The soils dried up enough last week that we could work a few spots and spread manure on others, while some land was still sporting standing water, tadpoles, and mosquito larvae. Evidently the mosquitos have been haunting folks in some nooks and crannies, reveling in the wet spring. I notice them hovering in these billowing clouds along the creeks in the evenings, but they don't seem to bite and the only danger is inhaling one, so I tell my kids to breathe through their nose while we pass through the mob of rapidly flapping wings and spindly legs. Maybe it's not too cold for mosquitos to bite, but it's frigid enough in the evenings that most of us are wearing long sleeves and hats, leaving meager exposed surface for the buggers to strike.
If it's not one thing, it's another, they say. We had three years of tyrannical drought, and now the rains won't stop and the frost shows up on the days we don't get rain. I for one am not complaining because after a decade or two of gung-ho vegetable farming I don't mind blowing time in early May. In the drought years I had plenty time to kill from August to November because the harvests were stingy, but in those years most farmers around here had to scramble in March and April to make the most of what little water we had. Here it is the middle of May and people are hesitant to put tomato starts out even though many are starting to bloom in the greenhouses. Pot growers (the outdoor variety) tell me they've put those babies in the ground, as the cannabis plant is fairly frost hardy and tolerates these cold spring rains. Squash, peppers, and tomatoes are better off waiting indoors.
Last Friday I managed to spread somewhere in the neighborhood of eight loads of composted cow manure even though the spreader and tractor once got temporarily stuck in the muck where the carrots were last fall. The ground was worked pretty deep, and with the weight of maybe four yards of moist compost the whole thing nearly bottomed out. I hate to give people advice on getting your tractor out of the mud when you get stuck, as the main recommendation any sane person would have is don't get stuck in the first place. I realized a little too late Friday that I could have avoided being stuck by starting from the dryer part of the field and unloading the compost until the spreader was nearly empty at the wetter side. But there the tractor was starting to get mired so I backed up the spreader as far as it would go, then had no choice but to engage the PTO (Power Take Off) and unload the works. Then I had an idea that had not occurred to me before.
This was not the fist time I'd dealt with a tractor stuck in the mud. I got a lot of practice when I was younger and thought that it was fun to attempt crossing questionable ground and then spend a day or more trying to extract the bulky machine from the predicament like a rotten tooth from your jaw.
So the epiphany that might revolutionize human experience a tiny step occurred because I got away from the tractor while the spreader's paddles were flinging mostly composted cowshit for a few minutes. The next field over was already pretty dry where I'd pulled the ripper through and there were these 20-30 pound clods the size of bowling balls waiting to be pulverized into a planting bed for potatoes. I carried these clods one at a time and dropped them into the ruts in front of each tire. I don't know if it was the empty trailer, finally, or the dirt clods in the ruts that made the difference, but when I climbed back on the seat and put the transmission in four low the tractor got free.
Friday was a big day. After three years of keeping a small herd of cows, the composted manure had built up faster than I could shovel it with a potato fork, but a neighbor had loaned me a John Deere 870 with a front end loader that was unearthing dozens of yards of beautifully aged manure that I'd discounted before.
I'd planned on sharing the annual job of forking manure with the new apprentice at the farm, Ashley Summer, thinking that any work done manually was good exercise — one of the things Ashley was here for. It was a job that could be done nocturnally, as Ashley was born with the true albino disposition and must avoid the sun at all costs. She has of late been working on the neighbors' homestead where she stays the whole week as the garden work they do is by hand or shovel and they were swamped with those jobs as the ground finally dried out, whereas I use a tractor for the same operations and don't need much help. We're sharing a woofer, as they say.
The WWOF program, Willing Workers on Organic Farms, is popular but always a mixed bag and really a social experiment for both the farmers and the young people who show up to work. If you look at any traditional ethnic culture based on growing and harvesting food, there is a complex network of family and neighbors cooperating to make sure the hay gets in, the apples and tomatoes pressed or canned, what have you, where all the people know their roles well like a song they've sung hundreds of times in chorus.
Most organic farms in this country, however, are still locked into the Yankee capitalist fight as some kind of independent financial entity, usually going solo by default. There is no other option immediately apparent to most of us. It sounds great to have some young person staying at your place, working as an apprentice, but there's probably nothing more intimate than working together to tend to people, land, and animals. It's more intimate than most people’s sex lives because this relationship is 24/7.
This is why I decided to “share” an apprentice with some neighbors, and I didn't see Ashley for more than a week, but she dropped by the farm on Friday night because there was a party in town I'd heard about, sort of second hand, and I thought it was a good chance for both of us to go out and meet people.
She was wearing a turquoise, woolen cap, her white hair draped over her shoulder blades, a sharp contrast to the raven sweater. Her blue jeans must have been tailor made to fit her legs down to where these black leather cowboy boots reached her knees, and she carried a hula-hoop nonchalantly. “I hope you don't write me up as the biggest tease you ever met,” she said.
“Oh,” was all I could say, wondering if she meant by that maybe she wanted to be more than a tease. Her figure is slight and she's only five foot four or so, so I couldn't imagine what else she'd implied. She certainly isn't the biggest whatever.
The fiesta grande was within walking distance and they had a bonfire. They were barbecuing and sent me into the kitchen with the bottle of wine I'd lugged. “Take the wine in the house for the ladies,” the guy said. “Here's a beer, man.”
Around the campfire was a good old Mendo drum circle. I have some good friends who grew up out here and tell me that drum circles give them a rash, or make them nauseous, but I want them to spend a few years on the south side of Indianapolis in the early 1990s and try to find anything but a jukebox on Friday night without driving drunk for miles and paying about fifty bucks. Drum circles are free entertainment. This one was historic because dozens of us sat around the campfire beating on the skins for some musical eternity before somebody finally asked if anyone had a joint to pass. The drumming paused as if on cue.
We all looked around. “I didn't bring any because I thought everybody else would,” a bunch of people said. We all shrugged and went back to drumming.
A young rapper from Fresno or someplace was at the party with his mother. He actually started strumming a guitar and belting out a few Johnny Cash tunes. He did “Folsom Prison Blues” pretty well. He played some other stuff and then started bragging that he was a great wordsmith with these lines that we should pay to hear. The next thing you knew he was sitting next to Ashley Summer making the moves.
“I know what you're thinking,” Ashley said to me.
The whole party got quiet again.
Actually she didn't know what I was thinking. Had she not mentioned it, I would have not known what I was thinking because some of us were still beating on the drums and I was actually thinking this beat the hell out of staying home and watching the movie, O Brother Where Art Thou? for the 30th time until I passed out on the futon and woke up with the crowing of cocks at four in the morning only to wait until it was time to milk the cows. I doubt that Ashley knew that was what was on my mind, because like I said I didn't even know what was bouncing around in my noggin until she brought up the subject of what I was thinking. There she was making out with the rapper from Fresno who was probably old enough to fight in Iraq but not enough trips around the sun under his belt to legally purchase a twelve pack of beer.
Maybe I'd had too much tequila because the next thing I knew I was shaking hands with the rapper from Fresno, telling him that I worked in the music industry and I really liked his presentation. “I did shit with Eminem back in the day. Old school stuff,” I said. “You got talent, kid.”
Ashley nodded. She was paid to play along with whatever I said. Literally, that was her job as I'd explained it to her from the start.
“I don't expect you to agree with me,” I'd told her the second time she'd come to the farm. “I'm not a master gardner and to be honest I don't really need too much help out here. With the economy going to crap I have a bunch of friends twiddling their thumbs who will come out and plant potatoes or stack hay as long as there's beer and barbecues.”
“So what do you want?”
“When you left a message the first time I liked your voice. You sounded pretty hot.”
“I knew you were trouble from the beginning.”
“Anyway, your job here, if you want it, is to be more of an actress than a field worker, or whatever. Maybe half and half. This is show business. It's insane to try to run a farm in this day and age. You have to have some kind of schtick, like the bed and breakfast, the corn maze, the other ones who just grow pot on the side. At this farm, though, you're going to be on stage.”
“Like a reality show?”
“Yeah, like a reality show.”
So she went off with the Fresno rapper on Friday night and I ended up drinking tequila which is not normally part of my diet. On Saturday I was so dehydrated and limping from an unknown injury that had occurred on the walk home that I barely staggered through the day, ignoring the conspicuous Boonville Beer festival even though I literally bumped into jovial drunks somewhere between five and seven o'clock Saturday night when the town was crawling with them. I returned to the farm at seven to milk the cows and do the other chores, and was asleep by nine, oblivious to the festivities across the creek until a phone call jarred me.
It was a friend. “Dude,” he said. “These chicks keep calling me. I guess my sister told them about me and spoke highly of me, and they — ou wouldn't believe what they've said. They've called me like six times and — and I've got my kids tonight. I don't want that shit in front of my kids, you understand. So I wondered should I give them your number? They're from Ukiah and they need a place to stay.”
“Sure,” I said. I can't really tell you what happened next. The women called and I answered and told them to come on over but be careful for the CHP who were thick as thieves, but they said they were walking. I remember that much. I jumped in the shower and shaved, brushed my teeth, tried to straighten up the place and clean all the beer bottles, wondering why I was being so obsessive when my guests were going to be sloshed from the beer festival.
I heard our little pack of canines raise a ruckus and so hurried to my room to slip into a pair of jeans, thinking how wise I was getting in my old age not to go out there pursuing women, that it was so much more rewarding to wait for them to come to me. It was magic, I told myself.
The two young ladies in their festival finest blasted in the door like snow from Idaho out of season. I popped open a bottle of wine and they both swilled the stuff quicker than I could down a shot of whiskey. The next thing I knew we were sort of making out in my bed until they were both snoring and there was no room for me on account of the two guests and the black cat with her five kittens who have been on my mattress for two weeks now, so I ended up spending the night on the futon watching O Brother Where Art Thou for the 31st time and drinking a bottle of wine by myself, waking up at three in the morning to the crowing of roosters.