Dirty Boots: It is past time to tend our garden.

We all know that New Years is a time for renewal – January 1 is a good demarcation point for a new promise to one’s self, a resolution – but what strikes me about the timing is something we discuss less often. Our new calendar year begins not in the spring, a time of new life, but ten days into winter, the season whose most notable features are cold, inhospitable weather and widespread withering and dying in Nature. The first eleven weeks of the year are spent among leafless trees and under gray skies. What this tells us is: before we can start anew, what once thrived has to diminish. After all, keeping a New Years resolution wouldn’t be nearly as difficult if we didn’t have to wipe away the old habit that the new habit is to replace.

As an amateur and self-educated gardener, my yard work in the winter consists mainly of doing what allows the dead things to nourish what will come in the spring. Instead of raking and bagging my leaves, I mulch them into the grass or pile them into flower beds in November and December. It isn’t until late February or March that I remove the crunchy debris and spindly thatch to reveal soil that has been fertilized by the organic matter and aerated by the tiny creatures that made the leafy shelter their winter home. Using what is fallen and dead is Nature’s way: dead animals become food, dead vegetation becomes fertilizer.

Likewise, we use our past to form the wisdom that creates better ways of living. Wisdom is not about knowing this fact or following that maxim, but about keeping what works well and discarding what doesn’t. In the Deep South, we’re familiar with the dying of old ways, yet so far we’ve been satisfied with allowing the fine tendrils of sameness to sprout untended from the shorn stumps, where they grow . . . and grow . . . and grow . . . until they re-emerge strong, with a differently shaped trunk and branches but the same roots. Here, now, on this day when we think about a fresh start, nineteen years into this twenty-first century, we’re seeing that it is past time to tend our garden and that we have set ourselves up for even harder work: uprooting what is misshapen and unwieldy, and filling those blank spaces with a compatible but elaborate mixture of the finest heirlooms and the fiercest unheard-of.

No rational person attempts to change everything about himself on New Years Day, only what needs to change, from fine-tuning to outright overhaul. Likewise, no rational person would suggest that we discard our best traditions – faith, family, food – in the Deep South. But we do have some habits that need fine-tuning, and a few that do need outright overhaul, because they’re holding back not just the obvious victims, which are smothered by another’s undisciplined prosperity, but all of us who are bent and distorted by our own attempts to find a parcel of precious sunlight.

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