I was standing there last summer wondering over the white eggplants growing in my patch, and the revelation that this is how the vegetable got its name, when a curious thought entered my head. Why do so many men of a certain age suddenly take up gardening?
My patch is at the local community organic farm. Near mine are patches worked by tomatoes guy, flowers guy, and the raised beds guys. I’m withholding their names in case they wouldn’t want you to know they’re of a certain age. But they’re all as new to this as I am.
The guy who got me into the farm in the first place, and who I don’t think would mind your knowing his age, is my friend Dennis. He toiled in the world of high finance long before he toiled in the world of Hamptons farming. The guy who runs the community farm — he’s pretty good at hiding his age but he’s got to be pushing “certain” — is a former finance guy. After a lifetime of largely inorganic pursuits, here we all are shoveling guano and talking to earthworms.
I don’t want to speak for others, but I was the kind of person who couldn’t even get the hair to grow on the Chia Pet. I mean, I wanted plants to grow, and I gladly would have settled for just keeping them alive. But I could never seem to figure out how. I’d take the things home with a spring in my step, put them somewhere I was sure they’d thrive, and consider for a day or two that I was carbon positive and in harmony with the ways of Mother Earth. But a few work projects, family crises, and travel vacations later, they were all on life support and Gregor Mendel himself couldn’t have revived them.
So what accounts for over-the-hill guys like me trying to get green thumbs out of the blue? I’ve been putting this interesting question to anyone who will listen to me, and their answers have all been wrong. Why they’re wrong may be as interesting as the question itself. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The most common answer has been around the idea of getting back to nature. Nature is restorative and good for you, the theory goes, and just like eating better, and maybe engaging in fewer vices, your golden years can be the catalyst for getting back to nature.
Good theory at first blush. But on closer inspection, it doesn’t hold water. Wouldn’t regular hikes or paddles to nice picnic spots do the back-to-nature trick? Or swims in the ocean followed by walks on the beach? Do I need to be busting my lumbars and seizing my hamstrings trying to keep weeds from becoming my main crop just to get back to nature?
As an aside, while harvest time is about as gratifying as life gets, each spring when I’m dragging my carcass out there to try to revive hundreds of square feet of overgrown soil, I’m like: Can’t we just buy vegetables at the store?
This spring, my lumbars and hamstrings borrowed my friend’s old rototiller. Let me say: The Acme products mail-ordered by Wile E. Coyote are tame by comparison, at least for a newbie like me. It turns out that rototilling your pant leg is all you need to cure your lumbars and hamstrings of whatever they were complaining about.
Back to our question. Another common answer is about time. We have more of it now that the kids are reared and launched and the tuition bills have stopped coming. This is all true enough. But there’s nothing about having spare time that leads inexorably to dirt farming. It could just as easily — strike that — much more easily be spent reading those books you’ve been meaning to get to since graduating from college, or writing more “Guestwords” columns for The Star.
How about this one: You get the freshest fruits and vegetables and they’re free. Hard to argue with the fresh part. The produce from my patch tastes better and lasts longer than the same from Stop and Shop or I.G.A. Even Citarella. But the free part is questionable. Maybe some folks run more efficient patches, but by the time I’m done with the farm fee, the seed catalog, the big bags of stuff to get the dirt right, the equipment and paraphernalia, and the gas back and forth, it’s probably cheaper to buy the stuff at Stop and Shop or I.G.A. Maybe not Citarella.
No, what’s driving us geezers to gentleman farming is not so much the fresh veggies. It does have something to do with nature, but its roots go deeper than just being out in the plein air and sunshine. It does have something to do with time. But it’s not about the feeling of having time to spare. Rather, it’s about the feeling that time is running out. To invoke William Shakespeare, who has inspired gardens the world over with his 200-plus mentions of plants, the idea is “to love that well which thou must leave ere long.”
As a younger person, I was much more interested in the man-made things than in the God-made things. I thought of the natural world as one of several backdrops, along with cities and the indoors, for the only thing that mattered — the film featuring me, my people, and millions of extras.
Nowadays, I’m much less impressed with what you can see from Delancey Street on the Lower East Side than I am with what you can see from my back deck in Northwest Woods. Why? If I’m being honest, I think it’s because I’m trying to come to grips with the idea that from nature I came and to nature I shall return. This is beckoning me to learn its ways.
Yes, the only explanation that fits the compulsion to raise flowers and vegetables late in life is the realization that we’ll be doing it from the other side of the ground before too long. Shouldn’t we study the habits of daisies for a couple of decades so we can do a good job pushing them up for an eternity?
Pete Jakab lives in Northwest, East Hampton. He says he spends his time trying to improve at fishing, farming, and writing after a misspent career in the city.