Tomatoes Everywhere

Gardening, particularly organic gardening, is one of my life-long passions, as is poetry, so it’s always delightful to find a poet who shares this passion.

None of them, in my opinion, match Theodore Roethke’s brilliant use of plant imagery in Words for the Wind.

But there are several other poets whose garden imagery I have enjoyed, and Marge Piercy often seems to me to be the best of these poets.

In describing her use of natural imagery in poetry, she says,

Some of my poems are rooted in the landscape, in a relationship to the soil and
the other living beings around me, such as the "Sand roads" sequence, "Kneeling
here I feel good" "Crows," "The first salad of March". These sometimes fuse what
I would define as political feelings with feelings of tenderness and union. As I write
this, three crows look at me from a distance of ten feet. Our communication is not a
matter of words on a page but it works. I am honored by their trust, which is shrewd
and canny. They aim to survive. So do I. None of us like men with guns.

Marge Piercy

Picking tomatoes this weekend I was reminded of her "The engulfing garden" from The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing.In this poem she returns from a trip only to be buried under:

…ninety pounds
of luscious ripe tomatoes.
Eighteen quarts of tomato
juice on the evening of the
third day home, tomato seeds
in my hair, tomato skins
in my teeth, the surfaces
of the kitchen heaped with
tomatoes, tomatoes in buckets,
tomatoes lined up on the window
sills, my hands crisscrossed
with canning cuts, even
my dreams are acid,
running and red.

It would be hard to find a better literal description of nature’s abundance and our desperate attempts to come to terms with it.

And, yet, perhaps more importantly, there is a disturbing undertone in the last few lines that suggests our ambivalent feelings towards this over abundance and the resulting acidic dreams running red.

Perhaps they are even more relevant today as we watch pictures of starving refugees filling our television screens.

Northwest Tomatoes

You have to be a little crazy to try to grow tomatoes in the Pacific Northwest. It’s obvious that the plants evolved in the tropics somewhere, not in the rain-drenched Northwest. They demand much more heat and a longer growing season than we average here. It’s equally obvious that I could buy excellent greenhouse tomatoes much cheaper and with much less fuss than raising my own tomatoes.

In a bad year, all you can hope for is a few green tomatoes before they become blighted and rot. In a good year, and generally this has been a good year, the tomatoes begin to ripen before the fall rains arrive. Even in a good year like this, there are more green tomatoes left on the vine then ripe ones that have already been picked when the rains begin. And itâs hard for a frugal man to look at good tomatoes rotting on the vines.

Despite this, I’ve been attempting to grow tomatoes as long as I can remember. I’ve never owned a house without a garden, and I have never had a garden without tomatoes.

The real question is why I continue to grow them despite the frustration and expense.

Perhaps it’s because when I was a child my father attempted to grow tomatoes in Seattle, an area even less adapted to tomatoes than Vancouver, Washington. So, I have a hard time imagining what it would be like to have a garden without tomatoes. And corn. And cucumbers.

Over the years I’ve developed a real taste for fried green tomatoes. They are my ultimate comfort food. They were a steady part of our family’s diet in late summer and fall. My fondest memory in Vietnam was a mess sergeant who turned a shipment of green tomatoes into a feast not to be forgotten. Needless to say, green tomatoes are nearly impossible to find in supermarkets full of red, rock-hard, tasteless tomatoes grown in Mexico or Peru.

And, like many of my generation, I really don’t feel entirely secure unless I have a cupboard full of food, particularly canned tomatoes. Going without a few meals in your life gives you a real respect for a full larder.

Despite the advances in hydroponics, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as going out to the garden in the evening and picking a fresh tomato for dinner. So, perhaps as behavioral psychologists argue, intermittent rewards are the most effective.

Perhaps, though, I simply refuse to give in to nature’s whims. Maybe I grow tomatoes precisely because they are so difficult to grow. Each year I pick out four or five varieties to start from seed and begin growing them in early March. I pick out the best of these seedlings and plant them in various parts of my garden, looking for the ideal blend of soil, heat, and light, always trying to avoid planting them where I have planted them the year before.

Maybe I grow them because I am just plain stubborn.

A Sunny Break

It’s sometimes amazing how little nature reflects our personal moods or the events of the day. If we were to believe the romantic poets or the movies, it should still be cloudy and rainy to reflect the mood of our country.

However, I’m not confronting myself today. It’s too sunny, and sunny days come at a premium in the Pacific Northwest this time of year. Although this has been an unusually dry year, we just had nearly a solid week of cold, blustery weather, foreshadowing the fall and winter to come

Maybe it’s nature’s way of telling me it’s time to move on, or maybe it’s just providing a welcome excuse to take a break. Either way, I’m taking advantage of the sun to get caught up with some garden work.

I need to harvest apples and make fresh applesauce, finish off the last of the blueberries, harvest and can tomatoes, pick corn, and turn over some of the raised beds to get them ready for next spring, more than enough to keep me busy today and tomorrow.

If not, the weeds seem to have taken off in the last two weeks.

Listening to the news constantly for two weeks and watching the rain pour down can have that effect.

Standing on the Abyss

The events of September 11th were so traumatic that many of us have had to re-examine our view of reality. The web site lKtB: Seeing Ourselves offered a unique perspective on what each of us faced.

At least for me, this event was an existential moment, one in which life appears meaningless unless we somehow manage to bring our own meaning to it.

No wonder, then, that weeks later many people are still walking around dazed, unable to come to terms with what they’ve seen and what they have felt.

Some have filled the great void with American flags and red, white, and blue ribbons tied to antennas of large SUV’s. Others have filled it by contributing to the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, or some other equally worthy charity. Others have just kept going, pretending not to see the Void, not wanting to feel that death was there, just waiting.

Perhaps this is enough. Certainly it is better than just sitting down and giving up as many in Vietnam gave up, either to die or to end up in a drug-induced coma, never to fully awaken again, never to face the terrible reality of who they really were and what they had done.

But somehow I suspect that these people have simply put off an inevitable confrontation with themselves.

For myself,despite the fact that I already confronted the Void after Vietnam, I must confront it again thirty-some years later.

Perhaps I was luckier than most when I went to Vietnam because I was older, I had experienced more of life’s disappointments, and, most of all, because I had been exposed to modern literature’s disillusionment with life.

Little wonder that war-ravaged veterans of France had invented existentialism, that Grass had written The Tin Drum, that Vonnegut had written Cat’s Cradle or that Helling had written Catch-22.

If these works did not help me to fill the void, at least they prepared me for the sudden appearance of the void in my life. The great chasm between what I wanted the world to be and what it was and between who I wanted to be and who I had become did not come as a surprise.

Filling that void has been an ongoing struggle. Life’s ugly surprises assure that.

Personally, I partially chose to fill that void by becoming a teacher. And I taught literature, the “depressing” modern literature that is often banned in classrooms because it is “inappropriate” or “full of bad words” because I thought people needed these ideas, and their own ideas, to survive.

Personally, I’ll feel that the American people have truly filled that great Void when I hear that as much money has been donated to the Afghan refugees as was donated to the people of New York.