I’ve snapped endless photos, sat outdoors, watched from the balcony, walked the labyrinth of stepping stones and pathways of my brother-in-law, Mimmo’s garden, the very heart of home, as though it were a meditation garden. And on this 100th visit, I finally realize: it is a meditation garden. Not the curved, mandala-like shapes of the meditation gardens found throughout the spiritual retreat world, but straight-edged, simple right angles, smaller squares leading to rectangles, and all interlocked. After all the words I’ve read in the past few years, about the “greening finger of god” (Hildegard of Bingen’s viriditas), the “Church of the Wild” (Victoria Loorz), the biblical “Book of Creation,” or “Mother Trees” (Suzanne Simard) and their interconnected subterranean networks, attempting to better understand our natural world, I now pause to ask myself: what have I been looking for? More importantly, where have I been looking for it? In the forest? Oceanside? On the snow-packed fields of the North? At the end of the tarmac, a pier, on some remote pilgrim’s trail? It was right here, all along, Dorothy of Oz… literally, in the backyard. The world in a vegetable garden.
Here in this garden—and so many like it—I find the carefully-tended life force. Places like Mimmo’s Garden are sacred plots of land where life grows and flows and ultimately nurtures, in a prism of pepper yellows, tomato reds, and eggplant purples, and even the variegated and merely lush greens: spring green rucola, tomato leaf musky gray green, deep dark chicory green, and radicchio red-greens—the entire spectrum of greening nature. We “eat the rainbow” thanks to Mimmo, who prepares and curates and tends and loves this magical plot into being, year after year. Why, at the age of 81, does he still do this? To share with others, neighbors and family and friends, to spread knowledge, edible culture, and pure joy. The pleasure is tangible and abundant. It also links us to our cultural and geographic heritage. I’ll repeat here the words of Ralph Rinzler, the founder of the Smithsonian Folk Festival, who expressed my own folklife philosophy best: “There are two ways to preserve folk culture. You can pickle it and put in on the shelf or you can share the seed.” I’m here to say, Ralph, that you can actually do both—for in the Italian immigrant’s cantina, you’ll find shelves of pickled vegetables standing in a long colorful line, ready to feed friends and family, and you will find the seeds they share with others—the pickles and cucumber seeds. It’s what Mimmo and my sister Claudia have been doing for decades: he grows, she pickles.
Mimmo’s work journey has been a long one: from a recovering seminarian (in Italy), to bank clerk and postal office worker (in Canada), then finally, in retirement, toward his life’s fullest expression, his vocation as a full-fledged, full-time gardener. Just as Claudia has transformed herself, with all her soul, into an accomplished potter. They both found earth, Earth. Mimmo put his hands deep into it and pulled out bushels of edible goodness. Claudia molds it into beautiful platters, bowls, and cups. He bides his time during those long, Canadian winter months of anticipation and preparation—coaxing those hidden seeds into seedlings and thereafter into their spring and summertime magnificence. Just like Mimmo himself, growing and blooming through his later years. It is a beauty and wonder to behold these transformations. It’s no surprise, as transnationals, coming to reside here and there, that we all return to this place, this plot of land—across the generations and continental divides. When we speak of home, it is to Mimmo’s Garden we refer—this welcoming, nourishing, loving homeplace. Even neophyte Serafina, the most recent addition to our family, will come to experience its secrets—this September—when the tomato harvest is at its peak, when her ears will have become attuned to birdsong, chipmunk chirps, and ducklings, creatures that have also found homes in Mimmo’s garden. It is where we all want to return.
And so, Mimmo, although an ardent anti-clericalist, has in fact, returned to religion, after all these years, after a close brush with the priesthood as a seminarian-in-training in Reggio Calabria. But this time, in an Italian Brotherhood of the Garden, as well as a “Brotherhood of the Grape” (although he no longer drinks), as one of three men forming a perfect Trinity of Devotees. Domenico (Mimmo) Galletta, Fiumara-born; Anselmo (Sam) Facchin (“Australian Sam”), Treviso-born and two-time migrant, to Canberra and then Toronto; and finally, “Barese Sam,” Simeone Pantaleo, born in Modugno (Bari)—the master gardener and senior guru. They are each other’s neighbors/garden-counselors/spiritual directors. They share seeds, seedlings, produce; they patiently learn together, counsel each other on best practices, and experiment year after year with new seeds procured by various means. And some even proselytize. Mimmo, in particular, is keen to teach and direct neighbors along this garden path—Iranian, Iraqi, Pakistani, Hungarian, Chinese—anyone who will listen and appreciate what he accomplishes and knows, and what they too might achieve. Call him the evangelical wing of this sect. But it is not self-aggrandizement—although he is rightfully proud—so much as it is a true believer’s conviction that what he knows to be true is good and should be shared.
I am taking these teachings to heart as I reflect on what they might ultimately mean. And it seems to me, that here, at a capillary level, is the essence of “loving your neighbor”—the truest religion of all. No more is needed nor required of us. It is what we were told to do, after all, as a golden rule uniting the faith traditions, from east to west, north to south. If we all loved our neighbors as such, sharing the earth’s goodness, we will have solved most of life’s dilemmas. More than problem-solving dilemmas, actually; rather, it is a way of giving and sustaining each other’s lives. We do not need a more complex religion than this. We were not told to go forth and create mega- and megalomaniacal, hierarchical, and authoritarian religious institutions to govern our spiritual lives. We thrive best through a simple, democratic, and horizontal love.
So, go tend your garden. Save the seeds. Share the seedlings. And then set the harvest table for a communal banquet. It seems to me the truest form of the sacred “greening finger of god” (or call her Mother Earth), that makes all things grow. Go forth and multiply this love with deep roots.
Luisa Del Guidice, Ph.D., has been both an academic and public folklorist, and is currently an independent scholar. She taught folklore and oral history at UCLA (and as a visiting prof. at Addis Ababa University); founded and directed the public nonprofit, Italian Oral History Institute in Los Angeles in Los Angeles, which produced many conferences, public programs, and publications; and is internationally known for her work in Italian and Italian diaspora folklore studies. She is a Fellow of the AFS and a Cavaliere (Knight) of the Italian Republic. www.luisadg.org