Meditation on Abelmoschus esculentus
The first okra harvest is always the hardest. The plants are short and your back is bent and the row is long. And it’s hot, of course.
This is the only time you wear gloves picking vegetables; the pair you found on the shelf are shriveled and hard, like dried banana peels. You rarely use clippers either and they feel like a blunt, slightly menacing instrument in your hand after holding a pen all morning.
Because organic okra seed is so expensive, you entice young kids to shell the dried up pods each fall. They enjoy it and now you have bags and bags of purple BB-like seeds. In the green magic of early spring you got a little carried away and planted six rows, each 250 feet long. Everyone survived infancy.
As you stare at this hardy regiment of floral soldiers waiting for your attention, you have to ask: What was I thinking?” The yellow hibiscus flowers that teased your eyes with their beauty have transformed into elusive “lady fingers” hiding under their big floppy leaves. Making matters worse, these adolescent plants seem to be leaning away as you loom over them, resisting as you pull their stems toward you. Their canopy is too big for their body, just like the hair on your 15-year-old’s head — unruly and thick — and you recall how he too pulls away when you reach out to touch it or threaten to take him to the barber.
In this earliest stage of fruiting, the okra is still trying to get it right. Their colors are off, too pale or mottled. So are their shape — oddly twisted or deformed. Some look like bullets instead of arrowheads, as if still experimenting, not sure who they are, and here again your son comes to mind.
Like with any first cutting, you’ve lost feeling for the mechanics and rhythm of flesh working with metal. Several long passes are needed before you start cutting confidently, without seeing, like a puppeteer’s hands working in tandem under the table. After a nine-month hiatus, your guiding hand and your cutting hand are finally working together like dancers amid stems and weeds and bugs in your face.
If there is one good thing about adolescent okra it is this: it’s leave are only mildly irritating at this stage. The fierce itch that comes later as its toxins mature in ever darkening reds and greens is now just a reminder of the misery to come. These teens will soon grow independent and proud for having survived all manner of assaults and won’t let go of their possessions without a sore fight.
In truth, the farmer and the okra plant need each other. Yours is a silent give-and-take relationship that deepens as the summer grows hotter and you both grow tougher. Your cut-and-come-again tactic forces it to keep producing until eventually it grows beyond your reach or gives out just about the time you do too.
Either way, it’s going to be a long summer. You’ll get sick of each other by mid July and need a vacation. But today, you are still enjoying an almost parental pride of having coaxed and cultivated these young plants into productive citizens of the farm. Today the harvest is too small for so much effort but now summer has officially begun and these sun-loving, heat-seeking plants will stand by you and faithfully deliver.