Monday, November 12, 2012

`That Is Ripe Which is Ready to Be Reaped'

Harvest for a Northern kid means squash, white and sweet potatoes, Indian and sweet corn, pumpkins and apples, but we’re a long way from harvest in Houston. The apples I bought on Sunday were grown in New Zealand. The grapes came from California and the bananas from Costa Rica. The logistics of harvest and transport are staggering and impressive but remote. Others do the work. When we were first married and living in upstate New York, I worked all day and spent the evenings in the garden with the rabbits and turkeys, picking tomatoes and beans, digging spuds and watching the swallows swoop overhead. Those satisfactions are gone, for now, though I’ve never liked getting dirt under my nails. Thoreau notes in his journal on this date, Nov. 12, in 1858: 

“I think that the change to some higher color in a leaf is an evidence that it has arrived at a late and more perfect and final maturity, answering to the maturity of fruits, and not to that of green leaves, etc., etc., which merely sere a purpose. The word `ripe’ is thought by some to be derived from the verb `to reap,’ according to which that is ripe which is ready to be reaped. The fall of the leaf is preceded by a ripe old age.”

Thoreau’s etymology is correct. “Reap” and “ripe” share roots in Old English. One dictionary defines ripe as “ready for reaping.” Fulsomely, Christina Rossetti writes in “Sound Sleep”:Sweetest sweets of Summer's keeping, / By the corn fields ripe for reaping.” The King James Bible, in Revelations 14:15, gives: “And another Angel came out of the Temple crying with a loude voice to him that sate on the cloud: Thrust in thy sickle and reape, for the time is come for thee to reape, for the haruest of the earth is ripe.” Leave it to Keats in “To Autumn” to deploy “ripeness” and “half-reap’d.” Thoreau suggests death is maturation, ripeness the rounding out of life, its fruition, as in a ripe old age.'d half-reap'd

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