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A City Gardener Plants A Harvest of Hope

When I lived in upstate New York and New Hampshire, I always had a garden, which I diligently planned over the winter by poring through seed catalogs and gridding garden plots on graph paper. Like all gardeners, I had my planting scheme (peas as soon as the ground could take it), my bug defense, and - in the autumn - my strategies for freezing and canning. In between I would pluck the weeds and squish the potato bugs, glorying in playing a minimal Adam in a tag end of Eden.

For years, though, I haven't had the chance to have a garden, and my spring urges for one have usually been reduced to a promise: "Well, next year I'll have one, for sure." When I moved to Elm Street in Somerville, Mass., last year, I didn't think the following spring would be any different. But bordering the south side of the house, laved with six to seven hours of light a day, stretched a scalene triangle of dirt - weed- and trash-infested dirt, but dirt nonetheless. This year I would have a vegetable garden.

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Elm Street is not the most propitious place for agriculture; its biggest crop is cars, its largest harvest flurries of trash settling in from Porter Square. And this particular wedge of land acted like a trash magnet, a Capistrano of trash to which would return every piece of litter loosed in the world. I persuaded the landlord to spring for some basic tools, and one day last month, toting my new garden gloves, the pristine tines of a yard rake, and the unscuffed blade of a shovel, I descended on that land.

I became an archaeologist of trash. On the first day I loaded five 39-gallon trash bags with every variety of coffee cup and candy wrapper ever made. This didn't include the amputated limbs of the incipient forest poking up along the foundation wall and along the chain-link fence. Over the course of the next two trash days, I set 15 full bags in drill-order rectitude along the curb. I was now ready to start planting.

But a curious kind of reclamation has also been happening alongside bringing the soil back to the sun. There is a bus stop just off our front porch, and an overfill parking lot edges the garden, so the sidewalk in front of our house fairly brims with pedestrians all day long.

As I started unearthing some unearthly garbage, I noticed people noticing me as I worked. Not in what I would call a friendly way, but in traditional alienated urban fashion: a quick flick of eyes in my direction, a blink of contact, maybe a tight smile, then moving on. Finally, a woman on her way to Star Market said, "Great, someone's cleaning this up. Good job." As I nodded my thanks to her, her remark struck me: People do notice things like trash in this place, and they want it cleaned up.

Like something stuck in the periphery of their vision, the trash irritates, it makes them feel uncomfortable and even uncivilized. In their own insular, card-to-the-vest way, they show an interest, even some urgency. My evidence? People started using the trash barrel I left out rather than dumping the trash on the ground. Encouraged to care, they cared.

So I started watching them watch me, and I would purposely prompt them with a little conversational water to see what would bloom. Most responded perfunctorily and moved on. But I have had so many interesting conversations across the fence as I have been forking up long, slimy lengths of ancient plastic wrapping, and the conversations wend their way past gardening tactics, the state of the neighborhood, and that funny story about the relative who didn't know where potatoes came from.

For the moments we talk, we both drop our sullen urban faces. And when the person has to get back to work or catch the bus that comes dieseling up, we both know that for some part of this day, at least, we spent moments not suspicious of other human beings. This is no mean feat for city-dwellers.

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Gardening's symbolism about life often comes packaged in rural images. But even in the beauty-impaired atmosphere of a major Somerville thoroughfare, gardening still carries its power to open things up, because that is what gardening is about: opening the soil, opening the seed, and opening the fruit.

And as the trash gets cleaned away, people can take that irritating mote out of their eye and see just a little bit clearer. They may not show it to me, but they might to someone else, and so the garden gets spread around. Not a bad harvest - and the season's just begun.

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