January was always the time when my buddy Gordon would pass the morning with a cup of coffee in one hand and a seed catalogue in the other. While his dog Butterbean slept at his feet, Gordon would sit in the sunroom of his Tennessee home and consider warm tomatoes fresh from the vine, or a mess of beans cooked to perfection.
Gordon fussed over his garden the way God does over us. Every season of his life revolved around it. He didn’t take vacations because it was either time to prepare, plant, grow or harvest one thing or the other. Once planting season came around he and Butterbean were out back in the garden every morning and every afternoon. Only the heat of noonday drove him inside.
The only interruption to his garden were the routine trips over to Charlottesville, Va., where Gordon was undergoing treatment for the cancer that was eating him from the inside out. He’d been diagnosed with cancer before we met and he was all the time telling me, “I ain’t long for this world.”
I hated it when he said stuff like that and I told him so. Ours was a brief friendship, formed in the battlefields of Vietnam long before we met. Both of us came away from that war wounded and both of us spent too many years of our lives wrestling with the demons that such wars always produce.
Some people go nearly their entire lives before they lose someone. The community of people I have waiting for me across the Jordan River is nearly as big as the one that cares for me on this side. Perhaps that’s why I so often feel torn between the two, the way I did the entire time I was reading Renea Winchester’s In the Garden with Billy (Little Creek Books). Nothing has brought back the memory of Gordon as clearly as the story of the friendship that Renea and Billy cultivated. I no more than got through the first chapter before I picked up the phone and called Renea and blabbered to her about how I wish I had written such a book in honor of Gordon.
The only problem being that I couldn’t write that book because unlike Renea I never spent the hours alongside Gordon in the garden the way she did with Billy. I was much more interested in enticing Gordon away from the garden. I was all the time getting him to take me around Crossville and introducing me to other storytellers like Mrs. Campbell, who made beautiful quilts and the best fried apple pies I’ve ever tasted.
It’s not that I’m not interested in gardens. I’ll have you know that I planted my first ever tomatoes and green peppers and plenty of basil this last growing season. Every year this time, I envision the bountiful garden I’ll grow. But it seems every spring finds me on the road with yet another series of speaking engagements and by the time I get back to Oregon, all my garden dreams have dried up.
In the Garden with Billy is not a how-to-book about gardening. Sure there are plenty of useful tips in the book about everything from growing tomatoes, to incubating chicks, to making communion wine. But this book is above all a guide to cultivating the good life. And by good life, I don’t mean the kind you find in the pages of some real estate magazine, I mean the sort of good life God intended.
Renea’s friendship with Billy was as unlikely as mine with Gordon. She did, at least, have the advantage of living in close proximity to Billy. But as she explains it, she’d driven past the farmer’s house hundreds of times before that fateful day when a sign stopped her: Baby goats 4 sale.
And that’s where hers and Billy’s story begins. In the Garden with Billy will remind you once again of how precious a world God created and how very blessed we are that He fusses over us the way a good farmer does his garden.
(For the record, Renea sent me her book along with a jar of apple butter. Eat your heart out IRS.)
If you are interested in purchasing a copy, visit Renea’s website here.