The Middle Distance 8.15.14: How Much Is Enough?

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Credit Sean Cayton

This mid-August morning, the cool air already begins to hint at fall. The light is soft and gray. The only sound is the crunch of gravel as I walk down the alley, green bucket in hand, to the garden I tend, about a block away from where I now live.

Until just a month ago, I lived in the tall house that shades the garden. Now I’m a daily visitor there, slipping through the back gate while everyone in the house is still sleeping, a venture that makes me feel secretive, like a kid spying on her parents. 

This morning, the garden is a jungle of overgrown tomato and pumpkin vines, elephant-eared squash plants, and rambling beans that have crested the top of the fence. A month ago, I hunched over these adolescent plants that now tower over me.

A month ago, I packed up everything I own and moved from this house to a small cottage where everything fits just so. Life out here in the middle distance proves once again to be an exercise in discerning how much is enough.

This morning, I pull up tender heads of red leaf lettuce and wrap their dirt-clogged roots in wet paper towels, then set them in the bottom of the green bucket. A month ago they were seeds smaller than grains of sand, sprinkled between rows of radishes. Now they make fat lettuce bouquets, frilly and blotched in muted reds and greens. I wrap six of them — two for the people who live here, two for me, and two for the landlady whose house I live behind. Above the patch of lettuce, a mature dill plant leans dramatically, its yellow flowering seed heads weighing down its delicate branches. 

Among the tangled vines, flat mature bean pods dangle, camouflaged against the fence. I shake the vines to see them flap, then reach in and pull them off one by one until I’ve filled another bucket. Last weekend I cooked the first of the beans with new potatoes, just pulled from the soil, then tossed them in warm butter with a handful of chopped dill and fed them to my family, gathered for a summer visit. We ate them with our fingers.

From the bottom of the burgeoning squash bed, I pull three prickly cucumbers from their wizened vines. They have gone neglected, buried beneath the showy squash plants, but with plentiful afternoon rains the fruits have flourished anyway.  Small yellow squash hang from their crooked necks like 3-D paisleys, waiting to be plucked.

The tomato plants, weighted down with fruit in their dark middles, send new flowering stems out in every direction, continuing to reach for light. There are fat green tomatoes big enough to fill a cupped hand, small bundles of tear-shaped ones, and a variety of other shapes and sizes. Some are beginning to blush, but every morning from here to September will be a race between the first frost and their proclivity to ripen. I begin to mentally recite the recipes I know for green tomatoes and remember a pie an office mate once served, fragrant with cinnamon and mace and cloves, a pungent and sweet stew of green tomatoes, brown sugar and raisins.

These mornings are so quiet I can hear bees buzzing above my hands before I see them, dipping into the yellow squash blossoms, hovering over the newest blooms on the tomatoes. I pull up a row of dark green flat-leaf parsley, pack up my buckets and head for home where I’ll figure out what to do with today’s harvest.

A morning like this, when I don’t have to meet any deadline other than the garden’s, is rare and seasonal and fleeting. Its quiet can easily be drowned out by the noise of living, so I must listen carefully.

A few minutes of washing and stripping leaves and sorting and arranging, and it’s clear what’s next. Pearl couscous, toasted in olive oil in a saucepan, then set to boil. Cucumbers peeled and chopped. Grape tomatoes chopped. A green pepper seeded and chopped. A yellow pepper. A fistful of parsley, a fistful of mint, a fistful of dill, minced with a sharp blade, their scents released into the bright kitchen. A dressing of lemon and oil, salt and pepper. A bowl of summer, stirred and mixed and set in the refrigerator to chill. 

In a few weeks, there will be fewer visits to the morning garden, to gather the dwindling early fall crop. But for now, it’s still summer in full bloom, an abundance of here and now, ripe for the picking.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.