I’m in the garden, planting garlic, in a deep squat. I peel the paper from the bulbs, and split them open into separate cloves, then place them in the holes I’ve dug. I’m facing west, and gaze from time to time into the splendor of the forest in mid-October––approaching dusk, everything is lit with gold, and the thinning forest is awash in deep hues of russet and brilliant maple-flames.
Every time I am in the garden I feel the presence of my ancestors keenly. This was the thing they all did, digging holes, planting cabbages and garlic and beans.
This is not an entirely true statement. Not all of my ancestors planted gardens. Recent ancestors lived in cities and towns, and may or may not have planted gardens. And further back, in colonial Maryland, my ancestors owned slaves. I had always thought that, because they were Catholic, they were surely of Irish descent, but through the fascinating web of technology, whose silk now reaches backwards into time, I have discovered that, along my matrilineal line, I come from the family of Edelens, who were English Catholics likely come to Maryland to escape persecution. I’m going to venture to guess that, if you had slaves, you did not plant a garden.
There is a tendency to disavow our ancestors for their myriad crimes––of slavery, rape, misogyny; of being the very instruments of colonialism that destroyed indigenous nations and displaced their surviving people. Certainly, in my own life, I’d not known my ancestors arrived long before the potato famine and likely in better circumstances than the desperate Irish. Though surely it takes some sort of desperation to leave your homeland, especially in an age when your ancestors have been there for thousands of years. In truth, I don’t know their stories, but I have facts that I did not have a few months ago.
And of those facts, my ancestors were, in great majority and on both sides (save my paternal grandmother and her line), Kentucky Catholics descended from English Catholics. So, Catholic. And Confederates. And further back, slave owners. It’s easy enough to disavow all of that. To think that I can sever those things from my blood, start afresh. To think that I can leave the spiritual territory of my people out of desperation for something that properly nourishes my spirit.
Which is the garden. The garden is my church. So when my great-grandmothers show up there, I am not sure what to do with them. Things get tangled. I’m not only un-Catholic, I’m not even Christian.
They remind me that I consider the teachings of Jesus––love thy neighbor, judge not, turn the other cheek–– to be excellent guidelines for human behavior.
I remind them that I do not worship Jesus, that I am quite thoroughly Pagan, that is, I worship the Holy Mother Earth, Grandfather Sun, and behind that the Ineffable Mystery of the Cosmos.
Perhaps being an ancestor gives one new perspective, because this doesn’t seem to bother them at all.
I realize, too, that when I am an ancestor, I will be asking forgiveness of my descendants, for the sins of plastic and over-consumption, the spoiling of the seas, and yes, the slaves I kept by the power of my privilege. (I don’t have to grow a garden, after all. And if you’ve seen video of farm workers, you know it is not a career one chooses for its pay and benefits. It’s work of desperation.)
But something else is happening, underneath my thoughts. I feel it, like a ripple of water moving through me. I see all these things––the currents of destruction and oppression, which both I and my ancestors have participated in––and I cast forth a cloud of seed-dust for my descendants, into the milky sea of possibilities. Not for technological prowess, not any particular thought form, nor any such thing––for who can see what might unfold with even this next generation, never mind seven?––no, the dust carries on it a prayer: Descendents, serve life, serve life, serve life.
And I know my ancestors made the same prayer, in their bones. To be alive is to serve this one purpose above all others, or to be broken. Some of my ancestors were particularly broken. But we are all broken, a little bit, or a lot. To serve life is the path back to wholeness. Not just your life, not just human life, but all life.
The garlic goes into soil I softened with my blade. I press each clove into its little bed with a prayer. My ancestors are there, grandmothers in long linen skirts and thick aprons, braids and kerchiefs. We sing Amazing Grace together as I gather a stalk of lambs-quarters gone to seed, to plant in the spring, in my garden, my messy, holy ground.