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Away from the Fray: From Election Frenzy to an Interlude in Paradise

Thanks to above average September and October temps that have prolonged the growing season, the six okra plants, planted in mid-April, are now leisurely shedding their massive leaves.

Bedded in a 4×5 ft. cluster adjacent to the paling fence, the six plants grew to seven foot heights and camouflaged a small area in which a miscellany of wood and metal tomato stakes were posited for storage.

To compensate for its prickly, large, heart-shaped, five-lobed verdant foliage that are somewhat gawking and unsightly in appearance, in full season the okra plants’ pinnacles are studded with some of the prettiest vegetable garden blooms.  Some two inches in length, the blooms’ hibiscus-like flowers’ calyxes envelope the twirling petals, the color of which is a cross of lemon, chartreuse, saffron, and bumblebee yellow shades that invite a pleasing sight. Unlike other flowers, the Hibiscus Esculentus’ almost oval-shaped buds cloak the tightly knit and curling petals much like a thick Cuban cigar’s rolled tobacco leaves.

When the flowers’ petals unfurl to expose the crimson red center, striations of bold gestural China ink jet black create a visually sharp contrast to the yellow petals, thus creating an elegance of courtly floral crowns. For 2-3 days each of the okra plants creates a canopy of ornamented yellowness which, unfortunately, disintegrates into unsightly mushy, sticky blobs. Tiny thumb-like stubs emerge and grow into 5-7 inch long fluted, hexagonally ridged seedpods that taper to a pointed tip.

Some folks call these seedpods Cows’ Horns, while others draw on an infinitely more elegant appellation by referring to them as Lady’s Fingers. I prefer the latter.

Some three weeks back a few okra leaves wilted and turned into a sullied, brownish hue; they shriveled and limped downward; they clung to the two inch diameter tree-like stalks for a couple of days; and finally, gravity lured them to mother earth’s surface in this magical cycle we call Fall, a cycle during which grass clippings, leaves, spent plant stalks, and vines create a mantle of decomposing organic materials under which the soil, bored through and crisscrossed by giant earthworms, is converted into myriad organic nutrients.

Sustained by an abundance of tap water and an occasional heavy downpour, these larger than normal okra plants have continued to bloom and to produce a fair amount of seedpods for family consumption and for sharing with our two neighbors and friends across town.

While one neighbor fries her okra, the grandmotherly and matronly matriarch of the Cameroonian family across the street cooks the creole veggies in a tomato sauce and shrimp gumbo-like concoction laced with an abundant variety of spices, including a plethora of basil. When cooked to mushy perfection, the delectably scrumptious cocktail is ladled onto a generous serving of rice. When she first told me about her special recipe, she held a tightly knit trinity of fingers, her thumb, forefinger, and middle finger (as Antiochian Orthodox do when they cross themselves) to her mouth, elicited a smacking noise with her lips, and produced a succulently onomatopoeic sound and gesture to impress upon me both, her gratitude and the delicious meal she would fix for her large family. “Uhm!! the disshh iss very, very good. It iss very, very deelicious,” she asserted in a distinctive tinge of French.

And across town 77 year old Mrs. Harrison gives me a big hug for delivering bags full of Okra, bell pepper, eggplant, and cucumbers.

Spiked with a light speckling of olive oil, a dash of salt and pepper, a generous sprinkling of garlic powder and parmesan cheese, we prefer to grill our okra to a delectable crunchiness on a sheet of aluminum foil.

La Belle Femme knows that gardening is more than a hobby; gardening is a passionate endeavor into which I pour hours of playful toil that energizes my spirits and sustains me physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. And I consider 2-3 hours of hard garden labor to be but a brief interlude in paradise.

I must have inherited my passionate love affair with plants and gardening from my mother. Our large front veranda in West Jerusalem was a virtual florist’s greenhouse in which every imaginable flower and shrub grew. And many a Jewish frau, babushka, or ẑona would beg my mother to share her horticultural secrets. While mother spoke Arabic and fluent English, the newly arrived neighbors spoke German, Russian, Polish, and Yiddish. If the children’s attempts (Palestinian and Jewish) to translate failed to convey the intended meaning, the universal language of hand gestures took over.

The call of the earth that was embedded in the DNA of my formative years was reawaked in my mid-twenties, and for some reason my connection to the soil and to gardening began as a diversionary distraction during the summer of 1973. In between hours of strenuous doctoral research and scribing my  doctoral dissertation thousands of miles away from my native Jerusalem, Palestine, I would regularly venture out into the tiny East Texas garden plot to dig and watch the handful of tomato and bell pepper plants grow.  And within two years this awakening beckoned me to the garden plot and has been, for some 44 years, a transmutation into a possessed hobby.

When we moved to Arkansas in August of 1973, a small 10×10 ft. plot was designated for my garden, and a Father’s Day plaque, gifted me by the boys and La Belle Femme, marked my territory with a boldly embossed Dad’s Garden. And as our two sons got older and outgrew the tree house and the splash-slip-and-slide yard space, so did my garden plot, and so did the plaque move to the outer periphery.

In the 28×45 ft. space I’ve planted spring, summer, and fall gardens that include onions, bell pepper, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, kale, green beans, eggplant, English peas, several varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, zucchini and crook neck yellow squash, potatoes, a miscellany of herbs, including rosemary, parsley, mint, and dill, and occasionally Brussel sprouts, carrots, beets, and other exotic vegetables. The walloping 16-18 inch cucumbers and zucchini squash and the corpulently outsized lusty, bell-shaped eggplants have been some of the most prolific producers and the subject of many a conversation.

For years now La Belle Femme’s been telling me that I overdo my planting. And she’s right, as she almost always is. Almost!

Each spring I hie meself  to nurseries, these open air luxuriant museums of verdant life abundant to scout for the best assortment of seedlings, and I am always lured to and beguiled by the seductive array of stacked trays of vegetable seedlings that coax me into placing them in my cart. Human as I am, I succumb to the notion that because weather conditions are unpredictable, I am likely to lose a few plants. And even though I have had a 90+%  success rate with seedlings, I succumb to this business of overdoing the planting only because every square inch of soil must be utilized.

And that’s perfectly alright. While some of my friends brag about their golf games, the size of the fish they snag, or the number of points on a deer they bag, I am perfectly content to brag about the bounty of beautiful vegetables in every size, shape, color, and taste, all of which are raised organically and free of pesticides. And the greater joy is to deliver a bagful of assorted vegetables to some twenty families and friends across town. This is my way of sharing the rich bounty of my numerous interludes from this earthly paradise.

And in this, the worst acrimoniously hateful election of 2016, my garden has been a refuge from the vitriol, xenophobia, the grabbing of private parts and sexual harassment, deleted emails, skittles, private and public positions, prolific Podesta-tive missives, no-fly zone over Syria, manufactured truth, drones, wars, WikiLeaks, Supreme Court appointments, rigged elections, and the hollow “If I am elected President I will ….. in the first 100 days” divisive, bombastic, and discordant rhetoric of false promises.

For some reason this year I’ve allowed the basil plants to take over. I just didn’t have the heart to trim them down or to pluck the plethora of basil seedlings that have spouted over the summer months. Much to my joy, I’ve discovered the resultant   serendipitous benefits of allowing the basil plants to morph into a garden sprawl.  While tending to and harvesting vegetables, I inevitably brush against the fragrant basil leaves and end up smelling of this aromatic herb for a good while – thus engaging the visual, tactile and olfactory senses. More significantly, the copious white floral sprays attract bees from sunup to sundown, and will do so until the first frost –  thus engaging the auditory sense with delightfully endless buzzing.

In the crevices of a handful of undisturbed rocks resides a family of horned toads; not only is their habitat off limits to me, but they are also a welcomed specie whose feasting on an assortment of insects is the only and best insecticide, thus giving credence to the notion that for every plant there is a season, and for every living thing there is a reason – that cohabitant interdependency in which man and beast are intended to dwell in harmonious rhythmic patterns.

As soon as the first cold snap hits, the stately okra stalks will disfigure and shrivel into diminutive stems that will soon be chopped up and thrown in the compost pile. And I will divert  my toil to cool weather vegetables such as spinach, English peas, and turnip green seedlings that are sprouting in lush green rows to affirm that each season holds its own magic – thus signifying that no matter who gets elected come November, life proceeds in the natural world to counterbalance human frailties.

Wish that humanity comes to the realization that the finite resources we’ve been gifted must be utilized judiciously and resourcefully.

Mother earth feeds us, clothes us, provides shelter, embraces our remains, and delivers almost all of our needs. Until and unless we become better stewards of her bounty, our children and grandchildren will be doomed to suffer the consequences.

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Raouf J. Halaby has just recently been awarded a Professor Emeritus status. He taught English and art for 42 years. He is a writer, a sculptor, a photographer, and an avid gardener. He can be reached at rrhalaby@suddenlink.net

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