Harvest on August 31, 2019

I went into the garden in search of a metaphor.

That was the line of poetry that came into my head last week as I was digging around with my fingers to get some potatoes. I realized that I’ve been comparing my body to the garden consistently for the 3.5 years since my cancer diagnosis. I look to the garden for ways to express how I’m doing: my health, my fruitfulness, my productivity, my challenges, my state of mind, the progress or halting of the disease, pretty much every aspect of my life after diagnosis.

There is always evil in the garden: gophers, potato bugs, WEEDS, mites, squash borers, cabbage worms (any number of bad bugs). Let’s call them cancer.

But there are also beneficial insects, including the pollinators and the earthworms. There seem to be a lot of beneficial ants in the garden, too, aerating and carrying nutrients around. Most of the bugs don’t do real damage, and even though my kale was turned to lace earlier this summer, now it’s flourishing, just in time to freeze it for winter. My body is so surprisingly healthy overall. My general numbers rock!

There are acts of nature: drought, too much rain, hail, windstorms. But the supporting ecosystem is the lifeblood of the garden: sun, rain, soil, compost, and all the supports I can’t even see.

I think of the ecosystem as God’s presence, in a way. Contributing good things, requiring my cultivation, an unseen-yet-seen force for good in the garden. Providing: Thank you for this food. I think about the garden each Sunday when the priest receives the gifts: Through your goodness we have this bread and wine to offer, fruit of the earth and work of human hands.

But I don’t think of the “bad” acts of nature as God’s punishment (or the good weather as God’s reward, though it is a blessing). And I don’t think of the bugs and weeds as Satan (the snake in the garden). These things are just part of Creation. This is just part of the whole picture. Like cancer is part of the picture of my life — my future life and my life now.

Gardening has not become my religion, but it is a practice that is very important to my health, both spiritual and physical. First, I feel great about the food I’m growing. This year I’m trying to grow sweet potatoes for the first time, because that is very good for my anti-angiogenic diet. Also, red and purple potatoes that are delicious and more healthy than regular spuds. I’ve already put up the beets and two quarts of sauerkraut, because fermentation and pickling (and beets and cabbage) support health. ALL of what I grow is delicious and healthy. Leeks recently showed up as particularly good for treating ovarian cancer, and I have leeks.

The garden is also always forward looking, at least for me. I have a very big garden. We don’t just eat from it during the summer. We actually experience its bounty even more in the fall and winter, when the garden is done and we’re eating potatoes and garlic and carrots and beets and butternut squash; and tomatoes and onions and mirepoix of frozen peppers and celery; and strawberry jam, zucchini bread, and frozen blueberries; and kale in smoothies — the garden is an investment in the year ahead.

Just as I am forward looking — to good or ill. Last year, when I knew we were going to start treatment again within the year for my first recurrence, I knew I’d have good food to eat then. After six months of treatment, I did not go into remission, though the disease is stable and contained. I’m back in “watchful waiting.” I was asked if I wanted to go on a maintenance therapy/drug that restricts the creation of new blood vessels, restricting blood flow to the tumors so they don’t grow or grow more slowly. Well, that is also the goal of the anti-angiogenic diet, so I decided to keep doing that instead. It’s kind of like organic farming instead of conventional — I’ll resist the inputs until it’s necessary, and at that point let’s hit it with something strong and hopefully kill it all.

I went into the garden looking for a metaphor.

It is August. How has this year been? Well, this year has been good and steady, but not great. The season started late, which was good for me because I was on a chemo regimen from January 4 to June 4. Things grew slowly, especially the beets, and I lost some cruciferous plants to the gopher and then some winter squash and zucchini to the borers. In my body, my blood counts came back slowly, my energy lagged, but I did much more than I was able to do during treatment.

I had planted a few more zucchini late, and they outlasted the borers, and the butternut squash plants are crazy productive, and I even got a volunteer pumpkin with one giant orange pumpkin on it. The tomatoes are plentiful, but struggling to ripen. Everything is a little slower and not as productive. And lordy that does sound like me. Three glorious months without treatment, and now the gift of three more, but I’m not who I was even before the last round of treatment. I am slower and not nearly as productive.

And yet. It is enough. It is good. And it will carry us through another winter of eating. That winter might not look like last winter, when the summer of 2018 was such a booming success. I bought supplemental garlic this year because I only got 25 bulbs. I might have to buy canned tomatoes.

This is my fourth season gardening since the diagnosis. Like the last three, I was able to tend the very large garden, 14 beds outside and 5 in a greenhouse, with just a little assistance. And the fruit — the fruitfulness — the fruits of my labor, well I have been rewarded, so rewarded. And with my body, too, that went swimming and bike riding this summer, my brain that wrote a novel last year, all that fruitfulness is not to be overlooked.

Still, I am coming to terms with the terminal nature of my illness. I’m doing well, but diminished. This fall and next spring we’re doing a major renovation of the part of our farm dedicated to farming — the chicken coop and garden will be torn down. The trees crowding the pond will be taken out. In its place will go a smaller fenced garden, and a building with room for chickens to overwinter (right now we only have their summer house out there, and they go to the barn in winter), a garden shed and a small greenhouse space for starting plants. That’s the plan, anyway. Renovation of that space is overdue. I’m hoping I’ll have the energy to keep it tidy and cultivate it, make it a place of fruitfulness and life. If I were more ambitious, I would want a canning kitchen out there, a full-on irrigation system, room for ducks as well as chickens. As it is, I’d like my little kingdom, my “allotment” (to borrow a much-loved word from the UK), to be a place I’d like to sit and read and watch the chickens, to plant and weed and harvest in the cycle of however many summers I have left.

That sounds like paradise to me.

poet, writer, gardener, cook. I’m the author of three books of poetry. Pedigreed at Stanford and Sarah Lawrence. I blog at susansinkblog.com

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