Excerpt from Volume I of The Medicinal Herb Grower by Richo Cech,
Chapter 2, pages 15-18, reprinted with permission.
I am inspired by a story. It’s about a homeless man named Chuck who made his bed under a freeway bridge in Portland, which is the big city in Oregon located many miles north of where we live. Having lost his family and his job, he took to wandering aimlessly through the city, accepting a free meal here, sitting on a bench by a fountain there, passing the time."
One spring day, he was crossing one of the major thoroughfares near the downtown area. Miscalculating the speed of the cars, he had to step lively to reach the median strip, which had been recently rebuilt and filled with new soil. He hopped over the curb, but when his boot sank unexpectedly into soft dirt, he stumbled and fell down on both hands, there between the opposing lines of traffic. Unharmed, he pushed himself back up, and as he rose, gathered up a fistful of soil in each hand. The dirt was soft and rich. Instinctively he put the soil to his nose and smelled.
Suddenly the memory of his childhood on a farm in Ohio flooded back to him. It was spring, and his grandmother was preceding him on the path to the cornfield. She wore a simple farm dress and her thick, white hair was loosely braided and fell down her broad back, swinging slightly with her gait.
The man shook his head and the vision dissolved, but the experience left behind an unmistakable feeling that welled up in his heart- it was the urge to garden. His face broke into a pleasant smile. Passing motorists shook their heads and clucked their tongues. Chuck took no notice. His smile was soon replaced by a thoughtful expression, the soil fell from his hands, and then and there he hatched a wonderful idea. He would plant that empty median strip with rows of corn!
Chuck eyed the swath of dirt between the yellow painted curbs. If he ran one row straight up the middle and made two more rows a scant six inches from the curbs, then he’d have three rows with two feet between each row- just about right. He wondered if such a thing would be allowed. Then, he straightened his back, a determined look came over his whiskered face, and he stated aloud to the traffic, “I’m going to plant corn here.” And that’s just what he proceeded to do.
He remembered where he’d seen a hoe in a trash pile and, having retrieved it, started to hoe his way down the median strip.
Nobody hassled him. He was gardening. For the most part, nobody disturbs a gardener, I suppose because everybody appreciates gardens! Swinging the hoe time and time again, he fluffed up the soil between the curbs. The exhaust fumes that arose from the traffic didn’t bother him too much- he was used to it. Despite the location, it felt good to work. He hummed, ignored the cars, and kept at it until dusk.
He made his bed as usual under the bridge. Cars zipped and pinged overhead, and trucks made the cement rumble. The loneliness, the cold, and the constant disruptions often conspired to bring on a recurring nightmare, a dream where he awoke on the train tracks, unable to move, a single light approaching… He would then awake again under the bridge, his face having slipped off the pillow onto the concrete. On this bare night, he was so excited he could barely fall asleep. His plans for the next day coursed through his mind. His body, he noticed, felt good from the exercise. Eventually he yawned and stretched. Then, when sleep overcame him, he had a peaceful dream of his grandmother. She was squatting in the field, her brown hands pushing soil over the corn seeds that gleamed the color of citrine in the furrow. She was grunting a little, pushing down with the weight of her body, firming them in.
Having no money to buy seed, Chuck spent the better part of the next day picking up discarded bottles and cans, and then turned them in for the refund. This gave him sufficient change to buy some corn seed at the corner store. Ignoring the pangs of hunger in his stomach, he excitedly returned to his median strip, scored three deep furrows in the dirt, and planted his seeds. After a few days, warmed by the sun and the hot cement all around, the corn came up, making cheery little rows of light green spears, a mellow contrast to the alarming yellow of the curb.
Chuck smiled, wiped sweat from his forehead, and cultivated the little seedlings in just the way his grandmother had taught him so long ago. He removed weeds, fluffed the soil, and thinned out the young plants. The traffic zoomed by. Two police officers in a car cruised by. He waved. They were seen to converse, then shrugged their blue-clad shoulders, waved back, and went on.
Now, this is my favorite part of the story, which says something not so much about the man, but about humankind in general.
Nobody disturbed him- or the corn.
The corn grew. It rains a great deal in Portland, so irrigation was unnecessary. By midsummer, the corn had made a dense green, knee-patch. Now, cars slowed and drivers gawked at the strange spectacle. People felt a sense of connection to the project, and they no longer thought that the man was crazy. Chuck even made the evening news. The camera showed him with his hoe in hand, looking like a scarecrow in the midst of his corn. People volunteered to help, but it was a small garden.
He shook his head at all the inquiries, smiled a secret smile, and kept cultivating.
Chuck visited his corn plants every day and, as they grew, felt a sense of accomplishment. He danced like a marionette when the plants made tassels and dropped yellow pollen down onto the golden, tousled tufts of silk.
Finally, the ears swelled with ripe kernels, and the day came to pick the first cob of corn. Feeling giddy, he pulled it free of the stalk, peeled away the husk to reveal even rows of plump kernels, and consumed it raw, right there in the midst of the patch.
It was delicious! Then he gestured triumphantly with the nubbly cob, holding it like a trophy above his head. People honked and cheered.
To me the crux of this story is that if someone wants to garden, regardless of resources, location, or social status,
there is always an opportunity to do so.
All it takes is the proper motivation and some hard work. Those of us that have access to good land are very lucky indeed. I hope we can all be as resourceful as this homeless person, in Portland, who took the initiative to make a garden in the midst of traffic. Bless him and all those that garden!
*Article Presented by Carol Larrimore, with permission from Richo Cech of The Medicinal Herb Grower