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Ross Murray's Border Report
Ross Murray
Ross Murray
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is editor and publisher of the Stanstead Journal.
Posted 08.26.03
Stanstead, Quebec

ROSS MURRAY

Yes, we have no big tomatoes...

Out of the blue this week appeared a photocopy of the great essayist E.B. White's classic Death of a Pig. The author of Charlotte's Web wasn't just relying on flights of fancy when he wrote of talking pigs and spelling spiders. He was a gentleman farmer who knew and respected the land... and pigs.

Whenever I run across this fine evocative essay, I can't help but read it. And so I did this week:

"The scheme of buying a spring pig in blossomtime, feeding it through summer and fall, and butchering it when the solid cold weather arrives is a familiar scheme to me and follows an antique pattern. It is a tragedy enacted on most farms with perfect fidelity to the original script. The murder, being premeditated, is in the first degree but is quick and skillful, and the smoked bacon and ham provide a ceremonial ending whose fitness is seldom questioned."

Such words, such wisdom of the land and its ways, our pragmatic need to kill what we raise.

I'm no E.B. White, no gentleman farmer, nor gentleman nor farmer at all, but I found myself revising the author's porcine opener to fit the situation in our backyard garden at home. My version reads:

"I spent several mornings and afternoons in mid-September with an ailing tomato plant, and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the plant died at last and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to make the tomato sauce."

Here in mid-August, the tomato plants that came home from the nursery brimming with green and prospect have begun stumpy stalks, like sad remnants of some midsummer ice storm. Leaves that were green became spotted, then blighted, then yellow, brown, and shriveled.

Not to worry, I told myself. These were just the sucker branches, meant for pruning anyway so the good nutrients and water could be funneled to the buds, not the leaves. Truth is, I love to prune tomato plants. I love the smell of them, the tarry funk that rises from the faint fuzz of their leaves even if you just brush against them. I thrill at the satisfying snap when the sucker breaks away from the main branch. Even the sap that turns thumbs green and the cake of Ivory soap yellow after washing up -- there's a sense of digging into the visceral core of nature.

But the more I pruned, the more the blight seemed to worsen. I pruned and plucked and pinched until there was nothing but sorry twigs and desperate green tomatoes.

Could it be, then, that in my overzealous pruning, I drained the plants of their sun-gathering abilities? Do I suck at sucker-snapping?

Puny plants I can deal with. But I want my tomatoes. I want sauces and sandwiches. I want a thick slice of beefsteak on a late-August burger.

I want tomatoes in the Ayer's Cliff Fair.

I thought this would be the year I could enter some plump red tomatoes, maybe a rose or two, even the Italian plums that I had happened upon for the first time. But even the few tomatoes that ripened have been scarred and lumpy. To misquote E.B. White again, "I minded it all the more because I knew that what could be true of my tomato could be true also of the rest of my tidy world."

Only the cherry tomatoes are doing splendidly. I don't recall seeing them displayed at the fair. There's Class 55 "Tomatoes, small variety, 5 spec." but I don't think it means cherry. Who'd want to judge tomatoes the size of mothballs rolling around on an aluminum plate?

It's too bad, really, because I will have plenty of cherry tomatoes. Not just from the plant we transplanted but also from the plants among the peas, poking up from the rutabaga patch, crouched in the carrots, even in our wildflower garden. The best of all is creeping out from the bottom of the compost bin -- what a beauty! Full leaves, green, sturdy branches determined to live. Some pig!

Compost. That's how these orphan plants ended up all over the vegetable garden. And that's obviously what our nursery transplants needed, not just pruning. We have, after all, been rather lax these past few years in reviving the soil with mulch and fertilizer to the extent that our little plot has reached the consistency of fine kitty litter.

A change of bedding and healthier ground is in order. That's was the diagnosis for White's pig too. Too late for the pig, too late for this year's tomatoes, alas. I am to be plumb out of plums.

As Mr. White might say, "I have written this account in penitence and in grief and about a bushel short of Big Boys, as a man who once again failed to enter the Ayer's Cliff Fair, and to explain my deviation from the classic course of so many growers who actually know what they're doing."

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