balsam apple vines & 9 suspensions

Midsummer is past; high summer reigns. A heat dome hovers over the center of North America, conjuring temperatures astride 100 degrees and in some places, a dangerous humidty to match. Here on the Front Range of the Rockies, the humidity is low but when the sun breaks through after an all-too-brief summer shower and pours hot syrup down my neck where I'm working among the rows, I know it's time for a break in the shade.

The garden is a full ecosystem, supporting so much life and abundance. Sometimes I look at it and imagine the engines driving it—chlorophyll factories converting sunlight, bees on the wing, insects at battle, swelling fruits and deep roots absorbing rain.

I'm part of that ecosystem, both steward and recipient of its bounty. I'm paid in satisfaction, as well as the tangible coins of the realm. Few things are so simple a pleasure as assisting a delicate vine to attach a tendril to a trellis. It's communication, if you recognize the vine's faint clinging to your finger. My favorite is the tendril of the balsam apple vine—extremely thin, with a strength expressed as elasticity.

I got the seeds at Monticello, Jefferson's gardens, over a decade ago. I've had decent years cultivating them far from their native habitat in the southeastern U.S., but things were always tenuous; more than once I got only a single apple fruit to mature, so there were as few as four viable seeds to carry over. One year I got no fruit, but a friend to whom I'd given some seeds saved me, as hers flourished.

This year, I've got four vines, and they are monstrous.

The blossoms are remarkable, frothy pale yellow. They remind me of cucumber blossoms; let's compare.

Variations on a theme. Yet the fruit of the cucumber (bottom) is something to relish, while the Balsam Apple is misnamed—it's no good eating, that's for sure. But a fresh cuke, chilled and served sliced or shredded into a tsatsiki sauce, is one of high summer's true pleasures.

All things suspended from tendrils, even as summer itself seems to hang mid-air, pivoting from one place and toward another, promising fruition for the patient gardener. I'll look out at my garden plot in February, when it's empty, and know that emptiness supports fullness, and in fact is a necessary precursor.

Consider alogos, Epicure's word for the idea that all sensation is mute. Our words depend on that silence, and proceed from it. The dormant garden of winter suggests and even makes possible the one bursting out in July. The scents and flavors of a garden exist briefly, and while they are on the vine, what we call them and say about them is less than their mute eloquence. Photos are nice, but only two-dimensional, and devoid of scent, tactility, or flavor. One must bite into that cucumber to experience alogos.

Now here's the leap. André Comte-Sponville writes, "That stones cannot talk does not prevent us from saying true things about them." He is describing states of consciousness that some call mystical experience but with he considers a kind of concentration. To achieve that state of mind, he lists nine "temporary suspensions," ways of eliminating intellectual, emotional, and physical distractions. This puts one in touch with what's real, in the moment.

Each suspension provides its reward, states of mind that accumulate, mesh, and make possible remarkable experiences of clarity and connection. They are, for the record: mystery, plenitude, simplicity, unity, silence, eternity, serenity, acceptance, and independence.

This is getting greasy, so I'll just say read Comte-Sponville, as he makes his case elegantly, with humor and clarity and real insight. Meanwhile, I'll stay a while longer in the garden's shady spot because I find it's where I'm most able to make those suspensions—some or all, on occasion. If nothing brilliant comes of it, I'll just stare quietly at the particular purple color along the ridge and tip of this bean, suspended in the sun.