Another farmer's tomatoes passed on to me last summer
Pupa of the Five-Spotted Hawk Moth
Five-spotted Hawk Moth
Tomato Horn Worm
"Yum! Tastes like Karl!"
It seems that everyone I know is boasting about how many tomato plants they have already planted, or are about to. They've nursed their little sprouts along on windowsills for months. Now, the long, limp tendrils beg to have their feet in soil. Top heavy for the peat pots binding their roots, they can't even stand up but topple over sideways with every breath of air or attempt to water them. As if to say, "Plant me, plant me now, or I'm just going to lie down and die!" The bruised flesh smells rank green, oozing their very life blood from every pore.
But the truth is, tomatoes will virtually grow themselves unaided. In the flower gardens I grow now, I find them sprouting having volunteered from seeds in my compost. I pull them out, but I feel guilty. There was a time when I would have been delighted to have such strong tomato plants coming on their own. I, too grew tomatoes (and lots of other things) indoors readying for the garden. I usually started flats of greens in February which was much too early. We always have snow then. The lightless days are too gray and long to really keep things going, plants or people. Slogging mentally through the end of winter, I was always desperate to grow things. Clinging to optimism, I over sowed, too. I had every flat surface in my house covered with seed trays and ruined every windowsill in the place. I had trays on the top of the furnace, the top of the refrigerator, the TV, everywhere that generated some heat. Beyond my own amusement, my children were young and I needed a vegetable garden to feed us. I was divorced, financially destitute and desperately needed things to grow. Every flaccid stem in a tray was to me, hope for the future.
My vegetable garden was fifty feet by sixty feet. It was fenced to keep deer, woodchucks, dogs and children out. I had a gate with a gargoyle glaring at would be intruders. I was big into gargoyles at the time. I had them in my bedroom and sitting in my perennial beds. They were supposed to keep evil spirits and enemies away.
Inside the fence was a series of raised beds with neat paths between. I labored long and hard to keep it clean and orderly, far more so than the interior of my house, which was a wreck. I was always adding some sort of amendment to the soil, tilling it in, learning the good and the bad of it over each season. I worked like a dog, but I also found great meditative peace with the work. I laid newspapers in the paths to keep weeds down. I rotated crops. I composted. The first coyote I ever saw was sitting atop my compost pile.
My ex-husband's vanity car, a swanky Buick Le Sabre I got in the divorce was turned into a farm vehicle. The plush, blue upholstery was swampy with loam, peat, and manure. I was always on the look out for free stuff to use. From a local greenhouse, I procured spun wood fiber discarded from their shipments of garden statuary. The stuff had been wrapped around concrete bird baths, garden gnomes, and solar lights. Free for the taking, it took four trips in the Le Sabre to bring it home. The pulpy fiber would break down eventually adding tilth the clay soil I was perpetually battling. It definitely brightened up the place and was dry to walk on. When the carpeting in my house finally gave out, I tore it out and laid it nap down between the paths. Though not environmentally very sound thinking, it made my vegetable garden an elegant place. It was by invitation only to join me within the confines of the fence protected by the gargoyle.
I had a boyfriend then. He was a bum. He lived with me briefly and I was supporting him, the folly of which I missed out of sheer desperate need for companionship.I was attracted to him because he smoked a pipe. My father had smoked a pipe and the smell of pipe tobacco was comforting. The boyfriend, who I'll call Karl, was also a great pontificator, as was my father. As armchair philosophers, both of them had big opinions about how other people should do things and what was wrong with our government, society, culture, businesses - the list was endless. Karl and my father could go on interminably about everyone else's failings. As I had learned to do with my father, I turned a deaf ear to Karl's tiresome rambling.
In my garden, I had a sitting area, with salvaged patio chairs and a little table. Karl liked to sit there smoking while I worked. Apparently, it didn't occur to him to raise a hand to help me and I was such a mess that it didn't occur to me to expect it of him, either. But, toward the end of the summer, I was sick of his going on about politics, the injustices of our economics, and how lousy Americans were compared to Europeans. His tobacco smoke had become less alluring.
One August day, late in the afternoon, I was weeding while Karl sat drinking a beer from a six pack I had bought. Sweat trickled down my back and into my eyes. I was annoyed and wanted to yell at him, but kept working while he babbled. I could hear him tamping his tobacco then snapping a match to light it. Puff, puff, puff - he pulled air to the flame. "These pipes are just no good anymore," he groused. Something about poor materials, poor workmanship, couldn't get a decent draw from them. Blah, blah, blah. I didn't hear the words, just his droning complaints. I smelled the tobacco ignite. The sweet smoke drifted down the garden path to me.
I stood to stretch my back. With pipe in hand Karl was yammering away from the comfort of the lawn chair while reaching for a second beer. I imagined him engulfed in flames, frying from under the lawn chair like a roast pig on a barbecue. Then suddenly, with uncommon speed he leaped to his feet. "Jesus! What the hell!" He screamed while slapping his own derriere with both hands. He was on fire! He was really on fire! I snapped out of my fantasy realizing that the spun wood fiber had ignited beneath his chair, probably from his lousy pipe. Toppling over his beer, he hopped from one foot to the other dodging flames on the ground. He slapped his own head a couple of times thinking his hair was on fire and swearing all the while. "What the hell were you thinking with this stuff anyway?" He demanded, as if I had planned it. By then, I was laughing so hard I nearly peed myself. "Don't blame me! Blame the gargoyle!"was all I could say.
I had already outgrown Karl by then, though he had been still hanging around because I hadn't thrown him out. After the The Ball Of Flaming Fire incident, sure that I had intentionally set him ablaze, he moved on. Eventually, I moved on from growing tomatoes in the quantities that I used to. I still grow one or two, but not the windowsill wrecking numbers of those old days. Now, I wait until inevitably, someone who is overrun with tomatoes at the end of the summer passes them on to me. I've learned to trust the universe a little more and need gargoyles a little less. I am still a woman who loves the companionship of a man, but no longer need one that sounds, nor smells like my father. My children have moved on, too. So, I feed and nurture other beings now. I'll probably always be that woman.
Last year, on the few tomatoes that I did grow, I had Tomato Horn Worms. They are the bane of the tomato grower as they can wipe out a crop over night. Starting out small and the same color as the tomato plants, they are hard to see until they have gorged themselves. I was in the habit of squashing them, but for some reason, I was curious about what they would become if I let them complete their life cycle. So, I put them in a jar with tomato leaves and dirt on the bottom. At first, after eating all the tomato leaves I supplied, it looked like they had died. I was about to toss the jar's contents when I noticed under the dirt, pupae had formed. They started out as the green pupa you see above. In that same collage, you can see how they turned brown and hard in a couple of days. I knew they would become some kind of moth and thought they would do so quickly. But, oh no.
For nine months, they sat in the jar on my kitchen counter. And, they required tending. The pupa needs a bit of moisture so as not to desiccate, but not so much that it will rot. I put a coffee filter over the top of the jar so they could breathe. Every evening while cooking supper, I misted the the pupae. Like a human pregnancy, it took over 270 days of misting and watching, waiting, not knowing who would come out. Then, a few days ago, suddenly, TA DA! The giant, Five-spotted Hawk moth, Manduca quinquemaculata emerged! And, a great handsome thing like its name it was, too with a wing span of 4 inches. Though according to resources it's a common moth in Maine, I had never seen one before. I had only known them as their caterpillar selves and held them in disdain as tomato decimators. It took a day for the moth to dry its wings enough to fly. Crawling on my hand, it was soft and friendly. A light breeze bore it aloft and it flew, free.
I've planted my tomato plants and loosed the Hawk moth. I know that it's out there laying eggs if not on my plants, on some one's. It will complete its life cycle, pollinating and mooching and destroying as it goes. Which brings me to my dilemma: when the eggs hatch into infant Tomato Horn worms, will I be able to squash them as before? Probably not any more than I could actually set Karl on fire. I shall have to hope for the universe to restore order in the form of insect eating birds or perhaps reinstate a gargoyle.
NOTE: This essay was Editor's Pick on Open Salon, # 8 of my works to be chosen.