East is East and West is West, and the wrong one I have chose. Bob Hope sang these thoughts in the 1948 “Paleface.” And 6 ½ decades later, I am musing upon their essential truth. To put a finer point on this, the east chose me. Our move to San Francisco is still unfolding. The leaves of our Brussels sprouts are not only unfolding, but reorienting. They face south every morning, I realize, looking down on them from our terrace. And they face south because south is actually east.
Of course, facing east is a good thing. Talk to anyone from Islam. Talk to any observant Jew. Talk to any gardener. In the mornings, east is where the sun is. As I say, this is a pleasant surprise. And I thought that we had built a south-facing greenhouse. The south generally being the sunny side of the street. Yes, in the northern hemisphere, facing south means more light. And if all this doesn’t quite add up, that’s because it doesn’t. Put it this way: the sun rises and arcs directly at my Brussels sprouts. And I’m surprised. I had thought that the actual greenhouse structure would block the morning sun. And if you wonder why I keep verbally wandering around the boring details of the solar trajectory, so do I.
Growing things gives me a sense of renewal. And this surprising photosynthetic gift in San Francisco spurs not only my Brussels sprouts, but me. There is hope. Brussels may be on anti-terrorist lockdown these days, but not its sprouts. There is hope.
Turns out that Brussels sprouts are fairly tricky to grow. They turned up their botanical noses at Menlo Park’s warm clime, hurtling toward pollination and flowering without sprouting, well, sprouts. But San Francisco’s colder weather is having just the right effect. The plants are producing the big leaves appropriate to what is essentially a vertical cabbage. And not only that, in the morning they are turning. This is the observation of Dennis, latest member of team Filipino. Dennis seems to be a convert to the way of gardening. We are in this together, the race towards vegetation. We entered into a strategic alliance to defeat cabbage moths, trading off the morning search and destroy operation with a spray bottle.
So as I do my morning schlep back and forth on the deck, balancing with a handrail, what is there to do but gaze fondly on my crop? The other thing to do, of course is to gaze backwards in time. Specifically, to December, 1962. My father and I and my brother were packing to move. Life had not gone well in Banning, California. My father had a new job and we had a new apartment in a new suburb, Riverside. But mostly it was a sad goodbye to a sad recent past and, as far as I could see, a sad future. My father was depressed, preoccupied and isolated. I was more or less friendless. And now I was leaving one lonely place for another.
In the small town we were leaving, no one was throwing a goodbye party. In the empty lot behind my father’s home/office, I had tried to grow tomatoes. I had no help and no encouragement. And precisely why I had tried gardening on my own is unclear. Perhaps I wanted to see things grow. This was something I could do on my own. But in this abandoned lot, the desert clay soil hadn’t been disturbed in years, and I didn’t have the strength to really dig a proper hole for planting. It took a lot of effort just to create a depression big enough for a seedling. Throughout the autumn, my tomato plant was showing a distinct failure to thrive. Lacking any of the traditional garden accouterments such as a wooden stake or two, I made use of available objects. I screwed together a couple of pieces from an old Erector set to prop up the hoped-for vine.
And now it was December, and the thing was mostly dead and I was saying goodbye. There might be rain. I placed an abandoned hibachi beside it with the crazy thought that someone might light some charcoal now and then. Tomatoes need warmth. And now it was time to go. I climbed in my father’s car. Banning disappeared forever. But the need to grow things, to capture warmth, that remained. And now I have, of all things, my greenhouse. It captures a surprising amount of warmth. And in the morning, I am still surprised by the sun.