reflections from the southeast PA rural underground

Friday, July 2, 2010

Get on Your Knees

There are all kinds of ways to fight weeds on an organic or sustainable farm. There's the plant cover crops year after year suppression method. There's the fight 'em when you can (hopefully with tractor cultivation!) method. There's the get 'em before they get you method which usually involves cultivating (fancy word for weeding) by hand. And then there's the combination of all three which is most common. Any way you shake it, if chemical weed killers are not an option, you're gonna get on your knees at some point in the growing season. I mean down on all fours, hands and knees, low and crude, in the soil. . . ummm. . .yeah. . . dirt.

But how else could one really get the feeling of communing with the earth, right? What better way to get to know your mother. And that's why all the people who farm 'close to the earth' do it, right? Just another season, living outside, breathing in the fresh air, busting your ass! But really, it's mostly just the month of June that makes you submit in such an elemental fashion. I'll always remember watching the film Malcolm X by Spike Lee. Denzel Washington, who plays X in the film, is told by his mentor in prison, "To become a true Muslim, you have to submit." Farming is like Islam: one has to submit. I'm not even sure that's where I got the line that I say jokingly from time to time, no doubt unintentionally making some that hear it cringe, but there's something there that rings true when I think about the practice of old fashioned farming. Farming is like Islam, or some kind of orthodox religion. And June is unique in that no other month demands more of your most basic physical and mental submission. This is not a job. It's a lifestyle. It can break you with its repetition and seeming mindlessness, but also build your intimate acquaintance with the machine that is your body by forcing that machine into all kinds of repetitive contortions. And once you become aware of the ends and not just the means, the project's or day's goal, and not just its immediate sense of "damn I'm tired," things start to make some kind of sense. The big picture unfolds. Is weeding spiritual? Depends on who you ask.

Of course June isn't just hand weeding tomatoes for hours on end. There are also the days of harvesting those peaking peas, perfect first week black raspberries, new potatoes, and fava beans by the bushel. All varieties of religious experience await the field hand when sweating through a balmy 80 degree late morning or sleepily enjoying a rare September-like evening's crystal clear twilight and calming cool temperature. While the last of the carrots, beets, and lettuce are picked, the zucchini is pouring off the plants and the first cherry tomatoes are promising both sun-drenched flavor and some much needed income for the farm. The tension of all those resources gushing like an oil spill, feverishly paced like heat through a winter's open window, will start to ebb as the tide turns and red will, with any luck at all, with many seasons to prove it so, fade to black.

As I carefully picked the black raspberries, trying to minimize the itchy scratches being left on my forearms, and to pick efficiently as possible (read: fast!), I thought about so much and so little at the same time. I talked voraciously with Prudencio about his experience picking in Watsonville, CA. 'por contracto' and how when he first picked the coveted fruit, he picked an entire quart before being reprimanded by his superior. 'Que estas haciendo!?' she had said when she saw that he was picking the berries in full ripeness. Why would anyone do otherwise? In Watsonville, however, the blacks are picked red so they can withstand the miles and miles of traveling to any of their many destinations across the country. How could such a delicate fruit that at any moment will squish between one's fingers ever survive the hard road to a supermarket shelf if it had actually been picked ripe? They could only be picked that way, with that backyard freshness, to be sold the very next day. The only thing better than having your own home grown food is to have it grown and picked and brought to you just the way it would be if you had picked it yourself. That's the taste of June. That's what it takes to get to the market on time. Itching, sweating, down in the dirt. But that's soil with a capital S to those of us who know it.

1 comment:

Nelson Harvey said...

We're midway through a late dinner when the boss rolls up to load the truck. After a scorching day in the upper nineties (or lower one-hundreds, depending on who you ask) things are just beginning to cool off around 9 pm.

At a market farm, where the product is king, this is standard procedure: load in the late evening for the early morning market trip, so that the soggy heat of the day doesn't wilt basil and zucchini flowers, and over-ripen the tomatoes.

As we load, I reflect on the myriad things I could be doing in my 9 pm, post work malaise, aside from working up a sweat loading the truck. Judging by my mood, I probably ought to be sleeping. There are neglected dishes, overdue bills. There is a neglected writing career.

Yet here I am, because I have begun to realize that this sort of farming is a submission game, a giving over of oneself to the seemingly simple cause of raising, harvesting, shipping and selling vegetables. The suffering arises from trying to cordon off little aspects of your life from it, from trying to maintain an identity separate from the work you do for so many hours each day.

The suffering arises from failing to accept the fact that, for this stretch of hot summer months, you are principally a custodian of the weeds, a medium of tomato transport, a steward of favas. Sure, you'd like to write more in the morning or drink more in the evening, but the vegetables don't particularly care. They demand attention.

Of course, a certain amount of suffering is inevitable: After all, what good, subversive human wouldn't want to assert their independence now and again from the crops that suck up so much of their time? Who wouldn't want to drink too much, sleep in, or declare a row of plants beyond hope, surrendering them to the weeds?

When the hangover burns off, though, I can't help but agree with you: if you want to succeed in this game, you've got to submit. If Islamic creed holds that "there is no God but God," then here, on this strange little patch of eastern PA farmland, there is no God but tomato.