The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof…(Psalm 24:1)
On Saturday my kids and I planted some tomatoes in our garden.
Well, technically it wasn’t in our garden. We live in a townhouse with no back yard. Our garden is made out of planters on the patio, but this year I want to grow a lot of tomatoes, and I’ve had little luck growing tomatoes in planters. The plants have been healthy and the fruit good, but the yield has been low. In past years our garden’s tomatoes have been an occasional treat: once a week or so at the height of tomato season, I’ve been able to cut up one tomato at a time and serve it with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, basil and pepper. This is nice, but I want to make salsa and spaghetti sauce. I want to put up cans of tomatoes for the winter. I may regret it come July, but this year I want to be invaded. I want to see heirlooms slowly fester on my counter until the fruit flies won’t leave us alone. In order to get this desired bumper crop my family had to emigrate a few feet, to cross a legal boundary, to sink our fingers into the earth on property that isn’t ours.
So this year I broke the law (or the condo association rules anyway) and, corrupting my children in the process, I planted six tomato plants in a sunny spot just beyond the fence that separates our patio from a bit of unused common property between us and the urban stream behind our place. I grew up in rural Northern California, behind the Redwood Curtain, a place where marijuana is a serious cash crop. Clandestine cultivation was a way of life for many of my childhood friends and neighbors, but this was my first foray into the world of furtive gardening. We’ll see what happens. My thumb is hardly green and the soil in my new tomato patch is rotten.
For reasons I don’t understand, the people who built our housing complex (a group of radical Catholic women intent on providing low cost housing in Silicon Valley who are otherwise beyond reproach) removed all of the topsoil from the property and built our houses on the underlying clay. The place is landscaped, but behind our house the effort has been minimal.
So my act of subversion, this moment of illegal immigration, began with breaking up the clay with a new shovel. Next, my kids and I dug a trench which we filled with potting soil and composted steer turds, this latter element being a source of great fascination, even for my four year old daughter, Nellie, who insisted on wearing her sparkly-red Dorothy shoes in our secret garden. Last I checked the tomatoes looked happy in their new home.
I won’t attempt to justify the location of my tomatoes legalistically. If I were on the Homeowner’s association board (and I am, incidentally) I’d find myself in violation of the rules that govern our community life. I will say, however, that the very small bit of land now hosting tomatoes behind my house will be better because my kids and I made it hospitable to tomatoes, and that establishes a connection—if not ownership, exactly—between us and the little patch of earth.
A lot of Americans believe that a person’s connection to a particular place is conferred by birth within established borders or by the official stamp of a visa. I’m not sure I agree. I was born and spent a few of my earliest years in the county where I currently reside, but I’ve never felt terribly connected to the dirt upon which I live. I can see how planting a garden could change that, and it strikes me that my children may grow up with a deeper connection to the soil of this place than I have, even though three of my four kids were born on another continent.
That, I suppose, is the grace of the earth. People move, often across borders and oceans, and after arriving in a new home they can plant a garden and the earth welcomes them. This is a divine connection that makes a mockery of borders and fences and visas and immigration laws.
To my knowledge God has never established a national border, but God has given us the earth; so long as there are tomatoes to plant we’ll always find a home.