Friday, June 01, 2007

May Was a Dry Month

If you haven't been able to tell by the inordinate amount of days separating this post and the one previous, I've been on vacation. Atlanta to be exact (and then Nantucket, but that's a post for a different day).

Ah, Atlanta. The Paris of the South. The L.A. of the East. It's been a month, and I've tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to spend as little time in front of a computer screen as possible. But sitting here, thinking about what I did while I was in Atlanta in early May, I feel compelled.

A few weeks back, I went to Athens. Many people, who are smart enough not to ask me about the Parthenon, know Athens is a town in Georgia, a college town, and home to the University of Georgia Bulldogs. I, myself, came within a hair's breadth of going to school there. In all likelihood, had I gone to UGA, I might have come out a much less deranged, anxiety-plagued, healthier individual than the man who stares back at me in the mirror every 4AM when I go to sleep.

I should clarify though. A few weeks back, I didn't really go to Athens, Georgia. I went to Hull, which is a town a few minutes east of Athens. You have to drive through campus, the end-of-semester idlers sitting around outdoors, sunning, drinking iced teas. I passed through downtown Athens, my windows rolled down, a bead of sweat tickling my temples. It had been hot in Georgia all week, which is a good thing for people who like to sun and drink iced teas, but which is not really a good thing for the people I visited in Hull.

So whom could I, a young man who at 17 fled the stuccoed and vinylly-sided confines of suburban Georgia for the wall-to-wall pornography of New York; whom could a man like myself, who could be seen clawing at his window on the airplane as the towers of Manhattan receded into the distance; whom could I possibly know in the backwoods of Hull, Georgia?

Let's try this again: A few weeks back, I went to Hull, Georgia to visit my good friend from high school and his fiancee at their new house. Besides growing fig trees and Stars-and-Moons watermelons and berries and beans in their backyard, my friend and his fiancee also have a little brown baby goat--yes, a goat--named Jezebel.

(Later that night--a night cloaked in deep Georgia darkness--I would crunch over dry blades of grass out to Jezebel's little pen in the backyard. I would take out the bottle of goat's milk that my friend had given me from the fridge. I would turn the bottle upside down and poke the nipple through the wires of the pen and I would feel Jezebel's desperate, inconsolable tug as she drank. I couldn't help but feel responsible for her well-being, then and perhaps forever. I felt as though I were doing something incomparably noble and compassionate, something for which, at judgement day, God might pardon any number of previous sins. Jezebel stopped for a moment as the bottle emptied--to catch her breath, I suppose. Over the chirp of cicadas and crickets, I whispered, "Chug, chug, chug, chug, chug..." This is what Georgia does to you.)

Earlier that day though, before helping cute baby goats pound milk, my friend and I went to the research farm where he has been working and his fiancee has been doing her doctoral research. It's called Full Moon Farm (actual shot of it above).

When I arrived in Hull, proud of myself for not getting lost by my friends directions, which included instructions like "this road splits on the far side of downtown, but I want you to stay straight. it becomes smaller as it dips towards the pass some shops and then some small car dealerships--eventually veer right," I was told by my friend that I would need to put on some clothes that I wouldn't mind getting dirty. We were going to harvest some vegetables.

So, the three of us--and their three pooches--hopped into a Saturn and wended our way to Full Moon Farm. On the way there, my friend told me about the dramatic ordeal the night before:

Apparently, the day before I had arrived, my friend had gone to a local market and purchased two full grown cattle, one bull and one cow. By some unfortunate miscommunication, the cattle were left alone for a second, and when my friend turned to look for them, he saw an empty field. Deep into the night and ranging across the wide, rolling lands of the farm, my friend and the charismatic warden of the farm, a youngish PhD instructor and slow-food entrepeneur from the Bay Area named Jason Mann, searched for their livestock, eventually finding them in some remote pasture and then herding them back.

We pulled into the driveway, tires eating up gravel, and laying there--and, to my eyes, plotting some sinister coup of some sort--were the two offending steer. They swung their tails cooly, calculatingly. They seemed to be sizing us up.

In the bushes, rolling himself a cigarette, stood a man. My friend, waving in the distance, and smiling fakely through gritted teeth, informed me that he was French and had trouble with English, which explained the absurdly loud and over-pronounced greeting we had given him when we first drove past, and which also explained the blank look on his face in response.

We spent the first part of the afternoon coaxing the cattle out of their circular, hay-filled holding pen, and out into a larger half acre sized pasture which itself was surrounded by an electric fence. I kept touching it but wasn't getting shocked.

"It's your boots," said my friend. They were actually his boots: rubber Wellies I'd borrowed before leaving their house. They pressured me to take them off and touch it for real. I slid them off. My tube socks gleamed nakedly in the grass.

They took no small amount of pleasure when I showed a bit of hesitation. I hope you can understand why I was scared: a fence meant to subdue a two-ton beast might not give the most pleasant feeling to a 150-pound Ethiopian.

"C'mon," groaned Jason. "When will you get a chance to do this in New York."

So, pressured by these peers, I touched it, and surprise, surprise--it hurt like hell.

Jason and my friend walked down through the pasture towards the holding pen where both cattle rested peacefully, while my friend's fiancee and I stood outside of the electric fence. The two of them approached the beasts cautiously, slowly. They were afraid of spooking the bull, who didn't seem like the most cordial animal in the world. My friend hopped up and flung the gate of their pen open and...Nothing. The bull and the cow just stood there.

Several minutes later, however, while we weren't paying attention--I think we were busy feeding a small coop of 100 baby chickens, all crammed together, trampling one another, and singing together in a pleasant chorus of muted chirps--the cattle moseyed out of their pen and started doing what they were supposed to. Which is, act like lawnmowers and eat up all the grass in the fenced-in pasture.

But as I suspected, after nibbling for a few minutes, the insurgency began, and they charged (albeit in slow motion) for the electric fence. The bull reached his snout forward and


Both beasts recoiled, the bull in real pain, the cow in blind fear. It was a visceral, animal moment, one that seems to open a window onto some universal truth about animals and our responses to the natural world. Two future burgers getting shocked the fuck up.

After the brief interlude with the livestock though, and as dusk painted the hills a deep shade of orange and violet, we drove down to where Jason had set up--with the help of my friend and a group of UGA students--several long rows of various vegetables underneath tunnel-like plastic covers.

(In case you haven't heard, Georgia--and the South as a whole--has been experiencing one of its dryest periods ever. Fires raged through South Georgia during the month of May, a month that set records for dry conditions in the state, and on this blog...Sorry. Terrible, terrible joke. At one point, the scope of the Georgia fire was so grand that its smoke traveled hundreds of miles north to Atlanta, and shrouded the entire city--already a victim of years of relentless air pollution--in a black veil of smoke.)

We rolled up our sleeves and worked our way down the rows with used produce boxes. Me and my friend's fiancee were on chard duty. Don't worry if you don't really know what chard is; truth be told, I didn't know what it was before I reached a forearm into the big, waxy, green and purple leaves, and yanked the thick, celery-like stalk from the base. It came off with a satisfying crunch, as though designed for the plucking.

Though Jason had devised a clever, if bare bones, irrigation system, many of the plants were still suffering under the dry conditions. Everyone at the farm had been hoping for rain for a while, which gave me a moment's pause, seeing as how I am a person who, like most people I know in the city, see rain as a bother, a nuisance, an African man selling umbrellas near the subway for five dollars, or the annoying cancellation of a rooftop party I had been looking forward to all week.

Here, in Hull, I saw rain for the essential, life-sustaining thing that it was.

It was a humbling feeling, riding away from the parched crop patch, our boxes redolent with lettuce, onions, chard, the three dogs chasing furiously after us through the dirt roads of the farm, tongues wagging, weaving in and out of one another, like some basketball drill they had taught themselves. It seemed the most easy and natural thing.

Living in a city like New York for as long as I have (seven years now), you don't really forget what it means to feel joy at the sight of a dog running alongside a moving truck. You don't forget why fresh produce, grown by local farmers, tastes the way food is supposed to taste. You don't forget why onions in a pan with asparagus and a side of homemade cornbread--which is what the we ate that evening after the fields--tastes that good. You simply lose sight of these things. Other things, like career and money and the neurotic tendencies of many people in one place, fog up the memory.

And as I crouched there, in the blind dark of the backyard, feeding Jezebel, the baby goat, I couldn't help but think: Fuck, I've gotta buy a new Metrocard when I get back, don't I?


Bryan said...

Really great.

Bilen said...

it's funny how a farm visit could do that to u...and by that i mean producethis stunning post!

good one mik!

i cannot wait to get my butt down south. i just got back from dairy land and felt the tug of the bread basket...i'm sure i'll fall in love with peach country too!

god help the farmer stuck inside of me and stank-ass nyc!