Saturday, October 23, 2010

Sept 11 2010 - of tree personality and produce labels

The rain that fell at the start of the garden workday on Saturday, September 11, 2010, did not deter a committed group of volunteers from Chicago Cares from the harvest. Volunteers plunged into dripping tomato bushes to harvest fruit—including the jungle of younger plants in one of the replanted beds that serve as unruly examples of why it is important to stake indeterminate varieties.

The garden still yields a surprising diversity of vegetables and herbs—though the diminishing harvest, collected under cloudy skies, can engender a certain melancholy as we think of the gardenless and gray winter Saturdays to come.
The previous weekend, I lost the fitted cover for the bike trailer during my return to the garden from the pantry. I now use an old shower curtain to secure the produce. With its towering cargo of tulip bins shrouded in vinyl sheeting, the trailer resembles a mini Puppet Bike.

I took the trailer to the Lake Shore Bike Path. Near the intersection of the path with Wilson Avenue, I noticed that a maple tree was already starting to show its fall colors—the earliest that I had seen in the area. I have long been intrigued at what causes a particular tree to move to its fall phase. It is not just that different species of tree, or even different cultivars of species, change at different times; the start of autumnal change seems to depend on individual trees. I once watched one locust tree across the street from my office change from green to gold three weeks before its virtually identical neighbor, only a few feet away, started its transformation.

What causes one tree to change its colors weeks before a nearby tree of the same species does? Is it the extremely local combination of soil condition, wind pattern, or angle of sun that determines when a tree initiates the withdrawal of chlorophyll from its leaves? Is a tree’s time of change the interaction of the tree’s chromosomes and its local environment? Or does a tree have something akin to a personality that decides when to change? And if a tree has something like a personality, what about other plants, like tomatoes or squash? On the other hand, how much of what we consider personality is really a product of the mind? How many of my own nominally volitional acts are really just expressions of genotype moderated by environment?

It is a fairly long ride from the garden to the pantry, especially when pulling a loaded trailer. I pass the time pondering questions like whether maples and tomatoes have personalities.

At the pantry, we remembered to label the baskets. A few months ago, Aurelia, a member of another group of Chicago Cares volunteers who works at the pantry*, prepared a set of laminated cards that we could use to label our produce. The labels are a nice touch: they help our cart of produce in baskets look even more like a stall in a farmer’s market, lending dignity to what can sometimes be a distressing interaction.

*When events on the  Chicago Cares volunteer calendar coincide, I will sometimes leave one group of Chicago Cares volunteers helping in the garden to find another group helping at the pantry.