18 pounds of pleasure & the complicated life

One pumpkin. Although that's all I got from this year's garden, I am certainly not disappointed by this bad boy. In fact, I couldn't be happier about it.

I scouted pumpkin seeds last winter and decided the Amish Pie Pumpkin would be just right for my garden. I have such an intensively planted plot that pumpkins are not entirely practical, sprawling as they do across whatever available space they find. I hoped that by interplanting them with corn and beans—the legendary Three Sisters or milpas system—I could hope to coax some beauties out of that patch.

I coaxed only one, but it is indeed a beauty, 18.3 pounds of perfection. None of it will go to waste. I've already marked down Sunday as the time to cut this cucurbit up and process the delicious flesh for use all winter. There's enough here for a half-dozen pies, a large pot of savory soup, and a few loaves of bread or a tray of muffins. I'll save some seeds for next year and roast up those that remain to munch while I watch a hockey game and slurp a homebrewed Schwarzbier.

This morning, our first snowfall verifies what we could have denied until recently: we have entered the year's dark half. Just two days ago I walked to work on a balmy morning amid a riot of autumn reds and golds. The low sun was warm, even hot, by mid-morning. Maybe, just maybe, it would hold a while longer. And that is the very mechanism of denial—a fool's hope that somehow buffers encroaching reality until hope collapses—and so looks foolish in retrospect.

That's why the pumpkin matters. Now that winter is here, I no longer feel I'm giving in to it. Actually, I  welcome it, as I knew I would. It's a gardener's mindset—hold out until frost defeats the green, then roll forward over the snow toward the next greening.

Whereas the pumpkin was merely a thing of beauty yesterday, it is this morning a promise of sustenance, a stored joy that soon will render up real pleasure, not to mention a great dose of vitamin C, beta carotene, and potassium. Winter's arrival morphs the pumpkin, or more correctly, it morphs my perspective, appreciation, and purpose. I don't mind saying I'm thrilled to imagine the first stroke of the knife blade, plunging into the dark cavity full of threads and seeds and pulp.

These are unique human pleasures. To be sure, all life feeds and what can we know about the pleasure the crow finds in picking the eyes out of the roadkilled coyote's carcass. I have no real sense of the collective effect coursing through my cat's neurons as he swallows the last of the mouse caught after a hour's wait by the compost pile.

What's uniquely human is the making. I won't just gnosh into the pumpkin; I'm going to transform it into a pie through kitchen chemistry. There's the recipie I've used for 30 years, pulled by a friend from a 19th century British cookbook and married to another recipe for vodka pie crust so flaky and marvelous it would taste good alone. I will steam the chunks of pumpkin until they soften, drain the excess liquid, mix in the brown sugar and eggs and spices, pour it all in the shells. While it bakes, I'll hand-whip real cream sweetened with powdered sugar. In a nod to my approaching 50th birthday, I may even casually scan the registry for a good cardiologist. 

I will enjoy that pumpkin, now and later, and so will the others that gather at our table this winter. I'm with Wendell Berry on this—while people naively talk about simplifying their lives, I want to complicate mine. Simplified pumpkin pie means pulling out some dollar bills and buying a pie at the store. That kind of simplification requires a tremendously complex set of actions by others. It only feels like simplification to the end-user. There is no seed saving, no planning the plot, no planting and cultivating, no harvesting, no processing and storing, no cooking and baking. Hidden, but not insignificant, are the complexities of corporate agriculture, transportation, factory processing, more transportation, shelf-stocking, purchasing, more transportation, and so on.

I prefer to rely on the labor of no one else to render this pumpkin up. I relish the long process that is complex and slow and wonderful. While that doesn't simplify my life to manage the process, it does clarify my mind at every step. Any good gardener knows that time spent with the soil and the vines is magic time. So, too, does the cook know that working from scratch in the kitchen engages the hands even as it frees the mind. The complexity of creative action is potentially a doorway, a simple and direct connection to mystery.

What if one doesn't have the time for such things? I figure that our lives are all different in the balance of circumstance and choice. Once we have reasoned out which demands on our time are unavoidable, whatever remains can be apportioned by choice. To be sure, some people struggle to find time for creative complexity while others have an easier path to it. All that any of us can do is manage the spacetime we occupy. I know what my choices are, I know why I make them, and I know how they nuture me.