Advertise on OnMilwaukee.com
Strawberries for as far as the eye can see.
Strawberries for as far as the eye can see.

First garden reaps food and thought

I took down my garden this morning.

The gesture is one that seasoned gardeners realize is an inevitable part of the growing cycle; what is put in, at one point, must be taken out in order to make room to start again. It’s like one of my favorite mantras in Kundalini Yoga, "SA TA NA MA" which means "Infinity / Birth, Life, Death, Rebirth."

But, I am a novice and this was my very first garden, so the patch’s preciousness mixed with prideful memories of the vegetative successes that burst forth made this a somber event, and one that I was none too keen to oblige.

Of course, I could just leave the barren plants, now sizzled from the heat of summer sun and wilted from when my travel schedule forced me to neglect tapping the rain barrels. Time and temperature would naturally take care of the bulk, decomposition would be victorious, the plants that started out as seed, would wither right back to where I initially buried them just months before. But, I was too enthused to put in my fall garden to be that kind of gardener.

This newfound zeal for making things grow is the byproduct of participating in an organic farm work exchange program that made me realize farming is a sport. Maybe it’s not a formal sporting event and there is certainly no National Farm League – yet – but, after working in the fields just once a week for a few months, I’m pretty sure the athleticism required to put produce on the table qualifies for the term. My muscles can testify that four hours of hoeing and forking is one of the best workouts I’ve ever experienced. I could probably get some back up on that from FarmersOnly.com.

My work exchange required me to do a fieldwork shift once a week, which allowed me to indulge in manual labor in what I considered idyllic work conditions – outdoors, under the sometimes too hot sun, in usually too high of humidity, but outside nonetheless. There were no pesticides or chemicals used and fields of my favorite greens and cruciferous vegetables surrounded me. At the end of my shift, I got an abundant box of the produce I helped cultivate. My wage was the same box that went to the farm’s CSA purchasers, full of the same veggies, fruits and flowers that shuffled to local restaurants and farmer’s markets. Plus, I got the spoils too. The too ripe berries, the imperfect greens, the rogue romaine lettuce in the garlic patch and most importantly, the hands on learning about agriculture in the most empirical of circumstances.

The first few weeks were during strawberry season. Because of the integrity with which they were grown, the berries were safe to sample right from the perennial plant. My life had not been fully lived until my knees sunk deep into the damp earth of an organic strawberry patch and I pinched ripe, juicy jewels off one by one, decadently sampling one here and there as part of quality control. Each time my teeth sunk into the sweet, sun warmed flesh, I would feel the seeds pop and allowed fuchsia nectar to flow down my chin. I would smile, revealing a grill full of pinky, jam-like fruit. I audibly pondered what I must have done in a prior life to deserve this self-indulgence. Those mornings have left me with daydreams about strawberry flavored kisses from strawberry stained lips.

Even the fragrance of freshly picked berries in the air could not remove the reality of the backaches, bruised knees, impermanently burgundy dyed palms and fingernails perpetually packed with dirt. But, for me, working outdoors in nature is ideal, despite the physical brutality. The work immediately became my refuge – never even registering the scarring side effects earned during my very first hoe down session until I removed my work gloves to sink my hands into the soil to plant onions. It was at that moment that I revealed angry and flaming blisters in the valley of my thumbs and forefingers. The sores from one work exchange session never quite healed for the following week. The crimson marks became badges of honor in the quest to urge a field of basil to bloom or a patch of potatoes to produce.

The constant physical pain from my new athletic endeavor was not a deterrent because the spiritual reward I got from the aroma of earth, the view of the endless open skies and a soundtrack of cicadas underscored my efforts. Every bone, tendon and muscle ached from laboring under the hot sun, but I didn’t necessarily hurt. What my farm-to-table hero Dan Barber calls "purpose driven work" propelled me. The soreness signaled an accomplishment, a nurturing of life-sustaining, ethically grown food that I became a part of. I would constantly fortify the fields I worked in with vibrations of gratitude and was sure to send love into the food that I imagined families enjoying together as a meal.

It makes me understand why so many people have gotten the gardening bug. After my first week on the farm I was so inspired that I made my husband build me a raised garden bed. I fervently and what turned out to be comically, crowded too many seeds into its intimate dimensions. The vegetable explosion became our morning Funny Page. We watched the squash bully and crowd out the carrots and chard. We witnessed the cucumbers reach, entwine and climb up the fence. We realized that the beans would have preferred to be alone. The cosmos, zinnias, marigolds, morning glories and moonflowers baited bees, butterflies and hummingbirds that danced from bloom to bloom. My first garden was far from organized or perfect, but it was a striking chaos of nature’s color and candy.

It would often hit me, as I glanced down at the dirt that ringed my work boots and collected into a heavy shackle at the cuff of my jeans, just how much human effort it takes to get a single head of organically grown lettuce or one bunch of chemical-free carrots onto the shelf at the super market. Suddenly, the higher prices of organic food made more sense than ever. How those prices prohibit the masses from accessing decent food devastated me. Instantly, the truth of the bulk of the farming and food industry cut into me, like when the sharp edge of my hoe would break the surface of the soil.

The farm I worked at is special; my work exchange group was full of radiant humans and was led by a woman I am convinced is an angel on earth, but the reality is that farm laborers are for the most part working in less than ideal conditions. Their blistered hands toil on genetically modified products and their bodies are exposed to chemicals and pesticides. They often perform backbreaking work demands for nowhere near a living wage. The reality filled me with sadness. How does America stand for food to be produced in this manner, or the engineered and poisoned crops to be consumed at all? Any blissful ignorance about the food I am so passionate about has been obliterated by this new experiential knowledge.

Without fail, when I would limp home from my work exchange shifts, sweat soaked, soil stained and hauling nature’s bounty, I was both burdened and empowered by the industry I was now a part of. I sought out documentaries like "Food Chains," to educate me and help me understand the plight and mission of Farm Workers rights.

Today, as I pull out the remnants, I remember the crazy outburst of my very first garden and all of its significance gets etched into the big picture of food production. I see my neighbors, friends and families planting their own first gardens, shopping at farmers markets and engaging in ethical, sustainable, healthy eating. Soon, my fall garden will push forth, bare fruit and then beg to be taken down to make room for the next cycle. SA TA NA MA. I will gladly oblige.

Talkbacks

Post your comment/review now No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now

Facebook comments

Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.