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Farm to Tablet:
February Edition

    February in Michigan is a fallow month. It's frozen throughout and gray and interminable, and it's also, in that way, a relief. Since Scott and I are still in the starting stages of the homestead, there's not much work to do, unless you count filling the chicken feeder, or lugging out hot water to pour over the ice in the chicken bucket, or making sure each evening to gather the eggs, which will freeze and crack if left out overnight. The chicken manure is inches thick and stuck like sealant and will not be removed. The compost refuses to be stirred, which probably means I'm doing something wrong. The snow over the garden is layers deep. The dog only exits the house with encouragement. The cats have long since lost their fascination with the flakes drifting down.

The chickens in sunnier days

The chickens refusing to accept the reality of snow

     I often refer to February as the cruelest month (with apologies to T.S. Eliot), but in truth, there is something in its difficulty that I relish. February is a month that must be endured, and so enduring it becomes something to be done—a challenge that can be accomplished simply by persisting in one's daily activities without lying down on the frozen ground and surrendering oneself to the cold and the hungry coyotes. Eventually, we make it through, and we take a little pride in this achievement, though as good Midwesterners, our declarations of pride sound more like complaints, and then we unceremoniously drop the subject. 
     
     My other chief enjoyment of February, besides its lack of enjoyability, is the opportunity it affords to dream. In February, my garden exists at the state of Plato's forms, which is another way of saying it doesn't exist at all, and therefore it is perfect. It is larger this year – 40' by 40' compared to last year's 30' by 30' – and it is glorious. There is a new asparagus patch beside a new strawberry patch beside two new rows of blueberry bushes. There are three new plantings of rhubarb. There is an infinity of potatoes where last year there was only grass. There are garlic and onions this year, and carrots and beets – also new – and lovage, the elusive herb that Scott and I discovered at market in Lithuania.
The stuff of dreams
     Beyond these additions, there's a rotation of everything else we planted last year—kale and arugula and spinach and chard, lettuces, broccoli and cauliflower and Brussels sprouts and cabbage, three beds of summer and winter squash, one bed of melons, a teepee of sugar snap peas, half a plot of bush beans. A full bed of herbs, a full bed of tomatoes, and a full bed of peppers, which, if last fall is any indication, will keep me canning away all of my October afternoons. 

     Right now, in February, each of these beds will get planted and mulched and weeded and harvested. This year, I will cut and hang the herbs before the frost takes them down. I will prune and cage the tomatoes before they become unwieldy. I will spritz the squash leaves at the first sign of powdery mildew. I will blanch the cauliflower heads as soon as the curds are full, and I will harvest them before the caterpillars defile them with their droppings. In February, all of these plans are unassailable for the singular, incontestable reason that they have not yet been attempted. 

     Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to gardening. The same holds true for any number of exploits, namely writing. I have come across a surprising number of people who have in their heads an entire book, one for which they have not yet put down any pages. Their ideas are whole and perfect – there is not yet any other possibility. But when the magic wand of the pencil meets the humble page, the work proves itself messy and disappointing, and often it is never attempted again.
My first drafts are as tattered as my jeans

     We are all good writers until we sit down to write, just as we are all good parents until we hold our own helpless child in our arms. I am a steady and competent gardener until I catch a case of the fuck-its one fateful day in late June, and I return to my vegetables some time later to find my lettuce bolted and my squash leaves crispy with blight and my basil gone to seed and a jungle of weeds where my baby jalapeno plants used to be.

     This is what I do – I fall in love with the ideas of things, with the beginnings of things. But when actualities begin taking the place of ideas, when I make it to the messy middle, I find myself seeking about for something else, something shiny and new and physically unrealized.

     I'm not sure if this is unique to American culture or if it is universal to the human condition. I'm not sure that it's entirely bad, either. But I want to challenge this tendency because I sense that it springs from the lesser parts of my nature – my impatience, my distractability, my obsession, as Wendell Berry puts it, with what might be rather than what is. I want to challenge this tendency because when I dream about all of the possibilities, I am missing out on what's actually there. My ideas are shiny and new, yes, but only because they are less real. And if I can remember this, then perhaps I can walk more mindfully over this holy place where the wind meets the ground.

     Still, for now, February remains February, and so I will graph out my beds and calculate numbers of plants and order my perfect paper packets of seeds. I will hash out a planting timeline that I will, in all likelihood, fail to keep. And all of this planning will fortify me in my writing, where I will keep forging through the messy middles of my books, making them ever-so-incrementally better, and breaking, occasionally, to write new things, like this newsletter, which is still shiny and new and therefore incontestably perfect.

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Writer · 14641 Waterloo Munith Rd · Grass Lake, MI 49240-9495 · USA

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