You write about starting a garden in Iowa as a way of putting down roots. Tell me about your current garden.
It’s a work in progress. We moved into our current house last May, so I had to content myself with a little garden plot, but we got several batches of salsa out of our tomatoes (Golden Girl, Hungarian Heart, Cherokee Purple, and German Pink) and peppers (cayenne and Olympus), some kale and radishes and a salad mix that I planted thick enough to cut with scissors for several harvests. I am slowly digging up more of the backyard, replacing hostas with raspberry canes, adding some raised beds. This fall I planted a bed of garlic, a Honeycrisp apple tree and a Reliance peach, and we hope to add a German plum in the spring. Squash and melons seem especially vulnerable to vine-borers here, so I hope to try row covers this year until the plants blossom. We like butternut squash pies better than pumpkin pies, so I’ll keep trying until I figure out how to grow squash again. I just bought a new grow light, so we’re excited about starting more plants from seed this year.
What are you working on now?
I’ll admit that teaching and family life have kept me from developing many new essays. I’m working on one now about running. It struck me one morning, while I was plugging away in the predawn dark, that most of my family would laugh at the sight of me in my high-tech tights and windbreaker. Many of my uncles are loggers, one grandfather worked in a lumber mill his whole life, and the other was a ranch hand and firefighter. In that culture, you rarely run unless you’re chasing a chicken on butchering day or fleeing a wounded bear during hunting season. You might run to get in shape for boot camp, as one of my cousins did when he joined the Marines. And if you were a boxer or wrestler, running might be a way to build stamina for demolishing your opponent. Strangely, I associate the discipline of running with those working-class values, even though I recognize that as a pastime – as something more like physical and mental hygiene – it marks me as middle class. Then again, what does it matter? Why do so many of us from working-class backgrounds try so earnestly to be seen as hard workers in the eyes of our blue collar relatives long after we’ve left that culture behind? There’s a lot to sort out about why I run and why I’m sometimes self-conscious about it. Parenting also triggers all kinds of childhood memories, so I’m sure that as I watch my daughter grow and struggle with illness and develop her own sense of place, I’ll find it necessary to revisit my own past.