There are so many stories to track. On the one hand, I've been waiting for weeks to trace the stories of all the dozens of varieties of tomatoes that we grow for the farm and plant sales. There are the sunny, playful cherry tomatoes: Blush, Chocolate Sprinkles, Fruity Cherry, Purple Bumblebee, and Sunlemon, to name just a few. There are the stately, very Italian paste tomatoes: Cordova, Oroma, Pozzano, Cuore di Bue. The mostly hybrid slicers sound a bit more tame in general (Fantastic, Legend, Tasti-Lee), but they've got a good quorum of local names (Medford, Santiam, Siletz, Willamette) and some curve balls like Caiman, Chianti Rose, and Martian Giant. Then the heirlooms: open-pollinated, saved and passed down over generations to represent a mere fraction of the thousands of tomato varieties that once were. Aunt Ruby's (who's Ruby?), Burbank Slicing (of Illinois or California?), Cosmonaut Volkov (all I can find is "originally from Ukraine"), Gold Medal (when and where did it win that?), and Purple Calabash (apparently plump like a big old Cinderella pumpkin) taunt me with their hidden stories. Certainly many of the original stories behind these varieties have been lost, but they create new ones every season as gardeners share their abundance with family and friends, one variety survives a crazy heat wave better than all others, or a woman gifts her saved Mortgage Lifter seeds around her neighborhood and everyone miraculously feels richer the next year.
On the other hand, the stories of the people I'm working with often seem more relevant and strike me deeper than my imagination might run with variety names. One of our regular volunteers stopped by this morning on his way to the local March for Our Lives, just to bring me coffee and let me know that he'll be gone for a few weeks. His brother passed unexpectedly this week. He seemed healthy enough, and they don't have solid answers about why his heart failed. I wanted to ask more, cry with him, learn all about his family and offer whatever support I could. But we talked only briefly, and all I could offer was one of the little biscuits I'd made last night.
Almost in the same breath, I also learned that another regular volunteer has found a job this week, for the first time in ten years. When I asked why he'd succeeded now, after all that time, he said that he was finally "legal"-- after a three year process, he had the documents he needed to live without fear of deportation, find work, and make a whole life for himself here. He's been getting help from his landlady and friend to navigate that world, and even to set up his volunteering at the farm. I want to think that he doesn't need help because he's a bright, eager, hard working man, but too many cards were stacked against him for too long to go it alone. My heart bounced back up from the news of a brother's death to the news of a life with long-awaited forward momentum.
Later, I was again struck by the sense that everyone's story is so much more complex than it first appears. Another volunteer and I were talking about music while we finished seeding all those crazy tomato varieties, and I learned that his deeply religious and musical Appalachian grandfather, who was actually his step-grandpa and his grandmother's nephew, only believed in two types of music. There was gospel music, and then there was "secular" music. As much as he begged his grandpa to teach him how to play the guitar, the old man refused to because he was convinced his grandson would play that vile secular music. He never did learn to play, joking that his big fingers always got in the way. I wonder how much of his grandfather was hiding in those fingers.
After seeding tomatoes for the summer plant sale, potting up the last of the early tomatoes, letting a bit more light trickle in to the grafted tomatoes, and plugging in labels for the spring sale tomatoes, you'd think tomatoes would be all I could think of at the end of the day. But no, this evening it's easy to let the tomatoes slip my mind. The people around me have more important stories to tell, when I slow down enough to just listen.