I (Karen) received a picture message on the iPhone a few days ago, the attachment to which looked like this:

The message itself said: “Hey sis! So these are our winter squash- how do we know when they’re ready? Thanks!”

I replied, tongue-in-cheek: “Well…first of all, they make squashes… :)” Then I felt kind of bad, so I followed up: “They are already planted, right? You may consider trellising them if it is a small fruited variety. What kind of squash is it?”

His response: “Haha- sorry, our neighbors gave them to us- so i’m not sure. But i’ll try to find out. They are planted- but not showing yet…”

So I wrote, all breezy back-to-basics: “Ok! Yeah let me know. First flowers, then fruits, then the leaves will die back in fall-winter and you can harvest. 🙂 ”

And the final message in our exchange, which makes the story worth telling: “Oh gosh! Ok- good to know… I thought there might be fruits underground! Good thing i asked. Love you sister!”

Well, I love you too, my clueless little brother! Very much. And I thank you for giving me an opportunity to emphasize this: realistically, practical knowledge gets lost very, very fast–especially when one is very, very busy. But with the right connections and the right timing, that knowledge can be regained and put to good use, never again to be forgotten. Here, in a little more context, is what I later learned necessitated this line of inquiry in my brother’s case.

Kurt, who is two years younger than me, has a Bachelor’s degree in International Studies from the University of Utah; he currently works as a bike messenger in the District of Columbia, where he lives with roommates near his very lovely girlfriend, Britt. He is smart, and motivated, and his heart is in the right place. Kurt and Britt do projects together on the weekends he isn’t racing (yes, bicycle racing…as if work didn’t net him enough time in the saddle), like build furniture out of found materials. One of the newest projects in their life is the source of the squash confusion: a garden, of course!

This garden was a gift from a neighbor who showed up one day, without warning, in Kurt’s backyard–shirtless, smoking a cigarette–to replant the veggies he couldn’t take with him when he moved. Which was happening, as it turned out, immediately. Kurt came home from work and found the process well underway; the neighbor looked at him and said “this is where you tell me to stop.” But on the contrary: Kurt told him to carry on. And so he did.

Thus, unexpectedly, Kurt became an urban gardener. He inherited winter squash and several other edibles–never having intended, despite my gentle prompting, to put in a garden. It may’ve been a little late to (re)learn that squash grow on vines (yes, above the ground), but…better late than never, right? And much better to be able to send out a quick picture message and find answers when it matters, and a plant’s life may just be hanging in the balance.

Ultimately, I am glad that my brother asked me about the squash, and I am equally glad he had someone in his circle of acquaintance that he could ask. I think most of us do, truth be told. Because knowledge on an individual basis is lost easily and may never be missed (till it is too late, or nearly so). But like an ember that just needs the right conditions and a little help to light again, deep understanding is still present within our collective knowledge-base, and with any luck, it can be accessed on an as-needed basis. (My brother knew that I could answer his question because I happen to be in the gardening business…but he had a backup: he could have just as easily asked my dad, who also could have filled him in.)

My recommendation is to make like my little brother and find someones(s) you can ask when you suddenly need to know something you didn’t know you didn’t know. Or if you’re one of the knowledge-keepers, keep it up!! And let others know that you can serve as their resource (and will only tease them a very little bit when they ask you things that are obvious to you).

Bottom line: not everyone knows how squash grows…but I bet they know someone who does.