earth, the rich aroma of it after a winter's sleep. I love laying down the compost, pushing seeds into the soft soil, drying chunks of potato, then lining them eyes-up in the troughs. I love the coolness of watering, the rainbows that hover above the beds, the pools that soak in around the stems of tomato plants, the stalks of corn. I even love the weeding, yanking them up by the roots, shaking the good dirt loose, piling the plants to the side to be thrown out when I've finished. And I look forward to the small rewards along the way, bright early carrots, tomatoes like drugs, heady and intoxicating, three or four sweet ears for the pot. But at the end, the numbers of squash or potatoes don't matter all that much. More important are the wild trailing vines carrying their fruit across the garden to weave among the trunks and leaves of other crops, or the smell of the potato beds, exposed, the earth as fragrant as Red Pontiacs or Russets, almost good enough to eat. I love having a garden, more than having had one. I care more for being in it than for what I get out of it.

 

"Daddy," my four-year-old says, as we sit at the kitchen table on a cold January morning. "Soon it will be spring and you know what that means." She raises her eyebrows and gives me a conspiratorial smile. "Baseball."

Addie and I attend many games each summer, rooting for our town team but mostly enjoying the ballpark, the easy pace of nine innings. She looks forward to it, as do I. So, though it's clear that she hasn't yet figured out the progression of months—or that in this part of the country any real spring still seems a long way off—it's true that pitchers and catchers will begin arriving at camps in Florida and Arizona within a few weeks. In March spring training will be in full swing, and in April the season will begin. For her, as for me, the promise of baseball makes it present, even when snow covers everything in sight.

Baseball is often called the summer game, but it's much more than that. Like the garden and the farm (but unlike other team sports), it lifts free of clock time, the dull march of hours, the tyranny of deadlines. Instead, it answers to something more like universal time, planetary movement, solar cycles. Spring giving way to summer, giving way to fall, and finally, to winter. As the raw winds of January and February ease, baseball comes tentatively to life. When green begins spreading along the edges of farm fields and my field, baseball stretches its legs and throws around. As I chop my soil and the farmer tills, as we prepare our ground and plant our crops, baseball gets to work in earnest. As new shoots, new leaves appear, as the farmer's land takes on a green haze and then full-fledged life, baseball settles in for the lazy span of 162 games. As we approach harvest, baseball anticipates its own culmination, and when we've got our crops in and the last World Series game is played, the rhythms begin anew with the dormancy and promise of winter. For me, baseball is a four-season game. It's always there, like my garden.

 

Late October, almost any year: My potatoes and squash, dusted in fine, dry dirt, lie in bags in the basement. Tomatoes jumble together in bowls, scatter across tabletops. They'll feed us for several months. Pumpkins decorate our front porch and back deck. Others wait to be made into pies. The first snow fell not long ago. My wife Jenny and I have raked our leaves into piles and carried them off into our woods. I've crawled around on the roof, cleaning gutters. We've completed the final rituals of fall. More snow is in the forecast. For those of us in the Upper Midwest, winter has for all intents and purposes arrived. And the last game of the World Series is about to be played. The grand cycle is nearly complete. But as soon as the last out is called, it will begin again. For I'll look forward to spring training and the new season. Likewise, each time I pass my quiet garden, I'll see not a spent place but a garden-to-be, as if the seeds already wait patiently beneath the snow. Like winter wheat. Like tender alfalfa biding its time until the melt.

I never feel the need to write or read baseball so much as I do in the winter. Like seed catalogs when the temperature reaches thirty below, thoughts of baseball warm me, grow soft and green in the white spaces of my mind. Through the bare branches of my oaks I can better survey, without obstruction, the comforting expanse of time, season following season, year following year. It stretches out before me, demands my reckoning. Short of trying to compose an Einsteinian treatise, I can think of no better, more profound, way to contemplate time—universal time—than in my garden or at the ballpark. In the winter, when I need gardens and diamonds most, I pull Roger Angell or Bill James off the shelf, reread The Natural or Shoeless Joe, or stand among my dormant vegetable beds, imagining. Or I write.

 

I peeled a baseball once, when I was a boy. A seam had split in a ragged curl across its equator. The rawhide had turned a burnished brown and the red stitches were the color of deep clay. Beneath the rent, the yarn had turned almost black, from all the times it had rolled exposed through mud and infield dirt. The ball was heavy, water-logged, no longer useful. And I was curious. So I pulled on the leather and a few more stitches popped. Then more, until I could loosen and slide it off like the rind of an orange. Remarkably, the tightly wound, crisscrossed yarn I now held felt no softer than the tough dermis I had just removed. But it felt different, smoother and rougher at the same time, and it seemed unnaturally small in my small hand. I wondered where the end of the yarn was. I wondered whether perhaps there was no end, just a continuous coil looping back and forth over itself.

There is no other ball like a baseball. Footballs, basketballs, soccer balls, tennis balls are empty, hollow. They have only surface, nothing else. The baseball, however, has dense levels of meaning, like some wonderful fruit, like an avocado with its secret pit. It's just the right size, like something pulled from a vine or twisted from a stalk. In his novel The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop., Robert Coover describes the baseball as "hard and white and alive in the sun." A living thing, beautiful, perfect, like a potato, like something born of the earth, natural and inevitable. Yet at the same time exotic, unexpected, mysterious.

But even that doesn't fully explain the wonder of it. As I meticulously unwound the yarn, it was as if I were digging down through layers of sediment. A fine, almost thread-like upper layer, followed by blue-gray yarn, then more white, then blue-gray again. Sandstone, dark silt, limestone, mudstone. Down, down, fascinated by its complexity, determined to reach its core. The strata opened themselves to me one by one, each falling away to reveal the next. I pulled furiously at the strands, searching for beginnings, hunting for the seed that had started it all. Then finally, like a molten center, the red-rubber-coated cork blazed through. I held it in my hand, closed my fingers around it, tossed it in the air. A little nut, an acorn, a buckeye. That's how it felt. I put it in my pocket, gathered up the tangled piles of yarn, and started home.

A baseball is a miniature earth, a planet nestled in your palm, cradled in the oiled leather of a glove. Layers of discovery enfolding a single pod. When I throw it, when I catch it, it is as if the world has condensed itself to a bright, dazzling point. All that I know is there, in the geometry of gentle arcs crossing and recrossing against a background of blue. Ah, yes, the tedium is the message all right. In the universes of baseball and the garden, we are asked only to pay attention. To every breeze, every smell, every quivering leaf. Every new, subtle thing.

 

In early January, I bring the last potatoes up from the basement to wash and cut them. They're gritty with the dirt of the garden and as I run the water over them I smell again the summer earth. I lean on the edge of the sink, look out the window at the darkening yard. It's only five o'clock and the cold has draped itself upon the house, dimming my line of sight. But for a moment I see and feel the warm sun. For a moment I am mounding the soil around my potato plants, so they can go about their secret work. Like a baseball glove held to my nose, these potatoes conjure up the sweat and tang and richness of the seasons of growing and harvest. They remind me that the garden is always there, in the background, like a ball game on the radio. Full of air, full of light. Like filaments of yarn, billowing across space and time.

—EFQ

JACK BUSHNELL, chair of the English department at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, is an award-winning essayist and children's book writer. This is the third time his work has appeared in EFQ.

© 2008 Jack Bushnell

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