Seed thoughts


So what did I do on March 21, the first day of spring, in Minnesota’s deep south, Winona? I planted a few tomato seeds directly into the dirt in my back yard. These were special tomato seeds, imported from Sicily. I probably did this because I can’t rid myself of my Faustian urge to control nature’s destiny. Natural curiosity lurks at the core of that devilish urge. I’ve always been dumbstruck by the sheer power of seeds––how, for example, an acorn can, in good time, explode into a giant oak. There lurks in me a certain jealousy of acorn power, and I resent acorns for keeping their secrets from me. So my Arizona trip triggered in me an ancient form of curiosity that appears to lack respect in high-tech times: I want to know what a tomato seed from Sicily knows.

I figure it’s a basic survival issue that transcends tomato love.

Let me explain about the Arizona trip. It was inspired by two curiosities. One was to see the Grand Canyon before mining interests dig their holes in it. The other was to meet kinfolk I’ve never seen––notably descendents of a popular and well-known artist, a second cousin named Ettore (“Ted”) DeGrazia, who passed away in Tucson almost 30 years ago.

With my wife and two children I left for Arizona on March 9. At noon the temperature in the Minneapolis airport was 68 degrees (above). When we arrived in Phoenix a few hours later the temperature was about the same. Things seemed odd, but not upside-down.

The Grand Canyon struck me as spectacularly upside-down. The Canyon is a vast, long, and very deep fissure in the earth’s crust that seems to peak way down deep where the Colorado River purls its way like a hairline crack around staggering rock formations. To stare into the Grand Canyon’s depths is not unlike gazing upward at a purple and many-colored mountain majesty. In places it seems like an inverted pyramid, its steep cliffs rising like mountainsides as they descend into the gully below. To visit the Grand Canyon, a space filled with nothing but air and a solitary bird here and there, is to experience a wonderful rocky mountain vacation, of sorts.

The trip to Tucson was also wonderful. My blood-kin relatives, all strangers, were open-hearted, welcoming, generous, and obviously very intelligent and talented. Cousin Domingo, in particular, displayed his genius on a Spanish guitar while my budding musician son Dante took mental notes of what he had to say about becoming a professional. The blood of strangers warmed into kinship bonds when the music made us want to dance. All strangers are also blood relatives so I’m suddenly curious about another thing: Since it’s easy to argue with but hard to wage war against blood relatives can good music stimulate human genes to develop a resistance to violence and war? Would there be university funds for a research project on this topic? What do human genes know about music that might be useful to politicians and Pentagon analysts? Would waves of musicians be more successful and cost-effective than drones?

In my mind these questions are akin to my curiosity about what my Sicilian tomato seeds need to know in order to thrive. How smart are they? In a lot of ways they’re smarter and more powerful than I am. I can’t grow a tomato out of myself. I wouldn’t know how to begin doing anything as profound, useful and tasteful as that. So much comes from such a dot-like thing. I stuck one of the seeds on a finger and tried to figure it out, but frankly it was a rather homely sight, its coat dry and drab as an old man’s skin. But in it, somehow, there was something resembling a tiny brain that magically would know what to do when the time and place were ripe. If one of those immigrant Sicilian stone masons who helped build New York’s skyscrapers could plant a pebble that was also a seed, he’d probably get arrested for tapping into the city’s water supply to grow an Empire State Building from it. If he’s like me he’d want to sprout Empire State Buildings on every vacant lot.

The Arizona desert was once a spacious expanse teeming with cacti and myriad plants and animals brilliant enough to make good homes for themselves on arid turf and in temperatures reaching 120 degrees (above). But huge tracks of that desert are beginning to look like vast parking lots. The cities of Phoenix and Tucson, which from the air look like square mile maps laid on desert dirt, also had small origins. In 1900 Tucson had 7,531 and Phoenix 5,544 residents; by the year 2000 Tucson had 486,699 and the metropolitan Phoenix area had 3,251,876; in 2011 Tucson had expanded to 520,116 and greater Phoenix to 4,192,887 residents. In 1900 Arizona had a wide variety and vast number of rattlesnakes. The variety allegedly remains, but in Tucson and Phoenix they’ve gone into hiding now, either on strike or plotting their next moves. Heaven only knows what they know, or what’s running through their minds when they hear the pickups tearing past. But one thing seems sure: They seem to have inhuman staying power.

My experience of the cities of Phoenix and Tucson on their desert expanses also has triggered my curiosity about what water knows. I know my Sicilian tomato seeds know they need water to make tomatoes, for me. But does water know enough to flow where people live? Does it know how to make enough of itself to fill the toilet bowls and swimming pools of Phoenix and Tucson? Is water a wild-west free enterprise system that will do just fine without being regulated? Or can water be exploited and abused by outlaws? Does water know how to unpoison itself? Can water die?

My return to Minnesota, with its jet-lag confusion about what time of day it is, was compounded by uncertainty about what month I was living in. The seasons seemed turned around. It seemed unnatural to return to 75 degree warmth after spending a week in 75 degree Arizona heat. It was more odd to learn that just two days after returning to our Winona home major highways in Arizona were closed because a blizzard had the right of way. North and south no longer seemed righted. A three hour flight isn’t supposed to cause extended jet-lag feelings that make everything seem vaguely upside-down, inside-out, and turned around. Was it still March? Buds were unfurling into blossoms on the pear, cherry, and apricot trees in my yard, and I shuddered at the prospect of unburying my fig tree a month and a half before May Day. What was my fig tree thinking way down deep? Robert Frost’s worried line about frost keeps haunting me:

“There are roughly zones whose laws must be obeyed.”

These thoughts trouble me when I visit the back yard dirt where I planted my tomato seeds. They haven’t shown me anything yet, not one hint of green, and I wish they’d hurry up. I want that first tomato of the year. Frankly, the devilish Faust in me wants that seed to be smart enough to supply me with oak forest and Empire State Building explosions of tomatoes, more than I could possibly use. Is an April blizzard coming our mutual way, perhaps in mid-July? I like to think the little seeds know, and are lying low.