(and Collard Greens)

In 2015, I left my community center and urban farm for 3 weeks to walk the Camino Portuguese, a 150-mile trek up the rocky coast of Portugal and through the Spanish countryside. The farmers I met didn’t speak to me of seeds or sun or chemical enhancements. They only spoke of faith.

While the collard greens grew in the most unlikely places in Portugal — seaside gardens and hilly backyards — the Spanish farms wound their way around vineyards and valleys, up rocky crests and through flocks of chickens. In Portugal, the old people would walk up and hand me food: fresh baked bread, cheese, raw scallops fresh from the sea. In Spain, the gifts were left for me — lush, purple grapes arranged like still-life art on the stone borders of crumbling old churches.

Photo by Kay Bolden

The farmers called their greens the Galician word for “cabbage” but they were actually collard greens. Collard greens unlike any I’d ever seen before — they grew on tall stalks, with the leaves starting about halfway up, making them very easy to weed, water and harvest. My greens at home grew in marked contrast, looking more like wild bushes. Weeding the collard beds was backbreaking work.

How did they get them to grow so tall and straight in Spain?

At last, a farmer stood near the road with his teenaged daughter. The old man nodded at my backpack and pilgrim’s shell, murmured “Buen Camino”. His hand outstretched, he offered me a chunk of bread from his pocket, and a small, perfect apple. I clutched them to my chest. This was my 9th or 10th day on the Camino; I’d learned not to offer money in return.

“Please,” I said to the girl. “How do you make them grow like this?” I pulled out my phone and showed them pics of my greens, growing like wild bushes in the dirt back in Illinois. The old man looked at my phone and back a half-dozen times before it clicked and his cautious smile morphed into a full-fledged grin.

“To make yours grow like this, you have to give some to the poor. And St. James will bless your crops.” The old man spread his arms out, sweeping in the vista of his well-kept farm. “Las bendiciones de Santiago,” he said. The blessings of St. James.

I certainly saw some parallels in my center’s garden back home. We were clearly blessed beyond measure.

Maybe it WAS because we gave away most of what we grew. What else could explain the continual growth and expansion of our garden when we had no idea what we were doing? When we planted the lettuces in full sun and the broccoli in the shade and the tomatoes under a tree, and yet they all flourished?

The onion sets were upside down, but they grew hard and fast and turned themselves up to the sun. We had crazy green ones growing in pretzel shapes — but growing, nonetheless.

We had one bed where the broccoli had spread out under the cherry tomatoes, so much so that we couldn’t even get the tomato cages in the ground without bruising the broccoli, so we let them grow together, wild and untamed. Harvesting them was like going on safari — I had to get down on my knees, stick my head into the thick foliage, and scavenge.

A visitor watching me do this one day asked a simple question: Why didn’t we prune them back? Or just pull up the broccoli?

Oh, if we pull it up it’ll probably die, I remember telling him. We haven’t had much luck transplanting broccoli.

He shrugged. So what? “You’ve got plenty of broccoli,” he said, nodding to the other beds. “You don’t need this one.”

I did, indeed, have a lot of broccoli. The kids loved it. “Well,” I knew this would sound ridiculous, but I pressed on. “The kids will wonder what happened to it, you know? They’ll ask me where I put it, and if it’s all right, and why can’t they see it.” I shrugged.

Truth be told, it hurt me, too, when I had to sacrifice a plant, or when I lost one from my own ignorance. This plant, this broccoli that was planted in too-acidic soil, too much shade, and getting too little water — this broccoli plant was growing full and strong, and I had no intention of getting in its way.

Just like the neighborhood kids. They didn’t get enough of anything they needed — food, education, clothes, role models. Some of them didn’t even get much parenting.They were planted in a hostile environment, surrounded by violence and drugs and poor examples.

But they were growing, just the same. They were pushing through the contaminated soil, fighting off the invaders, reaching for the sun, no matter what.

We weren’t going to discard them either. We were going to make as much space for them as we could in the bad soil and the lousy water and the bed with too many pestsWe were going to pull the weeds that were choking them, and help them live to fight another day. And at harvest, we were going to get in there with both hands and save all the fruit we could reach.

From the dirt, I remember looking up at my visitor, who didn’t think I needed this untamed broccoli plant. I’m sure my face was scratched and my hat was askew and my t-shirt was riding up over my waistband. “Yes I do,” I said. “I need this one, too.” I gave him a brilliant smile that he didn’t understand.

In Spain, I watched the farmer and his daughter turn toward a patch of what looked to be squash leaves, and drop to their knees.

They would have understood about my broccoli. They would’ve understood completely.

Visit Kay at KayBolden.com and see more of her work here.