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    painting of a greenhouse with wild vines in front

    The Greenhouse Effect

    After losing his livelihood, a man finds his footing by working the soil.

    By Ron Ivey

    April 22, 2021
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    • Paul Goodman

      Ron - Thanks for this story about your grandfather and the truth it conveys about the need God placed within each of us for community and work.

    • Alec

      Thank you M. Ivey for your story. I find it beautiful and it still resonates within me. It surely impresses on me that « our lives are defined by what we love and care for, what we give attention to. », as you suggest.

    • Katrina

      Such a beautiful story - thank you for sharing this!

    • dave

      Well done, thanks

    “I remember wakin’ up as a stowaway in that train car, looking out and seeing the rail yard in Fort Worth, train tracks every which way you looked, and not a man in sight. Just tank cars full of oil, cattle cars with herds coming south for the stockyards, and us stowaways wiping the sleep out of our eyes.” Sitting in his favorite La-Z-Boy chair, my grandfather had a powerful presence in the room. His muscular forearm was tattooed with the sailor’s emblem of an anchor. Sipping coffee from his Dallas Cowboys mug, he grinned under a bright white mustache as he told us stories about his teenage life. But I sensed pain in his blue eyes. “We used to ride the trains from town to town, just looking for places to work, pickin’ crops mostly, just trying to survive.”

    My grandfather’s mother died when he was only five years old. With his father, a hardened man, they scraped by as migrant workers for most of the Great Depression, crisscrossing the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. When they would enter a new town and visit a restaurant, they had to eat at the back with Black and Native American customers, away from the “respectable” clientele.

    My grandfather’s brothers had opted to pack up their belongings and head west for greener pastures in California. They were among the millions of “Okies” from a four-state area devastated by the Dust Bowl, a drought compounded by poor farming practices that turned their world into clouds of dust and destitution. My grandparents described “black blizzards,” raging storms that stripped corn and wheat fields – root, stalk, and topsoil – and blacked out the sun. “Everywhere we went, we put bandanas around our faces. We put towels in windows and cracks of doors just to keep the dust out.”

    In caring for those plants, my grandfather found a way out of himself and a way into the world of nature and other people.

    After World War II, my grandfather came back to Oklahoma from his Navy service in the Pacific. He married my grandmother and settled in the town of Enid, the crossroads of wheat country in the northern part of the state, recognized miles away by nine massive grain elevators, concrete cathedrals dotting the horizon. Modernist French architect Le Corbusier called these American grain elevators the “first fruits of a new age” of engineering and machinery. My grandfather went to work at the Pillsbury grain elevator as a truck loader, loading bags of wheat onto the company’s transport trucks at the base of the elevator. It was not a glamorous job, but his hard work paid the bills and put food on the table for his growing family. The job gave his family enough stability to buy a small house not far from the elevator. He enjoyed the camaraderie with his fellow workers. A steady job in the community gave him a dignity absent from his earlier itinerant life with his father.

    Then came the 1960s, when Pillsbury further modernized the elevator. My grandfather was laid off. The engineering that created these “fruits of a new age” now made him redundant.

    Without skills or education, my grandfather struggled to find employment. His life took a downward spiral of anxiety, alienation, and depression. He became a shell of a man. The trauma of his previous privations during the Dust Bowl years resurfaced. For the next decade, a dark cloud set over his person and spread to envelop the whole household. He turned inward and a void set in. For most of my dad’s teenage years, his father was the strange man who wandered aimlessly around their neighborhood. In my parent’s wedding photos, my grandfather looks gaunt and bony, with hollowed eyes darkened by shadowy circles in an expressionless face. The shame and the loss of his father’s spiritual presence created a void in my dad’s heart as well.

    painting of a greenhouse with wild vines in front

    Hans Vandekerckhove, My Father’s Greenhouse 2

    My grandfather’s journey is a common phenomenon in human experience. At various points in our lives, we can lose our rootedness in reality. In The Need for Roots, French philosopher Simone Weil writes, “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active, and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.” My grandfather was no longer participating in the life of his small town. He had become a stranger to his own community, his family, and even to himself.

    When my father became an adult, he decided to do something to help my grandfather. He would build a greenhouse with his father. Together, they designed and constructed it in the backyard. In this greenhouse, my grandfather grew all types of houseplants – spider plants, aloe vera, and elephant ears – and then gave them to neighbors around the community. In the winter, he grew starter plants for an expansive vegetable garden of tomatoes, okra, green beans, and potatoes. As my grandfather’s hands worked the soil, he claimed the dignity of work again. Cultivating these plants together with his son brought him back from the brink, back to life. Their relationship, marked by deep pains and grievances, might never be perfect, but somehow it was restored out there in the backyard while building something new together.

    His roots had grown deep into the soil of his reality.

    What happened in that greenhouse? In caring for those plants, my grandfather found a way out of himself and a way into the world of nature and other people. The structure of the four walls and the discipline of taking care of the plants on a daily and weekly basis reawakened his ability to care about his existence. To describe this phenomenon, the social psychologist Erich Fromm coined the term “biophilia.” Biophilia, he writes, “is the passionate love of life and of all that is alive; it is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group.” Feeling the texture of the leaves, smelling the potting soil, and seeing the light refracted through the glass panes of the greenhouse reawakened my grandfather’s body and soul. Caring for those living things, he rediscovered the wonder of creation and his place in it. Our lives are defined by what we love and care for, what we give attention to. When my grandfather discovered his love of gardening in the greenhouse, he stopped defining his life by his past failures and fears of future catastrophe. The depression slowly faded; it might never be completely gone, but it had lost its debilitating power.

    By the time I was born, my grandfather had rebuilt a livelihood. He was no longer rail-thin but stocky and tanned by the Oklahoma sun. A kindly Air Force colonel had given him odd jobs and helped him discover a skill as a house painter. He continued to work until his seventies. He had found his place again in the community, serving with his fellow veterans at the American Legion. At his local church, a lifeline for his wife and daughter during the dark days, he now volunteered and reciprocated the love he had been given by the community. He became fishing buddies with his next-door neighbor. He was an abiding presence in the life of my cousins who lived in the same neighborhood. Near the end of his life, he rode shotgun with my cousin Michael, a truck driver, across the United States on a long-haul drive. The purpose: just to be with his grandson and explore the country together. He laughed deep, hearty laughs. My last memory of him was at my graduation from university. He was talking to strangers and friends alike with a curious and gregarious demeanor. His roots had grown deep into the soil of his reality.

    Contributed By

    Ron Ivey is a Fellow at the Centre for Public Impact, a global think tank seeking to restore the relationship between governments and those they govern. He has served as a policy advisor in the US Senate and advised executives in the Vatican, the World Bank, and the White House. Ron and his wife, Kathryn, live in Paris, France.

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