In this post, veteran mystery author Shelley Costa shares what she likes to do when she gets a day off from writing her Italian-themed series. Don’t miss the first in the series, You Cannoli Die Once. The second, Basil Instinct, is available now!

Just two weeks before the recent release of Basil Instinct, the second book in my Italian Restaurant cozy mystery series, I visited my daughter’s organic farm, Bloomfield Farm in Almonte, Ontario.  This year she’s growing garlic and kale in the field, and mostly salad mix in the hoop houses.  These she sells to local retailers and her CSA members.  It was a perfect day for farm work, not that I’d know, since the care of even a modest little house plant stretches my interest and abilities.  But cloud cover kept the temperature manageable and the summer sun at bay.

The hoop house was a mysterious place of hoses and tubing and plastic and purposes.  In one corner, a capable assistant in a wide-brimmed hat was crouched over a bed of greens, weeding industriously.  I stuck a wide-brimmed hat on my own head and prepared to do whatever was necessary.  Short of any really hard physical labor, you understand.  There are times we get to play into other people’s lives, provide some time-limited help, happy in the knowledge that at the end of the day, we get to leave.  We get to watch babies or drive the elderly to doctor’s appointments or ladle out gallons of beans in a community kitchen.  And then we go home.

That day on the farm, I was game.  “What can I do to help?”

I could cut the grass, said my daughter.  I have never in all my natural born days handled a lawn mower, so I declined.  I could plant some seedlings, she said.  Better than the grass cutting gig, I thought, but I waited it out to hear the rest of my options.  I could weed, she said.  Well, of course, I could do that anywhere in my own sorry yard back home.  If I wanted to pull weeds, I didn’t have to travel all the way to Canada to do it.  So I temporized.  And then she hit on it, something her Maternal-Farmhand-For-a-Day could do: pinch basil.

It appealed.  Wearing the wide-brimmed hat like her other assistant, I crouched in the basil bed, and watched my daughter demonstrate what pinching the basil entailed.  In order to make the leggy little plants grow bushy, we pretty much had to decapitate them.  Thumb and forefinger had to find that sweet spot where two tiny little new nubs of leaves peek out between the stem and bigger leaves.  Being careful not to disturb those little nubs (the “growing point”), we pinch the thumb and forefinger together on the main stem until that top part comes off in our hand.  A haircut for basil.  I could do it.

And I did.  For a few happy hours.  I’m pleased to report that the basil survived me.  I have big ol’ hands and not much in the way of hand-eye coordination.  But there was a Zen of basil pinching that settled in.  It was slow, careful work in aid of living things.  What’s not to like?  I didn’t even think about my next book – that irresistible writerly state we inhabit wherein we can look perfectly normal out in the community while all the time we’re plotting murders on the page or wondering if that plaid shirt on the cute guy in Starbucks would look nice on our fictional hero.  Pinching basil was oddly meditative.  It wasn’t creative – although you could argue it enabled the basil itself to be more so – but it was simple and beautiful and practical.

It was good for me to understand that there are non-writing activities that have their own intense value.  I know that, of course, on a one-step-removed basis every waking hour – children run into their schools, backpacks bumping, feet flying; Jaycees string endless patriotic bunting for the enjoyment of the townspeople on holidays; Meals on Wheels pulls up in front of a building where a shut-in waits for a delivery.  But for those few hours on my daughter’s farm, where I carefully pinched a bed of these fragrant little plants that go on to find their destinies in pesto, and then bagged the pinchings she went on to share with friends (they may be discards, but they were nonetheless basil), I was a basil enabler. A Zen pincher.

You might even say, I had basil instinct.

The interior of the hoop house at Shelley Costa's daughter's organic farm.
The interior of the hoop house at Shelley Costa’s daughter’s organic farm.