At the beginning of September, I set off on a new adventure: I’m traveling around the country over the coming months, living and volunteering on a variety of small-scale organic farms through WWOOF. This essay is about my first stop: Shannon Farm in Afton, Virginia.
You don’t want to plant tomatoes on the same plot two years in a row. They’re heavy feeders, which means they deplete the dirt of nutrients particularly voraciously. (The dirt has to recover.) You also don’t want to plant tomatoes where you last grew potatoes — the beetles and worms left behind by the tubers will quickly reemerge in the spring and sink their teeth into the fragile leaves.
There’s a complex science to crop rotation, and different farmers disagree about particular practices. Some prefer to till their soil, turning it over before each season’s planting to break up the clumps, while others argue for a hands-off approach. Either way, some stuff always goes wrong. An unanticipated rainy month ruins the eggplants; the tatsoi seeds never sprout for reasons inexplicable; a mole burrows its way underneath the electric fence and pulls the carrots right from their safe beds, leaving behind only holes.
My host here at Shannon Farm, who I’ll call V, explains the principles bit by bit, aiming her green thumb around the garden with her freckled arm extended to point out which harvests have been most successful this year and which have not. To me, every thing looks like a triumph — each dangling bean, every edamame pod with fuzz shined silver in the sun, all the remaining raspberries and melons plump and proud. The tiny tomatoes are profuse and the peppers magnificent.
As an outsider, witnessing results without their process, I don’t see the lost battles or frustrations. I don’t see the labor — only its fruits. They’re ripe, and they’re juicy, and they’re golden.
I strained a leg muscle last weekend. After running almost every day for three months — including each evening here when farm work ended, weaving up and down the rocky mountain roads and finishing by flopping in the lake to cool off — I have not run in a week and a half. The inability to run is worse than the actual pain that twerks in my left hamstring when I sit up in bed or try to tie my shoes.
This is not my first exercise injury. It has happened before, and the emotional excruciation is always far less bearable than the physical. Each time I’m hurt, it reawakens me to my biggest bodily wound of all: my type one diabetes.
It’s a chronic disease I’ve endured since age 12, and unlike the others — the strains, the scrapes, the occasional colds — it’s not ever going to heal. Its aches and pains are part of my regular routine, which doesn’t mean they’re not real, but just that they’re ordinary. I numb them unknowingly. If I actively considered the uncomfortable absurdity of sticking needles into my stomach six times a day and paid attention to the bruises on the sides of my fingers from my four or more daily pricks, I would never get anything accomplished.
(When people find out about my diabetes, these are the factors they tend to respond to: the sticks and pokes. On hundreds of occasions, I’ve heard, “I hate shots. I could never do that.” My answer is the same each time: You could. You’d have no choice. You’d either do it, or you’d die. Before my diagnosis, I couldn’t have pointed out the placement of my pancreas, let alone its purpose; but once it stopped functioning from an autoimmune attack that even the world’s brightest doctors can’t explain, my only option was to pick up the pieces. And I will always be picking up the pieces.)
Somehow, every extraneous affliction (even the simplest bruise from the corner of a kitchen cabinet door) becomes an alarming reminder that I am fundamentally broken. A primal part of me panics, because one more lesion to my illusory normalcy, one more sprain to my self-esteem, one more blemish to my already lesser health is one too many.
I am broken. I am broken. I am broken. That’s the looped thought that repeated in my head all week when I found myself struggling to bend down for a heavy shovel or unable to step over the garden fence: I am broken.
Unable to run like I so desperately wanted to, I distracted myself one evening by cooking an improvised tomato tart. Having salvaged the garden’s last edible sprigs of basil (quickly shriveling from green to brown at summer’s end), I was trying to make a vegan cashew cheese, which I’d intended to spread over the almond flour crust.
I managed to leave a silver spoon in the blender before hitting “liquify.” Note to self: do not attempt culinary gymnastics when you’re sleepy and in pain, or you may wind up splattering soggy cashew nuts across every counter, cupboard, and crevice as the plastic blender basin shoots apart into shards. Broken.
I used Amazon (thank God for Amazon) to order a replacement for V, feeling bad for my blatant mistake. She lovingly chided me when it arrived in the mail, but not for breaking the blender — for buying the shiny new one.
“I could have just picked one up at the thrift store,” she said. “It’s totally fine. Things always break, y’know. It’s no big deal.”
V’s house is festooned with homemade art: sculpted nudes dance on the side panels of the tables and hang from the walls, and glazed cups are displayed as sculptures. My morning coffee and evening tea are especially soothing when sipped from her hand-molded mugs, with their ballooned and ribbed bowls rotund in just the right speckled shapes.
In addition to a farmer, V is a potter. She also makes her own yogurt, paintbrushes from authentic animal hairs, personalized quilts for her kids’ and grandkids’ birthdays, and elaborate costume masks with lace and horns (though she can’t remember where she stored them, so I’ve only seen photos). She reads multiple books a week and is the secretary of her squaredancing club.
She relishes the piquancy of an aptly placed curse word. She likes her apples just tart enough to elicit a pucker. She has a temperament at once plucky and easygoing, plus the most generous heart I’ve ever met. Without the slightest pretension, she’s smart as a whip — and speaking of whips —
Like I said, V is a potter, and the other night, she told a story about shattering several of her favorite pieces. Stepping out of the shower and into the living room, she whipped her towel in the air to playfully taunt her husband — I can so easily imagine that gleeful moment, with her straight-cut gray-blonde hair flopping around her smiling face, her crystalline eyes crinkled at the corners and cheeks pink from bath steam — and knocked three of her one-of-a-kind ceramics from their perches in the process, sending them to smithereens on the floor. (Both joy and ruin always happen in those quick snaps, don’t they? Those penetrating emotions splinter the steady quiet of normalcy with their urgent energy.)
“Ah, well,” she said at the end of the tale as she scooped a cilantro-swirled spoon of carrot-ginger soup. (Did I mention that she’s also a fantastic cook?) “It happens, y’know? It happens.”
Her friends and family get a “lifetime guarantee” on any pottery she gifts to them, ever since she found some of her mugs sanctioned to a safe tippy-top shelf at a recipient’s home. “They’re meant to be used,” she explained, but the friend was afraid she’d break them. “So, I told her, everything’s bound to break eventually, and you’ll feel bad when it does, but like I said — it happens.” She shrugged and she laughed at the same time.
With my leg strain finally improved enough to walk, if not jog, I borrowed V’s car on Saturday and took a 15-minute drive to a scenic park. I found a wide, smooth road nearby, unfurled like black silk between fields full of hay bales. (What’s so soothing about hay bales? It’s their stillness, maybe. They look like they should roll, but instead, they rest.) On either side, the mountains rose up like a cool blue hug, coddling the great expanse of cricket choirs and meandering monarch butterflies and the occasional hummingbird and me.
I abandoned my headphones and ambled slowly, listening to the raucous silence. It felt surprisingly like the respectful thing to do — not to run, but to walk, with quiet breaths and keen eyes, taking it all in. Cardio exercise affords an hour when I feel brand new, blooming with vitality, and distinctly un-sick — it brings me inside my body and my strength and my endorphin haze of joy. But there, like this, I felt nestled in the surrounding scene, so small and so held by the world’s big, benevolent grace, no more disturbing than a bee and no less necessary.
Instead of I am broken, I am broken, I am broken, my mind started singing euphoria. Thank you, I love you, thank you, I love you.
I passed an empty white church across from a small farm, and I stopped to admire the lush rows of dew-dappled lettuce. Thank you, I love you. I’m not sure why I’m so enamored with vegetable plots — there are plenty of symbolic explanations, but I think it’s simpler than that. I’m not sure the reason matters. I just know horticulture makes me giddy.
Squinting to decipher the different plant varieties from a distance, I had a blissful moment of recognition: I am exactly where I need to be. This moment, this day, this week, this month — if broken’s what it takes to get right here, right now, in this real world, then broken is a blessing.
As I kept walking, it was like I slipped into an accidental meditation. My whole being became gratitude. Cashmere clouds bundled the mountains in gray gauze, but the sky split in one place where sharp sun sliced through with rays like bronze butter knives. It was the sort of shattered sunburst that seemed to suggest someone was watching.
Thank you, I love you, thank you, I love you. The rain started eventually, but the sun didn’t stop. The drops glimmered like glitter, backlit by the bright beams. I never want to forget the way that rain smelled.
When I turned around and made my way back to the white church and the vegetable plots, I found a pure and perfect rainbow yawning across it all, spilling into a patch of yellow flowers as good as any gold. And I burst into tears. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
I’m seeing a physical therapist for my leg, and he says overuse injuries are positive things. If you’ve strained a muscle, that means you’ve been active. This is always better than not moving at all. He sees the hurt as an opportunity to build new strength in other places, to realign your body for better balance in the long term.
So, I’m walking. I’m using a stationary bicycle I found on V’s back porch and lifting soda bottles for weights. I’m doing exercises to build up my weaker places — including the mental and emotional ones.
Again and again (and always again), I’m reminded of the concept of kintsukuroi: to repair broken pottery, Japanese artisans fill the cracks with golden lacquer. Instead of attempting to disguise the flaws, they glorify the damage as a brilliant bit of the object’s history.
Animal, vegetable, mineral: things fracture. They falter. They fail. If it works, one day it won’t. But not using it means it never works in the first place. It mean’s you’ll never know if you could have grown the world’s most ruby red tomatoes after all.
You have to plant the seeds. You have to make the vegan cheese. You have to drink from the mug. And you have to run when you can. Fruits of labor are meant to be savored. And where things go wrong, well — y’know, it happens. Somewhere else, there’s gold.
At lunch today, V sifted through the peaches we’d picked up at a nearby orchard on Sunday, the day after that walk that cracked me open. They’re “scratch and dents” — the ones deemed too bruised or smushed to sell full-price, but still perfectly edible. For $15, we took home a whole bushel, which we’re using this week to make salsa and jam.
She sliced into one of the riper ones, palming the fuzzy globe with the knife aimed towards her thumb. “Poor, sad little peach,” I said, watching as she cut away the soft brown splotches of rotted pulp and tossed them in the compost bin.
“Yes,” she said, “but happy little microbes!” She cleaved the remaining crescents of pure yellow from the pit. “There. Just enough to stir into my yogurt.” With a sweet juice-drenched finger, she offered me a bite.