Dirt Eaters

Work, Food, and Communal Transformation

(from the frontlines of a hopeful revolution)

Time Travel

I haven’t written for a while, and now I’m going to start by talking about butterflies. Bear with me.

During some February travels, I found myself listening to the recent Radiolab episode, “Black Box.” Exploring those places where the beginning and the end are clear, but the middle is a mystery, the final story of the episode looked at the metamorphosis of butterflies. A caterpillar enters a chrysalis, and emerges from it a butterfly, but in the middle seems to dissolve into a sort of transformative goo. (Seriously, it's gross. Cut open a chrysalis and a substance the consistency of snot comes out.) That goo, neither caterpillar nor butterfly, has inspired mystics and baffled scientists for centuries. But, increasingly, we’re discovering that the caterpillar doesn't just dissolve. No, some parts of the caterpillar survive the goo, including tiny specks of its brain. And if you dissect a caterpillar before it begins metamorphosis, you’ll actually find the microscopic, translucent beginnings of its adult parts, including the wings, all of which survive the goo as well.

There's still plenty for mystics to work with here, of course. A complicated truth often makes for a better analogy.

The reporter ended the story by marveling at the conceptual switch this revelation has when used as metaphor. When we think of our future selves, we generally think about what parts of current me will carry forward, will still be around in 40 years. But, she says, “It’s not just what of me carries forward into the future. It’s what of my future self is in me right now.”

I can’t stop thinking about that.

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As we’re enduring the final weeks of an exceptional winter up here in New England, we’re laboring til exhaustion, creating cordwood that’ll heat us (and other people) next winter, or maybe even the winter after that. We’re felling and bucking and splitting and tossing and stacking for hours on end. All so that we (or, more likely, someone else that we don’t know) can take a hot shower in, like, January 2016.

As we harvest our own heat, we’re also opening up our veggie fields. Its hard to imagine, given that they’ve been blanketed by snow for almost four months now, but these fields are the future home of lettuces and carrots and kales and tomatoes, and we’re taking down trees so that more sunlight falls upon the seedlings that we’re starting to plant in the greenhouse.

Oh yeah, the greenhouse.

We’re in there now too, having transformed it from winter woodworking studio into springtime growing center. We moved out several tons of timber frame posts and beams, hosed it down and cleaned it up as best we could, built tables and soil containers, chipped apart and mixed 500-pound bags of frozen compost, and - before we knew it - began seeding 30,000 allium plants. Barely a week later, little green shoots are coming up, future storage onions and sweet red onions and shallots and scallions all announcing their arrival.

Did I mention that it is still bitterly cold outside, with over a foot of snow on the ground? Stepping into that greenhouse feels like stepping into the future.

As we put those seeds into soil, two months before the land outside will be even workable, I can’t help but marvel at the combination of planning and potential. At some level, onions already exist in those seeds, and it is simply our human job (through planning and hard, hard work) to make sure they come to fruition. But everything the onion needs to grow is there, every instinct to have its roots go down with gravity and its shoot go against it, to seek out and cultivate the nutrients it needs, to wait for certain temperature and moisture cues to initiate particular aspects of its development. The amount of intelligence in those tiny spheres that stick to my thumb as I struggle to seed them is mind-boggling. They hold the future.

Just like the butterfly and the cordwood and the onion seed, I’m beginning to see more clearly the parts of me that’ll make up my future self. Not in any specifics, of course, and maybe that’s appropriate. But rather in the daily practices of creativity, vision, humility, patience, ambition, pragmatism, and work ethic. I’m seeing the things inside of me that’ll make me a successful farmer, that’ll make me a happy and fulfilled human. I just need to nurture them, to help them grow how they want to.

I know how to grow an onion, I know how to grow myself. Nothing left to it but to do it, I suppose. Game on.

This has been a winter of transition, of optimism, of looking forward to new things and new directions. It has been a winter of questioning, of reflection. Maybe all winters are that.

It’s been good, is what I’m saying, and I’m ready for it to be over. It’s time to make the future happen.

Back to the greenhouse.

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To see the rest of my pictures from the end of winter and beginning of spring, click here...