bottom of the class

There was a moment on Saturday night, leaning up against the wall outside the ladies room at the local twentysomething pub in my hometown, when I suddenly realized I had gradually, in the last few minutes, transformed into someone else. The metamorphosis was catalyzed by a powerful magnetic field surrounding a bachelorette shower five feet away to my left. The group, which had now sprawled into a sloppy hen party, was made up of females I’d gone to school with — girls from a more popular social standing than I. These girls may have grown up in ten years but they terrify me as much as, I suddenly realize, they used to so many years ago. On some level, I know they are just friends having a good time on the weekend (although while I watch it is obvious some of them are taking a steep nosedive into having a bad time); women beginning to start families, to consider staying home from work; women watching their best friends getting married (the bride-to-be would later be carried out of the bar in a state of inebriation so severe I found myself worried for her – she was also sporting a very large bruise on her jaw where she had fallen and slammed into a chair); women starting to hate their jobs and not know what to do about it. Despite these equalizing considerations, a very real part of me – my emotional and psychological unconscious – engulfs my logical mind, and suddenly I find I have shrunk into the socially paralyzed math-and-science nerd, clinging spiderlike to the wall and praying for the bathroom to be vacated so I can vanish from the presence of these Queen Bees. In that moment I half expect to look down and see my Highschool Self, dressed in Chuck Taylors, a flannel, and a Pearl Jam t-shirt.

It strikes me again this morning, as I slip boots on my 2-year old and haul him out of the van, that I am similarly shrinking moment by moment, out of my element and anchorless, here at the farm where I am picking vegetables. See, on Friday I started a workshare program here (a miserable first day, held by a few of the old-timers here to be the worst workday weather they’d ever had) and from the moment I arrived – dismayed at the lumpy forms of ex-hippies with dirty feet companionably wallowing in yoga poses on the floor – I have felt distinctly out of my element. It’s hard to describe, with any degree of brevity, why I don’t fit in here. Glaring largest in my shortcomings as an organic farmer is my complete and utter lack of know-how on any process that grows food out of our earth (I won’t bother to humiliate myself here with the myriad of examples of gardening gaffes I made on my first day). A close second in my fatal faults would be my lifestyle choices and just how ridiculously out of place they would be should I choose to exercise them here. These lifestyle choices include but are not limited to: the odd cigarette (I have not had one for a week, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving it up any time soon), black coffee all day long, yelling at my kids (as well as keeping them relatively clean and appropriately napped – amongst this crowd, I feel like an authoritarian old-school fifties mom), basic redneck traits that no amount of New Age living will ever rid me of, and affection for small comforts such as hot water and salt in my food. And finally (the nail in the coffin) groups such as this – the makeup of which I’ve become familiar with in my six years in this odd, lovely little town – always stir up my impatience with the conversational traits of the militant Liberal / Greener (despite my often identical political leanings and, I like to believe, compassionate center) and my general irreverence toward anything that one could possibly make fun of and that I am unfamiliar with (items such as, oh, a composting toilet are so ripe – so to speak – with hilarity).

Still, I have been heartened by my experience a bit – last Friday, I recognized artichoke plants and understood why a makeshift chicken coop was built around their vestiges. I assimilated terms such as “overwintering” and “J-rooting” with only a minimal of completely dumb assumptions the first time I heard them. I mixed potting soil and found myself fascinated with the eleven or so ingredients – some of them very odd indeed – and in possession of a new respect for the curious alchemy of the farmer. But despite my successes – and despite having a rather sharp mind when I put my mind to something – the fact is, I am, for the first time in many years, an unskilled and rather clumsy worker. Bottom of the totem pole, and here I will remain, and I cringe to think of the various ways I will prove this to my fellow comrades in the fields in the weeks to come.

But today, I am merely stopping by to check in regarding my cooking shift on Friday and to pick a few vegetables for my family. As I make my way back from the signup area, I feel myself wither and consider ducking back into the van and heading home. I am terrified of the group in the field fifty feet away, so efficiently hacking or digging and knowingly fanning their fingers through rich, black soil, picking out some pieces of vegetation and leaving others in some mysterious divining process. I force myself to make the long walk, then I square my shoulders and march up to the leading farmer. We talk about Friday’s shift. I haven’t had a farm orientation yet, I explain. Where is the food that needs to be taken home?

Sent off to another field and grateful I will not have to be part of the larger group, I head out with my son to pick, for a start, some rhubarb. Nels’ moods here in our two visits, amazingly yet fittingly, reflect mine precisely: uncertainty, vague distaste, wariness. Whereas my son generally has an outgoing, independent personality he has been easily irritated and frightened and always at the moments I have felt the same way. He vocalized grumpiness and bad humor at the identical setbacks when I myself feel like giving up the process of learning a new thing.

But now, I crouch down at a rhubarb plant, part the leaves, and see it: bright red, slender, ripe stalks. For lack of any instruction or mentorship I take out my knife, cut a stalk, cut the leaf and toss it aside, then put the stalk in my grocery bag. My son is hanging back, complaining. His voice echoes my own uncertainty, What size stalk do I want? Can I just toss the leaves on the ground? I look at the rest of the plot and find that seems to be what has been done before. My confidence grows. Nels moves forward and reaches for the knife. “Cut!” he demands. Together we pick a few pounds. I let out a sigh of relief. No matter what happens, I worked my ass off for this food; and now I will be bringing it home.

We move on to kale (where again, I harvest as best I can, hoping I’m not overlooking something obvious or cutting up some random weed that will kill us all instead of a tender vegetable). While in that particular field I have another awesome Farming Moron moment: For about five minutes, I suspiciously eyeball and mistake red chard for rhubarb (hey, it’s surprisingly similar in plant form). But the great thing is, no one is around but Nels – so no one sees my goofs. We gather up some chard (to cook for lunch today), then move on to leeks and parsley. Back to the van where I set my backpack up in the seat (with a pleasing heft and lovely fresh leek smell) and put my Boy back in his tennis shoes. I made it. Made it through another episode at this place where I was not eaten by wild gophers nor did I somehow set a stampede of something-or-other through the tender, handplanted shoots of some delicate whispy greenery.

By this time next month, count on me to nod knowingly while stroking my chin eve
rytime any mentions growing food.

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