catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 16 :: 2013.09.06 — 2013.09.19


I am the little red hen

Community: (n.) from the old French comunete, from the Latin comunis and old Latin comoenus meaning “shared or general.”

Here’s my variation on that old story, The Little Red Hen:

“Who will help me plant this seed?”

“Not I!” said the fig thieves.

“Not I!” said the peach stealers.

“Not I!” said the tomato eaters.

“Then I will do it myself!” said the Little Red Hen.

The little red hen, she had issues. You know what I mean? She kept going on and on about all the work she did, and well, she wasn’t very generous either, was she? But I get it. Why? Because I am the little red hen.

This is a shocking tell-all about community. It involves tomatoes and peaches and (gasp) figs! It involves neighbors, and strangers and the best of friends. You will laugh, you will cry, you may consider watching Cats on Netflix — but later, after you’ve read this first.

In my neighborhood we have an online community listserve. It’s like an electronic bulletin board where people post what they want and need, garage sale announcements, updates about crime, local events and it arrives in my e-mail inbox regularly. I love it. Recently a version of these two e-mails appeared on the listserve.

-———- Forwarded message -———-
From: Darlene*
To: “cool glasses” <>, “neighborhood@cool” < neighborhood@cool >
Date:  26 Summer 2013 12:56:55 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: Re: [a really cool neighborhood in Pittsburgh] Common Courtesy and Fruit Thievery

Fruit thievery is common as Sebastian posted earlier (“Over the weekend I caught two children STEALING figs from my fig tree.  This is theft; there is a “no trespassing” sign as well as a locked gate in the rear of my house.  These were deemed necessary after I caught a grown man in my backyard stealing figs TWICE last year.”) and now I learned when all my ripe peaches were removed from my tree in one day.  They must have been checking to make sure they were ready and large enough because when I was set to pick them to make my recipe I went out and found all of them gone. So I had to go to the farmers market and buy someone else’s peaches.  The ones that could be reached from the street were totally picked clean. And the ones that were left were green and inedible.  Needless to say you are lucky you had any figs left.  All ‘cool neighborhood’ residents need to realize we plant these trees and care for them.  We can spare a peach now and then especially for children but when an adult comes in the night or early am and cleans off tree without asking the owner’s permission that teaches a bad lesson to everyone.  Go buy your own tree or ask someone before picking fruit.  


I had nothing to do with the figs.  I think it’s a shame.  I really like figs so I bought my own fig tree from a really, awesome, eccentric, old Italian guy at the farmer’s market.  He sells his own weedy looking fig tree seedlings planted in cut open plastic soda bottles.

About the peaches though: I work at the house next door to the peach tree in question; at least, I am pretty sure I do.  Every other week I pull up to the curb a car’s length away from an adorable peach tree about 15 feet high.  It’s bold as brass, overhanging the sidewalk and the street and this summer it was loaded — I mean, LOADED — with big, luscious looking peaches.  One day, as I parked my car and unloaded all of my house cleaning gear I saw a lonesome peach drop into the gutter: plop. 

I had watched this tree go from flower to fruit.  I hoped someone was tending it, loving it, hadn’t just “bought a house with this dumb tree out front” and hated raking up the rotten peaches off the sidewalk.  But one can’t really tell until the fruit’s rotted off the tree.  I toyed with the idea of picking up the fallen fruit, “No one would want it,” I reasoned.  “It was lying in the gutter but I had seen it fall, I knew it was fresh and ripe and really ready to eat.”  But no!

My internal conversation turned to memories of last October’s day of mourning, when I went out back to pick my spaghetti squash, the football sized oblongs that I had babied all summer.  Grown from a saved seed and now those four, glorious, Big Bird-yellow fruits were splattered all over the alley behind my house.  I was mad. I was really mad.  But what could I do?

What I did was go over to the tree, say a prayer of thanks for peaches, gently stroke the fuzzy cheek of a fragrant pink fruit, and then go wash floors and scrub toilets.  I did not take the peach.

The next week when I returned, all the ripe peaches were gone and I rejoiced, thinking of the owners making cobbler or canning the peaches or just slurping sticky, sweet juice from their own chins as they ate them, warm and fresh right from the tree.

Alas, apparently it was not so.  Following in our ultimate parents’ footsteps, this modern Adam or Eve took that forbidden fruit without so much as a “by your leave.”  Only God knows their fate.  But the fruit owners, the parents of the little figs and peaches, were most enraged at the brazenness, the assumption that this fruit was for any who passed, that it was “community” fruit.  But it wasn’t.  Oh, the fruit in both cases was being saved so it could be shared, but with friends, so perhaps real sharing can only take place when both parties are present and engaged.  These folks felt robbed. But to be clear, I did not take the peaches or the figs.

Instead, I am guilty of something else: you see, I am the little red hen.

I made a garden — actually I inherited a garden and it is not mine, I get to borrow it. The neighbors who just moved in next door to my house are friends.  I used to tend the garden next door for the lady who lived there, but she just moved from our intentional community to a co-housing community a few blocks away. 

I’ll get back to my garden in just a second. For a moment, cross the boulevard and walk up the block to the co-housing community with me.  It’s a row of renovated houses with an enormous garden reclaimed from vacant lots.  It’s awesome, but idealism in that garden is on the wane, so we’ll call it Eden.  The problem in Eden is that the co-housers want community and they want to share, but not everyone agrees on what that should look like.  And so this summer, Jim, one tender of Eden, went out to get some tomatoes for dinner.  Jim is retired and he sets aside money to help pay the taxes on the garden. He has taken on a lot of responsibility and so have about half of his co-housing neighbors who regularly gather in this garden.  This is the retired co-housing contingent.  The young, hip contingent do not like to get up really early, so they don’t often weed or water, and they haven’t chipped in on the taxes.  But they had picked ALL the tomatoes, so our friend Jim had to walk several blocks to the farmer’s market to buy tomatoes instead.  That night, young hipster said, “Um, Jim, you know you seem really hostile about the garden.”

You think?

So walk back over to my garden now.  I spent hours and hours this past March ripping out sage and mint that had gone wild.  That darn mint.  It was hot, hard work with a mattock.  As I was working one day, a neighbor from my community leaned on the fence, “What are you doing?”

“Oh,” I said leaning on my mattock, “ Ernie and Valerie are letting me use their garden this year so they don’t have to worry about it while they renovate the house.”

“Ooh, I’d love to help, call me when you’re working next.”

I did not call her.  I love this neighbor, she is one of my dearest friends, our kids are best friends, we used to share an office, we get breakfast regularly and pray together and I did not call her. Why?  I did not want to share my dirt — my borrowed dirt.

So all through the spring I weeded, and battled the crazy huge slugs. I fought the herds of tiny, brown slugs, I replanted, and replanted. I spent probably $50 on seeds for the veggies I dreamed of and worried when there was a threat of frost or hail.  I bought bamboo stakes and made tripods and hung net for my cucumbers-to-be and I re-re-planted my basil, again.  And about June, it happened, it started producing beans and then cilantro, peppers, lettuce, beets and basil, onions and potatoes, carrots and more beans. It is gloriously ordered and wildly, lushly overgrown in places.  The nasturtiums, the cosmos, the calendulas and the cardinal climber add color.  And everyone who visits Ernie and Valerie’s new house compliment them on the garden — their garden. I tell Ernie and Valerie that they are the Czar and Czarina, I am the serf.  I am the peasant farmer cultivating their land and as the lords of the manor, I give them first rights to all and anything that I grow.  They like a tomato here and there, some lettuce, they love the beets for their smoothies.

So one day my dear friend, the neighbor, was having dinner at Ernie and Valerie’s and since their kitchen is in renovation shambles, they always entertain in the garden.  And this friend of my heart offered to help take all “that basil and extra tomatoes” off their hands.  To Valerie’s credit, she deferred, saying that I would need to be asked.  But in fact I was not really asked, and instead I went to get a tomato the other day, and there weren’t any ripe ones available.  None.  There had been dozens just a week ago and more ripening daily.  An hour later, I ran into my friend, I was back in the garden for a pepper. She was puttering about wearing an apron with a bowl in her hands. “I need a tomato. I hope you don’t mind.  I’ve been helping myself.”

You think?

I AM the little red hen and community is too hard for me to wrap my mind around. Those figs, peaches, tomatoes eaten by strangers, neighbors, friends — what do they tell me?  I would like to excuse the cries of my stingy heart: “I don’t have any room for a good garden, I need the exercise, it was my money, you didn’t ask!” Now, I grant you, the takers, they should ask.  It’s the common courtesy that greases the wheels, but I am not accountable for their fig-stealing hearts, just mine.  The truth is I want to be in control. I want to be generous to those to whom I’ve decided to be generous, I want live with and love those easy to live with and love, even though I can be a real nightmare (ask my husband).  Community means to sharing, but what does it mean to share?

Share: (v.) To have a portion of (something) with another or others, to give a portion of (something) to another or others, to use, occupy, or enjoy (something) jointly with another or others to possess (a view or quality) in common with others to tell someone about (something), esp. something personal.

I will tell you something personal: my name is Nicole and I am the little red hen and I live in community, but I don’t want to share. Pray for me.  I didn’t steal the figs and I didn’t take the peach, but I was given the gift of dirt, sunshine and rain and that produced life: a gift of God and I didn’t want to share. Pray for me, and pray for us all.

* The names of persons and places have been changed to protect the identity of the innocent and, more importantly, the guilty.

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