Ode to a Beaver

I spotted you from the back of the truck, as Daddy
Backed it up over brambles and poison ivy
As we came closer and closer to the irrigation pump by Walnut Creek
My eyes were wide and unwavering as I watched
The slow movement of you
Wading away in the water
A short branch with glossy emerald leaves
Hanging deftly from your mouth.
I became entranced by the sight of your flat, long tail
Making a straight trail in the water as
You drifted by effortlessly and soundlessly
Like you had all the time in the world…
You were disappearing behind trees when
Finally, the truck halted and I jumped
Out the back and straight towards the overhang
I searched for you frantically but
You had disappeared like a dream.
As we moved the pump and got it running I kept
Thinking of you creating your dam
Wading back and forth, again and again – and
I wanted to ask you then,
How you held time so gracefully
While I was letting it all slip away
I waited for you to appear once more but
You were long gone, and I knew that you
Were my first “Goodbye”

A Shared Smile

Bleary-eyed to the point of sleepwalking – I make my way down the long bed, pausing from time to time to reassure myself that the drip tape is landing perfectly on top of the middle row. I know Daddy is at the pump, unclogging the filter and refilling the gasoline, but he is impossible to make out in the still-dark bottomland.

The night before, Daddy had asked me to join him in moving the tapes at 10pm, but later he came to my room, coughing painfully. I stared worriedly at the dark circles around his weary eyes as he told me that we would move the tapes early the next morning instead.

Irrigating had stolen both my father’s mental and physical energy – sprinting time and time again each day down beds with a tape in hand was hard on his legs and lungs, and deciding just how to arrange the pump and various hoses so that every plant or seed that needed water was granted their share was emotionally draining.

As I lay the drip tape, I wonder how many more times we will have to move the tapes and hoses to irrigate. Daddy had told me that until the rains came, there was no choice but to keep on watering, and though we longed for the sky to open and pour down rain, almost a month had gone by without a single drop. “Forty percent chance” might as well mean “zero percent chance,” since the rainstorms kept missing us, instead dumping rain just north of our farm.

But as the sun drifts up and Daddy and I, joined by the farm hands, begin the Tuesday CSA harvest, black rain clouds start to gather in the corners of the sky. We all doubt that rain will fall, though – too let down by the latest weather to gather hope in our hearts. Even as the skies darken, clouds smolder, wind picks up, and Koko starts to whimper, I am afraid to believe that a rainstorm will actually hit us.

As Val and I pick heirloom tomatoes in the field, I hear a sudden crack of thunder and hope strikes inside of me. Daddy feels it, too, and even though we are not yet done picking the row, he rushes us to the truck and up to the shed.

We all hold our breaths as we see the first sprinkles of water splatter on the ground outside the shed, and suddenly, like a great sigh of relief, the sky breaks open. The sound of smacking water against the metal roof of the shed is so loud that our shouts of joy are muffled.

I smile to myself as I help Grandma sort the ripe and unripe, good and bad tomatoes onto trays. I listen, in awe and thanks, to the continuous drumroll of rain on the roof as I gently place blushing red tomatoes on straw-covered trays.

When the rain finally lets up, Grandma looks around and asks me, “Do you think that’s the end?” But Mother Nature answers before I can open my mouth. Suddenly, the rain goes from peaceful dripping to full out dumping and the bombardment of water on the roof reminds me of waves crashing in the sea. Stunned and surprised, the farm hands rush to the opening of the shed to watch the sheets of rain come down.

But I am more mesmerized by the sight near the trays of tomatoes before me – Grandpa and Grandma are standing close together, looking out away from me. Grandpa is leaning down towards Grandma, who is pointing excitedly at the phenomenon outside. Both are grinning, lost in the moment.

I wish then, to remember those smiles forever.

Goodbyes of Summer

We used to scamper down to the fields
Our giggles the sound of the burbles of the little stream
Where we searched for tiny minnows and crawdads and
Watched insects walk across the rippling waters…
When we explored the “big and dangerous” Walnut Creek
Grandma, with her worried brown eyes, always warned us
Of blood-sucking creatures lurking on the bottom
Who would latch on to our toes to feed…
I believed her, but –
The thrill of adventure beat the terror and
So we would roll up our pants
And wade far…
I miss playing hide and seek in the grass –
Tall enough to get lost in – and when
We lost ourselves in Gabby’s imagination
We were aliens, vampires, or ten years older and
Living in a twine hammock together…
I miss how much I was content
With that emerald field of beauty always
Surrounding me, like it was the whole world…
I wish we could have all stayed
Young – children – together
Always close by – living, laughing, playing
Yet here we are, ten years later and
We are not living in a twine hammock together, we are
Going to college, graduating college,
Working, learning, leaving home –
Trying to make a difference
In a world much larger than the Bottomfield…
It breaks my heart to watch you depart because
I feel the strings that hold us all together
Starting to untwist – pull apart –
So that you can have your adventures
And I can, too…
Maybe someday we will watch
Our own children frolic
Catch minnows in homemade Twist-tie baskets and
Giggle – burble – up at us.

Mysterious Tree Fallings

“Is that thunder?” I wondered. 
I was dazedly mulching underneath the clear blue sky and penetrating sun when a sudden ripping and crashing sound pounded out from the direction of the gravel hill up to the house. Val and I looked up, and so did everyone else – from their hand-weeding, mulching and push-hoeing – to stare, all together, at the wooded hillside where the great sound had come from.  
I did not spot the tree then, but later, driving up, sitting in the bed of the truck, the wind in my face, I saw the aged, giant tree, lying at rest in the woods.
Grandpa, puzzled, said, “I just don’t understand the physics of it – a great tree always seems to fall not during a wind storm, but when the air is hardly moving.”
I thought perhaps after surviving tremulous wind and havoc and holding tight to life, that tree had chosen a peaceful, beautiful afternoon to finally let go and fall to the ground – to decompose and join the Earth once again.

Harvest Soakings

The small heads of lettuce I am harvesting are lit by an eerie, neon-like light when I look up to catch sight of Aunt Terra, dressed in bright blue rain pants, at the bottom of the twisting gravel lane. I call out a greeting and point to the black, brewing storm clouds in the western sky. “The rains are coming!” I say in anticipation as the wind nips at the end of my long-sleeved shirt and Koko cowers, tense and expectant.
When the first drops come – dripping here and there, splat, splat, full of foreboding – and a great thunder boom crashes in our ears, everyone rushes from their places in the field to the truck to hurriedly put on their rain gear and boots.  Kazami and I look on enviously, still rooted to our job of harvesting lettuce, for we did not bring down any protection from this unexpected rain.
I hope with all my might that the rains will not be heavy and will pass quickly – only to come back later (we need this rain) when it’s so sweltering that the rains would serve as a cooling shower. As I wish this, I feel the giant, loud drops of rain start to pelt down harder. I try to concentrate on cutting and cleaning lettuce, but it proves difficult when my back is being hit, again and again, by freezing drops. I shiver – for it is morning and the sun has not risen over the horizon yet – and goosebumps cover my body.
I start to scream as the heavy clouds fully let loose and soak me instantly. I am in the middle of an unplanned, freezing cold shower, unable to turn the water off. Kazami, though he seems unfazed by the cold rain, takes off with the truck to go up to the shed and grab our rain gear. I am trying to keep the rain out of my face so that I can see, bending low to the ground and letting my back side get drenched. My shoes are rapidly sopping up water and my knife is slippery and covered in mud, making the cutting difficult.
Suddenly, there is another smash of lightning and thunder – very near – and I hear Daddy shouting above the thrashing of wind and rain for us all to run to the machine shed. So I grab my knife and sprint, rain in my face, splashing through puddles, following Koko’s lead.
I am soon joined by Aunt Terra and Val – Val is soaked to the bone, too, and her glasses are all fogged up – and Matt, Mustard and Daddy soon after that. “We’ll wait here until it clears up a bit,” Daddy says and we all nod, bedraggled and dripping. Koko looks smaller with her puffy hair wet down and looks up at us with her big brown eyes, seemingly relieved that we are all safe.
I shiver again as Aunt Terra moves closer to the side of the shed to watch “waves and waves” – as she perfectly describes it – of pounding rain as it blows across the field. Rain dumps onto the plastic roof so loudly that it is difficult to hear Daddy say the next command: “Once Kazami returns with the truck grab the ten or so lettuce boxes from the side of the bed and run them to the truck. Then hop on the truck and go up to the shed to wait the rain out up there.”
The rain is coming down so hard that I hear the truck before I see it. We ready ourselves, as if for a race, crouching down–until we see the nose of the truck. Then, all at once, we take off. Daddy sprints toward Kazami, waving at him to stop at the foot of the gravel hill so that he will not get stuck in the ever increasing mud, and everyone else shoots toward the boxes. Mustard gets there before me and heaves three boxes up. I decide to carry two – one full of the cilantro Kazami and I harvested, and the other half full of lettuce. Then I am running again, through the mud, blinded by the rain – and when I am halfway to the truck, I go through a puddle and suddenly I am slipping and falling. The boxes crash onto my legs and cilantro bunches and lettuce heads fly up into the air. The next moment I am up again and Matt is beside me, helping me pick up all the veggies – and I am laughing hilariously.
I am still giggling as I run – in last place, everyone else is already on the truck – and set the boxes on the back of the truck to then jump on. Kazami backs up and turns the truck around, then hurtles the truck up the wet gravel, and I close my mouth and eyes as water hits my face. I feel as if I am underwater and rain is rushing into my ears, so I keep wiping off my face with my hands, only to get sprayed again and again.
 I wish with all my might that we will make it up the steep hill and thankfully, one last push of the gas and we are at the top – roller coaster ride survived. We all heave a sigh of relief and someone says, “This rain will be perfect for all the seeds we planted last night,” and I smile, knowing that this is true.

Deep Breaths

We wake when the sun is beginning to light the trees
Aflame with deep hues of red, purple and orange, and
As the moon fades into brightening blue I count
The chickens as they jump – one, two, three at a time –
Spreading their wings to flap to the ground and scurry
To peck at feed and gurgle – swallow – water.
It’s the calm before the storm –
Before sunlight moves to cover everything and
Sombreros are thrown on to shade eyes that are
Stinging with salty perspiration falling from foreheads as we
Wrap green twist-ties tight
Around chard, kale, basil, parsley –
And bend to twist summer squash off spikey stems.
Before the raging battle between humid air and body
Before mental and physical fatigue causes punchy laughter to
Flow out of our mouths and echo throughout the Bottom Field –
I am watching that last chicken twist her little head – peer down
At the ground, contemplating –
And I smile at her, waiting, waiting, until –
She finally squats –
Then propels herself through the morning air.

Crushed by Heavy Air

This past week on the farm has been exceptionally – and dangerously – hot and humid. It is the kind of sauna-like humidity that produces pools of sweat on noses and foreheads and causes perspiration to make glisten tan arms and drip down white legs. The heat slows minds and time and makes it difficult to eat, but drink we do. We gulp water any chance we get – splash it onto our hair and let it drip down our faces and backs. Our faithful dog, Koko, gets a soaking from time to time, too – her black, long hair is undoubtedly too hot for comfort – and I smile as she shakes, water splattering everywhere. Rarely does the lazy, heavy air decide to move – but when it does, I am so covered in salty sweat that the sudden cool is a momentary shock, enough to make me sneeze.

The air is so full of moisture that any moment the sky could burst into rainfall. Thankfully, on Monday afternoon, the sky finally did let loose. We were murdering squash beetles – smashing the small, red eggs on the broad leaves of the summer squash plants – when a single, deafening boom of thunder caused Brian to jump and me to scream in terror. Then the black cloud-covered sky erupted into rainfall and Daddy shouted that we would take our lunch break. As Daddy and I ate sunflower-seed-tomato sandwiches in our kitchen, we stared outside the glass sliding door, hopeful, as the rain waves splashed down. “Are you happy?” I asked Daddy and he smiled to reply, “I just hope it doesn’t stop…”

It did not. The rain gage read that in the hour it had poured, we had received six-tenths of an inch of water – enough to ensure that no more midnight irrigating would be necessary, at least for a while.

The humidity did not let up one bit, though, after the storm. So still, we drip while energy is sucked out with our sweat, adding another weight to the moist air.

Midnight Sprints

Full moon? Kazami points
I smile, shake my head – not yet – and
Climb into the bed
Of the truck to ride down
Through the darkness
Wind in my curls
Flittering lightning bugs and
The planetarium of twinkling stars, above
Replace the truck headlights and
Guide us to the long beds of
Germinating seeds
Kazami and I each take one dripping tape and then
We are sprinting – 100 meter dash –
Down those beds, tape in hand
Moving them to the middle rows so that
Those seeds, too, will drink
We walk back, breathing hard, and then
Pick up another tape to race again and again
Until lungs and leg muscles ache and
I am smiling, saying goodnight
To those thirsty seeds…

A Glimpse of the Garlic Harvest 2011

The image that burned into my mind the moment I arrived down at the field Wednesday morning with Kazami (a quarter past six and a little late), was of Mustard, the most energetic of our farm hands, hanging onto the front of Daddy’s old, beat up tractor for dear life as it plowed through a bed of garlic. The scene reminded me of a cowboy hanging off a train door as it speeds along, and I flinched as I thought of what would happen if his arms tired or slipped.
Upon joining the others – Val, Brian, Peter, Matt and Michelle, all busy pulling up garlic, shaking the black clumps of dirt off, and placing them neatly, roots all facing the same direction, in piles to the sides of the beds – I learned that Mustard was acting as a weight to give the front tires of the tractor enough traction so they wouldn’t just spin in place but move forward. The extra weight was needed because Daddy was testing out his new, custom-made “garlic harvester” – an implement with a broad blade that sinks ten inches into the soil to cut just under the garlic bulbs.  The heavy blade could not sink into the earth and cut the long, thick garlic roots without the extra weight on the front of the tractor. But Daddy figured out a better system by the next bed, attaching the front loader and filling it with a load of heavy dirt to replace Mustard.
The new harvester worked great – few bulbs were sliced through and most required no knife to dig up – a labor-saving treat compared to all the years before. Thanks to the garlic harvester, and to the quick hands of every worker on the farm – the same quick hands that had completed task after task of catch-up weeding and planting the week before, even giving up an otherwise lazy Saturday to do so – the first few beds of soft-neck New York White garlic were all pulled and the large empty hayrack was now piled with thousands of white, red-streaked bulbs.
The next step, after Daddy pulled the rack up with the steep hill to the barn with the tractor, was to sort the garlic to extra-large, large and small sizes. The giant bulbs needed to have at least seven cloves, which deemed it good enough to be used for seed for next year’s garlic, and were put into piles of twenty bulbs, lined by their roots, tied with twine, grouped into five clusters on the same string, and finally the string of 100 bulbs hung from the rafters of the barn.
When the sorting was done and the murmur of numbers in my head died out, we headed back down to the field to pull more soft-neck garlic. Daddy pulled the big hayrack back down the hill with Matt, Mustard and Michelle sitting on it – and produced quite a scare for all of us when the tractor started to slide on the loose gravel, pushed forward by the heavy rack. I did not witness this, but I heard shouting as all three on the rack quickly jumped off. (Before starting down the steep hill, Daddy had told them, “If I start sliding, jump off the sides of the rack – not the front.”)
The hayrack pushed the tractor downhill, but Daddy turned the wheels so it turned into the bank of the hillside. When the front wheels of the tractor and the front loader hit the bank, the tractor lodged tight and stopped the rack from rolling further down the hill. Then, as Peter and I ran  down to the middle of the hill to see what was happening, we heard Daddy and the farm hands scramble to get logs from the woods. We watched as they lodged the logs in front of the rack’s wheels, and then unhooked the rack and moved the tractor from its horizontal position across the lane to facing forward once again. Finally, when Matt succeeded in re-hooking the rack to the tractor and the logs were removed from in front of the hayrack wheels, Daddy told us all to hang on to the back of the rack as he cautiously crawled the rest of the way down the hill.
Down in the field, we were soon drenched in sweat – thanks to the humid midday heat – as we filled the rack with garlic once again. It was then time for our two-hour lunch break, which, as usual, sped by. Revived by a power nap and ice cream, I sorted garlic with the others for the second time, in the hottest part of the day, in the shade of the great oak tree near the barn.
Then we traveled down to the field again, this time all of us riding on the hayrack – and all poised to jump off (“to the sides, not the front”) if trouble ensued – to pick the last of the soft neck garlic. I had forgotten my water bottle and my headache from the morning grew to pounding.
When the rack was covered in thousands of garlic plants for the third time that day, Daddy let the farm hands off a few minutes early. Then Kazami and I jumped aboard the rack, while waving goodbye to our cheerful farmhand friends, to make our way up to the barn to sort garlic one last time.  
On the way up the hill, I laid down between the mounds of bulbs, surrounded by their strong perfume, to peer up at the blue sky and to watch the fluff of the few clouds drift by as the tractor moved.  I remembered the first time we had brought the garlic-laden hayrack up the hill that morning, when Kazami had done the same thing, and Matt had laughed and said, “You are in a garlic coffin.” I smiled, thinking that being surrounded by these beautiful bulbs in my coffin would not be so bad, and closed my eyes, lulled by the sound of crunching gravel and the purr of the ancient tractor, which I knew had been through so much that day. 

Beautiful Storms

The wind is screaming when I awake
Raging through the tiny holes of the
Window screen above my head and
Bursting cold against my skin
I close my eyes to the trickle of water
Splashing leaves, petals, dirt
Sigh and relax as the sound grows
To pouring, pounding and deafening
Later I am walking in dark blue haze
Toward a smiling face when
The sky flashes on its light and
Lightning stems across the heavens –
A firework.
We have had a couple of storms such as these this week on the farm, which thrills, saddens and awes me all at once. The thrill and awe comes from the beauty of it all – the way the world suddenly turns bright, and the grass lime green – but the distress comes from the knowledge that these rains will do us no good.

When Daddy sat us down early Monday morning for his weekly talk, in front of the chalkboard on which he had written down all of the jobs that needed to get done this week, he stressed that he hoped the soil would dry out so that he could get more seeds in the ground and tackle the ever-increasing weeds. “This week is crucial for weeding,” he explained seriously, “The Great Garlic Harvest is in a couple of weeks and during that time we won’t have any time to weed. This is the time of the year that weeds grow the fastest, so we need to tackle them now before it is too late.”
Rain pounded against the shed roof as he said this, though, a sore reminder of the obstacles we faced. Weeding is especially difficult in muddy or rainy conditions because mud sticks to fingers, hand hoes and clothes so that pulling out weeds takes expert precision and hard work. To make matters worse, if a weed is pulled but accidentally left in the bed, it might re-root because of the wet condition.

Later that afternoon, when a clear blue sky overtook the dark, furious one, we spent some gruesome, exhausting hours weeding the basil and carrot beds. The carrots were by far the worst – there were inch deep, lukewarm puddles in the aisles, and because I had forgotten, stupidly, to wear my rain boots and pants, I was in for some wet work. Finally, I decided to take off my shoes, socks, sombrero and long sleeved shirt so that I was working in a tank top, wading with bare feet. Still, my jeans were soaked and covered in heavy mud, and I had lost my hand hoe in the puddles by the time, hours and hours later, Val and I finally finished the bed.

With Tuesday came another raging storm and rains after the CSA harvest concluded. Thus, Wednesday morning had to be spent doing odds and ends in the greenhouses yet again, pulling the rest of the carrots for Market and mulching over where the aisles were now free of vegetables, so that the only rows left were lined with tomato, eggplant and pepper plants – and golden brown mulch covered the entirety of the greenhouses.

The exciting thing about the rains is that they have helped germinate all of the seeds from our most recent planting marathon – summer squash, watermelon, melon, cucumbers, winter squash, corn, beans, lettuce, beets, carrots and more are sprouting up here and there. But to that, too, is a downside – it is necessary now to thin and hoe these summer crops, but the muddy soil makes it impossible.

Though the summer storms are in all ways alluring and rains lulling, the Brockman clan and farm hands wish, again, for dry, clear-skied days.

Perhaps this calls for some anti-rain dances…