Harvest: An Ode to Sun Golds

This morning, as I headed somewhere, car keys in one hand, iPod in the other, I found myself yanked momentarily away from my earnest, busy intentions[1]by a glimpse of gold peeping from the green foliage in the corner of our front yard.

And then, before I really knew what hit me, I was balanced precariously at the edge of the raised bed we call our “garden,” plucking cherry tomatoes from the sprawling vine.

It is one of the rituals — and pleasures — of my domestic life that every spring I plant tomatoes. The ritual began a year or so after we bought our first house, when our oldest was a toddler, and in the beginning, I had grand ambitions for it, as I do for most things. Tomatoes, I promised myself. Watermelon and cantaloupe. Summer squash and zucchini and cucumbers.

I would feed my little family of three just like a midwestern farm wife!

Spring Planting, 2003

Spring Planting, 2003

That first year, I started heirloom seeds I had purchased from a beautifully-illustrated catalogue .  I  ended up with dozens of seedlings that, lacking that midwestern farm wife’s farm, I mostly had to give away. That first year, I knew someone who had ten-acres-and-a-mule so I hauled home trash cans of black gold (i.e. manure) in the back of our newly-acquired station wagon. I nursed the seedlings along, got them into the ground; I battled horn worms. I can’t remember if the harvest that year was good or bad.

In the eleven years since, my ambitions have been whittled down. On a good year, I plant tomatoes and cucumbers and beans and one of the other of them will stubbornly refuse to grow.  More often, I just buy tomato seedlings at Lowe’s and slap them into the ground and hope for the best. I used to be a thoughtful gardener:  now I know that things grow despite —not because of — me.  Some years squirrels get all my harvest. Some years, it’s just plain too droughty, and I forget to water regularly, and the whole enterprise is pretty much of a bust.

This year, I planted cherry tomatoes because I was sick of spending 4 bucks a pint for them all summer long.  Sun golds and black cherries — so candy-like you could almost call them the bonbons of the tomato world.

If nothing else, growing your own food is a great way to learn just hard it can be —  to grow food.  My garden could never — not even in my wildest dreams —  produce enough to see us through a winter.

Although our society is rife with inequities, certain sorts of abundance are a given.  We assume there will always be cherry tomatoes, arrayed pint-beside-pint at the grocery store. And that assumption is correct.  Barring apocalypse, there will be.

The lesson the tomato plants in the front yard teach is that the fact that I get even a single tomato at all is a miracle.

This morning, I set my business aside for a few minutes and picked tomatoes.  In seconds, I had more than I could hold in my hands.  I made a bowl of my t-shirt; kept picking.

The plants are such an unmannerly sprawl that finding the fruit is a game of hide-and-seek.  Just I think I’ve gotten all the ripe ones, I move to the other side of the bed and spy new ones. There is always just enough for dinner that night, and the next day’s lunches.

Sun gold.

Sung old.

The garden sings its beautiful song.

It might as well be a detail from a fairy tale, the way the plants magically replenish themselves in the night and then offer up more, our everyday abundance.

 

[1] Must be productive, must be efficient, must keep to the schedule, the to-do list!

Pubs, Sultry Summer Edition

The Summer 2013 issue of The Massachusetts Review, which includes my story “Plenty” is out and on the metaphorical stands.  You can subscribe here.

“Plenty” might be suitable for the season, which around here, we just call  “Thick of Farmer’s Market” (we also call it steamy-hot):

All those years ago, when the guy with the guitar at the blueberry farm had handed back her change, his fingers had been stained up to the first knuckle with blueberry juice. And then, on the drive home, she and John had had their first real argument — over how easy or hard it might be, to defer one’s student loans, or wear faded overalls, or be a gentleman farmer.

The next morning, she had cooked down the berries while John was at work, with a recipe she’d kept when she cleaned out her grandmother’s house, spidery handwriting on a stained index card.  She tilted it on the counter and set to work.  Eva’s Blueberry Jam,  it proclaimed, and in the right-hand margin: the best Edward says he ever tasted!  Who was Eva?  Edward?  The house filled up with the smell of hot sugar, like a fairground.

An aside:  last weekend’s Blackberry-Lime Jam  was just made for research’s sake, of course.

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And while we’re on the subject of art and craft, and magazines, when my poem “Cucumbers” was published in Ruminate this past spring, I received a year’s subscription to it.  I just got the Summer 2013 issue.

It’s gorgeous, both in form and content.

Print, in case you haven’t heard, is pretty close to dead.  Who needs ink, when we’ve got bits and bytes and vapor?  The wisps of words we have do the job just fine.

I’d argue otherwise. I’d like to, in fact, put in a vote for things that are tactile — for  process.

I won’t lie:  I love the convenient jolt I get whenever I click away from the work I’m doing to read… whatever.  (To be honest, usually it’s the neighborhood listserv, which no one in their right mind would call either  art or craft).  I can waste an hour or so letting my mouse rove from here to there and back again with the best of them.

It’s so easy, for us to consume.  Words and opinions, in this particular case.  We eat them up.  We chew them up and spit them out.  And we hardly ever even have to pay for them! When we have gotten so good at attaching ourselves to the I.V. of communication,  what point is there in something as old-fashioned as print and paper?

But there might be something to be said — for the shrink-wrapped magazine that arrives unexpectedly on a sultry summer afternoon.  For one thing, its arrival in the mailbox helps keep the U.S. Postal Service afloat.   For another, the unpredictability of its arrival might actually be a sort  of gift.

We can summon up so much, and so quickly!  We get exactly what we want.  The second that we want it.

So maybe it’s good for us  — to occasionally be surprised.  Even if it’s by something as mundane as a magazine.

The day my copy of the latest Ruminate arrived, I stood at the curb and reached into my mailbox.  The neighbor’s hickory tree has already started tossing down a few harbinger nuts, hints of cooler weather to come.  The street was quiet, quiet.  Sealed off.  I tossed the mail onto  the front seat of the car and backed out of the driveway and Younger Girleen and I headed off, to the orthodontist.

This time last week, she and I were headed farther afield.  To Western NC to pick up her older sister at camp.

On the way we stopped, as we have the past couple of years, to pick berries at a  farm perched at the top of a slant-sided hill. South Carolina tableland, I suppose you’d call the area, the littlest toe of the foothills of the Blue Ridge.  The real hills, or their bulky outlines, hang on the horizon like a bank of clouds.  We pick a gallon of blackberries from looping canes; another of  rabbit-eye Blues.

And then I lug them into our hotel room that night, and out again the next morning.  After Big Sister has been picked up, and hugged, and we are headed homeward, we discuss:  a crumble this year?  A pie?  Should we just eat them by the handful?

There was enough for all those things.  There was, in fact, plenty.  

Last Sunday afternoon, I brought glass jars to a boil in a black-speckled canner purchased at the local hardware store that, a year or so after the Big Box went in two miles away, gave up the ghost and went under.

Thinking all the while.  Of this, of that, of the way an 11-year-old’s legs magically lengthen when you aren’t there to see that 11-year-old for two weeks.

Thinking also of the water required to sterilize a half-dozen jelly jars, the natural gas required to heat it, and the jar of jelly to be had at Kroger down the street.  What does it cost?  Two, three dollars?

I am a fool.

Every morning when we pull out  our newly-minted jam and smear it onto slabs of toast, I admire its distillation of that afternoon, when I picked berries with my eight-year-old, and a hawk wheeled overhead, and I was lost in process.  

Our fingers touched every single berry in this jam!  Younger Girleen points out.

At the orthodontist, I sat in the waiting area while her titanium spring dental appliance was adjusted, magazine on lap. Fingers happy with the heft of the paper pages, the crisp ink, the middle section of reproduced paintings by an artist I’d never before known to seek out.

A fool, yes, but such a happy one, on certain sultry summer days.

The Dance

At the gym, the soundtrack of my younger days is spilling so loudly from the speakers it erases thought, and everybody seems to be running in place.  Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time, Nirvana’s Come as You Are, and then — Good God Almighty! —  the theme song  from Friends.

I am lifting weights, but really, what I am doing is remembering, the soundtrack from the speakers conjuring up the day of Kurt Cobain’s death, a friend’s apartment, an ashtray squared companionably on the table and Come As You Are on the radio.  That was the year I was starting to have just enough intimations of mortality that wishful thinking had made me read the label on the pack of American Spirits we were splitting as Addictive — rather than Additive Free.

Were we grieving for poor Kurt Cobain as we sat there at the table?  Not much.  So many rock stars, drowned or shot or suicided! We had cut our teeth on them.  We were contemplating a day off from work; we were overeducated and underemployed, we had postponed adulthood with graduate school; we didn’t realize how good we might have things.

And just like that the music has done what it was meant to do, and I am transported.  Away from this tiny gym lacking bells-and-whistles in a stripmall where at least half the storefronts are empty, it having been built in  those halcyon optimistic days before the bubble burst.

Alternate mornings, I lace up my sneakers and head out, silver oblong of ipod nestled in one hand; I nod at the neighbors I pass, we are all of us sealed off, the music loud.  In our own worlds.

When my daughters hear music, they can’t help but dance. In the cereal aisle of Whole Foods, while the childless edge past them, wishing I had my offspring under better control.  In our living room; on the front steps; on the walkway leading to the car.  At the Arts Center, weekly, where one of the instructors recently pulled me aside and whispered in my ear Like it or not, I think you’re going to be bringing kids here for classes for years.  You’re the mother of dancers.

It’s one of the joys of my life, to sit on the waxed floor of the hallway at the Arts Center outside the classrooms, while on the other side of the door, my daughters are dancing to Debussy, the ballet mistress’s voice counting time.

The Art Center was built in the twenties, was once the residence of the son of a Coca-Cola magnate.  The downstairs is paneled with mahogany pulled from Pullman cars. Eighty years ago, the magnate’s son’s private menagerie roamed the grounds. Now girls clad in leotards have the run of the house.  They are beautiful in the late afternoon light that streams through the Arts Center’s stained glass windows.  I could eat them up; I could sit there forever while my daughters dance right where the daughters of the Coca Cola magnate’s son slept in ornate beds.

Is it cold comfort, the way that as we reach adulthood we replace that effervescent joy in movement with running in place to music  that’s become “the Oldies” — or is that as good as things get?

Better than nothing, I think as I walk, earbuds nestled in the rosy, still young coil of my ears. This morning there was a two-degree drop of temperature, signal enough to the hopeful of a change of seasons.  Butterflies hover over our zinnias, making hay while the last of the sun shines.  In front of a particular house, chartreuse balls dropped from a Bois D’arc tree lie in the grass like an interrupted game of croquet.  Good as it gets, and better than nothing.  We all dance as we can, each in our own way.

Weather Report: May 24, 2010

The end of May.  The sinister, slightly noirish fragrance, of jasmine, of gardenia — those funereal white flowers that always make me think of Raymond Chandler novels and the L.A. of the thirties  —  moves toward me in eddies early mornings when I walk through the neighborhood.

Overwritten? Yes — but also true.

The end of May.  Two seasons ago — September October November, I can’t quite conjure up  the feel of those months anymore, it being somehow impossible to inhabit a previous season once the weather’s moved past it  — the front yards I walked past were sere and brown, most of their landscaping transformed into dry rustling seedpods.  The whorled catherine wheels of clematis; strange haired globes that split open to reveal seeds as polished black as buttons. I carried them home in my hands; I  cast them into the flower beds that line our picket fence, and then I forgot them.

Now they’re blooming and I am, in fact, surprised.  The feathery foliage and purple spurs so Victorian in their delicacy that must be larkspur — were they last fall’s work?  The hollyhock stalk grown almost as high as an elephant’s eye — where did it come from?  Did I mean to plant it?

End of May.  For weeks, I’ve been maligning the mockingbirds that selected the arbor over our front gate as their nursery.  It took them over two weeks to construct a nest the internet said should take two days.  Their results were from my critical point of view, slovenly.  Their approach to nest-sitting resembled the Mayzie Bird’s  in Horton Hatches the Egg. They were there for an hour or so for a day or two, and then disappeared, as far as I could tell.

Surely a clutch of eggs required more nurturing than that!  I held on to my story:  that they were teenagers on their first procreative trial run, learning the ropes.  The whole event was a bust.

Or was it?  Today they’re back, and flying in and out of the akebia that covers the arbor, bearing worms.  Satisfied with a job well done, one sits the centermost picket of the gate below the arbor, opening and closing its wings, looking like nothing so much as a bird automaton.

I suppose it doesn’t do — to make judgements on the parenting ability of anything, bird or beast.

Weather Report: March 23, 2010

Snow flurries 48 hours ago but winter’s at last behind us:  when I drove the Girleens to school soon after sunrise this morning the white haze of the Bradford pears hung above the slopes  and redoubts of nearby Grant Park like smoke.

Trash trees, those Bradford pears, horticulturalists don’t particularly like them.  But the exact second the Bradford pears begin to paint Atlanta with that pale green and white wash, spring is come.

How on earth do they do it?  For a few days in early spring, their blooming’s somehow demure and excessive both, and at that moment Atlanta is — for me — at its most  heartbreakingly, seductively, southern.

The azaleas this neck of the woods is known for bloom a few weeks later, but they might be a tad too frilly and flamboyant.  And what are April’s dogwoods, really, but the classiest of clichés, lending to the most litter-ridden Atlanta neighborhood a chinoiserie and elegance it probably doesn’t deserve?

But those Bradford pears, they’re impulsive.  Sometimes they come too early, and we’re still busy bundling up against the cold.   But mostly, they know how to seize their moment.

Which is right now, this instant. The leaves about-to-come are an insistent whisper caught up in the trees. A pair of summer tanagers just took dot-and-carry flight across the yard.

Last night, a pair of barred owls sat the oak outside our windows— who cooks for you who cooks for you? they demanded to know, and in the face of that question, what else could we do?   We took the girls outside in their pajamas to see the owls’ odd, monkey faces peering down:  we looked at them and they looked back, and in that minute all was right with our world.

Weather Report, November 30, 2009

The tailings of November, when the sky takes on the character of dingy cotton batting and the air smells of newly-cut lumber from the house rising on the corner, and the yellow-and-black sign plunged into the front yard two doors down from it speaks volumes:  Bank Owned.  Auction.

The tailings of November and the trees have at last disrobed.  I find myself enamored with the elegant scaffolding this time of year reveals.  At the corner of Hemlock and Berne a hornet’s nest is beached in the uppermost branches of a crape myrtle:  the branches shed of leaves are polished bone, the nest like wadded, unbleached linen.

The day after Thanksgiving we drove further than we should have, a lunch of leftovers packed into the trunk, spurred on by visions of waterfalls and the promise of fossils to be found on the side of the road.

The spoil heaps  where they once could be hunted were festooned with with No Trespassing signs that kept us in the car, but later, on the path that led us toward the roar of the waterfall, we found a small discarded nest, fetched up against one piling of the guardrail.  Neither the haphazard stucco’ing of mud robins resort to nor a mockingbird’s thatch of sticks,  it was threaded through with pine needles and delicate dried stalks, the embroidery of it french-knotted here and there with tiny seed heads.

We packaged it up carefully into the tupperware that had held slices of apple; we picked up shale and talked about the way there could be the the ghost-images of plants pressed into its layered pages;  we watched the water sluicing from the lip of rock above us, and threw rocks into the creek solely for the glory of their splashing.

Thanksgiving.

Happiness by the Handful

My world still can’t make up its mind.

On one hand, the dogwoods have already turned that dull crimson that means fall. There are already acorns, polished round worry beads Elder Girleen  stoops for and fills her pockets with in the mornings.

But on the other, the zinnas, spotted with powdery mildew, persevere.  And at long last — after squirrels, after hornworms — we have double-handfuls to harvest.  Of tomatoes, of figs.

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The fall crop radishes are sprouting.

The figs are Celestes, the same variety folks once called sugar figs and carried with them as they migrated from hereabouts toward Texas.  Now, I raise the windows in our breakfast room and lean out to pluck the ones that hang from the topmost branches.

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral

Because it seems untidy to leave narrative threads dangling (though I suppose that’s what life is full of, dangling narrative threads, and besides, this is a particularly frayed thread to keep going), I have to report that what the squirrels left us, the tomato hornworms got.

About the middle of July, the squirrels washed their furry hands of us.  Too late for the apples, or the early tomatoes — the Brandywines, the Chadwick cherries I’d had such hopes for.  But the Juliets — a type of Roma — flowered later.  Or maybe the squirrels didn’t like the way they tasted.  Or maybe the stinky stuff we’d been spraying on the tomato plants for months finally drove them away.

Because I didn’t trust that the squirrels had really moved on, I picked most of the Juliets green.  Which meant I then had to go to the Google and type in “how to ripen green tomatoes.”

O glorious information superhighway!  It may not hold the secret of how to write a commercially successful short story (is there such a thing?) but it’s full of information about ripening tomatoes by putting them in paper bags.

Which works.

The past week or so, though, I got careless.  No sign of squirrels, lots of tomatoes on the vine.  I left them to ripen on their own (surely better than ripening in a paper bag?).  Until a few days ago, when I figured there’d be at least a cupped handful to harvest.

There was — there had been.  But each and every one had been half eaten away.  The plants themselves — what happened to their leaves?

Nibbled down to the quick.

It took me five minutes of examining the plants to see the hornworms that’d made themselves at home.  The exact same green as the stalks of the plants; as long as my fingers.  They’d be beautiful, if they weren’t so full of my tomatoes! I knocked them off the plants and used a stick to toss them over the fence into the street.

Where a police car promptly pulled up at the stop sign and ran over them.

Who says law enforcement’s not around when you need it?