“The first time I stuck my hands in the ground to plant, it was like all the pain that I was in just went ‘woooosh.’” Omaha Public Library librarian Carol Erkens moved her hands downward in one swift motion. “…right into the ground.”
Erkens described her first time planting and how a seed library project at Omaha Public Library (OPL) became a blessing in disguise—a way of coping with heartbreak.
Erkens grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. She discovered adult novels in her early teens, when the library became her safe haven. “It was a safe, comfortable place where I could be who I wanted to be and didn’t have to be what I was expected to be. I could read what I wanted to read,” she shared.
Eventually she married, and she and her husband began a family. “While the kids were in school I worked as a library aide and realized just how much I enjoyed it,” Erkens said. She found a passion for the library profession and never looked back.
“Everybody says you should do your passion. You shouldn’t work in a job you don’t love, and I have to agree. Working in my job in my field, no matter what piece of it I’m doing, is fulfilling.”
Erkens moved from Alabama to Nebraska 20 years ago to work at OPL. She has worked in a variety of positions and is currently adult services librarian at Benson Branch.
In late 2012, an exciting project presented itself. Betsy Goodman, a mover and shaker in the local sustainability and permaculture scene, came to OPL with an idea based on an emerging public library movement: a seed library. The ball got rolling, and before they knew it, they were selecting an OPL location in which to house Common Soil. Benson was identified as a community which would likely embrace the project, and Common Soil launched at Benson Branch in February 2013.
Just prior to this new project in January 2013, Erkens had received a starling phone call at work. Her daughter Nina had heartbreaking news: Aniela, Erkens’ next to youngest child at 28 years old, had taken her own life.
Arrangements were made, the funeral came and went, but mourning lingered. Erkens leaned on work for distraction. “I thought I could handle it. I’m strong. So after the funeral I went back to work,” she said. But it was too soon. “I was a complete mess. My bosses said, ‘You have to take time off, you can’t do this to yourself.’ So I took a couple weeks off.”
Aniela, a bright, curious and promising young woman, had suffered from depression for years. However, she kept it hidden. “She tried so hard to hide the fact that she’d had suicidal thoughts for years and years,” Erkens said.
Shortly after graduation from the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 2012, Aniela and her husband moved to St. Paul, Minnesota so she could complete her anatomic pathology residency at the University of Minnesota. Then January 2013, the heart of winter, arrived. “She couldn’t hold on anymore, she just couldn’t do it,” Erkens said.
The emotional aftermath of Aniela’s untimely death and the imminent launch of Common Soil overlapped. Family tends to come before work, but for Erkens work was tugging at her for perhaps a greater, more meaningful reason. ”All I thought about was this stuff we needed to get done and what we had planned to do,” Erkens said.
She thrust herself headlong into Common Soil. Erkens and Benson Branch manager Rachel Steiner, both novice gardeners, had also agreed to maintain a plot in the Benson Community Garden. “That was an excitement to me because I had never had a garden before. The only things I had grown until that time were African violets and kids,” Erkens said.
Through education and a multitude of mistakes, healing took hold. “Every time I would work with the plants it healed me a bit. It was like connecting with something bigger than me. It helped me to cope, heal,” Erkens confided.
Then other things began happening. As if by magic, fruit trees at her house deemed as purely ornamental began to flourish. Before she knew it, there was a bounty of peaches, apples, herbs and produce from the community garden.
“It was just like everything exploded, and I found another passion, which is gardening and growing things. Part of being a parent is growing living things and tending to them. There’s something healing about digging into the earth. It’s healing to be outside in the quiet and be tending to your plants that depend on you for their life to keep them watered, to keep them fed. Putting my hands in Mother Earth and feeling the reciprocal love was amazing. The more things grew, and the more I learned, the more things started to ease emotionally.”
From the death of her daughter was a birth of a passion and a larger purpose. “Granted, it’ll always hurt, there’s no way around it,” Erkens said. However, Erkens is taking this tragedy and turning it into a way to cope and help others. Now, she wears her green thumb like a suit of armor thanks to a discovery of a new passion.
Though gardening wasn’t her sole means of coping, Erkens related that her future gardening plans will help her continue to honor the memory of her daughter. “Somewhere in my yard I will grow a memory garden [or] a love garden, a hope garden. Not a memorial, just a beautiful garden of lovely herbs and flowers to bring peace to people’s souls when they see it. Really, that’s what I’ve been working for.”
For more information on OPL’s Common Soil Seed Library, click here or call Benson Branch at (402) 444-4846.