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.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Group Psychology of Summer Squash (Cory)

"How long until these tomatoes are ripe?"

Hands still occupied by the hose attachment she's using to feed the green tomatoes, Penny tosses her long-cut bangs back on her short-cut hair, surveys the greenhouse, and considers. I've been shadowing Penny since 7am. It's now nearly 4pm, and this half hour of tomato feeding, just the two of us (and the plants) in the greenhouse, is the first moment I've seen of anything that I might ordinarily call "calm" in her busy day.

We can see the farm stand just down the hill -- Trae in her bright orange smock slinging vegetables from sink to sink with her headphones clamped over her ears, probably blasting Vivaldi; Joy washing summer squash, testing for rotten ends and funny shapes; The Guys unloading a truck bed of green beans and flat beans fresh from the field. For once, though, Penny's focus is away from the havoc of her hundred farm stand, wholesale, farm bus, harvesting, planting, watering, weeding, labeling, and emailing duties. She even rejects a phone call on her constantly ringing cell. For once, Penny is doing just one thing: feeding the tomatoes.

Well, two things. Feeding tomatoes and talking to me.

"You know, I really can't say," she answers. "Tomatoes are funny plants. One can go red, and you think they're all about to get ripe, but then the rest can stay green for a week. It's like summer squash and zucchini. You'll see a bunch of them that are this big, not quite big enough to harvest but almost there, and then they'll just sit like that. For weeks. You'll keep seeing more and more of them at that same size but the ones that got there first don't get any bigger. As if they're waiting for their little brothers and sisters to catch up. You know, Bib and I have this theory? That they know when we want their fruit. They'll sit at the same size forever, and then we'll finally pick the first one and all of a sudden pop, pop, pop, they're all ready."

We are just passing the midpoint of this summer's work exchange and nearing the home stretch. The end of the summer is on the OFAF team members' minds, and we ask ourselves and each other different iterations of the same questions at our meetings: Are we getting all of the information we need to write a play? Are our relationships with the farmers and farm workers in the right place at the moment? On August 20, will those relationships be where they need to be for this thing to work?

Ben and Joy chat with Jennie, me, and Keith at
Jordan's -- pizza is great relationship fertilizer.

Writing a play is not chemistry, where two milliliters of X and a half liter of Y gives you Z every time; writing a play is not mathematics, where the square root of 9 doesn't change based on the weather. Writing a play is biology. Writing a play is growing things. Writing a play is a leap of faith. Writing a play is farming.

Last growing season was a season of rainfall, of struggling to keep up. This season -- so far -- our farmers all seem to be on schedule...even ahead of schedule. Eddie and Ryan on Kay-Ben reiterated at last week's story circle how bizarre it feels to be so on time with everything this year. At Jordan's today and yesterday, I heard talk of everything being early so far. The produce in the farm stand's unusually plentiful and varied. I don't know nearly enough about ordinary growing seasons to judge for myself, of course, but one thing is for sure: every season is a different game. No plan is foolproof on a farm. No tomato is immune to late blight, no hay is safe from a freak thunderstorm, no cow is healthy her whole life, no field stays weeded, no rain is guaranteed to fall. There are always fires, broken fences, late or early frosts, and family emergencies. You plan for what you can, and you deal with the rest when it happens. And it happens, and it is never the same ballgame.

When I get ready to write a play, I do my best to make sure all my ducks are in a row. I do research and I talk to people and I spend time thinking and I journal and I consider possible characters and possible plot lines and all sorts of crazy ideas go through my head. And one of those ideas is the seed from which the play will grow. But every play grows differently from the last. Some seeds need more care than others, some fall victim to doubt or indecision or self-censorship, some pop up too early and are forgotten by the time the time's ripe, some get all tangled up in weeds of too-much-complexity and overly-ambitious-concepts, and some are beautiful but fragile and can't take root.

Some grow faster than in your wildest dreams. But that is as rare as a perfect growing season.

Last week we all took some time together to take stock of where we are. It gave me the opportunity to look back over the preceding seven weeks and recognize that, yes, we already have a lot of material and there are countless potential plays beginning to germinate in that playwright greenhouse. But there is still a lot of work to do before we can even narrow things down to one potential play -- which is what the rest of this summer's about; and then even more to do to help that play grow. And I'm looking forward to that feeling I get when all the research and all the prep work is done and there is really nothing to do other than wait for our ideas to start to ripen into a play...and hope that everything we've done to prepare for the harvest will be enough this time.

The ideas ripen bit by little bit, waiting for one another, stalling, waiting for that first one to finally swell up big and ready, and then pop, pop, pop -- there they all are.

New Farm Term:
Seconds. Not what you fill your plate with after you've already had one helping at dinner. This is the word for fruits and veggies that are "not perfect, but still tasty" (in the words of a Jordan's Farm Stand sign). Slightly overripe or misshapen summer squash, bumpy cucumbers, funny-looking apples -- whatever the a-bit-the-worse-for-wear produce, farm stands will often sell it at a discounted price.