The Un-Harvest

Yesterday, as I worked in my garden, two of my children sat reading on a stump together, and the light hit them in a way that took my breath away.  My first impulse was to reach for my camera, to try to preserve this perfect moment that would only last a few minutes.  Instead I simply watched them, aware that without documentation, that beautiful scene will probably fade into my memories of thousands of other days with them, and be lost.  It is part of what I think of as my un-harvest.

I am a gardener.  Theoretically I will someday branch out into flowers, but all of my soil space has so far gone into fruits and vegetables.  Last year I moved from a tiny city plot to an acre of land and I’ve spent the last month preparing for this growing season: building raised beds, planning on how to keep the deer out, and joyfully looking through seed catalogs.  I am giddy with the anticipation of planting.

I am also serious about preserving food.  During the spring, summer, and fall, I freeze, dehydrate, and can hundreds of pounds of produce for winter.  I even make a double record, as I keep a list in my journal of how much food I preserved and at what date in the year we finished it off.  It saves my family large amounts of money, but the satisfaction is in the healthy food that came from right outside our door.  It’s an enormous amount of work, but I take joy in the process and in the results.

So it often comes as a surprise to those who know me well that my favorite poem is “Unharvested” by Robert Frost:

apples on groundA scent of ripeness from over a wall.
And come to leave the routine road
And look for what had made me stall,
There sure enough was an apple tree
That had eased itself of its summer load,
And of all but its trivial foliage free,
Now breathed as light as a lady’s fan.
For there had been an apple fall
As complete as the apple had given man.
The ground was one circle of solid red.

May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan,
Apples or something forgotten and left,
So smelling their sweetness would be no theft.

I’m aware of the message here about Adam and Eve and the Fall, but the line that always captures my thoughts is May something go always unharvested!  It’s antithetical to how I spend so much of my time.  Garden excess gets preserved, not thrown away.  And any extra leaves, stems, or skins get thrown into the compost bin and put back to work.  I strive for as little waste as possible.

But there’s something I find undeniably compelling about appreciating a space in my garden that I do not control.  Things are forgotten and left behind, and they will not sit on my shelf this winter.  They will not bring a sense of comfortable satisfaction at my industry.

I often think about the idea of the un-harvest at other times in my life.  While I love my photo albums and am grateful for the feast they provide, I believe there’s also something to allowing moments to go unharvested.   Knowing that I live experiences differently when I am documenting them, I want some things to be permitted to go forgotten and left behind.  I will smell their sweetness and let them pass by.

Ultimately, I aware that even the strongest attempts to preserve childhood are futile.  In July of 2010, I wrote the following in my journal about my then-toddler daughter:

“I wish I could express how happy it makes me to see her play, because then maybe I could retain it somehow.  I want to hold onto the way she walks now: with her hands above her shoulders and her feet kicking out in a kind of duck waddle.  Her body has recently taken on the thickness of a toddler’s.  I love it so much that sometimes I miss it after she’s gone to bed.  I try to soak in these moments, commit them to memory so that I’ll have it when she’s grown, but I know that the details will get lost.  I won’t be able to fully reproduce the happy sounds she makes, her continual discovery of her tongue, resulting in a variety of slurping noises.  I can’t reproduce the feeling of her coming to find me, happy in her play but joyous to reconnect with her mama, clinging to me and nestling her head on my shoulder while babbling away about the day’s events.  I just can’t get enough of it to last me when it’s gone.  I can freeze pesto and can tomatoes for the winter, but I can’t open up a bottle of ‘C— as a New Toddler’ in twenty years.”

Despite everything I do, many things will go unharvested.  A piece of me will always mourn that.  And another piece will be simply grateful for the apple fall.

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10 Responses

  1. Heather says:

    Gorgeous

  2. ElleK says:

    So beautiful. Thank you for sharing. And I wish I knew you so you could hold my hand through our first “real” gardening trial this year!

  3. Jenny says:

    I love this. I used to stress myself out as a young mom, wanting to hold on to my babies forever, feeling guilty when well meaning older people at stores would tell my to love every minute of it because it goes so fast, and I didn’t love every minute of it. My youngest child has been obsessed with watching old family videos since all of her older siblings are in school now. Sometimes I sit and watch with her. I love what you said about feasting on photos because that’s what it feels like to me to enjoy these memories that I carefully preserved. I love your beautiful words on letting things go unharvested because they made me realize that the many moments I didn’t preserve in family pictures and videos were enjoyed along the way and it makes up the whole experience for me. Your post helps me too see the beauty in that and I think I will use this analogy a lot going forward with my kids. I especially love what you said about not being able to bottle up your toddler. There are so many memories I’m grateful I preserved, but I’m also grateful for the memories that went unharvested as I spent time building and enjoying a relationship with each of my kids.

  4. Heather says:

    I remember vividly a tableau from my past–the barn, the chickens, the flowers, the sunlight, the children. I purposely didn’t take a picture of the beautiful scene, but stopped to let it imprint on my memory. And I do remember it! Sometimes I think we remember things less because we do document them–and they are less a part of us.

  5. spunky says:

    Beautiful!

  6. Cherie says:

    I often joke that without my photos and journals I would forget half my life. Even with them no doubt I HAVE forgotten half my life. So many unharvested moments but what’s important is that they enriched my life at the time they were unfolding. And maybe that’s enough.

  7. Leonard R says:

    This was beautiful, in both thought and execution. Thank you for sharing it.

  8. Amelia says:

    I am your gardener-opposite. Theoretically I’ll grow edibles some day (planning, in fact, to start this year), but right now 95% of my planted soil is in flowers and trees (I don’t count the grass–that’s what will yield the space for edibles). Starting in April and lasting through October, I bring them into my house–cut stems of tulips or daffodils or daisies or roses–so I have a spot of my garden beauty indoors. And my only method of preserving them is to take pictures. Which I do. Lots and lots of pictures. But sometimes, I just let them be–some gorgeous, fragrant rose in all its splendor living out its life on a shrub, calling the bees, just as it was meant to do. And it’s enough to visit them where they live and experience the wonder of their beauty and how it changes across their life cycle from day to day. I know that flowers have very practical purposes and real value for human beings in maintaining ecosystems. But I think that mostly what they do for me is give me cause to wonder at the sheer beauty of life. And they do it best unharvested.

    Thanks for this beautiful post.

  9. Rachel says:

    I have been waiting to read this in a quiet moment, and am so glad it did. It is beautiful. Thank you.

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