Last spring, on news of the spread of the virus and the potential of the stay-at-home orders, I bought a variety of six-pack flower cells, several vegetable starts; lettuce, spinach, parsley, arugula, tomatoes, and a single pumpkin plant, the small label protruding above its foliage boasting the image of a sizeable jack-o-lantern.
My thinking was that the virus sounded serious and any curtailment of travel and contact would open the doors to a challenging summer. Homegrown flowers and salad greens would add – along with a backlog of books, a house to be repainted, a deck needing repair, and enough bottles of wine – hopeful distractions from the viral storm that was being predicted. The small
pumpkin plant conjured images of a rambling vine, ribbed and orange orbs rising from a sea of leaves, and the eventual sharing of the festive harvest with family and friends.
Gripped together, a garden of pumpkins, flowers, and salad greens would join our arsenal of distractions with which to pole-vault over the shadows the months ahead.
Since I was a kid I’ve planted things as a way of looking forward to an upcoming season or the years ahead; hopeful and botanical plane-flights over the challenges of the moment.
When I was 10 years old my parents moved from a large city in Pennsylvania to a rural part of Oregon. They rented a small farm-house in closing days of summer. The house sat barren and treeless along a farming road and seemed so dilapidated – its porch nearly detached from the house – that when told, “come fall,” that a school bus would stop right in front of our driveway to pick me up, I bought, in a hay-scented feed store, a package of Delphinium seeds to grow across the front of the house.
I knew nothing about growing seeds and plants, but I remember hoping they would grow big enough to disguise the shabbiness of the house before the school bus arrived. The photograph on the seed package ‘promised’ plants as tall as a man. Odd the images that sow themselves in our memories.
Planted in late summer and in the hard, moisture-starved soil around the porch, the promise made on the seed package – or by my imagination – never arrived, but the school bus with its faces-pressed-to windows did.
I don’t remember what I felt about getting on the bus that first day – whether I was embarrassed about my house or excited because by the time school had started, I had made several friends from near-by and equally shabby houses. I do remember vaguely expecting the Delphinium seeds to sprout and grow far into the years ahead. I would occasionally drive by the decaying house when I was in the area, once seeing a young boy about the age I had been, digging in the dirt near a mailbox. I slowed. I wondered.
The salad greens in our Victory Garden became editable within weeks, the flowers are growing as I write into ever-larger bouquets, and the idea of growing tomatoes in a pot so interested a young neighbor, that we sent the potted tomato plant home with him.
My fantasy of a pumpkin patch was, however, short-lived.
In the midst of the ‘pumpkin plant’s attempt to establish roots in real earth outside of its birth-pot, a mole, in its volcanic excavations, raised the tiny plant into the air. Sitting unearthed and unnoticed for several days, the aspirations of the vine whithered. Two weeks later, after being relocated and slowing recovering, the plant was again unearthed by a squirrel as it buried a hazelnut. Replanted a third time and just prior to a historic heatwave, the pumpkin struggled for life finally venturing a single bloom last month.
September arriving and the blossom having been pollinated, a half-bent and oblong shape began to emerge from the stunted but determined little plant – a bulbous looking object that was not orange but yellow and looking more like a goose than a Jack-o-Lantern.
The weeks have passed – the virus has spread – horrific fires have ravaged the forests of the West. People’s lives have been upended, their roots torn from the ground, their dreams upended, and their hopes pushed aside. A cloud of smoke filling our valley, it had been more than a week since I checked the progress of the goose-shaped pumpkin.
Yesterday, the sun straining its way through the clearing smoke, I climbed the hill to the pumpkin patch to find that the object growing on the plant has not been a pumpkin at all, but is instead a young and promising crookneck squash; the label that rose from its foliage in the plastic pot I bought at the nursery having been apparently switched or mistakenly placed.
I looked at the squash and imagined.
Somewhere in our town someone is standing in a smoke-hazed garden and while expecting to see a volume of squash brimming from a mound of foliage, is instead gazing over a vast expanse of pumpkins whose wide and candle-lit smiles will – come October – be brightening the shadows on the porches of people I do not know.
I went to the hardware store to look for a painting-pad extension pole this morning. We’re painting our house and the gutters on two sides are 25′ from the ground. In an aisle near the painting tools was a display of bottled and boxed hand sanitizers. To their right stood a rack of various patterned facial masks; one of the patterns being the image of the American flag, another warning Don’t Tread On Me.
Passing the hand sanitizers and facial masks my eyes and my imagination somersaulted. Ahead was a colorful and vivid display of spring-blooming bulbs.
Crocus. Tulips. Iris. Yellow daffodils.
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