The Land of Rest and Return
Going back to the soil, and a family tradition, outside Chicago
Long ago, in other states, my ancestors couldn’t escape the land. In California, my Japanese-American great-grandparents picked peaches for decades before they were incarcerated during World War II. My Okinawan-American great-grandparents farmed pineapples after emigrating to Hawaii. The land was their means of survival.
Later, my family did what they could to flee that life—to move away from farming and manual labor. They moved to the city. They moved indoors. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago with no delight in any green or growing thing. And yet, as an adult, decades after my ancestors left the land behind, I’ve returned to it as a means of escape.
In the last few months, we’ve seen the world turned upside down. I’ve been spending more time in my garden, plucking out errant suckers from my tomato branches and checking my huckleberry plants for flea beetles. Surrounded by greenery, my mind relaxes. I can take long, slow breaths while I remove the silt from my Ping Tung eggplants, whose round, wrinkled leaves are as fuzzy as the nape of my baby’s neck.
That’s one reason why the soil is so rich here. Things grow for a while, and then it’s winter, and everything has to rest.
Setting up our first garden in the midst of a pandemic has made for a haphazard process. We’ve had to make do with materials on hand. We’ve learning as we go, with the help of the people around us. On a walk around the block a little while ago, I saw my neighbor transplanting her tomatoes. “Is the soil here good?” I asked her. She nodded as she explained how her vegetables have thrived. “We have a pretty short growing season,” she added. “That’s one reason why the soil is so rich here. Things grow for a while, and then it’s winter, and everything has to rest.”
I hadn’t considered that before. I had only seen our short growing season as a downside. I hadn’t thought about how the earth regenerates itself when it is dormant, which made me consider my family history. How I’m struggling to learn the skills that my ancestors took for granted, while I take for granted so much of what they worked so hard to have. How I’m trying to return to some of what they left behind.
In the seasonal cycle, there is restoration. In the same way that the one to two hours I spend per day in the garden—sometimes weeding, sometimes training my Japanese cucumbers to grow up the fence, sometimes just admiring the bounty around me in silence—is what allows me to re-enter the chaotic world again, with more energy to pour out into activism, into helping, into supporting. I know I am not my great-grandparents, with their work ethic borne of necessity. I am not the soil of California, able to produce year round. I’m like the Midwestern ground, like the cicadas whose husks I’ve been plucking off my leaves. Rest, rest, and return.