Spring Contest Winner in Nonfiction: On Becoming a Root Vegetable

I crouched on the carpeted floor in front of my space heater, my eyes swollen from crying. For days it had been giving off less and less heat, shutting down for a few minutes at a time before willing itself back to life. Now the heater huffed its final hot breaths. When it died completely, I did not think, “I need to grow a garden.”

I screamed and wailed and banged my palms against the steering wheel as I drove from work to the secluded, strange house I’d been pet sitting and sleeping at. I’d never truly, uncontrollably wept while driving before. I was terrified of spending another night alone with myself. The road was icy and my vision wavered behind a thick layer of tears. When I pulled into the driveway and sat there, steeling myself against solitude, I did not think, “I will buy soil and seeds.”

When I started to think about growing my first vegetable garden it was less of a decision and more of a desperate attempt to stay alive. I was coming off the tail end of a winter that had stripped me bare. For months I’d alternated between blank stupor, deep anguish, and a hysterical, frenzied fear of the persistence of the former two. I’d often collapsed into hyperventilating sobs over nothing at all. “Help me,” I begged my boyfriend. “How?”he asked. I had nothing to tell him.

__________

For sixty years the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map has served as a rough guide to farmers, gardeners, and landscapers around which plants can grow in a certain area based on that area’s annual extreme low temperatures. The zones range from 1a (low of -60 F) to 13b (low of 65 F). According to the Zone Map I live within zones 4a and b, which means I am destined for lows between -20 and -30 F. In this place the winters are brutal, the growing season is short, and only a few edible things can survive.

I’ve always hated winter. When I was a child I welcomed the springtime by stomping on every stubborn pile of roadside snow from my bus stop to home. In college I’d hasten the end of the season by riding my bike around campus, directing my wheels over slush and half-melted ice chunks, savoring the way they’d explode onto my shoes and calves. I took my revenge; emboldened by the lengthening days and rising temperatures, my sadness turned to a gleeful rage around the same time every year.

But in the place I live now my depression persisted past when it would have ended in the years prior, perhaps for the simple reason that winter lasts months longer here than it did in the much warmer USDA Plant Hardiness zone of my childhood. April came, and then May, and the snow hadn’t melted, and I still felt bad. If I’d had to choose a way to die in those days, I would have chosen starvation in bed. It was tempting, the idea of lying down and never getting back up. I’ve always been the kind of person who hopes for big things to miraculously happen to me by virtue of my complete inaction.

As a teenager I’d taken a few tentative steps down that road of eternal self-destruction. I am familiar with the way it looks; to me it is a country lane, a dirt road framed by massive, regal oaks that muffle all sound except for the quiet, constant river that winds alongside. I imagine that in the early autumn, when the leaves have turned and some of them have fallen but not all, the sky and the ground are twin mirrors of red, orange, yellow. But I turned back, back then.

During this cold, long winter, when I found myself remembering that road—perhaps too fondly—I set out not to destroy the end of winter, but to create the start of spring. I needed to do something that had nothing to do with snow and ice, and so I bought seeds and dirt and fertilizer. I bought work gloves and screws and wood. I measured and divided, drew plans and made lists, sawed apart and fastened together. I shoveled clear a section of the yard and put down two newly crafted raised beds. I was determined to create life, and in doing so hoped to regain the desire to live my own.

__________

I had always been a somber and sometimes panicky child, and as a teenager I became fully depressed. I found it difficult to commit to anything. For years I bounced around friend groups and activities. I tried the piano, the violin, and the clarinet. I ran track. I ditched everything the moment it became hard. I couldn’t even binge and purge right and gave that up in favor of starvation, which I also quit. I found relief in the small incisions I made along the soft part of my forearms with the blades I pulled out of my pink Bic disposable razors. I stuck with this for a good while before I was found out and made to stop, but there is evidence in an old journal I kept as a teen. In a melodramatic move, I smeared some of my own blood on the page, an ironclad monument to my suffering turned physical.

When I graduated from high school my father sent me a postcard. Inside, his unfamiliar handwriting in blue ink advised me to Just keep going and don’t look back. We hadn’t spoken since I was small, but his message was exactly what I wanted to hear. I was going off to college, and while I’d only be a two-and-a-half-hour drive from home I would also be farther from my past, and my problems, than I’d ever been. Like most college freshmen I only had eyes for what was ahead. Back was the place where my parents split up, where the violence and the threat of violence lived, where my mother’s long hair clogged shower drains after stress made it fall off her head. Back was my panic attacks, eating disorders, nights spent with the razor blade in the shower. Back was where I shed the parts of me I did not want and left them on the floor like snakeskin.

I thought I could shed anything if I just kept going and didn’t look back, and my father’s note gave me permission to try. I went to college. I let myself become happier, healthier, and smarter. The darkness was finished with me; I had left all that behind. A few years later I was strong enough to leave my friends and family on the East coast and move to this cold little mountain town on a whim, where I didn’t know a soul. It took me coming all this way to find out that the things I thought I’d shed had never left me at all. They’d festered and rotted and sewed themselves to my shadow. They’d come across the country with me. They were in my bed.

__________

The extent of my horticultural experience was to have temporarily kept a handful of houseplants alive until they died or I got tired of them. I had never grown anything from seeds before. I live in a place with a remarkably short growing season, where snow and frost can and do persist into June. I learned that the common wisdom is to start one’s seeds indoors well before the last frost, so that by the time the earth is warm enough to cradle life you have seedlings that are hardy enough to be cradled without dying. I researched which plants can survive here: kale, beets, carrots, garlics, radishes, brussels sprouts, raspberries. Things that grow deep in the dirt or don’t mind a little snow early in the process. I planted some seeds in egg cartons and sowed the rest directly into the dirt outside. Something would grow. I needed something to grow.

There is a line in Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh that reads, “He thinks he can leave me by leaving me.” The context here is romantic; the narrator is deeply, dangerously in love, in the way that a love can morph into a living thing of its own, a stray dog that trots behind both the loved one and the lover himself. Obsessive, depressive introspection can live adjacent to narcissism, and so when I read this line I thought immediately of myself, how I’d thought I could escape sadness by changing my location, or my lifestyle, or every single thing about myself I could think to change. There is no leaving a thing like this, not even by leaving it.

I became obsessed with my seeds. My boyfriend built a makeshift greenhouse in our garage using a broken fridge, a grow light ordered from Amazon, a humidifier, a heating pad, and some nifty electrical work that kept the chamber at a steady temperature and humidity level. I woke up early every morning to spray the seeds with water, and every evening I checked on them. In a few weeks they sprouted. Pale, tentacular, and glorious.

The tomatoes were heavy, drowsy heads on skinny, almost translucent necks. They could barely hold themselves up. The kale was tall and straight. They grew their seed leaves first, soft, oval-shaped leaves whose purpose is to provide enough nutrients so that the true leaves can sprout and begin photosynthesis. The beet sprouts had rich, red stems like the root vegetables they’d eventually become. The carrot seedlings grew two perfect, long leaves like blades of grass. I’d vibrate with excitement every time I peeked in on them, every time I brushed my fingertips softly against their green.

__________

When I’d been at the height of my depression I felt a loneliness more profound than I’d ever experienced. I had few friends where I live and none I liked enough to come out of my miserable cave for. Instead I focused on my old friends, the ones I’d left behind when I moved. “What are you doing today?”I’d text them. “Are you sure this is helping you?”they’d respond. “I’m losing it,”I’d text again, much later. “I feel like I’m becoming irrelevant to everyone I’ve ever loved.”

I lived underground in a small room with a window that looked out onto dirt and a sliver of sky I could see through the slats of the porch overhead. There was a hole dug into the ground in front of my window and its sides were reinforced with metal so that I could crawl out and around the porch if a fire trapped me underground. I heard my roommate come home one night and could not bear the thought of speaking to him, so I quietly pulled on my snow boots, moved my book collection from the windowsill, and contorted my body up and out and through my little hole in the ground, then scurried in the dark to my car and drove off.

One day I drove for hours in a snowstorm with whiteout conditions to go to a hot spring in the next state over. I didn’t tell anyone I was going. As I soaked in the water an old man swam up next to me. He said nothing but hummed a song under his breath. I could feel him looking at me. I swam to the other side of the pool and leaned my head against a rock. I closed my eyes. Within minutes I heard the water part around a body, and I heard the man humming his song. This happened two or three more times before I left the hot spring.

The road conditions had worsened considerably while I’d been there. The snow had drifted into the road from both sides so there was only a small slice of ground visible. The wind blew constantly, and fine particulate whipped into the air and turned everything white. The world disappeared. I was driving in a glass of milk and kept myself on the road through sheer luck. When I came to the other end of the highway I drove around a large sign with red letters. ROAD CLOSED, it said.

I thought of a snarky comment I’d read in a local Facebook group where people buy and sell goods and share news. “Just want to give everyone an update,”the poster wrote. “It’s winter. It’s been winter for months. It’s still going to be winter for months to come. The roads have winter conditions just like the previous months, just like the coming months.”I knew that the roads would be bad, because they’re bad for eight months of the year. I knew I could easily have gotten stuck in a different state, or on a highway in the middle of nowhere without cell service. Or that something worse could have happened.

Even though it was a six-hour round trip to the hot spring I still made it home before my boyfriend had finished skiing for the day. I spent the rest of the evening in bed, swallowing my own hot breath and tears. I smelled faintly of sulfur.

__________

Things with the seedlings went wrong fast. I read that I needed to acclimate my seedlings to the outdoors slowly through a process called hardening. The direct sunlight is harsh compared to the grow light; fluctuating temperatures and wind are new terrors the tiny plants could never have fathomed. I woke up early to carry my seedlings outside so they could take in the morning sun before I went to work, and I’d carry them back inside as I left for the day. When I came home I’d bring them out again, for an hour at first, then slowly adding time until the sprouts got to watch their first sunset.

In late May I decided to leave the seedlings outside while I went to work. The weather prediction was sunny and mild with sporadic clouds throughout the day. Most of the seedlings were a few inches tall. I felt confident they could handle themselves. While I was at work the wind came through the yard and ravaged them. The egg cartons blew all over the ground. The seedlings fell out of the soil. Their roots lay exposed and weakened. I lost about half the plants that day.

The second mass culling was because of the sun. Where I live, during the summer the day and nighttime temperatures can show a forty-degree difference, with days in the eighties and nights in the forties. The day’s heat is brief and raw, like the sun is fighting to prove to the Earth that it can, in fact, heat things up. On the first truly warm day of the year, almost all of what was left of my seedlings dried and burned into tiny brown nubs in a matter of hours. I moved the few that were left back into the fridge, deciding they weren’t yet strong enough to spend time outside.

At the same time, the seeds I’d thrown into the ground when things were still half frozen had begun to sprout. There were two neat rows each of beets and carrots. The garlic bulbs I’d planted grew tall, thin stalks. Something would grow, then.

Eventually the remaining seedlings stopped growing in their incubation chamber. I had to move them outside. I learned how to make my soil hospitable. I caught fish for their heads, which I buried in the dirt. I bought too much fertilizer, almost twice as much as I needed. If I had used it all, the nitrogen would have scorched the roots and the tiny leaves and killed everything. I’ve always known how to burn out fast on a good thing. Instead, I was sparing. I planted my seedlings.

Nearly every single plant I’d watched grow over the weeks ended up dead. My cilantro never sprouted. All of my tomatoes died. I was left with five kale plants, a few plants each of sweet and Thai basil, one tiny, woody rosemary, and some stunted garlic bulbs. Only the rows of beets and carrots I’d planted outside seemed to flourish. The ones who had suffered frosts and snow were the ones that grew; those plants I’d coddled and prodded were too weak to survive on this planet.

__________

I watched an old video recently of myself and a few friends recreating a hot sauce challenge from the internet. We ate chicken wings with increasingly spicy sauces and asked each other questions we’d written and pulled from a hat. “Would you rather be the smartest person in the world and have no friends, or the dumbest person in the world and have lots of friends?” someone asked. “No friends,”I said quickly. This was before I moved away. If I had a time machine I might go back to that moment and punch myself in the face.

If I had a time machine I might go back to June and teach myself the proper way to water beets.

__________

Root vegetables rely on their leaves to perform photosynthesis so they can grow underground. They also take in water and nutrients from the soil. I live in an extremely dry environment, so I watered my vegetables heavily and daily. I’d leave the hose on automatic while I got ready for work, coming outside between sips of coffee to move the nozzle for even soaking. Despite my efforts, by June my carrots leaves were as tall as my hand but my beet leaves were turning brown, shriveling, disintegrating into nothing.

I read countless gardening forums, some whose posts had been written a decade prior. I saw other people just like me, from the past, searching for answers to the same questions I had. It wasn’t until the leaf fiasco that I learned one should never water beets directly on their leaves. The proper way is to soak only the soil. I changed my watering methods. While the hose soaked the carrots, I went back and forth between the kitchen sink and the garden with pitchers full of water, making sure to dump them as close to the beets as possible so as not to wet the leaves. In a few weeks the beet leaves were robust and green and healthy again. Shortly after that I found the ant colony.

I had a second garden bed I’d planned to dedicate entirely to kale, although only five of my plants were still clinging to life in their seed chamber. I was preparing the plants to be moved outside permanently, and as I turned the soil in the bed I found dozens, if not hundreds, of little pods that looked like orzo but were actually ant larvae. I returned to the forums and learned of a natural way to flush out a burgeoning ant colony.

In a blender I pulverized lemon juice, water, and habanero peppers. The mixture belched hot, sour air that made my eyes water. I poured it liberally on the soil and mixed it in with a trowel. A few ants would die, I read, and the rest, realizing that their once hospitable home was now a death trap, would move their colony elsewhere. Within a day the ants were gone and I planted my kale.

Every day brought a new dilemma. But if I researched well enough there were always solutions. For once, I had solutions.

__________

At the end of the summer I had grown a few dozen beets and carrots, one kale plant that was large enough to eat from and four that were too small, one Thai basil plant and one sweet one, and six garlic heads that were only marginally larger than the bulbs I’d initially planted. This was a massive success. There are pictures of me from that time, standing in front of my garden, holding fistfuls of root vegetables freshly harvested, soil under my fingernails, my skin brown and bright. I ate countless plates of roasted beets and carrots adorned with little slivers of basil. Those moments were some of my happiest.

As I write it is winter again. My garden is covered in feet of snow and ice, although I can just see the tips of my deer fence peeking out. It will be months before I can even begin to clear the snow out of the way and sow my seeds.

So far this winter I have cried only once. I haven’t spent hours crouched on the ground in front of a heater like a cold, feral thing. I don’t sneak out of windows to get away from the people who care about me. I do still spend the majority of my time alone, but I use that time to read and write, bake and exercise. When I feel the old heaviness creep over my bones I say “I feel bad,” out loud. I speak the heaviness into being so that I can look at it, acknowledge it, and hold it close to my chest.

Recently, while reading about the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map I learned of the various ways the map has been updated since its creation in 1960. In 2012 the USDA updated the zones to reflect weather data collected from 1976 through 2005. Because our world is warming, most areas were bumped up to a half zone hotter than previously noted. Everywhere there is evidence of death, destruction, doom. I read this in the winter and, while I shuddered and mourned for our planet, I did not cry for the rest of the day. I did not curl into a ball and hope to die. I am still alive. I will die someday, and it is increasingly likely that it will be from the Earth’s angry revenge, as it stomps us out like so many piles of snow at the end of a too-long winter, but it won’t be by my own doing. There are too many gardens to grow in the meantime. 

__________

It is an oft-given bit of advice that to stave of depression one might try keeping themselves busy. But if you’d told that to me while I was depressed I would have found the idea as feasible as if you’d suggested I walk on the moon. Moreover, I had kept myself busy. I’d been busy for years running away from my sadness, moving around, jumping from one relationship to another, making new friends who had never seen me cry or bleed. If my teenage years were spent in a prolonged state of misery, my adults years—what few have passed—have been a futile exercise in throwing off that misery like a cloak too heavy for my shoulders. The last thing I expected was to move thousands of miles away and to be confronted, in my mid-twenties, with that old, familiar, teenaged sort of sadness.

My brand of persistent, dogged despair is not a thing that can be cured, so I won’t say that learning to garden cured it. But I was forced to confront it for perhaps the first time, like a crying person looking at their reflection in the mirror in Heather Christle’s The Crying Book.“It may interest you for a while to touch your swollen face, to peer into one bloodshot eye and another, but the beauty’s really in the movement, in watching your mouth try to swallow despair,”she writes. What stands out to me as I read is that Christle writes crying as this meek thing that may be scared away when looked in the eyes. But, she says, if you stare at it long enough it will return. She wants it to return.

By casting away my sadness years ago I failed to understand that it wasn’t truly gone; it was only trudging behind me, a few months or miles away, muddy and windburned and growing more vengeful. In finally staring down my sadness and letting it reckon with me, we started to figure out a way to live together. All of my time spent alone, sinking into myself, gave me the freedom (unwanted, but still freedom) to grapple with the contours of my own particular despair. I lived in it, completely. I got to know it better, and it me, and so we each had less to fear.

The metaphors between a root vegetable and myself are obvious to me. Growth in the darkness, surviving the frost, we are made of layers upon layers of whatever is present in the dirt around us. My beets grew and so shall I, right? It’s too easy to end there. More useful, to me, is an ending that gives me work to do. I am the kind of person who sticks to what I know, even if all I know is how to lie in bed for days, and to cry, and to imagine myself out of existence. I am trying to become the kind of person who can gracefully not know something, and who can live within that not knowing. As soon as I can, I plan on throwing some seeds in the ground and seeing what happens. I have a lot of issues. For solutions I’ll look to the dirt.

“On Becoming a Root Vegetable” by Rachel Attias is the Nonfiction Winner in Columbia Journal’s 2020 Spring Contest, judged by Melissa Febos.

About the author

Rachel Attias is a writer and librarian from New York state. She has been published or has work forthcoming at The Rumpus, The Masters Review, The Portland Review, [PANK], and more. Learn more at rachelattias.com and connect with her on social media @multi_rachel.

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