Finding God in My Garden

How saving the earth saved my sanity -- and fed my soul.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

My Austin, Texas, garden beds, with their young jalapeno and tomato plants, remind me of God.

Satanic bugs like fire ants and worms lurk below the surface, and sometimes they furrow into my yucky compost pile of dirt and table scraps, but God is still there. I see the divine in the resilient rosemary bushes, tall lilies, the young lettuce and the sprouting oak tree.

As Earth Day turns 40, just a few years older than me, green has become chic. Michelle Obama has added rhubarb to the White House garden which is now in its second year and probably the most famous garden in the world. A slew of celebrities from Don Cheadle and Morgan Freeman to Brad Pitt and Rob Reiner are now associated with organizations like Global Green, Solar Neighbors Program and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Closer to home, I don’t know anyone who bags their groceries in plastic anymore–at least if they don’t want sideways glares. That’s one of the reasons I’ve chosen to live in this city for so long.

In Austin, the San Francisco of the South, even the city hall is green. Whole Foods Market, the corporate face of environmentalism, opened here in 1980. Lance Armstrong’s cycling success has been part of what has entrenched the sport in the city’s culture, but it is easy to love the outdoors when there are more than 300 days of sun here each year. Even the usually barren patches of grass beside the highways here have the bluebonnets and other wildflowers beloved by Lady Bird Johnson.

It was against this backdrop that I found myself starting to carry cloth bags with me to the supermarket all the time and declining to print out gas receipts because I didn’t want to waste any more paper. When I installed a water-saving shower head, I knew I had crossed a line. I had become something I had no frame of reference for: a black urban hippie Texan.

Considering that I grew up poor, Catholic and the youngest child of a manically depressed woman, this was an odd, slow transition. My mother and I moved more than 20 times between homeless shelters and welfare-subsidized apartments from when I was 6 until I was a teenager and left home. Literal and virtual roots were a foreign concept until I bought a house of my own in 2006, and even then, I resisted putting things in the ground. Roots felt scary and abstract.