My Dirty Old Man

My father grew up poor in southside Chicago, a clapboard house with no insulation, and rail tracks out back where the freight trains rolled past on their way to the Blue Island Yards. His family, like many, appropriated a small plot off the siding there to eke out some vegetables, and they kept chickens there also. Today we might call it “urban guerilla gardening” but in the meagre 1930’s it was perfectly normal. Everyone did it, or at least, everyone poor did. As a child my Dad worked that rank, oily soil, and though he hated chores, the soil did what soil does: it went into his skin.

Then came Abundant America. Giddy with victory, flush with resources, beguiled by prosperity.
And the concrete trucks came and made freeways, and suburbia was born. The pull of more, better, and bigger became inexorable. Gardens became lawns, bigger and bigger, fringed by a regimented brew of ornamental foliage, incongruous, and unusable: Pampas Grass beside Ajuga beside Viburnum beside Jade Plant beside Mock Orange.

That’s how I was raised. Yet my father never forgot his roots. Or rather, the dirt never quite left him. So we had our lawns, but we also had vegetables, because Dad remembered, and he wanted it that way. And I did chores in that garden. And, as I would one day discover for myself, the soil went into my skin.

Dawn’s own story is similar: a love of dirt that she can attribute to her father. This is how life generally once was, not so very long ago. When our mothers and fathers (city folk, country folk, no matter) got their nails messy, grew a bit of food. When they saw seedlings grow, blossom, and fruit. When they harvested and proudly served. They experienced this everyday joy, and had a measure of food sovereignty too.

It’s not that far away, neither back nor forward. None of us need to reach back very far. The dirt is still there. Just beneath our skin. Forward then! For better even than a community that eats local is a community with a garden out every back door.