Poor Man’s Feast: Tangled Vines and Poison Leaves

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I used to believe that letting our garden go to seed was a sign of trouble.

Domestic concerns; boredom; disinterest; a long relationship on the fritz. In the October of recent years, I couldn’t even set foot beyond the gates without worry; the raspberry vines from beyond the far fence that separates our property from our neighbor’s were cascading into our perennial bed and choking everything they could find: chocolate astilbe, lovage, peony stalks. Summer squash — Striato di Italia and Zucchini Romanesco — grew to the size of watermelons because we’d either forgotten to eat them, or we forgot them entirely. Every year, our chard overruns its box; our lemon balm takes over everything it can. The two farthest boxes are caving in on themselves, filled with weeds, the Douglas fir boards now splitting and rotting. They’ve lasted eleven years — we built them ourselves back when I was editorial director at Rodale Books: a good run.

When we left for Maine in early September, the beans we’ve grown annually for almost twenty years were healthy and lush and vigorously climbing their tuteur. We’ve always let them dry on the vine; we harvest and shell them, and save them for winter soups and stews. Last year, Susan wrapped the bottom half of the tuteur in row coverings just to keep the deer from eating the leaves and vines while we were away. We forgot to do it this year, and when we got home, all we had left was the vaguest evidence of life: vines stripped of their color, a few stray leaves browning in spots, and enough beans to make two pots of soup. Cropping up everywhere: poison ivy and poison oak so robust that my neighbor had to take a course of prednisone because of the patch that quietly crawled beneath the pavement between our property and appeared in her yard.

We first built our garden a decade ago, after a violent storm destroyed a family of five trees adjacent to our house, leaving them so weak that one hurricane — one good gust of wind — could send them crashing into our roof. We hired an arborist to come out and look, and tell us what we needed to do.

I only realize this now: that grief seeps into one’s pores and it stays there for good; it sets up shop and puts up wallpaper and it doesn’t leave, and you come to understand that it is a part of your DNA.

Nothing to be saved, he said, and the next day, his crew returned with him and took down all five trees while I cried over a cup of tea.

Our garden in its earliest iteration

When they were done, Susan and I had a massive, flat, mostly sun-splashed space alongside the house where one had never before existed. One night, we took some graph paper and drew up plans for a huge garden roughly thirty feet long by fifteen feet wide, containing six eight by three foot vegetable boxes, two Adirondack chairs, and a perennial bed on the inside of the far picket fence, which went around the inside perimeter of the space. We hired a friend’s contractor husband to build the fence and put down pea gravel mulch (a bad idea, the pea gravel mulch), we built the boxes ourselves and filled them with garden soil and compost. A month or so later, we began to plant.

That was the summer of 2012 — six months before my first book came out and rendered me tribeless, and four months before the shooting in my town that would change every single thing I thought I knew about safety and children and the value of life, even as some people claimed it never happened. I only realize this now, looking back from the vantage point of having survived abandonment at the age of forty-nine by people I had always been told loved me, and having lived through the thing that happens when strangers taunt the grief-stricken with cries of fakery, even as they lowered their children’s caskets into the ground, and our local St Rose of Lima held funerals every single day for weeks. I only realize this now: that grief seeps into one’s pores and it stays there for good; it sets up shop and puts up wallpaper and it doesn’t leave, and you come to understand that it is now a part of your DNA, your genetic makeup, like the color of your eyes, or the texture of your hair. It has altered who you are at the most fundamental level.

But gardening is a contract with hope.

So we built, and we planted: over the course of a decade, we grew carrots and chard, beans that Marcella Hazan identified for us as baby borlottis, garlic, pinto potatoes, Robeson tomatoes, Lacinato kale, cabbage, Little Gem lettuces, Buttercrunch, Rouge d’Hiver, French breakfast radishes, Progress #9 peas, Yellow beans, Eight Ball summer squash, Red Kuri, Musquee de Provence pumpkin. We’re completely organic so we have fought blight; we have fought pests. One day early on, I looked out at the beans and saw something shaped like a brown furry bowling ball with legs, eating the leaves: I turned away for a minute or two to clean my glasses, looked back out, and there was nothing left of the bush. I might be imagining it, but I feel like it flipped me the bird: Fuck you, it said. You humans think you can control everything.

But gardening is a contract with hope, as I wrote in Motherland. And so with every year, we planted more beans, more radishes, more lettuce, more squash; sometimes it was a terrible year, and sometimes it wasn’t. The family that had stepped away from me grew more and more distant, like figures shrinking in a rear view mirror; most of the first responders in our town left. Covid killed colleagues and the parents of friends; I had a stroke. My aunt died at 102. Susan developed skin cancer. I became the last living Altman in our line. I lost beloved friends to misunderstanding and bitterness. I got older; Susan got older. Our garden boxes started to fall apart. Poison ivy began to take over and thrive.

I am now only interested in planting what I know will grow and flourish. I no longer need or want a massive garden—I just need a small plot of soil, big enough to grow food for us, and to share with our neighbors. I will not reap to the edges of my field, nor will I glean what falls. I will put on elbow-length gloves and cut off the bottoms of black plastic contractor bags and slip my arms into them, and pull out the poison ivy wherever I find it: by its roots and its leaves and the vines that strangle my trees and my flowers. It will return year after year, and I will pull it out, year after year, wherever it shows up.

And when the autumn arrives and the garden looks like hell, I’ll cover it up until next season. Susan will make her honey cake so we can sweeten the year as it leaves with all its sorrow and its doom, and we’ll slice it for breakfast with tea, and begin our days again.

This post was originally published on Elissa Altman’s blog Poor Man’s Feast, The James Beard Award-winning journal about the intersection of food, spirit, and the families that drive you crazy.

Photos courtesy of the author.

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