Mark Winne is a writer, gardener, and resident of Santa Fe, New Mexico. His latest book is Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin’ Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture.
It’s pretty well known by now that I lean on Ralph Waldo Emerson the way a drunk leans on a lamppost. When my frustration with politics, society, or even the weather surpasses all understanding, I go running for the shelter of my Emerson-only bookshelf, a privileged nook that no other literary form is permitted to occupy. Like a sweaty boy seeking relief from a hot summer day, I plunge into his cool mountain pond of essays.
“Self-Reliance” gets me out of my funk over society’s impulse to commit mass suicide via mass conformity. Recent readings of “The Fugitive Slave Law” and “Letter to President Van Buren” (concerning the forced re-location of Native American tribes from the Southeast to the Oklahoma Territory) have steeled my resolve to fight today’s injustices. But where I found surprising relief from more personal and seasonal matters came from a lovely piece simply titled “Farming.”
You see, it’s springtime in northern New Mexico, which I’ve come to learn over the course of my seven year probationary term here means absolutely nothing. As a transplanted New England gardener I’ve yet to fully adjust to the unpredictable path our Santa Fe de primavera takes before it settles into a reliable pattern of warm, relatively wind-free days. Forget the lack of water; I learned early on that unless you “bring your own” in the form of a decent irrigation system you might as well find another hobby, or even worse, consign yourself to buying everything at the supermarket. No, I’m talking about those bewitching, blue sky days of May that are savagely followed by 25 degree nights and winds so strong you have to scrape the cat off the barn door.
Seduced by air so sweet, the kind that makes it a “luxury to draw the breath of life,” I fling myself at my garden to poke seeds and plant seedlings in beds that were diligently prepared only a week before. But as soon as the sun sets beneath the Jemez Mountains to the West, a cold blanket of air slips down from the snow-covered Sangre de Christos Mountains to the East. The soil – so friable and warm during the day – turns crusty and unforgiving at night. The coup de grace is administered by 50-mile per hour wind gusts that rise up from the plains to the South and scour the ground into submission. The seeds retreat into dormancy and the plants are found the morning after splayed across the drip tape.
Experience is supposed to be a buffer to surprise. The impact of so-called unpredictable events should be reduced to a manageable level through a reasonable application of probability. The prudent gardener slowly accumulates a number of actuarial tables in his head that check the urge to act only because the calendar tells him to. But when the gardener’s original experience base is New England and his actuarial tables were compiled on the banks of the Connecticut River, he may find himself proceeding before his own biological systems have fully adapted to the new place. And maybe more importantly, what if his circuitry had always been wired for action over contemplation and patience had always been regarded as the weak sister to initiative?
The farmer, “bends to the order of the seasons, the weather, the soils and crops, as the sails of a ship bend to the wind,” writes Emerson. Most farmers I’ve known, particularly the smaller ones whose methods are sustainable and markets local, move slowly and deliberately. They know when a field is ready to plant; they sense when an animal is sick; they intuit when it is time to speed up or slow down. The farmer learns “patience with the delays of wind and sun, delays of the seasons, bad weather, excess or lack of water and times himself to Nature, and acquires that livelong patience which belongs to her.”
In my rush to plant my garden, had I become like the consumer who must have tomatoes year-round and strawberries on demand, or like the industrial farmer who works outside the normal limitations of the seasons and seeks to out-smart nature at every turn? You would have found me in my garden this May cussing out the peas that never germinated or waving my angry fists at the New Mexico gales that had reduced my tomato plants to shriveled, burned-out matchsticks. Staring down at the once beautiful asparagus tips whose life had been cut short by the heartless frost I swore vengeance on the gods who had wrought such devastation.
But a sweeter notion is now pulsing through my veins. The slow drip of Emerson is taking effect; my heartbeat slows to a more natural pace; I’m learning to tack with the wind instead of forcing my way through it. I take a deep breath, stand still and quiet so as to better hear, see, and smell nature’s signals. “Nature never hurries: atom by atom, little by little, she achieves her work.” And I will too.