A Wish for Watermelon

I was sitting in the middle of the big seat of the market truck, with my phone in my hand, sunburned and punchy, in between Daddy and Val on the way home from the market last Saturday when those dreaded words came through the air waves and into my ear. Mommy was saying, “It just rained a lot here, so there is no way we can plant this weekend.”
 
When I relayed this message to Daddy and Val, I could see a cloud of worry and sadness drift onto their faces. We had not been able to plant for about a month and were behind on everything, especially the melon and squash plantings. The weather report was calling for rain throughout the week, so at that moment in the market truck, all three of us were thinking in despair: does this mean no watermelon this year?!
 
Saturday and Sunday came and went with no opportunity for planting, for the ground was deemed too moist by Daddy. Instead, the ninety degree plus high humidity weather of Monday was spent mulching up a storm – or rather, a dust cloud – and by the end, Daddy’s arms were entirely covered in black mulching dust, stuck by all the sweat that had poured down during those long, dangerously humid hours.
 
Tuesday, Daddy had hoped, would be a planting day. But when the CSA harvest was over, the ground was still not dry enough. It sure was scorching, though, and when Mustard came up to the shed looking pale and suffering from a pounding headache, Daddy, fearing heat stroke, immediately told him to dunk his head into a bucket of cold well water. Later, Matt brought the bucket down to the field, this time filled with ice water, so that all of us could dunk our heads as well, as we perspired and persevered through rows and rows of tomatoes with our scuffle hoes.

Finally, by late afternoon on Wednesday, the ground was dry enough for planting. The sultry morning of weeding left me devoid of energy by the time I took my two hour lunch break, but I could not complain, for Daddy did not even come up to rest – he just kept on tilling beds, afraid of an outbreak of rain clouds. He only stopped to rest for about a minute to gobble up a quick spinach sandwich and gulp water that we had brought down.
 
Then we planted rows upon rows of muskmelons, okra, watermelons, beans, edamame, cucumbers and corn by hand, dropping the tiny seeds one by one, six inches apart, into a furrow. We fertilized each bed that we planted with fistfuls of chicken compost and after laying out the seeds, covered them with a tamper. Then we transplanted kale and the last of the tomatoes.
 
While the sun faded into the trees and lightning bugs sparked in the dark, Kazami, Matt and I helped Daddy switch out lettuce seed on the tractor planter, completing eight full beds.
 
Thursday followed with the same fury of planting before the rains. In the morning the grey sky made us wary of rain as we transplanted kale and planted more with the tractor – greens, roots, everything – but the rain clouds rapidly flew by and only let down a few drops of water.
 
In the afternoon, we continued the hand-planting marathon with popcorn, summer squash, winter squash and sweet corn. I kept waiting for the sky to spontaneously burst with a flooding of rain, but it never happened, thankfully, so instead, Kazami and I took a short hour-long break, while Daddy worked on. When Daddy finally finished all of the planting he needed to do, he took us all up in the truck and started us on harvesting two hundred and fifty bunches of beets, followed by carrots and radish.

And as the sun set on the second planting day and the air cooled, the Brockman family and our group of intensely hard-working farm hands went home to eat and rest, to ready themselves for another long day on the farm tomorrow – which, this time, would be spent harvesting, not planting.

For Family and Potato Plants

Reggae beats played from my phone at exactly 3:50 PM and shook me out of a dream for the second time Wednesday. The hour-long nap had failed to cure me of my fatigue, which I blamed on the long work hours from early morning until mid-afternoon, during which time I had used my hand-hoe to clear out weeds so that the baby fennels could breathe and grow, and then mulched the potatoes. Lying on my bed staring half asleep at the off button on the alarm screen of my cell phone, I was tempted to hit it so that I could conk out again into a dream world where I would be safe from the hot sun and strenuous work.

Yet half an hour later, I was back in the Bottom Field, this time armed with a long scuffle hoe, peering closely at Daddy as he showed Brian – one of our many apprentices this farm season – and me how to thin the squat summer squash seedlings. He said to leave one foot of space between each plant – slashing through extra baby squash plants and weeds in between. Then he hoed around the plant so that about six inches to each side of the plant was weed-free. The demonstration looked deceptively quick and easy – as Daddy expertly and gracefully maneuvered the blade of the hoe so that it cut out everything but the healthy squash seedling. The hoe made a whooshing, banging sound as it rapidly slit the soil, and as Daddy moved back and forth, putting his back into the motion. For a second, Brian and I were both taken aback by the magical 10-second transformation of a weedy row of summer squash into glistening plants spaced evenly apart.  

Then Brian laughed, breaking the spell of amazed silence, and took over the row of squash while I trailed Daddy to hoe one of the cucumber rows.

As I desperately banged away at the ground, bent over and already sweating, trying to copy Daddy’s poise and speed, I remembered why I despised hoeing so much. Without Daddy’s gifted hoeing technique, I always seemed to murder the very plant I was trying to save. I felt as if I were using the hoe wrong, as well, and I tried to be stronger when hitting the ground so that the blade would easily cut through the topsoil, loosening the weeds.
 
As I furiously slashed around those cukes, I was reminded of another talented hoe-er – my older brother Asa. Hoeing looked like a piece of cake when Asa did it – by the end he looked like he had taken a leisurely walk while I always seemed to look and feel like I had just run a full marathon.
 
Asa was not down hoeing with us, though – he had left in the Honda Civic when the sun was high in the sky Saturday, to take the day-long drive down to Alabama, where he is working in a lab for the summer. The Friday Harvest before he left, I remembered that I harvested some early snow peas from the greenhouses and almost burst into tears while presenting one lonely pea to Asa because I realized he would not be here for the summer – for the first time in his life – to gobble down on those peas as we harvested, like he always did.
 
Thankfully, Daddy interrupted this depressing memory by calling from his truck, saying that when we were finished with the rows of cukes and summer squash, to meet him by the potato patch in order to mulch again. I was gaining speed now with my semi-magical hoe, and I pushed and pulled repeatedly with powerful strokes until Val, Peter, Brian and I had all met up.
 
I stretched my aching back as I put away my hoe and walked over to the patch of potatoes. We had already mulched about a quarter of the rows during the late morning. I gulped cold water from the jug that Daddy had filled for me up at the barn while he loaded the hay, and tried not to think of the fact that I forgotten my mask  again.
 
I took a deep breath as I surveyed the extensive rows and willed myself to go on. Then I lifted up a heavy gold-colored bale of hay by the two orange strings and carried it, stumbling, down the long row to where I would start.  I used my knife from my back pocket to slice through the strings so that the bale came apart into about ten sections. Next I spread out each section across the row. One bale usually went about ten to fifteen feet. Once this set-up was finished, I sat in between two potato rows, grabbed a section, tore it apart, fluffed up the hay in my hands, and stuck big bunches of it right up against the plants on my left, and in between the plants on my right, and then spread even more hay in between the rows. Daddy advised us to be rough when pushing up hay around the potatoes plants, since they could take the violent handling, and the mulch would be thick enough to smother out any pesky weeds. Mustard – another one of our farm hands – discovered some potato bugs on the plants and went on a killing spree. Those red gooey bugs that morphed into beetles were the number one enemy of our precious potato plants.
 
Even though I tried not to breathe in the dust of the hay, as I fluffed and grabbed bunches in my hands, I felt as if I were eating it – which caused me to cough from time to time. Dust was in my hair, stuck to my white, sweat-drenched long-sleeved shirt, and dumped upon my jeans. The heat of the sun, combined with the aerobic exercise, caused sweat to pour down more than ever before, and when I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand, I could feel the grit of the mulch slip off. My eyes hurt from dust particle invasions and my throat was parched and mulch-filled by the time we neared the end of the rows and six o’clock rolled around.  
 
We all froze mid-fluff when Daddy announced our plan for Thursday. Because we have not been able to get much planting done due to the incessant rains, and it looked like the ground might finally be dry enough to till by Friday, he said, the usual Market Harvest would be moved up to Thursday. “Then if it is dry enough on Friday we will have all day to plant,” he added.
 
Harvest means we have to wake up and be down in the field at the crack of dawn, which these days occurs a little before 5 a.m.
 
Worst case scenario, we may find ourselves planting Saturday after the Market or on Sunday, or, most awfully, not at all this week.On that note, we finished another long and back-destroying work day.

As soon as I got home, I peeled off my sweat- and-mulch-covered clothes and rewarded myself with a shower. When I came out of the bathroom, spot-clean and refreshed, Kazami greeted me with “Tadaima (I’m home)!” I smiled in pure joy and replied, “Okaeri (Welcome home)!” and was infinitely grateful for my two sweet brothers – when one went away, I was granted the return of another.
 
I looked down at the hoeing blister forming on the bottom of my thumb, the bruise on my knuckle, and the hay-caused rash on my arms. Then I looked up at Kazami and grinned again, knowing that for this and the potato plants, it was all worth it.

An Unforgettable Morning

Sunday morning, seven hours after arriving home from a late-night hang-out with my two best friends, I was awakened by Daddy’s bustling around the house and the low burble and beeping of the weather radio. I closed my eyes tightly and hoped that the weather report would spare me of Sunday work – especially on the day of my graduation from high school.
 
I was not surprised, however, when Mommy’s footsteps softly reverberated toward my bedroom and, moments later, my fate was pronounced. “Sweet potatoes need planting before the rains,” she explained, and I mumbled a reply before tossing up the covers to get dressed.
 
After my usual morning routine of giving feed and water to fourteen high-energy chickens, followed by doing the same to the ever-maturing group of peeping pullets in their shed, I pulled on my sombrero to slip my way down the gravel path to the Bottom Field.
 
There, Koko sped toward me, tail wagging in exhilaration. When I looked up from scratching her belly, I saw Val and Brian – two of our farm apprentices for this season – and Mommy digging with shovels in the kale section up ahead.
 
We had transplanted green, red and Italian kale there a few weeks before, but the continuous rains ever since had left the soil so soggy and saturated at one end that the plants, starved of oxygen to their new roots, had died or had been stunted. Daddy said it was the first time he had seen plants grow smaller after transplanting rather than larger.

The wetter side had been massacred, leaving no option but a till-in and another planting from scratch, but the other three-fourths had been sprinkled with destruction. Daddy was walking up and down the rows, pushing in stakes next to plants he deemed too weak to survive.

I grabbed a shovel and following specific instructions, found a stake and dug a hole there. Then I found a healthy-looking kale from the extras planted in the middle of two rows in a bed of the same kind, and dug it up, making sure not to slice through the roots. The difficult part was making sure dirt stayed around the root when transplanting so that the connections between the roots and the soil would stay intact and make it easier for the plant to adjust to its new environment. Too often the dirt seemed unable to resist crumbling off during the move.
 
After laying the kale in, I snatched up clumps of dirt and crushed them in my palm, repeating until the gaping hole was full to the brim. My favorite part then followed – I got up on my feet to walk in a circle around the plant, firming it into the ground. The indent would also help to collect rain water.
 
As the sun followed its daily trail up, the air increased its temperature and humidity. I was glad when my brother Asa arrived after doing cattle chores (a favor for Grandpa while he and Grandma visit Uncle Fred and Aunt Odette’s newborn girl, Chenoa, in Oregon) – one more helping hand made all the difference.
 
But still, the line of stakes seemed never ending, and I was quickly succumbing to exhaustion and hunger. The newly transplanted kale gradually wilted in the penetrating sun, so Daddy sent Brian up to the well to fill buckets with water. My energy from eating only a banana for breakfast diminished with every press of my foot on the shovel. I began to wonder if we would be done in time for my graduation ceremony.
 
Past noon, we had moved from green to red to Italian kale and things were finally wrapping up. Brian stayed to finish splashing the plants with much-needed water, but the rest of us followed Daddy to the middle of the Bottom Field, where five long tilled beds were waiting to be filled with sweet potato plants.
 
Daddy demonstrated how to grab the top of the plant with one hand and the root with the other, and hold it sideways to slip into the soil at an angle, the root farthest south. Then he used his knuckles to pound down the long root and in around the plant. “One foot in between plants,” he finished, and we were off.
 
Planting sweet potatoes was a quick and easy task – a huge relief from the kale transplanting. Not only does Daddy’s method cut down on time, but since sweet potatoes take up so much space with their vines, they are planted only in the middle of the bed, meaning only one row, compared to the usual three, per bed.
 
Those long rows that looked so un-compromising before were being finished in record time. We were almost done when I realized that I only had an hour before I needed to leave the house for the ceremony—and I was filthy and time was ticking. The wind was picking up speed now, and as I speed-walked up the steep hill to the house, I felt the first drops of rain fall from the black, rumbling storm clouds.
 
I showered at what I thought was a fast and furious pace, which was quickly disproved by Asa’s pounding on the bathroom door: “We all need to shower, too!” Then I slipped on my graduation dress, covered it with the white gown and messed with my hair a bit before running into the kitchen to eat another banana.

The kitchen windows revealed how dark the sky had turned and wind whistled through the house. At the same time I hoped for rain, to give those sweet potatoes and kale a drink of life, I desired a rain-less afternoon so that the graduation could be held outside.

Minutes later, my family had undergone a magical transformation from dirt-covered button-down shirts and muddy jeans to dress shirts and pants. We piled into the car just as hail began to sail down, followed by a dumping of rain.

By the time we arrived at the high school, the rain had trickled down to a few drops. I ran in, a couple minutes late, to meet my friends for before-graduation pictures and I’m-never-going-to-see-you-again hugs, knowing that thanks to the unpredictable Illinois weather, I had been graced with an unforgettable graduation morning.

The Secret to Happiness

I used to think that my father was crazy. Every night, he would come home completely and utterly dirty–proof of his exhausting work tending to the Earth. His hands were the color of a cloudless night, the stars being bits of perlite–the sparkly white mineral used in the greenhouse potting mix–stuck here and there in the creases of his palm and fingers.  Brown stains remained even after he had washed up for dinner. I thought he was crazy because, covered in sweat and mud and dirt, he was the happiest man on Earth.

I didn’t always think he was crazy. When I was little, I used to throw dirt into the air to feel it rain down on me, run around with bare feet just to feel the soft ground below me, and make black gloves out of mud and show them off to my brothers. Then I started to go to school. It was a shock to know that now, dirt was a bad thing. No one wanted to get dirty for fear of germs. Gradually, I began to stop touching the Earth with my hands unless it was absolutely necessary. After a long harvest at the farm, I would try to clean the dirt from under my fingernails, afraid of what would get said at school. Yet I can truly say that those were the most depressing years of my life.

After years of not being happy but not quite knowing why, I had an epiphany. Naturally, this occurred while I was pulling stubborn weeds out of the ground with only my thoughts to listen to one scalding, humid day.  Such revelations often happened when I was weeding.  So far I had figured out how I could help struggling people in Africa, what I wanted to be when I grew up, and now . . . the secret to happiness.  Right then, feeling the cool, moist soil underneath my hot, sweaty hands, I felt some of the happiness from my toddler years come rushing back.   And I knew that dirt is the secret to happiness.

There is a liberating, freeing feeling when you bury your hands in dirt. It is difficult to explain, but the musky, fruity smell of the soil combined with the unique texture of the Earth makes you feel connected to Nature. When you close your eyes and feel the dirt teeming with life, it makes you feel alive too.

But not all dirt is created equal. The fertile, black soil of my father’s Central Illinois farm is one that not many people have experienced. I believe that dirt that has been repeatedly damaged by poisonous chemicals or has been compacted and over-farmed will not give one the same exhilarating happiness.

Now, I am truly content. Some days I come to school with dirt under my fingernails, proud to display my closeness to the Earth. Some people send weird glances at my hands, probably thinking that I am crazy.  Just like I used to think my father was crazy.  I do not know why, but this thought makes me laugh.