The path into Huntley Meadows, Alexandria, VA, thanks to John Ewing, photographer. And the paths our lives take?
I move fairly quickly these years from seeing problems to working on them. I divide things up when I have a slew of problems to solve. One thing at a time. I had the soybeans. 104 days to maturity. They’re in the ground now, though I’ll be very lucky if they reach maturity, as November 17 is 17 days past the average first frost date. In any case, they’ll put nitrogen in the soil. I did not feel like digging the rows when I finally had the time, so I argued with myself: “Just dig the rows.” The next day I didn’t feel like planting: “Just plant soybeans,” I told myself. “Just spray Surround on the fruit trees.” “Just mow.” Today: “Just weedeat and weed.” Divide up the tasks, the most urgent first, to make them feel manageable and bearable.
That’s one sign that I’m whole, intact. Another is that I don’t spend much time in anguish and almost none in self-pity. I don’t blame others for my problems. They are often the consequences of my own behavior. My life feels good. I balance between my plans and their disruption because something compelling (children’s need, politics in Chatham, etc.) feels like a priority, a thing I can’t say no to. But I can say no when I need to. I can set boundaries with myself and with others. I can ask people to wait, to do without me while I take time to write. I weather things, I cope, whether with car problems, chicken dilemmas, squirrels eating my first peach crop, having to have extra mammograms because of a tiny “spot.” It’s maybe the main difference between being whole and not whole: being able to cope.
I am amazed at the small things which undo my elderly poet friend Ed. He never expects any interruption to his plans, and every interruption, no matter how small, becomes a disaster. I see clearly the limits of his framework. Mine needs stretching, but his is wholly inadequate for his life as lived now. Yet I don’t think he has the emotional flexibility to change it. I don’t think he even sees the problem.
Why the farm? How does it add to my sense of wholeness? Why do I hold onto it, invest so much money and time in it? What does it give me? I understand much better than I did what it takes from me and demands if it is to be a producing farm, even in its role of adding to my self-sufficiency by providing most of my food.
I have loved farms and the farm life since I was a young child. I worked to bring my dream of a farm to reality, to make it come true. I said it would give me work outside so I’d stay healthy. I spend many hours every day sitting in my writing chair or at the computer. Farming gets me up and moving.
Once I have seeds in the ground or animals within my care, I feel committed to them. I may not want to go out and water or weed-eat, but I will. It’s very hard for me to abandon plants or creatures. They may get weed-choked or neglected for a short time, but I don’t give up on them. I go out and start on the horrendously plentiful (lots of rain plus lots of chicken litter) crop of weeds I have. Lee Calhoun, the man I bought my heirloom apple trees from, said I had to keep a six-foot area around the fruit trees clear of weeds, and that was the first time I’d been that disciplined. It still slides. I lost the strawberries because the weeds did block the sunlight and take over.
I learn from my errors. Farming is very much a trial and error business, and you work with unpredictables: weather, insect problems, interruptions, other priorities that pull you away from the garden. Squirrels, voles, rabbits. With chickens you have predators. You have to learn their chicken needs. I now have one baby–two weeks old–separated with her mother from the flock. Healthy and thriving so far. Extra protected from predators by rat wire and her mother. These chickens lay eggs for me, which I so enjoy eating. And selling. I can’t imagine now living without them. Christiana said my rooster was no good because only one chick hatched from eighteen eggs. But the rooster’s the only chicken to which I’ve promised old age. Chanticleer is my pet. He was chosen–the friendliest rooster of sixteen--and named–to escape slaughter.
The farm gets only my breaks from classes, editing, my own writing, but those breaks give me ballast and a rest from mental work. The immersion in the world outside my back door nourishes me with its beauty, its surprises (all the scuppernong grapes hanging from the chicken wire that covers the chicken yard), its rewards for my labors.
The food I grow gives me better nourishment than what I would buy in the grocery store. I have more variety to my diet. I can treat other people to fresh eggs or tomatoes or give away zinnias. Everywhere I look when I go outside, I see work that needs doing. I can’t be complacent.
The temptation as we age is to become too attached to our rituals and routines; to become set in our ways. Someone told someone else I was set in my ways. True, I spend more time resting, taking breaks, eating quiet meals with a book for company; I sleep more. But I can let go of my routines for a good reason, as needed, or build a new one, like feeding chickens and letting them out into their yard when I first wake up. I like my rituals, and I know I need breaks more than I used to. I try to avoid time pressure, stress, getting into a “hyper” place, but I’m not, I think, complacent or lazy.
After years of trying to, I am finally leading a reasonably paced, even leisurely, life. I still work hard. Counting writing and e-mail (much of it political/activist) I work ten hours a day. I rest, exercise, garden, cook, clean, eat, read six and a half hours a day. Once or twice a week I meet friends for a meal. I chat with my neighbors, family, or friends on the phone a few hours a week. I am always happy to spend time with my children and grandchildren. My schedule flexes as need be, but I find I get done what I need to and also keep my balance in this way.
Excerpt from Chapter One, Pushkin and Chickens, 2004, unpublished, copyrighted.
Tree swallows at Huntley Meadows, Alexandria, Va, thanks to John Ewing. Let us keep our beautiful natural world in mind.