I truly believe fruits and vegetables earned the nickname “produce” from farmers in awe of their generous abundance. All plants want to do is give, and give, then give some more until they slump over at the end of the season from exhaustion. At no other time except perhaps conception is so much created from so little.
At a vineyard we sometimes visit there is an old pear tree that goes unpicked, the acres of grapes demanding every last drop of the farmer’s attention. At the end of the season, bushels of pears drip from its branches and scatter across the shadowed ground beneath. It’s as if the tree is silently begging for someone to relieve its burden.
Last fall we discovered a zucchini and two butternut squash growing from plants that had seeded themselves at the edge of a compost pile. The chickens had likely brushed the discarded remains to a safe spot, and they grew unnoticed and unnurtured til nearly Thanksgiving, at which point we picked them and roasted them for dinner. We have often jokingly marveled at how world hunger could ever be a problem when there is such a thing as zucchini.
Plants want nothing more than to live and to give. Their altruism is sometimes taken advantage of by pests and weeds, but if we keep them safe, they give us their thanks in abundance. And at the end of the season, what does not get eaten transforms through decomposition into the very thing that best sustains them. A perfect ecosystem of generosity.
Prior to my life with Alan, I had not appreciated this ecosystem. I’d tried and failed at gardening, and was not particularly adept with houseplants either. In hindsight, there were obvious mistakes. I’d pack the heavy clay soil I’d shoveled from my small yard into pots to grow tomatoes and peppers, not realizing it was akin to shoveling them into concrete and asking them to grow. I’d forget to water them, and any small bits of produce that did manage to emerge were quickly eaten by raccoons or skunks. I later built a large window box and put it on my porch roof, hoping to outsmart the critters. What I neglected to realize was that it was equally difficult for me to reach, and it went unattended for yet another season.
Alan, on the other hand, not only understands this ecosystem, he reveres it. He approaches gardening with the sort of hallowed respect that most people save for religious experiences. He may not have had children of his own, but he has cared for thousands of beings, each sentient in its own way. When they face illness or harm, he is an aggrieved parent.
I once talked him into planting some succulents in a flower bed around my studio. At the end of the warm season, he dug them up and placed them in large pots so they could be brought indoors during the winter. One unseasonably warm week in November, I put the pots back outside. The ducks shredded the juicy leaves in short order. I don’t think they were edible so much as each duck had to taste them at least once to make sure. Alan brought the pots back indoors with an admonishing look. This, he said, gesturing behind him so as not to look, makes me feel ill. He couldn’t stomach seeing such carnage. I tucked them into the corner guiltily, and have since vowed to let him do the care taking.
In exchange for his reverence, the earth rewards him abundantly. We harvest bushels of tomatoes, the baskets bursting at their seams. We pile tables full of onions, beets, potatoes, and garlic. We fill our porch with fall squash that looks convincingly enough like decoration that we can get away without proper storage until we’ve eaten at least a few. We save what we need to last throughout the winter, then share our abundance with others, that the cycle of giving may continue. And once the plants have produced all they have to give, they slump over from exhaustion and return once more to their beds where they provide nourishment for the earth itself – a perfect ecosystem of generosity.