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SAM COOK COLUMN: The trip back home

Sam Cook

The green beans didn’t do well this year. We planted them in June, as soon as winter was over. A couple of modest rows in the garden we share with neighbors.

But June was cool and wet, and Phyllis, the lead gardener, came in one night and announced that only five of our bean plants had come up. We talked to other gardeners who had had similar experiences. Some replanted. Others, like us, let it go.

Sometimes, the weather wins.

It isn’t as if we depend on a big vegetable harvest to get us through the winter. But nothing tastes much better than a bag of beans pulled from the freezer on a December evening and steamed with a couple of onion quarters. Like almost anything that comes from the garden, they remind us how much flavor food should have.

That is part of why we still garden. A few beans. Five tomato plants. A couple of basil plants.

But I know there’s another reason, perhaps more important. The lead gardener grew up on a Kansas farm, where summers are so warm the garden grows all night. While her dad was out cultivating corn or baling hay, she and her mom and two sisters were picking and washing and canning vegetables. Green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, sweet corn, potatoes.

I know that when we sit on our front porch and snap our modest harvest of green beans, she is back there in the yard with her mom and sisters, plunking bean segments into one bucket and the plucked-off pod ends in another. She can probably still hear the mourning doves cooing in the Chinese elms and feel the scruffy farm cats rubbing against her bare legs.

It is worth salvaging five bean plants in a reluctant Duluth summer, I suspect, just for the trip back home.

Most of us, these days, are at least a generation away from the farm. Kids grow up without driving tractors, backing up hay wagons, rescuing calves from problem births, shoveling hog manure, discovering a dead piglet, collecting eggs, fixing fence, milking Holsteins and feeding black Angus.

We no longer know grain dust and the smell of freshly cut alfalfa hay. We don’t know how to gauge the turning radius of a big John Deere pulling a chisel plow.

We have forgotten what it’s like to lie awake in bed at night praying for rain.

A friend of mine, a Minnesota canoe outfitter, thinks that our distance from the farm has changed the way some of his customers embrace the wilderness. They aren’t used to challenging physical work, he says.

A dogsledding guide I know says the experience he values most among those who want to guide for him is a farm background.

“They know how to use tools,” he said. “When something breaks on the trail, they can fix it.”

Our neighbors replanted their beans and gave us a bunch the other day. And the lead gardener returned from our patch with two handfuls of beans. We got our buckets and Tupperware and sat on the porch.

We snapped beans and remembered a way of life most of us don’t know anymore.

Sam Cook is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or