Bean There (And Back Again)

Sorry for the radio silence here. I have been ill — in the hospital actually. Nothing serious or life-threatening, my nice Doctor says stress and overwork. Working 16-hour days, seven days a week for four months straight was not a good idea. Turns out I am not superwoman.

Crap.

I am on the mend, doing very well. My son Linden came home for a few days and my daughter Rosie is still here and says she has enough vacation saved up to stay as long as I need her.

I know my illness sounds alarming but I really am getting better every day.

Last evening, Rosie and I walked up to the top of the five-acre vegetable garden on the farm so I could point out to her all the things that needed doing. Seed work mostly. Seeds collected for the government genebank in Saskatoon, as well as some for the Regional Seed Bank in Truro, at the Dalhousie Agricultural Campus. Stephanie Hughes and I helped to establish that one through the Bauta Family Initiative for Canadian Seed Security in my role with Seeds of Diversity Canada. (You know I am a seedhead, right?)

Michelle's exotic apples. (Photo by Rosie Smith)

Michelle’s exotic apples. (Photo by Rosie Smith)

As we walked here and there through the field, plants and experiments I had tried to reconcile myself to abandoning because of my hospital stay surprised me again and again: Cosmonaut Volkov tomatoes, named for the Russian cosmonaut who died in space. I had been contracted to grow them and collect the seeds for Andrea Berry of Hope Seeds. It didn’t look like frost last night but seed stock for even a small commercial seed company must be of the highest quality, in my opinion.

We collected a bucketful of perfect fruit to supplement the 10 grams of seed I had already processed before falling ill, which was the minimum they needed. Now we have more than enough and I feel more at ease. I had already collected enough seeds from the Vantage tomatoes that Stephanie had sent me. She was excited by this find of hers from Newfoundland and I had been so touched to see she had gotten the seedhead fever. This morning, almost all the tomatoes had been felled by frost.

We rescued the tiny planting of Roja de Seda for the National Seed Library – a small red bean from Chile, almost lost in the weeds. We hadn’t planned on picking anything last night, but I became so anxious about losing it again, we found a plastic bag in my pocket and picked it all, just in the nick of time. Some of the pods had already started to shatter and a few beans were trying valiantly to sprout again. We left them to take their chances but took the rest of the pods back to the house and laid them out on brown paper on a tray to finish drying off enough for us to shell them.

Tomorrow, Rosie will finish pulling the lavender purple Mrocumiere beans before too many lodge and spoil. They originate in the Kenyan region of Africa. Once, when I was giving a seed presentation at the Fortress of Louisbourg, I had my usual bowl of mixed beans out for people to run their fingers through while I described where each one came from. A lovely couple exclaimed, “Look! Those are beans from home!” pointing at the Mrocumiere. I carefully explained that was unlikely because the beans came from Africa. They laughed uproariously, explaining to me that they were from Ghana. Everyone at the Fortress food fair shared the joke and I gave the couple some of my Canadian Mrocumiere to take back with them.

 

This morning, as I walked the farm again to show Rosie where to drive the tractor, I saw some of my apple trees were also giving me a big red hello. The Bramley’s Seedling had produced for the first time last year and had given a heavy crop. I hadn’t expected anything much this year, and I was right. A heavy crop like that is usually followed by a rest year for heirloom apples. Still, three huge apples, perfect and worm-free, will make a fine crumble!

So many of the other trees with their fine old names – St Edmund’s Pippin, Belle de Boskoop, Sandow, Lubsk Queen and Jefferies – bore fruit this year. I have waited for 20 years to taste a Sandow, a parent apple to many other connoisseur apples. This year, I have five. (Well, four now.) Oh my stars, it was good!

One tree I collected from the homestead of Ewan Cameron of River Denys. It is an early apple that doesn’t turn to mush right away and has a bright and fresh, not insipid flavor. It was a chance seedling and is therefore not named but I call it Cameron’s Green. The original tree died some years ago and as far as I know only I and Dorothy Pottie of Glendale ever troubled to graft scions from it until this year when David Baldwin and Mary Campbell came up one brave spring day to take some from my tree.

Collecting scion wood. L-R Mary Campbell, Michelle Smith, David Baldwin. (Photo by Catherine Campbell)

Collecting scion wood. L-R Mary Campbell, Michelle Smith, David Baldwin. (Photo by Catherine Campbell)

I am about to run outside now to see if the single Blue Pearmain apple is still there. That variety is notoriously long to come into bearing and I planted it the year after Linden and I moved to Skye Glen. This year, if I’m lucky, I will get to eat one. Just one. From a tree over 11 years old. I’ll let you know if it’s been worth the wait…

Argh! Not ripe yet – it will be at its best by December. I will have to wait. I will be able to tell by the aroma of the fruit just when to take that first bite. In the mean time, I have other pommes to fry. Namely, the Peruvian Purple Potatoes patiently awaiting their turn. Small fingerling potatoes, a deep royal purple all the way through, their beauty is not just skin deep. Wait a bit longer, I have to tell them, let’s get to the other, more vulnerable phytological friends first.

The Excelsior Barley, a beautiful hull-less grain with a purple head, was still standing tall, propped up by weeds. (When even the weeds are trying to help you, that says something, although I don’t know exactly what.)

The Club Wheat, which shares both my approach to hair-dressing and my picture in my Spectator bio, had been hard done by this season. I had forgotten that I had planted it along with the coriander and had plowed over it to put in what I call the mongrel garden – tomato plants left over from plant sales or which have lost their vitally important ID tags for the growouts. I only found the coriander by the smell of it being crushed under my boots about halfway through the summer. The coriander I love for itself – it is a lacy-leaved variety, not the flat, coarse-leaved one most people are familiar with. As soon as I realized I hadn’t lost it after all, I frantically weeded and gave it the best of care after its discovery that weekend in August.

The Club Wheat was unluckier still. Totally untended, nearly invisible under the smothering weeds, plowed under with the coriander, it kept growing unnoticed while I wandered through the mongrel tomato patch gathering for summer salads. I didn’t even see it while I spent two full days releasing the coriander from the understory only a few feet away. Just as the light was starting to go, as Rosie and I reached the top of the hill, the very last bed to visit, I spotted about two dozen all-but-forgotten heads. I felt moved to tears as I gathered them in.

Being sick has not been entirely without its gifts. On the hospital ward, I found grace and comfort in surprising places, kindness from people with far greater troubles pressing on their minds. There was also unkindness in surprising places as well. Not often, but often enough to remind me that even when we are at our most fragile and vulnerable, authority must still, gently but firmly, be questioned. And if we see others unable to do so for themselves, we must do our best to speak for them as well.

 

Another great gift of my illness is my family. It has been pressing on me in recent years how easily the experience and knowledge of the people who have taught me could disappear. I have been hesitant to fully engage my children in my own passions and pursuits; firm in my belief that we must each choose our own flight path. But Rosie and Linden, living the closest, have stepped in to shoulder much of my work in my present time of need. Not only am I grateful for the love, which lets them do it willingly and cheerfully, but I am delighted to see my daughter get excited driving the tractor for the first time. My father always says everyone should get to drive a tractor at least once. Now she knows what he means.

The author. (Photo by Madeline Yakimchuk)

The author. (Photo by Madeline Yakimchuk)

My son, always the anxious, careful one, seems even more adult as he cares for me and shows me how much he’s been worried. It was no accident that the main imaginary voice running around inside my head during my panic attacks was his, saying things like “Really? You really think you can sell that one? Three quarters of a cup of Kiss My Ass, Mom. That’s the recipe.”

I think often of my daughter Laurel, living in France and spelunking in her spare time. I don’t usually use Facebook much. For an active farmer it just seems like a black hole for the mind, but I follow her page and the photos on it religiously, though I haven’t worked out how to do anything else on FB. One part of me worries that rappelling down muddy cliff faces in the dark should perhaps not involve any wine. But it is France and last year I sent her a package of cocktail napkins that read “Just how much fun can I have before I burn in hell?” (Along with some bean seeds for her garden, of course.)

Full credit for voices keeping me sane goes to Madeline Yakimchuk whom I had asked to help with pulling beans when I had begun to feel overwhelmed with work. I had started earlier in the day than we had agreed in a frenzy to keep the panic at bay. The daughter of a union man, the first thing she yelled at me as she got out of her car was “You filthy, rotten scab!”

When you can belly laugh like I did that day, you know that, at least for a while, your feet are firmly on the ground.

As I walk with my children over the land I live on and love, still anxious about all the small tasks at the end of the farm year so important to continuing my work, I see they have been listening and watching all these years. They are all certainly flying their own way, but they circle back to hover over me to make sure my work can be carried on.

Honestly, I feel quite exalted in some ways, even through this terrible experience. Feeling the sun, wind and rain on my face after 11 days on a hospital ward feels indescribably sweet and good. I may even have to go so far as to admit to Gerard MacPhee that there may possibly, actually be a God. (Or maybe not. Gerard’s a good pal – a staunch and devout Catholic – but it would really hurt to give him the chance to gloat in our on-going, competitive, teasing friendship.) He once told me that as far as skeptics were concerned, everyone else was an amateur compared to me. He is the kind of friend who, when you try to thank him for his help, will look at you in disbelief and say, “I told you I was your friend 20 years ago. If that changes, I’ll let you know.”

When I ran this article by him, he was actually rather kind about it. “You don’t have to believe in God,” he said. “How about just a guardian angel?”

Well, we’ll see. I expect it won’t be too long before I have my feet back under me. Around here, even when you fall flat on your face, there are a lot of friends to help prop you up again so you can keep going. Some you didn’t even know you had. Thank you to all of you, from my heart.

 

 

 

Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Cape Breton Spectator is entirely reader supported. Please consider subscribing today!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

.