2010 Reflections: Of Cabbages and Kings

The summer of 2010 yielded one of the finest gardens I have tended in years. After threading soaker hose through my seedlings and mulching with newspaper and straw, preparing for the return of the droughts of past summers, I was pleased to learn my efforts were unnecessary: every week rain fell!

My tomatoes were determined to have a jungle of their own; my cucumbers attempted to travel the world; and my corn reached for the sky, like petty criminals happy in their apprehension. As I picked strawberries and watched the progress of my grapes, harvested green beans and cut lettuce, and cheerfully plucked weeds from my paradise, I felt I had discovered the secret of gardening. I might give classes!

During the season my wife and I canned more beans than we can eat, made pickles and jams, processed 75 quarts of tomatoes (in addition to ketchup, pizza sauce, and juice), and joked about our preparation for The Famine.

In the fall we gathered pumpkins and squash, dug parsnips and potatoes, and picked the dried pods of shell beans (Jacob’s Cattle, Vermont Cranberry, Soldier, Appaloosa, Black Turtle). Watching TV (including political campaign ads) we shelled them; spread on cookie sheets to dry, the beans looked beautiful!

Not so lovely were the ads for the mid-term elections. If the spots were to be taken seriously, the candidates were all a gang of thieves who should be reaching for the sky. Like my corn. Nonetheless my wife and I volunteered to make calls for the Democratic Party. (You might well have been on our call list! You weren’t one of those who hung up on us, were you?)

We were part of a team working from the house of a friend, a different caller in every room. Despite discouraging polls, we were confident that our efforts would pay off.

But every one of our candidates lost.

And I, for one, was disillusioned, troubled by President Obama’s perceived lack of effectiveness, by the fact that people were voting against their interests, by the politicians who were shamelessly exploiting the innocence of voters.

I found myself wanting to agree with the cynical grocery store clerk who said that she never votes because none of the politicians honor their campaign promises anyway.

But as I licked my wounds I thought about my garden, and began rolling up my soaker hoses getting ready for the fall tilling. Although most of my plants had flourished, my peppers and cabbages hadn’t, and none of my artichokes had bloomed. Next year would be different, I knew. My cabbages might grow to the size of beach balls, but my cucumbers might just say no.

The cycles of a garden are not unlike those of politics. Despite my failures, I keep planting seeds and I keep voting. I know that democracy works best when control shifts from time to time keeping a balance between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Some pundits have declared that having the two houses of congress controlled by different parties is good and might end the stalemates of the past. We can hope.

Just as we hope when we plant seeds. The time my wife and I spent on telephones was not wasted. We made connections. (If you were on our call list, maybe you were one of the people who thanked us for our political activism, or you might have been the elderly lady who asked God’s blessing for me.)

How does your garden grow? We ask not only Mary, Mary, quite contrary, but each other, boasting and sympathizing. Connections, like my pumpkins twining themselves about corn stalks, or my cucumbers investigating tomato towers.

And despite the injunction against bringing either politics or religion to the dinner table, like-minded friends sympathize with us about the election, sometimes in emails from old college buddies.

And I’ve encountered unexpected civility. When we lunched with my Barry Goldwater Republican brother-in-law not long after the election (the walrus to my carpenter), he politely refrained from mentioning the outcome.

My seed catalogs arrive regularly in the mail, and I have decided that next year I’m adding Swedish Brown and Red Kidneys to my field of beans; we make soups and baked beans, slow foodies at heart. Sixteen of my boxwood cuttings rooted; I’m curious to see how many of them survive the winter.

And I’m anxious to know if President Obama, despite his low approval ratings, survives the next election, if this experiment in a colorblind democracy “can long endure.”