Michael Riordon

the view from where I live

War & Peace, and Celery (excerpt)

The other day Brian and I had a fight. As it usually happens between people, and nations, the fight was not about what it seemed. What it seemed to be about was celery.

We were having our breakfast by the fire; in winter, as warmth spreads from the woodstove, so do our activities. We were discussing what vegetables we might plant this year. Brian said, “I’d like to grow celery.”

“Sure,” I said, “what does it need?”

“It’s a challenge,” he replied. “If it doesn’t get enough water, it goes bitter.”

This was the wrong thing to say. Though entirely surrounded by water, Prince Edward County is notoriously prone to drought. Most summers our well runs dry, or close to it. We have fifteen rain barrels lined up under eavestroughs, in an elegant tandem array that Brian conceived to capture every precious drop. But by August, without rain . . . “Why,” I asked, “would we want to grow something that needs a lot of water?”

“Because we’ve never planted it before, and I’d like to see how it grows.” I could hear a slight edge stealing into Brian’s voice, and mine.

“You know how it grows,” I replied. “You just said, without water it goes bitter.”

I had a vested interest here. I do most of the watering, by hand with a watering can, as day cools into evening. In our garden Brian is the sorcerer and I his apprentice, but with a twist. As we run out of water, I start rationing it, budgeting. How much can I stretch it, how little can I afford to give each plant, how does the beauty of flowers rank with the food value of vegetables? I apologize profusely to the unfortunate plants that will have to wait till tomorrow, or beyond.

A little later, when the gardens begin to register the effects of insufficient water – smaller plants, blossoms falling off before turning to fruit, end-rot spoiling the tomatoes – Brian notices. “These plants haven’t been getting enough water,” he says, then adds quickly, “I’m not criticizing you.” But it’s too late, I’ve failed again. Each summer, deep in the drought, we have the same fight. The more things we grow, I argue, the less water each of them gets, and I end up responsible for it. Why don’t we plan better, and grow less? To Brian, the sorcerer, planning is anathema. “If watering is the problem,” he says, “I’ll help.”

“That’s what you always say,” I say. “Anyway, the problem isn’t watering, it’s water.” And so it goes, back and forth. At the end of it, we agree: next year we’ll plan better. We’ll mulch more, and this won’t ever happen again.

Last year we were given Dry-Land Gardening, a fine, sensible book by Jennifer Bennett. I treat it as a bible, the source of our salvation, but Brian hasn’t had time to read it. And he wanted to grow celery.  By now I was steaming. “While we’re at it,” I said, “why don’t we grow bananas?”

“There’s no need for sarcasm,” he said. “Why are you so angry? I just want to try something, is that a crime?”

“Ah,” I retorted, “so now this is about me thwarting you. You propose, I get in the way, is that it?”

“All right,” he said, “we won’t grow celery.”

“Why not? Because it’s a stupid idea or because I thwarted you?”

“What does it matter?” he said. “The point is, you got your way.”

I went skiing with the dog. He went to work in the shop. The snow was smooth that day, the air crisp, and the light perfect.  I came back mellow, went into the shop and said, “Sorry, I should have shed the anger before dealing with the celery question. I’m not apologizing for my anger, though. I think it was justified.” Less mellow than I thought.

“Obviously it’s still there,” he replied. “Why? You got what you want, no celery. What more do you want from me?” We wrangled again, until he snapped, “Fine. You plan the garden.”

I snapped back, “Grow what you want.” Impasse.

I itched to storm out, make some grand gesture, at least slam the door behind me. So, I’m sure, did he. But we stayed put, eyes connecting then sliding away. In due course we talked, and talked; the heat gone from our voices now, we chose our words with more care. This is what emerged:

In the garden, as in any realm of tangible things, Brian is a sparker, a generator. Let’s grow shiitake mushrooms, he’ll say, or why don’t we build a greenhouse, a grey water lagoon? I, on the other hand, am a planner: what are the specific steps needed to make this fantasy happen? Inevitably, the sparker’s role is more glamourous than the planner’s. Brian didn’t remember the argument we had in mid-drought last year, nor the conclusion we reached. I did; filing such things for future reference is in the planner’s job description. “The effect of ignoring that is to dismiss my role in the garden,” I said. “I don’t mind you leading, and I’m happy to give you credit for it, but the repetitive, invisible daily work – the watering and weeding that sustain the garden – that also deserves credit.”

“But I do value your work in the garden,” said Brian. “Maybe I haven’t made that clear enough to you.”

“Well,” I said, “one practical way to value my work is to take it into account in planning the garden; for example, by not growing things that need a lot of water until we come up with a better way to provide it.”

And so it went. In the end we came to this: we’ll plan the garden together, we’ll listen to each other, we’ll honour our different strengths, and this will never happen again.