In youth, you look for mentors to get you going down a path. Later on, you look to them for a glimpse of where the path eventually leads.
As a beginning gardener, I exploded with questions about seeds, soil chemistry or how to predict frost. In midlife, I looked at old gardeners and wondered “How do they manage to keep this up?” Now, in my late 70s, I have a few answers to that question.
I’ve noticed that few people who garden ever retire from it. In recent years, the young are taking up gardening, but it is still often portrayed an old guy’s game, one you play after a career in something more profitable.
“Doing the garden, pulling the weeds/Who could ask for more?”, wrote Paul McCartney and John Lennon in one of the Beatles’ homier songs, “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Oldsters everywhere agree. In most cases they are far more active in their gardens than they were when they lived behind their desks. Maybe that’s why they’ve made it this far, their bones strengthened from hoisting bags of lime into their hatchbacks, their weight stabilized by the endless dragging of hoses, their nervous systems calmed by the rhythm of weeding, their diets fortified by home-grown carrots and beans.
Among my favorite exemplars are the late Helen and Scott Nearing, who became world famous for homesteading and growing their own food. Their book “Living the Good Life” has lured thousands of readers back to the land, or at least to the backyard veggie plot. Scott, who died at 100 in 1983, was a mentor to my farmer-husband, who recalls how Scott worked regularly in his garden until he was 99. I was lucky to know Helen, who still tended a large kitchen garden in her 90s, until a car accident took her life. She pushed laden wheelbarrows, made compost and ate almost nothing she didn’t grow herself.
Becoming wiser is one of the oft-touted benefits of age, and I suspect that the gardeners who go the distance have learned to lift things with their backs straight and their knees bent, and to vary their chores during the day to avoid repetitive stress. They do stretches, drink lots of water, watch out for ticks, wear hats. They have a sense of what their weak points are, whether back, knee or shoulder, and ease up on those so that the rest of the body can go on with the work.
They have favorite implements that help them to compensate for their limitations, most importantly a younger gardener whom they can direct in the most taxing chores.
Take a look at the poet Stanley Kunitz’s book “The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden,” published by W. W. Norton in celebration of the author’s 100th year. In the photos he is 99, stooped and frail, but is still wielding small hand tools and carrying around metal buckets. He has simply kept going. I’m sure that’s the trick.