Does love of gardening make one a Mennonite?
My family joined a Mennonite church when I was 7. I was baptized at 14, but I only realized that I was some kind of Mennonite when I spent three afternoon hours in the vegetable garden six years later. I had invited my college friends to the garden via email, but in our rigorous academic environment, I wasn’t surprised that they found the cultivation of knowledge more profitable than the cultivation of tomatoes. I suspect they were also concerned that gardening with a Mennonite would require some sort of specialized dress code.
“Can we garden with Greg?” they probably said, reading my email.
“Well, we know he sends emails, and he dresses like a regular guy.”
“Yeah, but gardening—farming—that’s what the Amish do. It’s like their religion.”
“I think ‘Amish’ is their religion.”
Compared with many people, I’ve not spent many years as a member of a Mennonite family, and only six as a baptized member of the church. I am not the most Mennonite of all the Mennonites out there. For many of my friends in public school, however, I was the only Mennonite they knew—the cultural placeholder for any and all Anabaptists outside my school district. I spent a lot of time talking about what Mennonites are not.
“Some Pennsylvania groups like the Amish and Mennonites don’t use Christmas trees,” said my fourth grade teacher in our Pennsylvania history class.
“We have a Christmas tree,” I said, “and we’re Mennonites.”
Such explanations became routine.
“Is that why your car has a black bumper?”
“But wait, you have a computer.”
“I can take pictures of you without stealing your soul, right?”
Naturally, when my housemates and I sat down to watch Harrison Ford in Witness not long ago, all eyes were on me.
“No, my family has a car. And electricity,” I said.
‘The Mennonite game’: We also have a vegetable garden and a wash line. We compost, and we don’t have cable TV. High-speed Internet only arrived a few weeks ago. I choose not to mention these things during the movie, lest I get more questions about my horses and buggies. Despite the perceptions of my immediate peer group, my family is not a traditional Mennonite family, at least not in the genealogical sense. We are the benchwarmers in ‘the Mennonite game,’ having no blood ties to anyone named Yoder or Moyer.
But we are still Mennonites. Dad has been an on-again/off-again pastor in our church for years. Now he and Mom are filling their empty nest with their seminary textbooks. We cook from the More-With-Less Cookbook and with vegetables from our garden. Mom sent me my own copy of More-With-Less, knowing I’d be cooking for my housemates and for myself.
That’s what took me among the tomatoes. I am the only member of my house who knows where the basil is or which tomatoes are ready to pick or the difference between weeds and cilantro. During the warmer months, I walked to my friends’ and classmates’ houses delivering produce. Gardening is my escape from the world of papers, research and studying.
When I called my sister and told her how I’d taken over the management of the garden, she said, “You sound like Dad.”
“Before I went out to garden today,” I said, “I looked for a big straw sun hat.”
“Yup,” she said, “You’re Dad.”
We both have the same image—Dad, in his twisted straw hat, the crown fraying away from the brim, out in the garden while we sit in the kitchen eating breakfast. When we were in elementary, middle, and even high school, every summer morning was gardening morning. We inevitably awoke to a list of chores, then spent our breakfast bargaining for them: Is weeding the bean patch more arduous than deadheading the irises? If you sweep the sidewalk, then should I pick the tomatoes? We likened ourselves to unjustly indentured servants, longing for our days of respite (Sundays, church; Saturdays, yard sales). We have learned to love both yard sales and church, but all those hours spent in the garden have instilled in me the opposite of the dread I felt at seeing the chore list. Maybe it was Dad’s penchant for gardening that drove him to forsake the suburban socialite Presbyterians for the Mennonite church. He has passed that penchant on to at least one of his children.
Mennonite virtues: What I haven’t explained to my housemates here is that gardening is probably on some unwritten list of Mennonite virtues—not a prerequisite for baptism but close. To them, it doesn’t matter if I garden because my father gardens or because my church gardens. I am that Mennonite guy, and of course he gardens. Didn’t you see the farm in Witness?
So it is in the garden that I come to terms with my Mennonite identity, kicking off my shoes and looking for young pumpkins under the leaves.
“You look like a Hobbit,” one of my friends said.
“Thank you,” I said.
I’ve long felt an affinity for J.R.R. Tolkien’s barefoot agrarians, ever since I was 14. It may be a coincidence that my baptism and my first reading of The Lord of the Rings occurred in the same year, but I like to think that it isn’t. Only recently did it occur to me that Hobbits are not the only group of countrified gourmand farmer/genealogists with which I identify. Those three-and-a-half-foot wanderers are Middle-Earth’s answer to Mennonites. It may at first seem demeaning, but the more I think about it, the happier I am to be defined as part of a group known (at least in my part of the world) for its love of food and its knowledge of family ties. The modus operandi of the Hobbits is not fighting but walking. Much like Mennonites. Like many of the Mennonites I’ve met (and aspire to be like), Hobbits are always willing to attempt a great journey into the face of evil, but they are also ready to return, barefoot, to their gardens.
So it was with great reservation that I accepted the end of the summer gardening season. The tomatoes were done, as was the eggplant, and the pumpkin failed to produce any fruit. Despite all this, however, I will spend the winter as a Mennonite. If the time comes, maybe I’ll get to watch The Lord of the Rings with my housemates.
Greg Albright is a member of Whitehall (Pa.) Mennonite Church.