Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Matteo and His Fig Tree

Sustainability Is Where You Find It

Stringing Tomatoes
When you teach classes at a community college that sits in the midst of a multicultural patchwork of neighborhoods at the edge of a great metropolis, you never know who will show up. Evening classes, which I often teach, are particularly diverse.

Matteo showed up one semester and sat in the front row, a stocky, round-faced, round-headed man, balding, with a fringe of white hair. His appearance, in itself, was not unusual, since students of all shapes and sizes present themselves, nor was his age, really, which I judged to be somewhere west of sixty-five. My classes frequently include students ranging in age from sixteen and not yet out of high school, to grandparents who are finally able to begin the college education they have always hoped for. Matteo said he’d come to the U.S. from Sicily at some undisclosed period in his youth, took a job, married, had children and then grandchildren--a pretty average story for this part of the world. Other than his self-confident air and loud voice, there was nothing to make me think about him too much.

This changed one evening when I talked about gardening, which I don’t teach. However, since I believe everything is connected, wherever I am, gardening and the environment get mentioned. At this, Matteo came alive. "Ms. Fisher, I didn't know you are a gardener. I am too."

"That's nice," I said. But Matteo persisted. In a subsequent conversation he discovered that, while I have an understanding of perennial food plants such as berries and herbs, I’m a newbie when it comes to serious annual vegetable gardening. He began to share his knowledge. Some he brought with him from Sicily, some he’s picked up elsewhere, and all has been honed in his modest backyard.


Matteo told me that when he was young he lived in a small town, in a house overlooking the sea. Though they had little money, they always ate well—his father was a tailor, his mother a seamstress, and people often paid for their clothes in kind. His mother would stop work earlier than his father in order to cook.

Matteo and his friends loved growing things, and they’d often walk out of town and visit nearby farmers to learn their methods. He also explained some of the games they played. One, an old tradition, seems to have combined twenty questions and tag, and you were to guess the name of various plants, both farmed and wild, by descriptions of appearance and use. More fun than school, he thought, and an excellent way to learn, since you got to run around. I couldn’t help contrasting this with the childhoods of many students I’ve met: they’ve learned to understand social media or what’s going down in celebrity-world, but not much at all about where they actually live. What are we teaching them that will be of help in a low-carbon future?

Wine
Matteo, of course, brews his own wine. He wrote an essay with instructions, illustrated with an old photo in which he and his two sons stand by their wine press. His opinion is that for small batches, stomping the grapes really makes better wine. And not only did his essay include winemaking advice, but also explained that when it has aged and is ready to be decanted, you must invite your friends and relatives over for food and wine as a sort of celebration. Which seems as important as the process itself. How different this is from wineries I have visited I cannot begin to explain. Yet his enthusiasm was so infectious, that I began to feel that I, too, could make wine fit to drink.

Tomatoes
Matteo also grows tomatoes. It is hard to imagine Italian cuisine without them. The Romans made fish sauce, with a production center at Pompeii prior to Vesuvius’ great eruption, and similar food ways continued until tomatoes, that new world plant, arrived in Italy to revolutionize the old traditions in the 16th Century.


It’s interesting to think about how food travels. One of my favorite recipes for cornbread—that American staple—is a Basque version that includes pureed pumpkin. Did a Basque person long ago get the recipe from someone in America and bring it home, only to export it back to the U.S.? An American Indian gardener once told me that this is what happened with many varieties of beans. Early European explorers took American beans home, where they became widespread, and then later settlers brought “their” beans back to America.

But returning to tomatoes. Illinois is emphatically not Sicily. So how to get the required yields? While the neighbors wait until late May to put out their starts from the garden center, Matteo’s strategy is different. He’ll buy the starts, transplant them into pots and then keep them in his garage. On warm days he takes the tomatoes outside for some sun, then tucks them safely back inside for the night, leaving them inside on cold days, since our spring is nothing if not temperamental.

By the time the weather settles, his tomato plants are large, robust and easily transplanted. The harvest is earlier and--since some gardeners are competitive and I suspect Matteo may be--the neighbors are envious. Then he shares his largess, with pride. These days, you can, if you wish to pay more, buy large greenhouse-grown tomato plants, sometimes with the fruit already on, but I think I prefer Matteo’s method, as being less energy-intensive, cheaper and more ingenious. It also lends itself to variation. For example, you could start your tomato seeds at home, and then incorporate Matteo’s methods into your sequence.


The Fig Tree
Matteo’s story about his fig tree is the one I like best. At some point, he decided that he would like to have fresh figs to eat in the summer--but how to go about it? He decided to see what he could do. He wouldn’t tell me how or where he learned to grow a Mediterranean tree in our miserable Midwestern climate, but did say it took several trees to get the method correct. Here is how he has achieved success. About five years ago he started with a small tree, meant for an atrium or greenhouse and planted it in his back yard near the vegetable bed. Since then, every summer the tree has grown and produced figs. Every fall he digs a trench as tall as the tree. He then loosens the soil all around the roots and lays the tree down gently in the trench. Then he covers it with leaves, puts cardboard on top, and covers everything with a mound of soil.

Each year in spring Matteo opens up the trench. Then he very gradually, over days, returns the tree to its upright position, replaces the soil, and begins giving the tree regular care, anticipating fresh figs later in the summer. This method reminds me of the way people used to winter over climbing roses by piling soil on the bud unions and burying the canes, before so many cold hardy varieties were bred.

More and more I’m finding that it's good to know people who can do things, and these people are of two sorts: those who can do things you don't know much about and those who know more than you about what you know. From both you can learn. In practice this leads to a pretty constant state of beginner's mind, since keeping an eye out for these people encourages an outward gaze and prevents one from setting up as too much of an expert. Sometimes living knowledge beats books.

The semester rolled on, as they do. Matteo and I would sometimes talk after class, once about growing potatoes. Towards the end, he brought me a seed potato, his largest and best, he said. With instructions, naturally.

Related Post:
Two Experiments: Slow and Sustainable

Cross-posted: Energy Bulletin

15 comments:

Don Plummer said...

A beautiful story, Adrian! I too teach at a very multicultural community college, and I too have often been surprised about the things my students know about and know how to do. I've never had someone like Matteo in my classes, though. I would really love to find one, though!

I too try to connect teaching to gardening, preserving the land, and ecology. They read essays along that line, for example, and we try to make connections as we explore the meaning of the texts that we read. And more of the students seem to "get it" than one might think. Despite the texting and video games, they may be more aware than we give them credit for.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

hi Don,
I was thinking of you a little when I wrote this.

I agree that many students do make those connections--I've been noticing this in the last couple of years in particular--but our curriculum hasn't changed as much as one would like to see.

Robert said...

Thank you for this great article! I grew up in Franklin Park and worked for a while at Triton. I began gardening when I was 10 due in part from encouragement from my father but also from watching all of the old Italian guys in the neighborhood garden. They would give advice and seeds as well! I have been gardening ever since and now live in Downstate Illinois on a 22 acre farm. My wife and I grow vegetables and raise chickens for eggs and serve the local market. I still grow several of the Italian varieties that the guys from Franklin Park first gave me the seeds for. One is the cucumber/melon that is called an "Italian Cucumber" in the Leyden-Proviso township area. The website for our Local Growers Network is:
http://www.localgrowersnetwork.info/

Don Plummer said...

Adrian:
The editors of the reading anthology we use for our comp classes put an essay by Wendell Berry in the latest edition. You can guess that I latched onto it right away as a reading assignment!

In fact, a fascinating thing happened in one of my classes Winter term. After reading Berry's essay, I asked the class to write an answer to the question whether we could feed our 300 million population if we farmed like Berry recommends. I found out that this class was Biblically literate to an unusual degree when several of the responses bemoaned the fact that farmers generally don't obey the every-seven-year rest for the land prescribed in the Levitical law!

Carole Sevilla Brown said...

What wonderful stories! And how awesome for you to get to share them. It's true, we can learn so much by listening to other people's stories.

jeansgarden said...

Adrian, This is both a vivid character portrait and a wonderful lesson in garden creativity. I was moved by all the love and labor that goes into that fig tree. -Jean

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Robert,

I really appreciate your comment. It's inspiring to know that your own life work came from learning from people like this. I'm now wondering where i can get the seeds for the "Italian Melon." Thanks for the link. I'll check it out.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Don,

That's interesting. I think it's a good sign that Wendell Berry is making it into college readers. You're making creative use of it, too. Leviticus, hmmm. Aldo Leopold thought every conservationist should read and ponder the Old Testament.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Carole,

That's really true. I first learned to listen by talking with and learning from my own grandparents.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Jean,

Thanks for the good words! Yeah, that fig tree is amazing. This year it came through just fine, but Matteo says it's getting too big to trench, so now he's thinking about on some kind of arrangement with insulation. I guess I'll have to find out what happens with that next spring.

Robert said...

Hi Adrian,

You can find the cucumber/melon seeds here:

http://www.growitalian.com/

Or look around places like Caputo's.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Thanks, Robert, I'll check it out.

Janet said...

That's fascinating way to look after a fig tree.We grow ours in a pot in the greenhouse. I understood to get a good crop the roots should be restricted and that way all the goodness goes into producing a good crop of fruit. Did Matteo mention that?

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Janet,

That's an interesting fact about fig trees. Matteo didn't mention it.

Robert said...

Hi,

I commented on this post a while back. I was the one from Franklin Park who moved Downstate. I just wanted to let you know that I serve on the board of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance. ISA promotes environmentally sustainable, economically viable, socially just local food systems through policy development, advocacy and education. I see that there is much in common between what ISA and you stand for. We are a membership organization so please look at our website and consider joining the Illinois Stewardship Alliance! http://www.ilstewards.org/