Garden Gate Nursery is just off a main thoroughfare in Gainesville, Florida. Its narrow lane entry, covered thick with century-old oaks, hides the haven filled with flowering plants and shrubs, young trees, indoor plants, water plants, soil, fertilizer, decorative pots–including thirty-gallon cobalt-blue ones!–ceramic frogs for shallow ponds, and all types of garden ornaments. The galvanized-steel water cans would rust outside, but I enjoy picturing one with bronze touches sitting in my garden for a time.
After Carla, a master gardener, advises us about plants for our location, my husband and I take two Radio Flyer red wagons and fill them carefully with a veitchii gardenia in bloom, red, purple, and pink petunias, marigolds, pink dianthus, a red geranium, a bush daisy, two muhly grasses, six ferns and an ingenious product called Soil Moist which holds water that thirsty plants can draw from, like a sponge, when the soil gets too dry.
Since the onset of spring three weeks ago it has taken all my patience to wait to plant the garden. Local farmers warned me to wait until St. Patrick’s Day because there’s a chance of a freeze until then. Finally, last Sunday we planted our new arrivals and mulched. Then we headed back to the nursery to return the ferns because we couldn’t dig anywhere near the magnolia, whose root system is so massive its base will remain sparse, decorated only by fallen fruit whose brown rough exterior bears red seeds.
My husband and I comment to each other often about how grateful we are to live in the country, to have our privacy, to have a home. We treasure our property as a gift. This palpable appreciation and the giddiness of spring bring new meaning to refreshing this year’s garden.
In all honesty, though, this year planting is my way of handling family tragedy and Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant disasters. I haven’t been able to look at any footage or listen to details of the 700,000 suffering, displaced people there. I feel it too much already; I need distance. My feelings pitch when I hear of upheaval in Libya and Egypt. Japan bears down too hard in addition. I can’t fathom the amount of suffering playing out in the world now, nor can I change it or cope well with it. It’s why I don’t watch the news, why I must plant gardens.
Finally, the orange-red of fresh mulch, the blossoms’ bright reds, pinks, purples, whites and yellows brighten me with happiness and security in our oasis. Under the warming spring sun I fling out all thoughts of the Japanese, Libyans, and Egyptians. I’ve pushed away negative events before; I must do it again.
On the way back from the second trip to the nursery we take a different route home, passing the back side of a University of Florida dairy. Suddenly there it is, hiding from the world: a veal farm. Newborn calves pulled from their mothers, who are grazing on the far side of the field, lie in small cages so that people can eat veal. As we pass the calves and cages, my body begins to shake. I turn my head away and close my eyes. My stomach lurches. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”
I feel complicit living within a mile of this veal farm—in ignorance of it. For the past eighteen years I’ve happily passed the dairy with black and white Holsteins plodding thin walkways through their forest. The veal farm makes my house, my oasis, undesirable, and my stomach turns sour in disgust. How can I continue to live so close to this horror? How can I ignore this violence? We need to sell our home immediately, I think, and move deeper into the country. My cheerfulness about gardens and home sinks, and I squirm the rest of the way home, trying to figure out how I can escape from America’s slaughterhouse culture.
“As long as there are slaughterhouses,” Leo Tolstoy wrote, “there will be war.” According to The Bhagavad Gita and other Vedanta texts, as long as there is slaughter there will be war and natural disasters. At this very moment, my lovely spring is marred with bombs exploding in Libya and a shaking earth and angry sea terrorizing a peaceful nation.
Back home on a glorious waning spring afternoon, as the nuclear plume from Japan rolls over California, where I was born, and tender calves wait silently for slaughter near my Florida home, I excitedly show my two-year-old granddaughter the red and purple petunia buds hanging in coconut-husk planters in front of the arch at our front door.
“See how pretty? They’ll grow big,” I promise.