Curly Top 1

A Dead Tomato Plant

In the southwest of the United States, the man who grows tomatoes needs as many calluses on his heart as he does on his hands. A callus is a thickening layer that protects the tender flesh underneath. It’s the hand calluses make it possible for the gardener to grow and grub without cracks in the skin. It’s the heart calluses let the gardener shrug and throw tomato plants on the compost heap when he discovers two more dead from curly top.

If you read tomato seed catalogues, you’ll see varieties that have as many letters after their names as eminent Victorians. These letters are resistances. Fusarium, Verticillium, Alternaria, Nematodes, Stymphilium, Tobacco mosaic virus. They have a certain old-fashioned charm to them. Out here, that’s all they have. The tomato grown in this high arid land isn’t subject to them. We are almost disease free.

What we do have is the curly top virus. It makes up for them all. One little infecting bite, and you have a dead plant.

It lives in mustard weed and tumbleweed, of which there are plenty. They grow up along the ditches, in little niches along the fence lines, anywhere. The abandoned field over the road is full of them. A little bug called a leafhopper bites the weeds and picks it up. Then it bites the tomato. They say it’s usually just the one bite. They say that the leafhopper doesn’t like the taste of tomato vine, so he flies off right away. But the one little bite is enough.

Your plant may seem to be flourishing like the green bay tree, but you notice that leaves at the base are starting to curl up a little, and dry a little.

Curly Top 2

As sure as shooting, as sure as sunrise, you will next start to notice purple veins, and more curling, and a smell like a tomato gone bad. Then it will shrivel and die. Nothing can stop it. There are no known resistant varieties. My local extension service claims that Celebrity tomatoes survive at slightly higher rates, while a service in Colorado claims to have had some luck with Better Boys. By sad experience, I know what these claims are worth.

Last year I planted over a hundred tomatoes and around 10 survived. This year I planted over two hundred. So far I still have fifty or so that are unaffected. But, as the descendants of our eminent Victorians might say, its early days yet. Just like last year, I expect that abandoned field across the way to do for my tomatoes good and proper.

I have a couple of sisters who are nurses and another sister who has been in a hospital bed for months with a tough twins pregnancy. In an online family chat about temples and sacred space, they started talking about how hospital rooms can sometimes become sacred spaces. The Spirit lists where it will.

My garden is a sacred space. At least, the Spirit is interested enough in my work out there that he visits me there more than in other locales. This Saturday I was rooting up infected plants and thinking dark thoughts when my mind was directed to a line from a book I was reading, something along the lines that it only takes one drink to stop being a teetotaler and it only takes one woman to undo the mysogynist’s principles.

It only takes one bite to kill a young tomato plant. It only takes one peccadillo to kill a young soul. If we weren’t rooted out by death, our total decay would happen inevitably. Without cherubim and a flaming sword, we’d forever be in sin.

Sin, on the whole, is more serious than we take it. Repentance and the atonement seem to diminish its threat. But Christ did not overcome it just by dint of it being an easy foe.


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