Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Dallas Lore Sharp > Text of Seed Catalogues

An essay by Dallas Lore Sharp

Seed Catalogues

Title:     Seed Catalogues
Author: Dallas Lore Sharp [More Titles by Sharp]

"The new number of the 'Atlantic' came to-day," She said, stopping by the table. "It has your essay in it."

"Yes?" I replied, only half hearing.

"You have seen it, then?"

"No"--still absorbed in my reading.

"What is it you are so interested in?" she inquired, laying down the new magazine.

"A seed catalogue."

"More seed catalogues! Why, you read nothing else last night."

"But this is a new one," I replied, "and I declare I never saw turnips that could touch this improved strain here. I am going to plant a lot of them this year."

"How many seed catalogues have you had this spring?"

"Only six, so far."

"And you plant your earliest seeds--"

"In April, the middle of April, though I may be able to get my first peas in by the last of March. You see peas"--she was backing away--"this new Antarctic Pea--will stand a lot of cold; but beans--do come here, and look at these Improved Kentucky Wonder Pole Beans!" holding out the wonderfully lithographed page toward her. But she backed still farther away, and, putting her hands behind her, looked at me instead, and very solemnly.

I suppose every man comes to know that unaccountable expression in his wife's eyes soon or late: a sad, baffled expression, detached, remote, as of things seen darkly, or descried afar off; an expression which leaves you feeling that you are afar off,--discernible, but infinitely dwindled. Two minds with but a single thought--so you start; but soon she finds, or late, that as the heavens are high above the earth, so are some of your thoughts above her thoughts. She cannot follow. On the brink she stands and sees you, through the starry spaces, drift from her ken in your fleet of--seed catalogues.

I have never been able to explain to her the seed catalogue. She is as fond of vegetables as I, and neither of us cares much for turnips--nor for carrots, nor parsnips either, when it comes to that, our two hearts at the table beating happily as one. Born in the country, she inherited a love of the garden, but a feminine garden, the garden _parvus, minor, minimus_--so many cut-worms long, so many cut-worms wide. I love a garden of size, a garden that one cut-worm cannot sweep down upon in the night.

For years I have wanted to be a farmer, but there in the furrow ahead of me, like a bird on its nest, she has sat with her knitting; and when I speak of loving long rows to hoe, she smiles and says, "For the _boys_ to hoe." Her unit of garden measure is a meal--so many beet seeds for a meal; so many meals for a row, with never two rows of anything, with hardly a full-length row of anything, and with all the rows of different lengths, as if gardening were a sort of geometry or a problem in arithmetic, figuring your vegetable with the meal for a common divisor--how many times it will go into all your rows without leaving a remainder!

Now I go by the seed catalogue, planting, not after the dish, as if my only vision were a garden peeled and in the pot, but after the Bush., Peck, Qt., Pt., Lb., Oz., Pkg.,--so many pounds to the acre, instead of so many seeds to the meal.

And I have tried to show her that gardening is something of a risk, attended by chance, and no such exact science as dressmaking; that you cannot sow seeds as you can sew buttons; that the seed-man has no machine for putting sure-sprout-humps into each of his minute wares as the hook-and-eye-man has; that with all wisdom and understanding one could do no better than to buy (as I am careful to do) out of that catalogue whose title reads "Honest Seeds"; and that even the Sower in Holy Writ allowed somewhat for stony places and other inherent hazards of planting time.

But she follows only afar off, affirming the primary meaning of that parable to be plainly set forth in the context, while the secondary meaning pointeth out the folly of sowing seed anywhere save on good ground--which seemed to be only about one quarter of the area in the parable that was planted; and that anyhow, seed catalogues, especially those in colors, designed as they are to catch the simple-minded and unwary, need to be looked into by the post-office authorities and if possible kept from all city people, and from college professors in particular.

She is entirely right about the college professors. Her understanding is based upon years of observation and the patient cooking of uncounted pots of beans.

I confess to a weakness for gardening and no sense at all of proportion in vegetables. I can no more resist a seed catalogue than a toper can his cup. There is no game, no form of exercise, to compare for a moment in my mind with having a row of young growing things in a patch of mellow soil; no possession so sure, so worth while, so interesting as a piece of land. The smell of it, the feel of it, the call of it, intoxicate me. The rows are never long enough, nor the hours, nor the muscles strong enough either, when there is hoeing to do.

Why should she not take it as a solemn duty to save me from the hoe? Man is an immoderate animal, especially in the spring when the doors of his classroom are about to open for him into the wide and greening fields. There is only one place to live,--here in the hills of Hingham; and there is nothing better to do here or anywhere, than the hoeing, or the milking, or the feeding of the hens.

A professor in the small college of Slimsalaryville tells in a recent magazine of his long hair and no dress suit, and of his wife's doing the washing in order that they might have bread and the "Eugenic Review" on a salary of twelve hundred dollars a year. It is a sad story, in the midst of which he exclaims: "I may even get to the place where I can _spare time_ (italics mine) to keep chickens or a cow, and that would help immensely; but I am so constituted that chickens or a cow would certainly cripple my work." How cripple it? Is n't it his work to _teach_? Far from it. "Let there be light," he says at the end of the essay, is his work, and he adds that he has been so busy with it that he is on the verge of a nervous break-down. Of course he is. Who would n't be with that job? And of course he has n't a constitution for chickens and a cow. But neither does he seem to have constitution enough for the light-giving either, being ready to collapse from his continuous shining.

But isn't this the case with many of us? Aren't we overworking--doing our own simple job of teaching and, besides that, taking upon ourselves the Lord's work of letting there be light?

I have come to the conclusion that there might not be any less light were the Lord allowed to do his own shining, and that probably there might be quite as good teaching if the teacher stuck humbly to his desk, and after school kept chickens and a cow. The egg-money and cream "would help immensely," even the Professor admits, the Professor's wife fully concurring no doubt.

Don't we all take ourselves a little seriously--we college professors and others? As if the Lord could not continue to look after his light, if we looked after our students! It is only in these last years that I have learned that I can go forth unto my work and to my labor until the evening, quitting then, and getting home in time to feed the chickens and milk the cow. I am a professional man, and I dwell in the midst of professional men, all of whom are inclined to help the Lord out by working after dark--all of whom are really in dire constitutional need of the early roosting chickens and the quiet, ruminating cow.

To walk humbly with the hens, that's the thing--after the classes are dismissed and the office closed. To get out of the city, away from books, and theories, and students, and patients, and clients, and customers--back to real things, simple, restful, healthful things for body and soul, homely domestic things that lay eggs at 70 cents per dozen, and make butter at $2.25 the 5-pound box! As for me, this does "help immensely," affording me all necessary hair-cuts (I don't want the "Eugenic Review"), and allowing Her to send the family washing (except the flannels) to the laundry.

Instead of crippling normal man's normal work, country living (chickens and a cow) will prevent his work from crippling him--keeping him a little from his students and thus saving him from too much teaching; keeping him from reading the "Eugenic Review" and thus saving him from too much learning; curing him, in short, of his "constitution" that is bound to come to some sort of a collapse unless rested and saved by chickens and a cow.

"By not too many chickens," she would add; and there is no one to match her with a chicken--fried, stewed, or turned into pie.

The hens are no longer mine, the boys having taken them over; but the gardening I can't give up, nor the seed catalogues.

The one in my hands was exceptionally radiant, and exceptionally full of Novelties and Specialties for the New Year, among them being an extraordinary new pole bean--an Improved Kentucky Wonder. She had backed away, as I have said, and instead of looking at the page of beans, looked solemnly at me; then with something sorrowful, something somewhat Sunday-like in her voice, an echo, I presume, of lessons in the Catechism, she asked me--

"Who makes you plant beans?"

"My dear," I began, "I--"

"How many meals of pole beans did we eat last summer?"


"Three--just three," she answered. "And I think you must remember how many of that row of poles we picked?"

"Why, yes, I--"

"Three--just three out of thirty poles! Now, do you think you remember how many bushels of those beans went utterly unpicked?"

I was visibly weakening by this time.

"Three--do you think?"

"Multiply that three by three-times-three! And now tell me--"

But this was too much.

"My dear," I protested, "I recollect exactly. It was--"

"No, I don't believe you do. I cannot trust you at all with beans. But I should like to know why you plant ten or twelve kinds of beans when the only kind we like are limas!"

"Why--the--catalogue advises--"

"Yes, the catalogue advises--"

"You don't seem to understand, my dear, that--"

"Now, _why_ don't I understand?"

I paused. This is always a hard question, and peculiarly hard as the end of a series, and on a topic as difficult as beans. I don't know beans. There is little or nothing about beans in the history of philosophy or in poetry. Thoreau says that when he was hoeing his beans it was not beans that he hoed nor he that hoed beans--which was the only saying that came to mind at the moment, and under the circumstances did not seem to help me much.

"Well," I replied, fumbling among my stock of ready-made reasons, "I--really--don't--know exactly why you don't understand. Indeed, I really don't know--that _I_ exactly understand. _Everything_ is full of things that even I can't understand--how to explain my tendency to plant all kinds of beans, for instance; or my 'weakness,' as you call it, for seed catalogues; or--"

She opened her magazine, and I hastened to get the stool for her feet. As I adjusted the light for her she said:--

"Let me remind you that this is the night of the annual banquet of your Swampatalk Club; you don't intend to forego that famous roast beef for the seed catalogues?"

"I did n't intend to, but I must say that literature like this is enough to make a man a vegetarian. Look at that page for an old-fashioned New England Boiled Dinner! Such carrots. Really _they_ look good enough to eat. I think I 'll plant some of those improved carrots; and some of these parsnips; and some--"

"You had better go get ready," she said, "and please put that big stick on the fire for me," drawing the lamp toward her, as she spoke, so that all of its green-shaded light fell over her--over the silver in her hair, with its red rose; over the pink and lacy thing that wrapped her from her sweet throat to the silver stars on her slippers.

"I'm not going to that Club!" I said. "I have talked myself for three hours to-day, attended two conferences, and listened to one address. There were three different societies for the general improving of things that met at the University halls to-day with big speakers from the ends of the earth. To-morrow night I address The First Century Club in the city after a dinner with the New England Teachers of English Monthly Luncheon Club--and I would like to know what we came out here in the woods for, anyhow?"

"If you are going--" She was speaking calmly.

"Going where?" I replied, picking up the seed catalogues to make room for myself on the couch. "_Please_ look at this pumpkin! Think of what a jack-o'-lantern it would make for the boys! I am going to plant--"

"You 'll be cold," she said, rising and drawing a steamer rug up over me; then laying the open magazine across my shoulders while giving the pillow a motherly pull, she added, with a sigh of contentment:--

"Perhaps, if it had n't been for me, you might have been a great success with pumpkins or pigs--I don't know."

[The end]
Dallas Lore Sharp's essay: Seed Catalogues