Marjoram, Most Likely
I have it in my mind to grow a pot of herbs.
Already, this first week of September, the mornings have a clarion cool. Here in the Midwest, I’m learning that everything has a season, but I still resist the turn, the let go of green to brown and gray and white. So I’ve envisioned an exuberant herb jungle for this winter: I picture it setting off a corner by the stove, a green sprawl for snipping into a pot or flashing pan. I cook most nights, and my simple dishes hinge on fresh herbs — they unlock such genuine flavor. But the expense has become an embarrassing luxury that’s not easy to justify, cooking for one on a graduate stipend. So my little pot has taken on much more meaning than some dirt in a bowl; growing my own herbs has come to symbolize an extravagant living, of sorts, and a type of self-reliance. As autumn sets in, it’s becoming a challenge, too — can I, with north-facing windows and a six-foot porch, coax tender shoots to leaf through an Indiana winter?
I knew I needed to find out how to start a pot of herbs. I’d grown indoor plants before, but never ones that lasted. I needed a big enough pot, with gravel or small rocks in the bottom for drainage. A tray to catch the water would be important, and most of all, a way, without a windowsill, to get them as close to the light as possible when it’s too cold for the porch ledge. I knew I wanted the look of several herbs growing together, shoulders rubbing up against one another in a prickly shove, but that meant the three had to like the same amount of water and be relatively self-contained.
I knew I was in trouble from the moment I stepped in the nursery because I wanted them all — chervil, chives, tarragon. I thought for sure I needed to grow dill, to exalt the ordinary egg, or mint, tabouleh-to-chocolate versatile. Who could pass up parsley, king tossed in everything, who even steps in for cilantro? Mysterious rue, oregano, too; I coveted sage, with its leaves silver-slender, so sleek I’d pause before shearing it into stews. A year or two ago, I’d had wiry thyme; my busyness couldn’t deter it, so I knew it’d be a sure success. Most of all, I longed for the sweet sense of basil, how it knows to stay still in the muzzle of August heat, just like my mama always told me to — the breeze’ll come to you — and I wafted to basil again and again, picturing leaves slipped in fig sandwiches, ragged through a bowl of goat cheese and corn, clung to a desperate tomato’s desperate skin.
But it didn’t take long to realize I couldn’t do it all, the whole delicious self-sufficiency garden I had in mind. It seemed outlandish to think my light-limited apartment could become summer greenhouse overnight. It was fortunate, then, that I could count on others: A store, a stand-in, a friend whose basil is a positive shrub. Or — and I liked this idea less — I could learn to live with a little more thrift.
Recently, I attended a workshop in upstate New York. There were several writers with whom I felt a certain kinship, who cared about writing as a way to navigate a world of which we know little — for whom writing about one’s surroundings is a complicated and conscientious act, in which determining what is “nature” and what is “man” is more about appreciation and compromise than about opposition, or absolutes. It was with one of these writers that I started talking about ways to change environmental practices, when the conversation took a nasty turn.
We had wound our way onto the tangles of agriculture and solar energy in California. When I suggested local solutions to address some of the problems, he responded that no global crisis can be solved at a local level, and that my buying a Prius wasn’t going to do anything besides ease my own guilt. I didn’t have time to tell him I could never afford a Prius because he stormed away from the table. I felt a twang of tears behind my eyes. I didn’t know how to digest the idea that nothing we do can matter, and that our sheer existence is a burden that no actions can lessen.
After returning home, however, I had to admit that, in many aspects, he was right. Me carting my cardboard down to the recycling center, or washing all my Ziploc bags until they have holes, or buying produce grown within 150 miles of Bloomington can only do so much. Replacing all my bulbs with CFLs or walking to the store will make about as much difference as a wisp of hay on the bed of my truck. But somehow these habits changed me. Globally, it may be hay, but there is something sobering in engaging with the magnitude of one’s own existence. When my blue bin fills with all the bottles and boxes and jars I’ve used, all the papers I’ve printed and read and no longer need, when the meter tracks how my amperage amps up in the evening with my lights, and the garbage fills again and again in endless peels and rinds and shells,
I am aware of how in the world, of the world, I am. Of all I take and use and consume and don’t give back.
In these moments, I’m struck by my own profligate nature, the demands that my body and my comfort place on the resources around me. I am an amoeba, leaving slime in the wake of my swallowing.
Weeks later, when I opened Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, I thought of my fatalistic friend. Berry writes:
Although responsible use may be defined, advocated, and to some extent required by organizations, it cannot be implemented or enacted by them. It cannot be effectively enforced by them. The use of the world is finally a personal matter, and the world can be preserved in health only by the forbearance and care of a multitude of persons. That is, the possibility of the world’s health will have to be defined in the characters of persons as clearly and as urgently as the possibility of personal ‘success’ is so defined. Organizations may promote this sort of forbearance and care, but they cannot provide it. (Berry 26)
Berry has confidence in the individual, in the drive for success buried in each one of us. According to him, it will take a multitude of persons, a multitude of individually-minded persons who define themselves by the care in which they live. And this is comforting to my take-charge self. For I am tied to the world not as a town, or as a nation, or as a species, but I am tied to it on a much more immediate, intimate level. I cannot separate myself in even the smallest ways from my surroundings: I cannot separate my stomach from the slat of light across the floor that I track through the day, lying and reading in its beam. I cannot divorce myself from the clamp-down lid of storm as it beads on my arms like a thousand water blisters, the skin soft and sated though it hadn’t been thirsty. I cannot separate the box elders and their miscellaneously shaped leaves from the way my family all looks lumpy and slightly off, or their darkening veins from my own, surfacing in the heat. As I coast by, I can’t ignore the corn in the field. I need it, and its burnt tassels need rain. At the same time I savor its sweet ears, I hate the commodity power that growing certain crops has attained, the political force corn now wields. But we are tied, and I know this as it rattles at my back, a husked clatter. I am inextricably bound in the world around me, in its rhythms and cycles and market systems. And as an individual so linked, I must engage with the world as such.
How to begin, then, with the “forbearance and care” Berry proposes? My herb pot, not a family farm, a yard, not even a modest vegetable garden, will do little. Like the ink of a poem on a piece of paper, as an object, its impact may be negligible. It may season several particularly abundant salads, spike some sweet potatoes here and there, make bland eggs a little less mediocre. But I’ve realized what I actually hope to gain is a small, staked-out territory where the separation between the “me” and “not me” blends.
The world opens up through the process of encounter.
A conscious act — such as planting a pot or reading a poem — stretches our minds, strengthens and pushes our perceptions, our wonder, our way of moving through the world. And these are all things that, when translated to other tasks, can have very tangible consequences and become forces of change.
Through the growth of my herb garden, I want to acknowledge that I am taking these seven gallons of dirt and holding their weight of responsibility. As I protect the herbs from conditioned air, several species of fruit fly, and root-rot, I aim to take a part of the world, a part of myself, and own it. I want to make something better than when I found it. I am realizing that in a lifestyle where I use and use and use, this relationship might be a little more balanced, a little more give-and take. This counter-sprawl may teach me.
So I’ve done a lot of research, a lot of plant-fondling through the farmer’s market, a lot of clandestine crushing and pinching and holding behind the teeth, and I think I’ve decided on mint, chives, and marjoram this winter. At his booth with baby plants, the gardener told me that marjoram smells like fresh laundry. “Like those awful artificial dryer sheets,” he said. Apologetically, too, as though it might keep me from buying some; he went on to assure me the sweetness of its leaves makes it well-worth having, and that it’s not fussy and likes to be inside. But I was already sold. A plant that is naturally artificial seems just the plant to push the way I perceive and respond to the world, the way that nature and I blend. It seems a local way to practice mindfulness, a symbiotic engagement. Fresh laundry, I wanted to tell him, is one of my favorite scents. ♦