They nearly died. Scorched and shriveled by a baking-hot summer heat wave and eight inches of torrential rain from Tropical Storm Isaias. My tomatoes went down in a one-two-punch during a pandemic year whose end game seems fixed on flattening hopes, livelihoods, and living things, human or otherwise.
But these plants. I underestimated their mettle.
After turning brown and naked in early August, they have sprouted insane volumes of fruit in just the past few weeks. Like the Rocky of a ruthless 2020, they are photosynthesizing fighters beating crazy odds. Nature’s example of resilience even in the face of threats from nature itself.
As I stood over them a few days ago, I couldn’t help but think of what they say to us mere humans. They are what we all must be to survive this incredibly difficult pandemic. Because the blows will keep coming. You can bet on it.
The verdant canopy that has blossomed from sure ruin in my back yard faces yet another attack, as 2020 would of course demand. The punches keep coming to this lovely patch of plant life that has served double duty as food source and coronavirus quarantine savior.
The orange haze far overhead in recent days — floating ash from ferocious West Coast forest fires — is obscuring the sun that our plants need to ride out the final month or two of their lives.
“The plants,” Penn State scientist Jose D. Fuentes said when I asked about the smoky haze, “will die sooner than expected.”
Injury, meet insult. Times a million.
To many newbies, the joys of vegetable gardening are a novelty this year. Cabin fever took hold as lockdowns confined us at home to contain the spread of COVID-19. Even sedentary, silken-hand office workers left their kitchen laptops to hunt down giant piles of cow dung and seedlings all spring. Hardware stores were overwhelmed.
For me, tomato plants have been essential for years. A child of Mediterranean farmer-immigrants, I’ve demanded a modest garden every summer in much the way that Philly row-house natives turn to nightly Phillies broadcasts for summer zen.
At first, mine were going gangbusters gorgeous this summer. A milestone birthday in early July was humbly *celebrated* via Zoom from my dining room. But the first of my garden’s luscious cherries, big boys and heirlooms made dinner a treat so sweet it offset the bittersweet day.
In Fuentes, I found a similar passion for these plants of summer. I called the meteorology professor a few days ago to ask about what I suspected would be bad news as smoke ash hovered above plants in their final stretch of life locally. The analytical, scientific scholar with the Penn State University Institutes for Energy and the Environment could not, for a few moments at least, conceal a giddy love for his own vegetable garden in State College.
“Are you kidding me?” Fuentes said when I asked if he had his own mini crop at home. “I cannot live without tomatoes. Seriously. I always plant gardens.”
I told him how my plants went brown and bare after eight inches of rain one day in early August. I told him of their recent resurrection. And then, the reason for my call: I asked if smoky skies would further harm what’s left of these suckers' lives.
The smoke particles, he confirmed, are blocking about a quarter of the sun from reaching our plants. This will shorten their season, for sure. He said the smoke isn’t going anywhere for at least a few weeks.
“I worry,” he said, “because my plants are expecting 100 units of sunlight. And now they’re only getting 75. And so that’s not good.”
I told the devoted scientist that I would be writing about all of this as an allegory for survival.
He had a far more rational read of things. He implored that I look at this a bit more soberly.
Whether excessive rains in Philadelphia or drought in State College, as has been the case this summer, whether our failed national response to the coronavirus pandemic or lightning-fast vaccine developments underway, he insisted that science is our friend and should be our beacon through it all — not an enemy to be dismissed.
“These fires in California are not an accident," Fuentes said. “This is something that scientists for years have been warning us about. If we keep warming the planet, some regions will become drier and some regions will become wetter. We’re beginning to see these consequences that scientists have been predicting for a long time.”
“I’m on your team,” I told him. (I’m such a science geek that I’d just slipped a few scientific equations into a recent column about the travesty of online learning in public schools.) Still, he continued. It is science, he said, that can identify, explain, and address the natural threats we face.
“I think the good closing story you can write about is to tell your readers we all need to work together on this,” he said. “Because this planet is beautiful.”