Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Ch. 14 - Back from the Land

I have just come back now with the closing in of autumn
--to the city. I have hung up my hoe in my study; my
spade is put away behind the piano. I have with me seven
pounds of Paris Green that I had over. Anybody who wants
it may have it. I didn't like to bury it for fear of its
poisoning the ground. I didn't like to throw it away for
fear of its destroying cattle. I was afraid to leave it
in my summer place for fear that it might poison the
tramps who generally break in in November. I have it with
me now. I move it from room to room, as I hate to turn my
back upon it. Anybody who wants it, I repeat, can have it.

I should like also to give away, either to the Red Cross
or to anything else, ten packets of radish seed (the
early curled variety, I think), fifteen packets of cucumber
seed (the long succulent variety, I believe it says),
and twenty packets of onion seed (the Yellow Danvers,
distinguished, I understand, for its edible flavour and
its nutritious properties). It is not likely that I shall
ever, on this side of the grave, plant onion seed again.
All these things I have with me. My vegetables are to
come after me by freight. They are booked from Simcoe
County to Montreal; at present they are, I believe,
passing through Schenectady. But they will arrive later
all right. They were seen going through Detroit last
week, moving west. It is the first time that I ever sent
anything by freight anywhere. I never understood before
the wonderful organization of the railroads. But they
tell me that there is a bad congestion of freight down
South this month. If my vegetables get tangled up in that
there is no telling when they will arrive.

In other words, I am one of the legion of men--quiet,
determined, resolute men--who went out last spring to
plant the land, and who are now back.

With me--and I am sure that I speak for all the others
as well--it was not a question of mere pleasure; it was
no love of gardening for its own sake that inspired us.
It was a plain national duty. What we said to ourselves
was: "This war has got to stop. The men in the trenches
thus far have failed to stop it. Now let _us_ try. The
whole thing," we argued, "is a plain matter of food
production."

"If we raise enough food the Germans are bound to starve.
Very good. Let us kill them."

I suppose there was never a more grimly determined set
of men went out from the cities than those who went out
last May, as I did, to conquer the food problem. I don't
mean to say that each and every one of us actually left
the city. But we all "went forth" in the metaphorical
sense. Some of the men cultivated back gardens; others
took vacant lots; some went out into the suburbs; and
others, like myself, went right out into the country.

We are now back. Each of us has with him his Paris Green,
his hoe and the rest of his radish seed.

The time has, therefore, come for a plain, clear statement
of our experience. We have, as everybody knows, failed.
We have been beaten hack all along the line. Our potatoes
are buried in a jungle of autumn burdocks. Our radishes
stand seven feet high, uneatable. Our tomatoes, when last
seen, were greener than they were at the beginning of
August, and getting greener every week. Our celery looked
as delicate as a maidenhair fern. Our Indian corn was
nine feet high with a tall feathery spike on top of that,
but no sign of anything eatable about it from top to
bottom.

I look back with a sigh of regret at those bright, early
days in April when we were all buying hoes, and talking
soil and waiting for the snow to be off the ground. The
street cars, as we went up and down to our offices, were
a busy babel of garden talk. There was a sort of farmer-like
geniality in the air. One spoke freely to strangers.
Every man with a hoe was a friend. Men chewed straws in
their offices, and kept looking out of windows to pretend
to themselves that they were afraid it might blow up
rain. "Got your tomatoes in?" one man would ask another
as they went up in the elevator. "Yes, I got mine in
yesterday," the other would answer, "But I'm just a little
afraid that this east wind may blow up a little frost.
What we need now is growing weather." And the two men
would drift off together from the elevator door along
the corridor, their heads together in friendly colloquy.

I have always regarded a lawyer as a man without a soul.
There is one who lives next door to me to whom I have
not spoken in five years. Yet when I saw him one day last
spring heading for the suburbs in a pair of old trousers
with a hoe in one hand and a box of celery plants in the
other I felt that I loved the man. I used to think that
stock-brokers were mere sordid calculating machines. Now
that I have seen whole firms of them busy at the hoe,
wearing old trousers that reached to their armpits and
were tied about the waist with a polka dot necktie, I
know that they are men. I know that there are warm hearts
beating behind those trousers.

Old trousers, I say. Where on earth did they all come
from in such a sudden fashion last spring? Everybody had
them. Who would suspect that a man drawing a salary of
ten thousand a year was keeping in reserve a pair of
pepper-and-salt breeches, four sizes too large for him,
just in case a war should break out against Germany! Talk
of German mobilization! I doubt whether the organizing
power was all on their side after all. At any rate it is
estimated that fifty thousand pairs of old trousers were
mobilized in Montreal in one week.

But perhaps it was not a case of mobilization, or
deliberate preparedness. It was rather an illustration
of the primitive instinct that is in all of us and that
will out in "war time." Any man worth the name would wear
old breeches all the time if the world would let him.
Any man will wind a polka dot tie round his waist in
preference to wearing patent braces. The makers of the
ties know this. That is why they make the tie four feet
long. And in the same way if any manufacturer of hats
will put on the market an old fedora, with a limp rim
and a mark where the ribbon used to be but is not--a hat
guaranteed to be six years old, well weathered, well
rained on, and certified to have been walked over by a
herd of cattle--that man will make and deserve a fortune.

These at least were the fashions of last May. Alas, where
are they now? The men that wore them have relapsed again
into tailor-made tweeds. They have put on hard new hats.
They are shining their boots again. They are shaving
again, not merely on Saturday night, but every day. They
are sinking back into civilization.

Yet those were bright times and I cannot forbear to linger
on them. Nor the least pleasant feature was our rediscovery
of the morning. My neighbour on the right was always up
at five. My neighbour on the left was out and about by
four. With the earliest light of day, little columns of
smoke rose along our street from the kitchen ranges where
our wives were making coffee for us before the servants
got up. By six o'clock the street was alive and busy with
friendly salutations. The milkman seemed a late comer,
a poor, sluggish fellow who failed to appreciate the
early hours of the day. A man, we found, might live
through quite a little Iliad of adventure before going
to his nine o'clock office.

"How will you possibly get time to put in a garden?" I
asked of one of my neighbours during this glad period of
early spring before I left for the country. "Time!" he
exclaimed. "Why, my dear fellow, I don't have to be down
at the warehouse till eight-thirty."

Later in the summer I saw the wreck of his garden, choked
with weeds. "Your garden," I said, "is in poor shape."
"Garden!" he said indignantly. "How on earth can I find
time for a garden? Do you realize that I have to be down
at the warehouse at eight-thirty?"

When I look back to our bright beginnings our failure
seems hard indeed to understand. It is only when I survey
the whole garden movement in melancholy retrospect that
I am able to see some of the reasons for it.

The principal one, I think, is the question of the season.
It appears that the right time to begin gardening is last
year. For many things it is well to begin the year before
last. For good results one must begin even sooner. Here,
for example, are the directions, as I interpret them,
for growing asparagus. Having secured a suitable piece
of ground, preferably a deep friable loam rich in nitrogen,
go out three years ago and plough or dig deeply. Remain
a year inactive, thinking. Two years ago pulverize the
soil thoroughly. Wait a year. As soon as last year comes
set out the young shoots. Then spend a quiet winter doing
nothing. The asparagus will then be ready to work at
_this_ year.

This is the rock on which we were wrecked. Few of us were
men of sufficient means to spend several years in quiet
thought waiting to begin gardening. Yet that is, it seems,
the only way to begin. Asparagus demands a preparation
of four years. To fit oneself to grow strawberries requires
three years. Even for such humble things as peas, beans,
and lettuce the instructions inevitably read, "plough
the soil deeply in the preceeding autumn." This sets up
a dilemma. _Which_ is the preceeding autumn? If a man
begins gardening in the spring he is too late for last
autumn and too early for this. On the other hand if he
begins in the autumn he is again too late; he has missed
this summer's crop. It is, therefore, ridiculous to begin
in the autumn and impossible to begin in the spring.

This was our first difficulty. But the second arose from
the question of the soil itself. All the books and
instructions insist that the selection of the soil is
the most important part of gardening. No doubt it is.
But, if a man has already selected his own backyard before
he opens the book, what remedy is there? All the books
lay stress on the need of "a deep, friable loam full of
nitrogen." This I have never seen. My own plot of land
I found on examination to contain nothing but earth. I
could see no trace of nitrogen. I do not deny the existence
of loam. There may be such a thing. But I am admitting
now in all humility of mind that I don't know what loam
is. Last spring my fellow gardeners and I all talked
freely of the desirability of "a loam." My own opinion
is that none of them had any clearer ideas about it than
I had. Speaking from experience, I should say that the
only soils are earth, mud and dirt. There are no others.

But I leave out the soil. In any case we were mostly
forced to disregard it. Perhaps a more fruitful source
of failure even than the lack of loam was the attempt to
apply calculation and mathematics to gardening. Thus, if
one cabbage will grow in one square foot of ground, how
many cabbages will grow in ten square feet of ground?
Ten? Not at all. The answer is _one_. You will find as
a matter of practical experience that however many cabbages
you plant in a garden plot there will be only _one_ that
will really grow. This you will presently come to speak
of as _the _cabbage. Beside it all the others (till the
caterpillars finally finish their existence) will look
but poor, lean things. But _the_ cabbage will be a source
of pride and an object of display to visitors; in fact
it would ultimately have grown to be a _real_ cabbage,
such as you buy for ten cents at any market, were it not
that you inevitably cut it and eat it when it is still
only half-grown.

This always happens to the one cabbage that is of decent
size, and to the one tomato that shows signs of turning
red (it is really a feeble green-pink), and to the only
melon that might have lived to ripen. They get eaten. No
one but a practised professional gardener can live and
sleep beside a melon three-quarters ripe and a cabbage
two-thirds grown without going out and tearing it off
the stem.

Even at that it is not a bad plan to eat the stuff while
you can. The most peculiar thing about gardening is that
all of a sudden everything is too old to eat. Radishes
change over night from delicate young shoots not large
enough to put on the table into huge plants seven feet
high with a root like an Irish shillelagh. If you take
your eyes off a lettuce bed for a week the lettuces, not
ready to eat when you last looked at them, have changed
into a tall jungle of hollyhocks. Green peas are only
really green for about two hours. Before that they are
young peas; after that they are old peas. Cucumbers are
the worst case of all. They change overnight, from delicate
little bulbs obviously too slight and dainty to pick, to
old cases of yellow leather filled with seeds.

If I were ever to garden again, a thing which is out of
the bounds of possibility, I should wait until a certain
day and hour when all the plants were ripe, and then go
out with a gun and shoot them all dead, so that they
could grow no more.

But calculation, I repeat, is the bane of gardening. I
knew, among our group of food producers, a party of young
engineers, college men, who took an empty farm north of
the city as the scene of their summer operations. They
took their coats off and applied college methods. They
ran out, first, a base line AB, and measured off from it
lateral spurs MN, OP, QR, and so on. From these they took
side angles with a theodolite so as to get the edges of
each of the separate plots of their land absolutely
correct. I saw them working at it all through one Saturday
afternoon in May. They talked as they did it of the
peculiar ignorance of the so-called practical farmer. He
never--so they agreed--uses his head. He never--I think
I have their phrase correct--stops to think. In laying
out his ground for use, it never occurs to him to try to
get the maximum result from a given space. If a farmer
would only realize that the contents of a circle represent
the maximum of space enclosable in a given perimeter,
and that a circle is merely a function of its own radius,
what a lot of time he would save.

These young men that I speak of laid out their field
engineer-fashion with little white posts at even distances.
They made a blueprint of the whole thing as they planted
it. Every corner of it was charted out. The yield was
calculated to a nicety. They had allowed for the fact
that some of the stuff might fail to grow by introducing
what they called "a coefficient of error." By means of
this and by reducing the variation of autumn prices to
a mathematical curve, those men not only knew already in
the middle of May the exact yield of their farm to within
half a bushel (they allowed, they said, a variation of
half a bushel per fifty acres), but they knew beforehand
within a few cents the market value that they would
receive. The figures, as I remember them, were simply
amazing. It seemed incredible that fifty acres could
produce so much. Yet there were the plain facts in front
of one, calculated out. The thing amounted practically
to a revolution in farming. At least it ought to have.
And it would have if those young men had come again to
hoe their field. But it turned out, most unfortunately,
that they were busy. To their great regret they were too
busy to come. They had been working under a free-and-easy
arrangement. Each man was to give what time he could
every Saturday. It was left to every man's honour to do
what he could. There was no compulsion. Each man trusted
the others to be there. In fact the thing was not only
an experiment in food production, it was also a new
departure in social co-operation. The first Saturday that
those young men worked there were, so I have been told,
seventy-five of them driving in white stakes and running
lines. The next Saturday there were fifteen of them
planting potatoes. The rest were busy. The week after
that there was one man hoeing weeds. After that silence
fell upon the deserted garden, broken only by the cry of
the chick-a-dee and the choo-choo feeding on the waving
heads of the thistles.

But I have indicated only two or three of the ways of
failing at food production. There are ever so many more.
What amazes me, in returning to the city, is to find the
enormous quantities of produce of all sorts offered for
sale in the markets. It is an odd thing that last spring,
by a queer oversight, we never thought, any of us, of
this process of increasing the supply. If every patriotic
man would simply take a large basket and go to the market
every day and buy all that he could carry away there need
be no further fear of a food famine.

And, meantime, my own vegetables are on their way. They
are in a soap box with bars across the top, coming by
freight. They weigh forty-six pounds, including the box.
They represent the result of four months' arduous toil
in sun, wind, and storm. Yet it is pleasant to think that
I shall be able to feed with them some poor family of
refugees during the rigour of the winter. Either that or
give them to the hens. I certainly won't eat the rotten
things myself.


Stephen Leacock