today i opened the greenhouse, moved the brick into place to keep the door open in the wind, and said hello to the plants. i say good morning to them like they are babies in a nursery, which they are, and when i water them i sing the song from babe, the movie from the mid-90’s about the talking pig. “If i had words to make a day for you, I’d sing you a morning golden and true…” I really sing to each one, hoping they’ll hear, hoping they’ll stretch their tiny veined leaves toward my voice.
the plants are all small, but its still april, right? there are marigolds that show the promise of life, tiny frilled leaves on red pin legs. the starflower, my favorite, and of which we only had a dozen seeds, have all germinated and their flat fat leaves plump out encouragingly. but the tomatoes look like death – yellow and stunted in their plastic pots, leaves tugged upwards like tense shoulders. this could almost pass a regular greenhouse, regular plants, had we planted them last week. but only willow and i know that they have looked this way, and about this size, for almost a month. we botched it on the soil mix, or maybe the watering, or maybe that cold snap right after we potted up, or maybe the potassium (isn’t there enough in the kelp?), or maybe, or maybe. all i know is that there’s no turning back. our friends are helping us by brewing up batches of compost tea for foliar spraying. we’ve got stinging nettles soaking in a bucket, and we lovingly apply the putrid mixture once a day. i would say that i’ve asked god for a little help, but i haven’t. i gave up that sort of control years ago when i decided to be a farmer.
its fitting, this greenhouse meltdown. i returned to nevada city only a couple months ago, in a meltdown partially of my own making. i looked a lot like these tomatoes – pale, spindly, drooping, sad. the love i had moved up to the northwest to grow had also died a slow, though equally obvious, death, and i came back to the farm defeated and depleted. it was just in time to plant tomatoes. it was also just in time to not plant tomatoes, if i weren’t a farmer, which at that point, i didn’t know anymore. i had left thinking i could take a year off from a vocation that now sings in my bloodstream. i came back not knowing what the hell i was thinking.
willow and i planted sweet peas the first day of my return, because even if i wasn’t a farmer, i would still plant sweet peas. it felt good, to press the stainless steel digging fork into the earth, to draw the line in the soil with my hand, to press the moist seed into it and cover it with crab-claw hands. i know i cried the morning before i did that. i can be sure that i also cried multiple times that afternoon. but while planting, i didn’t cry. so i followed the guidance of my hands and my broken heart, stopped wondering what i was or wasn’t anymore, and i planted a few hundred tomatoes in the greenhouse.
meanwhile willow and i fell back into the rhythm of the farm. we talked flowers. we talked plant starts, marketing, timing, relationships, all while seeding and prepping the beds of the garden. i cried a lot at the river, in the arms of my friends, alone in the morning in my trailer. but during the day i had to stand upright to push the fork into the ground; had to wield my pruners with precision, cut back the dead stalks from the perennials; had to call restaurants and talk enthusiastic about our product. yes, we grow beautiful salad mix. yes, i can commit to harvesting it for you every week. yes, you want us. believe me, you want us.
the dirt returned to the creases in my hands. i’m not sure if i gained any weight, but i felt fuller and rounder. i started wearing my city-clothes on the farm, those few items that i had thought to “save” so that i had “some clean options” for “going out.” i was going out, every day, into the field, fixing the irrigation line and then wiping my filthy hands on my thighs. i came home after working with straw on my sweatshirt and in my hair, from laying down between the beds and watching the clouds.
we potted up the tomatoes and brassicas just before i left to go down to the desert on a trip. after so many weeks and months of pain, pulling into san francisco to pick up Chris felt like i had just escaped from the psych ward, found my other half-crazed pal, and now had nothing left to do but listen to Kelly Clarkson and Taylor Swift break up in true diva style. Chris and i laughed for days. and in between mediating, yoga-ing, climbing rocks, and making new friends – the sadness lifted. i slept through the night. i woke up thinking about mundane things. i woke up not thinking much about anything.
i came back to the farm and saw that it too had grown up overnight. favas a foot higher. garlic leaves thick and green. the grass in the aisles tall enough to mow. the tomatoes looked the same, but it was still early, and plus i was too happy to notice. i went dancing almost every night. we got our order of dahlias, lillies, and gladiolas in the mail. we trellised the sweet peas, now poking through the straw mulch. the tomatoes seemed unmoved by spring fever. i woke up every morning feeling grateful. i danced my friends baby around her living room. i felt satisfied to end the day munching on salad mix in my trailer, reading a book, and going to bed at 9. i also stayed out late dancing, moving my whole body, flirting with whomever i pleased.
the tomatoes sat, forlorn, stunted, unmoving. we applied some diluted fish emulsion. wrong. they yellowed, maybe even more, or maybe they were on the cusp anyways. we called our friends on other farms. they gave a balanced mix of their insights and condolences. we tried not to think about it, but spraying nettle tea and singing to dying things can be slightly disconcerting.
which brings us to today. i’ve awoken from the first, and most self-absorbed, leg of heartbreak just in time to notice the death of something else. our greenhouse is dying, and like the demise of a relationship formerly full of wonder and potential, its just a big fucking bummer. it isn’t anyones fault. there’s no need nor evidence to suggest that it is anyone’s fault. its just that things need to die to make room for new life.
i am ultimately grateful that those tomatoes that came to life under my shaky hands. that they grew from seed to tiny plant, that they even sprouted at all, was more encouraging than any therapy session or even kind word. they must have been watching me, those feisty buggers. they must have noticed that when i returned from the desert, i had grown tall and luscious, abundant and green. they did their job and gave their lives for it. the tomato is an honorable vegetable that way. self-sacrificing at every step of the way. this time, instead of giving their round and red fruits, they gave their very heartbeat.
thank you tomatoes. thank you for your unexpected gift. thank you for coming into this world just long enough to inspire me to be grateful for the fact that i am alive, upright, and capable of growing up towards the light.