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Connection to the earth can sustain a culture, inspire a generation

By: Diana Griego Erwin, Sacramento Bee , April 30, 2002, Tuesday

I didn't want to believe the weather report Sunday night, so I woke up Monday frowning at the overcast sky.

I am tired of gray, but May Liu Her has another take on the rain.

A broad smile creeps over her face as a few drops sprinkle down onto her secret garden behind an aging apartment building in south Sacramento.

Surrounding the patchwork of herbs and vegetables are waist-high weeds the color of straw, a visual fortress. In the middle, invisible from the street, is an oasis of culinary delight and Hmong tradition. The Hmong spring from a rich tradition of farming. Wearing blue jeans and two sweaters, one split-pea green, the other baby blue, Her, 72, sits on a faded pink plastic chair meant for a toddler and pulls some weeds. The back of the chair is cracked, but she likes it because the low seat keeps her close to the earth.

A raindrop lands on her nose. She raises her hands, palms up, to the heavens. And smiles again.

"Goooood," she says, nodding to me.

From the smile on her face, she looks to be a simple, happy woman, but her life has had more twists and turns than a mountain road. Seven of 11 children dead before she even came here; everything new once she came. Electricity. Books. Pencils.

The Hmong way disappearing before her eyes.

The plot of earth beneath her has been the subject of much ire between Her and her family's landlord. He doesn't want her gardening because it translates into increased water costs, and water is included in the utilities for the apartment her son rents.

The landlord even had Her's hoses hauled off last year, although they were a gift from a neighborhood friend. "He told her, 'No garden,' " says the friend, who's translating.

Last season, he had the maintenance man disconnect the water flow to the apartment's outside faucet. Not that that would stop Her. Generations of Hmong farmed without the convenience of plumbing and modern irrigation. "Hmmmph," she says, as all this is explained.

So every year at the first hint of spring, Her, who grew up in the mountains of Laos, wanders out to the soil to soothe her soul and find a way to grow things. The handle of the hoe lying next to her is well-weathered.

She sticks a few mustard green seeds and onion sets in the ground. A breeze ruffles the lacy cilantro. She'll have several kinds of beans, peppers, sugar cane, bok choy and a type of squash that's unfamiliar to me.

She pours a little water on a pepper from an old pail as she speaks. Using an informal, universal sign language, she tries to show me how the bees will come and pollinate the pepper blossoms. Her people, she says, have been partners with the earth forever.

Not even 5 feet tall, she amazes her neighbors by hauling water by the pail to give the vegetables their needed sustenance. She brings it down a flight of stairs and over uneven, weedy terrain. You see now why the rain (which has stopped) is so appreciated.

The garden also is important to Her because it is one of the few places one of her great-grandsons, a preteen, will sit still and be with her.

With no TV blaring, no pulsating rap music, Her has his ear out here. The boy has dabbled in local gangs enough to catch the attention of the law. The chasm between traditional Hmong culture and American life is so great, the children often have trouble feeling they belong anywhere. Her believes she can keep ahold of the boy if he will just sit in the garden, be still and listen to her stories.

"She says you can find who you are just sitting here with the earth," the translator says.

The older woman nods and squashes an ugly looking beetle with her heel. The look on her face is one of determination. She's in her element. Her son can battle the landlord later.

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The Bee's Diana Griego Erwin can be reached at (916) 321-1057 or griego@sacbee.com.