naked tomatoes, naked world

Early yesterday morning, I cruised the length of my garden to pull every ripe fruit I could find. We aren't yet in the frost zone, but it's coming. The bees know it; hordes of them danced in among the late blossoms of pennyroyal, coriander, and summer savory, and for the first time ever I saw sweat bees, diminutive and shining metallic green. 

Yes, the images are fuzzy. Let's just say I was dazed by the beauty of it all, and the bounty as well: eggplant, crookneck squash, five kinds of heirloom tomatoes, seven kinds of chilies, basil, dill seeds, and more. And what follows on such bounty is the responsibility to utilize what's given. That's no small task. An hour harvesting in the garden meant I'd spend the rest of the day preparing a fresh meal, and also preparing the veggies for storage and later use.

This takes time. It takes some know-how, and some care. It's work with your hands. I consider these good things and am pleased to undertake them, satisfied to complete them. Here's a shot of four pounds of Brandywine tomatoes, peeled, cored, seeded, and sliced, weeping liquid in a sieve.

This is the right way to do it; afterwards, I packed them in a freezer bag and put them in the deep freeze. I ended up with about 12 pounds, and there are three times that in the freezer already, along with shredded squash, tomatillos, and a refrigerator full of pickled cukes and peppers. The blue Adirondack potatoes are also in store, along with white onions and garlic.

Next week: harvest the grapes and make jelly. Come on, winter. I'll be ready.

But this post is not only about fruit, like those peeled tomatoes in all their delicious, naked glory. It's also about the naked world. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see the larger world beyond the gate as a garden.

Later today I'll be speaking, along with some other poets and activists, at a fundraiser for one of my favorite organizations, Art from Ashes. It's run by my friend Catherine O'Neill Thorne, whose shoulders I regularly check for evidence of wings. In short, this organization uses poetry and creativity to bring disadvantaged, troubled youth up from their circumstances. It empowers them. It gives them something ancient and powerful, which cannot be wrestled away by a degraded temporal existence: it gives them access to the wisdom in themselves.

And so my message tonight will be about this important exchange. If our youth are what we grow in the larger garden of our lives, we have the responsibility not only to nuture their growth, but as they come to fruition as young adults, we have to help them utilize their gifts. We have to give them a sense of hope about the future—not a false hope, and maybe not hope at all. Maybe it's better termed a practical, useful knowledge.

The poet Gary Snyder, who was my own teacher, wrote in his book Earth, "As a poet I hold the most archaic values on earth." He went on to say,

Poetry must sing or speak from authentic experience. Of all the streams of civilized tradition with roots in the paleolithic, poetry is one of the few that can realistically claim an unchanged function and a relevance which will outlast most of the activities that surround us today. Poets, as few others, must live close to the world that primitive men are in: the world, in its nakedness, which is fundamental for all of us—birth, love, death; the sheer fact of being alive.

Note his comment about the "activities that surround us today." We are indeed surrounded by activity, and much of it is ultimately just busyness. Even that which is deemed necessary is often insignificant, and much that claims to be significant is vacuous noise.

But give me poetry every day and I can survive in that degraded world. I can walk naked in it, my feet in touch with the real, the ancient, the sources of wisdom. And now that I am no longer a youth myself—in fact, I'm edging in on being an elder these days—I can give back to the young people around me the very thing that raised me up when I was in troubled water all those years ago.

I've been teaching for 26 years now, more than half my life. I cherish the responsibility that this career brings. As I recently pointed out to a younger colleague who was blue about getting a tongue-lashing from his "superior," the Dean at our college, "You don't work for her; you work for the students."

I work for my students. I have the privilege of serving young people. I work in the garden.