At Work in the Garden of the Mind

I’m at work in the garden and thinking about Price McLemore.

I met him years ago -- a cotton farmer in Montgomery County, Alabama, one of the few left in the area at the time.   He loved the feel of the soil, the rhythms of the seasons, and the notion that the land he farmed had the history of his family tied up in it.

One Spring day, in the little outbuilding he called an office, he showed me his journal.  It was a huge, leather-bound ledger that was the written history of the McLemore farm.  It went back a hundred years to the time before the Civil War.  Every McLemore who had farmed the land had made an entry in the journal every day of the cotton-growing season every year.  They started at planting time and went through harvest.  It was a matter of honor that no McLemore missed an entry.

Each recorded faithfully what the weather was like on a particular day, how the crop was growing, the rainfall, the battle against the boll weevil.  Over the span of time, the McLemores found that growing seasons repeated themselves if you recorded enough of them.  No matter what the present year was like, you could probably find a year somewhere in the past that resembled it.  And that could help you plan on how to spray and fertilize and when to hire workers to pick the cotton.

It amounted to a crude science, but it went far beyond that.  It said to me that man and nature are one, each with its seasons, repeating themselves in universal timelessness.  Birth and death, seedtime and harvest.  What goes around, comes around.  There’s a comfort and a hopefulness in that.

As a writer, I’ve come to think of my life as a journal, in which I have recorded every aspect of my being.  Whether I’ve written things down as they occurred or not, they’re all there – everything I’ve experienced, every thought or idea I’ve had, everything I’ve read, every place I’ve been, every person I’ve encountered.  Seeds planted, waiting to spring forth later as fruits of my imagination, just when I need them for whatever story I’m working on at the moment.

To have a proper garden, you have to tend to it – plant those seeds and nurture them through their growing time.  The best way I do that is by reading.  When I read a story, it opens my imagination and makes way for a seed for later harvest.  And that’s why I’m so passionate about young people using the summer for reading time, reading things just for fun, as I did when I was a boy.  I’ve been enjoying the harvest all my life.

So I’m working in the garden, literally and figuratively, tending the okra and squash, the cucumbers and onions, the peppers and herbs.  Thinking about young people and their imaginations, and about Price McLemore and about rhythms of life.  And I feel a little better about the world for all that.


Upon Hanging Georgia O'Keeffe

It’s officially summer at my house.  I know, folks who are sticklers for that sort of thing say it won’t be summer until next week when we pass the Vernal Equinox, the longest day of the year.  But enough of sticklers.  For me, it’s summer because I’ve hung Georgia O’Keeffe.

I’ve long been an admirer of the late Ms. O’Keeffe’s paintings, many of them capturing the objects and forms she found about her in the years she lived and worked in New Mexico.  My favorite is a sunflower – a bold, celebratory eruption of color.  The original hangs in the Cleveland Museum of Art, but we have a poster-sized framed print.  It stays well-protected in the house during the winter months, but in the summer, it hangs on the back porch just above the settee (some would call it a love seat, but I prefer my grandmother’s term, “settee”).  I wake up one morning and realize that the world is finally green and warm, and that’s when I hang Georgia O’Keeffe.  Okay, it’s summer.

To me, there are three phases of summer.  The first is when the sunflower takes its place above the back porch settee.  It ushers in a time of minimal clothing, the smell of mown grass, the blaze of sun and cool of shade.  Summer invites a certain amount of sloth and decadence, and if we don’t slow the hectic pace of our lives to indulge in a bit of that, we have not truly experienced summer.  The sunflower tells me it’s okay to gear back.

The second phase of summer is Vacation Bible School, which follows closely on the heels of Georgia O’Keeffe.  The signs are everywhere on the churches I pass, reminding me of the days of my youth in a small southern town.  Each church had a week of VBS, and the timing was a conspiracy led by our mothers.  No two churches had the same week.  They followed, one after the other, and we kids went to all of them – a week at the Baptist, the next at the Methodist, followed by the Church of Christ.

By the time the first VBS started, we kids were already in the full rowdiness of summer, so having a place our moms could park us where we could enjoy moral instruction and build bird houses was blessed relief for them.  It’s not that we left our rowdiness at the door to the Sunday School building.  I well remember tacking one friend’s pants to his chair while we were in bird house construction.  And I well remember Mrs. Althea Prescott, an imposing school marm and VBS director, saying, “The Lord wants everybody to sit down and shut up.”  We did, but not for long.

The third phase of summer is okra.  There are few smells in the world as rich and fragrant as that of frying okra.  To me, okra is the Queen of Vegetables – elegant without being overbearing.  It is an efficient food: like shrimp, you snip off both ends and eat everything in the middle.  Then too, it is a simple food, perfect for summer.  I dare say you will not find a recipe for okra quiche or okra Rockefeller.  You don’t have to worry about whether to serve white wine or red.  The proper way to serve okra is with iced tea or buttermilk.

My dear wife is a gardener, and this year she has vegetables in abundance.  Tomatoes, squash and cucumbers are beginning to sally forth.  The okra plants look fine and sturdy, and if we can keep the stink bugs at bay, we will have a banner crop.

In another month, the okra will be ready, and then summer will be in full, joyous bloom.  Until then, I enjoy Georgia O’Keeffe, indulge in a certain amount of sloth and decadence, and send up a prayer for the ladies of the church, trying to keep rowdy young’uns under control at Vacation Bible School.

Robert Inman's novels are available through this website and on Amazon's Kindle e-reader.