Matt McMillan
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Pumpkins, Sugarcane and Tomatoes

November 12, 2009 @ 7:47 AM | Permalink

The old man gazes towards his pumpkin patch with a great sense of pride. The moment I mention it, which is as soon as I see it, he lights up like the rising sun. The conversation is born. How does someone become so passionate about something so simple and come to a great sense of fulfillment from this passion? You can see it in his eyes, even though they probably don’t see much anymore, and you can here it in his voice, even as it cracked with age. I might as well be talking to a 22 year old man, and the old man, Reynold, says it himself. 
            As Reynold admires his pumpkins, a young Rastafarian waits on the side of the road, waiting for his sugar cane bundle to sell out. He seems to move along the streets with a sense of punishment, the weight of the sugar cane in his pack like the weight of the world on his shoulders. This is somewhat of an assumption though, because every time he speaks, as sad as his tone may sound, there is a melody of hope at the end of each sentence. How does someone keep the Promised Land eternally on the horizon while struggling to feed his hungry body, mind, and soul? The strict rules of Rastafarianism Shem lives by have been ingrained in part by the ritualistic routine of growing, harvesting, and selling sugar cane, day in and day out. I might as well be watching a man pummeled with decade’s worth of time. 
            The tomato plants are riddled with holes. The juicy green horned worms writhe in agony when I pluck their velvety bodies from the stalks of our thirsty plants. I guess I would be pretty distraught if I was snatched from such an amazing source of energy. Tomatoes are hard to grow in the Caribbean, especially for a novice gardener. I understand the science and care needed to grow these little red morsels but there is still something missing. How does patience take over the most vital role in cultivating any beneficial endeavor? Thinking of Thoreau and his soybeans as the rain begins to come down and move in sheets from the Atlantic, I am comforted in the romantic side of gardening but still troubled by my lack of tomatoes. 
The sun is slowly sinking into the Caribbean Sea yet still strong enough to cause sweat to drip down my back. I park my dilapidated Suzuki 4x4 on the side of the road in a worn down rock garden, and saunter up to the shipping crates. Two deep blue corrugated steel shipping crates are tossed perpendicular to each other to form a makeshift yet permanent workshop. TV’s and microwaves spill from the multiple entrances to the crates as if electronics have taken on the properties of water. A lone white truck is propped on cinder blocks and a lone black man is perched in his chair, staring up the hill. I approach and greet him “Good evening”. He turns slightly toward me and replies with equal enthusiasm “Good evening” I begin my explanation of why I have disturbed his seemingly peaceful evening and he quickly tells me that his son is the one that fixes things and will be back in thirty minutes. I debate just leaving and coming back another day, because thirty minutes in the Caribbean may not mean thirty minutes on my watch. My stomach is rumbling and I have three anxious dogs waiting in the jeep. But all it takes is one more curiosity driven question on my half for the old man to start into his passions in life. I quickly realize that he is reaching the latter stages of his life, but his partial blindness and slow movements cannot hide his pride for his twelve children and his garden. Scattered away from St Kitts, some of his offspring have landed in Washington D.C., Virgin Islands, New York, and Miami, and all of them have college educations, unlike him. He is a builder. He seems to have done everything he can to make sure they all have a better life than he, including spending 30 years of his life away from his native St. Kitts building churches, schools, and other buildings. 
Reynold has also done everything he can to nourish his garden. He wakes up before the sun most days and moves rocks. He moves rocks from the hillside in order to improve the soil for his papaya trees, banana trees, potatoes, and pumpkins. On this rocky hillside the garden flourishes. It is not extremely hard to grow a garden in a tropical climate with rich volcanic soil and plenty of sun, but add in monkeys and there is perpetual turmoil. For Reynold, and most farmers in St. Kitts, the endemic African Green Monkeys can be an extreme nuisance. With a population estimated to be four times that of the human population, they seem to eat every available fruit and vegetable that tastes good. But they only take one bite of his pumpkins and then leave them alone. For the longest time the old man was at war with the monkeys. Then one day the spirits told him to let them be. Reynold let them be. The monkeys let him be. Now his garden flourishes. 
            A car pulls up and its lights flash across us as we weave our way between pumpkins and potatoes. I realize again why I have come to this slice of paradise that is overflowing with electronics and pumpkins. Reynold’s son Clive gets out of the car, I bring him my broken speakers, he fixes them and I thankfully mosey on my way. Reynold and Clive have finished their work for the day as the sun completes its daily journey by igniting the sky and Caribbean Sea in a warmth of fiery colors as if to say, “It has been a pleasure to warm your day”.
            Shem walks with purpose in the night air. He raises his hand as we quickly pass by in our jeep. I realize it is him, with his dreads tightly wrapped in a tower on his head, his pants rolled up so they do not touch his flip-flops, and his shirt tucked in revealing his tri-color belt. Of course he carries his pack of sugarcane. I debate just driving on by with our two hungry dogs and our tired bodies, but I double back when I think about the fact my girlfriend and I have just spent the afternoon at the beach and Shem has just spent twelve hours trying to sell sugarcane. “Where you headed?” I ask as I pull up next to him. He slowly realizes it is me in the darkness. Ashley quickly climbs into the back with the dogs and Shem finds his way into the passenger seat. “To town” he quietly relays to me as I step on the gas. I introduce him to Ashley and the dogs and he reservedly says hello. Slowly, he opens up more and more over the course of the drive to town. I ask him about his plans to move to Canada and he re adjusts his bag of yet to be sold sugarcane. It will take much sugarcane selling to save enough to get to Canada. There are more opportunities for a young Rastafarian once you get away from St. Kitts and better opportunities to start a family. He seems to get on my case when he finds out Ashley and I are not married. He obviously can tell the quality of her character, it may be because she gave up her seat for him or her apparent happy outlook on life. Telling me I should not let her get away, we joke together and I realize his remarkably noble goal in life to make a family and make sure they have the best opportunities he can possibly provide. Simplicity is the way of life with his strict Rastafarian beliefs and hopeful attitude. Whether or not he realizes it, as he steps out into the bustling night scene in downtown Basseterre, clutching his unsold sugarcane, he is full of the wisdom of many years, but like his sugarcane, it must be cultivated.
            My tomato plants are full of hope. No green horned worms and no monkeys. Carefully shooting their healthy green stems skyward, they are nestled in their pots on the back porch taking in the sun. Along with the hardy jabeñero peppers and grateful aloe plants, the simple green swath of life brings a smile to my face. It reminds me of pumpkins and sugarcane.   Simply put, it seems wisdom can only be grown with patience, like any organism that produces fruit. 


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