Sewanee, TN – I play a game with the 12-year old whom I tutor called, Would you rather? We ask each other things like: Would you rather discover that the Parmesan on your pizza is dried boogers or find a black widow spider in your shoe? It’s creative and he’s better than I am at coming up with all matter of grossness. That makes him the winner. My newest idea is Would you rather put boots on straight out of an episcopalian thrift store or let another insect gain a few precious bite-fuls of your tomatoes while you look for your shoes? I’m going to be great at this game after a summer of gardening in Tennessee.
Something, I realized, is denuding the tomato plants. I mention it to a Tennessee friend. Do the Japanese beetles eat every part of the leaf, including the veins? Would you rather know what’s eating your tomato plants or learn there’s yet another pest in the garden? Three of the 23 plants were now spindles of trunk and stem.
Maybe it’s a hornworm, she suggested, describing a large green caterpillar. I forgot to ask how large. I knew the solution though. Bacillus thuringiensis – a bacterium carrying a toxin which becomes soluble when combined with the alkaline PH inside a caterpillar’s gut. I bought a good amount of the dust and drove home so energized to dust the plants that, without thinking, I tucked my jeans into my new (to me) two-sizes-too-big 80’s hiking boots — barefoot. I bought them for 50 cents. They even have custom inserts.
I stomped out to the garden and dusted like a snowstorm. This would be the hornworm’s last stand. I didn’t see anything unusual and noticed that my feet were beginning to itch…likely from the dust, right? Then I felt a rush of adrenaline as I spotted the offender.
Beneath one frond of the heirloom Cherokee purple tomato plant was a green caterpillar the size of my pinky – three inches long and as big around as a learner pencil they give you in kindergarten. On its behind – “the last abdominal section” – rose a red curved spike. Its body undulated. My stomach turned. How I wish I had chickens right now. A friend told me that wasps lay their eggs on the back of this creature and feed on it from the inside out when they hatch, nature’s own redemption for its gorging (and likely a thought inspired by my episcopalian thrift store boots). Would you rather let the hornworm live to feed the beneficial wasps or save your tomato plant today? Don’t be fooled by the delicate white stripes lining up like brackets along its body – they look devilish, bulging with parts of your plant in their. It’s body surged in waves as it gorged ahead down the tomato stem.
I took a picture of the hornworm and scratched it into a cut-off milk carton, dispatching it appropriately on the driveway, which is now bejeweled with dead Japanese beetles.
My attack of the garden pests complete, I removed my thrift store boots and set to work processing the nine bundles of oregano which needed a bit more drying in the oven. I did wash my hands first. If you want freshly dried oregano, just send me a real address.
The oregano is from a new friend who reminds me of my old friends; a guest who comes with garden gifts and promises not to feel like she needs to clean if I just showed up at her house. Would you rather only have people visit you when your house is clean or recognize that everyone has dirty laundry? These are the kind of ideas that we bat around like a wiffle ball team as she rounds out my ideas of people in the community. It’s the game of would you rather? on a personal level which makes sense to me.
For example, I once worked with an older Swedish gentleman who lived in a clothing-optional trailer community. He had Parkinson’s disease and tendonitis. In your elbow or knees? I asked. No, in my ears. He meant tennitis, ringing in his ears. His friend — not a part of the clothing-optional community — decided to stage an intervention and bring him to the veteran’s hospital in Seattle, saying that this happy guy just couldn’t keep living like this. Usually that’s when interventions occur, when one person decides another isn’t living “the right way”. It’s often couched in wanting the best for someone. The doctor admitted the Swedish gentleman and encouraged him to become part of a study on Parkinson’s in veterans, assigning him to the Blue Group. It would be best if he would be part of their fantastic study. I was unable to reach him for days and finally drove to his trailer to see if he was home.
Past the gate, up the road and past a naked, dangly lawn-mower sat my gentleman’s old Chevy truck with a “Shuck me, suck me, eat me raw – Blau Oyster Company” bumper sticker. He was home and opened the door in all his six feet of tanned naked Swedish glory. After he put on some pants (my suggestion) and a grin for the top half of his attire, he told me that the VA doctors wouldn’t let him leave the hospital so he “escaped”. I asked how he found his way back. He explained that a friend picked him up and they drove back roads from Seattle to “throw them off our trail”. Two days later, he said, a woman knocked on his door and told him that he had to have a shot (she was holding the syringe in her hand) or he couldn’t stay living in his trailer. We found out later that it was probably a VA home health nurse arrived to give a very tall, naked and suspicious man a shot of vitamin B. He told her to bug off. I connected him to the less (much less) aggressive local VA clinic.
This gentleman decided to remain living in the trailer. The idea of having not being around his other clothing-optional friends (subject for another story but remind me to tell you about the fireman!) was too much. Would you rather keep your freedom, your lifestyle and everyone you know or live in assisted living where you don’t have to cook? I’d rather eat stale saltines the rest of my life, thank you very much. Luckily, this man agreed to let me send out a personal assistant to help him with his showers but not before he was admitted to the hospital for an infection and subsequent amputation of his toe. I visited him in the hospital. He walked out of his bathroom trying to tie the hospital gown around his waist. I helped him and he looked down at his bandaged, now-gone toe. He grinned, And on the menu for tonight! Mini-franks! We worked together for a few more months on a Would you rather? basis, eventually finding a life with more supports that he could accept. He doesn’t have to wear clothing in his new apartment but he does wish he were closer to the garden so he could dance in the moonlight.
The ability to choose is a beautiful thing. Over and over, I’ve worked with Adult Protective Service employees who constantly explain to family members that a person can choose to live they way they wanted to, even if it is different than others. The only question we can ask is Would you rather? – Would you rather live alone in this trailer without running water 11 miles out of town or move into an apartment complex where you can only bring one of your cats? Would you rather balance the day-to-day routine you’re comfortable with, relying on your son who is unsure about what number to call in case of 9-1-1 or see a doctor (and risk being admitted to a nursing home)? What seems obvious from the outside is a matter of perspective. We get to choose our own lives, including decisions that may affect how long we live. It’s easy to judge these situations but that’s all it is – a value judgment. And it limits our openness to new, often creative perspectives where people survive in ways that are completely amazing. We can’t force someone to take our help/ideas/suggestions/advice and, sometimes, neither option of Would you rather? has a great outcome. You’re either going to eat boogers or find a black widow in your shoe. That’s part of the game. But we all get to ask and we all get to play.