For several years I contributed regular articles to TV Guide from Maine without watching television, which entertained me greatly — at least, considerably more than TV itself ever has. One day an editor from the magazine called with some breaking news: the Pets.com
sock puppet (a TV commercial character, as I soon learned) was suing Triumph (an obscene sock dog on the Conan O'Brien show, I discovered) for slander and trade infringement. The editor needed a full report by Friday."What is Pets.com
?" I asked him. "And who is Triumph?"
"What are you, living under a rock?" he replied incredulously.
Well, in a manner of speaking, yes. I'd recently removed several Paleozoic schists from my kitchen garden using an ingenious system of plank levers, boulder counterweights, and a cursing wife. Farming in Maine is essentially mining — and neither occupation rates high on any magazine's list of desirable jobs (not to mention desirable husbands).
So it's a reasonable question to ask why someone with a college education, a job in national journalism, and an expense account would chuck it all for the company of flesh-eating blackflies and a life of back-breaking labor in a rocky field. It's certainly a question my businessman father has asked; my bank had a similar query (in triplicate, notarized) when I applied for the mortgage on my farm. But mostly it's a question I ask myself — usually when bent over a hoe as rivulets of sweat sting my eyeballs.
I suppose I farm because there is beer, which never tastes better than after a day in the field. In that sense, farming gives me something to look forward to on a daily basis — as opposed to the seasonal anticipation of real tomatoes in August.
I farm because the next seven-million-dollar T. Rex could be anywhere. If I find it under my hoe, I promise not to name him Sue.
I farm because it gives me something to do instead of write, and all writers need that. Like fields, pages must sometimes lay fallow; filling a page too soon can be as foolhardy as transplanting melons in May, which was my first mistake this cold, rainy spring. Now, from my desk where I look out over lush fields, blooming gardens, and shriveled melon seedlings, I wait for the moment when weeds come faster than words, and I'm out the door, hoe happily in hand.
I farm in revolt against the grocery store, where checkout clerks don't know what parsley is, or where French fries come from. Even the large organic sections of good supermarkets feature the same bland, perfectly shaped varieties of fruits and vegetables — the ones that travel well and look uniformly green, or red, or yellow, as the case may be. Free of pesticides, they are, but also of flavor. One roams the aisles in vain for a purple winter storage apple called Black Oxford (an early Maine variety I'm grafting in my orchard), or the crook-necked canning tomato Gilbertie Paste, a rare Connecticut heirloom I've planted this year. I farm because I want to try them all, even though there aren't enough summers in my life.
In 1945 (according to census and USDA surveys) one fifth of all Americans still lived on farms; many more worked in agriculture, and most others still cracked fresh local eggs, drank milk from a nearby farmer, and had at least one family member who cooked. Real meals every day. By 1991, only 2 percent of Americans called their home a farm. Today, farms are food factories, the actual labor performed by migrants who have no permanent home, much less a white clapboard Cape and a big red barn.
Well-meaning city dwellers fret about the plight of today's farm laborers, but they don't for a minute imagine that farming could be something noble. Farm work is the nadir of drudgery — something to be regulated, unionized, watched carefully for foul-ups. Smart people, on the other hand, go to college and perform important (non-union) tasks for big corporations in offices. After work — no hay to rake or beans to thresh — they go to gyms and climb stair machines.
Farmers also go to college these days. The nation's agricultural schools, supported heavily by agribusiness, teach them how to be profitable. (Lesson One: grow genetically engineered Red Russet potatoes for McDonald's.) They might even teach you when to plant melons in Maine. But they won't teach your boy how to play kickball in the orchard without knocking flowers off the apple trees, and there's no textbook on how to hose out the sheep shed without disturbing the robin's nest.
I farm for that way of life.
I also live in the twenty-first century. So even though I don't inhabit the real world of battling TV sock puppets, I was able to get the gist of their globe-shattering conflict with a few phone calls, and I filed the story on deadline. America got the scoop; the Republic survived. Here in the backcountry, real life goes on. The garden grows, the beer is cold, the summer people have arrived.