I pull at the hood and zipper of my down coat, attempting to shield myself from another frigid blast of late winter wind.
I’m amazed how the bitter cold seems to find any exposed skin and permeate through the rest of my body. Even my shepherd, Maura, with her thick coat of hair, seems bothered by the temperatures.
I look out at my garlic patch and remember there are some things unaffected by these arctic conditions. My little garlic cloves are immune to this cold, sheltered underneath layers of seaweed, straw, and thick soil. In these conditions, they are actually getting ready and waiting. Long before other plants are feeling hearty or brave enough to breach the surface, the little cloves will be venturing up from the depths below, rising up with their green shoot to the light.
These intrepid plants began their lives in the late fall, during the dark and cold of November and December, growing roots long after most plants went into hibernation. I find something very admirable and inspirational about garlic, these hearty crops that are growing when the conditions are adverse. Long after other plants have given up growing through discomfort, the garlic is still developing.
It seems we all, as individuals and a society, could learn a little something from them.
Despite the temperatures today, it is almost spring. I know that seeing those first splashes of green emerging from the ground in several weeks, illuminated against a stark background of late winter, will give a jolt to my spirits. I feel inspired by their strength and courage—the first to face hungry deer, rodents, and the inevitable dip in temperatures that happen every year during this season. This inspiration will continue throughout their growth cycle.
The elaborate shapes of their scapes—that emerge from the main stalk to become seed pods—will remind me of the incredible creativity and exquisiteness of nature. Such beauty will also serve as a reminder to slow down and observe all that’s happening around me. The vigor and tenderness, resilience and adaptation, of the garlic scape has long eluded my camera. Most garlic farmers like myself cut the scapes before they have reached true splendor, as the quicker we do this, the quicker the energy of the plant returns to the bulb growing beneath the soil. The scapes then become staples of salads, stir fry, and pesto.
Hopefully, around my birthday in early/mid August, a whole bulb will be ready to pull from the soil, part of the Kiley Organic Garlic crop. Though I value them all, I secretly hope for an abundance of our special two, three, or four clove behemoths of German Porcelain.
The wonders and health benefits of eating garlic cannot be overstated. Nutrition and science are demonstrating that it has numerous anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties, and has been shown to help with disease and sickness. I like to say, “Have a problem, have some garlic.” I seep it in hot water, while my wife eats it plain. The extensive health benefits may explain why historically it was a source and symbol of wealth and vitality.
I have not always been so enamored by garlic as I am now. In fact, when I was younger, I used to tease my father about spending so much time tending and talking to his garden. Now, I follow in my father’s footsteps with a similar love for the crop. I’m grateful to have found a community around garlic: sharing updates on crop progress, comparing notes on storage, trading after harvest, or selling to those who loyally support me by buying several pounds each year (for eating or planting). The older I get, the more I appreciate the plant—both its practicality and function, but also it’s symbolism. The meaning only increases over time.
Nothing germinated my love for garlic as much as when my father died abruptly in February 2013. Harvesting his crop in Nova Scotia that summer was cathartic for my brother, my mother, and myself. Giving away some of his crop at my wedding and planting his cloves in my garden that fall was deeply meaningful. Growing garlic enables me to feel a profound sense of connection to myself, the earth, my father, family, and community. It is something I hope to pass on to my daughter, Gwinna, one day.
Garlic’s meaning is not just for me to appreciate. I believe the qualities garlic epitomizes are ones our whole society would do well to learn from. Garlic first takes root in the dark and cold time of year. It grows underground, away from the pretty and clean limelight. We humans also experience the most growth, learning, and healing through the difficult seasons of our life. Unfortunately, we often forget this.
When faced with discomfort, many people often run in the other direction. We don’t like cold, dark, or shadowy. We like the shiny and pretty, pleasurable and glorified ways of growing. Regrettably, many turn their back on the learning opportunities that aren’t as comfortable, and something is lost. The psychologically healthiest and most mature people I know are the ones who embrace the shadow, the messy, the dark.
Despite its growth underground and during the cold, garlic does need light and space. It needs space from its neighbors and room to spread its leaves. Humans also need these things. Honoring and embracing the shadow is invaluable, but we also require room in the light, space to unfold. We need the light of kindness, respect, and tolerance.
We also need nutrients, weeding, and care, like our garlic brethren. It may not require bone meal or seaweed, but our life does need tending to. Whether it’s weeding out behaviors and thoughts that no longer suit us, or an influx of nutrients like gratitude, compassion, and acceptance, we also require attention.
As individuals and a society, we need to be resilient and courageous like the first shoots of garlic in the spring. We will thrive and grow the more we’re willing to break ground, take risks, and face adversity. In doing this, we have the opportunity to come into our fullest potential, to provide healing and nourishment for ourselves and the whole planet.
Making my way back to the house and a warm fire and tea, I take heart from the garlic crop beside me. It is again a teacher, a friend, and perhaps most importantly, an inspiration.
Author: Dennis Kiley
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina