Saturday, August 29, 2009

Risk and ruin in the fields

The rainy fringes of the big loose jellyfish of a storm that was Danny descended on the Springs yesterday. It hadn't rained since August began, so the soaking felt welcome, exactly the right kind of rain for the garden: steady, not too driving, going on for hours. (And what does that sound like? Well, you can't talk about gardens without talking about sex, although the rather starched tone of gardening books on the whole would seem to suggest the opposite. Sex, death, time and regeneration are the gardener's great subjects. Also food.)

That last word has me thinking about this difficult summer, and the strapped circumstances of our CSA, Quail Hill Farm. June and July were very cool and wet, and then the heat burst out. If those climactic stresses weren't enough, the deer fence around the hill where many crops are grown -- a double row of stretched white string, following the theory that deer don't like double barriers that prevent clear jumping, and will work to avoid them -- failed. They made a feast. But the saddest of all was the blight, the virus that seems to have taken most of the tomatoes on the East Coast this season.

The vines looked incredible at first, sprawling and heavy with fruit, with a haze of that pungent green tomato-vine smell around them that seems just indescribable; it smells like nothing else. And then came the blight, the stems turning to mush, the fruit tumbling in a heap to the ground, and the ones that weren't already rotten at the bottom didn't have the lush, complex flavor of high summer tomatoes; they were more tentative, not full-bodied, disappointing.

A sadness, the rows of collapsed plants, the treasure all decaying at their feet. They seem to stand for the failures of human aspirations. All that tending, nurture of the seed, water, sun, cultivation, intention, vision of harvest. Heap of ruin. Of course every garden has failure in it (another thing to add to the list of the gardener's themes above), but in my garden failure doesn't loom so large. Some chard destroyed by voles, a mallow turned to ethereal skeleton by beetles: small disasters. At the farm, you can't just cover up the spot or turn away from the rows of voided hopes.

So I am working on remembering that it's a good thing to be face to face with this, the risk that growing anything is. It comes with the deal, part of the contract with earth. And though you might go buy tomatoes grown someplace else, or chemically protected from the blight, that doesn't erase the fact that, on the local level where we all live, ruin abides, waiting to happen. It's strange to think this is the same virus that drove my ancestors out of County Cork, in the 1850s; I'm not sure if my great grandmother Nancy O'Cochran was born here or in Ireland, but I know that she rode in the back of a covered wagon from Georgia to Tennessee, when her parents heard that General Sherman had turned around, and was marching back from the sea, and now they'd have to hide from that terror all over again. They turned their back on one kind of blight, and of course later they'd face others in the millet fields they'd cultivate in their new home.

Meanwhile, here in the East End, there are beets with beautiful concentric spirals inside, squash, peppers and cabbage, big-headed sunflowers from the field on Town Lane, every sort of herb, and garlic with a fierce, untamed, nearly metallic tang.


fuquinay said...

Funny things, our losses. They rarely remind us not to take things for granted anymore because excess is right around the next corner. But you're right; we do need these personal failures to remind us how hard we need to work for the things we want. It makes the reward that much sweeter.

Well, except for chard. I've had my lifetime fill of chard.

Mark Doty said...

Leslie, I make this chard and leek quiche that would, I'm pretty sure, break the dragon's spell.

Dale said...


Anonymous said...

It's been so strange to see the burnt fields and to miss the great wave of tomatoes, the glut of them, that usually comes this time of year. Still, the gardeners in my life gave me tomatoes this week. The cherry tomatoes, I hear, aren't getting the blight. So I get to make, just once this year, the dish with basil, garlic, fresh mozarella, pasta. Summer in a bowl, failure (so much failure) and all.

T. said...

Perspective is everything. In Ireland this summer, a farmer down the road from our house sent us home with the most amazing potatoes I've ever tasted. And we'd just been to The Deserted Village on Achill Island, where, in famine times, seventy-or-so families abandoned their village en masse and headed to the seashore where there was hope of sustenance.

Lovely post.

Chance E. Pants said...

What a wonderful observation on the mutual oppositions of life. The risk and potential reward of all that we do.

What a strange position we are in when connected to the local richness or fail of our land (and ourselves). When we may head to the common market and purchase tomatoes grown thousands of miles away, or based on some defined principal or intrinsic belief consume only what come from uur neighbors and our own yards. Some of us, never noticing the loss that has happened or those grieving and questioning what else could have been done move on, maybe only noticing some news clip on page 5C. It seems the closer to the pulse of the Earth we live - the more sensitive our skin is to these natural emotions. I suppose, part of our revised 'contract'.



Nancy Devine said...

well put. to try to grow anything is a risk. our tomatoes here look creepy with blight, like some alien pods from which weird life might spring.

Laura said...

Mark, perhaps you might try waving the dead iris.

Did you see your hummingbird again?

Chard/leek quiche sounds spectacular.

apprentice said...

Potatoes and tomatoes are both from the "solanum" family aren't they, so I suppose they will share blights.

I'm always astounded at how quickly these S American plants travelled round the world, changing economies and cuisine forever.

You wonder how deeply these blights were seered into our DNA, scientists in Sweden think they can show the effects of famine on the DNA of later generations.

Our tomatoes are good this year, we have to grow them under glass, but the humid days and our long hours of northern light have suited them well.

And we have a plum glut - even the pharmacist is giving away free bags from his trees.

I agree about that green tomato smell being hard to pin down, somewhere between cat pee/box tree and semen I always think, but the gardening books really would hate that.