Carrots and the Roots of Kindness, from Leo and Sophia Tolstoy to Ross Gay

A lovely reminder that “kindness and kin have the same mother.”

Carrots and the Roots of Kindness, from Leo and Sophia Tolstoy to Ross Gay

In the bleak Russian winter of 1902, Sofia Tolstoy filled her diary with anxieties about her husband’s health — “palpitations, difficulty in breathing, insomnia, general misery” — and his refusal to follow the protein-rich diet of fish and chicken his doctor had prescribed. Tolstoy was averse to vegetables. A decade earlier, in his incremental conquest of kindness — something he hadn’t always extended to his own wife in the early chapters of their long and devoted marriage as he was learning how to be a decent person — he had awakened to the barbarism of killing animals as an act “contrary to the moral feeling” that is the fundamental building block of the good life. “We cannot pretend that we do not know this,” he wrote. A century after Shelley’s impassioned case for it, Tolstoy had become a vegetarian, holding on to his ethic even as his health began failing. “Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness,” he came to write in his old age as he reckoned with his own imperfect life.

His ethic of kindness included vegetables, and his favorite vegetable was carrots. Naturally, I thought of Tolstoy as I reread poet and gardener Ross Gay’s exquisite harmonizing of carrots and kindness in a fragment of The Book of Delights (public library) — his soul-broadening yearlong experiment in willful gladness.

Ross Gay

The entry for July 4, titled “Pulling Carrots,” took me back to my grandmother’s garden, back to pulling carrots with my own tiny hands a century and an artificial border across from Tolstoy and his wife, his wife who bore the name of my birthplace. The best books both take us outside of ourselves and return us to our true selves, sometimes by helping us to befriend the most innocent childlike parts of ourselves that we have long suppressed in adulthood.

Gay is a writer:

We pulled today the carrots that Stephanie had sown in her March garden. She planted two kinds: a red kind shaped like a standard kind, and a squat orange kind with a French name, a kind I recall the packet calling a “market variety,” probably because, like the red kind, it’s an eye-catcher. It was also sweet. I discovered this by nibbling on a few of them like Bugs Bunny while pulling them.

Daucus carota (wild carrot, or Queen Anne’s Lace) from Pictures from the Nordic FloraBy A. Mentz, C.H. Ostenfeld, 1917. This print is also available as stationery cards and a printed copy. All proceeds go to The Nature Conservancy.

I confess I have a deep antipathy to the common trope of anchoring ideas in dictionary definitions or etymologies — a kind of crutch, like using Italics or exclamation points for emphasis, leaned on when a writer lacks the stylistic skill to create emphasis or definition with the writing itself. Poetry is the one who can free language from its commonplaces. Ross Gay, who did the work of David Whyte to revive dead word definitions, does the same for the crutch that is etymology. He uses a Russian nesting doll full of meanings as Ross Gay.

Word TypeMeaning TypeOr VarietyYou may have seen me use the phrase with a flourish. It is a delight because it places the goodness of carrots at the forefront of this conversation (good for the eyes, tasty, etc.).It reminds us all that kindness and our kin share the same mother. Perhaps making the people we show kindness to our kin. Whomever we may be of assistance Might be. This circle is large.

These are kinds, I am thinking, as I snip the feathery green tops, making my way through the pile, holding the root in one hand, feeling the knobs and grains, the divots where they’ve grown against a rock or some critter nibbled. The four to five red carrots that are almost two, the carrot legs needing some tiny pantaloons.

It is because so much food, including carrots, lies under ground that it must be found. Uncovered. And after the discovering, and the uncovering, choosing which ones to replant, and replant, and replant, and replant, and replant, and replant, until there was the long red kind I’m brushing the soil from. Then came the small, squaty kind that was piling up in the basket. It was kindness. They’re our family.

One of the doodles Darwin’s kids left all over his manuscript of About the Origin of Species.

This is a small part of the whole delightful story. The Book of Delights with two kindred poems — Lucille Clifton’s “cutting greens” and Marissa Davis’s “Singularity” — then revisit Ross Gay (along with two centuries of other great writers, including Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Oliver Sacks, Jamaica Kincaid, and Rebecca Solnit) on the creative and spiritual rewards of gardening.

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