Of Farms and Fables combines the efforts of professional and non-professional artists by engaging artists in farm work and farm workers in storytelling and acting. The result will be an original performance in October of 2011 which will engage performers and audience in dialogue about local agriculture, farming, and the future of small family farms in Maine.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

It Ain't Easy Being Green (Cory)

Today I was reading an interview with the director of a play that Schauspielhaus Hannover, in Germany, is embarking on this year. The play, based on/inspired by Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, is a play that has -- wait for it -- no human actors. Instead, the drama is peopled by a bunch of plants. Not only that, the project's a five-year-long venture and audience members are expected to come back periodically to see different installments...because, after all, it takes plants a while to grow. (For you German speakers, here's that interview.)

As the playwright, I should probably alleviate any fears right here and now. The Of Farms and Fables play will NOT be performed by plants. Please do not worry. There will still be people and puppets and fun. However, I love the idea of recognizing the drama of a plant's life. It's not all fun and games for our photosynthetic friends, guys. There is danger and suspense and tragedy, too.

This was my first week working on Broadturn Farm. As we planted tomatillos next to some thriving potato plants, Sam and Courtney noticed some rogue potato beetle larvae munching the leaves to Swiss cheese. A group of homeschooled kids a few weeks ago had the task of scraping off beetle eggs, but they'd definitely missed a bunch. Pests are a big problem on organic farms, naturally, and with no pesticides, what do we do to get rid of those larvae? By hand.

The eggs are little yellow clusters you can just scrape off the bottoms of the leaves, but it gets messier with the juicy red larvae and the occasional full-grown, white-and-black striped beetle. We crushed those dudes between our fingers. The tiniest larvae weren't so bad, but the bigger the bug, the squelchier the squirt. After a half hour of squishing we decided to move on. Courtney: "How did your bug squishing go, Sam?" Samantha: "I got a particularly juicy one in the eye."

Man, did I regret forgetting my gloves in the car.

But with as much squishing as we did, I know we left a bunch of beetles behind and I'm worried for the potatoes. The ones that had been hosting larvae were looking downright holey. Who will win -- the beetles? The potatoes? Suspense. Conflict. Squishy death. The stuff drama is made of.

Fingers and homeschoolers aren't the only way to fight the enemy. Yesterday we planted a row of dummy squash (I don't think they actually called it that, but it's the term I use in my head) on the border of a full squash field to try and distract the bugs from the real crop.

Plants face plenty of other dangers. Like late blight. Sam shared a story she'd heard at a workshop Tuesday night, about last year's epidemic that decimated the tomato crop in the area. Apparently the speaker described it as a "perfect storm" situation: the weather was just right for late blight (cool and damp, thanks to last summer's endless rain), and stores like Wal-Mart, trying to capitalize on your Average Joe's increased interest in Growing Food Himself, sold a bunch of infected plants for cheap. When the infection was discovered there was campaigning to stop the stores from selling, but some of them just put the plants on a discount to flush them out faster. Lying! Dastardly deeds! Evil! Dramas do need villains...

Oh, and kittens. Kittens can also be villains. One of the Broadturn kitties, Butter, decided to use an ill-fated seedling as a back scratcher yesterday and rolled on it until it broke. I'm telling you, plants are never safe.

When you spend as much time as these folks do trying to help your plants survive from seed to harvest, how could you help getting invested in whether they live or die? How can you help being frustrated that two trays of bell flower seedlings have been sitting in the green house for months and are still unbelievably tiny and frail-looking? How can you avoid that sinking feeling in your stomach when a field of peas doesn't yield nearly as much as you hoped it would? And it really doesn't matter how awesome you are, farming-wise; plants are gonna do what they're gonna do. In fact, after three weeks of working on produce farms, there's a quote I really related to from that interview about the crazy plant play: "Pflanzen sind ganz schöne Diven, das weiß jeder Gärtner." (Every gardener knows that plants are quite the divas.) The director goes on to point out that you can't say to a plant, like you can to an actor, "Here's your money -- now you have to do it this way."

No matter the care you take, there are countless factors outside your control when you are raising plants and animals. And a lot of the farmers and farm workers we've talked to have said something along the lines of: that's part of the joy of it. It's like a big puzzle, trying to figure out how to make it all work, meeting the unexpected challenges as they show up -- and taking it one day at a time.

I am excited to see how things come together throughout the growing season on Jordan's and Broadturn. Which crops are big successes? Which ones succumb to pests, weather, kittens, or their own tragic flaws? I don't think it's any coincidence that one of the most famous lines in western drama includes plants. A rose by any other name... Or that Ophelia's mad speech has her doling out flowers and herbs.

Courtney, one of the interns, at Broadturn.

There are no Spanish speakers on this farm, but there is Flora, John and Stacy's four-year-old, who has a language all her own. I didn't learn any new Spanish but I did pick up these gems:

  • "I'm yes-and-no tired." (Presumably "kind of tired," or as Stacy suggested, "ambivalent.")
  • Me: "What's that knife for, Flora?" Flora: "I think it's for slaughtering."
Favorite new farm term
Blatting. I actually heard this when we were at Kay-Ben last week for our workshop, but it's a real winner. I've come across it before in books but always thought of it as an obsolete word for the sound a cow makes. But it's apparently very much in use, and I guess it does sound a lot less silly than "mooing."