“Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers,” said Tennyson. Especially wisdom gathered in the garden.
Ripe tomatoes are popping out like measles across the green face of our garden: Early Girl, Willamette, Oregon Spring, Little Boy, Fat Man, and Tomato Glut. I planted too many, partly because The seed catalogue seduced me, partly because there was clearly a simpler solution. Joy and I have already done this stoop labor for hours without making a dent and it’s going to be dark soon. I’m curious: “When are we going to stop doing tomatoes, honey?”
“If you remember,” my wife says, “someone said we couldn’t possibly have too many tomatoes. So that’s how many we planted.” What a fantastic memory she has. That’s what I said, verbatim. It seemed true then, but not now. With our kitchen buried in crimson and the pressure cooker oozing love-apple sauce around the clock, I finally understand the concept of infinity squared. If they want children to learn about time and numbers, they should send them to the country to pick fruit.
In the early part of a child’s life, he or she is forced to do elementary arithmetical problems based on units of measurement derived from agriculture: acres, barrels, buckets, bushels, pecks, and so forth. At no time will these baby students be shown an actual acre of land, a peck basket, a tin bucket, or a real Wooden barrel, nor will a real-time bushel of produce ever find its way into the classroom, or even some kind of interesting fantasy as depicted somewhere online. Instead, they get symbols. Pictures of bushels are drawn with corn heaped high, for visual recognition, but the likely result is a confused kid.
My Uncle Bob was a farmer. The first time he showed me a bushel basket, my first reaction was awe, followed by a rising anger. I had been cheated by the educational system. In the first place, this bushel was not filled to the top and never would be, since, as my uncle explained, corn would spill out of it when it was moved. Take out a handful of corn, or add one, or leave it alone, and it was still a bushel of corn: a big margin of error. In the second place, there was no such thing as a thousand bushels in physical reality – despite the fact that I had been forced to do numerous equations with that measurement. Quite simply, a thousand bushels is how much corn goes in a silo – and it is not measured with a thousand bushel baskets or one basket filled a thousand times. However, thanks to my uncle, I finally understood the concept by extrapolating from this actual bushel.
When I asked him how much an acre was, he showed me; it had a tree on it for scale, and 1.5 horses, the smaller unit nursing from the larger. My uncle had no teaching certificate because they don’t give them out to the self-educated, but he knew how to answer a simple question.
Another tomato plops in the trug. We have filled it many times; “many” is more than a lot, but less than enough. A bushel basket of tomatoes yields a bottom layer of mashed tomato sauce, so the wise gardener instead collects them in the traditional English trug.
The history of the English trug begins in East Sussex, where they have been made by hand for 150 years. Thick strips of chestnut are split, shaped with a drawknife, and heated in a steamer until they’re pliable enough to wrap around a form. Split willow makes a rim, another piece makes the handle, and everything is fixed together with copper nails. They look a little like small boats, which were once called “trogs”; hence the name.
Long ago, a trug held exactly two-thirds of a bushel, but this measurement is so obsolete that it’s no longer taught. (I was almost 40 before even I heard the word trug, losing at Scrabble to an expert.) These days, a trug is just a flat rectangular basket made of wood or super-duper plastic, designed to keep fragile fruit from being stacked too high. It holds as much as a small raccoon weighs, and always contains one trug’s worth of garden bounty.
The geometry of our garden is such a complicated universe that I don’t even try to comprehend it. Joy talks to the plant divas and flower fairies to figure out where everything should go, what cultivars and how many, and then she consults the moon for a timetable, holds her green thumb to the wind, and away we go.
The corn equation was much simplified by raccoons this year, which deducted so many ears that we had a fighting chance of getting the remainder husked, cobbed, and frozen. In my ignorance, despite Joy’s advice, I planted five long rows of Startling Abundance and Yellow Hernia, east to west so they’d self-pollinate, and they did. Thank heaven for the little masked footpads. What the coons left was still an abundant harvest, too many bushels. At one point, shucking corn, I prayed they’d come back that night and take the rest.
Our daughter serenity is inside doing her homework, in theory. She’s probably on the phone with her best friend. The ratio of hours spent on homework to hours spent discussing fine boys and harsh parental guidelines is probably unequal, but we approve of this multitasking because education is a holistic ideal. It will be all right if Ren knows the primary export of Bolivia, but even better if she learns how to communicate with her peers. Her math teacher, obviously a genius, started the year with a cross-discipline sermon on the importance of reading, and books as the building blocks of all learning. Inspired, Ren came home and began with Stephen King. Her math grades immediately improved. Whatever they’re paying this educator, it isn’t enough.
The first evening star has begun to twinkle when Joy speaks: “Okay, I’m tired. Had enough? Ready for supper?”
To tell the truth, I was done 15 minutes ago. Next year, I’ll plan our tomatoes better, meaning planting fewer and with staggered harvests. Heaving up our trugs, we go inside to grab a bite, make some coffee, and stoke up the pressure cooker and food dryer. The night is young, and we have hours of canning to go.