Life in the City After Months in the Fields


Photo by Sara Lipka

When days seem endless, how do months fly by? Last June I moved to rural Virginia to live and work on a farm for the season, and I spent many interminable mornings and afternoons transplanting lettuce in sunstroke heat or harvesting root crops in torrential rain. Sometimes noon on my mud-crusted Timex couldn't come too soon. But somehow December did.

The pastoral realities of tired muscles and tedium had tempered the wonder I felt in my first week, but hardly trumped it. Each morning I'd walk a few hundred yards from the bunk house to our farm center, eating a bowl of yogurt or oatmeal, almost always exhilarated by the sheer mountainside and fresh country air, which I knew I'd be out breathing, and heavily, all day. Maybe we'd be weeding celeriac to classic rock blaring from the radio of our Ford pickup. I'd scream at the Monsanto ads while munching stray snacks, like a lone dill plant in the carrots or weedy purslane under the snapdragons. Some days there would be a real thrill: finding corn smut or chasing deer out of our main production field.

Other days brought six-hour stretches of harvesting tomatoes. Still, for all my whining, the last day for those sweet nightshades felt somber. The plants were dying, of cold and blight, and my fellow intern Coriena and I were finding more and more contestants for our ugliest-tomato pageant: moldy, black, withering membranous sacs. The time had come, as it would for all crops, to pronounce the tomatoes dead. I savored a few final cherries as Coriena and I ceremonially trampled the fallen heirlooms, all brown and shriveled. "Thank you for all your delicious sandwiches," she said. "Thank you for all your delicious salads."

I imagined Pete Seeger stepping out of the shadows: "To everything turn, turn, turn, There is a season turn, turn, turn."

Alongside the tomatoes the peppers were still producing, but we needed to mow and till and sow cover crops in those beds. I thought about staking myself to the plants to stop the change in seasons. Nobody would mow me! But I gave in--I had to--and the peppers went.

Meanwhile, the mountainside turned from green to brilliant. At its richest red and gold we spent two brisk, sunny days shoving garlic cloves into the ground for next year's yield. From then on, the canopy thinned. I imagined Pete Seeger stepping out of the shadows: "To everything turn, turn, turn, There is a season turn, turn, turn." Before long, chill rains took down the rest of the leaves.

Still, November was busy. We harvested hundreds of pounds of broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage; dozens of bunches of collards and kale and hearty heads of Asian greens; and zillions of roots--beets, carrots, parsnips, radishes, rutabagas, and turnips upon turnips upon turnips. And with them, mud. Lots of mud. Enough to clog the drain in the concrete floor of our packing room. There we stood, in shin-deep icy water, spraying crops clean while trying to stay as warm and dry as possible (not very). In a slicker, elbow-high gloves, a vinyl apron, rain pants, and muck boots, our farm manager would declare, "I'm impermeable!" But water seeped up sleeves, and we froze. On my last day of work I felt wistful but very much soaked. Shivering, I counted down the minutes.


Photo by Emily Cook

That night, before we all went home for Thanksgiving, we hand-pressed cider on our neighbor's porch. I lugged a half-gallon and a 10-pound pumpkin on the train home to Boston. None of that bottled and canned stuff from the grocery store. Not this year.

After the holiday I came back to Washington, to my job as a journalist, but only part-time. Beyond those hours I look forward to pursuing new projects related to food, farming, and writing. And staying somewhat free range.

I drove back out to the farm last weekend to get the rest of my things, and I smiled to see snow falling across the fields. The cycle of seasons I had felt most acutely: complete. I packed up my crusty work boots, their soles peeling off, and five gloves, two pairs worn through and one with no mate. For the ride back I filled my deeply dented water bottle, which sometime in August got run over by the pickup.

Here in the city friends pick up my hands, looking for calluses. But they soften quickly. I wore sunscreen and hats so diligently (See, Mom?) that I never got leathery tan. I weigh the same, but I'm stronger. The boxes I carried back up the stairs of my house felt lighter than those I'd brought down.

I don't realize I'm rambling about varieties of winter squash until I notice people staring at me, bored or confused. But I've become a resident expert on vegetables. "You know that ornamental cabbage they use in landscaping?" one of my colleagues asked last week. "Could I eat that?"

The grocery store--Whole Foods, even--makes me heartsick. I sigh at the greens, which now look limp. The happiest moment of my first week back was walking toward 8th Street, turning the corner, and seeing the tents of the Penn Quarter farmers' market. Food! I started skipping. If I can't munch the sweet stems off just-harvested broccoli stalks, market bounty is the next best thing. And I may not be on the farm, but I see an image of its fields and growing tunnels every time I pick up my cellphone.

When spring comes I probably won't be able to stay out of the dirt. I went to the farm to learn to grow food, and now I can. So how could I not? This weekend I asked my friends in the 'burbs if I could farm their back yard. I hope to work with urban-agriculture projects here that supply low-income communities with fresh food. And maybe I'll guerrilla garden. I keep walking by a grassy lot between row houses on N Street. One of these days I'm going to test the soil. If I seed sugar snaps in March, by May I'll be picking peas again.