I love this time of year. But first things first. Happy birthday, Susan Planck! We all celebrate you, Mom.
A year ago we planted hellebores with soft pink blossoms in giant stone urns. The flowers were sweetly unaware that Dusty Rose was a Spring 2020 color trend, and we, for our part, were unaware that a few days later, we’d flee the city to quarantine in rural New Jersey. I did not see the hellebores until we came back in September, when the plants were raggedy and the blossoms long spent, but they are hardy perennials, so I transplanted them to the country where I hope they will bloom in cold springs for years.
Now it’s April 2021, a year after we first took real stock of the virus, and we are sadder but wiser. Last week we planted more hellebores, again in that wonderful pink (one of my favorite colors well before it was a trend) and I felt a tug of fear: what if I never see these blossoms again?
As the buddhist monks at the New York Zen Center say, “Pay attention. Life is of extreme importance.”
Five years ago, on March 28, I had a miscarriage. One day I was tired, nauseous, hungry all the time, wearing spring dresses in my birthday month, and joyfully expecting a fourth child; the next day I wasn’t. I sensed right away that the baby had died; but only the two of us knew. The rest of my family and community did not know until a few days later. Poetically, Jacob had provisionally named the new baby Jesus, and by Easter Monday it was all over.
As hundreds of Americans newly touched by gun violence now know from brutal personal experience, tragedy happens quickly, and then it is slowly shared with our community and the world, slowly metabolized into our personal and social psyche.
Paying attention, as the monks say, is the first step. Without awareness we are not living fully. In my experience, the second step, just as important, is sharing with others: this can include joyful and mundane experiences, which may be easy to share, and must, in my view, include sorrows.
Today we share a Thoreauvian essay, written in 1977, by a talented writer describing her neighborhood. “What I like best about my neighborhood,” she writes, “is the fact that we’re all so close. The land, the people, and the vegetables all depend on each other for their survival. My neighbors are my friends and my life.” A natural (by which I mean unschooled) Transcendentalist, this writer understands the connections between places, people, nature, work, and vocation at both the practical and the metaphorical level.
This fine writer was 14 years old. Her name was Hilary, and she was my big sister. She was struck by a car and died three months after putting these thoughts to paper.
Hilary’s precocious analysis of the connections in her life was borne out in her death. Our grief-stricken parents got permission to bury her at home, on the farm in Fairfax County, Virginia, in a coffin my father hammered himself. Hilary’s family, neighbors, farm friends, school community, and far-flung family all gathered to pick flowers, carry her coffin, cover her with soil, and make a headstone. What she loved in life – that the land, the people, and the vegetables were all so close – this very principle was, for us who lived, the healing remedy for our grief. Although Hilary’s death was a great shock and sorrow for me, just six years old, honoring her memory has been one of the great satisfactions of my life. In this season – a season profoundly noted by two great religions – of suffering, freedom, redemption, and rebirth, I can experience her wisdom again and again – if I pay attention.
At Hidden Roots, paying attention (or listening deeply) is one of our cherished practices. Please join us for Hidden Roots on Wednesday, May 5, 7–8:30 PM Eastern, via Zoom.
My Home is My Neighborhood
8th Grade Essay
Most people, when asked for a definition of a neighborhood, will tell you it is the area wherein the residents are all neighbors. I live on a farm, and my neighbors consist of precisely three families. Our partners, the Newcombs, Newcomb’s grandparents, and the Moutouxes, who own an orchard.
The parents (as we call the grandparents) and the Moutouxes live about a mile from us, and the Newcombs live about twenty feet from us.
Together, we and the Newcombs own Potomac Vegetable Farms. I consider our home, our farm, and the area between and around my neighbors’ homes my neighborhood. My neighborhood is woods, open fields, patches and patches of vegetables, and the conglomeration of sheds and buildings which surround the Newcombs’ and our houses. Every part of it is familiar to me, every part is home.
I love the woods, they are my neighborhood. When you step from the bright sunlight into the cool, green woods, you are instantly filled with a beautiful, beautiful feeling, the feeling of the woods. It is the same time exhilarating and calming; one minute you feel like walking somberly along, the next you feel like singing and doing a cartwheel. The woods is majestical and glorious, with the beautiful green leaves edged with gold waving high above. The ground is soft and moist, filled with growing things. The woods has a fresh, earthy smell, which is part soil, part tree, part flower.
Surrounding the woods, and surrounding practically everything else, are the vegetable fields. Patches of squash, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, beans, onions, cabbage, and almost any kind of vegetable imaginable. Each patch has a different disposition. The tomato patch seems to be a little mad, its vines creep all over the soft mulch, tangling up in themselves. Sometimes there is the stench of a rotten tomato hidden among the insane scrabble of vines. The squash patch is hot and hostile, always dry. The bushy, uneven rows stretch out over dusty, rocky ground. The spines on the broad leaves and stems guard the smooth, pale squash and scrape your arms and legs. Sweat invariably runs into these cuts to make them sting. The corn field is wild, with long leaves always seeming to grab at you and the tassels waving above. It seems as if it is a jungle, pushed and trapped in unruly rows, its wildness confined.
Life in my neighborhood is different from any life I’ve known. We live at the mercy of the weather and the good grace of our customers. In any crisis we have our crops and animals to think of first. On freezing spring nights we may find ourselves up at 2:00 a.m. covering acres of tomato plants to protect them from the snapping cold which can kill them. We spend hours chasing our steers through the night, which invariably escape into the dangerous world of neighbors’ corn and highways just as we are settling in bed. There is always a frenzy to cover that grain, or pick up that last field of hay just before a storm. I’ve spent hours frantically loading hay in the pouring rain in a hopeless attempt to get the hay in before it is spoiled. We’ve sat up nights with a laboring cow, been awakened by the terrified squawks from the chicken house which may mean a weasel or a possum, and given up our blankets on a frigid fall evening to cover our remaining bushels of tomatoes. The Moutouxes can be found up on a frosty spring night lighting stoves in their orchard to warm the precious blooms which mean peaches later in the season.
For us, rain on a Sunday is not just a bother or an inconvenience; it may be a tragedy. It means no bean-picking (the picker won’t work in the rain), and all the rest of the vegetable must be picked in the rain. And worst of all, we can have a $500 drop in sales at the stand.
The topics of conversation, the jokes, and the stories that are told all relate to our occupation. Farming. We laugh about customers, complain about dewy corn picks at 6:00 a.m., repeat the story about the boy who was baled, and speculate on the wisdom of planting Supersonic tomatoes on an old zucchini patch.
What I like best about my neighborhood is the fact that we’re all so close. The land, the people, and the vegetables all depend on each other for their survival. My neighbors are my friends and my life.
Hilary Susan Planck (1963-1977)
Fairfax County, Virginia