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Dear Squash

By Ander Monson

Published in the July/August 2013 issue of Orion magazine



Squash—Advanced
Cucurbita pepo
Spaghetti Squash
Ss: Local
Pima County Public Library Seed Lending Library
Info: 791-4010
3 1152 06091 7657

START THIS THOUGHT with a thing that is like another thing: Cucurbita pepo, spaghetti squash, filed under “Advanced” because of how hard it is to prevent cross-pollination, hybridization. It nauseates me to even write the word squash, so repellent do I find the plant. The reasons are what you’d expect: memories of barfing up the stringy mess, but before that the memory of being stuffed with squash and sugared up, pleasure before revulsion. Butternut, acorn, summer, table queen acorn, uchiki kuri, zeppelin delicata, pink banana jumbo, Pennsylvania Dutch crookneck, Magdalena big cheese, kabocha, green-striped cushaw, galeux d’eysines, early prolific straightneck, buttercup, black beauty, baby bam pie pumpkin. Okay, the litany of names of seeds on offer here does cue my salivation, even though I wouldn’t eat any of these varieties unless forced at point of gun or knife or beam from space or courtesy or God. Still, I love the variousness that the spread suggests—how rich our world, named, ordered, collected in a list.

Here in the Pima County Public Library’s Seed Library at the Joel Valdez branch in downtown Tucson, you can check out a pack of seeds to plant and grow. Six at a time at most for now. You do need a card. But there is no such thing as overdue for seeds: the library wipes them off your record after thirty days. Borrowers are asked to harvest seeds from a successful batch and “return” them when they can, assuming the seeds have not been accidentally hybridized. By this the library becomes a locus of literal growth, a catalyst for those whose hearts direct their hands on the soil and want to grow their world or food.

The collection here is a hedge against the future, genetic modification, the flattening of biodiversity into a thin, controllable, corporate, patented line. Not often have I found a place as alive as this for the public good. All these seeds are heirloom, I’m informed. Each time I’m here, security—old dudes, exclusively, not armed except with pepper spray—keep walking by as if to check—for what, I wonder, packet theft? Other forms of unacceptable behavior? The code of conduct proscribes so many things: gambling, indecent exposure, harassing anyone, possession of whatever, shirtlessness and shoelessness, talking, of course, disciplining a child in an injurious or disruptive fashion, unsupervised children, sleeping, selling, lack of safety, “bringing into the library, or attempting to place or store in the library, bags, luggage, backpacks, boxes or other items larger than [a surely arbitrary] 17” x 22” x 15.5.””

The seeds are kept in card catalogues—remainder of the world before the internet. You’ll remember, if you’re of a certain age, when you would slide open a drawer and see the cards on either side of what you wanted, sometimes leading your search pleasantly astray. Products of human expertise, the work of hands and books and hours, the cards were composed of librarians’ heirloom idiosyncrasies. Now those are gone, cut into quarters to be used for scrap. What remains is digital, which shows no fingerprints. Convenient, certainly, and downloadable as an app, the online index lacks mystique and physicality. But that’s the future we have made. Hard here, then, not to fetishize the past—the drawer’s sliding-open sound, the packets riffling under fingers. Pick one and give it a good maraca shake: this is the sound of your future garden.

Dear squash, as noun or food or racket game you lack appeal. Though, almost onomatopoeia, you’re a satisfying verb—sibilant, fibrous, quick, and harsh, interior made exterior by sudden pressure: you promise a gross explosion. You hold heirlooms, too, senses nearly lost: “the unripe pod of a pea. Also applied contemptuously to persons,” obsolete according to the OED for a hundred years or more, used a few times in Shakespeare. That too has been preserved. And now deployed. Planted here for you. A dozen seeds in a little envelope. Add water, grow in shade. Harvest when mature. Return your books.

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Ander Monson is the author of six books, including the forthcoming Letter to a Future Lover in which “Dear Squash” will be collected.

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