The Real World


May 29, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Casco Bay, Maine. -- The tomatoes are in the ground at last. I step back and look at the neat rows, each small green plant set in its own mound of earth, waving slightly in the warm breeze, like a fragile banner to summer.

By July, I will tie them to stakes or encase them in their metal cages. But to do so now would be absurd, like tucking an infant into a king-sized bed.

In the next few hours, the temperature will dive by 40 degrees and on Sunday, it will rain solidly. The weatherman on the television set will banter with the anchors, apologizing for this inconvenient bout of bad weather, as if it were a flaw in his radar equipment.

In our human world, rain is an uninvited weekend guest, an affront to the tourist bureau, a spoil to the sport. Even a meteorologist, speaking on behalf of his viewers and his species, regrets the rain's inconsiderate timing.

From my window, holding a cup of tea in my hand and wrapped in sweaters, I will watch with a different perspective. Lovely weather for an infant tomato.

For most of the year, I confess, the relationship between such things as food and weather is as far from my consciousness as a report of fog holding up an airplane full of lettuce from California or apples from Australia. Winter is an obstacle to harvest if it keeps me from the supermarket. Food that is ''out of season'' doesn't disappear, it just costs more.

Like most Americans, I spend my life in what is called the built environment. Built by people for people. Weeks go by when I am officially ''outdoors'' for only minutes between home and parking spaces and man-made structures.

My climate is controlled and in my vocabulary the word nature is usually preceded by the adjective ''human.''

Then summer comes and with it a long-dormant appetite for ''real'' tomatoes. My deep abiding prejudice against any of the red fruit that comes by plane or train from some factory farm, my suspicion of any produce bio-engineered for shelf life, drives me back to the earth.

Maybe this is what it means to garden -- even in the small and amateurish way that has produced vegetables on my fraction of an acre. Digging out New England's most abundant crop -- rocks -- from dirt that is not dirty, I experience a different sort of belonging.

I can feel my sense of the human place in the scheme of things shift a degree or two from the center of the universe. The weather isn't here for us. The world isn't here for us. However great and personal is my greed for sliced tomatoes, I know that I am essentially playing by nature's rules, on nature's home turf.

As Bill McKibben writes in ''The Age of Missing Information,'' his book comparing the world of nature and that of television, ''Even the dullest farmer quickly learns, for instance, a deep sense of limits . . . some sense that the world as a whole has limits, a piece of information we've largely forgotten.''

In the next weeks, my plants will, with luck, take root and begin their miraculous ascent. At the same time, a group of world leaders will arrive in Brazil at what is billed as the Earth Summit.

They will be greeted with much fanfare. Much attention will be paid to politics and the environment, the politics of the environment. The television cameras which, as Mr. McKibben notes, cannot film the destruction of the ozone or the greenhouse effect, will focus perfectly on people.

But I wonder how many of these people traveling by plane and limo and expense account from one cabinet room to another will put aside ego for environment. How many have been outside of human nature long enough, recently enough, to recognize that while we can destroy the world, it isn't just ''ours.''

''Human beings -- any one of us and our species as a whole -- are not all-important, not at the center of the world,'' writes Mr. McKibben. ''That is one essential piece of information, the one great secret, offered by any encounter with the woods or the mountains or the ocean or any wilderness or chunk of nature or patch of night sky. . . .''

It's this information that grows in the garden as well, though in a modest domesticated version. It's in the land that measures time by seasons, not clocks or calendars. It's in the soil that reaches into the past and future beyond the brief egocentric moment that I call it ''mine.'' It's there as well, in the lesson that the rainy weather this day may be bad for tennis, but it's good for a patch of infant tomatoes.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.


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