Getting back to the garden part 3

“I’m not sure what I’m going to do,” Billy says. The plants are hungry for nutrients, the beets, and the pumpkins especially. But the garden is broken, and the soil is thin. He’s tried everything from rabbit pellets to sulfur, but his efforts have been slow to show improvement. This year he’s collecting leaves to mix into the soil and trading buckets of carrots for chicken manure, which is rich in nitrogen, but easy to overapply.

“I’ve always said you got to skin your nose a few times to figure it out.” Back at his corroding Chevy S-10, he sits in the passenger seat with the door open and breathes deep through a Pyramid Full Flavor filter. “I don’t like to smoke in the garden,” he says, flicking the lighter with his thumb. He looks down the quiet dirt road and then checks his watch. It’s 2:10. People are late, and Billy is anxious. He looks back at the pumpkin patch and then at his watch. A small dust storm erupts around the bend of the road and Billy arches his neck to identify the vehicle. It’s his wife, Charney, who he affectionately refers to as “The Bride,” and their three-year-old grandson.

Billy fawns over the boy earnestly before releasing him into the pumpkin patch to select a pumpkin for carving. Charney is small, bird-like with a pale complexion. Her long runaway white hair complements Billy’s warlock eyebrows uncannily. Not long after meeting in the late 1990s, Charney and Billy started their life together in Plains, Montana. With Charney’s support, Billy began gardening again. Continue reading…

Getting back to the garden part 2

As a kid, Billy and his friends would jump fences at night and strip tomato plants of their fruit, armed with a stolen cafe salt shaker to season his bounty. In the summer, they’d bike twenty-four miles out of Detroit to the small town of Utica and fish for a week at a time, eating themselves sick on green apples that grew on trees their city didn’t have.

Their antics may have remained simple child’s play if it weren’t for one figure who proved central to Billy’s love of gardening. They called him the Hatchet Man. He had long white hair and a scraggly beard, and got his nickname because he “was always making kindling.” One hot summer afternoon, after a morning of scavenging berries, Billy’s friends dared him to ask the Hatchet Man for a drink of water.

“They didn’t think I had the balls to do it,” he gloats. “It was good water. It was well water, not like in the city. So I go up and knock on the door, and the Hatchet Man comes out and says, ‘Come here, boy. I need your help.”‘

Billy helped the man stack wood, and their friendship began. “He was amazing with that ax,” Billy says. “He’d never answer a question, though. He’d just say ‘God gave you two eyes and two ears. Pay attention.’ So I did.”

The Hatchet Man taught Billy which plants need light and which prefer shade. He’d pull a vegetable off a stem, slice it open with a tarnished pocket knife, and show Billy how to clean it, how to save the seeds. Instead of pilfering fruit from neighbors’ yards, Billy began raiding grocery store dumpsters before collection day to scrape seeds out of the rotting fruit to dry. Soon, he started his own garden.

Eventually, Billy and his siblings became wards of the state after his mother was arrested for reasons he doesn’t want to get into. The garden he’d started in their Detroit dirt yard was abandoned, but his hands would ache to get back to the soil for the rest of his life. His mother’s arrest was the beginning of a long path of institutionalization for Billy, who spent his teenage years in and out of juvenile detention and foster care and later, after Vietnam, in jail for drunk driving and drug abuse. Throughout it all, he would garden whenever he could. Continue reading…

Getting back to the garden part 1

Owen Street in Milltown, Montana, winds behind a cluster of sagging wooden houses built for sawmill laborers throughout the past century. There is a bar, a gas station, and a faint taste of heavy metals in the good water. Empty chip bags and cellophane wrappers roll like tumbleweeds over the train tracks.

On the south side of the tracks, a whitewashed, weathered sign forks the dirt road leading up to the Milltown Garden Patch. From a distance, the Garden Patch could be mistaken for a pet cemetery or a pillaged scrap yard. An industrial-sized black water tower to the east looks over the garden, throwing a deep shadow onto the plots at high noon. The garden runs the length of a football field. The earth is cleared and soft underfoot. River rock pillars outline a gateway decorated with scraps of metal welded into art. Homemade scarecrows, pastel birdhouses, and a quaint shed suppress the poverty looming just down the road.

With the exception of the double-priced spotty bananas at the gas station counter, the garden is the only place nearby with fresh produce during the short Montana growing season. The residents of Milltown, an unincorporated community built around a now bankrupt lumber industry, live at the mouth of the largest superfund site in the western United States. Abandoned by industry and government, few community resources exist for the nearly 1,700 people who live there. Continue reading…