I’ve been thinking a lot lately about perception. The way we perceive others. The way others perceive us. The way we see ourselves. And I remembered an essay I wrote a long time ago, when food was becoming a really big thing for me and I was teetering between conviction and self-consciousness. This essay is long (like book-chapter long), but as I prepare to shake things up around here, it seems fitting to start with something that shows where I came from. And maybe you’ll see a little something of yourself in here, too.
Though this piece was published in The Smart Set in 2008, I actually wrote it 10 years ago. (Then I thought, hey, I should publish this thing.)
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I was proud of the choices I made for the environment.
Then I spent a day in the fields.
A square of plywood, instructing us to park, is all that keeps us from driving past the farm, down a wiggly black road that eventually ends at a bison field. Pulling into the gravel lot, we arch our backs and yawn, unaccustomed to leaving the city for the country while the sun is still making its morning climb. We’ve been in the car for an hour, nursing coffee the whole time. “Is there a bathroom nearby?” I ask a man striding through a field, swinging a white plastic pail. “Yep,” he answers. “I’m emptying the bucket now.” The four of us glance at each other as the farmer walks to a tree line near the road, distributing the bucket’s contents with a few short, practiced tosses.
No one expected the comforts of home. Yet I did hope for something a little more pleasing. A little more, what, pretty? Maybe rolling fields, a big red barn, rustic flavor in that roadside-farmstand, bed-and-breakfast kind of way? But on this organic farm in rural Western New York there are no gently weathered chairs, no flowerpots or drying herbs or other signs of country artifice, just ragged ground and barns held up, it seems, by air.
My husband and I, and our friends, have become comrades in community-supported agriculture, members of a farm co-op that requires an investment not only of money, but of time. And this is our first workday. At the meeting where we’d learned about the farm, heard what was required of us and what we’d get in return, I’d looked around the room and felt suddenly aware of my lipstick. We were upstairs in a Quaker meetinghouse, surrounded by bearded, solemn-faced men and long-haired women with untouched complexions. Cars outside (rusted Volvo wagons and modest compacts) bore bumper stickers urging boycotts of the World Bank, advocating fair trade, and imploring me to free Tibet. I, meanwhile, had just paid $50 for a rug that surely was made in a sweatshop. But I’m also vegetarian, and I don’t use chemicals in the garden, nor am I inclined to like them on the food I eat. So we signed up for a full share — $18 a week for a better assortment of organic produce than we could ever get in our own backyard, at the public market, or even at the chichi grocery store where we shop.
Weekly pickups quickly become a ritual. Every Thursday evening after work we stopped by a natural foods store on the edge of downtown, where farm members set up tables to distribute produce driven in by other members who’d worked on the farm earlier in the day. Greens dominated the early weeks — lettuces, herbs, and lots of spinach, cabbage, kale, and bok choi — but before long we were carting home peppers and tomatoes, beans, squash, scallions and garlic, broccoli, various root vegetables. We savored the freshness and variety of our weekly take, but for me, there was always an unsettling feeling of having stepped into a parallel universe, one in which the true socialists saw us for the imposters we were.
We’d opted in because of the promise of organic produce and vague notions of wanting to support small farms and sustainable agriculture, but, truth be told, we did it partly for the novelty, the experience of it. Our fellow shareholders arrived in utilitarian, fuel-efficient cars, some even riding bikes with backpacks and panniers for their food. They shopped with authority at the natural foods store, filling their baskets while I bought a few odds and ends, saving the rest of my list for the big grocery store where I could get a latte and a cupholder for my cart. Every time the cashier at the smaller store rang me out, I wondered if my purchases looked trendy. A few nutrition bars, bulk pine nuts, natural sodas with artsy labels.
Years earlier, I’d worked with a woman who’d done a stint in the Peace Corps. She wore shapeless natural-fiber clothes, wasn’t picky about body hair and drove a beat-up car. With an air of superior calm, she shunned most material possessions and modern conveniences, and liked to flaunt how mindful she was of other cultures, telling how she ate rat stew to avoid insulting women in the jungle village where she’d been assigned. I thought about her on our early visits to pick up produce, thought about how intimidating she could be, in a quiet sort of way. For all our outward differences, we did share similar views on the environment, animal rights, social issues. Still, while I was happy walking that yuppie-crunchy line, I always wondered whether she saw my efforts as half-assed, nothing more than fashionable political correctness. So it was with an odd sort of satisfaction that I walked into work one day and found her wearing a fur coat. “I bought it at a garage sale,” she said. “I figured it was already long dead.” I stood there, clearly disapproving, feeling like the superior one. Yet I realized, finally, that it was I, not her, who’d been hung up on our differences all along.
It was easy, in those early days at pickup, to slip again into self-conscious comparisons, wondering what other shareholders would think of our house, my sprinkler addiction, my fondness for disposable dusting cloths with cute names. I wanted to tap someone on the shoulder and say, “Hey, I recycle and I have a compost bin.” I wanted to say, “Sure I’ve bought stuff made in China. But I’d rather eat dirt than shop at Wal-Mart.” Yet I settled for more subtle exchanges, trading cooking tips and asking people why they joined the farm.
By the time we have this first workday, it’s 10 weeks into the season. I don’t much notice our differences anymore, or question them, and I’m eager for the initiation of actually working the land. We start the day picking Swiss chard, across the street from the barns, in a weedy field where the farmers have been at work since dawn. We’re given carefully pre-counted rubber bands and instructed in how to pick and bundle the crisp, colorful stalks. Leaves with more than a couple of holes aren’t acceptable, and borer marks that spoil the stems aren’t “aesthetically pleasing,” so those are left where they’re found, a concession, I imagine, to the supermarket-bred tastes of some of the farm’s urban members. “I’d eat it,” I say out loud, defensively, to no one in particular. Stepping and bending, grasping and pinching, lined up on both sides of the row, several of us keep asking the farmers, “How does this bundle look? Are there enough leaves?” I wonder if they get tired of novices, and then I decide they’d probably rather we ask questions than screw up.
We finish the chard, and a farmer we’ve not met until now asks us to gather round in a circle. She welcomes us, tells us what we’ll be harvesting that day — the chard, then beets, kale, beans, and potatoes — and asks that we introduce ourselves. There’s me, my husband, our friends, a good-looking guy with a ponytail who works at Xerox, a middle-aged married couple who’ve been members for years, a grandmotherly woman who’s also a longtime comrade, and her great-nephew who’s visiting from Germany. Then there’s a sleepy-looking blond lady and an Italian guy with too-short shorts who show up late with a wicker tote filled with work gloves, Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, and some gardening magazines. I cringe as I recall my own inclination to bring something to read, and am grateful I decided against it.
As comfortable as this work feels, I’m still wary, trying to understand what has stirred that place in me where certainties lose conviction, where confidence turns awkward. Where did it begin? My parents weren’t hippies afflicted with sudden wealth, or silver-spoon brats struck by a crisis of conscience on Earth Day. My father built cameras for Kodak, my mother was a waitress, and though camping and hiking were part of growing up, any interest in the environment ended at the front door.
My old Girl Scout newsletters, published painstakingly on our family typewriter, show I held opinions about littering (bad) and hurting wildlife (also bad). But my earliest memory of anything remotely green was post-college, in my first job, where I organized a recycling campaign for the newsroom. After hours, I’d march desk to desk, picking through trash cans and placing recyclable materials on my co-workers’ chairs. I was obsessed with cans, to the point that one of the graphic artists immortalized me in a poster. Feet planted, brawny arms thrust forward, my caricature self looked like Xena on a sugar high, eyes wild and fingers dripping soda. “For the 3,000th time, would you PLEASE rinse your bottles and cans?!?!” I growled while flies buzzed around my head.
Life followed, and, with it, the values and preferences that evolve in ways we don’t always understand. I stopped eating meat, and grew to dislike processed foods and unpronounceable ingredients. I started using shampoo and dish detergent that hadn’t been tested on animals and that wouldn’t taint me or the ecosystem. We bought an old house in the city and developed an interest in preservation and a disdain for sprawl. Gardening consumed me. The environment became a tangible, living thing that I wanted to protect.
Yet I didn’t shun consumerism or trade in my leather shoes. I just settled in that middle region, knowing my limits, choosing realistic over idealistic.
Now, faced with the true believers, I wonder, do I feel like a hypocrite because I pick and choose how simply — how correctly — I will live? I hunger for authenticity, yet I notice the absence of quaint trappings at the farm.
It’s during the beet-picking that one of the farmers first asks what we all do for a living, what kind of a job lets us take a Thursday off to pick vegetables. The topic lingers through the morning, and gradually we learn that the farmer with the white bucket left a career on Wall Street to do this. I can’t help cracking a smile when I think of the trade he made: shit for shit. I like this lanky farmer and his wife. They’re mellow, appreciative, genuinely interested in us, and we in them. I like the story of how they met and started this place with another farmer, the woman who’d welcomed us all in our morning circle.
This other farmer is harder to read, more guarded, her prismatic hazel eyes searching, exposing. She taught Russian literature in another life. But she’s been farming for 25 years now, and has long since abandoned any romantic notions she might once have held. Her columns in the farm newsletter are eloquent, spirited, but edged ever so slightly with cynicism. She is small and fit, graying black hair braided down her back. When I see her later, shopping at the natural foods store in the city, I realize how tiny she really is. To notice her for the first time then, you’d never imagine she could haul groaning crates of potatoes, hoist fence posts, or wrestle a tractor in line.
As we pick beets, again with pre-counted rubber bands and careful instructions — five to six big beets, or seven to eight smaller ones — I find myself thinking too literally, agonizing over the right number. What if they’re kind of medium? But eventually it comes down to heft and fist size and asking everyone else whether the bunch looks big enough. Later, picking beans, sitting on the rim of my bucket and tossing handfuls between my legs, I try to imagine what it’s like to do this every day. It’s steaming hot today, the first day of August. It’s the kind of heat that snatches your breath, tickles your eyelids. We drain water bottles and steal shade when moving between crops, pulling our hats low and smearing dirt-streaked sweat across our cheeks. The bean-picking is fluid, not strenuous, but before long we’re like a poorly choreographed dance troupe, crouching, then twisting, reaching, stretching, continually shifting position to ward off backaches and leg cramps.
Yet there it is. This moment where I think, This is what I came here for. This connection to the Earth, to my food. The utter honesty of it. Picking up our produce will be different from now on, because we’ve been here, participated.
It’s a fleeting moment. During the potato-harvesting I find I’m self-conscious again, out of my element even though I feel perfectly at home in the dirt. The hazel-eyed farmer drives down each potato row, plowing below the tubers and lifting them to the surface in neat mounds, which we plunder on dirt-stained hands and knees. We disperse along the rows, wooden crates at intervals, scooping as we go. I’m too far away when the instructions come. Make sure you dig through all the dirt. I make quick work of my section, using green leaves as my cue to dig down and shake the red potatoes free. I’m looking for the next row when the farmer sees my tilled mounds, untouched except for the depressions from which I plucked my finds. Elsewhere, the dirt is scattered, flattened. “You need to dig through all the dirt,” she scolds, kneeling and rummaging through the mounds. “I’m sorry,” I tell her. “I must not have heard that.” But she isn’t listening when I try to explain that I did have a method, that I wasn’t just picking randomly. “Well, please let me know if I missed any,” I say. “Oh, I will,” she says.
Finding just three potatoes, she’s contrite, tossing off small talk to lighten the mood. But this tiny standoff must have rattled her, or perhaps the reality of our relationship — we buy shares, the farmers earn a living — eats at her. Because moments later, when I throw a half-gnawed potato back into the trench, she admonishes me to throw it off to the side, so it won’t sprout. “What about all those potato buds clinging to the upturned plants? Won’t they sprout, too?” I ask. She doesn’t answer, but the lanky farmer does. “Yep, they probably will. But we’ll just till them under like always.”
We’re weeding when a nearby siren sounds. It’s noon, lunch, the end of our workday. I’ve been thinking about my peanut butter sandwich for the last hour, yet I’m reluctant to leave the fields. The sun is still pressing down, the air thick with the hum of insects, but I want to walk the rows, see which other crops are growing ripe, preserve the thread, however frail, that ties me to this place. On the way back to the barns, we pass tomatoes and peppers, some flush and ready, others still weeks from their fleshy peak. The hazel-eyed farmer stops to examine a broken pepper plant. “It wasn’t like that before,” she says, sounding puzzled, and I’m instantly on guard. Is she accusing one of us? I wonder. Then I realize she’s more likely sad, mournful at such waste, her order in the universe disrupted by random breaks. We’re almost to the barns when she stops again, grabs a watering can, and submerges it in a rain barrel. She walks the length of a cold frame, sprinkling lettuce seedlings and talking about the mouse family that took up residence inside, until she dispensed some “swift Texas justice.”
Lunch prep is a communal affair, several of us standing elbow to elbow at the rinsing sink outside the barns. A hose snakes from the one spigot, depositing fresh cold water where moments earlier a cloudy sink held the grit washed from that day’s harvest. We swish lettuce and kale in the tub, and rinse off carrots and scallions and tomatoes, and I try not to wonder whether anyone washed their hands after taking a trip to the barn’s indoor outhouse, with its bare bulb and red, cow-patterned curtain. I watch as one farmer, then another, drinks from the communal blue tin mug hanging above the spigot. Once our salad is tossed and dressed, we carry our lunch down a slope to a weathered picnic table, cloaked in shade from nearby trees. We’ve each brought our own food, as well, and we spread it out on the table, offering one another grapes, blueberries, cucumbers, cheese.
The mood is easy, relaxed, lusciously content in the afterglow of hard work. We talk about the farm, about painting a mural on one of the barns, about gardening and food and steaming summer days. Yet the edge on this day has not gone away. I’ve brought half-sheets of paper towels to use as napkins, and I have plenty, so I offer them around. A few take them, a few decline. Politely. But the hazel-eyed farmer looks up with a cool gaze. “No thanks, I’ll use my pants.” I fumble with our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, wrapped in foil, then zipped inside plastic bags. Our grapes came out of a plastic bag, too, and we’ve already emptied half a dozen packaged water bottles. When the conversation turns to how we and our friends met, I jump at the chance to explain, recounting how we share a backyard gate, right next to our compost bin.
Earlier, we’d noticed that the farmers had rigged a harvesting cart with bicycle tires and slots for blue recycling bins like those we use curbside in the city. My husband, never knowing me to hold my tongue, asked, quietly, whether it bothered me that they’d co-opted the bins for such an unintended use. In any other setting, with any other people, I’d have brought it up, mildly chewing them out for undermining the recycling effort by using their blue boxes for toys, firewood, random junk. But here I took notice and let it go, figuring, perhaps, that the farmers came by the boxes honestly, as surplus, and thinking that even if they hadn’t, how could I argue with what they were doing? Maybe I thought people as virtuous as these wouldn’t gain much from my little lecture.
At lunch, I wonder whether they are indeed more virtuous, or simply more confident in their grasp of what makes something moral, right, unassailable. When our friends pull out a bag of potato chips, it’s as though they’ve placed a loaded gun on the table. Conversation actually stops, people shift nervously. But most accept handfuls, commenting on what a nice indulgence they are after a hard day’s work. The hazel-eyed farmer is silent, shaking her head no thanks as the chips are passed around. We get talking about fats and oils, sharing thoughts on the latest research about nutrition and healthy eating. The farmer doesn’t say a word. Is she amused by us? I’m gripped by a sudden urge to go ransack her cupboards and see what sort of food I find. I’m aware that I feel threatened, that her convictions make me uncomfortably conscious of the gray areas in my life. When she’d told us about killing the mice, when she’d crushed a potato beetle between her fingers, I’d winced, not because I’m squeamish, but because I’d rather we all just get along. If my garden flowers get nibbled or our yard is dug up by woodchucks, I’m OK with that. But out here that belief suddenly feels naïve. The lettuce I’ve been enjoying all summer, the potatoes I’ll soon be roasting — neither would survive in my version of the food chain. For these farmers, for many of my comrades even, things are not so black and white, after all.
The day isn’t over yet. After lunch, those of us heading back to the city must pack our cars full of the day’s harvest. I apologize for bringing my husband’s car, which is smaller than mine, but it was so hot today and his air conditioning works and, well… I trail off, self-conscious once again. Pampered girl, I think. But no. Good, we’re told, the greens need to be kept cool, so let’s put those in the back seat, not in the trunk. The moment passes, and then we’re packed and ready to leave, exchanging farewells and embraces. The hazel-eyed farmer takes my hand, says goodbye, nice to meet you. I think of the drive that morning, through small towns in the middle of nowhere. How can people live out here? I look in her eyes. The middle of nowhere? Maybe just the middle. I climb in the car, drink in the cool air from the AC, and settle in for the ride home.