Norman Knight: Great, gorgeous gourds

Sitting at the kitchen table this early morning, I see before me nature’s infinite variety in the form of a shallow blue-gray bowl filled with five small gourds.

Two of them are entirely the color of pumpkins, although the others all have at least a hint of pumpkin-orange. One of these is a low round ball and the other is what I in my simple ignorance would call “gourd-shaped,” like a sitting Buddha with a dark green stem rising from its contemplative head. Both have lumpy knobs over their orange skins.

Two of the others are mostly green going from pale to dark in a shape that reminds me of a flower. I learn these are called “daisy gourds.” When I hold their stems and turn them upside down, the light green color splays out in patters over the darker green of their undersides.

A lone “wing gourd” also sits in the bowl. It seems like it started off wanting to be orange but changed as it grew to a now nearly white long-neck gourd covered with smooth bumps.

Becky and I brought these home from our neighbors down the road. The family’s garage sale included a trailer filled with home-grown gourds and pumpkins. We also bought one nice pumpkin that now sits on our front porch as our attempt at autumn decoration.

Since this morning when I started focusing my attention on the kitchen table gourds, I have learned just how fascinating these fruits of plants in the family Cucurbitaceae can be.

Gourds are possibly the earliest plants humans cultivated. Bottle gourds have been found in Peruvian archaeological sites dating from 13,000 to 11,000 B.C. DNA evidence shows that gourds probably began in Asia or maybe Africa 12,000 to 13,000 years before the present. Gourds appeared in the Americas probably with the peoples who crossed the Bering Strait although one theory says that because gourds have been shown to float in sea water for over 300 days and still contain viable seeds, gourds used as fishnet floats could quite possibly have floated from Africa to the Americas.

Although squash could be considered in the same family as gourds, a good working definition might be “a gourd is an inedible squash.” Gourds have been used throughout human history as scoops for various substances. Early users soon figured out they could use gourds as eating utensils, fishnet floats, beehives, birdhouses and animal traps. Gourds can be used as masks and as musical instruments. Evidence shows gourds were used for storage even before the invention of pottery. This list makes me think of at least two gourds I have in my life that are containers of memories for me.

The first is a bottle gourd that I acquired some years ago, and has become part of the decor as it sits on the bookshelf. It was made in Nigeria and is painted green. A string net with orange and green beads covers it, and when one shakes it and strikes the bottom, it becomes a thumping, rattling percussion instrument. I have used it on occasions when I am making music.

The second is a small round, green-striped gourd. It was given to me by Katrina, a seventh grader in my English class the first year I taught. Her family had gone to a Pumpkin Festival (do some farms have Gourd Festivals?), and she brought it into class one Monday morning. I thanked her and kept it on my desk for the rest of the year and for some time after that. It dried out and the seeds inside made a soft rattle. I still have it and it still rattles. Katrina must be in her 50s now.

The world is a marvelous place. Every single object, every distinct event in nature has its own fascinating story to tell. An infinite variety of stories.