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.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Alone, Together (Claire)

I have always been a deeply devoted beet lover, so as you can imagine, I was extremely enthusiastic about picking them. Jennie, “the guys” (Peewee, Tully, Miguel and Orlando) and I had just started our day. The first order of business: scanning the ground for promising looking beet tops poking up out of the dusty soil.

I’ve tried to grow beets in the past- once in my little pocket sized garden when I was in high school and once when I was tending a kitchen garden for an inn. However, I tend to fall on the neurotic/ greedy end of the scale and couldn’t resist “checking on” my little beet-letts. This is not the sort of behavior that leads to good hearty full-sized beets and as a result I have eaten my fare share of gum-drop sized beets. This was going to be my first time experiencing a full grown beet “in the wild”.

What I didn’t expect was that they would stick together like they did. Beets tend to grow close together- we found that many of the bigger beets had little hangers-on that grew alongside them, carving out little nooks and crannies as they grew together. It was wonderfully satisfying to pull up these dark masses, shake the dirt off the roots and pile them into your arms until you can’t hold anymore. They made a certain sort of ripping pop as they came out of the ground- announcing their presence in this new, bright world.

We brought them over to crates, sliced the greens off and tossed them in, trading notes on which are too little to make the cut, the thunderstorm we all expect this afternoon- all the things you talk about when you’ve got a day of picking veggies ahead of you and bright beet juice staining your fingers. Then we head out again, each going a different way to load up: search, pull, rip, pop!, repeat.

Harvesting creates a funny conversational dynamic. There I was in the field with five other people, but I may as well have been alone for most of it. This was even true when we moved on to picking green beans- conversation lasts only as long as your pace matches up in a row with another harvester. As soon as you hit an already picked spot- you jump ahead. If a plant has a particularly heavy crop, you pick all you can and fall behind.

Mostly, you listen to your internal monologue: thinking through those friends who have not called you back, the things you forgot to do this weekend, etc. In the green bean field, I found myself making my usual mental lists, but also finding myself surprised to be in a different sort of dialogue with the plants I was handing: apologizing every time I ripped off a leaf or two- responding to the wit of a hidden clump of beans down by the root. This is another form of conversation entirely; the back and forth between our attention spans the the plant’s yield. In Jennie’s farmers almanac, we found a warning about always “keeping up with beans”. It seems that if you don’t pick all they have to offer, they’ll stop producing. For vegetables, they seem like quite the needy conversationalists. Before I realize it, its almost time for lunch and I’ve started to map out how to make a plant puppet that can fight back. (Remember those punching nun puppets? I was thinking they would be sort of like that.)

In the midst of all this picking, I remembered something Pete (another Jordan’s employee) said during one of our first story circles there. “People who think farming is really simple are dead wrong. The simpler the work, the more you have to have going on in your head to keep yourself sane.”

Oh, I totally agree.

At the farmers’ market on Saturday, Jennie and I spent some time talking to the lovely Jamie Berhanu of Lalibela Farm. She has been selling tempeh (if you haven’t tried it yet, I suggest jumping out of whatever chair you are sitting in and running out to go get some.) and veggies there for several years and says that one of the best things about it is getting to get out of the rhythms of her farm and meeting up with other farmers and people who don’t live their lives in those some patterns. “Its wonderful to be out in the fields and concentrating and weeding, buts its also really nice to take a break,” she told us.

In my life, the closest thing I’ve experienced to this phenomenon is not agricultural, but culinary. There is a wonderful story by Laurie Colwin called “Alone In The Kitchen With An Eggplant” that sums up most of my reasons why cooking alone is one of my favorite things in life. Her fascination with eggplants nearly equals my passion for beets- their universal usefulness, the many different ways both veggies can become almost anything without costing you much at all, not to mention the voluptuous nature of each vegetable... the list goes on. What really gets both of us excited about a night in the kitchen is the opportunity to retreat into that internal monologue and simply cook. Laurie says:

Certainly cooking for one’s self reveals man at his weirdest. People lie when you ask them what they eat when they’re alone. “A salad,” they’ll tell you, but when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.

The only difference between this and my meditative harvesting experiences is that somehow cooking translates that monologue into an awfully revealing dinner choice rather than a crate of beets. Its a nice thought to cary around when you are stretching in the field and notice the other people picking around you, totally concentrated on their work. Maybe their thoughts are as normal and composed as a salad, but more likely their daydreams are more spaghetti and grape jam flavored.

Its not that I’m in favor of all solitude all the time. I’m with Jamie- Its wonderful to retreat, but its also great to end your day with full buckets and buddies to ride in the back of the truck with you.

PS: The whole time I was harvesting I had this song stuck in my head: The Beat Beat Stuff by Hannah Geogas. I invite you to substitute (as I did all day) the word “beat” with the word “beet”. I think you’ll find it turns the song into an anthem for love and root vegetables that is hard to “beet”. Get it? (sorry, I just couldn’t resist.)

Oh yeah! and PSS: I invited the group to try that Haymaker’s Switchel I wrote about last time. Here’s what Jennie thought of it:

She said that the taste of it stayed with her for at least three hours after trying it. I don’t think its going to be coming back into style anytime soon. Oh well- you win some, you loose some!