A Fertile Mind

By Michael Ableman

Since my first book came out in 1993, I've been racing about from place to place, speaking, giving interviews, even receiving applause. It is an odd life for a farmer, and an irreplaceable adventure. I have met other farmers from all over the world and stood in front of gatherings of a thousand-plus people who all cared about the land and the future of the earth. After years of working on my own, on a small 12-acre farm, it is overwhelming to be part of the larger community. It is rewarding to bring some inspiration to other people who work the land.

But, there is a price. Recently, I visited a friend at his farm in England. His wife shook my hand and commented on how soft it had become. I had always been proud of my callouses. I consider them to be physical manifestations of doing something real in life. Mine have faded so slowly I hardly noticed until she pointed it out. But it is no surprise. These are the smooth hands of a talker and a writer.

On the farm, I now spend more time working in the office and making phone calls. As I lead tours for the many visitors, I cast jealous glances at the field crew who move with practiced ease as they harvest, hoe, or plant the fields and orchards. Their productive-sounding shouts and banter come through the window as I order avocado boxes, make price changes for the produce stand or type a fundraising letter. I still run the tractor occasionally or prune the fruit trees, but the rhythm of life more often takes me away from the work that started all this writing and talking in the first place.

I found my way back almost by accident, when I agreed to help organize an 11-acre farm on the grounds of my son's high school in the Santa Ynez mountains. This fall, the students and I faced an empty horse pasture and started from scratch, digging 2-foot-deep holes for corner posts and stretching wire for a 3/4-mile fence to keep out the deer - three and a half weeks of fence building to stake our claim in a vast open field.

Over the next several weeks, we prepared eighty 150-foot beds for planting. We loaded the school's 1960 pickup truck with twelve loads of compost, spread them by hand, and planted the first succession of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, chard, spinach, lettuce, peas, fava beans, green onions, leeks, carrots, beets and radishes. Many had never experienced the building of a garden and did not know what to expect. But I saw it in my mind's eye -- the direction of the beds, the succession and rotation of the crops, the varieties and placement of orchard trees, the water lines, and toolsheds -- all of it installed, planted, and harvested before a single hole was dug.

Now my hands are getting rough again, and the beds stretch out along the creek bed, green and thriving. I promised the school one day a week; I've been here three days a week over the last two months. Fed by open space, the smells, the sun, and the exchange among coworkers and students, my mind has slowed down enough to absorb the millions of subtle changes that are taking place within this land. The richness of the soil seems to ask for words or pictures that might describe it. The student's enthusiasm for the work and their sense of purpose draws other, more far reaching, possibilities to mind.

I have often said that my photography, writing, and politics come from the land I farm. I form my questions about the world while I push and pull a wheel hoe or thin a peach crop. The repetitive, rhythmic tasks leave room to wonder. The union of body and mind gives confidence and clear thinking; the cycle of the land demands humility. It's a powerful combination. Ideas, talk, and writing lend inspiration, but living exclusively in that world creates distance from real connections, those that come from direct contact with the land.

We all live lives full of compromise: some work day jobs sitting behind desks, secretly waiting to come home to renew ourselves in the yard. Others have made gardening our livelihood but find the demands of a business have distanced us from hoe and spade. It is a balancing act, we tell ourselves, but how do we achieve and maintain that balance?

The earth is a grounding force in our technological lives, our gardens havens from the ever-faster pace. That which we create around us is a mirror of who we are inside, and the fertile place for our minds to grow.

Author and photographer Michael Ableman founded and directs Fairview Farms,Goleta, California.

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