The grateful harvest

''I've never had a garden,'' Cousin Henry remarked wistfully as we hiked past the farmer's neatly turned furrows on an April day. ''Though I'm not sure I'd want all that work.''

''It's not much work,'' I answered cheerfully. But as I suspected, it was the putting down of roots anywhere that terrified Cousin Henry.

We planted our garden where none had been planted before, up on the other side of the grove of brambles and saplings, up in the pasture at the river's edge. The farmer came down on his tractor, with its disc and harrow and overturned rectangles of meadow grass and weeds, and shouted over the noise that it would be a long time before anything grew in that soil. We were left to break apart the clods and try to beat them into workable earth, but it was long and tough work.

''My hands will be ruined for playing the violin!'' Cousin Henry complained, but he still insisted on jabbing the spading fork down between all the stones, while I hoed and raked. And then we traded tools, though we never got the ground level or the dirt smooth.

''We should be inside writing our books instead of wasting so much time out here,'' Cousin Henry said, his silver hair wet with perspiration and rain.

My furrows snaked and wound across mud, filled with rain, drained and crumbled, and rejoined in labyrinths across the battlefield.

I bought packets of seeds: the old faithfuls from childhood like carrots and radishes and beans, seven kinds of strange squashes, exotic melons, Swiss chard to take us through winter, lettuce for until the sun got too hot, marigolds to keep away bugs, and nasturtiums, which would only grow in soil poor as ours.

Then in a Proustian flash back to Great-aunt Emma's elegant garden of my childhood, a garden tended by gardeners, I picked up packets of rhubarb and asparagus and hurried home.

''Asparagus and rhubarb take three years,'' Cousin Henry said, putting down the proofs he was correcting and reading the small print on the packets. We looked at each other. We did not dare to make such commitment. In silence I went out to plant the other seeds. Cousin Henry got in the car and drove off.

But he returned. He carried flats of tomato seedlings and herbs up the path to the garden. Even that takes commitment, I thought, for Cousin Henry. And will he still be here for the harvest?

He put in the tomatoes, and between them basil, oregano, thyme. Later I added pepper seedlings, in memory of a Balkan October festooned with bunches of peppers reddening under the eaves. . . . And six tubers of Jerusalem artichokes.

Yet would anything grow in such hard soil? Only stones showed for days.

Then suddenly: ''The garden has started!'' I shouted as the first bumps of green poked into sight.

But dangers remained. Rains washed away some seeds, perhaps birds took others , seedlings wilted, plants drooped in the drought. Leeks split the soil and dill thrived for a while, but the cucumbers to go with them curled into bitter circles. Carrots proved recalcitrant. Sheep manure turned out to contain billions of crab grass and weed seeds, which sprouted faster than the vegetables. Inadvertent ants transplanted from the compost heap retrenched themselves in muskmelon hills. Bugs filigreed the broccoli, despite the bursting suns of marigolds. The groundhog got the eggplant. Even the radishes, which in my childhood's gardens grew fat as slant-eyed burghers, were skinny and sparse. A legion of tomato plants suffered casualties.

But survivors and replacements were courted lovingly. Cousin Henry would take his violin up there in the late afternoons to practice, and by August we harvested bushels of tomatoes and peppers, and zucchinis huge as baseball bats. The Jerusalem artichokes the farmer had warned me against planting - ''They'll take over the garden!'' - did just that. Their golden daisy flowers filled vases , and after frost we ate bucketfuls of their tuberous roots, better than any potato. Chard gleamed green through the snow, and the broccoli graced Christmas dinner.

But yes, it was work. Yes, our hands have grown rough, we go to dinner parties with earth as well as ink beneath our fingernails. And no, not enough books get written. But no, working the garden wasn't time wasted.

I have not dared to plant my asparagus or rhubarb, nor dare I count on planting them next year, either. Perhaps I should be content with shorter-term crops, not plan too far in the future. . . . be grateful for whatever harvests and joys flourish now.

And I understand now why one weeds and harvests down on one's knees, head bowed, or briefly raised to the sun.

For if anything grows, it is a miracle.

Or a weed.

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