Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Fitting Together

Over the course of the summer, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend some time getting my hands dirty. Through an assortment of friendships, partnerships, and mutual acquaintances I’ve assisted with attending to a small plot of land. It’s nothing glamorous. It’s simple. It’s a small plot of earth that thus far I’ve spent a smattering of time helping to tend, plant, weed, and from time to time harvest. This plot is not without it’s intricacies, large trees shade a portion of the garden in the afternoons and relentless quadrupeds continue to invade and lay waste to the squash vines for which I had high hopes. While other professional, family, and husbandry duties often require I be elsewhere, there has been ample time to stop by on occasion. Often times it’s been early on a Saturday or Sunday morning, while the adjacent neighborhood continues to slumber I take to the soil pulling weeds, watering plants, securing fences, and tasting a few select items of produce. As I accomplish these repetitive tasks I listen to the sounds of leaves rustling in the trees. I feel the crunch of the leaf mulch under my footsteps. I notice as the soil works it’s way under my fingernails and onto my brow. With the sun rising higher into the sky, I know that I must be moving along. Before I depart I take notice of the small changes that took place while I was there and a sense of satisfaction washes over me. In this moment I’m reminded of a passage that Wendell Berry introduced me to in this book The Way of Ignorance: And Other Essays.

"When you see that you’re making other things feel good, it gives you a good feeling, too. The feeling inside sort of just happens, and you can’t say this did it or that did it. It’s the many little things. It doesn’t seem that taking sweat-soaked harnesses off tired, hot horses would be something that would make you notice. Opening a barn door for the sheep standing out in a cold rain, or throwing a few grains of corn to the chickens are small things, but these little things begin to add up in you, and you can begin to understand that you’re important. You may not be real important like people who do great things that you read about in the newspaper, but you begin to feel that you’re important to all the life around you. Nobody else knows or cares too much about what you do, but if you get a good feeling inside about what you do, then it doesn’t matter if nobody else knows. I do think about myself a lot when I’m alone way back on the place, bringing in the cows or sitting on a mowing machine all day. When I start thinking about how animals and crops and fields and woods and gardens sort of all fit together, then I get that good feeling inside and don’t worry much about what will happen to me." 

~ Terry Cummins, Feed My Sheep

As I drive away, I’m left wondering why this work outside, under the sun, under the threat of bug bites and bee stings, under ominous skies, with mud caked on my shoes, with all the grit and grime, why does this work make me feel good? And more importantly why doesn’t other work provide the same sense of fulfillment? Is it that humanity is predisposed to seek this type of work? Is it that I am not properly motivated? Is it that my brief foray into agrarianism hasn’t yet given me time to truly loathe the demands of physical activity? Perhaps my back has not become sufficiently sore or my skin burned deeply enough to learn that I am not cut out for the demands on manual labor. Yet with each passing week it’s back to work. Sometimes it’s repetitive, sometimes it’s hot, cold, or rainy. But somehow after the days turn into weeks, and the weeks turn into months, it becomes fulfilling. The plants mature, the fruit ripens, and a certain sense of fulfillment is derived from the act of harvest.

Compared to how many spend their days the garden is both unpredictable and tangible. Unlike excel files, word documents, and pdf's, the garden is real. It’s something I can taste, touch, smell, and feel. It’s unique. Try as I might I can’t recreate it. Whereas once one constructs a proper Excel formula it’s done, the formula will continue to turn inputs into outputs methodically without deviation. The garden however, it’s a place of unique opportunity and chance. The taste of my food, the color of the bloom, the smell of the fruit, it’s a combination of sunlight, moisture, temperature, nutrients, and a host of other factors. The perfect raspberry can only be tasted in a brief window, when the conditions coincide with the zenith of the fruit. It’s something that try as I might, I may not recreate ever again.

I, however, don’t have the complete picture. I have but one perspective and it is worth noting that most small scale organic farmers I come across did not pursue this career for it’s lucrative opportunities, flexible work schedule and unencumbered life style. This is hard work, demanding work. It takes a toll on the body and mind. While we find it easy to focus on the pleasant aspects of this work, harvesting produce, interacting with neighbors, eating healthy food, it’s all too easy to overlook the amount of time, backaches, cuts, bruises, early mornings and late nights that go into a growing season. I hold particular reverence for those whom have followed through on their vision to return to the rural landscape and bring value to a place that has long been cast aside as marginal. For now, despite the fact that my liberal arts degree assures me my exposure to the humanities was crucial to molding my mind into a critical thinking apparatus, I'm still struggling to bring my own hopes, aspirations, and expectations to fruition.

Although I am prone to envision a life less inundated by commercialization and consumerism, I often times feel ill prepared for the task at hand. Raising good food, while it may be well within our human nature, isn't easy work. It's work that requires patience, experience, and a willingness to fail. It's something that requires more of a commitment than most financial institutions are willing to see through. There is a certain commitment the land and soil needs if it is ever to be more than a convenient growing medium for industrial agriculture. There is a certain amount of awareness and advocacy required if the communities which depend upon it are to be more than fuel depots and fast food joints.

After a few hours in the garden, I'm still hungry for more. There is no sense of relief, no sense of defeat as I return the tools to the shed. I may feel exhausted, my hands a little worse for wear, my elbows and knees in need of a good scrubbing, but I look back and take satisfaction not from a blank LCD screen but from a small plot of earth from which I and others derive a portion of our daily sustenance. While the other caretakers and I have played but one small part in tending to this soil, it becomes apparent that it produces more value than what is derived from the weekly market sales. After working in the garden I take comfort in the fact that all this; the people, the soil, the produce, and community, fits together.