by Julie Barnes
The growing season is long, precarious, laced with pitfalls. Every day something will go wrong. The beavers will go on a tree-felling rampage, blocking up the stream so there’s no water in the sump hole, and our thirsty vine will cook in the summer heat. Or the sly muskrat will burrow and release the water downstream so we can’t irrigate. Frost prevails over a year of sweaty mosquito-bitten labor, nights un-slept, family fights invented and escalated, and we kids crying ourselves to sleep because Dad is so tired that he just can’t control himself. One unforeseen circumstance renders our cranberries unsale-able. There goes our home, the 200 acres we’ll be paying off for the next 30 years, my little college fund, and that trip to Disney we’ve been waiting three years to take. My father’s pride, labor of love and stubbornness, could be gone in an instant. That is nature’s power. The high stakes, no margin for error world my father has created.
The Harvest, then, is the apex of struggle. On the bog, fall brought the year’s most grueling work—pushing crimson berries in ever colder water on sleepless frosty nights, suffering long waits in our Gortex hoodies on the dumping line at Ocean Spray, hoping patience pays off in a fat color bonus on this busload of perfectly ripe fruit.
So many things can go wrong with Mother Nature when you have a particular aim in mind. Even the sensible goal of ample harvest, of productive laboring days, is fraught. The real deal is to enjoy it fully—from the idea of the crop to its planting and tending. Not to curse the prolific maples that scrape your palms when you try to uproot them, stubborn bastards that break off just above the soil-line, poised to return. Not to bemoan sore shoulders from lugging 50-pound nitrogen fertilizer bags to refill the crank spreader. Not to mind the dirty fingernails from cleaning marsh muck out of 1,000 sprinklerheads with only your wits and a few rusty yellow flag markers. Not to curse the scrap-part picker that Joel welded together that stalls out after wintering in the damp lower barn or the ancient tractor, an American Gothic escapee from the Want Advertiser. To enjoy each moment fully is to commit to the difficult labor required for bountiful harvest without wedding myself, exhausted and desperate, to a particular yield.
My harvest this fall? Season after season, I tended an array of crops to failure—root rot, mites, mold, frost damage because I didn’t wake up in time, flooding, fruitworm, not enough sun. So many pitfalls. Years of tilling, burning acres of dead trees, and picking out stubborn rocks has yielded something new. There is a kind of arriving.
I am an urban yogi, with only an unruly yard and lush, poorly-pruned house plants to grow. In rejecting the farm for a big queer city life, I could never really root the green out of my thumb. I can’t get the growing urge out of me. I took up night container gardening in my tiny garden-level apartment (read: dingy basement) beside the Haitian church. Unsatisfied with kitchen basil and office Peace Lily rescues, I let my houseplants fill the space, hold me close to home. There is relief I feel sweaty and sun-browning in the yard with my professional hands muddy, useful, and strong; there is pleasure in a reliable chainsaw, in shaping the lilacs, in picking hydrangea blooms for each room of my house.
To persist in farming, there must be a waking up to the joys, which are small, ordinary, everywhere. Each season holds its own. The farm life taught me how to notice, how to work and worry, how to trust and try every trick I could conjure to support growing things, and how to manage each thwarting nature throws.
All that toil, then, was worth something. Dad taught me, our farm did, that while I never want to work my body that recklessly without ceasing, the labor—the co-creating with the nature, fickle and capricious as it is—is a worthy end in and of itself. There is a rightness in riding the seasons, in using the body well and creatively. Underneath the anxiety and the doing, unspoken faith abides. Things will grow; there will be fruit.
My harvest now doesn’t look like much but an expansive friendly mind after rolling up my yoga mat, warm body lengthened, feeling its own strength and softness, and the capacity to sit with discomfort (the coldness after an argument, my fear of unemployment, the minefield of family vacations) without running or lashing out. And there’s my green yard where I host friends, letting them come and go on their terms, serving eggs with the garden cilantro and laughing together in the space I have tended.
Made by the farm, I can’t detangle my vines and tendrils from its, can’t stop noticing what creatures, people, neighborhoods might need to grow. Harvest arrives again and again, different every time. §
Julie Barnes is a creative whirlwind of dance, yoga, prose poems, listening, and laughter. By day, she supervises and trains staff of community health programs on holistic approaches to mental health, collaboration, and self-care. By night, she holds sacred space for movement, builds community with fellow artists and activists, and finds the joy in simple activities of daily life. Her interfaith spiritual path is about service, respectful dialogue, finding pleasure in dynamic relationships, and experiencing the Love we all are through movement, stillness, song, and silence.