I rest my bicycle against the water tank and gaze out over the meadow, where there were once watermelons and tomatoes. I suppose if you want to be a gardener you cannot leave the country for a whole month during the summer. After tilling with the tractor, I set to work digging a trench around a fifty by fifty foot section and hoeing up wads of grass. Using twine and sticks, I lay out a path down the middle and several raised beds. Karen gardeners walk by on their way to pick chilies and plant daikon radishes in the freshly tilled soil and offer puzzled looks at my tired face and sticks with string. It is already mid-September and soon it will be too late to put fall crops in the ground.
“Na ku ra. Na mah ga oh kee gha—You are very hardworking. You will have two wives!” a voice calls from down the path.
I look to see Naw Say back from fishing in the pond and gathering her things to return home for the evening.
“Mayahh? Naw oh ah geh soh, ya bah ma dee ee—Really? There is too much grass. I have to make a garden like this,” I reply.
I return to forming a second bed with a hoe and picking out clumps of Bermuda grass. With the daylight fading, I know that I will not be able to plant seeds yet tonight and resign myself to finishing the bed.
In the spring I spread seeds sporadically, too enchanted by the simple mystery that a little particle could later yield abundant food to plan out beds and such. This seemed to be the way Naw Say planted as well, without a plan, creating more of a food forest than a garden. This chaos yielded a bountiful harvest, but always in competition with encroaching grass, which eventually overtook many of the crops planted.
I cannot plant a fall garden in this same way. It seems that intentionality is a necessity for effective agriculture, from crop rotation to weed control. So I will start with setting aside an area to patrol for grass with designated beds, walking areas, and mulch. This will be my fortress from which I can wage war against Bermuda grass.
The word “apocalypse” pervades our pop-culture as though indicative of the ominous end times, providing the subject matter for countless Hollywood films and even the occasional less than historical special on the History channel. The original Greek word refers to an uncovering, or revelation of something hidden. The early Christian worldview revolved heavily around this mystery of apocalypse. Living with an apocalyptic worldview for the early church meant living in an uncovered reality, rejecting the asserted permanence of empire and the powers that be, and embracing this fragility as fertile soil for the coming Kingdom of God.
The Karen arriving in the United States do not know the experience of imperial security, only imperial persecution. Like the early church, many Karen Christians along the Thai-Burma border live in tumultuous times, the day and hour unknown when their village or camp might be massacred, or they might be taken by a third country. Such instability cultivates a radically different worldview than the average American, feeling secure with our well established, though certainly not always agreeable, government, economy, infrastructure, etc.
Karen refugee gardening is shaped by this experience. Decisions are made promptly and seeds are planted for quick yields to feed many. As Eh Kaw recently told a reporter from the Athens Banner-Herald, the Karen planted seeds along their path while fleeing through the jungle, hoping that others did the same before them. This is gardening for the end times, embracing the impermanence of the surrounding civilization. Intentionality here becomes not so much a means of establishing something permanent, but of preparing for an uncertain future.
Coming from the experience of a comfortable stability within the empire, I perceive this as chaos. In the summer I grew very frustrated with the many volunteer tomato and amaranth plants which Naw Say opposed pulling and yet were shading out the watermelons I planted. The idea of removing a food producing plant seemed unthinkable to her even if it would prevent other yields later in the season. Weeding is seldom practiced among the Karen, because they enjoy many of the wild plants in stir fry or soup almost as much as the planted vegetables. There is a strange sort of food security in this agricultural chaos that is difficult for the Western mind to comprehend. Dale, my herbalist friend, claims that wild plants actually offer us the most strength and “life force.” “Chickweed will grow up through pavement. You don’t see garden vegetables doing that.”
With the advent of Food Stamps, however, more and more processed foods are becoming a part of the daily Karen diet. As families become more established here, owning their own homes and speaking fluently the language of America, the Karen gradually transition from survival mode into a newfound stability. If they are like most other ethnic groups that have immigrated to the United States, much of their agricultural tradition will melt away after only a generation or two. The memory of fleeing through the jungle will fade. Wild plants will become weeds to be pulled from gardens and trampled on paths.
There is an incredible pride in the Karen nationality among newly arrived refugees here. The challenge before community leaders is to preserve this identity as a distinct voice within the cultural conversation of America. As our politicians speak we can recognize an empty pride devoid of values and meaning, too drunk on corporate sponsorship to stand for anything. Among the Karen, there is certainly a different kind of pride, but what is to keep the empire from crawling in like Bermuda grass and taking over the garden? Four generations into the experiment, I can say there are certainly some weeds to pull.