The Garden



Richard Louv

Memories are seeds. When I was a boy, the good times in my family were, more often than not, associated with nature — with fishing trips, discovered snakes and captured frogs, with dark water touched by stars.

            We lived at the edge of the suburbs, in Raytown, Missouri. At the end of our backyard, cornfields began, and then came the woods and then more farms that seemed to go on forever. Every summer I ran through the fields with my collie, elbowing the forest of whipping stalks and leaves, to dig my underground forts and climb into the arms of an oak that had outlived Jesse James. When the corn harvest was over, my father and I would walk through the stubble and search for the ground nests and speckled eggs of killdeer. Together, we watched with admiration as the parents attempted, with tragic cries and faked broken wings, to lead us away from their nests.

            I recall my father’s dark tanned neck, creased with lines of dust, as he tilled our garden. I ran ahead of him, pulling rocks and bones and toys from his path. My father, mother, little brother, and I planted strawberry starts and buried seeds for butternut squash and our own sweet corn. One year, my father read about the productivity of Swiss chard and as was his way, became fully committed. That summer we bagged Swiss chard for weeks. Our kitchen and part of our basement overflowed with it. My mother canned it. I carried brown shopping bags full of chard to the neighbors. My mother loved to tell the story about the summer the Swiss Chard Ate the Neighborhood.

            Controlled by no community association, our yard was humbled by locusts and heat and other natural covenants. With all my senses, I recall a late afternoon when my father and mother and my brother and I raced the weather to complete the construction of a retaining wall for sod and garden. We placed limestone slabs into a line to hold back erosion. We felt the wind quicken and the air change and stood up together near the end; we wiped sweat from our foreheads and stared at the quilted pea-green sky, felt a queasy stillness and sudden burst of wind, and then we saw the hail advancing yard to yard like an invading army. We rushed to the basement door. Such moments became part of the family lore because our time in the garden and on the water and in the woods held our family together.

            After a while, my father, who worked as a chemical engineer, earned more money and ventured out of the house less. The garden faded, replaced by Kentucky bluegrass sod. Neighbors erected chain-link fences. Our collie no longer ran free, and neither did we. Instead of Swiss chard and uneven bumps of earth for pumpkins and squash, the yard became ordered and lined with evenly spaced shrubs. Instead of planting vegetables we pulled dandelions, eliminated the variances, enforced order. The summer sun came to feel oppressive. My mother told the story of the Swiss chard on fewer occasions, and then not at all. The garden became a dim memory. We moved to a larger house.

            While I was away at college, the job market for chemical engineers dried up. My father had always dreamt of retirement, of moving to the Ozarks. He believed that once there, he would fish all day and plant a large garden. So, he and my mother and brother moved to the mountains of southern Missouri, to Table Rock Lake. By then, however, my father was spending most of his hours at the kitchen table, staring. He caught few fish. He planted no garden. He and my mother moved back to the suburbs.

            A dozen years later, as I sat in the desk chair where he had taken his own life, I opened a drawer. There, I found a handwritten document titled “accounts due.” It was a bitter ledger of his days, a reduction of our family into numbers, but tucked into those paragraphs was a sentence that mentioned a good period of his life — what he called his “one brief Eden.”

            I looked at the sentence for a while. I knew when that was.

            I am now older than my father was when he died. My life and writing have been shaped by that time at the edge of the cornfields. Sometimes it seems to me that what happened to my father — the disappearance of nature in his life and his descent into illness — parallels the life of our culture, as children’s freedom to roam has diminished, as families have pulled inward, as nature has become an abstraction. I understand that this equation is incomplete. Which came first, the illness or the withdrawal from nature? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. But I often wonder what my father’s life would have been like if the vernacular of mental health therapy had extended beyond Thorazine and Quaaludes and into the realm of nature therapy.

            As a boy, I must have sensed nature’s power to heal. As I watched my father withdraw, I wished that he would quit his job as an engineer and become a forest ranger. Somehow, I know, of course, that nature alone would not have cured him, but I have no doubt it would have helped.

            Perhaps these childhood experiences are why, as an adult, I am compelled to believe in the restorative power of nature, in a human/nature reunion. And that because of this reunion, life will be better.

(Excerpted with permission from “The Nature Principle” (Algonquin Books). Copyright Richard Louv. He is the author of ten books, including “Last Child in the Woods,” “Our Wild Calling,” and “Vitamin N.” He is co-founder and chair emeritus of the Children & Nature Network. More information:

Richard Louv: is author of Last Child in the Woods, The Nature Principle and Our Wild Calling, to name a few. He has written many articles such as "Leave No Child Inside -the remedy for environmental despair is as close as the front door." His passion for children and adults going outdoors is persistent and unending since he sees nature as an essentail to the wellness of our socities across the globe.

Photo: Deb Spilman, Professional Photographer of America Master Photographer, Certified Professional Photographer and recently qualified for the Craftsman Degree. Ms. Spilman is a friend of environmental education and NAAEE. Picture taken in the USFS Land Between the Lakes.