benign neglect & the september garden

Benign neglect—it's the operative concept in a September garden kept by a teacher.

Fall equinox marks a unique period for most educators, a time when work reaches its first peak, a critical mass that overwhelms all other life pursuits and earns its frequent modifier, hard. For a gardener and professor of English, it means hours previously spent tending plants now shift (and greatly expand) into long hours spent tending students, mainly in the form of marking their papers. That's how we earn our bread. I consider it a privilege to do that work, but it's exhausting, difficult, and relentless this time of year.

If you teach English, and mean to be professional about it, you quietly don the yoke like an ox and hit that first row stretching out across the acreage. It's wise to remember that the labor is intellectual, so that's a decent deal. At least you have a fighting chance of using your skills to really help someone, if they are among the ones open to what your labor provides them—insight into self-improvement and growth. You plow through the papers, sometimes hitting a rich vein of earth, other times clanking on rocks and stumps, turning it all over for further review.

I often sit at my kitchen table for all-day sessions on the weekend. This is not a casual comment, an abstraction, or an exaggeration. Teaching is, for me, a six-day-a-week job. So on Sundays I typically sit at the table to work and look out at my autumnal garden, still verdant but tinged with rusty browns and yellows, high climbing vines subtly coaxed by gravity back toward soil even as they are hung with the sweetest of the final fruits.

There's work to be done among the beds, and that work will mostly go untouched. Benign neglect happens; it's the only way. One just lets the garden go where it must. First frost hovers on the horizon of days, a threat and also a release from that nagging sense that there's garden work that isn't getting done.

Sometimes, for a break, I'll take a cup of coffee and go sit amid it all. The green sweat bees have arrived to tease out what's delicious from the late-flowering plants. They seem to find especially attractive the pennyroyal and nicotania blooms.

There's precious little time to linger; their hard work reminds me of my own, still waiting, and all those papers yet to hit my desk. It's a decent analogy since I can see from watching the progress of the bees that some flowers bear no nectar, while at others they sink in deeply and don't emerge for a long while.

In truth, it's comforting to just let the garden go. Any fool knows there's no point in trying to stop the seasons from having their way. One rolls onto the next. Look far enough ahead and I can see a February day when I'll graph the new planting schedule and start cleaning and pots and sorting seeds. The repreive is a gift, and should be seen as such. Out of that knowledge springs the impetus for harvest festivals and the cheerful forebearance of winter. On snowy mornings I can remember the baskets of produce I pulled from the garden, and often, I can access things preserved to cook up a real taste of summer.

I'll find time soon, before frost clenches down on everything green, to pull what I can from the stalks. There are lingering tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and a resilient bumper crop of peppers still glowing on the plants, their flesh getting hotter and sweeter all the time.

For now, though, it's time to get back to the essays written by my students. Benign neglect won't work for them; they're the garden in mid-stride, demonstrably in need of guidance and support, not yet ready to bear. Some are sure to make it; some are sure to end up stunted, having taken root in shade or poor soil. Most impressive of all are those who by force of will insist on growing up and out of a dark corner, a weedy patch, to break into the sunlight and bear a harvest. My job is, quite simply, to make it possible and encourage that success.

It's hard work, but it's nothing to be afraid of.