One of the reasons I wanted a home again was so I could grow things. The last few years have been full of travels, and when we decided to settle down here, I brought with me my dream of a garden. But the yard in our house in this desert town is dry red dust.
One day, a spindly-limbed lizard sped up the fly screen on the door. It was the type that gets up and runs on its back legs when the ground gets too hot to touch. The lizard’s deftness reminded me that many plants and animals thrive in the desert heat. There is a sweet spot for them, somewhere within the scorching temperatures that drive humans to take shelter and await the cool relief of the night. Even the measly drops of water from our washing line had nurtured a few flat, deep-rooted desert weeds into existence.
So I scratched around in the baked red dust in our yard, to see where there was some looser sand that might support roots. I researched camel dung, our nearest source of fertilizer. Several months ago, I went on a shopping spree at the hardware store in the nearest town -- hoses and pipes that drip, a strong clawed hoe for digging weeds, a trench-shaped shovel, a soil-testing kit to measure rotted camel poo’s impact on the acidity of the soil.
I read seed catalogues, imagining fruit trees and crisp young zucchini. I compared the colours of squashes, fantasized about pickling and preserving. By September I’d ordered seed for my first little crop, which goes by the unlovely name of green manure. A mix of legumes, lupins, mustard and clover, the point of green manure is to bring nourishment to the soil. You let it grow to flower, then chop it down when the nutrients in the plants can feed the dirt for vegetables to come later. I thought I would try growing the green manure see if anything could be grown at all.
A bag of seeds arrived in the mail. It smelled and felt like bird-seed. But before I could sow them, we went away for two months.
When I returned, the patches of soil I had scratched up with a rake before we went away were still grooved. This is not surprising in a place where a footprint can last for months or even years. But the laundry line weeds were gone. The hoses I bought at the hardware store — down the road 500 kilometres away — needed connectors different to the ones on the taps. The soil was warm, but the sun would become fiercer through December and January. I picked up a plastic watering can and decided to plant.
There’s a vast sea of ancient water under the desert of the Australian continent. One of the common trees here, the Kurkara (or Desert Oak), has two forms, depending on its relationship to the bore water underneath. Young Kurkara are slender, feather-shaped trees that look as tense as clusters of soldiers from a distance. When the roots of the soldier-tree get long enough to hit the underground water the tree changes so completely that it looks like a different species, branching into a sturdy, rounded individual able to withstand flood and fire. Of course, many of the young Kurkara don’t make it. Their dried forms blow away in the hot wind.
On Saturday afternoon I swept away some sticks and stones, broke up some dry clods and made deeper grooves in three patches of the red sand. I scattered my precious green manure seeds. I thought of farmers all over the world who pray for food from each seed, who try to coax life from stony or dusty ground. I told the soil that I hoped to make it stronger, the better to support us with fresh foods. I don’t pray, but there’s no getting around it: when you sow seeds hoping that they may sprout, it is a kind of prayer. Maybe that’s what prayer was before god existed in men’s minds. I made several trips to the tap. Filling my watering can a dozen times, I made three patches of mud in the yard.
Later, I kept peeking from the window of the house at the watered patches, which were darker than the rest of the yard, feeling pleased with them for holding the water longer than I thought possible. I watered the ground three times in 24 hours, wondering if I could possibly keep the ground moist in the dry heat, wondering if this was a foolish dream.
Then, on Sunday afternoon and evening it rained. It wasn’t the solid, flooding rain I wished for, but it was enough to move some of the seeds around. It was enough to produce that exhilarating petrichor — the smell of rain on dry stone. The rain wet the ground, even if you could still see dry patches between the drops. I was very excited. In a place where it rains fewer than 25 days a year, my little garden had made an auspicious beginning.
On Monday morning the soil was still moist in patches. When I watered I tucked the seeds — little green mung beans, the few substantial bean seeds — under the blanket of the dirt. Pushing my finger into the red dirt, I made a hole and rolled the seed in there. Then I tried not to wash the soil off the seed again with my watering can’s spray. Luckily the scattering of the green manure seeds doesn’t matter too much. They don’t need to stay in rows, since we don’t depend on them for food. On Monday afternoon, some noisy pigeons came to visit. I thought about scarecrows and flashing CDs on strings. I was learning. Maybe the seedlings need to be protected under a net. The birds pecked a little while and then left.
When I watered the seeds that day, still trying to bury some of them in the dirt, a few had sprouted. Some mung beans had tiny rootlets. One of them had a root of perhaps 4 millimetres. I was impressed and excited. I went to bed elated, with pictures of sprouting seeds in my head. The next morning, there were tiny green leaves on the red dirt. Smaller seeds had collected in little dips in the dirt. I saw how strong a seed’s urge to grow could be.
This morning I woke to a pink world. A blanket of cloud is over us and the pink light of dawn was irresistible. I got up an hour before my alarm was set, like a sprightly old person. The few scattered sprouts have become tiny forests of bright green on the dark red soil. Delicate grassy spears that might be rye have appeared, still only a half inch tall. I am daring to hope that the grey blanket might stay awhile today, protecting my delicate babies from the burning sun. I am also hoping that a rabbit doesn’t eat them all. If that happens, I will have to learn to make my fence more secure.
In the kitchen Claudia is growing her sourdough culture again. I have a clay pot in the laundry where exotic yeasts and bacteria are turning South Australian cow milk into a mild, stringy yoghurt called viili. The culture originally came all the way from Finland on the opposite side of the world. Even having a compost bin for our eggshells and teabags makes me feel happy. The sweet potato balanced in a jar on toothpicks may never sprout and the avocado seed beside it on the kitchen window is perhaps the wrong kind to grow here, but I don’t mind taking a chance. I feel our new home growing around us, sending roots down towards that ancient mysterious sea.