Sample PassagesWhat's Wrong With This Picture?
'Five Second Rule'
What's Wrong with This Picture?
The garden catalogs start filling the mailbox before Christmas. Each brings a tiny flash of joy, a down payment on a future evening with the luxury of time to consider this variety and that color for the next garden season. But just as quickly as the catalogs arrive, I hide them on a bookshelf. Not now; it’s too soon. Put that experience on hold; keep it in the bank; save it for a snowy day. December is busy enough with guests, travel, shopping, more guests. Endless to-do lists. Mind and spirit distracted.
But now, with the holidays cold and gone, winter is too much among us. For too long I have delayed the gratification of getting down and dirty with choices for this year’s plantings, for reasons that I just can’t recall anymore. I’m in withdrawal. I need my garden fix: weeds to pull, rows to dig, insects to squash between my fingers. Or, if I can’t have the real thing, some serious planning time. So on a quiet evening deep amid February’s blue freeze, I move the stack of garden catalogs to the family room. I feel a rush of excitement as I grab one and admire the cover. Here we have a smiling middle-aged man surrounded by an impressive array of harvest. Deep green lettuce and peas. Vine-ripened tomatoes. The whitest corn. Massive perennial flowers. How happy his life must be.
Wait. Stop. Blow the whistle. Foul! Just where on earth, I wonder, can cool-weather and hot weather crops mature at the same time? What manner of magic has this gardener employed? Are we seeing some space alien’s time-travel experiment, or could it be that this photo is a composite, a fake? I laugh at the clever yet shameful use of technical devices that have created this fantastic array of near-nirvana.
But I’m angry; these people are setting a gardening standard that’s impossible for us mortals to reach. They’re pretending that we can fool Mother Nature, that we can have it all, and all at the same time. How many people will slave for a lifetime to try to achieve this gardening zenith, not knowing that their efforts are doomed to end in inglorious defeat?
Then again, some small voice inside me asks: Why not lay down this marker, this ultimate standard, and dare gardeners to reach it, or at least approach it? Maybe this will be the one year in a thousand, or in a million, that somehow allows that last creamy head of slow-bolting lettuce, tucked away in a shady corner of the spring garden, to shake off the heat and intensity of the onrushing summer while the earliest tomato vine, stimulated with just the right amount of fertilizer to force one fruit to mature without causing the vine to explode into green goop, helps complete this picture just as the photographer happens to come by to shoot the next catalog cover.
This might be a season for dreams, but I can’t completely lose sight of what’s real and what’s practical as I flip through catalog pages. My plot is confined by a deer-resistant, nine-foot-high fence of plastic wire mesh, about 30 feet by 65 feet. The six raised beds are in the middle, flanked on each side by rows of perennial plants. There’s room for a few more annual plants in a corner. Maybe melons this year? Oh, that’s right, snails and other creepy crawlers take them out just before they ripen. Sunflowers, perhaps? Showy, and edible seeds are a bonus. But they’re so big and heavy, and every big storm flattens them.
Could I start over, go back to square one, think outside the raised bed? Maybe pull out some of the existing perennials—those space-devouring rows of asparagus, raspberry and blueberry plants, or the peach trees? Dare I contemplate a total makeover, to develop a fantasy land of curved paths, ornamental trees and grasses, topiary, statues, a fountain or two, and cheerful perennial flowers like bee balm and astilbe and black-eyed susan? So many plants have enticed me from the pages of seed catalogs and coffee table gardening books for decades—almost none of which would survive in the deep shade and thin soil of the yard surrounding my own home about a mile away—though Jean has managed to keep beautiful clusters of deep-blue irises and authentic Virginia bluebells going there.
I could return to square one here on this little piece of horse farm. But this is not, and never will be, the kind of formal garden that draws horticultural pilgrims from miles around, the sort of setting where concert violinists play for Versace-wrapped guests as they sip Merlot and mutter in astonishment at the accomplishments of a garden genius. You won’t see nature photographers flocking to this horse farm to study form and function and symmetry and all those wonderful attributes of classic American and Asian and European gardens. This is roughly 2,000 square feet of haphazard design, conflicting colors, weedy paths and mundane crops surrounded by a plastic fence. Yet even if I could, I wouldn’t trade this humble plot for the most lush, colorful, exotic, awe-inspiring example of gardening perfection on the planet—not even Claude Monet’s exquisitely restored water garden in Giverny, France. Because this humble garden, for all of its faults, is mine.
Having any sort of garden was never a priority for me growing up in the fifties and sixties, wearing a cowboy hat and firing cap guns at everything that moves and spending every cent of my allowance on baseball cards (thanks, Mom, for keeping every one). As a teenager I watched disinterestedly as my father planted tomatoes against a fence. Sometime after finishing college, however, amid my first pitiful tomato plantings, gardening began to feel like more than something I did just because I had a yard. And then, one day, without warning, I was hooked. I felt that I “owned” the land I tilled, regardless whether it was on my own property or a neighbor’s or one of the community garden plots I have enjoyed cultivating at times.
The years rolled by, with career ups and downs: newspaper jobs, magazine jobs, in between jobs. Personal highs and lows, too. As life played out, gardening was always there—or else not far from my thoughts. Wherever I was able to drive spade into soil became my home away from home, my retreat from the slings and arrows of life, a source of renewal, a place to find myself when I felt lost. That’s still the case. And though plants can surpass our wildest dreams and expectations, or they can crash and burn, dragging spirits down with them, there is nothing that can happen in a garden that can shake the belief that it stands for something special, that it is an imperfect reflection of an absolute good—regardless of the number of peaches that rot or basil seedlings that get pilfered by nesting birds.
If someone is determined enough to shatter the laws of time and space to fake a photo on a catalog cover in the attempt to illustrate the impossible gardening dream, perhaps it’s their way of telling us that we can have it all. We shouldn’t become trapped by other people’s expectations, but we can allow ourselves the luxury of dreaming big.
So I soldier through the catalog pages a second time and peruse a couple more, keeping an open mind for new things to grow and new places to grow them. But there’s no need to decide today; plenty of time to work through the merits of the vast cornucopia of alternatives and to drag out the slow, sweet pleasure of deciding on the perfect addition. So what if choices get reassessed, doubted, discarded, rediscovered and rethought again and again? If the waiting is the hardest part, perhaps we can turn it into the most rewarding aspect of our winter rituals. We can lose ourselves in our visions and cast aside the ordinary, the today, when we want to. We can pull up our knees on the couch, sip warm tea, savor the possibilities. Let the image of rows of bean seedlings bursting through the soil line in soldier-like formations replace the reality of today’s ice storm. We can almost feel the brilliant late-May sunlight start to give us the first true sunburn of the year. We can look forward, and back, to a vision of happier days, minutes, split-seconds. Even better than the picture on the front of the seed catalog, thanks to the malleable lens that is the mind.
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My fear about the poor early showing of my spring crops has proven unfounded. Lots of happy green sprouting has resulted from milder days. So now, I’m going to pay for my impatience.
Where first I planted soft head lettuce, I now have a mish-mash of those seedlings plus the leaf lettuce I overplanted on the same spot. And, I must admit, even if I had not put in a second planting, it is becoming apparent that in some spots the first seeds have sprouted so enthusiastically, and so close together, as to not only prove me wrong but also to demand that I make some choices. Tough choices. Life-and-death choices.
Here’s a formula for thinning seedlings. Look first for the patches where they are the thickest, where if no seedling were removed all would die from overcrowding. Pull out the ones in the center first, then work toward the edges of the patch radially and continue to remove seedlings until the remaining plants are relatively well spaced apart—meaning that they are so far apart that they won’t touch each other for a week or two as they continue to grow. Then water so that the roots of the remaining plants re-settle.
That formula ignores for the time being the fact that, ultimately, each maturing plant needs eight to 10 inches of space. If from the beginning I were to plant each seed nine inches apart, there’s the danger that low germination would waste space, and gardeners hate to waste space in a garden bed, ever. This plan allows for a high percentage of space being used. And it allows for an early and continuing harvest of thinnings, which can be used in salads as soon as the seedlings removed are big enough to be worth washing and consuming.
But this formula ignores another fact, one that I must face again every spring, despite all the satisfaction and rewards that this garden brings to me.
I am a mass murderer.
I kill. And kill again. And no one, no thing, can stop me. What cruelness or evil do I possess that can allow me, can compel me to destroy the lives of these seedlings in large numbers on a regular basis?
Most of the time, when I thin plants, I don’t think consciously about the choices I make and the repercussions of those decisions. But every now and then, I feel a twinge of guilt, offer a mental apology, as if that makes anything better. Because I am sorry. I would rather not waste this small, seemingly insignificant incarnation of life. It matters not that, had I never bought that packet of seeds, this plant might have remained dormant, unalive, for the rest of time, or that had I not planted it at a good depth in a good spot with good watering it would not have sprouted.
How does God decide who or what lives and dies? Is God acting through me to thin out my seedlings in such a way as to allow as many plants as possible to grow, to be useful, to seek maturity before they are harvested or rot or are struck by a meteorite? That sounds too convenient a rationalization. I’m not getting off the hook that easily.
Look around. Everything in this garden, including me, is going to die. The asparagus plants might last 20, even 25, years. Beyond the fence, horses stamp impatiently in the barn, with many years of grazing and trail rides to experience before they move on to that great meadow in the sky. Tall trees bear witness to their longevity with their pitted bark and even the proud wounds of long-ago lightning strikes; some might last a century or more.
Yet for every lettuce seedling, asparagus plant, horse and tree that fulfills its so-called expected lifespan, and perhaps a little more, there is an ending. For those that don’t finish the race, whether they last a day or a century, there is an ending. Who is to say how long a life is right for each?
The same irrational math goes for people. I could have died in childbirth, in a crash on the Capital Beltway, from a heart attack while thinning lettuce. Friends, relatives, strangers come down with incurable cancer, slip on an icy curb and fall into the path of a truck, perish after running into a burning building while trying to save an elderly relative. Who decides? What’s the rationale? Why is there no avenue for appeal? Why must it happen at all?
Darwin and a few others discovered and honed the theory of survival of the fittest. It’s nature’s way. But as a business model, is it really effective? Isn’t there a better way? Our planet is overflowing with life. It seems, at times, to be all too much, out of control. Of all the mosquito or praying mantis eggs created, only a few hatch. Of the ones that hatch, only a few survive a week or two. Even fewer last long enough to mate and produce young, and then they too are gone. If every lettuce seed ever produced by my garden and yours and everyone else’s sprouted and lived to maturity, we would be overrun by lettuce. Except, of course, that we would be equally overrun by daisies, and by artichokes, and by groundhogs. And, of course, by people.
Why all the excess? Why the “fecundity,” as Anne Dillard asks in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” one of the best books ever written. Is this some grand insurance policy? Create a thousand or a million or a billion times more copies of each species than we really want or need, just to ensure that two survive? Are we dealing with a madman?
Consider the Atlas Moth. The Atlas Moth lives for only five days. Maybe ten, at best. Assuming that it is not eaten by a predator, run over by a steamroller or simply unable to break through the chrysalis from which it is supposed to emerge for its brief time in the sun.
The Atlas Moth, which is native to Asia, has no mouth. It never eats or drinks. Its sole purpose in life is to create more Atlas Moths, which in turn have the sole purpose of creating still more Atlas Moths, all of which have no mouths.
They secrete small amounts of silk, but not enough to be particularly valuable commercially. They must fulfill some other purpose beyond what man has discovered, if only to act as some important piece of the food chain. Their decomposing bodies must make some infinitesimal contribution to the soil of their native lands. Maybe their bright brown and red wings, with eye-like white spots, attract or scare off another insect or bird or human, starting, continuing or completing a chain of causation that affects other life. They must have a reason for being. Otherwise, why create them just to kill them after a mere five to ten days? Where do they fit in the morality chain?
Viewed in this light, my killing of lettuce seedlings doesn’t seem quite so bad. Certainly, the issue of thinning plants is not going to keep me from seeding my plots generously. Surely, I’m doing more good than bad by raising as many plants as I can, or so I tell myself. Agonizing over these tough choices might save our souls, or not. It might help limit someone’s hunger, it might brighten the planet in the smallest way, or it might be a waste of time. In a perfect world, the life-and-death decisions we make should be the ones that are most informed, most understood. But this is not a perfect world. It’s eat or be eaten, kill or be killed. Survival of the fittest.
And I’m very partial to salads.
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The sun is out. The earth is drying. Spring crops are bursting upward and outward like they’re on steroids. Time to level out the paths and re-cover them with wood chips. I borrow one of the wheelbarrows John and Virginia and their steady stream of visitors use in and around the barn, such as for cleaning out straw and horse poop and dumping it in the compost pile. I will pass through the gate to the fenced paddock area where Virginia gives riding lessons. I will approach a second gate, this one leading into a larger fenced area where the horses eat hay and crop grass and shelter under tall trees on beastly hot days. There, maybe a total of 150 yards from the front gate of my garden plot, is John’s pile of wood chips.
These are small, nicely chopped up bits of lumber that John had delivered a few years ago. “I think they’re organic. They must be organic,” John says. “I know the guy who supplies them. He’s in the tree business and grinds up trees and limbs that have been taken down on people’s property.” They’re not waste from some industrial mill town where the air always tastes like kerosene and looks like London circa 1890.
My task is simple: Go through the two horse gates, fill the wheelbarrow, go back through the two gates and haul the wood chips to the spots where I need them. Unfortunately, when I built my raised beds I was so conscious about their power to maximize growing space that I made the paths between them about two inches too narrow to allow the smallest wheelbarrow on the farm to be maneuvered through them. That lack of foresight, however, is the least of my problems.
The real problems are named Decker, The Other One Who Looks a Lot Like Decker, and Some Other Horse.
Those are probably not their “real” names. But then, who is to say what a horse’s real name is? John might have named Decker Decker, or Decker might have been the horse’s name when John took him in. Poor guy had been neglected, possibly abused, John says. But Decker might have his own name for himself, and it probably isn’t Decker. Maybe it’s He Who Wants to Eat Everything. Or Best Stud in the County. Or, more likely, He Who Mashes Gardeners.
Decker and his buddies are healthy equestrian specimens. And to a product of the suburbs who rode a horse only once and kept struggling in vain to find the remote control, horses might as well be Russian tanks crossing the Polish border or Martian invaders with limbs so thick they can crush a man without breaking a sweat. Hoofs like meteorites screaming through the atmosphere. Teeth like giant buzz saws.
Okay, so maybe I’m a little intimidated by horses. And, okay, maybe they know it. But I’ve got a college education. I’ve been around animals all my life. Well, cats, and only since I was 30. But really, how scary can Decker and his buddies be?
As it turns out, real scary. These boys are large.
I’m at the first gate. There’s an adult rider working in the barn but no one using the paddock at the moment. I struggle with the chain, fumbling as nervously as the first time I tried to unhook a girl’s bra. On the third try, I open the clasp on the chain and slowly slip the chain out between the gate post and the gate itself. I begin to swing open the gate so that I can move my wheelbarrow through the opening.
Not so fast, says Some Other Horse. He marches straight to the opening. My God, an escape in progress!
I grab the chain, frantically looping it around the two posts and trying to re-lock the clasp before this huge, several-hundred-pound beast can reach my location. It’s a close call, but escape averted, at least for the moment.
John and Virginia have never spelled out what would happen to me if I let one of the horses get loose. But I can imagine: First, it goes roaring through the yard, getting tangled in and destroying my deer fence. It thrashes and struggles to get loose, rolling over and smashing my raised beds, then bolting off the property, racing down the road, plowing into cars and setting off a chase with police sirens wailing before animal control officials can race to the scene, where they shoot me with a tranquilizer gun before doing the humane thing and “putting me to sleep.”
Never mind the fact that every month or so I see one of the horses—I can’t remember which—grazing serenely in the yard around my fence, completely free to escape should it want to. I can’t count on any of these behemoths doing the right thing if it slips by me. So let’s try a diversion. I toss rocks and other small items toward the rear of the horse pen, hoping to distract Some Other Horse or to get him to think I’ve just bribed him with a candied apple. Nothing doing; he’s still poised to pounce the moment I open the gate. Let’s try reverse psychology: I walk away, speaking casually but softly enough that maybe the woman working in the nearby barn won’t hear me: “I’m not interested in opening that gate today, buddy. Think I’ll go play in the mud.”
I toss a stick to the family dog, another one of John’s reclamation projects by the name of Shadow, and come back in a few minutes. I think it worked. I have succeeded in accomplishing something few of my college buddies probably ever even tried: I have made a horse feel bored.
I slip through the first gate while Some Other Horse crops serenely. Locking that gate, I move to the second gate, I repeat the drill, and I’m through. Now it’s on to the wood chips.
There are only two horses in this second area. But curious horses. They see me pushing that wheelbarrow, and they make a beeline, or horseline, to intercept me. “Nothing to see here,” I state confidently. “No food here. Go about your business.”
Truth is, I’m not surprised by their interest. John probably comes this way with wheelbarrows full of hay or other feed rather frequently. Perhaps they think I have a special treat for them—or perhaps they expect a treat in return for my appropriation of a few pounds of wood chips. Maybe in their horsey minds they think I’ll brush them or ride them or recite poetry to them or do something to make their horsey days just a little less boring.
Try to act casual, I tell myself. No sweat. No sudden moves.
This isn’t good: They are surrounding me, one on each side, almost in lockstep with me as I head toward the pile of wood chips. One of them, Decker or his double, moves right in front of my wheelbarrow; I’m forced to slam on the brakes. He puts his nose into the wheelbarrow, sniffs for food. There is a small residue of hay there; that just seems to pique his interest, or appetite.
No, that’s not it. It’s the shovel that interests him. And … he’s … biting it. He’s biting the shovel. Twice he tries to chew on it or grasp it in his teeth while I and the other horse watch in amazement. Third time, Decker or The Other One Who Looks a Lot Like Decker has the shovel in his mouth. He is picking up the shovel with his teeth. It’s not my imagination; I’m really seeing this. This horse has a shovel in his teeth, and he’s lifting it out of the wheelbarrow and beginning to swing it around.
This is it, I realize. I’m going to die.
Instantly, I regret having not resolved a question that’s been bouncing around in the dusty, back recesses of my mind for years: Do I want to be buried or cremated? First of all, I don’t want to die. Really don’t want to. But assuming that I can’t prevent it, maybe I should be buried, or frozen like Walt Disney (but not like Ted Williams, please). Because someday they might find a cure for whatever kills me. Or they can take my DNA and regrow me, maybe even find a way to recover or reprogram some of my memories based on photo albums and who knows what technology we haven’t even dreamed of yet. And besides, we don’t know for sure that we lose all perception when we see that white light and float down that corridor of no return and leave our bodies behind. Maybe it’s just a different plane of existence. Maybe we retain just enough mental power that if one were to equip a coffin with, say, a 42-inch plasma flat screen and a decent cable connection, we could watch “Law and Order” reruns for all eternity.
With cremation, you’re toast. Probably nothing to save. I’d take up less space, so that’s kind of appealing in a green, environmentally-friendly sort of way. But this whole thing with having your ashes spread in a favorite place—like a football field or the Grand Canyon—or being shot into space: I can’t quite buy in to that. I have enough trouble keeping myself together now, so to speak.
Reverie shattered. Decker or The Other One Who Looks a Lot Like Decker has put down the shovel. I pick it up, smoothly and slowly, and move closer to the wood chip pile. I’m determined to complete my mission, to prove that I can bring much-needed wood chips to my garden in less than an hour. If I’m going to die someday, might as well be at the “hands” of a horse. No worse than giving up the ghost in some depressing cancer ward or by putting on the snorkeling equipment upside down after one too many daiquiris on a Bahamas vacation.
I’m still being followed by the two beasts as I reach the wood chips and begin shoveling. As I start my trip back to the garden plot, the horses move even closer, with one pushing his nose up against my shoulder, but I keep on, praying silently that no one will notice if my underwear isn’t as fresh as it should be come afternoon’s end. I stop about halfway back to the next gate, arms fatigued, and one of the horses is in front of me again, hoof raised, pawing in the direction of the front of the wheelbarrow. He’s got his leg high enough to actually place a hoof on the front edge of the wheelbarrow. Now he’s, he’s pounding his hoof on the front of the wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow is bouncing. He’s trying to turn it over!
Forget any hope for clean underwear today. Good thing I’m on a horse farm, where a certain bouquet is always “sweetening” the breeze.
After recovering from the initial shock of this sight, I kind of go limp. This is all too much to process, too much to believe. If this horse is smart enough and determined enough to spill my wheelbarrow full of wood chips, good for him. Soon, however, my two new best friends tire of the game. They go off to eat. I push my wheelbarrow back through two gates, take a deep breath and exhale with a sigh after clearing the final hurdle. The wood chips get spread on the paths. It’s obvious I need about eight more loads to get the job done. But that’s enough excitement for one day.
I wonder if, somewhere else in the world, another gardener is watching a horse grab a shovel in its teeth at this very moment, is eyeing a horse knocking over a wheelbarrow with its hoof. I wonder if that gardener handles it well, escapes unscathed, or is wondering about me, laughing his butt off at someone who just spent close to half an hour for such a small reward.
One of the great things about gardening is that you can make a fool of yourself, or something or someone else can make a fool of yourself, and you really don’t care. You come back the next day or the next week and head right back into battle with the horses or whatever other demons you confront. You might not win. But you sure can enjoy the game.
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'Five Second Rule'
“Mr. Bates, we’d like to know what your thoughts were when you placed this order.”
“Well, officer, I was at work, and I was sort of busy. So maybe I was distracted.”
“Distracted, you say. Distracted enough to order an entire truckload of wood chips, to be dumped in the driveway of the LaRocque family on Saturday the 12th at 9:30 a.m.? Do you know the penalty for such a crime?”
This vision has me suspended in a web of fear and loathing as I pull into the driveway in question on a muggy morning. Oh, no. There it is, just like in my nightmare, but bigger. More like a mountain than a truckload of wood chips, it seems. What was I thinking? There are enough wood chips here to cover every garden plot and park in Topeka to a depth of six inches, plus plenty left over for Grantville, Berryton and Silver Lake.
Virginia LaRocque is the first to confront me. I manage a feeble smile. There’s nowhere to hide.
“That’s quite a pile of wood chips,” she says in a reasonably neutral voice. Not much of a hint of condemnation. More a sense of astonishment.
“I’m sorry about that,” I offer. “When I was on the phone ordering them, I kind of got carried away.”
“Um hum,” she murmurs. A kind sort of tone, but then, Virginia always sounds kind.
“I was thinking that it would be silly to order just enough wood chips for this year, so I thought I’d get some extra. And the price they quoted me didn’t seem very high. It’s just that when I started converting square feet to cubic yards I lost a sense of proportion. Funny thing is, when I was in college I started out as a math major.” Which is true. “Who’d of thunk it?” replies Virginia, who now is joined by John. He’s also smiling. Because he has a joke for me.
“Steve, I think it’s time for you to learn to operate a tractor.”
Great joke. I laugh. John doesn’t.
“It’s not hard. There’s a learning curve, but once you get going it’s pretty basic. And you can’t hurt it.”
I stammer. “Ah, I never learned to work a clutch. I almost destroyed Jean’s Volvo one weekend, and I never tried again.”
John is resolute. I wither.
And, lo and behold, 15 minutes later I’m sitting atop John’s front-loader, shifted into low gear, backing up, moving forward, raising the scoop, adjusting the angle of scoop, backing into a tree and leaving a nasty scar—when did that maple get put there?—and I am nearly as astonished at myself as are John and Virginia’s horses, who are watching me with great interest and no doubt betting among themselves how long it will take for me to destroy most of the neighborhood.
Hey, this is fun. I’m digging into this enormous pile of wood chips, lifting a scoop full, driving them to my plot and dumping them over the fence into the plot for distribution on the paths at a later time. I do a quick mental calculation: If I work nonstop, I could move about one-fourth of the entire wood chip pile to spots in my garden, and the remaining three-fourths to an appropriate spot beside John’s mulch pile, in—say--a mere 2.4 million billion hours. If I worked nonstop.
“Take all the time you need,” says John. As in the prison movies when the guard tells the inmate, “Take all the time you want. When you’re done breaking those rocks, we’ll find you a hundred more.”
But I have earned this duty, deserve this penance. And in the end it will be worth it. If only to justify the “five-second rule.”
You know that rule from childhood. Maybe by another name, but it goes like this: That cookie (or other desirable edible item) that you dropped on the floor a few seconds ago really hasn’t had any time to get dirty. And if you pick it up fast, and eat it even faster, it’s like it never really fell on the floor. Even if Mom saw it. It’s just wrong to waste it. And heck, most kids eat 50 pounds of dirt by the time they reach puberty—well, boys do.
The five-second rule says that as long as you pick it up within five seconds, you can pretend that it never fell. It’s a rule invented by kids and for kids. It’s a rule that parents never would invent or accept on their own, but when their children invoke it, parents harken back to their own youths and the days when they tried the same scam with uncounted cookies, and maybe even a scoop of ice cream now and then.
But it’s a scam rooted in the innocence, and insistence, of youth. It makes a little sense if you don’t think about it too much--especially if the floor is reasonably devoid of dirt.
Which brings us back to a nice, big, fresh pile of organic wood chips. Spread them on the paths in your garden, and it’s almost like having a brand new hardwood floor. Clean and organic and fresh. So when you drop a plump, sweet raspberry or any other perishable food item onto the ground while you are attempting to harvest it, it’s natural to shout, if only to yourself: “Five-second rule!”
Harvesting raspberries and many other berries from canes involves almost as much of a learning curve as operating a tractor. First of all, the berries hide under branches and leaves, especially at peak harvest when the canes are bowed by the weight of the fruit. You need to wade into the thicket with a big plastic bag and lift each cane individually and gently. Because almost any movement of the cane prompts it to drop the ripest, juiciest berries onto the ground before you can get a hand or a bag under them. I have learned to hold my bag in one hand, with the bag as wide open as possible, under the cane as I lift it. I have figured out that I need to pick each berry with the index finger and thumb of my right hand, with the palm up, in the effort to catch the berries that fall before I grasp them. Between the bag and the palm, I catch many precious pieces of fruit. But for every jumper that I save, two or three plummet to the ground.
And, once I am on the ground eyeing the berries, it’s not always evident which just fell and which have tumbled on their own in the past day or two. Ignore the rotten and smashed berries, inspect the candidates for salvation, take the best and move on.
But deep down, we know that the five-second rule is an artificial construct, a rationalization without full merit. It’s in a gray area—or red, in the case of rotting berries. On some level, though, we know that it’s lame.
When we start to rationalize what we do, knowing that it’s something that we should not do, where do we stop? Why not a five-hour rule, or a five-day rule? Why have a rule at all?
As a society, we live and die by rules—for the most part, by rules we don’t make individually. We argue and agonize and occasionally vote in order to change some rules, but we acknowledge that we need many rules for civilization to survive, even if we are bothered by the details and the enforcement of some of them.
Some rules are personal ones that we create or accept because we know their importance and because they resonate with our moral compass: We respect others. We protect our families. We don’t blow our kids’ college savings in Vegas. We don’t eat the last ice cream bar in the fridge without at least asking if anyone else wants it—even if the tone of our voice betrays the fact that we really, really want it. Rules, whether hard and fast or changeable, help us maintain the invisible borders that define our day-to-day actions.
They help us sleep at night.
Some of you moms probably can’t live with the five-second rule, and I won’t try to change your mind. If that works for you and yours, fine. As long as you don’t begrudge me the simple pleasure of picking up the occasional fallen fruit.
What we all need to keep in mind, though, is that there must be limits to our rationalizations. We can’t make up and live by all the rules we might wish to. It’s a slippery slope—particularly if the slope is coated by smashed berries.
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