Let’s set the scene: it’s Saturday, noon is long gone, the rain makes steady music as it plop plop plops on our living room windows, and we are scraping eggs off our mismatching breakfast plates. My body feels calm, grateful, open.
I open the hardware-store paper bag labeled “Seeds We Already Planted” and dump the contents on the dining room table. It’s time to thin some seedlings. Maybe. I’m not sure, because I really don’t know what I’m doing.
I mean, I kind of do – I have a few years of experience under my belt, but honestly, I’ve never bothered to thin the seedlings after planting the seeds. I always just plant the seeds in little pots, and hope for the best. The green bean seedings get all gangly and start twisting all over each other, the snap peas usually shrivel up after producing one or two peas, and the tomatoes fight it out to see which seedling will make it to the big pot.
BUT THIS YEAR WOULD BE DIFFERENT. This year our veggies would be SO ABUNDANT that we wouldn’t even be able to EAT all the food we grew in our garden. The quality and yield would be the best they’ve ever been! We would be vegetable heroes! We, and every single one of our friends, would never have to buy vegetables again! Etc etc goes my brain (notice how my perfectionism leaks into everything, even this gardening hobby, which is supposed to be nourishing and slow).
So, mug of mint tea in hand, I hunker down at the dining room table to thin what’s ready to be thinned.
First, I grab a small plastic pot, labeled “Zuch.” The zucchini seed packet says to thin the seedlings when they get to be about 3”. Perfect! These were around that size. Elated, I carefully wiggled and shook the flimsy pot back and forth until the seedlings came out in a lumpy, wet mess of dirt and green.
At this point, I was feeling like a really good person. You know when your brain just starts telling you how great you are, when you’re doing really simple things like folding the laundry or sweeping the floor? My ego was whispering all this bullshit into my ear, like, “wow look at you, thinning seedlings, you’re such an upright citizen gardener,” and, “it’s so impressive how consistently you are caring for your plants, you should really get an award for your organizational skills,” and “you are truly earning your place in society right now – usually, you’re really quite a failure, but right now you’re coming in for the win.”
But then came the doom.
As I was expertly shimmying the zucchini seedlings out of their pot, I happened to rotate the pot juuuuust a little bit, and there, written in the same silver Sharpie, in my own handwriting, was the word “cauliflow.”
CAULIFLOW?! THIS WASN’T A ZUCCHINI AT ALL. This was a cauliflower seedling DISGUISED as a zucchini. I HAD BEEN READING LAST YEAR’S LABEL. WHY DID I NOT CROSS OUT LAST YEAR’S LABEL. WHAT AN IDIOT.
Panicking, with the sharp acidity of anxiety welling up in my chest, I scrambled to find the cauliflower seed packet, while the cauliflower seedlings and wet dirt languished in a sad pile on the table.
The cauliflower seed packet gave the following directions: “Thin seedlings when they are 4-6 inches in height, with the final spacing of the plants 2 feet apart.”
4-6 inches. I HAD PULLED THESE POOR LITTLE ONES OUT OF THEIR COMFY NEST AT A MERE 3 INCHES. This would absolutely not do. Thinning the cauliflower prematurely by 1 inch would most definitely be the death of them (yes, writing this now, I see the absurdity of that conclusion). I aborted mission. I quickly stuffed a bunch of dirt back into the plastic pot, and nestled the cauliflower seedlings back in there, all four of them. There. They seemed perky still. No harm done.
The anxiety stayed, though. I was now in a fog. I had that feeling you get when you’re in a room with two people who are in a huge fight, and you’re really trying to ignore the situation because you feel like you’re not supposed to be witnessing this ugly conflict, but you’re forced to just remain in the room, because it would be even weirder if you left at this point. That feeling, plus a feeling of being lightly choked, slowly but surely, by someone who really didn’t want me to exist.
I thinned a few other plants – some tomatoes, a few snap peas. Each seedling got its own little pot. Then, it happened.
In my now-disregulated (and thus significantly more clumsy) state, I brought all the seedlings over to the sink to water them. I placed the smaller pots along the edge of the sink, and let the large pot of snap peas sit in the sink to drain. Once the snap pea pot was ready, I hauled it up – too quickly. My elbow collided squarely with the pot of freshly-tucked-in cauliflower seedlings, and they fell, in slow motion, down into the sink. Face down.
The tiny green stems were crushed. They fell from such a high height and couldn’t withstand the weight of the pot and dirt. They had already been ripped out, left out, and replanted in the last half hour. It was too much. They lay there, splayed on the sink bottom, surrounded by globs of soggy potting soil. I tried to reconstruct the pot, but it was no use. The cauliflower seedlings were bent and disfigured beyond repair. They were not going to make it.
At this point, deep grief seeped into my bones. I picked up the four seedlings, so small, so new, so delicate, and slowly carried them to the compost in the palm of my hand. Placing them in the compost was way harder than my rational brain thought it should be. It felt wrong, like these cauliflower seedlings needed a song, a ritual, a funeral march, and not just an unceremonious trip to the compost bin. They were living just a second ago. They were thriving. They were making it in the world. They were so beautiful. And now I was just leaving them to decompose. And worse, it had been my fault. I had killed them.
I’m not sure why I spent so long describing my thinning shenanigans, and not nearly as long describing the grief. The grief was why I chose to come here and write this blog post. But maybe the grief will be a future post. Here are my brief thoughts on it before I sign off for the night:
- Why do we (and by we, I mean American humans) assign so much weight to death as an ending? Why is death not simply a rebirth or a transfer of energy?
- Why do I feel more tangible grief for these cauliflower seedlings than I do when I see news footage of people dying, or of climate change?
- What is it about young things dying that causes so much suffering in us?
- How did these seedlings dying remind me of my abortion 4 years ago?
- Why does it scare us when we realize we are a part of nature, and therefore have very little control over what lives and what dies?