I looked around the garden. There were patches with flowers, patches with herbs, and some patches with vegetables. I bent down and rubbed some rosemary between my fingers. I smelled it. What a lovely smell! When I looked up, I noticed someone else in the garden on the other side.
So, I walked over and said "Hi! I'm Michael Levin". He said "Hello! My name is Sh'mal". I wasn't sure I heard him, so I asked him to repeat his name. He said "Sh'mal" again. He laughed and said "Bob. My name is Bob Ellenberg. But, you can call me Sh'mal." I repeated his name and he must have caught me asking myself what that meant. He brushed the dirt off his hand and we shook hands.
Sh'mal explained. "I've taken the first word of the Jewish prayer, the Sh'ma and the name Allah and put them together. That's where my name 'Sh'mal' comes from." I paused and though about what he had just said. I thought about the prayer flags I'd seen, hanging from the garden's bulletin board where I'd found Maura's phone number.
The idea behind prayer flags is that the rustle in the wind, outdoors. The wind and sun and elements cause little bits of them to scatter. Little prayers scattering in the wind.
I nodded and repeated his name again, just so I'd remember it. Sh'mal said "So, what brings you the garden?" He was working as he talked. I noticed that the earth he softened up with a spade moved easily. It looked fresh and good after he methodically dug it up and flipped it over. I could smell the good smell of the dirt.
I pointed to my bicycle, leaning against a huge shady tree and said "I was looking for the Hawthorne Trail the other day and found this garden." Sh'mal smiled and pulled up a vegetable to show me.
I explained my conversation with Maura. That I was waiting for her to call me back. He brushed the dirt off his hand and wiped some sweat from his brow. He said "This garden is pretty special. It's a part of me. I've eaten the vegetables for some seven years now." I looked at my healthy, happy new friend. I imagined the salads and casseroles he had made from the garden. I thought about Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. I imagined years of Sh'mal's Thanksgiving dinner tables lined with plates of vegetables from the garden.
Sh'mal continued "Well, you're coming and I'm going. Funny how life is. I'm waiting here to give my two patches away because I'm moving to Seattle." He laughed again. I noticed Sh'mal laughed a lot. It was a little contagious.
He told me about the garden. "You see those sunflowers? Everything works together organically in this garden. The flowers attract insects and the insects act as a natural pesticide.
He pointed to some other flowers. I was beginning to wonder if this was a dream. I looked up and thanked silently for my misguided sense of direction. How did I wind up in this wonderful place?
"See those? Look what beauty those flowers attract." I looked over to the orange flowers he pointed at. There was an amazingly graceful butterfly.
I felt as though I were in a magical place. The air was warm and balmy, as Florida air is in the early summer. There were puffy, white clouds in the clear blue sky. I compulsively glanced over to my bicycle to make sure it was still there. This bicycle I'd managed to hang onto since college. There it was, practically smiling at me, underneath a shady tree with Spanish moss blowing in the soft breeze.
Sh'mal continued "We rely on nature and help it a little bit here. This garden is an ecosystem that we gently persuade to do what it does naturally. We encourage it to grow food for us. I guess it's a tradeoff. Because we think things through and take our time, nature helps us. See that lizard? I looked where he pointed and snapped another picture. He laughed again. "That lizard helps us by eating bugs. I guess it's better for him to eat the bugs than for the bugs to eat the vegetables".
As we talked, the wind blew. I heard something chime in the wind. I turned and saw some hand made wind chimes. Wind chimes that someone had fashioned from discarded sheet metal. Probably some sheet metal harvested from the trash.
I looked back towards Sh'mal and another butterfly lit upon the orange flower. Sh'mal laughed again and kept digging. I kept snapping pictures with my cellphone. Waiting for Maura to call back...
Stay tuned...chapter four to follow!