Second Chances for the Beans, the Squash, and Me

I tend my garden every day; weeds offend me—deeply—as do dead leaves and dying flowerheads. I find it easier to keep on top of problems, like squash bugs and hornworms, than deal with them once they’ve taken over. Not everyone can devote the time or energy required to tend their garden this way, and I know how fortunate I am. My tending tendencies are also temperamental. I cannot let things slide.

Here in rural Virginia, most folks grow the same thing--tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, and watermelon—and do it by throwing seeds on the ground and walking away. In a typical year, casual gardening works remarkably well. This summer has been relentlessly hot and humid, with inconsistent rain, and even my garden, coddled and spoiled, has stumbled.

Case in point: after a strong start, my zucchini and yellow crookneck squash shriveled up and died, almost overnight. Summer without squash? Impossible! Not to be defeated, I planted more yellow squash in a different spot about six weeks ago, and I’m pleased to report they are doing beautifully.

The bean season was too short, undoubtedly due to the weather, so I replanted both purple French velour and Algarve beans at the same time as the squash. As the tomato plants become straggly and the rest of the garden winds down, it’s refreshing to see bright green leaves and colorful blossoms again.

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If you’ve been following along, you might recall that I was awaiting news from my publisher about my next book. Well, like the squash and the beans, I’ve been granted my second chance, not for one more book, but for two! Stories We Never Told will be published early in 2020, and the next one…Never mind. I can’t think that far in advance; I have a book to write!

That’s my life for now: making my daily count of one thousand words and tending my garden. (And cooking and storing the harvest, of course.) My garden and I are in stride, making the most of our second chances, approaching the next season with renewed vitality. Getting a first draft down is daunting business. I am hypercritical of everything and yet must stop myself from fixing things. Essentially, I tell myself to shut-up every few minutes. But like most endeavors, if you keep at it, you will get there. So I write, and put my faith in eventual magic.

Winter is coming, but not quite yet. The squash, the beans, and I have work to do.

 

The Real Feel

Gardeners, like farmers, talk a great deal about the weather, so I’m sure I mentioned our wet spring, the four wettest on record, if you must know. After that deluge, however, the weather gods have kept the faucet firmly in the OFF position. We’ve had less than an inch of rain in a month!

And it’s been hot. Too hot to hang out in the garden, except very early in the morning. This makes me grumpy, especially since watering a gigantic garden isn’t exactly inspiring work. Holding a hose and sweating like a prize fighter is nearly as glamorous as it sounds.

But, as always, I try to find the silver lining. For example, the lawn might be crunchy but at least it doesn’t need mowing. The crops of beans, berries, and carrots are much smaller than usual, but the tomatoes and peppers are absolutely loving the drought. I’ve got dry-farmed tomatoes!

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Sunflowers are stoic, too, and the bees appreciate it.

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The dozen small fruit trees that comprise our orchard were looking decidedly droopy, so I lugged a five-gallon bucketful for each tree from the far side of the house. Two buckets at a time equals eighty pounds each trip. Yesterday I did the same for the berries. Brightside thinking: that’s my upper body workout for the week.

As I wait to hear whether my publisher wants my next book, I’m doing my level best to apply the same bucket-half-full (pun-intended) outlook to my writing life. I tell myself I’ve had a good run during a difficult era, that I’ve already achieved far more than I ever expected. (Note: My expectations are as low as my ambition is high. Makes for interesting arguments with myself.) I’ve been thinking I could take up painting or return to playing guitar. I could try a new sport—suggest one for me! Or I could figure out how to relax and do less. (Cue laughter.) And, yes, I know I am beyond fortunate to have such choices, I really do.

 

Even when the skies look like this, it might not rain. And whether that’s a good thing or not depends on whether you are a tomato or a green bean. Vegetables have no choice in their requirements, but people often do. As I wait for news and rain, I experiment with frames of reference, different ways to spin the uncertainty. Maybe it’s just self-protection, a way of souring the grapes dangling out of reach. I’m good with that, with whatever reframing keeps me sane and content as I anticipate whatever may fall from the sky, or fail to.

A rain dance that doesn’t bring rain is still a dance, and the real feel is what matters.     

 

CLEVER AS A FOX now on Kindle!

Remember that scene in The Jerk when Steve Martin runs around screaming his head off, saying "The new phone book is here! The new phone book is here!" That's how I feel today.

In 2001, a very long time ago, I published my first book, an intellectual history of the study of animal intelligence, CLEVER AS A FOX. It went out of print a while ago but today it has new life as a digital book. It even got a new cover to celebrate the occasion.

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Here is the preface to the new edition:

"Seventeen years have passed since this book was first published during which my daughters became adults and I became a novelist. The former event was predictable but nevertheless stupefying; the latter so unlikely I would have laughed aloud had anyone suggested it. I was tempted to revise this book with a novelist’s ear but resisted. I considered updating it but resisted that, too. As an intellectual history, the reasoning should hold. For recent books on animal intelligence, I recommend Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds and Virginia Morell’s Animal Wise."

And the description, so you can see if it might be up your alley:

"A lively, insightful look at the world of animal intelligence.
Recent evidence has dismissed the belief that animals are simply reflex machines, acting without thought or real consciousness. In response, there has been a rush to examine animal intelligence. Yet what, precisely, is intelligence? Is it the ability to learn, the ability to remember, or the ability to survive? What separates instinct from intelligence? Why are dolphins smarter than eagles and bees smarter than worms? Are cats smarter than dogs? 
Clever as a Fox explores the often-misconstrued world of animal intelligence. From B.F. Skinner's behaviorism to evolutionary biology, Sonja Yoerg examines the ways we have come to view motivation and intelligence in animals. By evaluating our complex relationships to animals-why we eat some animals while pampering others is often predicated on a commensurate belief in intelligence, Yoerg offers us a better understanding of our own way of thinking. Entertaining, and scrupulously researched, Clever as a Fox will challenge your previously held notions about animals and the measure of intelligence, both theirs and ours."

The book has its own page on this website, as well, to show off the nice things people have said about it. Take a look!

If you have friends who love to read about animals and psychology, be sure to spread the word, okay? Thank you! 

Stars upon Thars

That's from Dr. Suess's The Sneetches. "Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars. The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars." In case you don't know the story, a few Sneetches had stars, making them special, and the rest of the Sneetches coveted them. Along came a machine that slapped stars on bellies and soon all the Sneetches were sporting stars. Not so special anymore. In fact, not having a star became the next rage, sending all the Sneetches to queue in front of the star-removal machine. Once no one had stars, they soon became the rage again. The poor Sneetches went crazy getting stars removed and attached in their desperation to be unique. 

Although I'm not desperate to be unique, I do agree with the Sneetches that it's nice to be singled out, especially if, unlike the Sneetches, you've actually done something to earn it. I'm here to tell you a received a star recently. A couple of them, in fact. And although I am not a Sneetch, I do feel a bit special. As an author, receiving praise and a modicum of acclaim is such a crap shoot but also, I admit, a great deal of fun. Will you forgive me for telling you about my stars? 

ALL THE BEST PEOPLE was reviewed by the Historical Novel Society and chosen as an editor's pick! These folks are serious historians so it's like getting an A on the history part of my novel. They praised the characters, too, and lots of other things. Yay! 

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If you'd like to read the full review, it's here

That review made my week and I'd have been happy to leave it at that, but then I was struck by lightning! 

Not really, although this was possibly less likely. Travel and Leisure magazine did a round-up of the best book in every state. Not the best book written this year in every state, but the BEST BOOK EVER. Picks included previously unknown titles such as Steinbeck's THE GRAPES OF WRATH (Oklahoma), King's THE SHINING (Colorado), Smith's A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (New York), Twain's HUCK FINN (Missouri), and Hawthorne's THE SCARLET LETTER. These books are so famous I feel silly including the author and the state. Now you can readily see why I'm incredulous that Travel and Leisure chose my book for my home state of Vermont! 

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The full list is here. Amazing, isn't it?

Those are my stars. For a little while, I'm going to be wearing them both on my belly. I hope you have done  something to be proud of recently, regardless of whether you get the recognition you deserve. And if you do get a star, I hope you wear it proudly! Life can be tough, and far from fair, so let's celebrate when we get lucky, as I have.  Cheers!