One of my favorite kinds of days. Fall, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness etc. Kicking around in the back 40 with my "real" camera, some great Zeiss lenses. When I come back Dus is working in the barn...yes...
I got laid off 5 weeks ago. It wasn’t a huge surprise, and I’m not going to talk about it here. It is what it is. The upshot is that I’ve suddenly had an ocean of time on my hands, and given the recent expansion of the garden, that’s not such a bad thing.
I’ve never done much with my hands. Certainly, my entire professional life has been an exercise in abstraction. First, during the photography days, working with light – at least I worked in the darkroom then, so there was a tactile element, but given that it involved dredging my hands through chemicals for days on end, I can’t say I miss it. And then, of course, as an information architect on the web - I haven’t been able to actually touch any of my final products in years. They’re merely myriad configurations of magnetic charges in a multitude of servers in dark anonymous locations. I don’t know where my work lives, and this is the first time it’s even occurred to me to care. I’m not sure that I do. It’s all so disconnected.
I love making decisions in the garden. Should I take a chance and plant before the official last frost day (May 15 in these climes)? I did take the chance, which worked out okay - except that this year we got down within a couple of degrees of a frost 5 days AFTER the last day! So we had to go out and cover the tomato plants. And what the hell are we really supposed to do with the potato plants? Cover them with more soil - great. That’s what it says in the books, but cover what? Just the stalks? The leaves too?
The big challenge this season, so far at least, is the rain. It’s been a deluge - I think there have only been two rain free days in the whole of June so far, and it’s already the 19th. I’m learning just how important full sun is - the tomato plants are very small, and the sweet peas are delicious - but not sweet!
A little shout out: My garden is a direct result of having read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a fantastic expose of the morally bankrupt industrial food system. What I love about it is that he points to realistic solutions, though. It’s about as inspiring a book as I’ve ever read, a life changer.
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.