Old fishermen know a July morning with a heavy dew will be followed by a strong southwest wind in the afternoon. I have a neighbor who swears that spring peeper frogs are abundant only when the level of ground water is high after the winter thaw. Horseshoe crabs come up into shallow water at night to spawn on the high tide when the moon is full in June. Where I live these wonders are some of the ways the land-water-air speaks, but one needs patience to see the signs and listen to the language. The land speaks in light beyond spectrums, sounds beyond vibrations, then it’s up to each person to accept or ignore what it has to say. Not an easy task in a world where time shrink-wraps our lives.
Luckily there are individuals here, as there are in every town, who leave room to listen to what the land is saying. These folks know that the land is constantly speaking, sharing energy, a sort of essential nature woven into all that goes on. For them a place, any place, is land – water - growing things - dying things – scents – sounds – wind – rain – snow - ice, and falling leaves.
But for many others the land is a quantity, a marketable product, something off a store shelf, or even merely an entertainment venue: it’s a great “beach town”, “mountain town”, river town”. Other places are identified by what is made, or grown nearby (vineyards and wine). A few for some historical significance such as the mansions of Newport R.I. The motivation for such designations is usually economic as tourists come to visit an idea. But these distilled images recall butterflies pinned to a board: the likeness is there, but the life is gone. Nevertheless, everywhere the land has a voice and there are always a few who are listening.
My hometown, Montauk, NY, at the eastern tip of Long Island is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. Officially twelve miles long and barely two miles wide, the land, consisting of small hills, hollows, and sparse wooded areas, leaves anyone living here exposed to wind, sun, rain, snow, and the ocean. Just being here can be intense. In Montauk it is impossible to ignore the multitude of elemental variables that get wrapped into the collective: “How’s the weather?”
“Damn fog, or quiet calm day”; “damn wind, or refreshing breeze”; “damn cold, or a bit chilly”; “too hot or a nice beach day!”. We all have our own take on the weather. Still there are a few who welcome a howling winter storm the same as they do the peaceful chirping of tree frogs in spring. These are people who hear a different song, but a song sung by the same singer. They hear, see, smell, and feel the land. And while my friendships cross over a multitude of social and cultural boundaries, it is with patience and intuition that I have identified an informal collection of these native souls. I think of them as contemporary indigenous people, new natives. An if you are curious, you may find a gathering of these present-day primitives Saturday mornings in summer, digging, raking, and weeding in an open lot in the middle of town.
The Montauk community garden is an all-volunteer undertaking. The most dedicated begin preparing the soil in April. Others come to help as the days warm up. Activity - planting, weeding, staking, harvesting – reaches a peak between June and August. Everything is put to bed by early November after the next year’s crop of garlic is planted on Halloween. Whatever cash is left after basic expenses, never very much, goes to the village food kitchen or the Meals on Wheels program. One side of the garden is devoted to vegetables - potatoes, zucchini, carrots, eggplant, onions, lettuce, arugula, and garlic while an assortment of flowers is grown on a separate plot and sold as arrangements or for weddings.
Between the two growing plots, there’s a passage with enough room for a few trucks, a tool bench, a compost pile, and a table usually covered with seedling trays. Local weekly news is exchanged here when everyone somehow finds time to “take a break”. Then, back on their knees with hands in the dirt, they take in what the land has to say. Light rain, sunshine, fog, frost, customers or not, April to November, these people work the garden. And the garden works the people.
With limited volunteers, the garden is only open to the public on Saturday mornings. A cultural collision is the inevitable result. Summer tourists wonder by headed to the beach. The late-night party crowd lines up across a side street at Goldberg’s Deli for coffee and bagels. Cars topped with surfboards cruise by on the main road headed for a beach farther east. No one pays much attention to the little group turning the soil, pulling weeds, or planting potatoes with grimy hands, soiled T-shirts, and muddy jeans. Music from a truck rings out a 60’s playlist: Airplane, Credence, CS&N, Joni, Dylan, and the Dead. Familiar songs from another age. And while local homeowners, who should be the best customers, stay away to avoid the downtown weekend crowds, a loyal few show up for the organic produce or flowers at fair prices.
Inside the garden, the unofficial (everything is unofficial) headman, Andy, is a landscape engineer with stringy grey hair, a frazzled beard, and a sundried red face. His collection of threadbare flannel shirts might have come as part of the deal for his well-traveled Chevy truck. A third-hand rototiller is the only power equipment visible in the garden, and keeping it running is one of Andy’s main responsibilities.
Regulars on the vegetable side include Jimmy, a sometimes-employed welder, and Walter, a retired local retailer. Jimmy’s understanding of soil and vegetables is profound. He works every Saturday, and drops by during the week to pull weeds, and run the watering system. I fit in along with a number of not-so-regular volunteers.
It’s mostly women in charge of the flower garden. Janet, with long blond hair tinged with grey, has been in the restaurant business for decades. Bonnie has lived in a number of countries, and although she rarely admits it, speaks several languages. Waif thin, she seems to embrace being known as a shy local artist.
From the first morning I volunteered at the garden, I could feel this family of friends was unique even for our small community. It was obvious everyone shared some unspoken bond. Perhaps the language of the land, or the mythical Voice of the Turtle. But however deep this bond was, it did not hit home for me until one weekend last year. The day should not have been different, but it was.
I suppose Bonnie’s closest friends knew she had been ill, but most of us did not. When word spread through town the previous Tuesday that Bonnie had died -- some sort of fast spreading cancer – everyone was shocked. Bonnie was one of my “indigenous people,” a regular at the garden always tending to the flowers. A petite, pixie like woman. I embraced her as one of Shakespeare’s fairies in A Midsummers Night Dream. A gentle person. An unassuming smile. She moved through the blossoms like a soft August breeze. Now gone. There was no music in the garden that Saturday morning.
Outside the fences it was another summer day. Same swarms of beach people, same breakfast crowds, same line of SUV’s with surf racks on the main road. But inside the garden it was not the same. Something very big was missing.
We carried on in a daze, doing what had to be done. I was alone planting potatoes on the far side, but close enough to the street and bagel store to hear an occasional burst of laughter. Perhaps someone sharing a video on an iPhone.
After an hour, I saw Andy and Jimmy discussing something, but I was too far away to hear what was said. Then Andy, shaking his head, raised his voice, “This just isn’t the way she would want it.” He turned and stomped back to the center towards the sales desk, tool shed, community table, and his truck.
A few minutes went by before I heard it. Someone had put the music on. I looked up and saw the other gardeners. Everyone had stopped. Everyone was standing. We glance around at each other somehow acknowledging something. I’m not sure what, but something. The wind shifted and I recognize the song, Uncle John’s Band by The Grateful Dead, and a few of those old familiar lines:
It’s the same story the crow told me,
it’s the only one he knows.
Like the morning sun we come,
like the wind we go.
I bowed my head for a moment, then looked up. I saw the people, and trees, and clouds. I felt the breeze, still damp that July morning. I heard a herring gull crow from a roof top. And I smelled the freshly turned soil. Yes, I said, this is how Bonnie would want it.
The pace of work picked up. Everyone seemed to gain a step. On my knees, I planted another row of potatoes. I held each seedling in my hand for a moment before placing it in the soil. Completing the row, I straightened up to stretch my back. Standing and taking a few deep breaths, again I heard the music, another Grateful Dead song. It floated over our small cluster of volunteers and jumped the garden fence. Lyrics, chords, and harmonies weaved through the line of party people, soared above roof tops, and finally disappeared out over the ocean two blocks away:
Walk me out in the morning dew my honey,
walk me out in the morning dew today.