Saturday, August 23, 2008

Enough Already!

During that phase of my life just out of college, where I was commuting by train--and thus had enough time to read anything and everything I wanted--I picked up a copy of a book entitled Witness to America. It was a collection of essays, speeches, and other writings by people who had been well-placed to witness important (and some not-so-important) events that occurred through the course of history of this country. The essays were interesting, because it gave a sense of the way the people who lived so long ago thought about their own circumstances--how they saw their world and their society.

One of these essays caught my attention. It was by Louisa May Alcott. Her father, Bronson, was a member of a transcendentalist "cult" (for lack of a better term) that decided to turn its back on civilization, ride off into the wilderness, and found a New and Better Society At One With Nature. This sort of thing was, of course, quite common in this country during the early-to-mid 19th century.
Thus these modern pilgrims journeyed hopefully out of the old world, to found a new one in the wilderness. This prospective Eden at present consisted of an old red farmhouse, a dilapidated barn, many acres of meadowland, and a grove. Ten ancient apple trees were all the "chaste supply" which the place offered as yet; but, in the firm belief that plenteous orchards were soon to be evoked from their inner consciousness, these sanguine founders had christened their domain Fruitlands...
By and large, these little communal experiments failed miserably, and Ms. Alcott's essay describes in very wry detail all the things, big and little, that went wrong with the commune she grew up in. Basically, the people who founded and inhabited these communities were long on idealism, but short on survival skills, short on stamina, and very short on common sense.
Slowly things got into order and rapidly rumors of the new experiment went abroad, causing many strange spirits to flock thither, for in those days communities were the fashion and transcendentalism raged wildly. Some came to look on and laugh, some to be supported in poetic idleness, a few to believe sincerely and work heartily. Each member was allowed to mount his favorite hobby and ride it to his heart's content. Very queer were some of the riders, and very rampant some of the hobbies.

One youth, believing that language was of little consequence if the spirit was only right, startled newcomers by blandly greeting them with "Good morning, damn you," and other remarks of an equally mixed order. A second irrepressible being held that all the emotions of the soul should be freely expressed, and illustrated his theory by antics that would have sent him to a lunatic asylum, if, as an unregenerate wag said, he were not already in one. When his spirit soared, he climbed trees and shouted; when doubt assailed him, he lay upon the floor and groaned lamentably. At joyful periods he raced, leaped, and sang; when sad, he wept aloud; and when a great thought burst upon him in the watches of the night, he crowed like a jocund cockerel, to the great delight of the children and the great annoyance of the elders. One musical brother fiddled whenever so moved, sang sentimentally to the four little girls, and put a music box on the wall when he hoed corn....
And so forth. She obviously remembers all this silliness quite fondly; but she recognizes that it was, of course, silliness.

Well, human nature hasn't changed. Every new generation has its people who would love to "get back to nature", without really understanding what that means. These transcendentalist guys would have fit right in with the hippies; and the hippies would have fit right in with them (although they might have gotten into arguments about mind-altering substances. Or maybe not...).

And every generation that does in fact manage to get back to nature, gets remembered and immortalized by its children as silly. These children, upon learning that they don't have to plow and harvest every season, and weed every day just to get food, think to themselves: "Forget this. The moment I grow up, I'm going traipsing back to civilization to get myself a pizza and a more sensible lifestyle."

So I remember back to this essay every time I hear someone say, "Wouldn't it be nice if..." followed by all sorts of weak-minded ideas about living "off the grid" (to use the hideous modern term for this phenomenon). Sure, the survivalist in me would like to know how to do these things, in case the Big One happens. And I definitely enjoy working in my backyard, planting, landscaping, and caring for growing things. I think it's good for us to be outside, doing manual labor and getting sun and fresh air. But the farmer's life? That's a hard life. If your hands aren't rough and callused; if you aren't capable of heaving fifty-pound bales of hay into the loft for a few hours a day; if you are squeamish about wringing the heads off of chickens; if you don't relish the prospect of wrasslin' pigs or other large barnyard livestock; then that life isn't for you.


My wife and I recently had a bit of a reminder of this fact.

You see, two years back, in a moment of mushy-headedness, we decided: "Wouldn't it be nice if we could grow all or most of the produce we needed in our own backyard? We've got plenty of space on our lot to do this, if we really wanted to...." And we proceeded to plant no fewer than eleven fruit and nut trees--two orange, two cherry, two plum, one peach, one nectarine, one pear, one Asian pear, and one pecan--in addition to the pomegranate tree we already had. And, well... last year, the trees weren't so big, and we got a quantity of fruit that was reasonable, and we were happy.

This year, we got buried.

And the trees aren't even fully mature yet! Not even close.

And that doesn't count the stuff that came out of our vegetable garden--radishes, lettuce, spinach, peppers, pumpkins, tomatoes, carrots, zucchini, squash, and beans. And it also doesn't count our immature grapevines, which haven't produced yet....

Tonya and I have learned a lesson from all this: God is indeed very generous, even when you neglect the garden. All this stuff was produced with very little work from us. But...

But trying to harvest and process all of this stuff is sheer, unadulterated madness. What do you do with twelve dozen peaches? After you've already dealt with the plums and the blackberries and the strawberries and the raspberries and the nectarines? Good heavens!

After a while, you get sick of peach pie. Seriously. And peach cobbler, and peach leather, and dried peach chips, and nectarine chips, and plum pie, and plum jam, and nectarine jam, and strawberry jam, and roasted pumpkin seeds, and... and...

So tonight Tonya was shelling beans. And I kid you not, she was sorting them into three piles. Three little piles, with beans neatly sorted by color.

"These are the dry ones. These are the nearly-dry ones. These are the green, juicy ones that need to be dried."

I think she's flipped her wig.

(Tonya just protested: she hasn't completely flipped her wig. She may sort beans into little tiny piles, but at least she ripped out the bean plants today so she doesn't have to deal with any more of this in the future. Well, that's something, I suppose.)

I'm not sure that I'm completely all there anymore, either. Tonya made some comment today about how she's actually happy this year that we're going to have a lousy pomegranate crop. We only had a few flowers this time around, and I've only seen one full-sized pomegranate on the entire tree. So how did I react to Tonya's comment?

I nearly disagreed with her! Now how sane could I possibly be? I mean, given that we still have at least a gallon-sized bag full of frozen pomegranate seeds from last year's crop that we haven't even juiced or made into jelly yet. That's good for at least a month's supply of jelly, if not two, at the ridiculous rate we go through the stuff. And I was about to complain that we don't have more?

If our crop is bad this year, we won't be able to survive through the winter of 2012!


In the meantime, does anyone need any pumpkins right now? No, seriously....


Jarrod J. Williamson, Ph.D. said...


Have you thought of establishing a relationship with your local market or farmer's market and selling your extra to them?

If you establish a relationship, and the price is right, I will bet they will give you cash for your surplus.

Then can the rest.

Roger Z said...

It's funny, I know a lot of folks out here from rural Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, etc. Most of them have parents who are getting on in years and are looking to turn their "little slice of heaven" over to their children, and their children are doing exactly what you said... running for the city as fast as they can.

Now, what's funny is, coming from back east, all anyone in the City ever dreams of is owning a "little slice of heaven"- five acres, 10 acres, 50 acres. My dream home, personally, is a double-wide trailer on 10 acres in a floodplain (that way, when my neighbors get annoying a flood will wash them away and the doublewide, being worthless anyway, won't set me back at all).

I was telling this to the office secretary the other day (one of those folks running from a very beautiful 160 acre parcel in SE Kansas) and kind of laughing, and she said "the grass is always greener." And I think that about sums it up.

B. Durbin said...

See, my parents have a similar "problem" but they also have the solution— which is to be extremely generous with all of the produce. As they have five kids with kids of their own and hungry coworkers, this works out pretty well.

As in I can take thirty or forty pomegranates to work of a week and be pretty well guaranteed that they'll be gone in short order. From two or three people, mind you. And pomegranates somewhat larger than softballs.

Also to the point is the fact that my parents don't bother to can or make jelly; they just freeze fruit. It makes for marvelous smoothies.