Morning Harvest, 2011
My garden tiller died recently. It served me well for many years without a moment’s trouble until the day it simply stopped.
The repairman was apologetic when he called to tell me the cost of repair would be greater than simply buying a new one. “It shouldn’t have died on you like this,” he said. “But since it’s way out of warranty, well….I did all I could.” The cause of death was listed as a thrown piston, most likely the result of having come up against one too many hidden tree roots.
The worst part is that I hadn’t tilled the vegetable garden yet for this year. It’s not a huge garden, but the tiller sure made lighter work of it.
The problem with any garden in our yard is that the sunshine is a fleeting friend hereabouts. In fact, it's a moving target. In the early spring Mother Nature teases you with the idea that there’ll be enough sun to do anything you want. But by mid-April the trees have leafed out, making it clear that you’ll not have so much as two hours of continuous direct sunlight anywhere until, say, mid-October. And well, trees, you know. They just keep growing. The spot that was good for the garden last year isn’t suitable this year.
At first, the prospect of not having the tiller upset me. But then I remembered my late Uncle Cerney, who cultivated a veritable truck farm in the back yard of the little suburban house where he and my aunt raised their three children.
I’m pretty confident Uncle Cerney never had a gas-powered tiller, even though his garden was easily ten times the size of mine. Cerney grew up on a hardscrabble farm in South Carolina and knew the deprivations of the Great Depression and two world wars. A vegetable garden was far from a gentleman’s hobby for Cerney. I’ll bet he had little more than a hoe, a shovel, a rake and the occasional conscripted assistance of his children.
With this in mind, I decided not to replace the tiller. This meant that what would have normally been fifteen or twenty minutes of running the tiller back and forth to prepare the soil for planting instead became the better part of any afternoon spent working the soil with a hoe.
You might be expecting me to say I learned something noble about honest labor and simple tools from this experience. As I pulled weeds and turned the compost under, I was reminded of Leonard Bernstein’s version of Voltaire’s satire, in which the naïve and optimistic title character Candide sings:
We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We'll do the best we know.
We'll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow.
Call me Candide.