Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Earth Works

            Spring arrived in these parts in a big rush, as though it must hurry as fast as possible into summer, and I have been forced to try to keep up with it.  Last year the summer vegetables were particularly succulent, and as through the winter I remembered all the delicious pasta sauces, salads, and ratatouilles I came up with a bold—or as I might describe it now, foolhardy plan.  I would expand that part of my agricultural enterprise that gets the best southern sunlight.  This could mean, if all went well, even more and better pasta sauces, salads, and ratatouilles.

            We are not talking agro-business here.  By my rough-and-ready reckoning I am planning to add to the total agricultural production of our country about an additional .00459 acre of land.  The trouble is that every square foot of it must be wrested from the combination of jungle and veldt abutting the current cultivated plot, and then protected by a high wire fence from the large deer herd that even now stand off at a distance licking their chops as they watch me sweat.

            The jungle and veldt aspects of the challenge, while different in kind, demand a similar response.  First: the jungle.  We have in these parts a horrible invasive vine of Asiatic origin—New Jersey’s answer to kudzu--the Ampelopsis brevipedunculata, sometimes called porcellainberry.  It is capable of overwhelming and strangling even large trees.  Ruthless cutting back offers temporary relief, but porcellainberry has the sinister regenerative powers of the Hydra.  The only way really to get rid of it is literal deracination—a task only slightly less difficult than that presented by bamboo.  (We have that in profusion, too, but one menace at a time.)
The dreaded vine on the march

            As to the veldt, where there is neither forest nor jungle around here there is rich grassland.  The sod is particularly luxuriant.  Indeed local farmers of cultivated sod made a small fortune during the first phase of the housing boom supplying developers with instant lawns.  (During the second they made large fortunes selling off the farms themselves.)  There is a reason that the first agricultural settlers on the Great Plains, destined to be our national granary, were called sod-busters and why so many of them went mad in the attempt to bust it.  If you want to have thriving tomato roots you have to get rid of the grass.
I don’t go in for power tools, except for the indispensable one, a pickup truck.  Several years ago I spent a pleasant semester of my post-retirement as a visiting professor at Colgate.  One day, knocking around the country roads, I came upon a roadside junk heap in which there was a sturdy steel frame, three feet by four, into which had been fitted and stoutly welded a mesh of heavy steel wire.  I have no idea of its original purpose, but I could easily imagine a use for it—as an industrial strength sieve or screen for breaking up heavy clods of New Jersey top soil.  I tossed it—well, truth to tell I manhandled it up into the truck bed and eventually brought it home.

a home-made topsoil strainer

So for the past couple of weeks I have been straining roughly .00459 of an acre of Mercer County separating the precious top soil from a tangle of vine roots, many the thickness of my thumb, removing the odd splinter or fragment of schist, and above all separating every possible fleck of rich dirt from its grassy wig.  The remaining turves add some solidity and opulence to the compost pile; but the wretched vine roots are consigned to the untender mercies of the town’s monthly pick-ups of brush and vegetable debris.

Nothing is more allegorical than a garden.  In fact, I have written books on that subject.  The garden would seem to be one of the great cultural archetypes.  But for me one of the finest of emblematic gardens is neither biblical nor medieval.  It appears in what is perhaps the sweetest work of the genius philosophe, Voltaire.  At the very end of Candide, one of the immortal short fictions of our tradition, the young man who gives his name to the work, meets an old Turkish farmer.  This simple man teaches him what a quest for exotic experience and abstruse philosophy has failed to provide.  It might be called the “meaning of life”.  Speaking of his few arpents of small-holding, the old Turk says “I cultivate them with my children; the labor shields us from three great evils: boredom, vice, and want”.  Hence Candide’s motto: il faut cultiver notre jardin, we must tend to our garden.  I don’t know about boredom, vice, and want; but it doesn’t do much for an aging back.

 Voltaire in his garden at Ferney