Celtic Junction Arts Review
On Digging and “Digging”
Under my window, a clean rasping sound When the spade sinks into the gravelly ground. . . —Seamus Heaney, "Digging"
Spring seemed slower than ever to arrive this year. The snows, the frosts, the heaving rain: all the oppressive elements made me long to dig in this year’s perennials and annuals but kept holding me back. Finally, the apple tree in the backyard was a snow globe of petals, and the pear blossoms opened in delicate clusters in tiny bouquets. Then the petals started to drop like snowflakes, and the silent drift of pale petals against the deepening green landscape was heavenly. From my kitchen window, I looked out on this, a miracle, an oxygen factory in this inner-city 32 by 42-foot oasis that once was a cracked, concrete slab to park cars on. But underneath all that green remains gravelly ground.
It takes a long time to make a garden, but I had only vague glimmerings of that when I set myself against the barren landscape our back yard used to be, trying to make something beautiful out of it. I’d grown up in a house with a large yard and perennials that made gardening look easy. I played in that yard as a very young child, following our cat under arching leaves of daylilies, popping the fat, green pods of the false blue indigo, negotiating the thorns of the fragrant shrub roses, and shaking loose the snowflake petals of the bridal wreath spirea that brooded outside the back door like a fat hen, wings at the ready.
My parents planted none of these glorious perennials; they were the work of a former owner, and we let them grow and sprawl. The horseshoe garden developed an asymmetrical bulge on its right side due to daylily spread. Forget-me-knots and buttercups worked their way into the lawn.
Coming from a generation of victory gardeners, my parents planted vegetables, spindly rows of beets, tomatoes, green beans, and fern-like carrots that eked out their existence in the northern Minnesota clay soil. It’s hard making things grow in some soils. Seamas Heaney pays tribute to his father’s work, and his father’s father’s work, in the poem “Digging”:
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft Against the inside knee was levered firmly. He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep To scatter new potatoes that we picked. . .
We never planted potatoes, but my father, the child of Finnish immigrants, had a particular zest for digging the vegetable garden bed. He was also a great forager, and it wasn’t unusual to be driving someplace in the country and have him stop the car, my mother and he picking raspberries or wild strawberries that grew in the ditch.
Less interested in the practical, when I dug, it was to mine the red clay out of a bank in the alley to make sculptures of dogs, cats, and (my favorite) horses. A callow youth, I was unappreciative of the food my parents grew, except perhaps for the small, juicy carrots and apples from an ancient tree that was easy to climb and rewarded us with small, zesty orbs that we stored for the winter under blankets in the attic.
I must have had that idea of a garden in mind when I first gazed out the kitchen window of our new/old house at the expanse of cracked concrete that covered three-quarters of the space in back. I longed for the green scent of calm and shade.
It was the spring of 1987, about a year before the person I called my husband would tell me they were transgender, about a year before our long, 30-year transformative journey, with no clear map that led from he into she. Was any of the force I sledgehammered the concrete with, the way I threw my weight into the shovel and heavy pry-bar to heft the concrete chunks out of their alkaline substrate, was any of that fervor something I redirected from the problem of my marriage and my husband’s mysterious bitterness? His darkness would come on so suddenly, without warning, like a heavy cloud that blocked the sun.
Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
We stayed married, and I discovered that with my spouse’s final transition, legally becoming a woman just a few years ago, some kind of transition in me has also happened. Not long ago I signed up for an online workshop and the screen prompted me to fill out a demographic questionnaire. Age, race, gender, ethnicity. . . fine. But then came the sexual orientation questions. Hetero—no, not anymore. Gay, lesbian, bi, pansexual, or queer? Maybe people consider me a lesbian now, but when I think about all my lesbian friends, it seems their experiences and outlooks are different from mine. I feel like an impostor if I call myself a lesbian. Sometimes I think of the queer community as “my” community, the community I feel most comfortable in, but I’m not sure it’s right. I’m not sure I’ve “earned” it. If I got into a sexual relationship with another person, I imagine most likely it would be a man, maybe someone nominally a man with a lot of feminine qualities. Maybe someone gender-fluid.
On the questionnaire, my fingers raced to the “none of the above” option. I checked it, and a drop-down window asked me to fill in the blank with something. I stopped. I didn’t have a word for what I am. I still don’t have a name for who I’ve become.
Do any of us really know what or who we will become?
During many of the middle years of Venus’s transition, when there was much less recognition of LGBTQ+ rights, I chafed against the constrictive categories other people often put us into. There was often a threat of violence beneath the surface, and often it rose above that surface. I wanted to travel, and not just to large metropolitan areas with visible LGBTQ+ communities, but also to quaint rural countrysides and ancient historical sites where we were less sure the population would accept us. I developed a strategy of traveling with “safe” groups, like pilgrimage tours sponsored by my church to northern England and Scotland to study Celtic spirituality.
Study abroad tours became another “safe” way to travel. That’s how we got our first glimpse of the Irish countryside and clambered through castle ruins. When we got to Blarney Castle and stood in line to kiss the famous Blarney Stone, we got questioning looks from the other tourists standing with us in line, but we felt secure surrounded by the students and faculty members who knew us and welcomed us as part of the group. When we toured the grounds at Blarney Castle and found ourselves in the Poison Garden, I had to laugh because despite its dreadful name, most of these plants were only poisonous if ingested in huge, unlikely quantities. Indeed, some of them had taken root in my garden back home, the one I had built on gravelly ground.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge Through living roots awaken in my head.
All those years ago in the backyard, I went at the problem with a small sledgehammer and only put on a pair of goggles when the grit from the concrete started ricocheting into my eyes. The goggles were hot, and I wiped the sweat from my face on my Talking Heads t-shirt. We’d decided to buy a big, cheap house because my spouse, toggling back and forth between music and art careers, needed a space to paint, and the warehouse spaces that were legal to live in were too expensive for us. We were also tired of the vagaries of renting, like being turned down on a rent application because my spouse had an earring or I had fuchsia extensions sewn into my blond hair. What we found was a house large enough for housemates whose rent helped us pay the mortgage, and a sagging, two-story carriage house on the other side of the parking area at the back that the seller offered to tear down for us. No, we said. It would be perfect for painting.
Back then, it seemed like the names for things were more dependable, but maybe that’s because I was young and didn’t know any better. Words were always important to me: I was in graduate school studying literature, and I wrote poetry. I read Seamus Heaney’s work, not yet seeing how it might apply to me and my life in Minnesota.
But even then it was clear that words could create new realities. My spouse and I played a game where one of us would say something like “I like the way you tune your fork” and the other would reply, “There’s a song in that.” I was aware that when I learned a new term for something, say “objectification,” my view of the world clarified. It wasn’t that the idea had been invisible previously, more that it had been shrouded in fog. With each new word and each new phrase, the fog lifted a little more.
In my backyard, breaking and digging up the concrete created a new problem: where to put it all. Some of it I hauled to a narrow, unseen side of the carriage house in a red Radio Flyer wagon that had been abandoned by a previous tenant. Many of the larger pieces were piled into garden furniture, and one piece became a coffee table that I regularly scraped my shins on. I used a lot of the smaller clumps to edge two imagined gardens shaped like paisleys, or a single set of inverted quotation marks. Between the embracing elbows of the gardens would be a patch of lawn big enough to cradle a table and four chairs.
As I hammered and cleared away the alkaline chunks of concrete, I was disappointed to discover that the task would be even more difficult because there was a gravelly strata under the concrete. I shoveled, and it seemed to never end. A more studious gardener would have invested money in a better digging machine and then paid for topsoil by the cubic yard. I didn’t have the money for that. In desperation, I spread a few 40-pound bags around and decided that part of the concrete could stay as patio and sidewalk space. Then I went to the garden center for 10 rolls of sod—about 130 square feet—and loaded it into the back of our aging Honda hatchback. I had to take surface roads home because the car sagged with the weight of the dirt
When I got home, I rolled out the sod and lined it up with the curling outline of the twin gardens. I would have to go back for more sod, but from the very beginning I was struck by the change in sound. The traffic noise from the busy street in front no longer boomeranged around the hard surfaces at the back of the house. Instead, it sank into a velvety greenness, a cool, deliciously fragrant antidote to the machinery of the outside world.
. . . going down and down for the good turf. Digging. At the end of the day, I stood barefoot in the new grass between the graceful, delineating arms of the two gardens and stretched my toes to feel the blades of grass. I don’t remember if I was aware then that I had designed a garden that reached out to hug anyone who stood in the middle of it. I know I needed a hug back then. As the process of my spouse’s transgender expression evolved, changed, and became public in a time of deep hostility towards the trans community, I would continue to need the loving embrace of the natural world to hold me in its arms.
That first summer, everything I planted was cheap or free: irises, chives, mint, zinnias. The more invasive (like mint), the better. It should have never worked—there really wasn’t enough topsoil under the sod, but somehow green things grew. Now, nearly 35 years later, as I dig down every fall to plant bulbs, I still run into that archeological layer of gravel and turn the soil over to better mix it up. It’s strata from the past telling me I still need to work on this garden, that it still needs tending. I might dump a little bone meal in, arrange the bulbs, then close it all up. Somehow, the garden springs to life every year, despite nearly toxic alkaline conditions that lurk six to eight inches down. Even the apple trees grow, a miracle of persistence. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. One of the apple trees began to die back a few years ago, and now it’s gone. Maybe its roots were too close to the remaining concrete.
Last spring, as I planted pansies under the birdbath, my trowel hit concrete, and I remembered that the soil had drifted over some of the concrete, tugged along by creeping Charlie and who knows what else, and that there was still pavement under that section.
Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests. I'll dig with it. —Seamus Heaney, "Digging" I don’t know what demographic label to give myself, and maybe I never will, but I do know that there’s something about watching things grow that helps me rebuild my soul. But I did know I needed to address that hard piece of inorganic pavement that lurked beneath the birdbath if I wanted the garden to flourish, to become what it wanted to be. Late last summer, Venus and I gently peeled back that layer of soil to expose the gray concrete, rented a jackhammer, and broke up the pavement. As I chiseled out the pieces, I dug out more of the gravelly substrate. It's still not perfect, but this time, I think it has a better foundation. I can't wait to see what starts growing there.
Lynette Reini-Grandell is a memoirist and poet (Wild Things: A Trans Glam Punk Rock Love Story, forthcoming from Minnesota Historical Society Press in 2023, Wild Verge, and Approaching the Gate, which won a NE MN Book Award for poetry). A multidisciplinary writer and performer, she blogs at www.reini-grandell.com.
To read another Arts Review article by Reini-Grandell, see Contemporary Irish Poetry and Its Bardic Echoes.