Stories from the Garden

Lessons I learned at a volunteer farm in Eugene

Written By Derek Maiolo

Photographed by Kezia Setyawan

There it was: the biggest pile of compost in the neighborhood, steaming on a crisp fall Saturday. I dug a spading fork into the mesh of rotted leaves and other indiscernibles and came up with a dripping pile of the stuff that I then chucked into a wheelbarrow. A fellow volunteer pushed that wheelbarrow across the garden and dumped it on a path that was slowly rising higher and higher.

FOOD for Lane County has farmed the 2.5-acre lot behind St. Thomas Episcopal Church along Coburg Road since 1990. According to the church’s website, more than 2,400 community volunteers help to tend the garden each year, totalling more than 24,000 volunteer hours.  

The mission behind the garden is twofold: (1) To provide nutritious produce to locals facing food insecurity and (2) To educate people about sustainable farming practices that can be applied to an urban setting. The current director of the garden is Merry Bradley, a spritely woman (fitting her name) who seems more at home in the garden than in any house. She was the first one to greet me Saturday and gave me my first orders after I filled out a volunteer form: shovel the compost.

The work felt good. It reminded me of my years in Colorado on the small farm that my parents still own. Back in middle and high school, I abhorred the work. When my dad demanded that I help build fence or shear sheep, I tried to think up some excuse, any excuse, to avoid it. Gardening bored me, despite my mother’s repeated attempts at peaking my interests in fresh strawberries or just ripened tomatoes.

But after almost four years of college, halfway across the country from the farm and manual labor, I could feel myself itching for the work, for sore bones and calloused hands. As I thrust the large fork into the brown pile, a young woman about my age sang a church hymn. She, along with about 15 others at the farm that day, were from a Catholic church in Portland. I learned her name, but remember only her ecstatic energy. Her singing gave a rhythm to the work, and before long others from her group joined in. I would have done the same had I not given up religion in middle school, only to find it again two years ago. I’m still behind on learning my hymns.

After about two hours of laying compost, we took a break for lunch. I had noticed a substantial kitchen crew preparing food in pots and pans, but could not be in any way prepared for the feast that awaited us: butternut squash soup, pasta with quinoa, pasta with noodles, and apple crumble for dessert. I sat with fellow classmate, Jack, next to an old man in a grey knit cap. The man was quiet for most of the meal, eating his soup seemingly deep thought — each spoonful had a purpose. As I dipped into the apple crumble, I finally broke conversation with him and asked where he was from. In a thick accent, he said,

“I was born in Hungary, but now that I’ve eaten I’m not so hungry anymore.”

He had a gruff voice, raspy but from a tough life, not cigarettes. It sounded somewhat like my grandpa’s, who grew up speaking Pennsylvania Dutch and was the wisest man I know. I asked the man when he came to the U.S.

“1944,” he said, rehearsed. He didn’t have to say much else, all of us at the table knew what that meant and were too nervous to ask further. Still, I’m a journalist.

“10,” he said to my next question concerning how old he was when he fled.

“Can you remember much from your childhood?” I asked.

“The things that happened, you try your best to forget.” I didn’t push him further.

He said nothing else for the rest of the meal. I wanted to ask more of this man who held so much history, who was hardened by it but wore a wedding ring. He smiled at us before taking his plate to a plastic bin and leaving for the day. I think he just came for the meal (I can’t blame him).

Urban Farm student Derek Maiolo pushes his wheelbarrow full of compost through a mucky path of previously dumped compost at the Grassroots Garden Farm in Eugene. The load is heavy, but his smile is great.

The rest of us got to work erecting two raised beds and pathways between them. We then laid down a thick layer of compost, alternating wheelbarrow loads between decaying leaves and the dark, steaming soil underneath them. Others hacked at squash stems and leaves, accumulating a pile of green chop for future compost. After 3 p.m., we began to clean up our workspaces and put away tools.  

Just before I was set to leave, the garden director, Merry, gathered everyone under a trellis draped in grapevines. On the ground was a pile of freshly cut squash stems. We circled around Merry, and she waited until all of us could hear before beginning.

“I am about to teach you one of the most critical lessons in life,” she said. “How to make a zucchini flute.”

She showed us the process of making just the right cuts to a stem to make an embouchure, then adding some key holes for flair. My first attempt was unsuccessful, but I was a flute player in high school — Those years in band had to count for something. Sure enough, my second zucchini flute sang as pretty as a busted foghorn. There was admittedly little to be admired about the sound a zucchini flute makes, but Merry had her own reasons for loving them so much.

She told us the story of a man whom she used to work with who was the first to show her how to make a zucchini flute.

“This is one of the most critical lessons you will learn in this life,” he told her.

Merry took the advice to heart, and spent years perfecting her garden instrument. Years later, the man, much older than her, moved to an assisted living center. She visited him one day and found him sleeping deeply. When she woke him, the first words out of his mouth were, “My protegé.”

Merry said those were his last words.

I’m a journalist, so I love stories. The Grassroots Garden is a novel in and of itself, and the people who visit it even more so. A garden is the most human of places, where people cultivate the life that gives us life. One goes to the garden young and leaves older than the hills (if one does it right). You can see it in people’s sore backs —hunched, and in their eyes —weary. But it is the best fatigue in the world that comes from a hard day’s work. One goes to the garden empty and comes back full (of food, of friends, of stories). This is what the garden taught me.

Jack, his roommate Henry and I stopped along the Willamette River on our way home. It had been cloudy that day, but the sun burned through to catch the last bit of daylight. We got naked and swam in the river at a boat ramp in Alton Baker Park. The cold water felt good where we were sore, especially the palms of my hands. We hooped and hollered at the cold, then at the life it renewed in us. We got beers at the 16 Tons taphouse near campus. I ordered something wheaty that tasted like the earth.

And boy, did it taste good.