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The Hedonist's Garden
by John Hershey
by John Hershey

John Hershey is a dad, gardener, writer, and lawyer (in that order). He lives in Denver, Colorado, with his wife and two young sons.

John's humorous essays on gardening appear in many newspapers and magazines, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor, GreenPrints, and Warm Earth (Australia).

November 28, 2010

In the springtime, garden writers everywhere rhapsodize about that glorious season of rebirth, when the earth comes alive, bursting with new vitality. This is all wonderful, but there has to be a flipside. If spring is the time of rebirth, then autumn must be the season of redeath.

While the spring garden teems with hope and possibility, a feeling of impending doom hangs over the garden in the fall. We count the days until the average first frost date, wondering if each tomato we pick will be the last one to ripen in time. The contrast is intense: just as the garden reaches its peak lushness and finally begins to yield a bountiful harvest, a crisp new bite in the morning air reminds us of the inexorable passage of time that will suddenly turn it all into compost material any day now.

The ephemeral beauty of the garden is a metaphor for our own lives. And long experience has led me to a profound insight that can help us make sense of these complicated feelings:

Life is like an ear rub.

Those of us lucky enough to have a spouse or significant other who occasionally massages our ears understand the fundamental paradox: The ear rub feels so good that it is difficult to enjoy, because you can't stop thinking about the fact that it's going to end.

For me, the lesson of the ear rub is that enjoying life is not effortless. It takes focus and creativity to get the most fun out of it without being distracted by its inevitable termination.

I keep telling my wife she should give me even more ear rubs, because that's when I practice living each moment to the fullest. "You want me to have good life skills, don't you, Honey?" This coping mechanism helps me deal not only with life in general, but with life in the fall garden, when I face challenges like basil. By late summer and early fall, my basil plants have grown into huge bushes, offering a superabundance of lovely aromatic leaves. This is when I really enjoy the two best things about home-grown basil: the fresh flavor, and the fact that a tiny plastic box of organic basil costs over three bucks at the store. My giant basil shrubs could fill so many of those little boxes that I can't begin to calculate the street value of this herb. I could open a basil dispensary!

But like the ear rub, the fact that the basil is so sublime is what makes it overwhelming. Just as life itself offers far more opportunities than we can possibly take advantage of in the short time we have, basil is so plentiful during its brief moment in the sun that there's no way to use it all before it shrivels in the first cool breeze of October. The two most common uses of basil, of course, are pesto and the names of Thai restaurants. I'll have to be much more creative than that to make even a dent in my basil hedge. But it's a start, and making pesto lets me enjoy a lot of basil fast, without letting its imminent demise ruin the fun.

With such limited time in the garden and on the planet, I think the only thing to do is get as much pleasure from them as possible while we can. That's why I grow a hedonist's garden. I'm going to turn all that basil into a rich pesto, full of high-fat ingredients. I don't care how bad it is for me – I'm living in the moment. There's just one problem, of course. The olive oil and walnuts in the pesto contain healthy monounsaturated fats and omega-3 essential fatty acids, the leafy green basil (along with the chard and kale I sneak in to trick my kids into eating it) are packed with nutrients, and since I always add a zero to the number of garlic cloves the recipe calls for, there's no avoiding its countless health benefits.

There must be something I can grow for pure pleasure. I love the usual garden veggies, but their nutritional value is too obvious. I want crops that do nothing but gratify my desires. If it feels good, grow it!

Coffee won't survive in our climate, unfortunately. I do have hop vines climbing the balcony, producing bags full of aromatic flowers to brew my other favorite beverage. But this is no good either. Many studies have demonstrated the salubrious effects of moderate coffee and beer consumption.

I keep trying to grow things for pleasure, but they all insist on being healthy too. Chamomile, mint and hops combine to make a tea so enjoyable and relaxing that it should be a controlled substance. But alas, these medicinal herbs also relieve stress, improve digestion, and otherwise refuse to be hazardous to my health.

This fall I'm planting saffron crocus bulbs. Surely this pricey herb is a purely hedonistic extravagance, right? No such luck. The damn thing is packed with cancer-fighting anti-oxidants.

I don't even eat the luffas I grow, so surely the luxurious body scrub from this homegrown spa treatment is a sheer indulgence. Nope: exfoliation turns out to be really good for your skin.

OK, one last try at hedonism. This year I'm planting hazelnut trees in my yard. So in just 5 or 6 short years (Ooo, the anticipation!) I'll enjoy the ultimate in locavore decadence: homemade Nutella! But hazelnuts are one of the best sources of vitamin E, and with a little dark chocolate and wholesome honey from the backyard hive mixed in, my ersatz Nutella will be a frickin' superfood!

I give up. I can't grow junk food even when I try. The garden bridges the gap between healthy and delicious food that is causing so many problems in our society. Somehow, it has become the conventional wisdom that healthy foods taste bad and junk foods taste good. "Eat your vegetables" is even a cliché, a business-jargon euphemism for doing something unpleasant but necessary. This is ridiculous. For the true pleasure of intensely delicious flavor, how can standing in line at Dunkin' Donuts possibly compete with standing in the garden with a tomato just picked from the vine?

I've dedicated my life to the proposition that my "vices" are actually virtues, that the things I enjoy most are also good for me. From rich sauces and sweet desserts to near-hallucinogenic teas and even beer, the garden is the place that proves me right. It's the perfect place for a hedonist: I can enjoy life while it lasts, and the fresh organic food from the garden will probably make it last longer. Now on to the next project: figuring out how to prolong my ear rubs.

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