Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Beans and Compassion

All summer long, I've been tending them.

They weren't much to look at, those little bushes, filling a three by ten foot plot to the right of our driveway.  In those first days of summer, they'd had a hard start of it, as life often does.  Some never made it much past being shoots, and then withered and died.  Others looked promising at first, but then marauding bunnies nibbled off their tender first leaves, and starved of life-giving light, they hardened into dead twigs.

Every morning, I tended them.  A little weeding, and a little water as needed.  Where one died or was devoured, I replanted.  Some struggled to stay upright as they grew, so I'd lay in a little stake next to them and give them a boost towards the sun.

By late summer they still weren't much to look at.  Just a dozen or so nondescript plants, the tallest barely reaching my knees.  But under their leaves could be found, every other day, a festival of green beans.  They'd spring into being, leaping forth from the tiny white flowers.

I still tended them, and watered them as needed.   And every other day, I'd spend ten minutes harvesting.  For a couple of months, we had beans enough to fill our four plates twice a week.  More than enough, in fact.  Ziplock bags full of freshly picked beans made their way into the hands of family and neighbors.

As the growing season drew to a close, though, the time was going to come when those humble little bushes would stop yielding.   And having spent the summer with them, I felt their identity as living things rather more intensely than I would had I bought a bag of flash-frozen beans from Trader Joes.

They're pretty basic beings, greenbeans.  They pour all their energy into growth, as a single bean contains the data and energy needed to turn the sun's light and the nutrients in soil into shoots and leaves.  If they have a purpose, and all living things need to have purpose, it is to make more beans.  The beans are, after all, their past and their future.  Their children.  The next generation.  That is pretty much the entirety of what they do, and in so far as such a simple, sub-sentient living creature has an identity, that's who they are.

So as summer waned to fall, I marked certain beans with tape, particularly on my largest and most vigorous plants.  Those beans I allowed to grow and grow, and then to yellow and wither.  When they dried out, I popped them from the plants.  Each of those dried beans yielded three or four perfect seeds, utterly indistinguishable from those that tumbled out of the packet I bought from Burpee back in the late spring.

I let them dry further, and then all went into a little jar, which I'll soon seal up with some moisture-absorbing material.  Seed enough for fifty or more plants now inhabit that jar.  On the one hand, that's the practical thing to do, and will save me a couple of bucks come next summer.  Why pay for seed, when your plants will give it to you for free?  My Scots blood burbles happily in my veins at such a delightful opportunity for thrift.

But thrift wasn't really the motivation for saving seed.  I felt a peculiar but inescapable gratitude to these simple living things. I've tended them, nurtured them, and cared for them.  I know that their entire purpose is for more beans, their offspring, to grow next year.  In exchange, all summer long, they've fed me and my loved ones.  I know that more beans are the simple purpose of those simple things.

Having gotten to know them, it seemed the least I could do to help make that happen.