Wednesday, April 8, 2015

In Search of Saint James--and Tomatoes

My Easter boutonnière, still going strong

The last day of March witnessed the last meeting of our Evergreen Forum seminar on the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  The initial phrase of the poem’s famous opening (“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote…”) introduces a sentence of which the principal clause, appearing only eleven lines later, is “then longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.”  That is, when the April showers arrive, people get itchy to go on pilgrimage.  By strange happenstance, this statement is as applicable this year in twenty-first-century New Jersey as it was in fourteenth-century Kent.  For we are indeed just about to leave, in ten days' time, to lead a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, under the sponsorship of the Princeton University Alumni Council.  I shall attempt to “live blog” this event at it progresses, though with what success I am reluctant to predict.

            What Chaucer more fully says is “When April’s sweet showers pierce to the root the drought of March…”  Observant students, of whom there are many in the Evergreen Forum, with most among them having visited England, wondered what “drought” Chaucer could possibly have had in mind.  At Bodiam weather station, quite near the pilgrims’ route, the annual average rainfall over two recent decades was approximately thirty-four inches, with about two-and-a-half of that falling in March.  The explanation is that Chaucer is of course speaking in a figurative or allegorical fashion.  The drought of March is the lean and penitential season of Lent, which comes to an end with the festival abundance of Easter.  Once again this year’s calendar was cooperative, with Easter falling last Sunday, April 5.  My son Luke and I were together at the stunning Easter Vigil Eucharist in the chancel of the University chapel, as we have been for so many of the last thirty Easters, starting in deep darkness at five o’clock and moving slowly toward the burst of light that comes when full sunlight finally hits the great east “Resurrection” window toward seven.

            But New Jersey’s calendar and its meteorology were not so well synchronized this year.  I like to wear a daffodil boutonnière on Easter.  There has been no March drought here, but the moisture came in a form guaranteed initially to retard rather than to hasten the appearance of the tendre croppes.  We had perhaps twenty inches of snow just last month, with protracted low temperatures.  As March surrendered to April there were no daffodils in sight.   By Easter eve the house was surrounded by incipient yellow buds, and among them I was luckily able to find one (though only one) beginning to open.  Now, three days later, many more have appeared.

            Daffodils are gorgeous, but even the nearly omnivorous deer (a large herd of which hangs out in my extended back yard) refuse to eat them.  Everyone knows that the signature garden crop of the Garden State is the Jersey tomato.  My tomato farming has been hampered by our unfortunate tendency to spend a central month of the growing season in Paris or somewhere else nifty, but even so I had good results last summer with a little, partially shaded plot at the front of the house.

 the old garden plot

            My appetite thus whetted, and under the inspiration of Chaucer, I determined to create a somewhat larger bed in full sun just south of the stone wall I put up around my property.   This is at the edge of a large common meadow formerly known as the “Baseball Field”—an appellation dating from the 'Sixties, when there were still many young people in the neighborhood.  This had to be wrested from a bramble patch overrun with various formidable jungle vines, especially coarse wild roses and the voracious species of Virginia Creeper that grows a foot or more per week and feeds from stubborn fat tuberous roots with the tensile strength of Kevlar. This horror must be entirely dug out and destroyed if you hope for anything else to grow in its former domain. 

 the new garden plot

            Even if you lack commercial earth-moving equipment it is possible, barely, to achieve one’s goal.  Some years ago in upstate New York I found in a dump a heavily framed iron grid, roughly three feet by four.  Its original function is uncertain to me, but I was able to adapt it as a heavy-duty sieve in attacking the hideous root structure of this vine.  The price of achieving a plot of Jersey topsoil suitable for producing the Jersey tomato is to dig down at least a foot and sieve every shovelful of the results, removing all brick bats, animal bones, small stones, Mason jar shards, and, especially, the tuber clusters and root fragments.  This activity is not for the faint of heart, the weak of back, or the subtle of brain.

one spadeful at a time

            So far, I am on schedule.  The next task, which I must accomplish pre-pilgrimage, is to get adequate fencing around both the old and the new beds—unless my ambition can be satisfied by offering a dietary supplement to the deer.  Then if I can get plants in the ground soon after returning from Europe, there will be some hope of having a tomato or two in September!