Facing Down the Apocalypse II: Seedling Tomatoes
On a sun-splashed afternoon at the end of March at the end of the world, two-inch green sprites rise from a grid of cells in a seedling tray. Even in their infancy, just a stroke of my hand releases the acrid aroma of summer. Erect stems hold outstretched leaves no larger than sunflower petals. This is their habit of growth.
Our old cat is in the habit of living, even though he is dying. In gray rain he totters out to pee, a wobbly skeleton drawn together by mousy fur. He’s a one-man cat. Sometimes he sits on my lap, manages a purr. His breath smells like death. But his body wants to live. His cells won’t let him die.
I move tomato seedlings into four-inch pots as Sun passes through a thin cloud sash on his arc toward the western ridge. My index finger presses musty soil around displaced roots as if probing piano keys for a forgotten tune.
People say we need hope on the verge of an apocalypse. They say gardeners are an extraordinarily hopeful lot. I’m not sure. Growing food seems more like a habit. Every winter I use needle-like tweezers to poke seeds into sterilized soil, pot seedlings in early spring, release root-bound plants into a May sea of dark warm soil. The difference between habit and hope is lost on me.
Our cat needs help breaking the habit of living. At least that’s what we think. Who really knows? I wrap and hold him in a tattered child’s quilt with scattered yellow yarn ties that he nursed for 18 years to fall asleep. She drives us to the vet. An epidemic at the end of the world requires we wait in the car. Hood and roof are drummed by fingers of rain. Gray bones struggle against my chest. We always wondered whether his quilt would outlast him.
In the darkened room, drugs take hold and he falls asleep in his blanket in my arms, then meets the end of his world with an unobtrusive needle slipped into his hind leg. Carlin’s monologue keeps rolling through my head. I’m not laughing. The apocalypse needs attentiveness, not distractions. Our ancestors are the collective habit of memory. I decide Carlin can go fuck himself. But he is already dead.
Rain stops. Scooping the bundle from the back seat, his failing body heat seeps through the child blanket into my arms. I carry remnants of cat and memory across the pasture of my boyhood home. She carries the shovel and her own thoughts. We plant the bundle in wet earth where hillside meets pasture. I tell him I’ll see him on the other side if there is another side. There is plenty of soil to fill the hole. We cover the grave with a rain-soaked log, throw on a few rocks. Scavengers have a habit of finding dead things. I don’t know the difference between habit and ritual.
Driving home, layers of sadness break apart in the western sky. A faint rainbow forms behind vaporous stacks of the pulp mill. Sun strains around a large cloud lying like a sideways hourglass across the foothills. A sideways hourglass cannot measure time. An upright hourglass cannot measure time either. Time cannot be measured any more than I can parse the difference between habit and ritual and hope.
Darkness is a tattered blanket falling over the beginning of night at the end of the world. Sixty infant tomatoes of eleven varieties are arrayed in pots in trays. When I water them, their leaves droop like dead things onto the new soil. Gently I lift the crestfallen plants. They regain their upright habit. I hope they grow.
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Last evening I dropped a tree over the edge of the world as I know it. The Douglas-fir died in exactly the spot I directed, sent there with a chainsaw and hand-winch. I am not an expert feller of trees, although decades ago I did make my living dropping lodgepole pine around what then were million-dollar homes.
On the front porch of the Johnny Gunter place, I ride the incoming swell of nightfall. The last logging rigs rumbled out of the valley two hours ago. A single robin chirrups from the meadow growing April green before me. Wind from the west draws an iron overcast across the evening sky.
There sure is a lot of sex at the end of the world as I thought I knew it. After a socially distant run on the chip trail, I finish with a sweaty stroll through the neighborhood park, pausing on a footbridge across the small creek. The air has become a breathing thing, ribs of willow and cottonwood exhaling …