Sunday, February 24, 2013


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (11/12/12)


          The subjunctive mood, sadly, has pretty well passed out of general usage which leaves us with only the indicative and imperative.  The subjunctive is probably too sophisticated for our modern times, enamored, as we are, with commands, dogmas, ideologies, and certainties as though we know the truth.  Ironically, if we claim to know the truth, we’re trapped in our certitudes and shielded from ever learning anything new.  According to my high school Plain English Handbook, “The subjunctive mood expresses doubt or wish or condition contrary to fact” as in “I wish I were going home for Christmas.” 


          The indicative mood is for statements and questions as in “I’m going home for Christmas.”  While the indicative is used more for descriptions, the imperative is used for commands which assume knowledge of some hidden truth.


Nowadays, one seldom hears the subjunctive, seldom a doubt.  Almost all of the politicians speak in imperatives, especially the ones whose nostrums have failed in the past.  Even horticulturalists speak in the imperative, promising success if their instructions are executed.  In addition, the apocalyptic tenor of the times begets the imperatives of doom, delivered in stringent tones with corded necks. 


          Bureaucrats, academicians, religious authoritarians favor the imperative.  Considering themselves experts, they’re incapable of expressing doubt or uncertainty; however, most veteran gardeners favor the subjunctive.  I’ll choose a veteran over an expert any day.  Also, psychologically the imperative is often used to cloak uncertainty.  Gardening is subjunctive.  No one is ever exactly sure what’s going to happen.


          Tomatoes are subjunctive.  Akin to children, tomatoes seldom turn out as expected, sometimes for the better and sometimes “not so.”  An Episcopal priest once offered a toast at a wine tasting:  “Wine makes all men handsome, all women beautiful, and even makes one’s children promising.”


A tomato’s adolescence is an iffy time along about late June or July.  A beautiful Siberian of ours, loaded with fruit, came down with white flies, and spray it as I would early in the day before sunrise, they never went away.  We had to destroy it, lest it infect the rest of our tomatoes which were the tastiest we’d ever grown, at least according to meine Űberfrau who said that they were almost as good as her father’s.


          As with all failures, I grieved at first.  Since my hope had been dashed, I felt either guilty or vindictive.  Last spring I turned 85, and we had a big party in Redondo Beach, arranged by my daughter who has turned out well although not as expected.  As a result, I didn’t start from seeds, and this allowed me to blame the nursery where I bought the plant.  Of course, I could’ve still started with seeds even though the time had passed, but I’m slothful.  Whether guilty or vindictive, I was in a subjunctive mood, wistful and doubting, mulling over “what could’ve been if I had only.”


          However, doubt implies faith.  The natural process didn’t collapse with the collapse of my Siberian.  Faith isn’t the same thing as the certainty implied in the imperative.  Faith isn’t knowledge, but rather an assumption that the natural process will be repeated, so faith implies hope, as Saint Paul pointed out, and charity as well.  I’ll plant the seeds in faith with hope they’ll sprout, and I’ll surely raise them with charity.


In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Banquo said to the three witches, “If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, then speak to me.”  They did, and what a tragedy it was.  Certainty isn’t always a good thing.


Of course, we can’t learn anything worthwhile unless we first fail.  Success tutors the arrogant.  Next spring, I’ll start my tomatoes from seed, and I’ll only plant the seeds of tomatoes that have done well before and a couple new ones recommended by a veteran like Jim Mast.  Most of all, I’ll be vigilant, wary of the hazards of my tomatoes’ adolescence, those subjunctive cankers, blights, spots, molds, rots, wilts, and white flies.  If you don’t handle grief well, tomatoes may not be your cup of tea.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith

Dana Prom Smith and Freddi Steele edit Gardening Etcetera.  Smith emails at, and blogs at








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