to the Garden

by Miri Chamdi

I grew up in a small desert town in the south of Israel in the mid 70’s. My parents built a five-bedroom home to accommodate their growing family. We were what could be considered a normal family by many values with a father as the provider, a mother as the housewife, and lots of sibling rivalries. My childhood home still visits my dreams today, some 40 years later.

What made this home and my family different than others in our neighborhood was the yard. When he was not running his own businesses, my father was a gardener. Well, more like a farmer according to today’s standards. The front yard boasted colorful flowers of all types, arranged neatly around the grass. The walkway from the gate to the front door was defined by chrysanthemum hedges on both sides. Bees and butterflies roamed the air adding to the mystical aura and scents. My father was proud of his landscaping design, which caught the attention of neighbors to come look around and ask for his advice.

Flowers are beautiful and uplifting and certainly make this world a better place, yet, what I remember most is the back yard and the side yards. Behind the house, the land was raw and fertile. That is where our food grew. Just like on a farm, the back yard was a symmetrical array of rows where veggies of all kinds grew in the ever-present desert sun. We had three kinds of lettuce plus carrots, green onions, kohlrabi, radishes, tomatoes, parsley, cilantro, and cucumbers, to name a few. In the afternoons and on weekends, I would find my father working tilling the land, digging, planting, and weeding. I would sit there in silence and watch him as he told me the importance of upturning the soil so the veggies would have room to “breathe.” To my little girl’s eyes, the land stretched forever, where lots and lots of veggies breathed in the dry desert breeze.

The side yard was a mini orchard of olives, figs, loquats, and grapes. Every summer, my father would recruit two of my brothers and I for the annual olive harvest. Between complaining and moaning we would climb up the trees and pick thousands of olives, one by one. My father would then sit by a huge table, large plastic tubs filled with olives at his side, he would use a wooden hammer to crack them open (“to let out the bitterness”) and would fill them in large glass jars so they would pickle. Besides being famous for his flowers and the abundance of veggies, he was famous for his olives. Eating a salad of freshly picked veggies with a handful of olives for dinner was a normal evening scene at our home. To me, eating off the land was a given part of life, nothing too special, except of course for the olives, which were given away as gifts to people my father really loved.

Many years have passed since those simple meals, or as my father would say, “lots of water flowed under the bridge.” We immigrated to America and although my father would still nurture gardens wherever we lived, not one of them came close to the abundant desert oasis of my childhood home. After leaving the nest, I traveled and lived in many places. Vegetables and fruits were items to be bought at the store among the rest of the groceries. In my younger years, I didn’t give too much thought to the labor of love my father sweated over all those years. Sometimes I even felt relieved that there isn’t a garden to tend to or olives to be picked or grapes to be clipped in clusters. It was so much easier buying these foods at the store, paying for someone else’s labor, so I could go on with the endless tasks that I’ve created in my life.

My father is long gone along with his special gardens and mini farms. I now live in Hawai’i and my desert home is a well-kept memory I treasure.

In today’s Hawai’ian reality, if one is not a home-owner, one is a well-seasoned tenant. Most people, including myself, home hop a lot, in hope that circumstances would keep them long enough in one place. Every time I move, one of the first things I look for is a gardening space. Not that I would grow a garden every time, but to have a space that could “someday” be a source of food was always comforting. As a vegan and a mother to a vegan teenager, there is a romantic or nostalgic notion that I could grow our own food if I wanted to. Sometimes I even grew herbs and cherry tomatoes in pots, knowing that if we have to move again, the labor of love would not go to waste. If a place I moved to have a papaya or a banana tree in the yard, I would get really excited! “Look!” I would say to my son, “food!”

I learned that I could get creative. Food could grow almost anywhere. In homes with a yard one could obviously grow food straight in the soil with an added mixture of compost and good organic potting soil mix. In small spaces with no yard, food could be grown in pots, both indoors and outside. Little patches of sunlight coming through a window could magically be transformed into a little herb garden. A little imagination and education of growing food could go a long way.

A couple of months ago, I was given notice by my landlord that I would have to move out because of her personal circumstances. There was a moment of panic, as finding a new affordable home, in today’s crazy rental market and in the middle of winter and as a single mother, at first seemed impossible. But me being me, I decided to take on the challenge with a smile, a knowing that something better is coming our way. And it did. The first thing I noticed as I drove into the driveway when coming to check out our new home was not the bright turquoise color of the house. Neither was it that there were neighbors above and beside the rental unit. It wasn’t the large square footage of the unit either, although it sure impressed me. It was the land. Wow! I had arrived in the Garden of Eden! I asked the new landlord to show me around the land before I even saw the inside of the unit. She showed me the different banana groves, the three different kinds of avocado trees, one in which the avocados are the size of small melons. She showed me the orange trees, the mango trees, the papaya, guava and a magnificent purple apple tree. A coconut tree, tangerine trees and to top it all off, a perfect large rectangular space for a vegetable garden. It was a clear “yes!” this was to be our new home.

As I sit and write these words, I look out the window and see these trees, this source of food, swaying in the morning Haiku breeze. Although this land is on the opposite side of the globe and in a different climate, this is the first time I feel at “home” since being plucked out of my childhood sanctuary in the deserts of Israel. I see wild chickens freely roaming the land, butterflies and bees fluttering from the crown flower tree to geranium flowers, I see little birds that look like hummingbirds fluttering between banana trees, drinking from the water collected in the crevices of the trees from last night’s rain. My eyes roll over to that rectangular space, the one which awaits my sweat and sowing of seeds. This one I will put to good use. This will be the joint project for my son and I. This one will be fertile with greens and kitchen herbs.

You see, it is not only about picking fresh food from the land, which excites me about this new home. It is not only about having organic food at a close reach. It is not even about not paying an arm and a leg for organic produce at the local natural food store. There is something more poetically meaningful about this Eden. It is raw, it is primal. I can literally not only live off this land, but thrive off of it! I feel like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden when humans were gentle, healthy, and vegan and pure food was within arm’s reach! Sowing the seeds of food is by definition, in today’s chaotic world, sowing the seeds of change. A change of awareness. The awareness that we could feed our bodies with fruits from the trees and the soil, as opposed to purchasing butchered bodies of suffering animals all wrapped up nicely in Styrofoam packages laid neatly in rows on the supermarket shelf or the seemingly-perfect fruits and veggies displayed in all their toxic herbicide and pesticide glory. It is an unlearning, or shedding off, of ideas about food and where it comes from. Going back to our roots where growing food was a natural part of life. The cool thing about it all is that I have enough produce to share and trade with others. I give you oranges, you give me lemons. Simplicity that requires only the desire and the awareness to step outside the destructive, capitalistic matrix and back to the “Garden of Eden.”

I look outside my window and I can almost see my father walking slowly from tree to tree turning an avocado here, an apple there, explaining in his own way how to tell when the perfect time for harvest is. He is peaceful. I wish I could share this heaven with him. I will forever treasure the gift he gave me-the gift of growing food and the immense satisfaction of eating the live, abundant, and vibrant nutrients of the earth.