Thursday, August 9, 2012

Magic Beans

Two summers ago, I let my boys dig a huge, Holes-inspired pit in a grass-free corner of the yard. There, after several days of shoveling, they unearthed, to everyone's general disgust, a damp, reddish wad of moldy, foul-smelling cotton that had once been a pair of men's briefs. Fruit of the Loom does not, apparently, produce fruit of any sort when planted. As a matter of fact, if you take almost anything you own, bury it in the dirt, dump water on it day after day, and expose it to summer heat, all you will get for your trouble is rust, decay, and stink.

But apply the same brutal treatment to a handful of seeds, and the results are quite the opposite; those seeds rise, glorified, from their soggy graves to become all things pleasant to the eye and good for food. How is that possible? Who would have believed it? And having believed it, how could we ever grow tired of seeing it happen?

Our fourth season of gardening is nearing its peak, which means my sense of wonder at the garden's transformation is also nearing its peak. Every time I return to survey the bounty that has sprung from the ground behind our house I marvel: Where did all this come from? Granted, we have a few bare patches where slugs or birds or beetles have done their worst, and a few other empty squares where some much-anticipated herbs never so much as raised a tiny green flag before they surrendered to sad mortality.

But for all the unforeseen failures, we have also discovered unforeseen blessings; there are places where tomatoes and squash and even a cherry tree volunteered to grow where we did not plant them—surprise gifts whose flavors and colors will remain a mystery until we see the fruit ripen. We also have brilliant red, ruffled poppies and hollyhocks that popped up unbidden in the middle of the lettuce, and I could not bear to remove them. Their cheery flashes of color have certainly been worth the loss of a salad or two.

So while the results of our work in the garden have been inconsistent they have always been rewarding. Just discovering the newly emerged seedlings in the spring is a kind of reward. But harvest time is, doubtless, one of the most unsullied delights of the year.

What other time would it be possible to eat outside without bringing anything with you from the kitchen? Red-purple raspberries literally fall into my hand before I can pluck them. Sweet strawberries peek out shyly from under their leafy tents. Fat green snap peas dangle from their curling vines, quiet and camouflaged, waiting to be discovered by the careful eyes of hungry boys. And what sensation, I ask you, can rival the seedy-sweet explosion in the mouth from a sun-warmed yellow cherry tomato that has traveled less than two feet from the vine to the lips? Then afterward, the bright, greeny smell of tomato vine on my hands is as close to eau d’été as I have ever found. This is the season that raises distant memories of Eden.

Once the back yard harvest begins, it is easy to forget the work that went into forming these fruits. We may have spent hours digging and composting and weeding and watering and slug-smashing, but when those ripening tomatoes first appear, they still seem miraculous. And in many ways, I suppose, they are miraculous.

What logical connection can there be between those tiny, pale, dried up seeds that we started with and the exuberant, branching, fruit-heavy greenery that is taking over our garden today? In May I could carry them all in the palm of my hand. But in August I am hardly able to tame the tomato jungle they have become, even with the aid of ropes and cages and sharpened steel.

And the sunflowers! Those humble little seeds that litter the ground at every baseball field in America are capable of rocketing into the sky and bursting into massive solar blooms over our heads. It almost defies the imagination. Wherefore these horticultural fireworks? I have two of these green and yellow giants standing sentinel over my back garden at this moment, and although I planted them there, I cannot explain their regal existence. How could anyone deserve this? What a transformation! Beauty for ashes! Edible sunlight! Water in excelsis! O brave new world that has such produce in't!

Knowing what we know, how is it that we are able to casually stroll through the farmer's market without our awe-struck jaws dragging on the pavement? How can we shuffle half-heartedly around the grocery store, cringing at the price of melons and failing to recognize them for the hefty spheroids of botanical wonder that they are? How can we bear to pass by an August garden without stopping to sing loud alleluias at the sight of every unaccountable tomato?

The truth is, dear Jack, that every bean is a magic bean. A splash of water can turn one of those dry, unassuming legumes into a fairy tale stalk that will ascend, spiraling and twisting toward the heavens—and almost overnight. What person in his right mind wouldn't trade his only moo cow for a marvel such as this?

Yes, yes, I realize that we did a lot of work to make this garden happen. Yes, we scraped a few shins and pinched a few fingers as we built the beds and worked the soil. Yes, we did battle with weeds and slugs and birds and heavy clay and cold nights. But even with all our hard work in mind, we hardly seem honest to claim the harvest as our rightful reward. What did we do—really—to deserve this bounty? The answer, ultimately, is nothing.

The very strength to carry a garden spade is grace. Fertile soil? Grace. Sunlight? Grace. Rain? Grace. That magical transformation of seed into seedling? Grace. From seedling to vine? Grace. From vine to flower? Grace. From flower to fruit? Grace. The hands to pluck and the mouth to taste? Grace. And that transformation again from fruit in the mouth into the strength to carry a garden hoe? Again, grace. What do you have that you did not receive as a gift?

This evening, after we say grace, I plan to eat it. I plan to fill my glass with water that has been turned into wine and to fill our plates with piles of fresh-picked magic; with resurrected seeds; with fairy-tale fruit; with crisp, green, sweet piles of amazing grace.


windandbigwaves said...


The Lewins said...

I love watching the battle of nature v. nature. Drought v. rain, bugs v. other bugs. We had a tomato plant we gave up on- it got scorched and withered so I stopped watering it. Then we flew home for a week, and rain came while we were gone. When I got back, somehow it had rallied, grown three feet and yesterday I pulled an 18 oz tomato off of it. The boys were doing a victory dance as we 'lugged' it inside. Talk about free entertainment. Thanks for posting. Oh, and eau d'ete being green tomato vines? Absolutely!

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