GAR­DEN

My dad fo­cused on his gar­den with the same in­ten­sity he did his work.

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - Thins My Father Taught me - BY CJ CHIVERS

SOME­TIME AROUND NOON on a late-win­ter’s day, as the Sun’s steep­en­ing an­gle chased the chill from the ground, I bent to the dirt near the turkey pen out back. Up sprouted neat rows of thick and sturdy gar­lic shoots. The 2016 crop was be­gin­ning to claim its place, its green­ery form­ing the first sign of many har­vests ahead. I snipped off a piece a cou­ple of cen­time­tres long and slipped it into my mouth, like a stick of chew­ing gum, and let the pow­er­ful rush of flavour carry with it a sense of pre-spring sat­is­fac­tion.

I have a de­mand­ing, com­pli­cated job and a large, busy fam­ily, which to­gether can oc­cupy al­most all of my at­ten­tion. But the gar­lic and the gar­den that pro­duced those fresh shoots serve as an an­chor – the re­sult of a set of care­fully nur­tured places and dis­ci­plined habits that con­nect us to cy­cles as time­less and es­sen­tial as any other as­pect of our bustling lives. These del­i­ca­cies and the sen­ti­ments that come with them are not serendip­ity. They are heir­looms passed down from my fa­ther.

James Chivers is now 77 years old – an age that, af­ter a heart at­tack and a bout with cancer, we can ob­jec­tively say he looks, but does not act. He’s a com­pet­i­tive swim­mer and still a prac­tis­ing lawyer. Re­cently he be­came a wid­ower af­ter years of car­ing for his wife of over half a cen­tury, my mother, who passed away in 2015 af­ter an un­re­lent­ing ill­ness drained her of alert­ness and vigour. Through­out it all, he has al­ways kept busy. He is a driven man, a worka­holic, some­one who loathes sit­ting still and is un­will­ing, per­haps un­able, to al­low the mind to drift. He ma­jored in math­e­mat­ics in univer­sity, be­came a flight of­fi­cer in a US Navy A-1 squadron early in the Viet­nam War, and then came home and at­tended law school, ul­ti­mately buck­ling down for life in a small city in up­state New York. In my youth his prepa­ra­tion for tri­als was the stuff of house­hold awe. He would re­search his cases and con­cen­trate on them with an in­ten­sity that my mother de­scribed as sim­i­lar to watch­ing a cap­tain depart on a sub­ma­rine. And you should have seen the gar­dens. For as long as I can re­mem­ber my fa­ther al­ways kept fruit and veg­etable gar­dens, some­times of re­mark­able am­bi­tion, com­plex­ity and size. This started, as near as he can re­mem­ber, at age four or five, when he helped an un­cle with a sprawl­ing gar­den in a spare plot out­side Pitts­burgh, where he was raised and where his fam­ily, as he told me on a re­cent night, grew what ev­ery­one grows: toma­toes, beans, squash, and all that. Af­ter re­turn­ing from Viet­nam and start­ing a fam­ily, his repli­ca­tion of this ef­fort claimed space in mul­ti­ple plots – be­hind his house, be­hind his mother-in-law’s house, be­hind a cot­tage in the Finger Lakes, and, for a few years, on a scrubby hill on a friend’s farm, where he re­lied upon a bolt-ac­tion .410 shot­gun to thin the rab­bit horde that ap­proved of his work-man­dated pe­ri­ods of ab­sen­teeism and was never quite de­terred.

Dad grew, to bor­row his wildly in­ac­cu­rate phrase, what ev­ery­one grows. But he branched out. Mel­ons be­came his spe­cial­ity. In the 1970s, through study and trial and er­ror, he mas­tered the art of rais­ing north­ern muskmel­ons. Be­cause sea­sons in his zone start cold and open late, this melon-grow­ing zag re­quired a canny mix of dream­ing, plan­ning and study­ing, some­thing that he ap­proached like a le­gal case. The plants needed cold frames for spring, and the soil needed to be warmed by plas­tic for early sum­mer, and then came du­ti­ful pro­tec­tion from a par­tic­u­lar species of bee­tle, which he was known to pur­sue by hand. Af­ter a few sum­mers he had mas­tered the chal­lenge, and his chil­dren, co­work­ers, and neigh­bours were all rich in can­taloupes come Au­gust, at least for a week. He also at­tracted one thief, a neigh­bour our dogs flushed from one of the plots one day. She ap­peared from the bushes with a large melon in each hand, huff­ing, cha­grined and busted.

To­day my fa­ther still keeps a gar­den, though much smaller than be­fore, and he has grad­u­ally drifted to plant­ing and tend­ing fruit trees. He can spend hours among them, telling the har­vests and frus­tra­tions of each. This new project has locked him in a per­pet­ual, low­grade war with a par­tic­u­larly nim­ble wood­chuck pop­u­la­tion, which nib­bles at the tree bark and has learnt to climb to steal, the four­legged thieves re­plac­ing our two­legged, melon-lift­ing ban­dit of yes­ter­year, and prov­ing im­pos­si­ble to shame.

Those big, busy gar­dens have passed to me and my own house­hold. They form a set of places and a pas­time where we can put our clut­tered minds, feel grate­ful for sim­ple plea­sures and straight­for­ward re­wards, and carry on. Gar­lic, pota­toes, onions,and basils are among our spe­cial­i­ties, a some­times fickle but usu­ally reli­able yield that fills the pickup bed each sum­mer and makes us many friends. Mel­ons, I ex­pect, we’ll get to with time.

We’re blessed that he showed us the way. PM

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James Chivers in his son’s gar­den last sum­mer, 2015.

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