by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
photos by Liz Foxley
This summer has been a season of abundance. If I was the type of person to keep meticulous records, I’m sure this would have been a record-breaking year for almost every crop but blueberries, which for some inexplicable reason were almost a complete failure. Last year the plants were loaded with large clusters of fruit, so many that I couldn’t keep up with the picking. I could’ve gone into the blueberry business. This year-nothing, or just shy of nothing. Did the birds sneak in when my back was turned and eat them all? Was the soil not acidic enough? Was it too wet or too dry at a crucial time during fruit formation? Were the heavens out of alignment for the celestial needs of the blueberry plant? I found it interesting that other people were also reporting a less than stellar blueberry harvest. Nobody seems to know any more about the why than I do.
Other crops however, more than made up for the scarcity of blueberries. We cut the same 20 or so acres of hay as always, but the barn seems more full than usual, with the hay billowing up above the open haymow door. In the garden the season progressed nicely: from early spring greens and radishes to the strawberries and peas of June, followed closely by raspberries, plump and tart. The potatoes lived up to their reputation as a good crop for feeding a lot of people on a small amount of land. I am pleased to note that in the months to come we will be enjoying our largest harvest yet of a special Washington heirloom called Anna Cheeta’s Ozette, a fingerling potato brought from South America by Spanish sailors in the late 18th century. It ended up growing in the gardens of the Macah tribe near Neah Bay where it has been cultivated ever since. It is wild both in appearance and growth habit. I think of it as a kind of great-great-grandfatherly potato, with centuries of pomme de terre wisdom stored up in its genetic memory, untampered with by ambitious European breeders.
The royalty of the summer garden though, has to be the sweet corn and tomatoes: king and queen of garden cuisine. Nothing says summer quite like an ear of corn plucked from the garden while water yet boils on the stove. The ears are fat, full and bursting with flavor. The tomatoes are massive and intensely flavored, many of them cracked and homely, belying the full flavor within: Muskovitch, Solar Flare, Cherokee Purple, Stupice. Serve them up with fresh mozzarella, basil, a little olive oil and salt and you can rest well knowing that if it was your last meal on earth you wouldn’t feel like you had missed anything. And thanks to the dry hot season, this year they are slow to show the usual signs of late blight. For that I am grateful, it should mean a tomato season that lingers a little longer into the fall.
As I write this in late August the garlic, onions, shallots and dry beans are all harvested and those plots have been planted down to a cover crop of field peas and winter rye. A couple of days ago as I drug the springtooth through the garden and fairly choked on clouds of billowing dust, I wondered how those seeds would ever find the necessary moisture to germinate. That same evening the sky clouded over and what started out as an almost imperceptible drizzle, at length turned to a beautiful steady rain, like a gift from heaven, perfectly timed.
Once many years ago, in the soft hazy dark place between sleeping and waking, in the softness and warmth of my bed, I had a dream. Not the disembodied, unbidden dream of deep sleep full of strange twists and unknown figures lurking in dark passage ways. This was a dream conjured up by my conscious mind. Though we call it a dream, it was really more wish, desire, or hope, than dream. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., who dreamed of a more equitable world, or the down trodden man who dreams of winning the lottery and instantly leaving his rags behind. I dreamed not of riches or social change, but of a farm.
In my dream it is early on a summer’s morning, the sun just rising over the mountain in the east, its rays slanting down to illumine the tall grass gently wafting in the hesitant morning breeze. Little birds singing early-morning songs flit restlessly on nearby fence posts. Two men, one older and one much younger, sit on two mowers pulled by four horses, paused in a meadow of grass and clover. They are ostensibly stopped to rest the teams, though the horses are in fine working condition and the morning is yet cool, their stopping perhaps having more to do with the loveliness of the morning than the necessity of resting. After some moments the man in front clicks to his team and they step smartly into the work, followed closely by the young man and his team. Off they go, whirring and clicking along like two treadle sewing machines on wheels. There is a dip in the far corner of the field; the grass is high and the teams disappear completely for a few moments only to reappear in succession coming back the other direction, the heads of the horses bobbing in time with their footsteps, the mowers growing louder as they come back around in tandem, one in front of the other. The grass falls, cascading behind the cutter bars of the two machines. It is apparent that they will make short work of mowing these few acres this morning and will easily be done before the heat of the day sets in. This scene was both dream and reality: dream in its inception, reality in its realization. Of course I am the older man and my son Brendan is the younger. The dream took hold some 20 years ago and the actual mowing occurred last July – a dream made real. And for that I feel immeasurably lucky. Lucky, yes, but not lucky like drawing the ace of spades. More like feeling lucky that after 10 years of medical school you land a job at a first rate hospital. Perhaps it was lucky there was an opening where you wanted to work, but there would never have been an opportunity to become lucky without the years of hard choices and harder work that led to the realization of the dream.
For most of us, our dream life doesn’t simply fall out of the sky and land in our lap. It requires diligence, hard work, more hard work, persistence, more persistence, a fair amount of hard-nosed stubbornness, and yes, a bit of luck. It seems to me that most people aren’t living their dream life, or even trying to. After all, as Thoreau said, “most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
I guess that’s why, despite the fact that I worked persistently and stubbornly to be able to attain my dream, I still feel lucky. Or maybe grateful is closer to the mark. Indeed I wake up every morning and murmur a little prayer of gratitude that I don’t have to get in my car and drive out into the suburban maelstrom that is steadily encroaching upon our rural area and drive off to a meaningless, monotonous job.
By a mysterious mix of luck, hard work and stubbornness my dream has become reality. Where does that leave me now? What does a dreamer dream when there is nothing left to dream? When the dream has become reality? Is there nothing but disillusionment with how the dream turned out? Is the reality only a muted and tarnished version of the dream itself? Is it human nature to always be dissatisfied, to always wish for things to be somehow better than they are? If a dream is realized does the dreamer continue to dream new dreams?
As for me, I certainly don’t dream the way I used to. And why should I? I wake to my dream made real every morning. I find that I am actually quite satisfied with the reality of the life that I once dreamed up. It has offered me the pleasures and satisfactions that I hoped it would, and I really can’t imagine myself doing anything else. It was rather striking, mowing with Brendan on that beautiful morning when we paused to rest the horses. I looked around taking in the scene in its totality and realized that this was it. I had arrived. It was a perfect moment, a rare moment of clarity in a world of distraction and noise and busyness.
There are of course other aspirations I have for the rest of my life, songs to learn, books to read, places and people to visit, but these are small things and insignificant when compared to the One Dream.
So now when I lay down in my bed at night, I no longer dream of mowing a lovely field of clover. Instead I fall asleep with a grateful heart and wake up the next morning and hitch a real team to a real mower and cut a real swath through the real world that my life has become.
If there is a common thread found in the letters written to the Small Farmer’s Journal over these 40 and more years, it is that future farmers often start out as dreamers: young children write about their dream of becoming a farmer when they grow up; folks in prison with lots of time to think and reassess priorities write, describing their farming aspirations for when they finally attain their freedom; suburbanites trapped in hateful jobs with nasty commutes looking for an escape write about their attraction to a life on the land. There is after all, no rational reason by any modern standard why a person would choose farming as a way to earn a paycheck. The hours are brutal, land is expensive, bountiful harvests are far from certain, benefits such as health insurance and paid time mostly don’t exist. And the income, should you be fortunate enough to actually earn one, is modest. There is almost no rational argument, by present day standards of living, to be made for choosing the farming life.
In this post-agrarian age, the genesis of a modern small farm usually starts out as a dream. Mostly my generation was not born into farming like members of previous generations. That unbroken chain has been severed in the era of agribusiness. Hope however, lies in the dream. Human beings have been at this farming business for many thousands of generations and there is somewhere buried in each of us a small flicker of an agrarian flame that, when fanned with the breath of dreams can be kindled into the fire that fuels the small farmer of the present day.
Faithful readers will be interested to know that my youngest son Brendan, top-hand and recent LittleField notes photographer, has recently left for France, where he is pursuing an opportunity to study abroad for his junior year of high school. After a brief visit to that country when I was his age, I always wanted to go back and spend some time there. This was one of my many dreams that never came to fruition. Now years later, I get to live that dream vicariously through him. I am excited for him. And how could I not be? Yet, I have to admit that I am missing his help tremendously. He has grown up with the farm in his bones. He knows every nook and cranny, every swimming hole, climbing tree and camping spot. He can work the horses on any situation; has become the weed foreman in the garden, taking no prisoners. He not only knows the farm, but he loves it. He is not one of those farm boys who can’t wait to move away to some exotic city life. Indeed, leaving the farm and his beloved dogs was his greatest concern when making his decision about whether to study abroad or not. He has become an integral part of the fabric of this farm. It seems like just yesterday that he was blazing across the fields like a Nez Percé warrior on Mabel, the brave little Shetland paint pony. Now Mabel is gone and so is the little boy who rode her. She, to another farm and another child, he to the threshold of adulthood and another continent.
This is I suppose, a little window into my future. A future without any of my three boys living at home: an empty nest. I’m going solo now, taking up all my own slack. No sending Brendan down to shut the chickens at dark, or to bring in the horses from the pasture while I sit on the porch enjoying a cold beverage after a hot day in the sun. I’m splitting my own kindling now, building my own fires.
Just before he walked off into the security line at the Vancouver International Airport, I could feel my eyes moisten and a small lump form in my throat. I gave him a hug and said quietly, “Bon courage mon amie,” and he said, “Take care of the farm, Dad.”
Take care of the farm.
I’ll do my best.