Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Ludicrous speed

This spring, as Jacob and I hoe away in the garden, we've discussed an idea that his mother gave me. We were whinging on about all of the rocks we've had to chisel out of the ground in order to make a viable garden, and she commented that she was proud of us; that we were breaking ground just like our pioneer ancestors. First of all, obviously that's very flattering, but it got me thinking, too.

Let us compare two different basic types of people who "live off the land". There are peasants, and there are pioneers. This isn't meant as a comprehensive list, just the categories that are relevant to the moment.

Peasants are sort of the ultimate in sustainability--that's what they do. They sustain. They keep going. What level of existence they sustain at, what quality of life, etc., varies by time and place, but either way, it's a generally stable state. Peasants live a basically cyclical life, with the same fashions, the same holidays, the same foods and the same tasks, for potentially hundreds of years at a go, disturbed only by outside forces. Ambition is not a common trait, nor is it necessarily considered a virtue. All you have to do is maintain. Work the fields your grandfather worked. Wear the clothes suited to your station. It may not be an easy life, but by definition it should never exceed that which is physically sustainable over the long term.

Pioneers are pretty much the complete opposite. They're making history, and they know it. They are cut off, sometimes almost completely, from the known and the familiar. They are creating something new in the world, and often they have to seriously bust their butts just to survive. When you couldn't start the trip 'til May because of mud, traveled for two months, and now must secure food, water, and shelter before winter, you push yourself as hard as you physically can, and worry about paying the piper later.

Part of the reason that the work Jacob and I (and others like us) are doing is so punishing is that we are, in essence, pioneers. Obviously we're not exactly living in a soddy and burning cow pats for heat, but we are breaking new ground, figuratively and literally. We are creating our personal culture and values anew, creating fertile soil where, believe me, there was none, and pushing ourselves as hard as we can ahead of the threat of scarcity and adversity.

Of course, we are not cut off from the known and familiar, and its lure is a constant mental drag on our efforts. We are children of our time; we like steak and Bruce Willis and vegging out playing video games. We have to constantly remind ourselves that these feelings and the culture we grew up in are likely not to serve us well in the future we forsee, and it makes all that frenetic pioneer-speed hoeing bite just a little harder when we're tired and the baby is crying to go back inside.

So now we joke about pioneer-speed and peasant-speed. Some days, especially when the sun is brutal, peasant speed is all we can manage, and the hoe rises and falls and the feet tread to a steady, deliberate beat that I can imagine singing to, if only I were in better shape. Other days, though, we move as if a demon snapped at our heels, and collapse at the end of the day nursing aching backs and icing strained joints.

This weekend, we went to plaid. I really don't know how we kept going. We harvested and froze the last of the bolting bok choy. We planted cucumbers, potatoes, zucchini, watermelons, winter squash, and spaghetti squash. We dug up a large chunk of the front yard, worked it smooth, and planted four types of basil, sage, parsley, rosemary, and french tarragon (there's still space for more, I just don't know what yet). We turned and began to hoe a huge chunk of the far-back yard, preparatory to planting buckwheat and millet (for the chickens). We weeded and prepared a roughly, I dunno, 15x20 chunk between the parking lot and chicken coop and planted it with millet, rapeseed, and mustard to provide a nice nutritive patch of greens in the chicken yard. We picked maybe 5 quarts of strawberries. We potted leftover pepper and tomato seedlings. We weed-whacked a large portion of the overgrown back yard. We completely stripped the grass off of a strip 2 feet wide and maybe 60 feet long along the fence preparatory to planting beans there. We hilled up a row of potatoes. We changed out the chicks' litter. We went to the farmer's market, the grocery store, and the feed-n-seed. And we had the kid with us the whole time. And mind, this was a two-day weekend, no Friday off.

This weekend, I can honestly say that we did everything we could. I am very proud of us.

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