Last Friday afternoon, we–my parents, farm hands/apprentices and I–spent the afternoon jabbing white, red and yellow onion sets into the just-tilled soil. I say “jabbing” because that is the word my dad used to describe holding the onion set between your fingers and pounding it down into the fluffed dirt as far down as it will go. Some onions we planted close together (as close together as possible, my dad told us) so that they’d come up as green onions, and others we planted three or four inches apart, so they’d have the space to fill out into big bulbs.
We’d spent the morning bent over the garlic beds, pulling away excess mulch from the baby garlic sprouts that couldn’t push through the straw on their own. There were sections of some beds where the mulch was piled on so thick that I had to dig down through layers and layers before I spotted the weak, yellow-green seedling struggling to reach for sunlight. I thought back to the beginning of December, when Otosan (Daddy), Caitlyn and I rolled out big bales of hay and used pitchforks to lay down the mulch on top of the garlic beds, and began to get worried that I had been the one who’d laid down way too much mulch. It was entirely possible, since I tended to overcompensate when I was anxious about something–in this case, the garlic dying off from frost–and as I pulled away whole handfuls of mulch I cursed myself for suffocating the poor seedlings. Next time, I assured myself, I wouldn’t make the same mistake. I bent down lower to the ground so I could see the seedlings better and uncovered the garlic as quickly as I could, hoping all the while that once sunlight hit the weak seedlings, they’d grow as tall and strong as the others.
All that bending and crawling on hands and knees made my lower back ache and made the beginnings of bruises form on my knees. After a short lunch break, the planting began, and I was forced back into my curved position. But I hardly noticed the pain when I concentrated on the rhythm of planting–jab, jab, jab, jab and scoop, jab, jab, jab, jab. I’d helped plant onion sets since I was young, so my body knew just what to do and how to move, and before I knew it 4 beds of 3 rows of onions were planted.
There is a bittersweetness that surrounds me this spring, as I watch the field alight in green and the winter cold dissipates into warmth (again–there were some strange climate-changed induced 80 degree days in February!) . It is the first spring that I’ve ever been available to work on the farm, because I’ve always been busy with school, or away at college, during these months. Being able to see how Otosan coaxes the fields and greenhouses into holding so much young life fills me with a renewed sense of joy and hope. I’ve always burst onto the scene at the end of June, when school ended, and by that time the farm was nearing a frenzy of weeding and harvesting and I could barely catch my breath before throwing myself into the fire. But in the spring, things are slower, and we aren’t fighting against time quite yet. There are ample moments to breathe, to smile, to throw sticks to Koko and Jodi and laugh when Koko parades around with the stick, bushy tail high in the air, as if she’s a circus dog. There is time to stop and peer into the blazing red sunset at the end of the workday and revel in beauty. There is time to steep myself in love.
It is bittersweet because as full as I feel, I know I will have to part with the farm this June, when I move to New York to live with Austin. I won’t get to see the garlic seedlings grow into bulbs the size of my palm, or see the stiff-neck scapes wave in the breeze. I won’t get to taste the sticky sweet watermelon or pop cherry tomatoes into my mouth. I won’t see the leaves turn yellow in autumn or dig up the sweet potatoes in the late fall. As mentally and physically straining working on the farm is, I will miss the drama of it, the feeling that every single part of me is working within the cycles of our beating earth and I am wholly consumed by the whims of nature.
But the spring has given me the strength and power I need to go off and away from the place and people I love, to be with the person my heart has been yearning for all these long months apart. I feel, for the first time in a long time, an openness to whatever will come next. In New York I will dance, visit and work on organic farms, spend whole days at a poetry library, write, see old and dear friends, and fall asleep, always, in the arms of my love. And for that I am endlessly thankful.
I’d also like to take this moment to share some sweet things:
I did an interview with poet and writer Chloe Clark! When I read her poem, “Sidelong Catastrophe,” it was as if I was reading my own mind and I loved it. So it was a huge honor for me to interview her about poetry and the environment. Check out the interview here: Aozora Brockman interviews Chloe N. Clark
And! Our farm hand Mike Mustard has been making incredible videos about life and work on our farm (with aerial shots!) and this is the second video in the series, where we attempt to cover our greenhouse with a huge sheet of plastic. It’s an impressive video, so see for yourself: Hanging at Henry’s S1:E2
Thanks for reading everyone, and I wish you all a wonderful week!!
When I first heard of Dmitri Teplov’s death, I looked him up on Facebook. I wanted to see a face, to make sense of who he was and to quiet the chaos that filled my mind. I could not find a single picture of him, but found a video instead. It was a music video that he had posted on Sunday morning at 4:47am by Proem, an electronic music artist, called “When Frailty Fails.” Without hesitating, I quickly inserted my earphones into my ears, effectively drowning out the shocked silence of the library, and clicked “play.”
The music was soft and slow, with an eerie feel of peace. The lulling melody was almost hypnotizing, and the animated video showed a little girl hugging goodbye to her father, who leaves on a small boat. The girl then gradually grows older, returning to that spot of departure time and time again. I was struck by the scenes of her as a young woman riding her bike against a relentless wind, pushing and pushing to get to the place where she lost her father, only to stare longingly out into the water, truly alone. She was always alone – the only other people in the darkened scenes are riding their bikes as well, but there was no interaction. By the end of the video, she is a sad, old woman, dragging her feet with every step. She collapses onto the ground and lays down in a hole. When she comes to, she sees something in the distance and begins to walk and then run, all the while transforming back into a young girl, until she is again in the arms of her father.
I could not finish my anthropology papers after that, and even as I walked past the sudden, strong scent of spring flowers on the way to the Little Arch, I could not get the melody out of my head. I shivered as my heartbeat reached a crescendo in my ears. I wanted to hug someone, or cry.
Later, after I learned that Dmitri’s death had most likely been a suicide, I watched the video again and tried to find information on it on the Internet. I was surprised to learn that the song had lyrics, and I had to listen closely in order to distinguish the distorted singing voice and hear:
When frailty pales in comparison
And your bones feel like breaking
When your empty head caves in
You can tear off my arms and take me
I will not complain or fight with you
To save you from your life
When frailty fails to save you
When frailty fails to save you
My heart was breaking as I read and heard these lyrics, and I imagined Dmitri feeling as if he was too frail to fight against himself and that he was too exhausted to go on.
Then I started to wonder what “frailty” is. When I left home during my senior year of high school to study abroad in Japan, I thought doing so would let me become more independent and strong. I had depended too much on my parents and brothers growing up, I decided, crying when I was hurt or sick and asking for help when I needed it. For me, being strong meant that I needed to solve my own problems.
But it also meant that I began to pretend that I was fine when I was struggling. During the Christmas season, I became so homesick that a stress-related rash appeared and spread on the backs on my hands. I did not cry once after arriving in Tokyo in August, and I refused to even consider telling my parents back home that I missed them. I wrote lies in my journal every day, claiming that I was happy, grateful. Strong.
But was I not exhibiting true “frailty” by running away from my problem? Anyone can pretend that they are doing fine, that they are in no need of help. It is easy to ignore strong feelings of sadness and face the world with a false smile that always seems to be faltering. It takes true courage to say in that instance, “I need help,” or “Please help me,” because in doing so, you admit that you are in a bad place. I was terrified of asking for help because deep down I believed that if I did so, I would instantly lose control of everything – my life, my happiness. I would be deemed a failure, someone too frail to succeed.
Yet what is really courageous, I realized, is to admit weakness. For me to let go of my facade and break down in tears. For Dmitri to have finally, in the last moments of his life, admitted, “I feel as if I cannot go on.” In a society that has defined courage as emotionless stability, true bravery lies in admitting that we are all human.
I am constantly amazed at the courage I see in others who have opened up to me about feeling indescribably intense emotions. And I hope for a future in which we do not have to define strength as the ability to battle on alone.
I wish you were here to see
Those beautiful, black, angry clouds that rolled in
Taking over the morning sky today in mere minutes and
The sight of Daddy, running to the big truck
Holding onto his white hat, yellow rain pants bright and
Blurring in the eerie, dark light.
I wish you could hear
The sound of crashing rain and clanging
Tomato buckets as Val and I piled them up
In the back of the big truck and sat there, in pitch black
Hoping tents would not fall on us as
Daddy drove back on the road.
I wish you could see
The rain through the hole in the truck floor as
It caught the light of the back lights and
Sparked, like firecrackers…
I wish you could look
Across the potato field, as I did, and see
Kazami wrap a potato in wet, black mud and
Toss it happily between his hands
A little boy, once again.
And as I caught wet watermelon from Daddy
Diving for some, squatting low for the heavy ones –
I remembered you protectively blocking my face as
Daddy’s quick tosses led to a terrifying showering of melons
Last Friday – your last harvest of the summer – and
I wished you were still here,
Smiling down at me from the bed of the truck,
Hands up, waiting for the throw.
The wind was picking up for a second time on the farm Thursday, blowing cold against my skin and lighting the flame of hope inside of me. Matt called over the rippling sound of the air to let me know that rain was coming, and sure enough, when I looked up at the hazy, grey sky, I saw a line of pouring rain across the field barreling straight towards where we were picking bunches of chard.
I had forgotten my raincoat, so I shivered as the rain soaked me to the core, drenching my back in a matter of seconds. My knife slipped in my wet hands as I tried to cut the leafy green stalks of chard, but I was smiling in pure glee, the feeling of contentment growing inside of me. There was something completely freeing about getting drenched from head to toe in fresh, freezing rainwater on the farm.
Later, I asked Daddy as he made a sample of Hopi Red Amaranth for Kazami and I to pick, if he was happy with all of the rain showers that had happened this week. Daddy just shook his head in wonder and said, “I checked the rain gage and it said nine-tenths of an inch from just today’s rain. I just can’t believe it!”
When it had rained on Saturday afternoon, when he was coming home from the market, Daddy had said that we did not have to irrigate that night. But more rain came on Wednesday, and now, we would make it through a whole week without moving drip tape lines. We had been irrigating nonstop ever since I came home for the summer, so not having to worry about finding header lines or dragging out hoses seems strange.
Kazami had sustained the soaking from the storm, as well, but like me, had enjoyed it immensely. He was in such a good mood while bunching amaranth with me that he was singing to himself and giggling at his own puns. I could not help but think about how both of my sweet, handsome, dependable brothers were leaving the farm soon. Asa was going back to school for his final year of undergrad the following Monday, and Kazami was tagging along to visit the University of Alabama to see if he would like to attend that college. Days before I would leave on a flight to Hawai’i to work as a research assistant to one of my most favorite professors at Northwestern, Kazami would leave the house to go back to boarding school for his final year, as well. Summer on the farm was coming to a close too soon.
But Kazami’s laughter never fails to make me chuckle, as well, so I found myself in a fit of giggles while finishing out the last of the amaranth and all the way home to the shed. When I got out of the red truck, Asa told me, “Your laughter sounds like the cackle of a scared chicken.” Confused, I thought he had said that the sound of my laughter had scared the chickens, which was both upsetting and sort of amazing that it had been that loud. When I explained this to my brothers, they erupted into laughter. I did, too, and wondered if this time, the chickens had heard.
I slam the Prius’ black car door shut,
Fuming and furiously fighting back tears and as I
Stomp out my frustration across the field, I feel
Panic twist itself into my mind, bubbling and bursting,
Screaming that nothing seems to be working out –
Those I love are leaving, breaking away to fly,
To find a place in the world and
Time is slipping out of my grip, again, as I await
My own upcoming island adventure, while my stomach knots in worry,
As bags deepen in color under my exhausted eyes and I
Try in vain to hold on to tranquility.
But then I see it, in the melon patch –
That striped green ball of sugary goodness
Shooting from Daddy’s callused hands to Val’s, up to a smiling Kazami
In the red truck, and placed carefully into a wooden box –
So I take over for Val, catching Daddy’s tosses,
Even the silly ones – from underneath his legs, to the side,
Accidentally hard into my belly, sometimes
Too silly to catch, even though I lunge in every effort
To save those precious globes from a fatal smashing.
From time to time Daddy stops, slips out his knife and
Cuts open a melon to taste, and in between tosses
Kazami and I, too, gobble up pieces of yellow, red, swirly-orange
Watermelon, juice dripping off of our chins, spitting out
Black seeds in record time, so that we can
Ready ourselves in crouching melon catching position once more.
By the time the truck is filled to the brim with the sweet aroma
Of orange-fleshed muskmelon mixed with sugary watermelon and
Covered, too, with boxes and boxes of fragile fruit,
Soft purple streaks across the sky, over deep blue and
Kazami hums “Party Rock Anthem” as we move drip tape down
Corn, beans, and newly planted lettuce beds, and when
My reckless little brother whizzes by on the tractor at top speed,
Curly brown hair blowing off of his tan forehead, I shake my
Head in disbelief but smile, thinking of his joyful laugh.
When I turn on the road to pick him up with the car at the
Land Connection barn to go home, the radio is playing
“Party Rock Anthem”, so I turn it up loud so that
Kazami giggles, hearing it, and starts to shuffle playfully
Dancing cheerfully before getting in and then
I am laughing, all panic, frustration and sadness
Erased and replaced with the taste of watermelon and
This simple love that envelopes us –
Sweet, sticky, and everlasting.
Adrenaline is rushing through my veins as
I lift and set the last bucket of blushing red hybrid tomatoes
into the bed of the truck, peering up at dark clouds,
feeling the rushing wind, moving faster and faster, on my skin
I turn – Val’s eyes and smile are wide – she felt a drop!
I dance as I make my way to the truck, whispering for more.
It comes, then, in waves of large drops –
from those smoldering black clouds, we cheer
as water splatters on the windshield, wipers fast to clear it away
and I open the window to let the rain hit my face
wanting to jump out right then to dance barefoot
in the rain, but knowing full well that these tomatoes need
to get to the safety of the shed, I squash that longing inside of me.
But once the tomatoes are safe, and Daddy lets us all go
The rain is still calling for me, pouring hard on the shed roof so
I run gleefully up to the house, take off my shoes and I’m
free – to do turns on the wet cement, lifting my face
to drink some drops, rain pouring into my eyes and I
let my hair down, shaking it as water drenches my curls and
I lay down to listen to the showering of drops as they
soak me through and through.
Later, Kazami, taking a larger-than-necessary tomato sandwich
in his hands to eat, shouts in wonder and points outside the window
and then I see it, too – a perfect, glorious rainbow behind the trees
a lighter rainbow right behind it, glowing brightly in the fading light as
the rain slows to a steady, lazy beat and I’m smiling to the sky –
my hair dripping with water and my heart dripping with gratitude.
DISCLAIMER FROM DADDY:
Though the rain was nice, it only amounted to about 15/100 of an inch, which is not enough to satisfy out thirsty field. So tonight, like many nights before in these dry, summer weeks, Kazami and I will be moving drip tapes in the dark, with our headlights lighting the way… Sigh…all we can do is hope for rain that will make a difference.
“Is this the kind of wind that signals the coming of rain?” Asa asks Daddy in the cool dawn darkness of Thursday morning, ripping off old, shriveled leaves off of deep purple beets and sorting them into piles of different sizes for Daddy to make bunches out of. Sure enough, the air is moving in an eerie way, rippling through my hair as I handle the Golden beets in the same way across from Asa. Daddy, sitting between us, twirling beet bunches with flourish, answers curtly. “No, that’s the kind of wind that signals that the rainclouds are departing.”
Except for a few strange, sudden five minute showers that, as Daddy says, “mean nothing”, Henry’s Farm has not received a single drop of rain again this week. I had heard on the radio earlier in the week that Illinois is suffering from the worst drought since 1988 this year. Corn and soybean production is expected to be severely limited, so farmers have been petitioning for help from the government. Similarly, we have been suffering as well, and to be true, if we do not irrigate on a daily basis, our farm would be quite barren. Some crops, such as summer squash, cucumbers and tomatoes, are not doing so well even with irrigation. The summer squash plants are covered with squash beetle eggs, and most are already getting eaten alive by the stink bug look-a-likes. Grandpa informed us that this may be due to the fact that the bacteria that work to eat the squash beetle larvae die off in the intense heat, so more eggs survive. My heart also drops whenever we harvest tomatoes, since most have a mysterious “butt disease”, as I like to call it, which causes the tomato ends to rot. We hypothesize that this illness is due to a lack of calcium in the soil. I am hoping that the first fruits will be the only ones that have this odd rot, since the heirloom tomatoes we picked on Tuesday in the greenhouse did not have much butt disease, but hoping, I have come to conclude this year, does not change anything.
But I am glad that our farm has a great variety of vegetable kinds and varieties, since while summer crops seem to be less productive this year, other crops are doing better than last year. The carrots that Matt, Lucas and I are pulling from the ground and bunching, for example, are beautiful – the roots large and tops sturdy. When Daddy was showing us the bunch size, he commented that regular irrigation leads to gorgeous root vegetables. “In regular years, they either get too much rain or too little,” he explained. “I understand now why most of our vegetables are grown in the California and Arizona desert.”
“But they’re also draining the river there, right?” Matt had interjected then. How true, I think to myself as I remember this, burrowing my hands down into the damp, black, just-irrigated soil. The regular irrigation we have been doing all summer has been slowly draining our own supply of our reservoir of glacier water, a precious resource.
It is also very taxing to our physical and mental stamina, I think later, as we attempt to set up new lines on another section of the farm after making hundreds of onion bunches and digging potatoes. This time, we had enough lines to drag over from another section, which was great. However, now Sydney is spearheading an expedition to find another header line (the bigger hose that connects to the even larger, fire hose, in which all of the drip tape lines are to be connected) to stretch out until the end of the rows we want to water this time. Mass confusion ensues as Sydney wants to use a line that is now being used to irrigate another set of rows, and we are all yelling out different ideas as to what we should do. I set out to try and find another header line somewhere in this expansive field, as Sydney suggests. Finally, we just decide to snap off the section of the header line that is not being used, and we all line up – me in front, then Kazami, Janaki, Sydney and Lucas – lift it over our heads, and start the procession across the field. When we finally figure out how to connect the header line to the other one, and then cap the end so that the water does not flow out, Val and Matt are still attempting to figure out how to connect the red fire hoses. By the time we are in the truck, heading back to the wash area, we are all drained from running out the lines in the heat and from thinking about what goes where, and how to go about doing it.
There is something about this never-ending heat and dry spell that causes every Brockman family member to pass out almost instantly after coming home after eight hours of work in the field, after eating Mommy’s delicious homemade basil, tomato and mozzarella cheese pizza, and after taking a cool, refreshing shower. We sleep like the dead for hours, until Daddy has to wake up to wash all of the root vegetables, and I convince myself to lift my heavy body out of bed. As I head back to the house after putting the washed veggies in the cooler, I spot Koko in the shade underneath the Market truck, eyes closed, her legs splayed out in ultimate relaxation, breathing slowly, deep in slumber, and I bet she is dreaming of cooler days.
Dust is everywhere, hovering.
A menacing cloud behind the tractor
as Otousan plants the beds.
It billows up from under our feet
as we follow the seeder.
Dust in our hair, smudged on our faces,
stained on Otousan’s once-white shirt.
Kazami coughs, covers his nose and mouth.
I look up at the darkening sky,
my eyes pleading for drops of rain
to fall from above.
Rain, rain, rain, please, rain, rain.
I am chanting in my head as I switch the seed.
please give Otousan a break
from late night drip tape running,
please erase our collective, hopeless sigh
when Otousan announces it is time
to switch the water, again,
Rain, will you not come? Please, please, rain…
Val and Sydney yell across the field.
Pull on the other side.
I put it on the wrong row!
Asa wraps twine taut around tomato poles
in the greenhouse, securing the tall vines
as the sun begins to dive into the trees
setting the tips on fire,
the rest a silhouette
against orange-red sky.
It almost rained this morning.
Did you see those clouds?
Kazami pipes up beside me.
Otousan answers quietly as he flips through seed,
deciding what to plant next:
It almost rained…
But what can you do?
His voice drips hopelessness.
We finish our planting
when most sunlight has faded.
It is impossible now to read
the numbers on the seed plates.
The drip tape lines are set up,
beds upon beds planted,
tomatoes trellised, sun set.
The dust remains,
one drop of water
not yet fallen from the sky.
My chants continue as Otousan drives,
headlights bright against the dark, dry field of dust.
Rain, rain, rain, please, rain, rain…
The Lamb’s Quarters that were invading the green kale rows seemed to be laughing at me as I slashed at their tenacious roots on Independence Day. Even as I put every ounce of remaining energy into raising my scuffle hoe high in the air and coming down where root met ground with great force, the metal of my hoe just bounced back, not even making a dent in its thick roots. I heard it giggle through the unbearably humid air, making fun of me – I was too weak for it. Sweat dropped like beads from my forehead to the ground as I slashed and slashed. But with every clang of my hoe I felt my energy drain, my thirst for water increase, and hopelessness slowly take over my heart.
Finally, it looked like the root was cut enough that I could pull it out. Yet as I gathered the magnificent plant in my hands and started to tug, I could hear its laughter increase. Of course it would not budge, holding fast to the earth with determination. I clenched my teeth and pronounced war, trying in vain to yank it out of the ground. Just when it seemed as if it were going to give, the top part of the plant pulled off, leaving the rest of its multitude of roots still firmly in the ground.
I gave a shriek of anger and felt tears welling up in my eyes. I was too pathetic to even get a dreadful Lamb’s Quarters plant out of the field and too drained to move on hacking at the remaining forest of looming Lamb’s Quarters in front of me.
The exhaustion had originated from mulching the peppers, tomatillos, and some of the tomatoes all morning in 100 degree heat and heavy humidity. I had wrapped a handkerchief over my nose and mouth so that I would not breathe in the dust. Like the rest of the crew – Janaki in particular, since she had multiple handkerchiefs wrapped around her face – I looked like a bandit. Still, when mulching with a bale of moldy hay, I started to cough and everything began to taste like mulch. As I carried the hay bales down the long rows of peppers, I would count my steps in order to forget how my arm muscles ached, weighted down by the hefty bale. Then I would find my hand hoe, the metal part sizzling hot to the touch, and cut the string. Sitting down on my hands and knees, I would then distribute the mulch, making sure to push it forcefully against the pepper plants, leaving no room for weeds to grow. Mulching is my least favorite job on the farm since it takes so much energy to lug the bales and to distribute the hay while feeling as if you cannot breathe the whole time. But mulching in 100 degree, humid conditions was my worst nightmare, since the sun’s fiery rays stole away most of my energy.
Back in the jungle of Lamb’s Quarters, I was halfheartedly hitting the roots of another plant, which were refusing to budge. My head was starting to pound, a sure sign of dehydration, so I decided to trek across the field to the red truck and get a drink of water. I drank in desperate gulps and then fully refreshed, made my way back to the kale, eating a banana. I realized then that somewhere along my adventure of chopping evil Lamb’s Quarters, I had lost my hand hoe. My fatigued, emotional state combined with this insight made me want to weep once more. Thankfully, after searching frantically – the special hand hoes were shipped in from Japan and thus could not be lost – Janaki helped me locate my precious object underneath a heap of dreaded, murdered Lamb’s Quarters.
We had moved on to another bed, where the Lamb’s Quarters were still young and thus still slash-able. I felt my energy surge and when Val came over to tell us that Daddy said we could either take a break at noon, which was in fifteen minutes, or work until one, I was feeling so invigorated that I wished to stick it out one more hour. Val gave us clippers to cut out the Lamb’s Quarters, which was a much easier way to quickly get rid of the weeds. I felt gleeful as I snipped at the plants, watching them fall to the ground. I giggled – what weak weeds!
Fifteen minutes later, Kazami came over, his face red and eyes tired. “Daddy says we have to go home now,” he told me, so I replied that I was going to stay. He shook his head and told me it was Daddy’s order.
Later, as I waited for Matt to drive the red truck over to where Kazami and I were standing next to the road back to the house, I watched as Daddy bent over the weeds at the lettuce patch, cutting them out with swipes of his slicer hoe. I knew he, with his aching back and tired muscles, would work on for at least another hour in the hot, humid air.
I knew that the Lamb’s Quarters were wrong – I was not weak. I could work through anything if I had water and food. I knew that I was Daddy’s daughter and I was tough.