Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Pumpkin's Progress





I.

"My whole life had been spent waiting for an epiphany, a
manifestation of God's presence, the kind of transcendent,
magical experience that lets you see your place in the big
picture. And that is what I had with my first compost heap.
I love compost and believe in it with every fiber (so to
speak) of my being. I believe that composting can save,
not the entire world, but a good portion of it."

--Bette Midler, reportedly in the Los Angeles Times, May 8, 1996

II.

Once upon a time, I thought of plants as living discrete lives. A seed was planted, somewhere; a plant arrived at a garden center; I bought it, watered it; it lived (one straggly plant, now hanging off the shower rod, has remained green and valiant through three apartments!) or died. I never thought about its progenitors or its offspring.

That was before the pumpkin.
In November 2005, in the course of a visit to G. at her country house, I was seized with a desperate, nostalgic urge to carve a pumpkin and light it up.

Halloween had already passed, but I dragged G. to a farm stand in hopes that it was not too late. The owner kindly allowed me to cull through a pile of leftover pumpkins discarded under a tarp—and to take one, for free.

I carved it, lit it, and carried it to G.’s deck, where I photographed it against an evening sky. (I put some of these photos up on citynoise, a site G. had encouraged me to explore---and, lo and behold, they now become the occasion for my first blogger’s link.)

G. was just beginning to blossom as a gardener. The following autumn, she presented me with a surprise: spawn of pumpkin! She’d tossed my pumpkin in her compost, and wonder of wonders, a new generation of pumpkins had arisen, unbidden, in her vegetable patch. She explained to me that such unexpected arrivals were called “volunteers.” This is an idea I have come to love: volunteering for life.

I was both moved and thrilled by this pumpkin. I kept it in my apartment for months, unable to cut it up. In November 2006, I amended my initial citynoise post, noting that I expected soon to move into a house with a little garden, so that perhaps in future years I would be able to introduce spawn of spawn!

And indeed, that is what I am about to do. I believe in my heart that the story I am about to tell is about the offspring of the first pumpkin. Of course, I know nothing of that first pumpkin—how it got to that farm stand, in which patch it grew. And the truth is, I don’t know exactly how its descendants arrived in my garden, either. Did I carry the pumpkin from the old house to the new? Did I cull the seeds? Did G. bring me a second-generation pumpkin whose history I’m eliding?

Honesty compels me to say that I don’t really know. When I abandoned perfection at the start of this blog, I abandoned fact-checking, too.

But I do know what story I want to tell.

And I do know that wherever it came from, the story of this pumpkin is its own.


III.

Late last May, I planted an azalea in the front yard. As I dug the pit and churned the soil, I threw in a couple of handfuls of the rich compost produced by my earthworms. (They live in large plastic bins that come with a special sticker that says: “Worm Condo: NYC worms have five hearts.”)

Some weeks later, I noticed that something green had emerged from the ground near that azalea. As the large green leaves took shape, I began to suspect it was a pumpkin.

I was curious to see what would happen. As the summer came, the vine marched steadily across the flower bed, making a steady progress toward the street. It created one lovely orange flower after another, but it never produced a fruit.

Eventually I picked one of the blossoms, filled it with cheese, and sautéed it. It didn’t really matter how it tasted. I was developing a whole new sense of what the world had to offer.

After several months the vine had traveled about 15 feet, arriving at the base of the chain-link fence separating the garden from the sidewalk. One day in late summer, I went out and lifted a leaf—there, at the base of fence, resting on a rock, was a softball-sized orb. A baby pumpkin!


And not long after, there was a second. The vine had jumped the fence. The sibling pumpkin was out in the public space with the passersby, a couple of feet off the ground, held close to its metal trellis by the surprisingly mighty tendrils of the parent vine.

Developments like these were exciting to a lot of the passersby, especially the toddlers. I loved to sit by my open window and listen for snippets of conversation. As the stroller moved up the street toward the pumpkin: “Soon, soon, we’re almost there!” Or, on the subject of the profusion of cherry tomatoes that were also volunteers: “No, that’s not a grape.”

One afternoon an Asian woman making the rounds for recyclables attempted to give me some advice my about plants—an effort that failed because of a language barrier, but which cheered me.

At night I peered out from behind my shutters. A stocky woman stood in the glow of the streetlight, brazenly popping one tomato into her mouth after another. A slender woman plucked furtively and dropped her harvest into a paper bag.

One morning I met a neighbor wandering up and down my sidewalk like a beachcomber. He was holding a empty cardboard condom box that he’d reclaimed from the pavement and stuffed nearly full. “Collecting snails,” he said. “Eat the plants.”

Late in the summer, a dog-walking neighbor asked me if I’d hand pollinated the pumpkins. There was a shortage of bees, she said, and nobody else had any pumpkins.

“I didn’t pollinate them!” I said. “I didn’t even plant them!”

She laughed. “Next year, you should plant a money tree.”


As a first-time gardener, I was already anxious about my crop. Remarks like these made me even more protective. It got to the point that before I left for vacation in September, I fished the black mesh grocery net out of my car and left it for my sister.

“If you think that pumpkin on the fence is going to fall,” I told her, “free free to tie it up!”

When I came home, the pumpkin was indeed trussed up, and beautifully. But when I thanked my sister, she said she wasn’t responsible. When I looked more closely, I saw that the pumpkin was cradled in a small blue net that fit it perfectly.


A mystery!

On the third day of my inquiries, the dog-walking neighbor once again strolled by.

“It was me!” she declared, before I even asked. “I put the hat on the pumpkin!”

It turned out she’d walked by with a six-year-old who was as worried as I was that the pumpkin might crash.

“I work at a hospital,” the neighbor said. “Next day, I go to work, and I see the hair nets the orthodox women have to wear. And I think, ‘That’s perfect for the pumpkin!’”

By now, I’d come to think of the pumpkins as a collective enterprise. I began to imagine that I would pick my pumpkins, put one each on the pillars at the base of my steps, and attach a sign thanking all of my pumpkin-loving neighbors for their encouragement and support.

But of course, this was not to happen.

One afternoon I returned home to find that the mesh bag was empty. My pumpkin on the fence had been stolen.

I was crushed. I tried to console myself by hoping that the person who took it had really wanted it and needed it and couldn’t afford it at retail.



The vine withered. In late October, I picked the first pumpkin. I hadn’t paid it much attention. It was small, but still bright and well shaped. I put it out on the pillar, unaccompanied by any sign. I tried, but I just couldn’t figure out what to say. A few days later, a squirrel clambered up and took a bite out of it.

“I like gardening,” B. had once said to me. “You get to see the whole life cycle.” An innocuous comment, but I was shocked at its implicit appreciation of death.





T
hanks to the squirrel, I no longer had any option but to acknowledge the end. So I took the pumpkin inside, hacked it apart, and grated its flesh to make my first-ever muffins. I handed them out to a few brave friends and neighbors. They didn’t taste much like pumpkin, but they did taste good.




And of course, I saved the seeds. I plan to put them in the compost. Soon, I hope, it will all begin again.

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