A Tragic Smell In Marathon by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

Marathon, Pa., April 2.

This is a very embarrassing time of year for us. Every morning when we get on the 8:13 train at Marathon Bill Stites or Fred Myers or Hank Harris or some other groundsel philosopher on the Cinder and Bloodshot begins to chivvy us about our garden. “Have you planted anything yet?” they say. “Have you put litmus paper in the soil to test it for lime, potash and phosphorus? Have you got a harrow?”

That sort of thing bothers us, because our ideas of cultivation are very primitive. We did go to the newsstand at the Reading Terminal and try to buy a Litmus paper, but the agent didn’t have any. He says he doesn’t carry the Jersey papers. So we buried some old copies of the Philistine in the garden, thinking that would strengthen up the soil a bit. This business of nourishing the soil seems grotesque. It’s hard enough to feed the family, let alone throwing away good money on feeding the land. Our idea about soil is that it ought to feed itself.

Our garden ought to be lusty enough to raise the few beans and beets and blisters we aspire to. We have been out looking at the soil. It looks fairly potent and certainly it goes a long way down. There are quite a lot of broken magnesia bottles and old shinbones scattered through it, and they ought to help along. The topsoil and the humus may be a little mixed, but we are not going to sort them out by hand.

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Our method is to go out at twilight the first Sunday in April, about the time the cutworms go to roost, and take a sharp-pointed stick. We draw lines in the ground with this stick, preferably in a pleasant geometrical pattern that will confuse the birds and other observers. It is important not to do this until twilight, so that no robins or insects can watch you. Then we go back in the house and put on our old trousers, the pair that has holes in each pocket. We fill the pockets with the seed, we want to plant and loiter slowly along the grooves we have made in the earth. The seed sifts down the trousers legs and spreads itself in the furrow far better than any mechanical drill could do it. The secret of gardening is to stick to nature’s old appointed ways. Then we read a chapter of Bernard Shaw aloud, by candle light or lantern light. As soon as they hear the voice of Shaw all the vegetables dig themselves in. This saves going all along the rows with a shingle to pat down the topsoil or the humus or the magnesia bottles or whatever else is uppermost.

Fred says that certain vegetables–kohl-rabi and colanders, we think–extract nitrogen from the air and give it back to the soil. It may be so, but what has that to do with us? If our soil can’t keep itself supplied with nitrogen, that’s its lookout. We don’t need the nitrogen in the air. The baby isn’t old enough to have warts yet.

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Hank says it’s no use watering the garden from above. He says that watering from above lures the roots toward the surface and next day the hot sun kills them. The answer to that is that the rain comes from above, doesn’t it? Roots have learned certain habits in the past million years and we haven’t time to teach them to duck when it rains. Hank has some irrigation plan which involves sinking tomato cans in the ground and filling them with water.

Bill says it’s dangerous to put arsenic on the plants, because it may kill the cook. He says nicotine or tobacco dust is far better. The answer to that is that we never put fertilizers on our garden, anyway. If we want to kill the cook there is a more direct method, and we reserve the tobacco for ourself. No cutworm shall get a blighty one from our cherished baccy pouch.

Fred says we ought to have a wheel-barrow; Hank swears by a mulching iron; Bill is all for cold frames. All three say that hellebore is the best thing for sucking insects. We echo the expletive, with a different application.

You see, we have no instinct for gardening. Some fellows, like Bill Stites, have a divinely implanted zest for the propagation of chard and rhubarb and self-blanching celery and kohl-rabi; they are kohl-rabid, we might say. They know, just what to do when they see a weed; they can assassinate a weevil by just looking at it. But weevils and cabbage worms are unterrified by us. We can’t tell a weed from a young onion. We never mulched anything in our life; we wouldn’t know how to begin.

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But the deuce of it is, public opinion says that we must raise a garden. It is no use to hire a man to do it for us. However badly we may do it, patriotism demands that we monkey around with a garden of our own. We may get bitten by a snapping bean or routed by a rutabaga or infected by a parsnip. But with Bill and those fellows at our heels we have just got to face it. Hellebore!

What we want to know is, How do you ever find out all these things about vegetables? We bought an ounce of tomato seeds in desperation, and now Fred says “one ounce of tomato seeds will produce 3,000 plants. You should have bought two dozen plants instead of the seed.” How does he know those things? Hank says beans are very delicate and must not be handled while they are wet or they may get rusty. Again we ask, how does he know? Where do they learn these matters? Bill says that stones draw out the moisture from the soil and every stone in the garden should be removed by hand before we plant. We offered him twenty cents an hour to do it.

The most tragic odor in the world hangs over Marathon these days; the smell of freshly spaded earth. It is extolled by the poets and all those happy sons of the pavement who know nothing about it. But here are we, who hardly know a loam from a lentil, breaking our back over seed catalogues. Public opinion may compel us to raise vegetables, but we are going to go about it our own way. If the stones are going to act like werewolves and suck the moisture from our soil, let them do so. We don’t believe in thwarting nature. Maybe it will be a very wet summer and we shall have the laugh on Bill, who has carted away all his stones.

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And we should just like to see Bill Stites write a poem. We bet it wouldn’t look as much like a poem as our beans look like beans. And as for Hank and Fred, they wouldn’t even know how to begin to plant a poem!

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