Something is tugging at my eye. It’s not unlike the way a toddler grasps the nearest familiar hem as a form of polite but insistent request for attention. “Hey, I’m down here!”.
Now is the eve of the harvest moon. Signs of the season are everywhere; the drying blooms of wayside flowers hang from stalks that droop in the lingering afternoon heat. The day is the color of near-ripe heads of rice, while in all the clandestine gardens appear fresh plantings of hardy late varieties: radish, garlic, greens. Lining every thoroughfare, the riotous stands of cosmos and daisy sway in gentle breeze; first-turning deciduous leaves are appearing everywhere, to be followed soon enough by the larch needles and the robust pointy trampoline-covers of the sycamore. There is so much to see of the rewards of horticulture and harvest around us, and we inspect all of it as we walk with the dogs through our thus-variegated neighborhood surroundings.
The Old Ones know things here, big things that the young ones can’t be bothered to hear told of, lest their stride in life’s latest marathon be broken. Only old ones know how unwise it is to let any square centimeter of soil go unbroken, unplanted, unwatered and unwatched, alert against the predations of man and nature hereabouts.
The prices of household vegetables rise almost daily; the choicest ones already gone beyond the means of more and more of those who now find themselves alone in a personal season to match the cooling and desiccating weather. It is their own winding-down marathon in the industrialized, capitalized world of their long now, the making of which has consumed every part of them but their withering husks, yet they garden on. They are indomitable, almost. Their efforts still inspire and educate those of to whom they are still visible, usually those of us who follow them most closely on time’s heels. Their example reminds us, their suburbanized, apartment-packaged neighbors and offspring, that food only grows on trees purposefully planted, by hand, and not in the marketplace, but here in the margins of our being.
The Old Ones are like the picked-over chili pepper trees, compact, robust, sturdy, always having produced more fruit than their harvest accepts for taking. Now that humidity has left the air, dried up and blown away by the last typhoon of the season, the peppers mature and change color rapidly. The harvest window is a small one, so rapidly do they fill out and mellow; not all do. When they are ready, they must be harvested quickly and spread to dry. For that, a secondary processing step hastens the finish. Each fat, spice-red finger is deftly quartered lengthwise and fanned out over any flat surface of adequate size, most often a sidewalk with good solar exposure. Any roll-up sheet or mat will do to hold them, or nothing will do, where the pavement has been washed clean by sun and rain. The days are still long enough, and the rays strong enough that two or three days of it will suffice. We stand admiring a spread of mats thickly strewn with the scarlet strips on the sidewalk across the roadway that winds among the dozens of 25- and 30-story apartment blocks just beyond. I shoot a photograph of that scene, half-aware of that nagging urge or…what IS it!? … tugging at the hem of my consciousness.
Then I see it, unobtrusive, contrastive, clear as the flowers at the end of their green stalks and stems. The pepper seeds are strewn in disorder where they have fallen, forgotten, beside the reed mat on which is spread the shards of pepper already wrinkled and shrinking from irradiation. The first stiff breeze will blow the tiny papery seeds away like so much dust, if the next rain doesn’t wash them down the nearest storm drain first. Whatever may happen to them, though, I know a few will survive to germinate voluntarily in the wild, to be discovered the following season by the penniless and opportunistic gleaner at the bottom of the human food chain. I have seen these things.
I ponder the meaning of the seeds, these tiny powerhouses of nature; I remind myself that all of the seeds of a single pepper are sufficient for enough seedlings for an entire forest-in-rows of new pepper trees. Thus I am reminded that in but two generations, a single seed is capable of producing a million new pepper trees, each with the potential to yield a million times a million more. I ponder this trove of potential and remember that this reproductive capability of the pepper tree has not appeared solely as the result of Nature’s untroubled workflow. It is an enhanced fecundity produced not entirely on its own, but aided and enhanced by the hand of a thousand generations of Old Ones, whose offspring advanced with those of the peppers, both nurtured together. It was this help from the Old Ones, just as children and grandchildren are still helped, that brought these crops to be. The seeds came, too.
They must be carefully kept, both seeds and children, until the ground is properly conditioned to welcome them. They must be nourished and watered, the pests shooed and plucked and slashed and gouged away from them as they strain toward the same sun that made us all. Most of their seed, like these are, will come to little or nothing, yet more than enough will remain and thrive and ensure that their reputation for quality and uniqueness is deserved. And the peppers will make their way around the world in the same way as the people do who cannot thrive without daily sampling the peppers’ gift of tang and flavor, all of it from a single one of these tiny wisps of stuff.