Bring on the Noise
“Giving birth is like jazz, something from silence, then . . . everything”
— Elizabeth Alexander, poet
I’ve been trying to write this story for three days now without much luck. Today is Swisher’s due date and I’m as distracted as an 8-year-old on Christmas Eve. But so far, Swisher’s holding tight and Dina and I are practicing patience. It’s exhilarating to be at this threshold after four long years of waiting, wondering if we’d ever see this day. But here we are, between silence and everything, ready for the band to play and wondering just what it will all sound like.
Given my state of my distraction, I’m going to cheat a little bit and give you part of a story I wrote for the Boston Globe last week complete with an updated ending from some sordid man vs. nature tales from the farm this week:
It’s 5 o’clock. Time to feed and water the cows. But from the furrow where I’ve landed, they feel impossibly far away. My hamstrings, lower back and the arches of my feet are furious with me. A day’s worth of persistent black flies have rendered my sweaty skin a map of itchy welts. Rocks jab my ribs and dirt is finding its way up my shirtsleeves. But I don’t have to move for the next two minutes so this lumpy patch of earth is pure heaven. I gaze at the sky, finger the blisters on my palms and let the satisfaction of a hard day’s work soak in. And then I remember we’re doing it all again tomorrow.
In that moment, my previously abstract understanding of large-scale vegetable farming became entirely concrete.
The planting season is officially upon us at The Farm School and until now, my only experience with making things grow came from tinkering on .003 acres of city loam at our home in Boston. Even with my full-time job as a photojournalist, there was always time to fawn over each plant, marvel at earthworms and clean a manageable amount of dirt from my nails each evening.
But now, no nailbrush is a match for what we’re calling permadirt at the farm — the caked-on result of ‘gardening’ for our 150-family community-supported agriculture group — and I definitely no longer have time to pat each seedling on the head for good luck. These days, my left hand pinches soil over one transplant with one swift motion while my right hand simultaneously stabs a 6-inch trowel into the soil to form a hole for the next. Stab-plant-pinch. Stab-plant-pinch. What the process lacks in ease it makes up in rhythm. And when I manage to tune out my protesting back and knees and instead focus on matching movement with breath, something like meditation emerges.
I wasn’t alone in my patch of dirty heaven; over half of our entire class of 15 student farmers were sprawled across the field like castoffs from a retreating storm. Tyson, our head grower, congratulated us: We had planted a mile of onions. And this was just the beginning…
Farming can be very physical. But what makes the work extra demanding on our farm is that we do much of it by hand. Yes, we use machines, but we’re committed to limiting our consumption of dead-dinosaur fuel for the sake of our soil and our climate. Besides, most of us in this program, myself included, came here to physically connect with nature by literally putting our hands in dirt – not by regarding it from a high atop a tractor. But I’m finding that loving the land is not all sunshine and butterflies. Despite our toil and care, nature bites back in a myriad of ways that threaten what we so earnestly seek to do.
This week, nature of the less-lovable variety visited us in the form of a woodchuck, who singlehandedly chomped through hundreds of dollars of cabbage and kale. Tyson discovered the carnage one morning and found the culprit’s hideout in a rock wall between two of our fields – a perfect perch from which to wreak havoc on this year’s CSA by munching through a disastrous amount of already-paid-for vegetables.
So we had to take action – and now my image of tree-hugging hippy farmers has expanded to include hippy farmers brandishing pitchforks and firebombs – literally.
Damiana, Tyson and I had a plan: cover all the exits, throw smoke bombs in the den’s front door, then skewer Mr. Woodchuck upon his escape. I wasn’t sure if I was prepared to follow through with the pitchfork part, but Tyson lit the fuse anyway, tossed in the bomb and we waited . . .
. . . for fifteen minutes. No woodchuck. We figured he was either out ravishing other fields or had gone off in search of another home after Tyson took a tractor to his rock-wall home earlier in the day. Either way, I walked back to the farm relieved that I didn’t have to skewer anyone and chuckling at our conditional idealization of nature.
In moments such as these, I understand what made the fathers of the industrial revolution tick. As much as I despair over chemically denuded soils, I can understand why farmers embraced pesticides. As much as I rage against our reliance on fossil fuels, a week spent hand planting 62,000 onions gives me insight into our love affair with mechanization and how we plowed our way into the Dustbowl.
So, even though Mr. Woodchuck lives to see another day, some of my rosier notions of farming’s peaceful coexistence with nature haven’t been so lucky.
And back home we will continue to wait in silence, for our everything.