My vegetable garden has inspired me throughout the years as a writer. Amending the soil, is like enriching the language in revision, or coming up with rich ideas as foundation for story. Planning the garden out, making sure the tallest plants don’t cast shade on the others come mid-summer, is like planning structure. Making sure to plant vegetables and herbs I eat–that’s like making sure everything in a novel has a purpose and serves the existing themes (you really wouldn’t plant celery if you had zero intention of eating celery, right? And you really wouldn’t create a character who didn’t serve the story, right?).
The occasional pest, like gophers, is another painful lesson: for a year I let that gopher live, and that gopher ate everything in my garden (it pulled down my tomato plants, it pulled down my chamomile, my dill, every broccoflower, pea plant, carrot and radish). I couldn’t bear to kill it, but in the end, I had to for the sake of my garden; I had to kill my darlings, as every writer must do. Every year, the garden, in addition to nurturing my body, teaches me a lesson.
At first, I unleashed one of my wiener dogs (the one with the hunting prowess and loves to roll around in dirt, not the one who doesn’t like to get dirty) to hunt it down. Scarlet the Wiener Dog had a lot of fun pinpointing its location and unearthing its many underground tunnels (did you know that dogs don’t close their eyes when digging underground? She emerged with very irritated eyes):
But in the end, it was I, the gardener, who had to take matters into my own hands. Because the wiener dog never actually found the gopher, I set the trap. Writers have to do this, too. We have to take matters into our own hands; we cannot hire a proxy.
Now this year: volunteers. Volunteer plants are plants that grow on their own, without intent, blown in by the wind, or dropped by a bird, or as is most likely the case of mine, it’s mixed into compost that is introduced into the garden before the seed has broken down.
I admit: last year, before I got a compost bin, I got rrreal lazy and threw vegetable bits straight into a corner of my garden. So the reality is that this vegetable is likely one that I have eaten before–perhaps it is grey zucchini? Or a melon? I hope it’s summer squash and not winter squash–I’d hate for it to interfere with my triamble squash seeds (as I understand it, two different winter squash plants will cross pollinate and produce seeds that are not “true”).
Now this post is twofold:
- I am wondering if one of my dear readers can tell me what this volunteer plant might be (the one pictured above and at the top of this post). Is it a summer squash like I suspect? Perhaps a grey zucchini?
- To talk about volunteers as a metaphor for writing.
I wrote the first draft of my novel, and at times it was tedious, like pulling teeth from my characters. Putting words down just to get the words down, in what felt like the most unnatural progression. This part of writing is dreadful; like knowing I’m getting more lost by the minute, like walking into the WRONG part of the forest or getting off the wrong offramp. But I kept going because sometimes you have to put down the shitty words before you get to the good stuff. (I have to believe this, people).
But! When it went WELL–I felt the words flowing. When it went REALLY WELL, I felt delighted and surprised, sometimes even going as far as to laugh out loud. REALLY laugh out loud at what spontaneously appeared; whether in funny dialogue or stunning character action. This did not happen as often as I’d like, but it did happen–and it almost always felt spontaneous. (Here’s the irony: I sit and plan and plan and sit and write and write and plan in order to achieve that moment of spontaneity).
That feeling of spontaneous inspiration? It’s like a volunteer plant. Despite all that actual planning, I didn’t plan for it to exist (though it’s very welcome), and in some way, it feels like it was planted there by the Muse/G*d/Fate/Wind/Bird/Compost. I don’t know what the volunteer inspiration is going to turn out to be, but I let it grow, out of curiosity and delight, and because it FEELS right. And oftentimes, that’s the best part of writing, and the best part of story.
Now I have to nurture the plant, and identify it to make sure that it grows well, and that it fits into the scheme of things. I’m going with it.
What has popped up in your life and writing that was unexpected? And what did you do with it?
And um, what IS my volunteer plant? Do any of you know?
9 responses to “Volunteers”
1) Not sure what it is, but I agree that it looks summer squashish. The winter-summer thing is only sort of accurate. An Acorn squash, Spaghetti Squash, and Pumpkins can cross w/ summer squash. Your Triamble is a different species and should be OK, but just to be sure you can hand pollinate it and head the problem off at the pass.
Of course, the practical “bird in the hand” solution is to fry up those volunteer blossoms ASAP!
2) Volunteers: the bad and the good.
a) I can remember nurturing a volunteer melon in our family garden when I was a kid. The mystery was so exciting. I daydreamed about some exotic new flavor or color, maybe naming our new variety “Nate’s Magic Melon” or whatever. The melon ripened to a hairy, green exterior with pale green flesh that completely lacked sweetness –kind of like eating the rind. It was truly awful. Being the most adventurous, my father and I both tried another one in hopes that it would get better: nope, still awful. It turned out that they were so bad the horse wouldn’t even eat them!
b) Shortly after WWII my grandfather found a volunteer peach tree while he was out fishing. The tree was loaded with golfball-sized white fruit and he, being no fool, immediately filled his bucket. He ate and fished all day, then went home and planted a few of the pits. A tree grew and he eventually passed that variety on to my father and uncles, who have passed it down to my generation. Our family peaches don’t keep worth a darn, they bruise extremely easily, and the tree doesn’t stay in fruit for very long, but we wait all year to gorge on the same little peaches that my grandfather did on his fishing trip.
Living, writing, and gardening involve a lot of trial and error without the possibility of ever getting everything exactly in place and functioning. Fortunately, a well-made life, book, or a garden ends up being greater than the sum of its parts, so there’s always a room for a volunteer to jump in and thrive.
@Nate: I am artificially inseminating the triamble squash as quickly as I can–last year, I found I had to do this, in order to even get squash to ripen…this year, my purpose is 2 fold. 😉 I am allowing the volunteer squash to grow because I’m just too damn curious. If it ends up as a bleah rendition of butternut squash I may very well end up disappointed (do I even eat butternut? rarely).
I love your stories about the volunteer plants. I think they could even be a fantastic essay about legacy. Life can be planned out all we want–but the surprises are what make our life, no? Like your grandfather’s peach tree.
Thanks, I’m glad to do my part.
Recreation should be, by definition, about taking the time to remake a part of your life. In the case of the peach tree my grandfather took the time to go fishing and embraced a surprise that continues to enrich the lives of his great-grandchildren to this day. Not bad for a guy who died when the Berlin Wall was still standing.
With all of this buildup, you pretty much have to let it grow. Didn’t you have Spaghetti Squash sometime last year? That’s my bet (we are gambling on this, right?)
well put, Nate!
and zomg: yes! it *could* be spaghetti squash. you have dibs on that.
I’m excited to see what the volunteer vine really turns out to be (kind of like the random character who works his/her/its way in and either works, or doesn’t)! I have a lot of cilantro that came into my garden this way; that’s a good thing for me.
Not sure what my slipshod gardening says about my writing… or perhaps I do…
I never expected that blogging would quite take over my writing the way that it has… now I wonder if I should call it a weed rather than a volunteer!
I have no IDEA what your volunteer plant is; I’m so not a gardener and admire anyone who can do it.
@heather: I am rrreally hoping it’s a summer squash. But like Nate said, it could be spaghetti squash! I like a little bit of mess–in previous years, I meticulously planned out my garden and ended up overcrowding it–this year, I’ve planted a few things, and allowed some surprises to show. That’s a good thing, I think!
@Foodie: Blogging fulfills a need. I wouldn’t call it a weed! Maybe it’s (what is that crop you plant in the wintertime to overwinter and supply the soil with necessary minerals?) rye? Just something you need to nurture yourself.
CZ: You’re looking for “Green manure.” It’s more of a nitrogen & soil building thing.
FMB & CZ: Weed = A plant growing where you don’t want it to grow.
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