[encore] 699: Photosynthesis

[encore] 699: Photosynthesis

[encore] 699: Photosynthesis

This episode was originally released on June 17, 2022.


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

Even as a child, I loved to garden. I loved the aliveness of the soil between my fingers, the visceral pleasure of the warmth of dirt, of the green shoots poking up out of the ground, and the need of plants, the way you could fix them with water, with a little light. Now, my own garden is mostly a mess, but it also delights me. I can spend hours out there in the sun making sure all the plants are thriving.

I always say I’m more of a planter than a gardener because I plant and then let them be, the tending part is often harder for me. But my grandfathers and grandmothers were all good both at gardening and tending. They put in all those hours of work to grow the perfect tomato that tasted like earth and sun all at once.

Today’s poem honors the lineage of gardens and gardeners. I love this poem because it celebrates the father in the garden, and in doing so, weaves him in with the goodness of the earth.

by Ashley M. Jones

When I was young, my father taught us
how dirt made way for food,
how to turn over soil so it would hold a seed,
an infant bud, how the dark could nurse it
until it broke its green arms out to touch the sun.
In every backyard we’ve ever had, he made a little garden plot
with room for heirloom tomatoes, corn, carrots,
peppers: jalapeno, bell, and poblano—
okra, eggplant, lemons, collards, broccoli, pole beans,
watermelon, squash, trees filled with fruit and nuts,
brussels sprouts, herbs: basil, mint, parsley, rosemary—
onions, sweet potatoes, cucumber, cantaloupe, cabbage,
oranges, swiss chard and peaches,
sunflowers tall and straightbacked as soldiers,
lantana, amaryllis, echinacea,
pansies and roses and bushes bubbling with hydrangeas.
Every plant with its purpose,
flowers to bring worms and wasps. How their work matters here.

This is the work we have always known,
pulling food and flowers from a pile of earth.
The difference, now: my father is not a slave,
not a sharecropper. This land is his and so is this garden,
so is this work. The difference is that he owns this labor.
The work of his own hands for his own belly,
for his own children’s bellies. We eat because he works.

This is the legacy of his grandmother, my great-granny—
Ollie Mae Harris and her untouchable flower garden.
Just like her hats, her flowerbeds sprouted something special,
plants and colors the neighbors could only dream of. 
He was young when he learned that this beauty is built on work—
the cows and the factories in their stomachs,
the fertilizer they spewed out—
the stink that brought such fragrance. What you call waste,
I call power. What you call work I make beautiful again.

In his garden, even problems become energy, beauty—
my father has ended many work days in the backyard, 
worries of the firehouse dropping like grain, my father wrist-deep
in soil. I am convinced the earth speaks back to him
as he feeds it—it is a conversational labor, gardening.
The seeds tell him what they will be, the soil tells seeds how to grow,
my father speaks sun and water into the earth,
we hear him, each harvest, his heartbeat sweet, like fruit.

"Photosynthesis" by Ashley M. Jones, from REPARATIONS NOW! copyright © 2021 Ashley M. Jones. Used by permission of Hub City Press.