On the radio this evening, I heard an interview with the man who grew the newly-crowned World’s Largest Cabbage. The large, leafy head weighed in at the Alaska State Fair at 138.25 pounds, he said, and he emphasized the decimals, as if the extra quarter pound is going to be what keeps his produce on the largest-cabbage throne for many years to come. If I heard correctly, it measured something like seven feet from the tip of the leaves on one side to the tip of the leaves on the other side. It was a big cabbage.
In the interview with the man who grew the record-setting vegetable, the reporter started by asking the obvious question: how does one grow such a large head of cabbage? The man replied with all due humility, saying that the real advantage has to do with the unique conditions in Alaska. Since the sun is up almost around the clock, he said, the leaves just keep growing and growing, never stopping to rest through the night like the lazier tropical specimens would. The reporter pressed him a little bit, pointing out that all of his neighbors would be growing these enormous cabbages if it only had to do with the midnight sun. Then, he conceded that his success in raising the cabbage also had to do with his own efforts. He said that, if you want to grow a big cabbage like his, you can’t take off on a weekend fishing trip, or a week-long hunting excursion, like some of his neighbors do. Instead, you have to tend the plant every day, watering and fertilizing and addressing even the smallest signs of pests, disease, or other threats.
The reporter moved on by the end of the interview to ask what would become of this large cabbage. Would it be good to eat, she asked? The man said it would; you would just have to peel off the outer leaves, just like on any other head of cabbage, and the inner parts would probably taste just fine. He went on to explain that most of the fresh-food entries in the state fair are collected on the last day by local food pantries and other programs, who gratefully distribute the award-winning produce to people who need food. However, something as big as a 138-pound cabbage is a bit too cumbersome for those groups, so it will probably end up in the wilderness somewhere, feeding some lucky herd of wildlife before what remains decomposes to feed the microbes in the dirt.
I can’t get this story of the record-setting cabbage out of my mind. The story evokes two questions of polarities for me as a gardener. For one, the story of this cabbage speaks to the question of what makes for successful gardening. Is it the hard work of the gardener that determines whether the crops will produce and the flowers will bloom? Or is success the result of the dumb luck of the location and the weather? And the second question this story brings up for me has to do with the purpose of gardening. Is it more noble to use our land, water, and fertilizer, as well as our time and muscles, to grow only produce which can provide nutrition to our bodies? Or should we dedicate resources simply to coax from the earth beautiful flowers and plants which have no utility other than to bring joy to our minds and souls?
The world’s largest cabbage exists in a tension somewhere in the middle of both of these extremes. As the man who grew it admitted, the cabbage did not attain its record-breaking size solely through the good luck of being planted in a place where the sun barely sets. But neither did the meticulous attention, knowledge, and labor of the gardener alone create this record-setting phenomenon. Both location and hard work were needed to bring this cabbage from a tiny seed to the biggest specimen of its kind that the world has ever seen. And similarly, this cabbage was not grown strictly to provide vitamins and fiber and good flavor for the gardener. But it also could not be considered simply an aesthetic creation. Its purpose was neither utility nor beauty; it was something else entirely.
I never thought I would string these words together to form a sentence, but I have to admit that I can relate personally to this cabbage. On the first question of purpose, I cannot believe that I am granted space on this planet only to be useful to other people, to the world as a whole, and to the God who created me. The joy I feel when I witness beauty, when I experience love, and when I glimpse the mysteries of God must have an intrinsic value. Human life cannot find its entire purpose solely in its utility or solely in its pleasure; our purpose is at least a balance of those two, and perhaps even something else entirely.
And any success at achieving life’s purposes is similarly complex. A number of years ago, my sister tried to convince me that she and her husband had earned everything they have. I know that they have both worked harder than some people do. But if I am honest, I can’t buy my sister’s claim. I have worked, too; I have worked harder than some, but not as hard as others. But where I am in life also has to do with the location in which I was born. I am not talking only about my birth in a rural town in the American West in the late 20th century, although those facts of location all contributed in important ways to who I am now. I am also talking about the social location of my birth. I am what I am in part due to the dumb luck that I was born to parents who live solidly in the middle-class, and who have worked for many years to maintain the trappings of that social position. I am what I am because my family values education, and there was never any question that I would attend college. I am what I am because my parents also value freedom, so any adventure I wanted to take was granted full support as well as a ride to the airport. And I am what I am because I have never had to question whether my parents love me, even when my education and my freedom have been expressed through decisions they could not understand. Everything I am is not due solely to the luck of the location of my birth, but I will never claim that I have earned everything I have through my own work.
So I live with that cabbage in the middle of tension. My understanding of human purpose is caught somewhere between utilitarian function and aesthetic beauty. What I am now is a result of the luck of the location where I was planted as well as the attention, knowledge, and labor I have put forth as I have gardened my own life. And 1200 or so words later, I am still fascinated by the world’s largest cabbage.