A memory from childhood stands out: Playing in the garden and running smack into a garden spider's web. Well, not actually into the web, but pulling up just short, like in a cartoon with heels dug into the dirt and a screeeeech! And finding myself looking right into the eyes of the biggest spider I'd ever seen.
The image of that spider--suspended in its web waiting for the next victim--is one that returns in my mind's eye over and over, who knows why. I've always been both fascinated by and terrified of spiders. In college, I would capture a garden spider like this one and use it in an experiment to test my hypothesis that spiders could be raised on a large scale and used in farming as an alternative to insecticides. I think I got one crop of spider eggs before the experiment fizzled.
The garden was an important locus of childhood activity. My father had broken the sod behind our small lot in suburban Chicago. It wasn't really on our property, but just beyond the property line on land belonging to the county forest preserve. Nevertheless, my father tilled it as if it were our own.
He grew rhubarb, and in the spring there would be a big pot on the stove cooking huge quantities of something we called "rhubarb sauce," consisting of the stalks rendered into a smooth mush with copious amounts of sugar. For weeks, it seemed, we would be eating "rhubarb sauce" for breakfast, "rhubarb sauce" for lunch, and "rhubarb sauce" on our ice cream after dinner. Open the refrigerator and you'd see pitchers of "rhubarb sauce" lining the shelves.
He also grew tomatoes, and there were times when I'd secretly grab a salt shaker from the kitchen and make my way to the garden to look for a ripe fruit. They always seemed so large and taught and warm, those tomatoes, and reaching into the plant for one would leave your hands stained green and smelling of that tropical, fecund tomato smell. You'd find a good spot on the tomato, give it a lick with your tongue to moisten it then sprinkle a bit of salt. You knew what was coming next: The first bite always exploded with juice that dribbled down your chin and shirt front. Then another shake of salt, another bite, and so forth, slurping and sucking until there was nothing left but the stem end.
After that you sat on the ground with a tomato stain running down your chin and shirt, your belly feeling warm and satisfied as if filled with the sun.
The tomatoes, the peaches that grew in the yard--those were parts of summer we looked forward to. We never strayed far, but in those days you left the house in the morning to play and often didn't return until dinner. We hiked into the woods, catching snakes and frogs and building tree houses. There seemed to be an endless quest for sandlot baseball games, sometimes not enough players to cover the outfield adequately. Ground balls would kick up a cloud of dust in the broiling sun. Kids would tire of chasing balls in the heat: They drifted away one-by-one until the game petered out and you looked for the next thing to do....
When we weren't playing baseball, we'd be at a friend's house for long, lazy bouts of Monopoly. The radio would be tuned to the Cubs with Jack Brickhouse announcing the play-by-play. Ernie Banks was in his prime in those days and our greatest hope, sitting around a picnic table playing Monopoly, was that Ernie would knock one over the vine-covered brick wall at Wrigley Field so we could hear Jack Brickhouse rise up out of his chair and scream, "Hey, hey Ernieeeeeee!"
It seems to me we were content. There was not a lot of driving around in cars, no traffic jams, no spending the day cruising the mall or rolling dinners at McDonald's. We had our sense of community right there in the neighborhood. We didn't want for more. And that may be the sense I am trying to recreate with our garden and growing our own food here in the District of Columbia.
Some people measure progress by how much more we have than our parents' generation. More money, bigger house, bigger cars, more time spent eating at restaurants, longer vacations. But I'm not sure all that is true. I'm not sure that is a good measure of progress. I think we can be happier with fewer of those things, and more of the feeling of belonging--that sense of connectedness--we had as kids playing in the garden.