Thursday, March 22, 2012

Work in Progress

Three things happen when I get really busy. First, dishes pile up in the sink. Second, there is enough hair on the floor to make a third dog. And finally, I update my blog once a week, if I'm lucky.

I don't mind the dishes and the dog hair (okay, I do mind, but I'm willing to forgive myself and Nathan for these transgressions) but the blog thing is different. I like checking in here and I miss y'all when I'm gone. This week, I am gone for a good reason - I have to hand in my second essay for my creative nonfiction class on Monday, and the beast is far from finished. I started out wanting to write about urban homesteaders, but after working on the essay it's sort of turning into a story about me and Nathan and our mostly failed attempts at being self-sufficient. It still has a long way to go, of course, but things aren't supposed to be perfect when you hand them in (that's the point of being workshopped). The good news, I'm no longer totally ashamed and horrified by own writing, and it's nice to break through that stage of first drafts.

I also decided to share an except here. This is scary for me, because I rarely show anything in-progress to anyone, preferring to keep my writing under wraps until I feel confident that it's the best I can do. This is by no means finished, and this section will probably change a bit before I hand it in, but for now: here it is. I hope you enjoy it, and I'd love to know what you think.

In the meantime, if you need me, I'll be writing.

            It was not until I graduated college and moved to Texas, land of steak and cattle, leather boots and rodeos, that I finally learned how to cook. My partner, Nathan, moved there to finish his degree and asked me to come; I agreed. This was before I knew that the meat-free options in our small town amounted, in most restaurants, to a baked potato. Cooking became a necessity, but soon I began to take pleasure in the process, experimenting with new ingredients and spices. Nathan bought me a basil plant and I discovered the wonder of pesto – fragrant, garlicky, with the brightness of fresh lemons. I loved that little basil plant, and I thought – why stop with one herb? Why not grow more things? Why not grow everything?
            We lived in an apartment complex and lacked a yard, so we decided to attempt container gardening. We went to Lowe’s, bought the soil, the containers, and the seeds, and one warm March day, we planted. As the seeds began sprouting and tiny green stems unfurled from the soft earth, I took meticulous photos, documenting our first garden, eagerly watching the progress of our little cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes. 
            And then, progress halted. Our condo was located in the middle of a number of towering trees, which was wonderful for keeping our home cool during sweltering Texas summers, but not so wonderful for growing plants. While our containers got some sun in the morning hours, it was not nearly enough. Our baby vegetables withered on their vines, desperate for the rays of light that remained out of reach. We mourned our vegetables, as well as the money wasted on containers. I consoled myself with more pesto – at least the basil plant was still growing strong.
            Then one day, while shopping at the farmers’ market and enviously eyeing the baskets of produce other people had been able to grow, a man handed us a flier for Sacred Springs, his brand new CSA currently accepting it’s inaugural crop of members.  Farmer Greg, as he liked to be called, wore overalls and chewed on a long piece of straw while he explained how the CSA worked.
            Government subsidies favored endless fields of soy and wheat, which made starting up a small farm even more difficult than it already was. If the farm had a bad season and failed to produce enough crops to pay for the land, the farmer could lose everything, just like that.
            CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, Farmer Greg said, and it was a way to share that burden by allowing people to become members of the farm. These members would pay a subscription fee at the beginning of the season, before the tomatoes had even begun to sprout, and then, as the season wore on, members would pick up weekly baskets of fresh, local produce right there at the farmers’ market. You didn’t get to choose what you got in your basket – whatever was growing would end up on your table, and some weeks would be better than others. And, if there was a drought or a flood or some other act of god that destroyed the crops, the farmer wouldn’t necessarily be screwed. Sure, the CSA members would each be out a few hundred dollars, but this was simply unfortunate, not devastating.
            “A CSA farm is a great alternative for people who don’t have the time or space to grow their own food,” Farmer Greg told us. “You know exactly where your food is coming from, and you support local, organic farms by becoming a member.”
            It cost two hundred and fifty dollars for twelve weeks, as well as a few hours of volunteering on the farm, and this seemed like a great deal to us. We signed up on the spot.  
            Our first few baskets were mostly filled with greens – lettuce, collards, and tons of spinach, which reminded me of that day at the college salad bar, so many lifetimes ago. Soon, however, unforeseen difficulties arose. Each Saturday morning, I stopped by the farmers’ market around ten, after my yoga class ended, which seemed a reasonable hour for a farmer. Often, Farmer Greg was just arriving. Instead of assembling all the baskets at once, he would put together one or two, painstakingly choosing which potato to place beside each carefully curated collection of okra. Then he would take a break and stop to talk to someone, or try to convert new members to the farm. Meanwhile, I would stand there, tapping my foot, growing even more impatient, the glow from my yoga practice already fading. What should have been a quick, five minute detour on my way home from the studio turned into a 45 minute long ordeal.
            Still, it was a small price to pay for local, organic vegetables. One day, Farmer Greg mentioned that he needed some help planting the next crop of onions, and reminded me that Nathan and I had yet to complete our volunteer hours. I loved onions, and so I told him we would be out there the next day, bright and early. “Great,” he said. “I’ll be ready for you.”
            We arrived at seven and knocked on Farmer Greg’s door. He answered, wearing nothing but boxers and rubbing his eyes.
            “We’re here for the onions,” I said. He looked at me, confused. “To plant them?”
            “Oh yeah, yeah,” Farmer Greg said. “Just a minute.” He shut the door and we walked around the farm for a bit, waiting for him to reappear. When he finally did come outside – dressed now in overalls, I was relieved to see – he led us to three long empty rows in the field where the onions would be planted.
            “Space them out about six inches,” he said, “and make sure the little green part is sticking out of the dirt. Oh, and one more thing.” Farmer Greg gave us a long, serious look. “I don’t know what y’all believe, but I happen to know that plants feed off our energy. They can sense what we’re feeling and thinking. And so I ask that when you plant these onions, you try to think positive thoughts, happy things, you know? So that we have a better chance at a good crop.”
            “Positive thoughts?” I said.
            “Happy things?” Nathan said.
            “Yeah, you know. Love, peace, that kind of thing.”
            “Okay,” I said. “We can do that.”
            Farmer Greg left us to the onions and Nathan and I looked at each other, trying not to laugh. Still, it was Farmer Greg’s land and it only seemed right to respect his rules.
            A few hours later, when the sun was high, sweat was pouring down our faces, and my thighs were burning from crouching over the endless onions, it was harder to muster positive thoughts. All I could think about was a cold shower, a colder beer, and how much I hated onions. At once point, Nathan said something annoying and I snapped at him. He snapped back and before I knew it we were standing in the field, yelling at each other about something stupid.
            “Nathan, wait,” I said.
            “Not in front of the onions.”
            He rolled his eyes, but it worked. The spell was broken and we laughed, finishing the job as quickly as we could.
            A few weeks later, I found five onions in our CSA basket. I gave them away.