“Look, Tess! The ground is cracking up!”

I still remember this tremendous sentence, though not the name of the girl who delivered it—she must have been about 7. We were standing in a makeshift greenhouse in a community garden on a reclaimed bit of railroad track examining a tray of sunflower seedlings we’d planted the week before. We were looking closely. The sprouts were unrolling from the earth, bursting free of soil. As they uncurled, some of them wore exploding seed pods like crooked hats. Others remained bent, half in, half out of earth. Growth did look like a  bright, comical eruption, as if the ground were cracking and laughing at once. Soon the girl and I were laughing, too.

It was a happy summer, working as a youth instructor at the Berkeley Youth Alternatives garden in west Berkeley, Calif. It was 1997. I was a rising junior at Amherst, and my job was at a community center that had been founded to help provide food, social support and positive paths for people whose lives are, for many reasons, insecure. 

To the side of a parched park, near blocks of housing for people who were clearly stretched thin, the garden was an example of possibility, transformation, abundance. When I worked there, the youth plot was thriving with produce: The teens ran a farm stand where Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse fame, had been known to buy groceries. Other times, we boxed up beets and kale and tomatoes and lemons and chard and gave them away, so that people around the neighborhood could have vegetables, free. Amid it all, that summer, and for some summers after, I was designing gardening programs for kids.

This job had come about in a sidelong way. Other Amherst students with more money or East Coast connections were setting themselves up in New York or D.C. with unpaid internships. That wasn’t something I could afford. Instead, I’d been granted a scholarship that would chip away at my work-study contribution if I’d find a meaningful way to give back. As I worked at a community organization of my choice, Amherst would cut back my loans and pay my salary for the summer. At the time, I remember wistfully wishing I could use the funds to intern at a literary magazine. Now, from the distance of several decades, the terms of the scholarship seem downright amazing. If an opportunity like that came my way now, I’d jump in a heartbeat to take it. 

The fact was: I loved gardening. I remembered roving in the pumpkin patch of my parents’ graduate-student community plot in Madison, Wis. Later, I’d started a garden in our postage-stamp backyard in California, removing rocks one summer with my grandmother. As a teenager, as I’d struggled with disordered eating, the garden had steadied me again. Rooting in care for plants made me respect the work of growth, and helped me feel that my body deserved attention and nourishment as well. The garden reminded me that my body and the earth are not projects of mind, but real. They need and delight in deliberate care. 

Now I was teaching kids, many of whom had never dug in the dirt before. 

Part of the work was letting them play, and also convincing them how interesting dirt can be. Our first week, there were carrots ready to pick. (Someone had planted them for this purpose, months ahead.) I wanted my young gardeners to feel for themselves the wonder of pulling a piece of food not off a grocery shelf but out of the ground. At first, someone would always say: “I don’t want to eat that! It came from the dirt.” “Yes!” I would say. Next we’d wash that dirt off the carrots and eat them. They’d be crunchy, delicate, sweet. They didn’t taste like carrots from the store. An everyday miracle had begun. We would all notice that the dirt, rather than being mere dirt, is the magical medium in which the substance of our sustenance begins. Something in all of us would begin to shift a little. The next week, invariably, someone would ask me for more carrots. 

By then, we would have sunflower sprouts. Over the summer, more ground would crack up. We’d haul wheelbarrows of woodchips, and water and transplant tomato starts. We’d watch spiky squash vines put out nubby cucumbers. We’d smell sage and lavender and lemon verbena. As the season progressed, we’d make pesto, sauté kale, make our own salsa. We’d sit under a big tree, snacking. There was something delightful and radical in sharing food we’d just grown together. It turned out we really loved the dirt, after all. 

These summers remain in my memory haloed in warm light. They were threadbare and scrappy and very alive. If there had been an easy way to figure out how to live in California, teaching youth gardening, and also somehow to move to New York City to be a writer, I would have done it. Even in New York, if I could have made a living teaching kids to make salsa from homegrown tomatoes, perhaps I would have. But I had no more funding, and the Bay Area was changing—rents were soaring in the first dot-com boom. After graduation, I got a still-cheap flat in Brooklyn and hunkered down, learning how to pitch a story, how to hone a bit of verse. It wasn’t that my new plan was so much more financially practical: I wanted to write poetry. I had no idea how to make a life doing that. I had my own hard rows to hoe.

An illurartion of vegetables growing in the ground, including a pair of hands

I never stopped gardening, or thinking how gardens make amazing things happen in small spaces, how gardens model richer, more diverse ecosystems in the human and creaturely world. In Brooklyn I worked in a community garden on the site of two torn-down brownstones, and kept up that plot for over a decade. I remember when a visiting entomologist told us that, in a time of bee colony collapse, our urban garden had 42 species of bee. The average block in New York had maybe three. And meanwhile, that abundance translated outward. At the height of the season, I’d also become a kind of traveling  pollinator: I’d walk home to my walk-up in Brooklyn with a bag full of tomatoes and cucumbers, giving a few to every neighbor I passed.

Eventually I had the chance to work for a year on a farm in the Berkshires, and when my husband and I finally returned to California, I put edible landscaping in the postage-stamp front yard of our small bungalow. These days, we even have food growing on the strip between the sidewalk and the street—winter favas, spring artichokes, summer tomatoes. I promise you it’s not a big space, but it gives us joy, food and community, at once. Even now, as I write this sentence, people are passing by, noticing the pumpkin patch in our front yard.

I love our public, food-rich non-lawn. I also like to imagine that gardening can be contagious: In the 15 years since we’ve moved back to California, I’ve noticed other people in the neighborhood putting gardens in their front yards, too. We share plants and tips, and when our plum trees get heavy with fruit, we share them, too.

In many ways, my gardening self and my writing self have often been on separate tracks, working in separate fields. But about a year into the pandemic, an old friend who knew me from my days in the Berkshires called me. Did I want, she asked, to edit a new anthology of poems about gardening? I realized I did. 

A lot of gardening anthologies are full of somewhat-Victorian poems that praise roses. I like a good rose poem (“Go, Lovely Rose,” by Edmund Waller, is a favorite), but it’s not what I wanted to gather now. Instead I found myself wanting to find a way to celebrate how wayward and radical gardening can feel, to gather poems that reflect the diversity of joys and people and plants and animals gardens gather, even in a violent and difficult world. As I worked, I realized my poet self and my gardening self were finally coming together. The 20-year-old Amherst student, who’d worked for a scholarship by sitting under a tree with kids who often did not have enough food, came back to me, letting me know that I’d been doing deep preparation for a career ahead. She reminded me that those summers, rather than being a distraction from a literary life, had rooted in me a profound image of the world I most value. 

And it turns out that my two deep passions share congruence: Gardens and poems model grace and resourcefulness, miraculous exchange. Gardens and poems are places we go to see how something vast (nature or language) can be explored in miniature. Gardens and poems are places we go to build connectedness. Gardens and poems are places we go to excavate ourselves. 

Working on the anthology, I decided that, as much as I love gardening in my front yard, I wanted to garden in community again. So, every Friday afternoon, I made my way over to a community orchard that needed some tending. After the pandemic shutdowns, taking care of some corner of the communal world felt like its own healing. “I dwell in Possibility,” said Emily Dickinson, “a fairer House than Prose.” Gardens remind us that abundance is possible. We’ve now had a season of wildfires and floods. Sometimes it feels like we’re losing the climate in front of our eyes. When I am inside a good poem, I remember how to find my own breath and share language with others. When I am out in the garden, I feel, at least for a while, like I can find both my grief and my hope.

Tess Taylor ’00 is the author of five poetry collections, including Work & Days, which The New York Times named one of the 10 best books of poetry of 2016. Her new anthology, Leaning Toward Light: Poems for Gardens & the Hands That Tend Them (Storey Publishing), features the work of some of contemporary poetry’s richest voices, among them Ross Gay, Jericho Brown and Jane Hirshfield.

Illustrations by Helena Pallarés

Poems excerpted from Leaning toward Light and used with permission from Storey Publishing.