Thursday, June 01, 2006

Farming is a Beautiful Activity

I’m trying to bring together two aspects of myself that maybe cannot actually be harmonized. While I’m eager, in theory, to reflect on my first impressions of the work I’ve begun at the PEAS Farm, I’m finding it hard to know where to begin…I’m finding that a structured organization of my thoughts and observations is actually contradictory to the rhythm and attitude I’ve only begun to experience by working every day on the land with my hands in the dirt and my skin meeting the sun again after such a long time. Where have I been since those days when I had a healthy glow? A year of study has turned me into a pasty, soft hermit—nothing but brain and organization and efficiency. I now feel a loosening, just beginning. I’ve been like a hard-packed soil. Staid. Solid. Sedentary. I feel fingers now digging into my inertness and the artificial structure of “organization,” loosening, crumbling the clumps, refining and re-organifying; dislodging, freeing my rootboundedness, breaking the form, the mold of my first growth.

There is something very satisfying about digging down into the dirt with your fingers. A tilled bed develops a crust after a few days. The soil is slightly moist below it. It needs to be worked and reworked and prepared for the seedling. I like digging the small hole, crumbling the clumps into gentle dirt, splitting the roots of a young plant fresh from the greenhouse, liberating them from the small world of a seedling cup and transplanting them into the warm, moist larger world. I prepare their entry place, clear it of rocks and the snarl of quack grass roots, sift the soil through my fingers and secure the young plant to its ultimate destiny. It is the moment that nurtures and determines the potential of the plant.

I was noticing today that each farmer has his or her own planting style, and some are very careless. What are they thinking about as they breeze through such special moments? The soil, the plant, the farmer are for that moment integrally bound in the act of regeneration. It is a very special moment, each time, each plant. I realized today, after watching someone who didn’t seem to care—who just poked the broccoli into the pre-made hole with one finger and moved on to the next one—that I send each plant off into its future with the best of intentions and hopes for its fullest potential, and that I really do all I can so that it will have the best possible chance to survive, grow and be the ultimate specimen of its species. I care for each one. I never realized that before. And I believe that care—even love?—is a huge part of successful farming. The farmer is the catalyst who introduces the plant to its ideal environment. And this must be done carefully. This is my bias. I realize there are others who may be perfectly good farmers who do the one-poke method. And maybe the plants grow just fine…? I’d like to experiment…

We’ve done a lot since I started last week. We’ve planted corn, broccoli, lettuce, flowers. We’ve moved irrigation pipe several times, made potting soil, transplanted seedlings in the greenhouse, weeded the onions and strawberries, dug quack grass in the orchard, planted tomatoes and cucumbers in the hoop-house where it’s very hot, learned a bit about soil building from Steve at Lifeline Farm last Friday. We’ve eaten lunch every day together from things we’ve grown…mostly bok choy, kale, potatoes and spinach so far, supplemented with a lot of lentils. Tomorrow we’ll learn more about building soils and then take a field trip to another farm up near the Bison range.
Farming is a beautiful activity. I am especially impressed by the fact that there are endless layers of knowledge required of the seasoned farmer and available to the learner, and yet anyone can jump in and begin farming immediately in a group such as this. Each individual brings his knowledge and experience to the whole project, but an interested novice requires no knowledge to begin working. I believe there is some
thing about farming, about growing food, that is inherent to human capacity. Though successful farming overall requires mastery on so many levels—biological, mechanical, climactic, geological, social, etc.—on an individual level, it requires only hands. Just put something in the ground. It is so simple. It feels to me like it is almost part of our nature—but I suppose we were gatherers before we were cultivators. The human relation to plants, either way, is incredibly special but subtle, silent and profound. I realized today that I care for them as if they were my children. It’s not something I’ve decided to do; it just seems natural. Steve at Lifeline Farm last Friday philosophized about farmers having replaced indigenous peoples. He said that farmers are important because they carry on the knowledge and the direct connection to the earth that our society, for the most part, has lost.

I feel a little better this week than last. My thoughts were so negative during my first week. I’m giving myself some transition time from Harvard head-work to Farm body-work, because it’s quite a drastic shift. It never feels like a big deal to me, but I try to remember that it is and try to go easy on myself. When we take the seedlings out of the greenhouse, they have to spend a night or two of adjustment outside before they are established in their new environment. The shock from one to the other might be too much for them. So they get a taste of their new climate while keeping their feet in a familiar place. The transition hasn’t been too rough on me…in fact, it feels great so far, although the work is physically exhausting and I seem to be eternally tired these days. I am riding my bike each day to the farm and back (from Russell & South to the top of Duncan Drive) and working all day with tools—hoes mostly—and my own muscles. It’s a challenge for someone who has only exercised her brain for the past 9 months. I feel, I am, fat, out of shape. But I am changing shape here, and this is just the beginning.

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