UNFORGETTABLE were the fingers of a Japanese tomato farmer. I saw a television feature about this fellow who raised a difficult variety of tomatoes, which were well worth the trouble. His customers lined up to buy his tomatoes, a peerless blend of sweet and sour.
The farmer picked his tomatoes by hand, choosing only those that were the right shade of red. As a result, the two fingers he used to pinch off the fruit at the stem were permanently green-hued.
I was awed. How did I measure up against this man in the passion he brought every day to his work? He and his wife even converted their living room to a kind of holding area for his tomatoes.
Standing in a corner of their roadside stall like a Buddha in bandana and farming togs, the farmer listened to customers so he could raise better tomatoes. That’s how he learned to cultivate his second crop.
This is a tomato that’s cheaper but as nutritious. The farmer talked to a woman with a malady, which was aided if she ate tomatoes. Unfortunately, the farmer’s bestselling variety was beyond her means except as an indulgence. So he researched and went to grow the other tomato.
This part of the farmer’s story taught me how diligence is even better than passion when learning something.
Recently, I gave the husband cuttings from our oregano to share with officemates who wanted to raise this at home. The herb is good for relieving cough and flavoring jackfruit soup. We chose the broad-leafed variety over the Italian one preferred for cooking because we needed more the leaves’ pungent smell, which drives away mosquitoes.
Oregano is easy to grow, even by someone whose fingers know a keyboard more intimately than garden soil. Two months after we transplanted tender, pale green clusters at the height of the rainy season, the oregano had deepened to an emerald green and was as tall as a toddler.
And seemingly as willful. Another two months later, the tallest, thickest stalks swayed and fell to the ground. The herb quickly adapted, growing secondary roots along the stems that snaked on the ground.
Crawled it did. One morning, we opened the main door and pushed against oregano tendrils that crept overnight to the carport. The sons joked about the “genetically modified oregano (GMO),” vaguely menacing mutants compared to the prim, orderly buds bordering my grandmother’s garden.
To cut oregano for the husband’s officemates, I gave up the shears and used a knife to “saw” through thick, gnarled and convoluted stems. In the windless afternoon, the fur-like leaves left a rasping sensation, like tiny knives being whetted on my skin.
The thing was a survivor. Magnificent and monstrous, its undergrowth was a serpentine knot of yellowing, even black and rotting limbs that became green and pliant where the sun reached it. It spat on co-existence; not just mosquito but grass passed to nothingness underneath it.
In the end, I relied on what I knew of editing to manage the oregano. Hack off the trivial. Spare no mercy for the redundant. Remove the ornamental that’s disconnected from substance. Simplify, simplify, simplify.
I may not earn yet my green fingers. But the GMO that lives in our garden knows now for sure: editors have the last say.
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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 3, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”