Fathers, ghosts, weed, and other gateways to gardening


My wife and I started getting the garden up and running last weekend and we will finish up this Saturday or Sunday. I started working the plot a while back, expanded it, built a new raised bed, fertilized and tilled over the past handful of weeks. A good friend of mine is going to help me build a chicken coop soon. Like a lot of people, we start up with seedlings that we buy at local farms and in town at the farmers market. I swear that next year we will finally get the thing up and running from the seeds up but until then this will do.

It is funny that this is what I have ended up taking a liking to, considering my father was actually willing to pay me to dig in when I was a kid and I was always more or less useless. I had trails to build on Excitebike and I was busy pretending to be a secret agent who answered to Jem, the cartoon rocker, who I [bizarrely] also imagined to be my aunt. This is actually something I preferred doing over spending time outside in a gardenI had forgotten about the proclivity entirely until Jem found itself on Netflix nearly 30 years after it originally appeared on television and our daughter began to take a serious liking to it. There I was in the house pretending to be a secret agent/cartoon orphan, answering to an animated sex symbol as if I were a male Charlie’s Angel, all while my father put hours of love and hard work into his garden, his tractor, and everything in between.

It wasn’t until about 17 years later that I began to realize that gardening was something that didn’t just belong to folks like my dad. I was working for a statewide campaign in Vermont and living with one of my coworkers in this big house occupied by a number of hippies. I was there for only about a month and a half, but it was summer and they were growing greens and tomatoes. Residents weren’t allowed to pee in the houseyou had to do it down in the soil to fortify the nitrogen in the soil while avoiding crating unnecessary water waste. They had the best dinners and ate great food and they grew hallucinogenic mushrooms in their closets.

At one point the fellow campaign activist and I ended up at a party where a bunch of these stuffy Democratic hacks were sitting around and acting precious. The activistshe is actually a pretty big deal immigration lawyer and advocate these days, which makes this story all the betterhad recently gotten back from doing some work in Malawi. Everyone was telling stories about whatever and when it came time for the activist to share, she told a story in which, during her travels, she had to put a suffering dog out of its misery with a board. The girlfriend of my boss, a staunch vegetarian / Whole Foods yuppie, made a big show about her disgust by dropping her fork and proceeded to act so put off that she had to leave the room. “What?” the activist asked, until that point totally unaware that she had been crossing any lines. “The dog was suffering.” I loved watching that confrontation between a person who grew her own food and lived intensely and steadfastly by her own set of ethics and someone who changed her money at the table of the co-op, so to speak. It was one of the first times I had really associated edginess with one who raises their own food.

The hippie thing isn’t really my scene, but I sort of loved their attitudes. They were engaged with the whole process with the same passion I reserved for my activism, and we generally believed the same things about society, government, and how shitty food had become.

The following year, while I was working asof all thingsa tech trends researcher and blogger, I headed out to San Jose to attend a conference. By way of the site Couchsurfing, I found a place to stay on another urban farm. While San Jose and Eastern, Vermont are vastly different places in wholly different climates, the atmosphere and attitude of the two houses were similar. Everywhere that vegetables could be harvested, including in containers laid out on every surface of the house, was producing hundreds of pounds of greens, tomatoes, onions, garlic and more. While I was there, one of the residents’ parents were visiting from Portugal and I was invited to eat grilled sardines and fresh salsa with them, which I enjoyed with cold beer. The group offered to let me borrow their shared car to get to the conference without question. Not only had I enjoyed the attitude of the young farmers I was meeting, I was also finding them extraordinarily hospitable in a way that I had not yet encountered in my life.

Because of the work that brought me to San Jose, I ended up interviewing urban homesteaders and other folks who were taking to the Internet in order to share new farming knowledge in a way that had not been possible before that point. While the manifestations of their political beliefs varied, there was a real anarcho-libertarian attitude and mindset which united many of them that also resonated with me. The modern food supply has become a cesspoolsomething I had been aware of for a long time since becoming acquainted with the writing and activism of Jose Bove—and there is an alternative that we can make possible. With regard to the food chain, since I had given up being vegan in my early 20s I was all rhetoric and not a whole lot of action. I was finally realizing that the soil is a great place to turn philosophy into practice. I was living in South Boston at the time and there was limited space for my own planting, so I started a simple worm compost bin. I had to start somewhere.

The worms and I moved to Portland a handful of months later and I tried my hand at growing pot in 5 gallon buckets, which went pretty well until I eventually tried to transplant them. I wasn’t really a big pot smoker but someone had seeds and I had buckets and soil and I figured it was worth a try. It was Summer by then and the place I lived in had a big, beautiful rooftop deck so we ended up filling containers, including my failed pot buckets, with dirt and we grew a bunch of anemic vegetables with moderate success. One of our roommates was really into beerhe is now a brewer down at In’Finitiand he had great success growing hops over the course of a couple of years.

We all had a lot to learnthey’re still growing up there as I understand itbut we were proud of our humble start.

The exercise of putting life into the soil and working with it to the point of literal fruition means so many things to me. It was a way to take control of a thing I felt passionately about, and to begin to divest from a shitty system. I was able to interface with the things that I was putting into my body. So much of my work to that point had been, and continues to be, post-modern in the sense that the outcomes and results can often be vague and ethereal. With growing your own food there are very clear signs of success, which you can eat, and an endless amount of approaches to getting better and improving upon that process.

Over the past handful of years, working with food has become a unifying interest of mine.  I value and appreciate the work that groups like Cultivating Community are doing, and I value the work and activism of Rep. (and farmer) Craig Hickman is doing in the state legislature to ensure that food and community remain pillars on which Maine’s future is constructed. For me, my own gardening has become an increasingly substantial part of my own life. Philosophies regarding food is often an overlapping interest I share with those I disagree about all else. It pulls me away from the screen and puts me in touch with my neighbors. It is a topic that brings my older neighbors and my wife together, particularly when they drop in and offer hours of advice and conversation about gardening and anything else that comes up along the way. And my garden overflows, and that overflow finds itself into the hands of friends who seem to appreciate it.

And even enough I don’t think of it consciously, the act of getting my hands dirtyliterally dirtyin the garden connects me with the memory of my father. If I were a regretful person, I would be sorry that I squandered those opportunities that I had to spend with him while he was on this plane, but I was just a kid and I didn’t know shit. Spending time in the soil and under the sun reminds me of him and his love for spending his time the same way. It has the same effect as when I listen to Patsy Cline, the only recording artist he paid any mind to, or sitting at a diner bar like he spent so much of his time doing.

I recently talked with Corey Norman, director of the film The Hanover House. In the movie, his protagonist comes upon his father’s ghost, and in conversation Corey explained that his own father passed away a few years back. He also mentioned that one of his favorite movies is The Shining, which offers one of the most notorious portrayals of a father and son relationship ever committed to celluloid. Fathers, particularly supernatural representations of them, are very much on his mind. We talked about how, for a lot of sons who lose their dads earlier than expected, the memory of a deceased father is the closest thing to a ghost we will come to communing with. It is always there, whether we are conscious of it or not, and we end up spending part of our lives trying to get to know and understand it. Gardening is the attitude, the politics, the catalyst for community, and all of the aforementioned for me, but more and more it is the medium by which I commune with that tractor-fixated, soil-obsessed, Patsy Cline loving ghost.


Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.