My first day on the farm, we planted potatoes.
A few weeks later, the dark green leaves cracked through the thick crusty dirt. Then came the delicate and fragile purple flowers. We hilled up the potatoes with a BCS implement that fought us almost every step of the way. Then came the ravages of potato beetles, where we spent long hot afternoons picking the beetles and their larva off the leaves, squishing them between our fingers, and dropping the carcasses into buckets of increasingly slimey, filmy water. Then there was the use of an organically approved spray to keep down the ravages of leafhoppers and the shriveling burn they bring to the leaves. And then there were weeks of watching the potatoes disappear into the fields of weeds as the rest of the farm had more immediate and pressing needs.
It is not uncommon, I know, to mark time by the changes of the plants around oneself. We look at new leaves popping out in spring and find hope. We look at the fruits of summer and feel rich with the abundance of life. We look at the reds and golds of autumn with a snug appreciation for what is, what was, and what comes next. We look at the stark black fingers of leafless trees in winter and are reassured in their constancy—under all the costume changes, there are eternal shapes that bend and bow, but it takes a great deal to break them beyond recognition.
I came to the farm in May with a bruised heart and a flagging sense that the work I do and long to do in the world is possible, matters to anyone other than me or will make much difference. Against what feels many days like long political and lonesome personal odds, the truth that does not leave my heart lately is that we can make a better world, that we can salvage a lot of what has been lost and broken in ignorance and entrenched cruelty. I believe, like I believe in sunlight, that we do this when we recognize that our outward actions are reflections of our inner most motivations and priorities.
What do I want the world to look like, and is what I am doing part of making that vision real, are my near constant guiding questions. The answer—I want the world to be kind, honest, responsible, and loving—frame how I treat the homeless man sleeping at the church down the street, how I try to be with myself, my friends and loved ones, what choices I make about my consumption of goods, services and fossil fuels, what efforts I put into the world and what rewards I seek from my labors, and by what metrics do I measure my success or failure at being true to myself.
It’s a frequently hard and weird and extremely self-centered way to go about life, even if my goals are not just for my own contentment but an empathic bettering of the world. But, simply, I feel vomitously unwell when I stray too far from doing my right thing, and that’s a good enough reason to take risks in what feels like the right direction.
The farm, though, at the start, I was afraid that I expected too much of it. I was looking for some combination of personal salvation and affirmation. I wanted my heart eased through physical labors, through watching the changes of the seasons, through seeing good things grow from the time and attention lavished on them by human hands and sunlight, and I wanted—desperately—to not feel alone or crazy that lifestyles outside the churning systems of environmentally, socially, economically, spiritually and culturally degrading “Normal” were possible. I’ve been called Peter Pan-ish at times, and also impractical, radical, and idealistic in ways that are not meant as compliments. I do not want to live in an imaginary, magical land, though. I merely want to make this real world more like the sweet worlds I know are possible, because I’ve been there so many times and ways and in such beautiful company. It’s not living outside the margins—I want expand and make porous the margins until they disappear.
I wrote earlier that the night before I started at the farm, I stayed up too late finishing Susanna Clarke’s epic novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, about the resurrection of magic in Napoleonic-era England. One of the characters has a prophecy from one of the ancient books of magic on his skin—his father ate the book in a drinking contest so, naturally, the son was born with the symbols of the prophecy written on his body. Throughout the book, the prophecy comes to fruition. At the end, though, the oldest and most storied magician who had written the prophecy reappears, and touching the near dead character, rearranges the signs and symbols on his skin to spell out a new one.
The old ways and quests end, and something new begins, must be learned and read and done.
My time on the farm, for this season at least, is growing to a close. It is fitting, then, that we have started to harvest the potatoes. A dear friend says that her potato harvest is always like Christmas morning. I agree. To dig under the dirt—frantically clawing like poorly evolved moles—and to come up with grape like bunches of tubers is utterly delightful, and joyfully satisfying every time. We were all giggling and shrieking and singing like little kids at a birthday party as we pulled up the hundreds of pounds of potatoes, more than the farmers had expected, almost more than they had hoped and dreamed would come from this planting.
I know that the darknesses of the world have not been stopped by my actions. The climate is still changing at a rate that makes me cry often, injustices and cruelties abound, and too many people I love have spend these same months struggling with great challenges and sadnesses and fears and losses. As have I. But, my hope with the farm was to see if I could be part of practical, small-scale solutions to some of the more surmountable ills of an insane economic and cultural model of how we treat each our bodies, each other, our foods, and our landscapes. I have found the farm a way to make those hopes gloriously and joyfully manifest through good work. And the joy doesn't balance or cancel out the sorrow, but does deepen my love for the world and hopes for what can yet be done.
When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you are looking for reassurance that your way of being in the world is correct and possible (for you), everything looks like a sign from the gods or a dark omen (depending on your mood). I don’t believe in pre-written destinies in this world, but I do believe in cleaving to truths and following though on hopes. Hammer or nails or magical signs, then, I’ll happily take the potatoes and lived-out prophecies of this summer and go forward, quite literally fed and fortified by what hope, risk, love, work, and laughter brought into the world.
(Photo from http://firstrootfarm.com, by local celebrity farmer Laura Olive Sackton)