I walk past a playfield, past a private school, down a footrail bordered by bamboo and Himalayan blackberry, and into an inconsequential two and a half acres beloved for decades. For years, for that lifetime before COVID, walking the Picardo community garden—with its Buddhist prayer flags rippling above radishes and runner beans—was a weekly routine with the force of ritual. Drop off my daughter at our synagogue’s religious school; hurry to my adult Hebrew class; rush to the synagogue’s library, my backpack stuffed with grants to write, calendars to fill, meals to plan alongside parents reviewing financial statements or reading graduate textbooks while our children learned stories of Jacob and Sarah and Isaac and Rebekah and other ancestors struggling through their own turbulent times; but before those mundane tasks, I would walk a pilgrimage, a short journey to wander and wonder along foot trails of tumbling leaves, twigs, tan and burnt umber wood chips.
It’s been two years since I walked during Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, fasting and light-headed and hungry amid temptations of raspberries sweet and crimson and left too long on the vine. Two years since I walked during Sukkot, the harvest festival, past crow-pecked pumpkins, seeds scattered on burlap and mud. Two years since I walked during Purim and Passover, the spring holidays of survival and freedom, while beds of black earth warmed in the returning sunlight and stank of the deep, bittersweet smell of manure. Two years of grief numbing my fear while wildfires burned through the world, and marches and protests proliferated, and right-wing insurrectionists tried to overturn a free election in the name of liberty, and a second impeachment failed to stop a dangerous President, and two and hundreds and tens of thousands of millions of deaths happened on the other side of our quarantine-shut door. Two years of loneliness tightening my heart at family and friends’ faces seen over Zoom or not at all. Two years of the musty smell of blankets folded for Afghan refugees, and mac and cheese and tampons and tins of tuna left in free little food pantries for neighbors not yet met. Two years since I walked during Rosh Hashanah past marigolds bright as the sunshine on a day said to be the birthday of the world. Two years, and still my small corner of the world teeters between surges of disasters yet to come.
Now, I walk past the tool shed with its rooftop apiary, past rain bins and wheelbarrows, past a mud-stiff glove left on a hay bale, past red peppers and chili peppers, past Early Girls and heirloom tomatoes. Past bumblebees nuzzling lavender, past the tinge of heartbreak, past the short breath of despair at seeing how small and fragile are the creatures that life depends on. Two years, yet the bees are still here darting amid flowers of crimson zinnia and blue comfrey. Two years of not knowing how scared I was until I could walk past hip-high basil sweetly scenting the air, past seed-laden sunflowers turning their heads toward a waiting earth, past a still abundant world. I breathe deeper. I walk past the statue of the woman giving birth to the world. Past Jack and Jill scarecrows and purple pinwheels in the children’s garden.
Past two brief but seemingly endless years. And under my footsteps is what little remains from long past that, some fifteen thousand years ago, when these few acres were once part of an expanse left barren from the retreating Vashon glacier, then colonized by Douglas Fir, Ponderosa Pine, and other conifers, then becoming peat bogs and swamp that were later drained and logged, and still later farmed by the Picardo family, turn of the 20th Century Italian immigrants whose farm sent harvests to small groceries and regional markets that disappeared as large growers sent produce to supermarkets, and more farmland was covered with landfill for post-World War II housing until Boeing busted and Seattle’s economy sank, and neighbors asked the Picardo family for plots to grow food that were eventually leased to the City as a permanent community garden.
And now, quicker steps. Past two years of sorrow and chaos that was a moment in a vast history, an unknown future. Toward black-capped chickadees and cucumbers and acorn squash. Toward a new year, soon, with Rosh Hashanah. There will be disasters to come (of course). Now, I walk toward the perseverance of people who never forgot the beauty of Brussel sprouts, the patience of those tending tomatillos and butter lettuce, the faith of those in the bursting sweetness of life that will soon be on my tongue.
I almost walk past a woman with blonde-grey hair and a deep-lined face, who asks me “Would you like some dahlias?”
“Thank you, but I have nowhere to put them.” My hands hold a notebook and pen; my pockets are jammed with iPhone and wallet.
Undeterred, the woman cuts dahlias full and white as new snow, then goes to the pump and fills a plastic cup with water, all the while telling me she’s worked her four-by-four plot for decades, putting down metal bins and hanging up planting baskets above the tomato cages and nasturtiums. She apologizes as she hands me the flowers, saying, “They only last three days.”
We talk longer and then part company, she to her plot where she’s laid red brick and hung bird houses, and me with two gifts as I walk a new path on an old trail. In one hand, I hold sweetly scented dahlias I’ll take home and tend for the next five days of their bloom. And in the other hand, I hold gratitude for the white-haired woman in khaki pants and a periwinkle cardigan who slants sideways as she hauls a sloshing bucket, for the dreadlocked man in a red T-shirt who shakes his head over Sweet Millions cherry tomatoes, for the teenage boy in cargo shorts sorting weeds from spinach from chard in the food bank’s beds, for all those who pray with earth-covered hands as they tend their gardens.