Saturday, May 16, 2009

Love and Lettuce

Love is grand but to nurture and sustain it takes effort, and patience, and persistence. So it is in "The $64 Tomato," a gardener's memoir by William Alexander. William, the director of technology, and his wife Anne,a medical doctor moved their family to the Big Brown House the Hudson Valley and built the garden of their dreams. A 2,000 square foot garden - flowers, vegetables, herbs, fruit, fruit trees, the works.

And here begin the often humorous trials of William. To grow a garden is not merely a matter of pushing seeds into the ground and waiting for plants to shoot up and offer up their bounty. There is A LOT more to it. The weather, the water, getting pollinators, the weeds, the worms, the japanese beetles, the squirrels, the deer, groundhogs, fungus, the planting, the planning, the fertilizing, the watering, the contractors, and so on, including even the challenge of going from not enough to too much plenty. He recounts his progression from idealistic organic gentleman farmer to food growing realist defending his crop in many cases in the end almost by any means necessary. And the way the garden becomes
"an inseparable part of me, a third partner in our marriage ...we'd been arranging vacations around harvests, I'd been spending virtually all my leisure time between May and October tending it, and more than once it had own marital discord."

The book is about a labor of love. The story of a man's obsession and passion for cultivation. And perhaps a passion like this is unsustainable. It wears on the heart and the body.

The book closes in his tenth year of gardening. He has come from the doctor who has told him that he has neck injury, a herniated disk in his spine and advises against heavy lifting. Which is a tall order for someone whose hobby is the bulk of the heavy labor involved in the cultivation of 2,000 square feet.

Injury aside, he admits that he has felt increasing dissatisfaction with his garden. And he begins to question the pursuit altogether:

"In short, I am the Existentialist in the Garden. Camus in the chamomile. Sartre in the salad. How on earth did I get here, and how do I get out? Do I want to get out? If this garden is my war, then the golf course is surely Armageddon. What I've been doing is rewarding, nourishing, and reflective of a philosophical belief in self-sustenance and healthy,m fresh food - but how do I make it fun again? This is, after all, supposed to be a hobby, not a burden. I think about the burden of canning peaches: my lesson in how quickly novelty becomes ritual becomes chore.

The great, terrifying existentialist question: If you were doomed to live the same life over and over again for eternity, would you choose the life you are living now? The question is interesting enough, but I've always thought the point of asking it is really the unspoken, potentially devastating follow-up question. That is, if the answer is no, then why are you living the life you are living now? Stop making excuses, and do something about it."

The latter part of this quote is a part of my own struggle too, only without the groundhogs and the pounds and pounds of horse manure.

He does a calculation of the cost associated with each of his heirloom tomatoes coming to the amount which is the title of the book. And he cannot help but ask himself and his wife the
"... unspoken question troubling me, one that spanned months, years, ages. A question I both had to ask and was afraid to ask.

'Was it worth it?'

"Anne deliberately closed the journal, placed both hands on the cover, and looked up at me.

And smiled."

He does it for the food, for the empowerment, For the rituals of the growing and harvest season that he and his family has developed over the years,
to repeatedly witness "the cycle of birth and resurrection in the garden."

He does it because "Gardening is, by it's very nature, an expression of the triumph of optimism over experience. No matter how bad this year was, there's always next year," and because on most days, despite the trials and tribulations, he loves to garden:
" A common bumper sticker reads 'A bad day fishing beats a good day at work.' Yes, I've had some rocky times, but I suppose on most days, when the weeds are somewhat under control, the groundhogs tamed, and my neck isn't throbbing, I feel the same way about gardening."

"Things I remember: Witnessing childbirth. Finding myself standing absolutely alone before Da Vinci's Last Supper. And planting potatoes on a perfect spring morning."

Sometimes our love consumes us and wears us down to the point where we get lost, mired in the endless details and demands of its care and pursuit and upkeep. Sometimes it's the endless demands and details of life in addition. And you need to resurface and find the reminder that you do in fact love, why you love, what you love and how that feels.

The book closes with William pondering his garden. We do not know where he goes from here. We leave him taking a tomato in from his garden for lunch.


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