One Perfect Tomato

This year, as I watch the headlines – wildfire here, floods there, a typhoon, hailstorms, drought, vanished sea ice in the Arctic, millions of hectares clearcut in Brazil – I have been witnessing the most extraordinarily gracious and gentle weather in our part of Baltimore. Warm – but not stifling – days, balmy nights, plenty of soaking rain – California weather, I’ve called it.

I spend afternoons on my front porch swing with my computer, watching the catbird and cardinals – and a new bird, looking and acting like an acid-washed starling – working over the suet, and the hummingbirds buzzing around their feeder with their anxious-sounding little chirps, occasionally whirling over to check me out, just a few feet from where I sit. Crickets chirping, the sound of traffic distant on our dead-end street.

This is perfection, I think to myself. The black-eyed Susans and echinacea and phlox overflow their corner of the rain garden; my backyard is a jungle with plaintain and red clover and lemon balm and mugwort spilling over the perimeters and the veggie garden awash in insectary and medicinal herbs among the veg plants.

“Thank you,” I tell the spirit entities of the land. “I love you. Thank you for all you do to keep this land green and healthy.”

Everything is overgrowing its boundaries. The cucumber vines wrap almost all the length of the garden fence and have wandered into the tomatoes and beebalm. I have been madly picking fat yellow cucumbers that expand in diameter, not length, turning green only as they grew overripe. Cucumber soup and felafel, my mother’s cold beet-and-cucumber soup, cucumber salads….I want to share them, try pickling some but these cukes grow too fast! They are on the edge before I realize they are ripe.

I step though the gate, brushing past the borage and the bean vines with their foot-long crimson fruit. Perfunctorily lift aside the squash leaves – these two plants have been blooming like overworked lawyers in love, trying to book a mating time between their male and female blossoms. It’s August and they haven’t hooked up yet, despite my efforts to hand-pollinate. It’s not pollinators that are the problem here – I see plenty of ground bees, moths, butterflies. The problem is timing. I imagine the blossoms immersed in smartphones and planners, watching excretions and temperatures, not looking up until their would-be mates have faded.

At first glance I see nothing – withered stumps where female blossoms died unfertilized. I move on to look for cucumbers…and then notice, almost under my feet, a length of dark-green, smooth – squash!

I feel like a middle-aged mother greeting her in-vitro firstborn. Eyes wide, mouth agape until I realize I’m likely to swallow a mosquito. The baby is about six inches long – big enough for picking, but I’ll wait till tomorrow when the latest batch of cuke soup is gone. This squash may be the only one I harvest; it deserves special treatment.

Gesturing a blessing over its speckled length, I turn to the tomatoes, not expecting to find anything but blossoms and baby fruit. I’ve picked one huge tomato to ripen in the window, after seeing it hang green for weeks in the heat. It was easily four inches in diameter; any others would be easy to spot…

And there is one! One enormous yellow fruit, hiding under the leaves, as big as my palm. It comes off readily in my hands.

I admire them as the sun glances off its skin, setting it glowing. Its heady fragrance rises along with that of the warm basil plants next to me.

And suddenly the beautiful, fragile, glorious, suffering world narrows down to this one moment: a small jungle of a garden producing these rare, glorious fruits in the face of tragedy and disaster around the world. I hold the tomato up to my nose, take a deep breath  of its aroma, reach down to pinch four leaves off the basil plant.

I want to immerse in this tomato and its green companion. I want to taste and absorb the golden sunlight shining in its skin, the earthy-spicy-sweet flavor of its flesh. We go into the kitchen and I wash and slice them, thanking them for their beauty and vitality. Put them in a Sunday-dress-up bowl and take them out to the porch swing.

The sun is bathing the porch with its golden glow. The birds are winging in for their evening feeding. I sit on the swing, watching them, taking one bite after another of perfect golden-green balmy rare, perfect-summer sensual delight into my mouth, savoring it, being nourished by it like a cancer patient savoring a last meal.

I will cherish this property and its green and feathered and winged and four-legged and burrowing beings as long as we share life. And – if this is the last summer of delight – I will savor and share and immerse and give thanks for every blessing this land gives. Until this summer, until I faced the awareness of coming loss, I have never truly savored or given adequate thanks for the fruit of the land I tend, or the beings who support its production.

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