By Sarah Pryor
Something caught my eye in the garden. Pulling at oregano stems for dinner, my hand grazed over an orange lump just cresting over the soil. Excitement and surprise arose in me, joining together in elation – to see, after all this time, growth.
I hadn’t gone out to dig for sweet potatoes that day. Most of my garden plants had already reached peak harvest by late September; the potatoes were the only ones left untouched, partly because of my theory that sweet potatoes are an autumnal vegetable and partly because I didn’t know the first thing about harvesting them. Sweet potatoes, like regular potatoes and most other things, were foods we just bought from the market growing up. This year was different: the first year of my own garden, at my own house. Planting potatoes was a spontaneous act, christening new ground for new life with new plants.
When I stumbled upon the first potato that day, unexpected awe filled me. I know it sounds dramatic, but I found it to be beautiful.
All beauty has a reference point beyond ourselves and our world. Harvard Professor Elaine Scarry discusses this idea in her book On Beauty and Being Just. She says when beautiful things are too self-referential, they start to lose their beauty: think songs about music or a book about writing. Works like these don’t often elicit surprise or connect new ideas. When the song ends or the book closes, we find ourselves to be the same people, in the same place, as before – trying to follow a moving dot that never moves. True beauty, she says, refers to something entirely other, beyond the imminent world.
Pastor Ted Kim elaborated on this idea in a 2020 episode of The Ferment podcast: “We get glimpses of the kingdom of heaven in the here and now.” A musical masterpiece, prolific writing, dare I say a juicy peach – are pieces of beauty and wonder piercing the veil of our material world, whose reference points bound infinitely outward, drawing our gaze away from ourselves and toward a distant north star.
“True beauty,” Kim says, “carries with it greetings from beyond.”
I understand it’s absurd to regard a sweet potato this highly, but I’m going to do it anyway. Not due to any one of its qualities, but simply by virtue of where it came from: a garden.
* * *
Backyard gardens have felt like important endeavors for as long as I can remember. As a child, I begged my mom to let me plant vegetables – not that I particularly recall begging, but it felt like she was doing me a favor, saying how much work these things are to maintain. We planted marigolds around the plot to keep bunnies away. I tended to them year after year.
For a couple of summers around middle school, I transformed my lemonade stand into “Sarah’s Vegetables.” I’d roll my mom’s old manicure table into the front yard, piling it high with cucumbers and green bell peppers. A cardboard box with a hole in the lid sat beside them, ready to receive donations. I think the homemade sign is still in my parents’ basement.
Moving away for college brought my gardening seasons to an abrupt end. I left behind ripe tomatoes and a bumper crop of cucumbers in mid-August, adding to the list of sad goodbyes. It didn’t help that it was hard to find good, inexpensive produce in the city where I moved. I walked through the supermarket produce aisles with disdain, wondering, “Why is produce so expensive? Why is everything smaller and less flavorful?” My parents would visit and bring bags of cucumbers — three for a dollar, as they should be — and apples for my roommates and me. I’d lumber back to my dorm after fall break, weighed down by a bulging cooler bag full of bell peppers and eggplant.
Someone observing me do this might think we didn’t have vegetables within city limits. In reality, I was stuck between living there and going “home” on holidays and long weekends. I pined for home, and a sweet, red bell pepper could transport me there, even if just for a moment. Like most young adults trying to figure out their lives, I had several hopes and dreams. But underneath my ambitions was a quieter one: to plant a garden in May and stay there long enough to see the harvest through. To have a place to land with room for a garden.
Fast forward a couple of years, and my husband and I have just passed one year of living in our home. When we moved in last January, my eyes often wandered out the back windows to the yard. An old wooden frame stood there, crawling with withered ivy vines. I dreamed warmly of the months ahead, of turning over the dead grass and replacing the ivy with grapes. In early spring, we invested hard labor into that dry, rocky terrain, jumping up and down on shovels like pogo sticks to break through the dead, yet strangely strong vines running along the ground. Hives crawled up our arms as we discovered the wooden frame’s ivy was poisonous – a poignant reminder that working the ground had become a cursed activity. We poured soil onto broken ground, laboring for a time when new grapes might replace the toxic and withering vegetation. We dug little holes for the plants and crafted a fence from wooden posts and chicken wire, praying life might spring up from this dying ground.
I’d never tried to grow a root vegetable before. The only viny plants I’d had before were zucchini and cucumbers, and of course, the pumpkin vines that grew from a couple of seeds I snuck into my mother’s flower beds one year after carving a jack-o’-lantern. She was less than pleased to see her shrubs overrun with vines, and they never did produce any pumpkins. Something about non-self-pollination. It was a bit of a lose–lose.
Growing root vegetables was much harder than I imagined. When to dig? Where to dig? There was one time, though, I got it right: that first potato, which grew so large it actually pushed itself above ground.
Harvesting that potato was much more of an involved process than I had bargained for. Its size and shape were largely a mystery, of course, which made digging a shot in the dark. After much cautious poking and aggressive tugging, I was shocked when a sweet potato the size of a child's head finally emerged from the ground into my hands. I felt a rush of adrenaline. Somehow I had freed it from the earth, though pressure bore down on all sides. It was radiant, though caked in dirt. My eyes were the very first to ever behold it. Maybe I’m projecting, but it was sparkling. Happy.
I took the potato inside and weighed it on the kitchen scale: two pounds, seven ounces. It was as if I had seen, just then, through a window into the mystery of birth. For a moment, it was wide open: beauty, cracked and filtering light, just for me. I felt compelled to recall memories I didn’t have. “It must’ve been something like this,” I thought, “in the beginning.”
* * *
The Bible tells us in Genesis that God created the first man from dust. He breathed life into his bones, then took one and made a woman. Bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. God placed them both in a garden. From dust, life.
Eden was creation’s epicenter – from it bursting forth flowers, trees, animals, people. The first human was born of the breath of God and the dust of the ground, in a garden. Adam, whose name itself means “man of the earth,” breathed his first breath in Eden, surrounded by unstained creation.
Communion with God was alive and unhindered there, growing along with cedar trees and green figs and birds taking flight: communion that, of course, was severed with a bite of forbidden fruit. This one act of rebellion banished Adam and Eve from Eden. They were tainted by sin, a strange disease, beginning to fester in their good and beautiful bodies. It opened their eyes and minds to evil, drove their feet in the opposite direction from their Creator. “They heard the sound of the Lord walking in the garden in the cool of the day,” Genesis 3:8 says, “and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord.” Feet, infested with sin, running for cover.
The strange disease drove them from that flourishing Eden, but their resting place landed them still in nature. After all, what other terrain was there? Genesis 3 says God banished Adam “to work the ground from which he had been taken.” Heading east, as they did, it feels far-fetched to imagine a hard scene break – rather, a kind of dimming effect from where they came. The terrain whispered of Eden, but with a gray overtone, stopping short of goodness, ground crumbling under their bare, cracked feet.
That rebellion sparked a chain reaction, playing out in evil, sadness and isolation. It continued to echo out, generations of people singing a groaning song.
Seventy-six generations trickled down before the birth of Jesus, whom the apostle Paul calls the last Adam. He triumphed in victory where the first man failed, even when that triumph was momentary death and defeat. He restored the barren land to flow with life once again.
Though Eden was Adam’s birthplace, it was also where he fell into temptation. Jesus arrived in a garden, too, coming to the Mount of Olives in Gethsemane with his disciples on the night before his crucifixion. He admonished them to “pray that you will not fall into temptation” (Luke 22:40). The next day, Jesus gave up his life on the cross. He was laid “in a new tomb,” in a garden. He experienced a momentary death in that garden, death that birthed life for many. A chain reaction, continuing to echo out even now.
Adam went from life to death in a garden. Jesus Christ, undoing that strange disease, went from death to glorious life – also in a garden.
* * *
This backyard garden patch has had its time of thorns and thistles. By the sweat of our brow did we cut open the earth to uproot what was dead, our arms suffering scrapes from prickly vines. How our back muscles strained, contending with the roots grown too strong, left too long. But even in this garden, even as we groan, that sweet Eden song sometimes sings.
I heard it in the harvest – in a sweet potato, caked in dirt, emanating the scent of creation, carrying “greetings from beyond.” My eyes were opened, if just for a moment, to that good place where creation bears glorious witness to the Creator. Falling backward and forward at the same time, I tumbled into that garden in glory. The one with a westerly breeze, bathed in light.
Sarah Pryor is a writer based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with degrees in Nonfiction Writing and French, she interned for a year with Cru in France. Now, Sarah lives with her husband and works on the creative team for Lancaster-based NGO, Horizon: Empower the Orphaned, telling stories of life healing and transformation of children around the world.