The Beet Grows On

As my first gardening season in many years draws to a close, I am confronting the weighty question of when to harvest my beet.

If you have a crop of beets, pulling them from the ground is not emotionally loaded. My tomato harvest reached into double digits, if you count the cherry tomatoes, and I picked them with abandon. The same with the green beans. I harvested more than a dozen. Beans.

To be fair to myself, it has been a strange year. There’s the pandemic, which is why I am gardening at all. Otherwise I would have spent that time commuting. Also, I am about to semi-retire. I’ve been looking for the right word to describe it. After 28 years as a full-time staff member (editor, columnist, reporter, video host) of The New York Times, I’m leaving to cultivate my garden. And write about it. I will leave the ancestry of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to others, maybe. But I will keep writing about the odd and quirky corners of science and life that grab my attention, whether or not they have anything to do with the crisis of the moment. Then I’ll try to persuade editors to publish my version of “the news.”

Actually, that has always been my goal. I’ve always considered The Times’s motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” as more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule.

I started out as an editor at The New York Times Magazine, but also wrote occasionally about food, language and alien abductions. I’ve written a lot about dogs, but also Vikings, donkeys and chickens. Linguists credit me with the first use of the term “uptalk,” although actually a friend invented it. I was an outdoor columnist until the masthead figured out that I was basically going canoeing and writing about it.

I wrote a column called Side Effects in which I once took a deep dive into neuroscience in order to sneak in a suggestion that Amygdala McBain would be a good name for a James Bond heroine. My plan to become a full-time humor columnist never quite materialized, but I did become the host of a video feature, ScienceTake, for about five years in which I got to say lots of things like, “Sometimes, stay-at-homes get all the good plankton.” Well, I thought it was funny. And at the absolute apex of my weird-sentences-in-print career I used this as the lead sentence for a news item: “Jump, little maggot, jump.”

Having done my small part to expand the boundaries of what is fit to print, I’m ready to do other things, like garden, but I’m a little worried about that plan. This year even zucchini production was minimal. We’ve had a few, but we have still been buying zucchini, which is pretty much unheard-of if you have room to stick a few plants in the ground. What if this is not merely a mild stumble on my way to return to the soil but a dark storm cloud on the horizon? (I’ve never believed in the absolute prohibition on mixing metaphors.) I’ve also been thinking about other pursuits, like playing the guitar, fishing, building a boat.

The thing is, my guitar playing is a lot like my gardening. Let’s just say that I can play, but I am never asked to play. I do fish, but I was once skunked on the Madison River in Montana during the salmon fly hatch. If you don’t fish, just accept that it was not a good day. And although the small skiff I made with my father and son did stay afloat, there were some problems with the seats on the maiden voyage. They collapsed when you sat on them.

On the other hand, I can always write about these adventures. Do we need another expert garden writer who tells you how to achieve the perfect soil pH? Or another guitarist claiming that you too can do impossible flat-picking if you are virtuous and dedicated in your practicing?

I represent the rest of us, the man who grew a beet.

Looked at this way, my beet is not a gardening failure but a comic harvest. One beet can go a long way if you think of it as writing material rather than a vegetable.

Still, garden-to-table questions remain: Do we eat it as a snack? Should it be the main dish for a really, really light supper? Can I work my guitar playing in here somehow, like with an update of the depression-era classic “One Meatball”?

Once I finish writing the song, I’ll move on to my next gardening challenge. That will be deciding when to harvest the pumpkin.

In his spare time, Jim Gorman has written six books and taught science writing at Wesleyan, Princeton, Fordham and New York University.

In his “retirement,” he has plans to teach at Wesleyan, maybe write a book or a few, maybe get a dog to take the place of his mixed breed, Sophie, who died a few years ago, and maybe even a cat, and enjoy time with his wife, Kate, at their home in the Adirondacks.

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