Thoughts On Cultivation

When I was a boy, I didn’t like to “weed”. It seemed uselessly arbitrary, unappreciated, relentlessly never-ending. An utterly boring chore that took up valuable Saturday time I could spend running around the woods with friends. It wasn’t lost on my parents that this is how I felt, but they wanted a certain aesthetic to their suburban home and were willing to pay a few bucks in chore money to see it done. We all found it pretty funny, when I called to tell them that my “job” on the farm here would be to take some more responsibility for cultivation–as ten-year-old-me would say, “weeding.”

Maybe this isn’t the case for other people, but pulling weeds out of the ground has always been an existentially provocative activity for me. I’ve yet to be able to do it without getting into all sorts of internal, philosophical deliberations about just what it is I’m doing.

Bill took us out for one of our classes a few months ago, a little impromptu get-together about the weeds that we’d been seeing on the farm. Part of our discussion included the relative arbitrariness of “weed” as a term, and admittedly, some vestige of that young voice in my head shouted triumphantly. After all, it is true, a “weed” is a plant–there’s no special botanical classification labeled Weeds. We call any plant a weed, that we don’t want to be growing where we find it growing.

One of the most tenacious weeds on our farm is Purslane (Portulaca oleracea), an edible annual succulent that is widely eaten throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. It’s slightly sour, a little salty. I think it taste a bit of lemon in there somewhere. If left to its own devices, it will out-compete practically any crop that we would prefer to be growing here.

Another is Amaranth (genus Amaranthus). I’ve eaten amaranth seeds as a breakfast grain with honey for years without ever having seen the plant itself–which I learned during that class on weeds, is actually highly nutritious; more-so than most crops typically sold at market.

It didn’t take very long, once we started work here at Horton, for me to realize I now, somehow, deeply appreciate cultivation. It’s a sacrificial act, make no mistake. We’re choosing on a daily basis that a certain assortment of plants will not live, so that those plants we choose to grow will. We’re cultivating a particular life in the soil, so that we may harvest. What was sown, in order to be harvested, is chosen for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it can yield a financial return.

Practically, what this means to me is that the palate and perceptions of folks who buy local food at market are powerful forces. A palate and preference can determine that an entire country such as ours has no market for one of its most nutritious plants, here considered a weed, elsewhere coveted and respected and well-used.

If I’m learning nothing else (and of course, I am), it’s that farming is an intimate and demanding context of mutuality, an array of two-way streets, a dance between forces at work. One such dance is between us with our hula hoes, and our hands, and the weeds soaking up the early August heat. Another is between our harvest knives and the salad greens, and the sun just as it crests the ridge to our East. Another is the food we’ve laid out at market, and we as producers, and whosoever partakes, and eats that food. Another, just as tangible in consequence if not in appearance, is the dance between the food preferences of customers, and the diversity of life in the soil–which is our health.

A responsible cultivation is a necessary and essential part of the larger dance of stewarding a healthy soil. Because no one can put it more eloquently than Wendell Berry, here’s how he says it:

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”

When I’ve spent a few hours in the heat of a Tuesday afternoon, feet planted wide, bent at the hips, aching and sweating and forgetting to breathe, for the sake of some solid cultivation time in a busy week–the beauty of words like these comes to me.

The depth of the responsibility becomes vividly clear, then. And I realize the magnitude of what I’m participating in, this wondrous life. And all at once, it’s a joy.


– Matthew

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