We have this tree in our front yard that was supposed to be a weeping cherry tree, but instead is sort of a creeping cherry. Every year the tree creeps a little wider as if it were trying to blanket the whole yard. Jason wants to cut it down (it is a pain to mow around), but I love it with my whole heart. The horticulturists believe the graft was messed up and I just have to love the messed up unique things even when they’re inconvenient.
You see, I really thought I wanted a weeping cherry there close to the red bud to put on a spectacular spring show. But a weeping cherry I did not get. I got this bumbling creeping thing that hardly blooms at all but spreads it’s giant awkward wings and puts on a show of its own, albeit a comedy. A tree that makes me laugh, how’s that for unique? How many of you have trees that make you laugh?
So I was looking for the metaphor here, but perhaps there is none. Perhaps it’s just about finding the small joys in the everyday mundane. A tree that makes me laugh. A daily smile. And that is enough.
We thought we were immune. We thought it had so much to do with the conscious effort we put into being a great place to work. But it turns out it must have been plain dumb luck. Because here we are mid-March without a full farmily in place. I try hard not to be afraid of the unknown. I know that things always work themselves out. But I can’t help the human part of me that wants to at least influence how those things work out.
So we talk sometimes about exit planning. Usually we talk about it in times of deep stress, which can happen, if infrequently. But I feel like I just learned, after 15 years of being here working this land, not to worry about our future as farmers as much—that we’ll figure out how to survive and keep farming. Farming is a tough career choice. As Americans, we have always paid a much lower percentage of our income for food, which makes growing food a very tight margin to live by. But it is also a deeply satisfying career choice. Feeding people gets you down to the very basis of existence. Your job always feels important on some level. This is one of the things I love about farming.
But now, we too, have fallen victim to the strange economy in which we’re operating. Our costs have risen dramatically, we’re in a record-low unemployment situation, and we’re, for the first time, encountering trouble filling out our fantastic farmily.
Every year offers up a new problem, it seems. Whether it’s a new pest or disease, a new weather pattern such as the 90 inches of rain we received a few years back (for reference, 50 inches is “normal” here), the Covid-19 uncertainty, or what have you. And we’ve pivoted, adapted, learned, and survived. But we have never ever had a dearth of applicants who wish to do this work and participate in this lifestyle. So of course, it’s terrifying. It’s the scariest new problem to arise, borne of our own hubris in thinking we were immune to this common theme because we had “put the work in”.
So here comes the ole’ exit-planning chatter again. “Can we do this with just the current crew?” “Should we downsize?” “Can we go back to working constantly, including nights and weekends?” And the fear of the answers, and the wondering what-in-the-world-else we might do, and back to the scrambling, and “am I too old for this?” Apparently, we have just joined the club of every employer looking to hire. It’s not a club we wanted or intended to join, but here we are, speaking the same language—scrambling to figure out how to get the work done with fewer of us.
I have mixed feelings about March. I never seem to be ready. I start to scramble to get those last minute trips in while I still have a weekend, and head to the gym to make up for any slack time I spent “wintering” over the past two months, and then there’s the Masterclass lessons to catch up on, and what about all that reading I was going to do this winter?!
I feel like a cartoon character holding desperately to the out-of-control spring car with my feet plowing the dirt beneath as the daffodils and the peepers and the calendar all ignore my pleas to slow down! Time just keeps Marching, whether I am perpetually surprised by it or not.
And so here we are full on in the planting frenzy, discovering all the things we should have been doing in December, like little squirrels finding all the nuts we stowed away for ourselves last fall. Maybe someday we’ll master this cycle, but the odds are, after 16 years, decidedly against it. Perhaps instead, we should just accept the March madness as part of the seasonal cycle.
I’m sitting at a counter overlooking the parking lot in a strip mall with mediocre at best coffee in a Styrofoam cup having just eaten the best bagel breakfast sandwich of my life (and I like to consider myself an expert on bagel sandwiches). I tried to go to Cracker Barrel or Waffle House, but 11am on a Sunday in Mt. Juliet, TN is the right time for everyone else too, and a good bagel sandwich was exactly what I wanted. I just dropped one of my oldest friends off at the airport after a night of celebrating love. It’s not the first wedding of strangers I’ve attended as my friend’s “plus one”. I just tend to say “yes”.
It was a long time ago that I was taught by a Jesuit brother that we are the Universe’s ability to reflect upon itself. I must have decided in that moment that I’d better show the universe the best of itself then. And while life certainly brings with it a necessary amount of pain and suffering (how else would we recognize the joy?), have been on an infinite path of joy ever since.
Part of that infinite path of joy involves the word “yes”. I try to say that word as often as possible (within reason, of course). I mean, I don’t recommend this practice for teenagers as teenagers don’t necessarily know what “within reason” means, but “yes” for adults most often leads to the Universe’s best. Or, as my friend David says, at the very least it leads to adventure.
It’s this little word that has led so many adventures, both large and small. And those adventures have led to so many moments for the Universe to reflect fondly upon itself. The natural beauty, the best of humanity, the laughter, the awe, the joy. All these things and more contained in that simple little word: “yes”.
It snowed in the mountains. The ski slopes are opening.
Skiing makes me feel dumpy. Coming from the flatlands, it always looked like a rich man’s sport, which, I suppose it is when you have to fly far away to find an actual mountain. But in the flatlands, it’s an even more distant idea. Snow comes, and visions enter our mind of lithe bodies, painted in tight brand name (what is a skiing brand name?) ski fashion, blond hair (they’re always blond) streaming behind them as them flit side to side down fluffy white mountains.
And I, eating sausage and pierogies and sloshing through the slushy snow and mud aftermath in bulky layers and clunky rubber boots like a surly Russian peasant in spring marching out to milk the cow again. I don’t even make it to the lodge. Put me on that hillside and I’m inching down on my butt repeating the mantra “no health insurance, no health insurance, no health insurance”. Isn’t this how Sonny died?
I pretend I would hate to be one of those people with enough money, insurance, and hair dye to be one of those bodies, but this isn’t really the truth. I came from the flatlands where we are stoic, reliable, reserved, tame, if a little bit dumpy. We know the truth, and we know not to speak it. You don’t need the truth to go out and milk the cow. You just do it.
I bet that’s really where Nike got its motto from. Sure, they paint pictures of super human athletes blah blah blah, but I bet they really got their inspiration from the Midwest. Just go out and do what needs to be done. No protestations, no hesitation, and least of all, no truth. You swallow all that and just do it. It’s not lithe or sexy or brand name (unless that brand name is Nike), but it’s probably how we’ll survive the end of the world as we know it, and it’s definitely how I survive growing produce in the cold.
I can feel myself sinking. Settling in. As the farm work slows to a crawl in November and December, I, too, slow to a crawl. Winter is a tightrope walk. Seasonal rest, recovery, and reflection are important, but taken too far they can lead to an unhealthy moody sedentary life. I have to force myself not to give in to total lazy.
Ironically, winter requires the most discipline. You’d think it would be the height of the season, but then we just never stop. It’s easy to put one foot in front of the other and just keep going when the going has got to be done and deadlines loom everywhere. In the winter, though, deadlines are much more liquid.
After going so hard, it’s easy to tell myself I deserve and want restful idle time. And I do. But I have to find that delicate balance up here on the winter tightrope. I’ve got to reach deep to venture out to see friends, move my body, pursue other “side quests” outside the farm. These are what keep me happy and healthy and will deliver me in tact and ready when the farm demands escalate in the spring.
But it’s hard. My November self wants to live in a lazy moment and forget about spring. I can always worry about that tomorrow, next week, next month, ad infinitum. But time is stealthy. Spring will arrive hastily and full of demands as soon as I take my eyes off the calendar.
Sandi (the dog) and I took the long way home from our delivery last week. Our deviant behavior was rewarded with a show-stopping autumn color display along a deserted foggy Blue Ridge Parkway. Luckily it was deserted, because I kept stopping in the middle of the road to exclaim, “Sandi! Look at that!” and take yet another picture. Do dogs see color? Because Sandi seemed unimpressed. But I didn’t let that curb my enthusiasm. I know it’s noticing season, even if she doesn’t.
Autumn leaves are nature’s way of tripping us out of our chronic torpor. Fall is like a toddler stomping their feet and screaming “look at me! Look at me! LOOK AT ME!” We can’t help but notice. And noticing does not go un-rewarded. Colors crawl slowly down the mountain like waking on a lazy Sunday, tiptoeing into our beds before jumping up and down yelling “wake up!”
And so autumn becomes the noticing season. You can tell by the sudden appearance of weekend traffic jams in Wilkesboro-people are noticing. Seasonal changes seem designed to make us pay attention. The first appearance of green in the spring after the greys of winter, the fall leaves after we’ve become immune to green in the long-winded summers, all these shifts, year after year, stop us and force us to look up to pay attention to the beauty around us.
The killing frost has come and gone and left us with glorious autumn afternoons. The time pressure on farm work lifts (deconstruction happens on a much more flexible schedule), and our attention turns domestic. The detritus of lasts litters our countertops: the last beans, the last tomatoes, the last peppers. It’s our last chance to freeze, dry, pickle, and can theses lasts, and so we scurry around like squirrels before the winter, preserving whatever we can manage.
Some seasons, we’re better at mid-season preservation, but this season we did our best to preserve memories of adventures and food preservation fell by the wayside. It’s not like we’ll starve—we can live on the winter hardy greens and things we still have planted, it just limits our mid-winter meal choices. Alas, we’ll just have to thrive on the memories of those delicious warm season meals while we have yet another kale concoction.
Last Saturday, while Octoberfest shut down my market in Hickory, I took a walk down the beach to look for friends. I never found the friends I set out looking for but I found seventy-five others with whom to share the collective awe of what turned out to be one of the most beautiful sunrises ever. Pre-coffee, after a poor night’s sleep, but still the grin on my face grew. We shared a moment-me and these seventy-five would be friends-the gasps and exclamations, the smiles and knowing looks and kind comments. Talking to strangers about the beauty with which we began today, I knew-again-what bliss was.
I savored the moment. I actually stopped just to breath it in-to seal it in my memory for darker times. Because dark is just part of the light. You need the contrast to recognize the light. Darkness really steps up your light appreciation game. I get it. Moments are all we have, so creating them is the ideal course of action.
And so you have to say “yes”. Even as you worry, at least a little, about money, the farm, retirement, etc. ad nauseum, you have to prioritize “yes”. Because as David says, the more you say “yes”, the more adventures you’ll have. And those adventures become moments, and those moments become memories.
We stumbled past the equinox to stop in the solid footing of fall. And we find ourselves here, in this moment, in October, with no idea how we got here so fast and remain upright. It’s a mad thing, the main season—abundant with food, and scores of faces, and joy, and connection, and velocity. So much velocity that we inevitably arrive dumbstruck here in the October balm.
October is arguably the most beautiful month, with its days warm beneath a languid sun and nights slow and long and blanketed. We ease our aching bodies into its bath of lessened workload and lowered cortisol levels. We reflect and revise, formulate ideas of improvement. We glide awhile, just enjoying the view. We celebrate the season, birthdays, anniversaries, and those that passed before us. We soak in the Epsom salt of gratitude and linger there, catching our breath.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.