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Mom's Tomato Garden, Red in Tooth and Claw

I've spent the past two days at my mother's house, right on the ocean in the middle coast of Maine, enjoying the last of the summer. There is some very fancy flora and fauna here. The lower part of the garden is overrun by jewelweed, which has an unusual degree of entertainment value for a plant. Jewelweed has pretty orange flowers that eventually wither into little bean-like seed pods. The pods are held under tension, so that the lightest touch makes them split along the seams in a very wriggly way, with an audible 'pop', and scatter their seeds to the four corners of the lawn. Playing with jewelweed gives you the heebie jeebies - those seed pods feel like they're alive - but there's just no way to stop. If you need another excuse to let the stuff grow, jewelweed is good for poison ivy burns, and you can use it to make a decent yellow dye. Further out in the garden lives the formidable tomato hornworm, a creature I had never heard of until my mother brought in a tomato branch with a green caterpillar the size of a hot dog clinging to it. The hornworm is a machine for turning tomato leaves into hummingbird moths + caterpillar poop, and one is supposed to "hand-pluck" it from tomato plants into a bucket of soapy water to prevent the whole garden being eaten. While I am sure hand-plucking works, I will vouch for the fact that one can also use a very, very, very long stick to whack the beasties until their multiple feet all let go and they fall into the bucket of their own accord. Hornworms are creepy because they blend in so well to a tomato plant - you've got your hands all the way into a tomato bush, reaching for that one ripe fruit, and suddenly you notice there's an enormous green thing brushing against your cheek. Sometimes, though, the hornworms are easy to find: they're motionless and have a prominent collection of white ovals, like rice grains, stuck to their backs. This version of the hornworm looks even nastier than its incognito cousin, but it's actually a good sign. The white ovals are cocoons, and they indicate that a parasitic braconid wasp has found its way into your garden, and is helping rescue your tomatoes. The hornworm, paralyzed but alive, serves as a convenient buffet bar for the little wasp larvae, which then hatch and go on to inflict terror on other hornworms. In between, the braconid wasps subsist on nectar and pollen, like gentlemen. The braconids and their cousins, the ichneumonidae, are enough to give fits to anyone who claims Nature is always benign and good, or that it is the product of a Divine Creator who isn't a little messed up in the head. Darwin himself made the argument:

"I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars."
Which shows you that Darwin was not a tomato farmer. Nowadays it's easy to find arguments against the existence of a Divine Providence (off the top of my head: raspberry-flavored coffee, Barney the Dinosaur, the Bush Administration), but Darwin had to work with what he was given. And you have to admit that, for sheer ookiness, it's hard to top a creature that paralyzes you and then lays eggs that feast on your still-living flesh.

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