Digging in this Dirt

 
“. . . I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better than digging in this dirt.”

~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

 
 

“The man who is often thinking that it is better to be somewhere else than where he is excommunicates himself.”

~ Henry David Thoreau, Journal (November 20, 1857)

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

On the first really perfect day of the first spring Kerstin and I spent on our 40-acre Wisconsin farm, I looked out the dining room window and saw her sitting in the dirt in the middle of the garden. Two-thirds of the way across the lawn to the garden to check on her, I called out to see if she was ok. Kerstin faced away from me. She did not answer, but her slumped shoulders heaved. When I arrived next to her, I crouched down, rested my hand on her back, and asked again, “Are you ok?”

“No,” she mumbled, “Everything. They ate it all. Everything.”

I looked around and saw a few snapped, denuded stems and root stumps shorn just below ground level: “Rabbits?” I wondered aloud.

“Yeah. It’s a disaster,” she replied. “All of the greens, most of the brassica. The beans are gone. That’s it. I’ve had enough. I’m done.”

Kerstin’s despair was not the result of the loss just a few days of planting, hours that she could recover with a few sweeps of a hoe and a few more packets of seed. In their one-night saturnal these cotton-tailed barbarians destroyed a quarter year of work, 1/320th of a human span. Three months earlier, in a fit of hope and ambition, Kerstin ordered stainless steel racks, fluorescent lights, chain hooks and plastic trays on Amazon. Separately, she bought seeds from Seed Savers by the pound: heirloom tomatoes, heritage brussels sprouts, carrots, exotic lettuce mixes, kohlrabi, at least four different varieties of chard, six types of kale. For weeks after these unfortunately divided purchases, Amazon recommended digital scales and little plastic baggies to us. Breaking Bad and Weeds moved up my streaming cue. I resigned myself to never again flying without supplemental TSA screening. Seed Savers, apparently, had nothing to market to us that we hadn’t already bought.

Josh Mabie

When the racks and seeds arrived, Kerstin set about the strange work of establishing a garden in our basement in February. She planted rows of vegetables, herbs, and greens in ice cube-sized pots which she labeled with neatly lettered popsicle sticks. One afternoon, a few days after planting, she emerged from the basement with an enormous smile: “It’s working,” she exclaimed. “We have basil coming up!”

While she waited for the other seeds to sprout and grow, Kerstin drew diagrams of garden layouts. She made tables of plant rotations. She accounted for soil fertility and complementary planting. As the garden grew on paper, her sprouts bloomed into full-blown transplants. She trudged pajamaed into the cold basement to turn grow lights on and off. She watered religiously. She thinned and pruned and staked.

When we sold our house in March, she translated the entire grow operation to the basement under our new farm house, spilling not a grain of soil and losing not a single sprout. At the end of April, she hauled each tray outside one-by-one to acclimate the plants to the cold. Each night, she moved them back down to the basement to keep them from freezing. While the plants hardened in cold spring sunshine, Kerstin weeded and prepared the garden. She dug out long-established weeds with thick, woody taproots. She loosened the soil with a broadfork and spread a dump of compost into an even six-inch layer that she worked into the top foot of soil. She dug walkways and laid out rows with the precision and forethought of an urban planner. For the ninety minutes between the transplanting and nightfall, Kerstin’s plants stood bright green against the uniform dark chocolate of rich, weed-free soil, an edible Zen garden. Under the cover of darkness though, the rabbits did their worst. What the rabbits didn’t eat, they vandalized — snipped stalks, stomped leaves, and uprooted stems littered the walkways and furrows between heaped rows.

Josh Mabie

“When you say ‘done’,” I fished, “you mean . . . done with transplants? Done with lettuce greens? Done with the garden this year? Done with what exactly?”

“No, I’m done with the garden, with farming. I’ve had enough.”

“Ok,” I responded. “We don’t have to do this. We can do lots of other things. We could sell the farm and buy a bed and breakfast in Chamonix.”

“Let’s do that,” she said.

“Honestly?”

Kerstin stood up and dusted herself off. “I guess I’m being a little dramatic.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything,” I confessed. “But you sitting here in the dust did remind me of Job’s reaction to hearing his whole family died in a tent collapse. Can we go back to this Chamonix plan though? I was checking French alpine real estate prices this morning and with the Euro so weak right now, we could probably afford to swap this farm for a B&B in one of the small towns in the valley.”

“You were looking at real estate in the French Alps this morning?”

“Yeah. I was feeling a little cooped up.”

“You want to move?”

“To the Alps, of course.”

“Could we really do that? I mean emigrate. Could we get visas or French green cards or whatever? What about the kids?”

“It’d be great for the kids. They’d be bilingual.”

“That would be great.”

“It would be great. Do you want to go for a run to clear your head? We can talk more about the Chamonix option as we run.”

“Sure.”

“You change. I’ll pack up the kids in the strollers.”

We did run, and we did talk about buying a B&B in the French Alps until cooler heads prevailed. We decided that it would be rash to try to sell our farm, quit our jobs, and move to Europe as undocumented workers. Kerstin reminded me that I have a hard time making our bed and that maybe a career in guest-housekeeping was not the best use of my talents and interests. I remembered that our fully demoed but partially remodeled house was in no shape to sell. We both acknowledged that we should give farm life more than a two-month chance. By the end of the run, Kerstin was ready to give the garden a second effort. I was still preoccupied with thoughts of mountains.

Later that week, Kerstin and the kids and I raised a chicken wire fence around the garden and Kerstin replanted some of what the bunnies ravaged. Word of the rabbit population spread in the local raptor community. A red-tailed hawk built a nest in a tree next to the field, and an owl moved into our barn. Between the fence and the predators, the rabbits decided that our garden was too dangerous to browse.

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

Three months later, on a steamy afternoon in late August, I met Kerstin halfway between the house and the garden. She carried two mixing bowls of tomatoes and peas in her hands. Kale, chard, and arugula draped over her forearms. She pinned two muffler-sized zucchinis to her waist with her elbows. She stood as a human cornucopia, a picture of abundance drawn to absurdity. The success of this harvest and the ones that followed over the next three weeks encouraged Kerstin and removed whatever skepticism remained in my mind about her ability to compete with our former CSA in yield and variety of produce.

This first growing season, Kerstin’s birthday coincided with the Labor Day holiday. More importantly it fell right in the midst of the peak tomato harvest. Birthdays are sacrosanct in our house and the birthday-girl or –boy is afforded the entire day to do whatever she or he wants for the entire day. Other than a few minutes of gift opening and breakfast with the family, Kerstin spent her birthday morning weeding the garden and harvesting tomatoes, basil, and kale. These were activities of her own choosing, rare moments of unbroken leisure and pleasure, not chore work or drudgery.

That night, Kerstin and I went out to dinner to celebrate. On the ride into Madison, Kerstin was still in the full flush of her garden success and eager to use the few hours of uninterrupted adult conversation to plan for the future of the farm. As I drove, she described a vision of massive, long-term expansion. She wanted to double the size of the garden from seventeen by sixty-five feet to thirty-four by sixty-five (fully 2,200 square feet of vegetables). She described plans to build a twelve-by-sixty-foot hoop house out of PVC pipe and plastic sheeting so she could start her seeds outside before the frost instead of in the basement under grow lights. And she returned to her earlier excitement about adding animals to the farm. She wanted me to build a coop for chickens. She wanted sheep grazing in the pasture. She wanted pigs foraging in the woods. She even expressed interest in a dairy cow: “Wouldn’t it be great to have fresh milk everyday?” she wondered aloud. All I could do was ask how much milk a cow produces everyday.

Josh Mabie

“Seven or eight gallons,” she said. She continued with ideas for cheese making, selling wool, curing pork, vending vegetables at a roadside stand, delivering egg subscriptions, and growing flowers for wedding florists. I hid my concern with nods and vaguely affirmative exhalations and grunts. I remained, however, decidedly non-committal, and I offered few if any of my own ideas. My reaction was somewhere between passive support and active resistance.

Of all the farm plans that Kerstin described, I was most concerned about the ones that involved animals. In my day-job as an English professor, I have no on-campus responsibilities between mid-May and late August, and Kerstin works part-time and remotely. Even before COVID, we could, theoretically, do our work anywhere that had cell phone service and an internet connection. I had often fanaticized about spending a month of the summer in Ashford or Naches, Washington at the base of Mount Rainier or in Lander, Wyoming just outside the Wind River Range, or somewhere between Mount Katahdin and the Acadia coast. Before we bought our farm, I had imagined selling our Victorian house to buy a tiny house in town and a rustic mountain cabin somewhere. Committing to farming, especially animal farming would make leaving the farm difficult for a weekend, expensive for a week, impossible for a month. Leaving would require paying people to water plants and feed animals, or perhaps even worse, a getaway would come at the cost of debts of favor to neighbors, friends, and family.

I listened to Kerstin brainstorm as I drove and my anxiety and frustration grew with each new peak of her excitement. “It’s her birthday,” I repeated silently to myself until my objections welled up and overwhelmed my guard against selfishness. “Do you really want to be a farmer?” I finally responded. Kerstin misunderstood my retort for a question and answered honestly: “Yeah. I just love it.” I rephrased my challenge for greater rhetorical effect, “But do you really want to spend your life digging in the dirt?” this time paraphrasing Thoreau.

“Yeah. I do,” she said. “I didn’t think I would like it this much but I just love it. I’d like to have a conversation about quitting my job so I can farm full-time.”

“Generations of Americans — your grandparents — did everything they could to get themselves off the farm and out of farming, and we are going back. Is this what we really want to do with our lives?”

At this point, Kerstin acknowledged that my questions were really arguments, and she made one last valiant attempt to forestall the birthday disagrement that I was intent upon having: “What’s wrong? Are you hungry?” she asked, allowing me to claim my history of hypoglycemia as an excuse for my bad behavior. I chose not to take the off ramp she offered and instead pressed my concerns about being tied to the farm. I told her that I felt like we were falling into choices that would have long-term consequences for us and for our family? “Would we ever be able to leave?” I asked hyperbolically.

Josh Mabie

We managed to table the disagreement for long enough to pretend to enjoy the dinner out, but our unresolved and seemingly irreconcilable desires for the farm hung in the air between us for months after this first flare up. The conflict was intensified by my return to school on a heavier teaching load than I had previously been assigned. When we moved into the farmhouse in March, I had been on fellowship and was responsible only for reading and writing in a much more flexible schedule. It allowed me to alternate between manual farm labor and research — write a few pages, plant a tree, read an article, mow a section of lawn, repeat. With my return to teaching in the fall, I was away from the farm for most of the day and found myself trying to squeeze a few chores or projects in the hours between putting children to bed and nightfall. Then I would turn back to grading papers or a bit of my own writing. Kerstin too had her own work to do in the evenings and the early mornings as well. We were squeezed by work and childcare and housework and farm chores.

As the autumn days shortened, I started leaving the farm just after sunrise and returning after dark. One golden October dawn I was interrupted in my rush to the car in the driveway by a murmuration of starlings. Thousands of the small black birds flew over my head and settled into a cherry tree like a can of steel shot poured out onto a stone countertop. I set my bag in the car, left my travel mug on the roof and walked out into the meadow to watch the flapping, yapping mass of birds. Just as suddenly as they had landed, though, the starlings shook themselves out of the tree. The birds flowed southward over my field and above my neighbor’s ripe corn out of view, a few laggards flapping to catch up. On my way into work, I realized that my seventy-five-yard walk into the meadow to watch the murmuration had been the first time I had walked around the farm without a tool in my hand since the end of summer.

Josh Mabie

I was the one who found the farm on Zillow. I was the one who suggested selling our house in town to buy after reading too many lovely books about farming by Wendell Berry and John Lewis-Stempel. Kerstin took to farm life almost immediately, but my pastoral fantasy crumbled under the weight of farm work and obligation to the land we had purchased. Friends and family wondered aloud to us how we were able keep things together working on the house and the farm, while we managed our day jobs and our two young children. Mostly I lied, telling them, “You know, we’re busy but we manage.” After months of not managing, I reached a breaking point just before my birthday at the end of October. It was my fortieth birthday. I have always loved my birthday, and I’ve never had any time for people who swat away birthday wishes as if they were being confronted with an embarrassing bit of gossip. I began to understand birthday melancholy when I crossed over into my fifth decade though. It wasn’t so much the round number as the confluence of forces that I felt hemming me in and foreclosing possibilities at midlife. I was unhappy for the week leading up to my birthday and slouched towards the day itself in a deep funk.

Mercifully, a bright ray of hope sliced through the late October gloom the night before my birthday. After dinner, I was in the midst of giving my kids a bath when my phone pinged with a text message. It was from my friend Tony and his only message was, “Deer down.” Fifteen minutes after sending the message, Tony knocked at the back door. I opened the door slowly, expecting him to be covered in gore and carrying the deer on his shoulders. “Congratulations Tony,” I said. “Where’s the deer?”

“It’s still at the edge of the woods. I’ve got to drag it out. Do you mind if I hang it in your barn overnight? I didn’t bring the rack for my car though – kind of presumptuous, bad luck – it’ll be cold enough tonight. It shouldn’t cause any problems.”

“Of course. Yeah,” I replied. “You want some soup? Come on in and warm up.”

Tony stepped into our mudroom and took off his boots. I brought him some soap and he washed the blood off his hands in our laundry sink. We chatted as he washed, and I saw that his hands trembled. Tony came into the kitchen. Kerstin ladled a bowl of soup and cut him two thick slices of sourdough leftover from our dinner a half hour earlier. I cracked open two bottles of beer and sat down across the kitchen table from him. While he ate, he told me about the deer. He had been bow-hunting our woods for a couple of weeks and hadn’t seen much of anything.

Josh Mabie

Just before nightfall this evening, though, a doe and her yearling buck walked in front of his tree stand. He waited for the doe to step into his firing lane, but she never did. When the buck stepped around a tree, Tony let loose the arrow that punctured its heart. The buck took a few bounds and crumpled in a nest of matted grass. Tony recognized that his story was disjointed, and that he was still a bit shaky from the whole experience. Adrenaline was still disrupting his thought and his fine motor coordination forty-five minutes after he dropped the deer. Tony is an experienced hunter and trapper; he and his son harvest a half dozen deer per season as well as ducks, geese, raccoons, and coyotes, but this was the first deer he’d shot with a bow in a very long time. The shot was so much more intimate and intense, he said.

I offered to help him drag the deer from the edge of the woods up to the barn.

As Tony and I walked towards the deer across the dark meadow under a frozen October sky resplendent with stars, Tony said to me “This is such a gorgeous place, you must just walk around in awe all the time.” He was moved and his compliment came from a place of deep gratitude. I didn’t know how to tell him though that over the past few months I wanted almost nothing more than to be out from under the weight of the farm. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, so I mustered a trite, “Yeah, it’s pretty special.”

We hauled the buck into the barn and hoisted it up on one of the timber beams. Tony reached around the deer from its back and grabbed the front legs to take tension off the rope. He lifted, and I took up the slack. Tony tied the deer off with a hitch, then he reached into its belly with a knife. When he emerged from the deer, he held two tenderloins in his hand. He placed them in the Ziplock bag I had been holding while he worked. At first, I didn’t recognize the meat in the bag. They looked nothing like the beef tenderloins I’ve seen shrink-wrapped at Costco or even a pork tenderloin that I’ve prepared. They were just slightly larger than a GMO-enlarged chicken tender. Tony said that the tenderloins were for me. I refused. “Come on Tony,” I said, “this is your deer, let’s split them at least.”

“No. I want you to have them. They’re really the best part,” he said as an objective statement of fact unlaced with any desire for gratitude or recognition.

Suddenly the tenderloins felt much heavier. They were also still warm. “Thanks Tony,” I said, “you are a good friend.”

The next night, after we put the kids to bed, Kerstin and I seared the tenderloins barely past rare in a smoking skillet. We served them with a few fingerling potatoes and a kale and shredded beet salad. Kerstin paused as we cut our first bites of the venison; she looked at me and said, “Can you believe all this is from our farm?” I couldn’t quite match her wonder, but through lips pursed only to keep the bite of tenderloin in my cheek, I replied earnestly, “Yeah, it’s pretty special.”

 
 

piedbeautyfarm.com

 

This is part of FIELDS, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring fields as natural and (agri)cultural, invisible and visible, poor and productive, created and creators. FIELDS is conceived and edited by Marloe Mens.

 

The Learned Pig

 

Josh Mabie

With his wife Kerstin, Josh Mabie co-owns Pied Beauty Farm, a no-spray orchard, flower farm, and apiary just outside of Stoughton, Wisconsin. He is also an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin - Whitewater.