Monday, June 21, 2010

Farm Journal: Meditations Over the Onions

I will be out of town over the next two weeks so before I leave I need to hill the potatoes, weed the onions, and weed the squash field. I only had two days to do all this work, but I did it! As a result, I learned something about farming: nothing gets done unless I do it and I need to maintain the will to get it done. Nature (i.e., the weeds) doesn’t take a vacation, so when I go away, I’ve got to anticipate what will happen in my absence.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think the ducks would annihilate the squash plants. I was so discouraged. All that weeding I did last week and not much to show for it now. So I embarked on my regular solution to dealing with frustration: I ate. Asiago’s Restaurant is only three miles away from the farm and a great place for lunch. Today, Asiago’s helped me feel nourished enough—both physically and emotionally—to go back to the farm and continue with the onions and potatoes.

My e-mail report to Ron about this week came out in a poem:

Working out in the hot sun and sticking to it until it's done
I'm learning what it means to be a farmer.

The romance of it has worn off
But the purpose is still strong.


And Ron’s encouraging response:

It is interesting. Once your garden structure is set up with fencing, beds and paths, you will find that the romance will return. The amount of labor drops drastically...if you can keep up with the weeds by a daily walk through the garden with hoe in hand. Usually early in the morning-very nice. I can think of nothing more relaxing than "working" in the gardens. Before law school and gardens were an escape and a place to reconnect with nature.. I have photos of me and the kids with piles of squash and pumpkins--rows of canned tomatoes.....

What you are doing now is an introduction-and perhaps the most laborious gardening experience you will have.

The onions look great and the potato patch is impressive.

After we move I'll show you Chang's garden book--very productive yet a place of mindful meditation.....

I look forward to learning this meditative part of gardening, especially since it has the potential to take on a whole new mindset about working.

Coming from the grand industrial city of Detroit, I have learned to work without stopping, which is not good in the hot sun at the farm. Pacing myself, resting, and drinking water frequently is imperative! Soo, Ron’s wife, is especially concerned that I do this because one day a few years ago, Ron passed out from working too hard and not drinking enough water.

Wendell Berry addresses the difference between industrial farming and traditional farming, particularly with animals. Animals may be strong but they need a rest from time to time, so you find a quiet, shady spot on the land where you can give the animals some respite. (It’s a nice break for humans, too!) This is the opposite strategy when you work with a tractor, he says. It is integral to our machine culture that keeps going 24-7 without stopping.

Although I’m not working with animals at the farm, I’m having to learn a whole new pace and work ethic, especially on these sunny, 90-degree days. Taking time to rest, drink water, say hello to the goats and buffs, sit in the shade are a start. The work will still be there and I have to learn to leave my clock-mind at home and abandon the production line mentality. This is difficult because it is completely opposite what I’m used to doing and what is all around me in this culture.

Part of this new approach to work is also about simplifying my life. I’m the type of person who likes to make a long list of things to do and then check them off as I do them. It makes me feel productive and vital. But what am I accomplishing if all I do is work? Where and when does the enjoyment of life come? Do I wait until vacation times or put it off until retirement and then collapse on a lawn chair from pure exhaustion? No, I must now learn to pace myself and find that quiet space within to feel satisfaction at whatever I’m doing. That’s the kind of balance that the nuns taught in seeking the spiritual life. Such a slower pace allows “room” for prayer and meditation. So, if I desire an essential connection to Nature and an enjoyment of life, I need to make “room” for it. If I want to be a good and thoughtful writer, I need to slow down my pace and resist cluttering it with endless activities. What a great insight!

This week I did manage to meditate as I worked in the garden. Here are some of my thoughts.

· When the field is covered with weeds, I look very closely for the plant that will grow into a vegetable. It becomes my focus. I also try to save the plant no matter its size or scraggily appearance. Such care gives me a different relationship with the plant that emphasizes nurturing and that requires time and patience. It’s easier for me to have this relationship with the goats, who are animated and soulful creatures. Having a deeper relationship with the plants is important, too. Frankly, I must admit that I was having so much fun with the goats that I feared I wouldn’t care as much about the garden. However, being with the plants over these past couple weeks has assuaged that fear. I DO care about them and one reason why is because I am focused on the goal: to grow delicious, tasty, and healthy produce.

· My bones are weary and my muscles ache, although they are not as bad as I expected. My hands are full of new calluses, some of which burned from the hot soil as I pulled out the weeds. I don’t know how people do this every day—like the agricultural migrant workers. Maybe gardening at the farm is helping me empathize with them and their lives a little more. Maybe realizing that they are doing the hard work of harvesting fruits and vegetables for me makes me more thankful to their efforts!

· I had to get on my hands and knees in order to weed the onions. The sun was so hot. At first, the bugs started attacking my bare arms and I thought I’d go mad. Then I remembered Sister Mary Bader’s experience in Texas with the bees or gnats buzzing around her face as she did the laundry. They bothered her a lot, she said, and when she swatted them, they’ll hung around her all the more. Then she learned to just let them be and discovered that they left her alone. So I tried this, too, today and it worked! Maybe the bugs are just curious. Maybe I entered their territory and they were checking me out.

· Weeding the onions on my hands and knees gives me an opportunity to be closer to the earth and I got some relief from the heat. (This reminded me of the sweat lodge I attended last summer. When I sat upright, it was deadly hot and I thought I’d lose my breath. When I let my body lie on the ground, I got some cool relief and made it through the four-hour session.) Occasionally, a gentle breeze wafted through the garden today and it was so sweet. I acknowledged it, savored it, and thanked it as a little break from the intensity of the sun’s heat. Such small pleasures really make a difference! That I recognized it while working astonished me. Maybe I’m hearing the garden speak.

· I really enjoy working on the farm this year. I’m learning more about why we did things we did last year and I’m taking more responsibility to grow the plants. This has taught me a whole new work ethic that was derived in this country through farmers including: I work until I’m finished; I’m bound by the weather and the growth of the plants—and weeds; I try to anticipate things when I can or I respond to whatever happens. That’s a start!

· I’m learning how to grow food, which I think our whole country will need to do someday. As peak oil kicks in or as food becomes less available (industrial food system is unsustainable and will eventually break down) or too expensive, Americans will probably turn to gardening and processing on our own. So I’m getting ready. That very thought also went through my mind over these two difficult days. You might say I’m “doing research” or “attending school” as I continue to learn how to garden. But my work is still quite mechanical and I rely on Ron to tell me what to do because I usually don’t know. Still, I have the verve and the desire to do this work. Fortunately, I am a very goal-oriented person so that helps me through these difficult days, too.

· I said I wanted to be a potato farmer and I’ve gotten my wish. Potatoes are among the top five heavily pesticided vegetables. To grow organic (or non-spray) potatoes would deliver a higher price for something so precious. We expect the garden to produce 500-800 pounds of potatoes, maybe more, since this crop is doing very well so far. The plants are about a foot high now, enough to hill them and they are plentiful in size and number of leaves. Ron is VERY happy with them—and that makes me ecstatic. This city slicker is learning how to garden!

· I am awaiting word from my college about my request to go to Africa and not teach the First Year Seminar this fall. I suddenly realized as I was on my hands and knees weeding the onions that this was an occasion where I could call upon Mother Earth to shepherd me through this waiting period. If I am to see the world (my lifetime dream), then I have to trust that Mother Earth will send me forth—as she has already. So I said some prayers about that, I left it up to her and relaxed about it. I would like the experience of going to Africa and I have done what I can to put it in motion to happen. But I don’t want to sacrifice my job to do it either. If it’s to happen, it will. If not, not.

· Speaking of trusting Mother Earth, it is part of what makes the plants grow, which still seems to me to be a miracle. It’s as though they are in some black box where the magic happens and they produce fruit. There are scientific reasons for “the miracle,” yes, but there are still forces beyond human explanation that make it all work. The problem in our industrial age is that we have tinkered with these forces to create bigger products and harvests. The question is: have we have fooled ourselves and altered the processes such that we might accomplish the opposite effect over the long term? I hope not. All the more reason for us to re-learn the process of growing food for ourselves in our gardens. Ron says we know more about the science and technology, which can help us, but Americans have gradually gotten away from growing their own food. It will be a difficult transition, yet, Americans have a “can-do” spirit that gets them through difficulties. But can we adequately prepare ourselves for this new future? In recent years, many Americans have become interested in gardening, so that means that more people will be available to teach others how to garden. Maybe that’s one more reason why I am learning how to garden: so I may teach others. Hmmm.

· I get tremendous intellectual input and conversation from Ron whenever I ask questions or see him do something unfamiliar. This is graduate education at its best and maybe I’m understanding better what hands-on or experiential education means. I’m certainly learning science in a new way!


On Tuesday while I was weeding the onions a song from the night before was going through my head: “Let Me Entertain You.” It comes from the Broadway musical, “Gypsy,” one of my favorite movies with Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood. I stayed up until one in the morning! But that is quite an unusual pattern.

When I come home after a long day at the farm, I take a shower, slip into my pajamas and veg out in front of the TV only to fall asleep for at least two hours. Sometimes I sleep before I shower. So staying up this late and actually watching the movie was different.

I’ve also started a bad habit in this summer heat: stopping by the Root Beer Stand for an ice cream float. It is so refreshing after a long, hot day and I use it as my “reward” to get through the tortuous day. But this is not a good habit to maintain or a good attitude to adopt. Maybe I need to take only half a day at the farm. Maybe I can work during the cool hours of the day: early morning and late afternoon. This is another area where I need to learn how to pace myself!


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