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Channeling David Attenborough: The Modern Primitives of the Great Plains

05/08/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There is a hidden tribe that exists in the middle of the North American continent. Unlike his "civilized" or "modern" cousins, the native Iowa Gardener prefers to obtain sustenance for his family through a series of rituals called "tending" rather than through the more modern means of the grocery mega-mart. Unaffected by the more urbane humans that surround him, the Gardener favors the old ways of his ancestors to those strange, noisy and very bright places he sees his neighbors visit on their frequent pilgrimages. Their Gods of Commerce are foreign to him, and perhaps somewhat frightening.

The traditional Dance of Joy that a native Iowa Gardener will do to celebrate the passing of "All Danger of Frost" involves genuflection combined with a plunging of the hands downward into the soil. The soil is then macerated or "tilled" as the Gardener says, a small hole is formed, and a single plant or "seedling" is placed in the hole as sort of an offering to the Garden Gods. These seedlings have been carefully prepared and tended to over the colder months in preparation for this very ceremony. The roots of the sprout are then covered with a mixture of topsoil, sand, wood ash and the particular form of manure that is favored by that garden's patron or oracle. This dance is then repeated innumerable times until all portions of soil in the garden have their share of the herb, vegetable & flower "offerings". As a final gesture in the Dance of Joy, the Gardener adds water to the soil around the plants, as if to plea for favor with the Rain Gods and to consecrate this Holy Ground.

Some of the plant life that soon rises from the tilled soil is seen as "unfit" or "unclean" in the eyes of the gardener, and must be summarily removed, or "weeded". Weeding is a difficult endeavor, but one that is nonetheless seen as its own reward, the journey being more important than the destination. This is often done to the great consternation of the youngest members of the gardener's tribe, who are often required to perform this service as a kind of "penance" for earlier misbehavior.

There often seems to be little reward for the hard work during the early days of this annual ritual, but the Gardener is undeterred. Day after day he kneels to the Gods, wearing his customary wide-brimmed hat and colorful plastic shoes or "clogs" as a sign of respect for the sunshine and the holy ground. Rocks need to be removed from the soil. Insects are inspected. Some are beneficial such as the contrite-sounding "Praying Mantis" and the noble "Ladybug." Others are signs of evil spirits in the garden such as "Whitefly" and "Aphid," and must be washed away with soap, since the Gods frown upon stronger substances. There are other threats from the animal kingdom as well, and the Gardener has constructed elaborate defenses against the rabbit and the deer including the use of guard dogs and something called "chain-link."

Spring in Iowa does mean a small rewards, as the seeds of the radish, mustard and other greens that were offered to the Gods as a plea to end the frosts rise like answered prayers in the form of what the Gardener calls "salad." These salads will become more elaborate as the season progresses, including such warmer-weather items as cucumber, pea and bean, leading to the High Holy Days of the Tomato.

This particular year in Iowa has been very fruitful, thus far, for the Gardener. But the same Gods that provide the weather that is favorable to the garden are often fickle, and will provide just the right conditions for the Mosquito, the Gnat, and the Boxelder Bug. For the penitent Gardener, little can be done in the face of this curse but to light candles scented with the herb "Citronella" and meditate on the merits of the Great Circle of Life.

Many other resolutions to the insect infestation have been used by the Gardener's sophisticated neighbors to great apparent success, but the truly faithful Gardener sees those who use such chemicals as "heathens" and "blasphemers". They are the same ones who have tempted the Gardener to bring disfavor upon his garden by showering it with deceivingly consecrated-sounding substances like "Miracle-Gro". These evils can be misleadingly tempting with their false promise of a better harvest though less work and contrition, but the Gardener has come to this crossroads before and has seen the cost of selling one's soul.

And so, the Gardener trudges on, content in the knowledge that the journey is its own reward if one cares enough to tend the hallowed soil and mind the plants that spring forth. Perhaps, though, even the most contrite Gardener will keep just a small buoyant gleam in his eye, imagining in March the feeling of the tomato juice dripping down his chest, as he stands in the Garden on a hot August afternoon.

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