The days after Christmas, we finally got the first rain in about a month, so there wasn’t anything to do but sit around the house and read books or watch the kids entertain one another. I was grateful that we have livestock at the farm, giving me an excuse to go out in the rain and open the door in the morning or gather eggs in the afternoon. There is nothing like going for a walk during the holiday season, especially when the rain sets in.
Almost everyone I knew was flying or driving all over the place for the last several days. The American Holidays are a truly historic phenomenon, with literally hundreds of millions of people going to great expense to make pilgrimages back home. I mean it’s the thing to do at the holidays — get together with family. And it’s an epic event here in the USA. We’ve come a long way from the one-horse open sleigh down to Gramma’s.
I hadn’t gone to those kinds of lengths to go home for the holidays, mostly because I don’t know where home would be. My parents are now living in Austin, Texas, a place I’ve never been to. I’ve heard good things about Austin, but never been there. And I sure wasn’t going to ask somebody to watch the animals on our farm so I could fly to Austin for three days, because pretty much everyone I knew was going somewhere. Michoacan, or Michigan, with stops in Memphis and Denver and holdovers in Houston. If your family is like mine, there was considerable debate about where we all should meet. I had proposed Geneva, Switzerland, as neutral territory, but since I wasn’t going to be jumping on a jet I didn’t have a lot of say in the matter.
We are a mobile society. Many of us have legitimate options as to where home is and who constitutes family. A person might have grown up in Cleveland, for example, whose father and mother split up and went their separate ways, and neither of the parents lived anywhere near where their parents had raised them. And this person we’re imagining might have children with different partners, whose parents also had different partners, so the choice about where to go for the Christmas Party, the Big Bash, or the Religious Observation, is left up to very nearly each and every one of us.
I really wanted to avoid the Civil War this year, to try to use the holidays as a time to relax. I wanted to avoid mentioning political figures. I wanted to avoid discussing religion. Since my parents were actually planning a trip to the historic site of the Alamo, I figured it was easier to avoid those discussions if I stayed home. It limited conversations to the telephone, where both sides would know the argument was over if it got too heated.
The real reason I was calling was probably to gloat that I hadn’t been suckered into the madness. I spoke with my parents for a few minutes, telling them about the grandkids they never get to see in person, and then they put my sister on the phone.
There are a few things you should know about her and I. While she is being paid by corporations and the USDA to inspect the microbial life in the digestive systems of dairy cows, aiming for higher productivity, I am struggling to keep a small organic farm afloat here in Anderson Valley. We are passionately working for similar ideals — namely to provide either more food or better quality food to people, but from different sides of the fence. Both of us think the grass is greener on our side.
I think both of us knew there was no point in getting on the phone if we didn’t want to argue. Even the polite questions were bound to start rubbing the flint.
“How’s the farm going?” she asked, inevitably.
“I don’t know — we really kind of backed off the last half of the summer, with [our one year-old child], I ended up spending the hot, windy afternoons with the kid while she would be at farmers markets. We only had so much water, anyway. So we haven’t been too busy lately. I refuse to be too busy, trying to keep up with the times,” I said with a sense of defiance. “There’s no sense trying to be a family farmer if you can’t spend time with your family.”
“Well, we missed you on Christmas, by the way.”
“I’m sure you did.” We were already well on the road to nuclear family fission. Neither of the former remarks had been sincere. We both knew that whether or not I showed up for Christmas, my mother would be in tears about the fact that her grandchildren were living way out in California, and that they were far away from a Lutheran church. The nearest Lutheran church is in Ukiah, about twenty miles away from Boont Berry Farm. And the family farm comment was one we didn’t dare make, as my uncle, who’d been in charge of the farm ever since my grandparents had passed away, had sold it off to become one more block of suburban homes and big, green yards. It was long gone. Where the dairy barn was, I think they’re going to stick a convenience store. I haven’t even been back to see any of it. I don’t want to look. “Well, I guess my family farm is out here, now. So, you got any plans?”
“I’ll be in the same apartment for the next year and a half. In the spring of 2006, I’ll have my doctor’s, and I hope to get work for some kind of not-for-profit organization.” She wants to go the third world and spread scientific knowledge about dairy farming techniques that she’s gleaned by reaching through rubber tubes that have been inserted into the delicate, complex digestive systems of dairy cows. The stuff she pulls out is pretty similar to what cows chew when they chew their cud. It’s halfway between there and the patties and pies most people associate with cows. It’s full of bacteria, a fragile balance. Her goal is to translate her knowledge into terms accessible to emaciated people in regions of the world where starvation and other related diseases are rampant, and good water is pretty hard to come by. “It’s a lot of work, and I’m mostly in the lab, these days. I don’t even get to see the cows, anymore.”
“Do you ever get out to a real dairy farm?”
“No. I’m only paid to do research.”
“But wouldn’t that be part of your research, though? I mean, how things work on a regular farm, with all the added variables?” I actually bit my tongue and stopped short of mentioning that the very method of sticking a rubber tube into a cow’s digestive tract to get an idea of what kind of microbial action was related to various diets seemed to be an obstacle to observing anything about what goes on in a regular cow.
In fact, she had told me in the past that quite a few of those cows that she takes samples from have died due to the inevitable infections. The whole idea sounded alien to me, and I’d been hearing about it for almost four years, now. It sort of pissed me off that these jerks were paying my sister to waste her time like that, but I never wanted to put it to her in those terms. I’d always imagined that eventually she would wake up one morning and realize that those experiments were violating one of the fundamental principles of scientific observation.
It is considered important, in some circles, to note the affect the method of observation was having on the subject. I mean all this money was supposed to be helping dairy farmers who grow alfalfa, grass, corn, and bale hay every summer? But I didn’t want to go on and on, to her. It was Christmas, and she was my sister. We wouldn’t be having this argument if we weren’t siblings. “Well, don’t you suppose it might be fun, anyway, to get out and work on a regular farm.”
“Spec, I know what you’re going to say to me. You’re already starting to go on and on about it. People will never listen to you if you offend them — they’ll just get defensive. They’ll just tune you out.”
She was right. I was going to say something. I just couldn’t keep it in. I just couldn’t help it, even though deep down I knew that I was no different, that I was just another spoiled American kid arguing with my family members. Both of us were children of people who had abandoned the lifestyle of farmers and adopted the suburban model, who had encouraged their kids to perform well in school and find a career. Both of us had seen what had once been our family farm turn into a subdivision, and we were both really groping for reality now. She was literally groping in the dark bowels of laboratory cows, and I was likewise hedging my bets, trying to grow vegetables and make a profit and be a good steward of the land, both of us making compromises, both of us struggling to find our niche.
We both had to hurl the usual clichés across the fence, like kids throwing dirt clods. The sibling rivalry might be eternal.
“You’re just an idealist,” she said. “You’re out there growing vegetables that only rich people can afford, living in your own little bubble. Poor people in urban areas can’t afford the food you grow — organic farming isn’t a realistic way to feed the world.”
“Okay, so tell me this: what are those big, super-efficient farms going to do when the petroleum price doubles again? Where will that cheap food for the city’s poor be, then?”
If it had not been the day after Christmas, and if she had not been my sister, I would have gone on. I swear that she is twice as brilliant as I am, as evident in how she has aced every course she’s probably ever taken, but I am really tired of hearing how organic farming will never feed the world’s people. As, I’m sure, looking back on our argument with the unfair advantage of retrospect, my sister and her peers in the agricultural research labs are sick of hearing how organic milk, eggs, vegetables, and anything made with those ingredients is fetching a better price there on the shelves of grocery stores. And they’re sick of hearing how dairy cows actually do pretty well on a basic grass diet, and how people don’t want this rGBH in their milk. People just don’t understand that the scientists in those research laboratories are trying to feed the world! Of course the corporations who fund that research are also doing it mainly so that kids in the inner city will have enough to eat.
But it was the day after Christmas, so I switched the subject to something I knew she would agree with, as our family had been afflicted with ugly sores all over our bodies, even our faces, when she and I had been teenagers. We’d come down with vomiting, headaches, as our bodies had tried to fight off the mysterious infection, until someone had suggested that we switch from well water to the “Rural Water” that was piped throughout the farmland, from towers up in the hills, where nobody farmed. The sandy soil in that region had not filtered the herbicides and fertilizers, and they’d contaminated the well. “And what about the water? What good is it to have heaps of cheap food when all the water is poisoned?”
“Well, all I can say is, I’ve visited a few organic farms, and I wasn’t impressed. You know, you’re very passionate about what your belief system is, but you don’t seem to be able to understand that there are many other people who don’t see it that way. And they’re not going to change their mind just by hearing what you have to say, especially if you get so emotional.”
“I know. I know. Um, you wouldn’t believe it, but I’m not used to having these kinds of arguments.” There was more I could have told her. But it was really time to let it drop. “I only experience sibling rivalry with you.”
“That’s surprising to hear you admit. I guess you’re not purely rebellious, after all.”
“Well, I think we have to hit a happy medium, somewhere.”
“You said it.”
Eventually we got back to our senses. We remembered that it was a holiday, that the other people in our respective families probably didn’t want to hear any more about what we were always obsessing about, anyway, and there were children running around in our house, here.
I handed the phone to our toddler, so he could say hello to his aunt. He told her about how we feed beets to our cow, whose name is “Emily.”
“Emily! Beets!” he said.