Feathers and thorns; a garden surprise

The zucchini is an easy plant to loathe. Its leaves, where not embellished with spines, feel like rough sandpaper; the stems are covered in needle-like hairs. The plants themselves are huge, sprawling, elephant-eared specimens of horticulture that produce, if not watched, equally elephantine fruits. They lurk in the garden like outlaws, waiting for a chance to rise up and choke innocent cabbages or defenseless broccoli.

I discovered this last year while working on a small organic farm in Maine, as part of a three-teenager picking crew. For the most part we loved the job, loved it for the open air around us, the feel of dirt on our hands. Carrots smelled good when picked, cherry tomatoes could be eaten fresh off the vine, and summer onions became glowing purple-and-white orbs when stripped of skin and dirt.

But we thought the zucchini devoid of such small glories. At high noon, when plants were usually dry and therefore pickable, the plot tended to shimmer like Main Street in some old western. Instead of facing down bad guys with a pair of dueling pistols, we were up against four 20-foot rows of cucurbit thorns, armed only with tiny kitchen knives.

What's more, our showdown with the zucchini had to end in crates full of salable fruit, a goal far more difficult than, say, outshooting Wyatt Earp.

To sell a zucchini, it cannot be large. It cannot be scratched, bruised, or oozing juice. It cannot be dirty, nor can it get wet. The zucchini plant, however, does everything in its power to bruise, hide, enlarge, and scar its progeny: One brush against a leaf, and your average zucchini looks like the loser in a vegetable fist-fight. We wore gloves to wipe them clean, and stacked each fruit with the sort of care usually reserved for fine china.

WE HAD been picking zucchini for a few weeks when we found the nest. Tucked among the creeping stems of a particularly huge plant was a small, soft bowl of grass and string, its center adorned with three blue, speckled eggs no bigger than your thumbnail. There was no sign of parent birds among the vines and leaves, and none of us could determine the species simply by looking at the eggs.

But we all wondered at the nest, how something so gentle could spring from the midst of the zucchini. When we left to resume picking, we marked the nesting plant with a discarded row flag.

The next day, there was still no sign of a parent. When we reached the nest, which sat in a plant near the middle of a row, the eggs were alone. It wasn't until the following morning, when we tramped past the zucchini patch on our way to pick lettuce, that we found the layer of the eggs. As we neared the zucchini, our voices scared up a female killdeer. She flapped upward with the haphazard track of a wounded bird, landing a few yards from the zucchini.

Upon investigation, we discovered that she was unhurt, and was, instead, drawing our attention away from her brood. Had we been a trio of cats, her flop-winged flight would have looked like an easy meal. To us, it was the solution to a mystery.

It didn't take long for the three eggs to hatch.

One afternoon, when we peered through the leaves surrounding the nest, one of the eggs was split, and between the two blue halves was a tiny, damp, thoroughly ugly baby. We were elated, almost as if we'd been the ones to set and guard the eggs. By the next day, the other two had hatched, leaving three Buddha-bellied babies, all fuzzy heads and enormous waving mouths.

We no longer dreaded the zucchini patch, for among the spines and prickers and fussy fruits was the unfolding of three tiny lives. Each day the nestlings changed, first growing fuzzier, then opening their eyes, then beginning to grow stubby feathers.

The mother bird got rather used to our routine, flying a short way off and watching us as we picked, then flying in with a mouthful of cricket or caterpillar as we left.

The babies grew almost too fast to comprehend. Within three weeks they were almost fledged and would glare and hiss if we came too near. Then, one by one, they disappeared from the nest. We would see them, occasionally, flying past on unsteady wings.

By the time the killdeer flew, the zucchini were nearly dead of blight, and cold autumn was coming fast. We left the patch for one final time, nest empty, but a lesson learned. For, while zucchini are still fearsome plants, and I will always think of them as outlaws, they are not so foul. For among the thorny leaves and huge fruit sprang a wonder, in the tiny perfect cup of a nest and the three ugly, charming nestlings within.

Now, I will return to the garden in hope, with open eyes, to see if nature will once again show me beauty among the thorns.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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