Red Clay Heals


I come from many gardens. My parents used to have a long strip of red clay in the Hickory Flats, and I remember picking peas from it in the summer, covered in sweat and bees. In fall, we would shuck an acre of corn and the cows would wait on the fence line, ready to devour the husks while we ate Silver Queen, slathered in butter. We always had a plate of fresh tomatoes, onion, and nana peppers with dinner, or it wasn’t really dinner was it? Grandparents and cousins would come with grocery bags of their excess crops to share with us, as four kids will eat you out of house and sanity.

My grandpa Purcell had a green thumb. He used to grow food and flowers and take long walks in the woods; I feel him with me as I rake rocks out of the unforgiving red hill I work with to produce a few blooms each spring. Our backyard has a compacted red clay slope that only Sisyphus and I have the audacity to make verdure each spring. I take a pick axe and I garden with my Irish ancestors as I pull potatoes out of the dirt. I have a lot of hope that this is the year that the fig tree will grow on that hill and give me, or the birds, more than three figs.
My husband is a gardener. He neatly lines up his rows and measures to make neat hills of tomatoes and peppers and beans. You can imagine how flummoxed he is when he finds out I bought another vining, bushy rose that will make a beautiful, deadly, tangled mess among his structure and order. But on tilling day, we are one. I love to see my salesman don his overalls and oil sodden gloves, and have his freckled skin splattered with dirt and fertilizer in preparation for this year’s harvest.

I never knew what a garden could do until I lost my brother. It was a car accident and was sudden. No goodbyes and only three weeks until my first son was born. The hope that had been tangible had withered and replaced with a bleakness and hurt I could have never imagined. As I walked out of my front door on the day of the burial, I was exhausted and full of the dread of the grief that was insurmountable. Then I saw it, a purple clematis, one I had planted two years ago, and it had given me its first bloom. I just stared at it, my mouth agape. Here was hope; here was labour and work materialized. Each stamen and petal fashioned from the nutrients in the soil, reminding me that life is still beautiful. Like that single petal flower, it may be short, fragile, and tenuous, but it is worth blooming if only for a moment.

I began to stray from tomatoes and obsess over roses. The spiritual and physical discipline and care of them was a place to put my pain and see tangible results of beauty and care. The pruning, feeding, and simple enjoyment of each flower would pull me from the darkness that is losing a close loved one. I could not bring back my brother, but I could bring beauty and joy back into the world with my stewardship of my backyard. I still grow tomatoes though. Gardens can heal, restore, teach, and feed us in many ways.

Photos Show

'Clotilde Soupert' roses

'Clotilde Soupert' roses

Growing in the author's home garden. [View Additional File Details]

Tilling the garden

Tilling the garden

The author's husband at work in the yard. [View Additional File Details]

Cite this Page

beverlybjohnson, “Red Clay Heals,” Community of Gardens, accessed April 17, 2024, https:/​/​communityofgardens.​si.​edu/​items/​show/​12315.​
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