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The Shipwreck Rose: Digging the Dirt

Wed, 06/15/2022 - 12:11

In the summer of 1990, just after graduating from college, I lived for a few sweltering months in the moth-light of a cottage at Lazy Point, the cottage by the bend in the road opposite Napeague Pond, in which we would swim in our underpants on hot nights. My roommate was my saxophone-playing boy­friend, Will, an absent-minded, curly haired boy from Indiana who kept “Salt Peanuts” by Charlie Parker on the turntable and went around town in an old pickup truck with a Leica camera dangling around his suntanned neck. One morning when we were in bed, chatting, I talked about my vision of myself in old age: I would ride a bicycle with a basket, I told Will, and probably become fat, and would learn how to garden and tend old roses in my dotage. Skipping right over the roses and the bicycle, Will was horrified: Why would I intentionally plan ahead to “let myself go”?

That was 32 years ago. I’m not quite Old, capital O, yet — I think — but my prediction wasn’t too far off the mark. I do have a bicycle with a basket, and I am plump enough, and while I am still no good at raising roses, I’ve just recently been learning to plant and grow vegetables.

I’m not going to go gentle into that good night. I won’t go. And that (to come around to my point via the slow lane) is why I am ever on the lookout for a bracing new adventure or new experience, the more existentially startling the better. As the decades click past — and not with the relentless tick-tock regularity of a grandfather clock, but at a herky-jerky erratic pace — the choices left, the new paths to pursue and doors to fling open, grow fewer. I’m not going to become an electric guitarist in a country-punk band. I am pretty sure I’ve missed the boat on surfing and downhill skiing. Politics is one thing you can take up on the downslope of age, or birdwatching. It is all a bit dull. It has occurred to me that I might become a late-life cat burglar, pilfering jewels from oligarchs. That would actually be more my speed.

In April, I managed to almost accidentally stumble upon an interesting new pastime. An idle thought occurred to me, which was that it might be a good idea to seek a part-time job on a farm so that someone would be paying me to get physical exercise out of doors. I’d be obliged to show up for work if it were an actual job and not a volunteer gig. Would that not be just what the doctor ordered, after not just two pandemic years of sedentary work, solo, in my kitchen, but indeed an entire career parked in front of a computer not moving anything above my wrists?

And that is how I ended up working three days a week doing the manual labor of a fieldhand at Share the Harvest Farm on Long Lane. “Do you need the services of a middle-aged woman who has no idea how to garden or grow anything?” I emailed in a job inquiry to the farm manager, Angie Bucci. “I am a competent person and I am able to lift 50 pounds with ease.” She hired me, somewhat to my amazement.

I imagined, optimistically, that by August I’d be bronzed and look fitter in a bathing suit. It’s becoming clear that that is not going to happen. What I have instead is a bright-pink neck: Front and back, my neck has been pink as grapefruit flesh for the last five weeks, even though I slather it over with Neutrogena Mineral Sensitive Skin Sunscreen SPF 50.

A work crew of three or four high-spirited high school boys come gamboling in on a Saturday or Sunday, but otherwise, all the farm laborers at Share the Harvest are women. They have been teaching me about seeding, beetles and pests, transplanting, harvesting mustard greens and radishes. The best day was when we waded knee-deep through tall grass and wildflowers cutting green and purple asparagus from an old asparagus patch, as a vigilant killdeer plover — that’s a bird, for those of you who don’t like wildlife and nature talk — stalked around us shouting angry objections. What a loudmouth a killdeer plover is! The cast of characters at the farm also includes a mockingbird who raises his wings like a flasher opening his raincoat so everyone can see his impressive white stripes, a red fox who has a den near the farm stand, and four baby bunnies rescued from the path of a tractor.

The sun beats down and is reflected off the silver-plastic foil that has been rolled out to discourage the burdock, lady’s thumb, and bindweed, burning my neck, chin, and backs of my plump, freckled hands. As I get older, I have also become a bit of a sun-worshiper. I mean, of course it is the sun that grants us all life. Duh.

I’m a beginner. I am still completely amazed that tiny seeds — some of the lettuce seeds several times tinier than a poppyseed — actually germinate, push up through the soil, and so swiftly become big enough to harvest and eat. Under the instructions of Angie and Viola and Francis, I’ve sown tat soi (“Asian spinach”), kale, and radishes that are already ready for harvest. What strange alchemy is this? The vines and weeds press up with incredible strength and speed.

So far, I would describe the process of aging as, let’s say, the forced dissolution of the ego (if you do it right). I was a selfish child who thought of no one but myself, as children are programmed by nature to be; and then I was a fledgling adult, still myopic, but beginning to consider others’ needs more frequently, especially those of my own family when I became a parent; and now, onward: I experience the ego dissolving further as my own physical body becomes less the point and my mind is absorbed in the outer world beyond. The natural universe has become much more important, as if its vines and tendrils were twining around, becoming caught in my hair. I can see where this is going: all the way to bodily decay and decomposition.

With the passing years, the consolation is that you do tend to acquire at least a tiny extra portion of wisdom, and perhaps maybe even power (if you do it right).

Is there a connection between “the old ways,” paganism, sun worship, and the experience of manual labor on a farm at which most of the work is done by hand? I’m thinking yes. I don’t want the teenage boys to notice it, but I do on occasion address a little inner conversation and dialogue directly to the Sun. I do, and to the Green Man, the minor and ancient foliate divinity who looks out from the lone cottonwood tree that stands on the edge of Share the Harvest’s six acres, in which I’ve observed a redtail hawk on a misty morning or two. On the agenda for my old age is also, inevitably, a bit of witchcraft. If I have to march onward to the end as one of the invisible — and by “the invisible” I mean a woman over the age of 50, a.k.a. what they used to call “a crone” — I do think I am entitled to cast about a few spells and incantations.

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