Crisp Sunday morning this past week. I drove down to Mount Kisco train station to pick up a day laborer for some major work on the expanding vegetable garden. This is how it works: you pull up slowly to a knot of men, and they all rush the car like starving wolves who’ve just spotted a juicy rack of lamb. Much jostling and shoving (pretty good-hearted), and it seems the one who gets a firm grasp on the passenger-side doorhandle first is the winner. Most of the people who do the picking-up are contractors in trucks. I was the guy in the Mini Cooper, and I think I compounded the general effect (that of being a bit of a ponce) by sticking my hand through the sunroof as I approached, with my index finger extended. “Hello chaps,” I think it said, “anyone care for a spot of work on my sprawling estate?”
In hops Jose Esteban (no last names please) from Honduras. He speaks little English, I speak pidgin Spanish. El Español de Paloma - the Spanish of a Dove. My own translation - very literal, but I like it. Jose is immediately friendly, and when it’s clear that I’m easygoing and happy to chat, he opens right up. It’s almost always like that with these guys - usually strong peasants who’ve made the horrific trip up from Latin America so they can prune some northern roses. I’ve had a few who’ve had university educations, which is a bit depressing, but mainly these are men of the land.
Jose was – well, he was just outstanding. I showed him the land, the fencing materials, the evil post-hole digging tool (have YOU ever dug a fence post hole? Pretty lethal work). He waved me off with a smile, indicated that he’d done this sort of thing before, and in a day-long voila, it was done. Finished and klaar, as they used to say in the old country. I took him back to the station, to disappear into the migrant mists once again with a world-class tip for his efforts. What a pleasure.
It’s incredible what a fence does for an otherwise familiar patch of earth. As we worked through the afternoon, laid down wooden growing frames and filled them with dirt, and the fence started to take shape, I found myself looking at the land behind the barn with new eyes. Two weeks ago it was a scrubby patch, unmown for years – maybe Duston’s wink at an imagined Appalachian childhood – unkempt and a little woolly. Then we mowed it, and now the veggie frames and the fence. Kate and Louai spreading humus, manure and topsoil, raking it out, instant black-earth Iowa. The sun began to really beat down, a mid-spring hammering to remind us what it’s capable of come July.
The new configuration of the place began to fire all sorts of evocative neurons in me - at one moment it was all about farms-I-have-known-in-my-life (precious few), and the emotions I associate with them. An African afternoon on the edge of someone’s scrabbly patch in Zululand. Even without any vegetables, and even as a space which had been delineated for the first time just 8 hours earlier, somehow this ancient scrap of land was beginning to ease itself into the idea of cultivation. I’m just romantic (and pretentious) enough to suddenly find myself connecting this with the potato terraces I visited with Anton and Chris Small in Peru 5 years ago (the highest recorded patch of cultivated land on earth, as it turns out). With innumerable campesinos and fellahin. With the Nepali women threshing grain next to a stone wall in the Himalayas on a similarly sunny afternoon some time back in my eternity.
This is just my second season in the garden - already the rituals are setting in. Rising early, checking the seedlings that I’ve had growing for a couple of months under lights in the basement, taking a cup of coffee outside and checking the sweetpeas, mesclun , spinach and carrots - the earliest crops planted. As the weeks progress more goes into the ground - potatoes, onions, cabbages and lettuces, chard, beets... on it goes. Mom even gave me some seeds from a South African pumpkin variety (“Boer van Niekerk”) - they grow big and creamy white on the outside - “harvest when 12kg”. That’s 26 pounds!
The attractions of doing this are too obvious to enumerate. If I were to distill it down to a single thought, though, it is that for this brief time I get to be the custodian and mediator of an infinitesmal piece of the relationship between the earth and the sky.