Updated: May 1
Yesterday, I spent all day gardening. Which sounds romantic, but in this case, ‘gardening’ really just meant I carried buckets of compost from an area where a barn once stood, around a dilapidated fence, over a small electric fence and across our garden, a too-large space of tilled up, caking soil.
It was a Sisyphean task, walking back and forth carrying dirt, and arguably it could all be for naught when my limited gardening ability means that I am planting things at the wrong time, or too close together, as I did last year when the cucumbers took over the world.
And as I worked in our garden, a steady stream of chemicals headed to fields all around us, carried by tall vehicles that look like something out of a documentary about space exploration. Their long sprayer booms folded up when moving, unfurling and dispensing a fog of glyphosate to sterilize the landscape when they arrive at their destination.
Why I was spending the day gardening? I asked myself. Certainly it is a peaceful way to pass a day, and there could be many more wasteful ways to use my time than with my hands in the dirt. But my success will likely be limited, and it is arguably easier - and possibly cheaper overall - to simply go to the store and buy a perfectly good head of
broccoli, a vegetable available in every grocery store across the country at a very reasonable price (a small miracle when you think about it). And even if we grow as much as this oversized garden will allow, where will it all go and who will eat it? It is all a lot of work, at a point in the spring when time is at a premium with a thousand tasks screaming for our attention.
I pondered this question as I worked, the futility of my work a tangible possibility. Yet the answer was clear as day. A garden is about more than cultivating food, it is also about nurturing a sense of place. For our farm neighbors, one piece of ground is about the same as the next, with only slight variations in soil fertility, it’s “corn suitability rating,” or steepness of slope - land is land. If a lease expires in one place, farmers can pick up and plant somewhere else, adding the same fertilizers, genetically modified seeds and pesticides here as they would there.
So our garden is an exercise in reclamation. It is an attempt to make land “useful” (aka - creating food for humans) while at the same time attempting to do no harm, and with some luck and skill, perhaps we can even make it better. It seems a simple task - not harming anything while nourishing yourself and your community - but one that is actually hard in agriculture. The act of agriculture itself is disruptive, non-natural, invasive.
Of course, this land is also not "ours." It was taken from the Meskwaki Nation (a tribe with a fascinating history of buying their own private land in Iowa and "rematriating" it as tribal land). And it was handed down in John's family for five generations with a lot of help from government loans, loans that were not afforded to other groups in this country, like Black farmers who won the largest civil rights settlement for discrimination by the USDA.
Yet it is through this hard work - this hauling of compost, the cleaning up of the fallen down barn, the endless picking up of metal in the fields - that this farmstead has come to feel like my first true “home.” I have lived in many different houses, even owned a few, but this is a place I am invested in - not just in money but in time and love; we have worked on it with our own hands. The doors are ones John built, the floors made from Ash wood from our farm (milled locally), the walls of barn wood from the actual barn. Even the stove was a labor of love - a 800 pound block of steel John (with the help of the strong Plotts clan) hauled down stairs in San Francisco and into the moving truck before lugging it across the country.
Some might say that we are crazy. We tend to do too much on our own, take on ridiculous projects creating something we could likely buy at Walmart instead. But when it seems the world has succumbed to a genericising of everything from architecture, to clothing, to food - all made at mass scale and achievable with little money or time - it is liberating to do it yourself. To be creative, to spend time and to truly invest oneself in something.
Instead of driving across the landscape as quickly as possible (as the guy who sprayed RoundUp across the road from us did this morning), instead of sitting in an air conditioned tractor, talking on the phone while seeding the fields, I carted buckets, and later when the weeds come, John will do what John does - hoe. Good, old fashioned, work. It might not be the most "efficient" way to grow food or truck soil around (why didn’t I use the new wheelbarrow I bought in town?), but it connects me to my life and this place. Hard work and real sweat makes this house, farm and garden a slice of the earth we are proud to call home.