by Joan Robertson

It was a gift – though unasked for – a passing on from an experienced gardener to a novice: parsnip seeds, jam-packed into an unused church collection envelope. Only when I got home and sat with my four gardening books did I find out about the low germination rate of parsnip seeds. “Plant thickly!” was the advice. I did, and I swear, every single seed sprang to life, and I spent hours that summer, on my knees thinning.

I’d met Tim years before, at a retreat for return CUSO (Canadian University Students Overseas) volunteers. While most huddled, unloading feelings of guilt for their part in the cultural imperialism machine, Tim drifted through, twinkle in his eyes, nodding kindly. He’d already been up to Cambridge to read History.

That sense of play never left. In 1993, he did time for his participation in the Clayoquot Sound protests. He’d been assigned to a minimum security facility, and was apparently greeted warmly as a tree-hugger. A friend, who worked for Corrections, hurried in to get him released. Tim, however, was in the middle of a game of bridge, and wasn’t leaving ‘till the round was over.

My gardening books had parsnip seeds, along with onions, placed firmly in the ‘1 year viability’ column. So the next year, still a novice and fearing failure, I planted thickly again, and again spent time on my knees – and so it went. What my books hadn’t mentioned was what I began to notice emerging around me: sturdy stalks, shooting skyward from the parsnip roots left unharvested in the ground. By fall, they became small trees, standing in the garden like sentinels, their tassels of diaphanous seeds dancing in the wind. Once bagged, however, those seeds seemed to like their own company, gathering together in clumps, so again tended to get planted ‘thickly’ the next spring.

Tim has now, in his words, ‘left the party early.’ There was no cure for his progressive, debilitating disease. Still on my knees, thinning in the late spring, I look up, imagining Tim laughing at me, with a twinkle in his eyes.
This spring, slugs enjoyed all but three of the parsnips. I missed the energy of abundant parsnips in the garden, and, this fall, I harvested next year’s seed with extra care.