I recently attended a week-long training at Horseshoe Bay in Marble Falls. While most people would think of this as a vacation, for an outdoor enthusiast and gardener it was borderline torture. At one point, one of our instructors asked why I was glued to the plate glass window with the sun beaming in on me. My answer, “Because I wish I was outside.”
I’m not sure if it’s genetics or a product of being tossed outdoors all day as a child, but I’ve always been more comfortable outside than in. I still remember ordering my little paperback book about George Washington Carver in the fourth grade because the description said he had a secret garden in the woods as a child. I had a secret garden in the woods!
I’m pretty sure I was the only nut on the planet landscaping our forts built in the pine forests. Naturally back in those days, kids roamed field, forest, and stream all afternoon or day, depending on the school year. Without computers and hand-held games, and with TV options limited by both channels and parents, we roamed for miles on bicycles, played long games of football and baseball, fished for crawdads in the creek with a string and bacon, and explored every nook and cranny of all uninhabited spaces. I was into slithering long before Harry Potter.
But that still wasn’t enough for me. I wanted more. I needed to garden. Perhaps it was a long line of farming genes coursing through my veins or perhaps it was just pure horticultural curiosity, but I wanted to grow flowers, fruits, and vegetables and eat what I produced. I wanted to kick up dirt and walk long rows.
My favorite character on TV was Mr. Green Jeans from the Captain Kangaroo show because he talked about farms and animals. That’s why I wear green jeans to work every day (Okay, it’s really because they don’t show grass stains). Thanks to my mom, my first gardening book was Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. First my dad provided me a small plot behind the old Ezra Wheeler place in Arcadia to garden while he tended his cows on the weekends, then he really ruined me by providing me a little Farmall Super A tractor, a disc, a middle buster plow, a Merry Tiller, and a large fenced off rectangle of sandy soil to “farm” just up the road from our home in Longview.
as much as I enjoy growing produce I think I enjoy the feel and sound of the outdoors even more. Maybe that’s why I chose gardening as a hobby and profession. I’ve heard the same about farmers and ranchers.
Closed in spaces make me feel antsy and claustrophobic and noisy crowds make me nervous and panicky. That’s why I never liked parties. Not as a child and not as a teenager. Give me a field or a forest and the sounds of birds and tree frogs. That’s one reason I get up so early in the morning. I need the quiet to write and listen to what’s in my head. Bird song is the only chatter I can tolerate in the morning.
My mind is a constant swirl of ideas, plots, plans, questions, thoughts, and curious observations. Once a woman demanded my attention and asked why I wasn’t listening to her. I quickly pointed out that I couldn’t listen to everybody at once and that she would have to wait her turn until I could get the voices in my head to shut up! It’s like a team of barking Jack Russell terriers chasing rats up there. The best thing to do with both terriers and my brain is to tire them out with chores and projects. And believe me; I have a list to last a lifetime.
My friends are always amazed that I spend my spare time and vacations working at the farm. First, it’s because work is “play” to me. It also has a purpose and an end product. It’s a way to create some sort of order in life and to feel a sense of accomplishment. I think that’s why I’ve always enjoyed mowing lawns and creating landscapes. They are messy when you start and orderly when you finish. Lawns and gardens are among the very few things in life that you can tackle on your own and “make right.” Plus, they always need re-fixing, which is why gardeners live to be 90. We don’t have any choice but to get up and get busy every day until we die.
Perhaps even more important is that being outdoors allows you to feel warm air and cool breezes on your face. It allows you to inhale the scents of pine forests, tomato foliage, and freshly tilled soil. And for at least a brief period of time your ears aren’t full of honking horns, incessantly yapping people, and cable TV. There is no fake news, politics, or conspiracy theories in your garden or favorite wilderness.
I, like everyone else, am a product of my genetics and my upbringing. I’m a combination of my hardworking introverted father and my hardworking extroverted mother. I’m also a product of the people and places that I loved like my grandparents and my ancestral farmland. Those that hear me speak and see me in public places might be under the impression that I crave people and attention. Thanks to my mom, that might be true to a temporary extent, but my cup fills up and runs over quickly.
My new job with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension (my third time as a county horticulturist) brought with it much lighthearted ridicule about my long line of jobs and professional experience. I generally explain that I have been plowing through life as I have plowed through a Baskin–Robbins ice cream store, sampling and enjoying each and every flavor.
As much as I like and talk about family history, that’s far from the reason I’ve always returned to my roots and home. I return because that’s where my heart first bloomed in the peaceful presence of nature. It’s a seed I planted long ago. And just like I didn’t want parties and crowds as a child and teenager, I don’t want parties and crowds as an adult. I want to hear bluebirds singing, crickets chirping, and south winds blowing. I don’t want the sounds of discourse and discontent echoing in my mind. Once I get the Jack Russells settled down up there, I want a wildflower strewn prairie where I can see the sun setting on the horizon and hear the uninterrupted call of a pileated woodpecker. -Greg