Domestic Tomato as Plant Totem

When I was a kid I couldn’t stand raw tomatoes. I thought they were too acidic and they bit my tongue. My family, on the other hand, loved them, and every summer when they put a garden in there would be ample numbers of tomato plants, mostly beefsteak and cherry. I didn’t really understand the appeal until I was older; my tastebuds had changed, and I had had a chance to try fresh garden tomatoes again. They still weren’t my favorite food ever, but I gained a certain appreciation for a “wolf peach” right off the vine.

In 2006 when I moved to Seattle for a year I planted a couple of lone tomato plants in our back yard, my first attempt at gardening. I had been told they were relatively easy to grow, and the young plants were cheap and readily available. The soil in our yard was hard and somewhat depleted from neglect and too much lawn, and the plants ended up being pretty stubby. But even with my inexperienced care they grew enough to produce a few ripe fruits. By the time I moved to Portland the following year, I wanted to do a better job.

Yellow Tomato Flowers by Glenda Green, http://bit.ly/U1ge6k

Yellow Tomato Flowers by Glenda Green, http://bit.ly/U1ge6k

In the years since, I’ve become a slightly less amateur gardener. I’ve learned how to use organic fertilizer (carefully and not too much or too often), and how to know when the garden needs watering (the tomatoes are usually the first to look wilted). I’ve managed to grow carrots, peas, beans, and the most enthusiastic broccoli I’ve ever seen. But my tomato plants are always my favorite, even if I do still have to plant with starts instead of seeds.

I’ve found that the totem Tomato (say that ten times fast!) is akin to Domestic Dog in nature—it likes humans and the attention they give its green children (as long as it’s not abusive), is pretty open to working with just about anyone, and tends to be very forgiving. When I managed to kill a few starts I tried growing from seeds, Tomato didn’t get angry, but rather assured me that a lot of them don’t make it, especially when taken out of their native soil, and that getting them from seed to healthy start can be a challenge. The effort was appreciated nonetheless and I was encouraged to try again at a point when I had better growing facilities.

Tomato-the-totem has been at the center not only of my gardening, but also my other domestic experiments such as cooking and canning foods. (I’ve been told I make a mean pizza sauce from fresh tomatoes!) Tomatoes themselves can add a lot of flavor to even a simple dish, and complement a variety of recipes and cuisines, making them a good beginner’s ingredient. They’re also a good first subject for canning; their acidity makes them less likely to grow moldy or otherwise go bad (though I tend to add a little extra lemon juice to every jar, just in case). And tomato’s children can be VERY prolific; many of us have had a neighbor foist some tomatoes off on us in the summer when they had too many to eat themselves, and have perhaps returned the favor! In this way, Tomato invites people to try new things with these fruits, being plentiful, tasty, and versatile whether fresh or cooked.

Of course, Tomato’s children benefit from these things. As I mentioned in my post Plants Need Animals, And Other Necessary Connections, the plants that win on an evolutionary level are those whose genetics are passed on the most frequently and successfully. Tomatoes and other domestic crops have persuaded us to spend a significant amount of time propagating their seeds and seedlings. While unlike other animals we may not necessarily spread the exact seeds we eat (except into the sewer or septic tank), our species still makes sure that the plants that feed us continue on genetically. In that respect we’ve got a good mutual relationship going on.

On the other hand, recently we haven’t been treating those plants so well. Some varieties of commercially available crops can’t survive without human intervention, making them completely reliant on us. And in conventional farming, the plants are often coated in pesticides, and their roots burned with chemical fertilizers that destroy the fungi that would normally help them take in more nutrients from the soil. Debate rages on about whether genetically modified tomatoes and other plants are safe to eat and strengthened through modern technology, or whether they’re “Frankenfoods” that may have more risks than benefits.

Tomato Still Life by Vince Mig, http://bit.ly/UsZ5E0

Tomato Still Life by Vince Mig, http://bit.ly/UsZ5E0

Tomato’s feelings on this, from my experience, are that we’re forgetting the importance of our relationship, that we’re taking tomatoes and other crops for granted. It’s fine that we want to eat and that we want to have more tomatoes in the future. But we’ve lost the appreciation for the careful balances that are involved in good farming and good eating. We don’t even necessarily have to change the way we produce food, except perhaps to make the processes more eco-friendly—fewer chemical fertilizers, more crop rotation, more sustainable shipping and packaging. What does need to change is our attitude toward plants only as commodities, where we assume they’ll always be available to us, and that we only use them without appreciation.

Just as we’ve started to see the animals, domestic and wild, as fellow creatures rather than put here for us to do with as we will, Tomato encourages us to also examine our relationships with the plants. Plants are not only valuable as food, or dried herbs for health and magic, or sources of wood and paper. They also indispensable parts of every ecosystem they reside in, and we literally couldn’t exist without them. It’s become somewhat of an environmentalist’s cliché to remind people that without plants (and plant-like cyanobacteria) we wouldn’t have oxygen to breathe, and the image of a protester chained to a tree they’re trying to save has become ho-hum. But Tomato gives us a way to start examining these relationships in a much more personal, immediate manner.

The call of the garden tomato may be a sillier idea than the romanticized howl of the wild wolf—wolves don’t just go “squish” when we step on them, after all. But perhaps it’s because Tomato has grown so close and familiar to us that it feels more comfortable speaking to us in this manner, about sustainability and preservation. We value the wolf and the tomato for very different reasons: the wolf symbolizes the wilderness that we wish to preserve, but the tomato represents the kitchen and the table of domestic serenity and creativity.

I didn’t get to plant a garden this past summer because I was too busy, and I definitely felt the absence of Tomato as a result. Yet Tomato kept the line open anyway—a single skinny little tomato plant, not even strong enough to hold a fruit, grew up from a seed that had fallen into the soil last year. This little plant gave me one more reason to go onto the balcony where my pots are and water the few remaining troopers from the previous season, and created a connection for me to hang onto. In that way Tomato has continued to be persistent and forgiving and ever patient, and I look forward to gardening next year.

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