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Yesterday I finished weeding the beans.
It seemed like such a small thing, in the July jungle of my garden. June rains had brought forth a high tide of grass, and then a fortnight of drought toughened up the weeds, which sent their sinewy roots deep. When you pull them, they make you fight for every inch.
“Never weed unless you mulch!” I tell myself each summer; i.e. when you weed, put straw down on the newly cleared patch immediately afterward so the weeds don’t just come back, like the telemarketer who promises to “catch you at a better time”. But “never weed unless you mulch” had turned into “never weed at all” somehow, as it so often does.
And so the beans, easiest of all vegetables to plant, easiest of all vegetables to maintain, sat stoic amongst a dense mat of spreading weeds. Carpetweed and purslane, spurge and chickweed. The beans were coping, as beans do. They’re not ones to complain. Anyone can grow beans, which is one reason I plant them.
Their pointed leaves, average-Joe green, drifted above a choking mass of radial foliage no more than half an inch high. The sun beat down on my neck. A weak impostor of a breeze stirred the invasive grasses all around. It would’ve been easier, I realized belatedly, to do this with the garden tools, which sat forgotten in the barn. Never mind, thought I, pinching the root hubs savagely with my fingertips. I can cope too. A drop of sweat trickled down, silently followed by another.
I picked my way from row to row, avoiding the pale bean stalks and attempting to spare the chervil – that poor low-growing sidekick with its minuscule, finely cut leaves, all but smothered by the annual predators. Chervil – delicate in taste, lacy in habit, thin-stalked and self-effacing – is the canary in the coal mine of my garden. When the garden’s well looked after, chervil thrives. This chervil was all but extinct.
I laid the last handful of straw in place, straightened up, and looked around. Seventeen beds of neglect stared back. I looked back at the bean bed, a small act of restoration in a wide world of chaos. I focused, hard, on the pattern of pale straw and bright leaves. “Whenever skies look grey to me…and trouble begins to brew….I concentrate on you.” I sang it to myself, and only in my mind.
Sometimes it feels like I can only grow one kind of garden: a garden of intentions, with a harvest of reproach. But the beans at least have no argument with me. For a scorching hour in a month of drought – drought for gardens, but also drought for freelance food writers – I felt gainfully occupied. Nobody said my idea was unpublishable. Nobody struggled through 600 stubbornly mediocre words. Nobody had to make the best of a pitch gone sour. Nobody needed to be cajoled into doing, or not doing, anything at all.
I slowly made my way back toward the house, passing beneath the grateful shade of the maple, trying out job titles. T. Susan Chang, seamstress. T. Susan Chang, occasional fortune teller. T. Susan Chang, underemployed pessimist. T. Susan Chang, friend to beans.
I decided I liked the last one best.