BOSTON -- There is no fanfare for this opening day. No organ wafts its "Star Spangled Banner" over the turf that has been groomed so meticulously for this annual event.
Nevertheless the woman suits up into her old uniform. On her head is the beat-up cap that bears witness to summers past. On her hands are the gloves that weathered many winning years. Awaiting her is the trusty equipment assembled for this day: one well-worn spade, a hose, two-dozen tomato plants.
Walking out to the boxed mounds of dirt like some pitcher in one of those romantic, golden-hued baseball movies, she says to herself quietly: Let the season begin.
The growing season has arrived at last.
The scene would have looked absurd to an outsider, unfamiliar with the ceremonies of her life. The woman in question is an urban dweller who spends most of her time in what they call the built environment. She lives where people have structured masses of brick and concrete. They make do with a skyline instead of a landscape.
More to the point, the woman has an indoor job. In the workplace, she cannot even open a window without throwing a chair through it. For months on end, the weather pattern remains constant: indoors. Her relationship to nature is pared down to its effect on traffic.
Even the food this woman eats comes from that other artificial environment, the world marketplace. In that unnatural exchange, raspberries fly in from Chile in January like misguided tourists. Apples fall onto northern winter plates all the way from New Zealand summers. Oranges full of Florida sunshine feed New England dank longings.
There are no seasons in this marketplace. There are only prices, as if nature itself could be bought off.
Moreover, let us be frank about it, the playing turf that she approaches so ceremoniously this day is not impressive. This is not the stuff of farming. On nature's quarter-acre, she has cut back to four rectangles of earth that add up to no more than a six-by-eight rug of growing space. A crop that once spread a plague of ratatouille across the larders of her friends is now reduced to tomato basics: Beefsteaks and Big Girls.
Nevertheless, this rite of planting and growing has come to occupy an emotional space in inverse proportion to its shrinking geometry. This is indeed the stuff of ceremony. But it's not a rite of passage, it's a rite of connection.
What opening day attests to is a tiny, nearly symbolic and yet tenacious, tie to nature. A tie that she shares with every apartment dweller who ever put a cherry tomato pot on the fire escape, every vegetable gardener who ever costed out the home-grown produce at $1 a pepper.
Digging holes for seedlings, she thinks of a mantra fitting for gardeners. Plant, to remember that things do not just appear in the refrigerator. They grow, slowly. Plant, to repair the nearly severed umbilical cord with the natural world. Plant, to keep the pact of mutual caretaking with nature.
To the woman in her uniform, that pact with nature seems especially fragile this year. Opening day had been postponed on account of weather. May was called off on account of weather. The cold here, the floods in the South, were attributed by some to changing patterns produced by pollution. Weather itself suddenly seemed unnatural. Have we at last conquered nature? Is it behaving as all subjugated peoples do: rebelliously?
So this urban gardener kneeling in an altar-size plot pays homage with her spade. When the enemy was Germany, spaces like hers were called Victory Gardens. When the enemy is in the environment, the target is different. Victory over alienation. Here is the earth that feeds us.
Crouched in a position that would appal her physical therapist, she gently separates the tomato seedlings. She has chosen this plant because, of all the species, tomatoes have most ferociously rejected mass production by withholding flavor from the marketplace. Carefully, she mounds the dirt around the roots.
When the job is done, the woman removes her gloves and surveys the land, like a star of opening day watching a ball go over the wall. The small plants are straight in their rows. The sun is strong. The omens are right. In a most private sort of pride, she tips her old hat to them: Season's Greetings.