This year The Long Walkers will have an encounter with Ox Bow Farm, fortuitously located directly in line with our path on Saturday morning, July 28th. At Ox Bow we will be harvesting produce and writing haiku from the vegetables’ point of view. Both poems and produce will make it to a farmers market in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle on Sunday the 29th.
I formulated this project with Sarah Cassidy the farmer/artist/visionary at the helm of Oxbow Farm and Ann Pelo a teacher and writer who recently relocated from Seattle to Duvall in order to be closer to the harvest. In 2010, Ann received a grant from 4Culture to create Taking Root: Connecting People and Place on the Farm. As part of that project Ann wrote these two pieces about the experience of cultivating life on the farm.
I am on my knees in a posture like praying.
Sun on my neck. Rain on my neck.
Mud on my boots, on my hands, my knees, my cheeks.
My hands feel their way into the dense-grown parsley, which is bolting, its stalks thick and tall. It is likely our last harvest of these plants wintered-over from last year. Today’s harvesting holds the challenge of sifting through the thick, bitter-tasting stems to find stems still supple and sellable. The work is painstaking and slow.
I study the leaves carefully, thinking that they will guide my harvest, that they will give me the information that I need about which plants have bolted and which are still edible. But I can’t see clearly into the thicket of parsley, can’t easily follow the scalloped leaves to the pinch-points along the stalks where I can break off slender stems to add to a bunch. The feathering stalks of bolted parsley overwhelm the small, tender stems, and I move clumsily as I try to see my way into the harvesting. I’m taking too much time. The van leaves for the farmers’ market in an hour, and we need twenty bunches of parsley rinsed and packed by then.
I squat lower. I give up on the leaves and attend instead to the stalks. I take hold of the stalks and follow them upwards, feeling for the branching
where a stem angles from the stalk, testing each stem’s suppleness.
My hands find better information in the stems than my eyes find in the leaves, and soon my hands lead the harvest. I fall into a rhythm, I relax, my harvesting quickens. My right hand traces stalk to stem, snaps stem from plant, and shifts it into my left hand, which holds a growing bundle of parsley. I count each stem as I sever it. At forty stems, I pause to wrap a purple tie around the bunch, cinching it tight. I lay the bunched parsley on the walk path, then crawl along the parsley bed to the next section of plants.
After parsley, turnips. They leap into my hands, round and mud-slicked and perfect. I find only a few white globes that have been gnawed by slugs or tracked by beetles. This harvest is an encounter with vibrant abundance, with plants just coming into the peak of their lives. As I move along the row, I look at the turnips with an eye to Saturday’s harvest, a few days away, anticipating their growth. I pick only the largest ones, leaving the others to mature for Saturday. I gather turnips into bunches, a dozen to a bunch at first—but their bounty and beauty seduce me and the bunches grow bigger until it’s a tight squeeze to close the tie around the stems.
I’ve seeded and watered, tucked seedlings into the earth, weeded on hands and knees, and watched the brown fields fill with green. Now, I carry that green out of the fields. Harvesting, I don’t think much about the people who will buy what we’ve grown; harvest, for me, isn’t about getting food to eaters. This surprises me; it is, after all, the purpose of a farm. But from my vantage in the fields, the people who will buy our food at farmers’ markets and eat it in restaurants are an abstraction. What is real to me, in the fields, is the elegance of the plants at this moment of perfection. Plants harvested at their peak are sensual, rousing, compelling in their own right. Compelling in the way that sculpture compels with its curves and angles in right proportion, with its textures and shadings of color. Turnips: perfect white spheres, thin roots trailing below, curling, feathering, while leaves umbrella from the crowns. Parsley, bunched: stems line together, rising into a bounding canopy of leaves.
Harvesting, not simply food, but beauty. Not simply plants, but life.
In everyday talk, we speak of cultivated land and wild land as distinct. On the farm, though, we dance along the border between these lands, and that border is permeable.
As I stand in the field harvesting carrots, a heron flies low over the slough, settling on a snag to watch for prey. Two slugs twine and spiral against the carrot greens, hanging from a silver thread of slime in their mating interplay. An osprey knifes the quiet with three fierce cries. Clouds steadily fill the sky, and rain begins to fall, and the temperature drops. And I pull carrots from the wet soil, each carrot a marvel, grown full from the smallest of seeds. Seeds spring-planted in four orderly rows along a 160-foot bed and carefully tended through the summer. Seeds in cultivated earth, one gesture in our effort to bend the land to our purpose, which is to grow food.
But inside those seeds is wild life that is beyond our reach, out of our control. Seeds in earth grow on the border between domesticated and wild life.
Gestures of domestication: Planting seeds into flats, one tiny seed into each cell. Watering the flats laid out in neat rows in the greenhouse, which we close tight when the weather is chill and ventilate when the weather warms. Transplanting seedlings at carefully-appointed times in deliberately measured intervals in orderly beds. Hoeing, hand weeding, laying drip lines to carry water to the plants.
Expressions of wildness: The mystery of animating life held in each seed. The alchemy of soil and sun, oxygen and water. The dance of weather across the fields. The deer browsing the tender greens, and the moles and voles tunneling under the rows of plants, disrupting their roots. The owl hunting the rabbits across the fields. The snake that stretches across the greenhouse path in the summer and that curls into a greenhouse corner as the days grow cool. The plants growing, growing and dying, dying and rotting and renewing the soil into which we will, again, plant seeds.
On the farm, we eat wild life, intentionally tended. This is different, certainly, from eating wild food, foraged and found. But our food is not domesticated, not by any accounting. It is not a product of our creating. It is a manifestation of life’s wild desire to live.
In the story of the farm, it’s tempting to cast the farmer as the protagonist. The farmer cultivates the land, yes, but the farmer is not the hero in the story of the farm. That story has a full roster of protagonists: the carrot seed and the slugs; the flea beetles and the sun; aphids and the ladybugs who eat them; clouds, rain, open sky, wind; the river that rises up in the fall to swallow the farm. These protagonists come together to bind the wild and the cultivated into one story. The story of the farm, the story of life on the borderland.