Weeding without gloves in Oakland
Updated: Aug 21
My initiation into community gardening
“It’s not a class but you have to sign up for it as a class,” said Naomi*, a petite woman leaning on a shovel.
I had interrupted her work by asking how I could also volunteer at the community garden where she was digging at that very moment. We introduced ourselves over a clump of arugula that had bolted: long and leggy, with spiky white flowers like so many far-out ideas coming out of its head. To me, freshly arrived in the Bay Area, that “hippie” arugula seemed to confirm that people still let it all hang out in California.
I had only been back in the US for a month, after several years of living in Norway. Coming to California wasn’t just about exchanging the granite and grey-cloud landscape of Scandinavia for succulents and sunshine. I’d come to the Bay Area with the idea of going back to school, and training for my next chapter in life. I had been thinking about getting a master's degree in religious studies. And yet, somehow the first course I found myself signing up for was the community gardening class that wasn’t a class.
Even as a garden it wasn’t entirely straightforward. It consisted of two parts: the one I had seen, at Lake Merritt, tucked into a corner of The Gardens at Lake Merritt, which were a sort of botanical garden and city park in one. The other part of the community garden was at Merritt Community College. This meant an hour-long commute by train and bus from the apartment I was subletting in Oakland. Still, I made the trip faithfully once a week.
I kept expecting to meet one of the instructors nominally in charge of the community garden “class”, but it was only ever the same three volunteers: Naomi, who I’d already met at the lake; James*, a quiet retiree who was usually at the greenhouse tending the sprouts and shoots; and the compost specialist Mr Chop,* who used a machete and a tree stump to process limp vegetables. It wasn’t a formal division of labor. But with the two men focusing on the beginning and end of the plant life cycle, Naomi and I took on the tasks in between: weeding and harvesting, along with transplanting the graduates from James’ nursery.
Harvesting surprised me. The generosity of it, the sheer giving so-muchness of the garden. We filled one paper grocery bag after another to give to soup kitchens and homeless shelters and there was still more left to pick.
“Hope you like mustard greens,” winked Naomi as she handed me an empty bag.
I was not prepared for this either, that the garden’s harvest would feed us too. I’d assumed it was more like a paid job, where the goods are for the customers only. It made me feel even more grateful to the plants, because just being able to get my hands in the soil was a reward in itself.
This wasn’t only a figure of speech. I didn't know how to dress or that you are supposed to wear gloves to garden. I turned up in my city clothes from Oslo, attempting to kneel on the ground in too-tight jeans jeans to weed the rows, or to poke seeds into flats while the sun blazed the back of my leather jacket. Somehow it didn’t matter. I felt happy just being there. Not in a giddy way but in a feeling of simple contentment. Every time I gardened I felt lighter and clearer afterwards, in a way I had only experienced before on spiritual retreats.
The spiritual connection made me start thinking about how gardens figure in religious imagery. (I hadn't yet given up the idea of that master's degree.) In the Bible the expulsion from the Garden of Eden is followed by a sentence of agricultural toil: earning your bread by the sweat of your brow. What made a garden a paradise and a farm a punishment?
Volunteering in the Lake Merritt gardens seemed to fall somewhere between gardening and farming: we were growing food after all. But none of it felt laborious to me, maybe because it was all still so novel or maybe because I wasn’t trying to feed myself or a family through the sweat of my brow. At the time I was freelancing casually, taking whatever translation or copy writing jobs that came my way. By contrast, I went to the gardens with the regularity of a job; Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10-2 at Lake Merritt, Wednesday afternoons at the college.
Though there was effort involved, it was not effortful. The comparison I kept coming back to was meditation. Even if my thoughts were scattered, in the garden I would still be aware of my breath - and the water-drip measure of simple things happening in the moment. Pulling up weeds or dropping in handfuls of arugula into a basket. Someone trundling a wheelbarrow at the end of a row. A bird call, a siren, voices in the distance.
* the names of people in this piece have been changed but the places are factual