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The Kibbitznik: Sex and the Garden

Alyssa Goldstein
July 12, 2011
[caption id=“attachment_6217” align=“alignleft” width=“300”] Photo: Alyssa Goldstein 2010[/caption] by Alyssa Goldstein Though I’ve helped my mom put flowers in the tiny strip of dirt by our front walk since I was old enough to hold a trowel, I got seriously into gardening when I was 14 or 15. I don’t know exactly how it happened -- all of a sudden I had an intense desire to stick my hands into dirt and make things grow out of it. However, I live in Brooklyn, so this was not always easy. I took a much greater interest in the tiny strip of dirt, and I expanded my repertoire to pots and window-boxes on my porch. One summer, I grew fourteen varieties of tomatoes in containers. (If I’d had my way, I would have replaced our front lawn with a vegetable garden.) When I went away to summer camp, I had my dad water them (he used to be in charge of irrigation on Kibbutz Lahav, after all) and during the times when the whole family was away, we would cart all the plants over to a friends’ house or simply take them with us like beloved pets. Due to these less-than-ideal conditions, I never saw a very large harvest from my porch plants, but that has never kept me from returning again the next year with an ever-widening variety of herbs and vegetables. As renowned garden writer Eleanor Perenyi pointed out, what they say about second marriages is also true about gardening -- optimism wins out over experience. I just got back from a week and a half in Maine. My mom bought a house there a year and a half ago, and it’s opened up vast new possibilities for vegetable gardening. Right now there are five raised beds, and earlier this spring we planted them with swiss chard, lettuce, broccoli, winter squash, bush beans, snow peas, summer squash, tomatoes, scallions, peppers, and herbs. After a week up there we had to leave and go back to Brooklyn, and I fretted over the state of my plants for the next month. The weather in Maine had been unusually cold and rainy for June -- what if they had all succumbed to rot? What if animals had eaten them? As we made the long drive up, I feared that I would arrive to a carnage of plant skeletons and chewed-up seedlings. However, when we finally arrived, the sight of my garden nearly bowled me over. The lemon balm was nearly three feet tall. The peas, no more than five inches tall when we had left, were now a seething mass of foliage and flowers straining at their trellises. The chard rose proudly on its beautiful rainbow stems. And the broccoli -- there was broccoli! The florets were small from the cold weather, but they looked so perfect, so inviting. I almost fell to my knees in ecstasy at the miracle of those little florets offering themselves up for my nourishment. When I cut them off and held them in my hands, they were more beautiful than any bouquet of flowers I had ever seen. When I sauteed them in olive oil and garlic, they were more tender and delicious than any grocery-store broccoli I had ever eaten. It was like eating pure joy. My garden had accomplished something so ordinary, yet so utterly spectacular that I don’t think it will ever cease to amaze me. I had put some seeds in the ground and they turned into food. I didn’t have to go to the grocery store! The plants turned air and water and sunlight into food, right in my backyard! Have you ever heard of something so incredible? Aren’t we so lucky to live in a world where this is possible? The only other thing that’s quite like gardening for me is sex education, and maybe that’s because they’re similar in some respects. I don’t mean in the sense that plants have sex and that’s how we get our fruit (though it did strike me a few weeks ago that my pea flowers looked just like little vaginas). Rather, it’s more about the sense of wonder evoked by both ordinary garden plants and ordinary human bodies. Not only do we live in a world where seeds turn into food, we live in a world with orgasms! Human sexual response is complex, unimaginably varied, and produces some really astounding things for us -- kind of like plants. The sensual aspects of the garden are no secret -- as Perenyi wrote, “Most of all [vegetables] bewitch me with their textures, infinitely varied forms, even their sounds--the silky rustle of cabbages, the rattle of peas in their pods. Whether in orderly rows in the garden or lying on a heap in the kitchen table, they are almost too beautiful to eat.” Both sex education and gardening can also be political acts. It’s easy to see how sex ed is political. There are an awful lot of schools in this country that teach only abstinence until marriage, which fetishizes virginity, treats queer kids like they don’t exist, disseminates inaccurate information about the risks of sex, and promotes an atmosphere of secrecy and shame around sex. To hide information about safer sex is to condemn unlucky kids to unwanted pregnancies, STIs, even death. Even comprehensive sex ed that does not include information about sexual pleasure is to cheat kids (especially kids with clitorises) out of one of their bodies’ most miraculous abilities. I feel a bit embarrassed to frame my gardening as political (me and my broccoli versus The Man?), but then again, most of the political acts in our lives are small, imperfect, and tentative. For example, the current widespread method of growing veggies in this country is incredibly problematic. Vegetables are grown in monocultures which make them vulnerable to pests, disease, and contamination. As a result, their fields are doused in pesticides, herbicides, and artificial fertilizer to maximize yield. Hybrid varieties and patented genetically-modified plants prevent farmers from saving their seeds, which ensures their corporate dependency. The few vegetable varieties grown and sold represent only a tiny fraction of the staggering biodiversity of edible things. The selection of these few varieties (often chosen for their ability to ship cross-country rather than for taste) represents a threat to this biodiversity. However, agribusiness hates your garden. When you grow produce organically at home to avoid having it doused in pesticides or shipped across continents, you are refusing to give them your dollars. Of course, one little garden is not much of a threat. But lots of little gardens, even if they consist of a few herbs or tomatoes on a fire escape, begin to add up. In some of my more far-fetched flights of utopian fantasy, I dream that Americans will be seized by a gardening frenzy like the one that took me when I was 14. Community gardens would bloom in every vacant lot and apartment building roof, Brooklynites would build raised beds in their tiny front yards, suburbanites would turn their massive swaths of lawn into sprawling fields of produce, free to all. And everyone would know some of that pleasure, some of that simple wonder at the world we live in where such things are possible.