On Wasting Time

Scroll to the bottom for a brief bio of Ira Aldridge, black Shakespearean actor in the first half of the 19th Century.

Ripening tomatoes

One night a couple of weeks ago it seemed briefly possible that I might get almost enough sleep. By ten-thirty I was upstairs, preparing for bed. Then, toothbrush in hand (in mouth, actually) I wandered over to my two potted tomato plants by the upstairs south window, and the jig was up.

Tom It seems sometimes that plants exert a gravitational force entirely out of proportion to their mass, and my winter tomatoes are the worst. If I get within range, I can orbit for an hour, peering at the undersides of leaves, squashing the occasional aphid, gnat or white fly; snipping off ragged leaves; checking for new growth; flicking blossoms to ensure that they pollinate despite the windless indoor conditions; deciding which suckers to pinch, which to welcome, and where to allow just the first leaf to grow, a policy that helps (I hope) to combat the attrition that gradually claims the older leaves.

It’s actually not a given that a minute tending a plant turns into an hour. Downstairs, where the other two potted tomatoes reside by the microwave, I am perfectly capable of checking over the plants for the thirty seconds or two minutes it takes my coffee or soup to heat up. And then I walk away. See? It can be done. Sometimes. Just not last night.

Gotcha It started with the gnats. Then it moved on to a fruitless search for aphids and white flies. (Q.: When is failure synonymous with success? A.: When you’re searching plants for pests.) I snipped off a ragged looking leaf or two, went after a yellowing one, then stood back and eyed the things.

Burnt tomato 2:09 It was necessary, of course, to ascertain (several times) that there was indeed new growth sprouting where everything had gone crisp and brown a few weeks back. It had been a relief of sorts to realize that I’d killed off new blossoms and young shoots when, in an access of activity, guilty over previous neglect, I’d over-fertilized the dang things.

There were still more leaves whose tips were actually brown and crumbly. Most of the leaves seemed to curl downwards rather than stretching straight out.

A cold hand gripped my innards. Was this in fact—gulp—was this a virus? Not a fungus, certainly; it’s just not damp enough, indoors in Montana, for that to be credible, unless you grew your tomatoes in your bathroom, which I don’t, and indulged in frequent, long, hot showers, which we don’t. But a virus—yes, this was possible.

I didn’t answer the virus question that night; I didn’t even try. Instead, I pored over the plants, falling into the quietly focused daze that absorbs me at such times. Once I surrender to this temptation, it’s always the same.

When I’m done searching for minute bugs and snipping off every smallest leaflet that is less than fluorescent green, I admire the things. I turn their pots, gazing from every angle. I count shoots, blossoms, fruit clusters, and then I count again. The numbers don’t stick, but the process sooths me. I check all the newly sprouting suckers, thinking about which to snip when, as if they might grow so suddenly that I need to be poised and ready, or they’ll get ahead of me. (This happens, of course; every tomato grower has had the experience of looking at a tomato plant and seeing a sucker that’s two inches long. How did that happen? When?)

It was twelve-thirty before I turned once more towards bed. My alarm clock was set for seven. This would not be enough sleep, but I was resigned.

Had I wasted two hours? Maybe. But I slept peacefully, if briefly.


Ira Adridge, (1807-1867) Actor and Playwright

Source: Black History Month.co.uk

I went back to Molefi Kete Asante’s list of 100 Greatest African-Americans today, and just took the first name I didn’t recognize, the second on the list.

Ira Aldridge, I learned, was an actor who performed all of Shakespeare's great tragic leads on the London stage and elsewhere throughout Europe in the first half of the nineteeth century, delighting and awing pundits and public alike.

Born in New York City, Aldridge became a member of the African Grove, a theater founded by two retired ship’s stewards who missed the acting they’d seen in their travels. Their theater, which aimed to bring entertainment and culture to fellow blacks, began in one of the founder’s back yards (hence  “grove”) with a performance of King Lear. Apparently whites came to gawk, though they were confined (and how I love this) to a special, roped-off area.

Frustrated with opportunities in the States, Aldridge moved to London, where his first roles were in the such plays as The Revolt of Surinam: or A Slave's Revenge. When he first dared encroach on the sacred Shakespearean stage he came under attack, but after touring Europe to great acclaim, he returned to London where he eventually earned accolades and became known as the American Roscius, a tribute to the great Roman orator Quintus Roscius Gallus, born a slave, from whom Cicero took lessons.

Aldridge as Othello w. caption.
Source: Anita Gonzalez & Ian Granick

Though Aldridge's Othello was, perhaps predictably, his most celebrated role, he performed all of Shakespeare’s great tragic leads including, eventually, Lear. He lived much of his later life in Russia, having learned Russian well enough to perform in that language, and was planning a return to the United States after the Civil War when he died in Poland of heart trouble.

I remember hearing debates in the 1990s about the appropriateness of having multi-cultural casts in formerly all-white works. A hundred and fifty years ago, Aldridge managed to convince European audiences that he was Romeo, Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, Richard III, and the rest. I'm not sure what role he was in when the photograph at the top of this post was taken, but my God, what a commanding figure.

So here's my take: Get over it.

3 Responses to On Wasting Time

  1. Organic PA farmer

    Hi… Question, what do you use for staking/supporting your tomatoes?
    Ive tried everythign… metal cages blow over and break the branches and the bamboo sticks arent strong enough.
    This is my second year using The Tomato Stake.
    Its made from recycleable plastic and so simple… includes the twist tie supports already.
    Happy Gardening!

  2. I haven’t had a problem with this. My yard is pretty protected (LOTS of trees) so ordinary cages don’t blow over, though they’re nowhere near tall enough for enthusiastic plants. Last year I used larger, stronger cages designed for–rats, some flower or another–for larger plants.
    I’m also able to get natural bamboo in varying lengths (3′, 5′, 7′) and diameters, so I can sink them deeply, and they work well. I think that’s what I’d suggest, though apparently you might need to look around for them. Good luck, and thanks for stopping by.

  3. You nailed it. Sometimes we just sit and stare at them and just like you described. Decided each new leaf that gets to stay on the plant or nipped in the bud.

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