Walt Amses: Springtime daydreams about gardening and the Grateful Dead

This commentary is by Walt Amses, a writer and former educator who lives in Calais.

Marveling at the rich soil sifting easily through my fingers, I’m struck that it’s not hard as concrete, or muddy — it’s not even damp. It’s as though we’ve bolted from what there was of winter, skipped early spring and settled into the kind of warm, fuzzy April that doesn’t show up very frequently around these parts. 

“The cruelest month,” according to T.S. Eliot, this April in north-central Vermont has been anything but cruel, with little in the way of mud season, ice-out weeks ahead of schedule and a deafening early chorus of spring peepers and wood frogs. 

Even the rest of Eliot’s line from “The Wasteland” seems far more hopeful than the beginning, seemingly cutting April a bit of slack: “breeding / lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / memory and desire / stirring dull roots with spring rain.” Although interpreting the rest of the poem is as epic as the poem itself, much of it provides dismal recollections of the first world war and a subsequent search for spirituality in a world gone mad.

As we haltingly emerge from a soul-crushing year that took five times more American lives than the Great War, April has been an unexpected bit of natural philanthropy — a balm for rattled psyches.

Poetics aside, the past year has seen a massive shift toward the bucolic, with significant numbers turning up on hiking trails, bike paths, wildlife sanctuaries and of course gardens, which for many years have provided much-needed respite both in the face of catastrophic challenge — the Victory Gardens of World War II — as well as to simply reconnect with our figurative and literal roots. 

According to Better Homes and Gardens, pandemic gardens might very well last beyond Covid-19 since there’s “something grounding and hopeful about growing plants.” Psychologists who’ve studied the impact of gardening on well-being claim that it can boost your mood and calm your worries.

My own gardening over the years has seen various levels of success and failure; raccoons and groundhogs; hard freezes, heavy deluges and even a smattering of snow a time or two. Last season was exceptional in every sense of the word: Never very lucky with tomatoes, the nightshade Gods smiled so broadly that my plants collapsed their cages like escaping zoo animals. On the other hand, entire raised beds of leafy greens fell victim to a gopher, who eventually fell victim to me, but not before he decimated the broccoli, cauliflower and salad greens. 

But win or lose, I love being out there. It’s as though when I’m gardening I’m more than a spectator. I become participant, a small but satisfying fragment of spring’s magic. 

I didn’t really begin gardening until I was nearly 40, surrounded the first half of my life by ubiquitous niceties of an urban existence, including concrete, asphalt, crowds and the kind of relentless traffic that would slow to a crawl after even a minor fender-bender. Tired of the boxed-in strangulation of the New York metro area, coupled with months of near-tropical heat and humidity making it even more intolerable, we fled for greener summers, whiter winters to live a different kind of life, which eventually led to playing in the springtime dirt. 

I still recall sitting on the deck, listening to the Grateful Dead’s “Eyes of the Word” — ”Right outside, this lazy summer home” — marveling at that first patch of tilled soil, romanticizing it all out of proportion, prior to encountering the swarms of black flies native to our newfound paradise. 

And although gardening and the Dead have utterly nothing to do with each other, I still equate them both with spring, creating a scenario where the band provides the background music for my annual forays into backyard farming. Decades separate my first, stumbling ventures into horticulture from any regular attendance at Dead shows, but most of the early concerts were at outdoor venues in warmer weather, so while most folks wax poetic about spring itself, my memory serves up a vision of multitudes swirling in the dust, in a wild expression of a kind of spirituality dating back to the beginnings of human history. 

In fact, there are parallels between Dead concerts and ancient springtime rituals after all, whether Morris dancing — the practice of “welcoming spring in,” waving handkerchiefs and wearing flowers and bells — or endlessly circling a maypole, the medieval tradition on May 1, considered a metaphysically powerful day where early Europeans washed their faces with morning dew in a quest for beauty. 

Growing our own food has some history as well, with the first cities creating a leisure class and gardening for pleasure becoming an option. But it was over 23,000 years ago that our ancestors began planting seeds deliberately and dancing them toward germination. One way or another, we’ve been following their lead ever since. 

In the early 1970s, when I was doing college on the GI Bill, there were a considerable number of Dead shows within reasonable driving distance, so I got to see them a number of times during what I still think was their strongest period. Back then, after four years in the military, nothing said freedom like a Dead show. Strangely enough, I’ve been able to connect with those heady times this winter as a number of excellent recordings of those shows have been popping up on YouTube, ironically including several I know I attended and a few others I’m not so sure about. 

My gardening has come a long way from flowerpots of homegrown on a Jersey City fire escape and my musical tastes have expanded as well, but there’s always room for the Dead, especially in springtime. I did manage to catch one last, bittersweet show on what would become their final tour 25 years ago in Highgate. Eight weeks later, on a North Truro beach, I learned Jerry Garcia’s long, strange trip was over way too soon.


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