Monday, August 27, 2012

To My Garden Helper...

Dear V,

Remember those beans you helped me plant when you were here?  First we scratched up the dirt and mixed in the chicken manure.  This was to make sure that when the seedlings started growing the dirt would be nice and soft for their little roots, and they would have good things to eat (the chicken poop).

Next we put the bamboo grid on the first garden bed.  The grid had sixteen spaces, a square foot each.  Into each space you put three rows of three seeds each.  I followed behind you and poked each seed into the dirt with my planting stick. When we finished that bed we went on to the second one, and then the third.

The sun was hot, and we were sweating, and your back hurt from bending over for a long time, but we persevered.

Nine seeds x 16 squares x 3 garden beds = 432 seeds...and every one of them sprouted!  Now each of those 432 plants is giving dozens of green beans, which contain the young seeds to make future plants grow.  And every time I pick a bean, the plant thinks "I'd better hurry up and make more seeds before the weather turns cold!"  So it puts out more flowers, which turn into more beans for me to pick. 

We're having an avalanche, a hurricane, a tsunami of beans.

I wish you were here to help me deal with it.

Just think--all those bright and tender beans for us to eat from now until next summer, and to share with others (I'll bring you a big basketful when we come for your birthday).  And all we did was stick a bunch of seeds into some dirt.  We didn't have to put in chemical fertilizers to feed the plants, because the hen poop did that job, and we didn't have to spray herbicides because the plants grew so close together that the weeds couldn't get any sun, so they never sprouted.

I don't know whether you will want to grow your own vegetables when you are older.  But I hope that you'll remember how generously the earth rewards us if we show her a little kindness.  And I hope that you will always pay attention to your food, and to where and how and by whom it was grown.


Lili (Lali's nom de grandmere)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Of Carrots, Socks, And An Anniversary

I think about this every year on our wedding anniversary, but this year, on the 45th, I thought about it a lot:  one spring long ago I planted carrots in my vegetable garden, and was late in thinning them.  When I got around to it, I pulled up a pair of carrots that had sprouted too close and had grown around each other in a spiral.  They were still tender and flexible, and I unwound them carefully.  But when I laid them side by side on the ground they still retained the imprint of each other's bodies, protruding where the other had receded,  receding where the other had protruded.

Even though I'd only been married a decade or so at the time, I realized that my reciprocally-spiralled carrots were a perfect metaphor for what happens in long coupledom.  You swell to fill the other's vaccums;  you shrink to accommodate the other's expansion.  In theory this is good, especially if there are children, who get the benefit of a nest made soft by complementary parental feathers.  But once the nestlings have fledged and if (God forbid, but actually, when) one of the spiraled carrots disappears, what becomes of the one that's left with all its weird little bumps and hollows?

Taken as a whole, my spouse and I have for the last forty-five years made an acceptably substantial and well-shaped carrot.  But alone, each of us has atrophied in certain areas where the other one feels at ease:  he deals with the income tax returns;  I do the talking at parties. In stormy weather, I light the candles while he fires up the generator.

This began immediately after our wedding, when (much to his relief) I took over the writing of letters to his parents and he dealt (with admirable ease, I thought) with our homeowner's insurance.  It continued through our parenting years:  he taught the girls to ride bikes;  I made them write a couple of sentences every night.  Now, after almost half a century of efficient division of labor, I can barely find the fuse-box, and he cannot tell swiss chard (is that the curly stuff?) from kale.

On this recent anniversary, I went to a yoga class--something I like--and then we drove to the top of Mount Equinox, to see the view--something he likes, having seen Disney's Bambi at an impressionable age.  Once there we took an impromptu little hike, something that after forty-five years I should have anticipated, but hadn't.  As we walked, my short lycra socks kept creeping down under my heel and I kept stopping to pull them up.  There's nothing worse than sock-creep when you're hiking.

We walked on in silence for a while and then he said, "put your foot on that rock, please, and let me try something."  He rolled my sock tightly down towards my ankle.  Then he rotated it sideways as far as it would go.  He did the same with the other sock.  We walked on.  No more sock-creep. 

I was grateful.  And then I started thinking, for the umpteen-millionth time since I got married on a hot Alabama August day at the tender age of twenty-two, about what to fix for supper.

Friday, August 10, 2012

In Flagrante Frogs

Things are heating up in and around our pond.  The frog population is booming and, sensing the coming of fall, the alpha frogs, if there are alphas among amphibians, are mating like mad.

Frog sex is a Zen thing.  The male climbs aboard the much larger female and puts his little arms around as much of her abdomen as he can reach.  She wraps her hands around a couple of dwarf cattail stems, and the lovers float languidly in the water until Bisou comes rushing out the back door and puts an end to the tomfoolery.

This ho-hum interlude, however, is preceded by a much more exciting one:  the battle of the males.  I witnessed this for the first time yesterday while I was roasting eggplants.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw some unusual splashing in the pond and went out to investigate. 

Two medium-size males, green-backed and yellow-bellied, were wrestling among the lily pads.  They had their arms around each other's necks and were tumbling and leaping in and out of the water, blowing up their vocal sacs and croaking non-stop. They looked like little bald, round-bellied men in a bar fight.

Meanwhile, at the edge of the pond, sat the Rubenesque she-frog, impassive as a buddha.  Was she as bored as she looked?  Had she already decided which contender she would take to the cattails?  Was she flattered to be the object of a duel?

I didn't stick around to see who won, just as I didn't stick around to watch the end of the tryst.  I trust that the frogs know what they're about.  Reproduction is hardly their problem:  our pond is brimming over with froglets no bigger than a walnut and pigeon-sized matriarchs.  And all night long their twanging song ("brekekekex-koax-koax," according to Aristophanes) is the background music of my sleep.

In other pond news, after three years of throwing tiny goldfish into the water and watching them instantly disappear, I had given up all hope of ever seeing any of them again.  Then yesterday, when I was least expecting it, two fish, one a good 5" in length, showed up near the surface.  I cannot tell you how thrilling it is to see again something that you thought was gone forever.  The bigger of the two must have survived the winter in the deep end (in Vermont a depth of 3 1/2' supposedly guarantees that the pond won't freeze solid).  The smaller one, a striking orange decorated with black spots, I remember putting in last May.

Encouraged by this development, I promptly bought two more fair-sized goldfish at the pet store.  While I was floating their plastic bags on the pond to let them get accustomed to the water temperature, I saw that the two resident fish had swum up to inspect them.  I cut open the bags, and  now all four of them are hanging out companionably (or perhaps waiting for a chance to kill each other) and looking gorgeous among the lily pads.  Every ten minutes I go out and tell them what good fish they are.

Will they still be there tomorrow, or will they have retreated into the murky depths?  Will the frog wars abate?  Will the lovemaking succeed and the ensuing tadpoles survive to spawn next summer?

I have so little control over any of this.  All I can do is top up the water with the hose if it doesn't rain for a couple of days, and then stand and watch.  I thought that having a little pond would be fun, but I wasn't prepared for the melodrama.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Summer Ironing

It was 96F on our north-facing window the other afternoon as I prepared to go out.  I thought linen would be marginally more tolerable than anything else on my sweaty skin, but my linen shirt had spent the last ten months rolled up in my ironing basket. 

Who irons anymore?

First there was ironing, and misting with spray bottles, and even starching.  Then there was polyester, women's lib, and the putting away of irons.  A return to natural fibers and a brief resurgence of ironing followed after which, as our faces grew as wrinkled as freshly-laundered cotton, my generation put away the iron for good.

Still, even in Vermont, where the soft, wrinkled look is a sign of wisdom and common sense, I couldn't bring myself to show up in completely crumpled linen.

I set up the ironing board--whose unacustomed clatter sent Bisou scuttling under the bed--turned on the ceiling fan, plugged in the iron and turned it on "high."  As a teenager, it had been my job on Saturday afternoons to iron my father's weekly supply of white shirts as well as my own blouses and dresses.  Ironing was more pleasant than my other chores:  cleaner than dusting, quieter than vacuuming, less disgusting than washing dishes.

I had forgotten what hot work ironing was.  Being in a rush, I did not stop to fill the steam reservoir or even spritz the fabric--a false economy of time.  Ironing dry linen, even with a red-hot iron, takes much, much longer than if the fabric is damp.

But in the end I got the shirt ironed, put it on, and got in the car.  And fastened the seat belt across my chest, which instantly undid all my work with the iron.  And then remembered that the fading of ironing as a way of life in the early 60s had coincided with the advent of seat belts in cars, sort of the way panty hose had arrived on the scene shortly after the invention of miniskirts. 

There was a parade in the village, and I was diverted a long way from my route and had to drive much faster (55mph) than I normally do.  Between the seat belt and my sweaty, anxious state, by the time I arrived at the art opening I looked like I was wearing a fine linen accordion.  But there was a woman with hip-long gray dreadlocks, and nobody even blinked at her, or at me.