The Farm Fields of 17

July 6, 2012

I was 17, and at 220 pounds quite formidable (if I do say so myself). My Spring was so full of prom’s, track and field contests, and of course, spring football that I had no time to look for a Summer job. A job I would have to have however, so my summer hopes of popping jelly beans, watching Saved By the Bell reruns, and laying out by the pool wouldn’t be happening.

By the time, I hard hoofed it down to all the usual haunts for high school summer employment, my more ambitious (and less preoccupied) brethren got the beat on me. The video tape store, the local hardware, even the hamburger joint that my family longingly referred as Texas Burger (which is odd for Californians to do); each and every job opening was filled. At the desperate point, I put out word far and wide that I needed a job and wasn’t above any work.

It was at that time I was first introduced to the career track that well to do people say white people won’t do. That summer was my first as a seasonal farm worker in the fields of America’s industrial food basket, the Central Valley of California.

As a quick tutorial, farming is still pretty big in the Central Valley of California. They used to say that 75% of the vegetables you see at the grocery store (that is, the vegetables other than corn or soy) were grown in Central California. That’s probably a dated statistic. I wouldn’t be surprised if much of that production has now been outsourced to China, India, or South America. Globalization effects everyone. But at that time, the massive California real estate bubble had not yet swelled to its eventual deafening roar. Many medium sized farmers still held their family farmland and would for at least another decade before they would cash it out for a lucrative retirement. That was the golden age of the golden state farm worker. Sigh…

That is the world I entered that Summer. First up, Almond’s. Bakersfield’s Almond Orchards can be incredibly beautiful when they first set their blooms but they are just about the worst things on earth for my allergies… Next up, digging holes.

Yes, that’s right. I probably only spent a few weeks among the almonds. Honestly I couldn’t tell you for sure that they were almond orchards. As a 17 year old I knew them as “trees” when I was articulate; “things” when I wasn’t. Trees that make me sneeze at that. I did not know nor did I really care what they were producing. For the amount of pesticides I put on the ground around said trees you really couldn’t blame me for not looking longingly at the food type in front of me.

From the orchards, I went into a several hundred acre track of farm fields whose exact contents never were known to me either. From pesticide sprayer, I became hole digger and waterline mover. Honestly I remember more about the type of peanut butter I ate in my lunch than the nature of the things that were grown around me. A co-worker and I were plopped off at a different site each day where our job was to make sure the infrastructure was set up for a scalding hot waterpipe to flood the bottom of a series of beds. Yes, they were flooding beds in the middle of one of California worst droughts in history in an area that gets on average 10 inches of a rain a year! My co-laborer was the better digger and most certainly had the better attitude than I. Truth be told, I was lazy and this summer helped me to see my lack with brutal clarity.

At around $10 an hour, eight hours a day, I made a tidy sum as July approached and the work wound down for me. I was paid in cash under the table like every one out there. And having a little wad of twenties in my pocket did feel good. But I still had another month till football’s double days. What was I to do?

My mom had a co-worker with a personal tie into the tomato farms outside of town and so I became a hand in the harvest of tomatoes. Don’t let my “hand” language throw you off. The vast number of immigrant laborers I was surrounded by were the true-blue “hands”. The men and women with the rags on the back of their neck and long sleeved shirts in the brutal heat walked the fields with salt and pepper shakers tucked into their belts. Apparently they had grown an palette for rock hard green tomatoes with a film still on them from the last spray. In those days you wouldn’t see me touching chunky spaghetti sauce much less those bally things. But they made a regular early lunch of it.

I can’t tell you the admiration I have for these men and women. Of course at the time, I was in full high school mode and felt like the dork at the uncool table. I was neither a spanish speaker or able to socio-economically able to relate in any way. It didn’t help, of course, that I also did not share their part in the hellish summertime heat. My job was to drive a tractor about the size of one of those eateries on South 1st Street. Pulled behind me were two semi-truck long trailers that I was responsible for equitably spacing out tomato’s that were shot out of yet another tractor that more nearly approximated a moving house. On this moving house stood abut five workers that picked vines of the tomatoes as they went by on a conveyer belt. Walking behind the conveyor belt house was the bulk of the field hands with bags in tow, gleaning the fields for the overlooked green objects. My chief enemy was Democrats as I turned Rush Limbaugh up on the radio in my air conditioned cab. The men and women walking beside me had no idea what schemes were making them mindless drones of the welfare state nor how much health care they cost the state each year). Yes, its true, that was me. A high school card carrying subscriber of the Limbaugh Letter and over-all lump.

Many things have changed since that summer and many have not. I learned that I could not dig a decent hole without at least three breaks. I learned that two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are necessary and that Frito’s make a good replacement for a dessert if the cabinets at home were scarcely stocked. I learned that “this is why you go to college” from just about everyone who spoke English well enough to know such facts. And that is what I did, I went to college and escaped the world of “jobs American’s won’t take.” I even went to graduate school only to find myself lured by some unknown but very powerful force back into the fields of agricultural production. I can name all the vegetables I grow now (I even nostalgically grow cotton just for kicks) and I never let someone work in our gardens without learning something about the plants they’re attending to. We become what we work, and the quality of the fruit becomes the spirit of the man in both low and high wage jobs. There is dignity and indignity to be found all along the income spectrum. The summer of my 17th year I learned about a world I have since grown to love but I was not given the keys to it. Agriculture is a hole you fall into and I wasn’t good at digging a deep one just yet. Some say I still dig a crappy hole, but now I love it and so I stay.

For more info on the holes I’m digging these days, check out the Genesis Gardens webpage

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Photo from Occupy Austin Protest

What is the reletive worth of collective protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street?  As I see it, the biggest enemy that can be truly defeated is the self; and the primary driving force in the enemy that should be overcome is apathy preventing love.  A world changing movement begins when when an individual or group realize they have power regardless of their material circumstances.  Injustice plays itself out in every area of life (areas that are material as well as systems, as well as organizations, etc.) but the person that concieves of change from the outside in (thinking material changes will lead to deeply felt freedoms) will not be able to call on the resources of the spirit that will arm me with the weapons necessary to wage such a fight.  If I believe God has the power to affect change over everything in the universe, then I must believe that any force arrayed against me is a test of my character or the character of my community rather than an arch enemy to faught as an end in and of itself (for God could overcome any power he chose to).  Sometimes, of course, in the act of living rightly we will face off with those powers that stand between us and the life we are called to live- the life instilling justice, mercy, love, etc- in the world around us.  This doesn’t make these powers any more evil than we we are ourselves, though they clearly are to be opposed in the areas of our disagreement as far as our actions are concerned.  Sometimes this sort of “face-off” will be a collective one, but it will not be a “protest” like the Occupy movement- as if protesting anything is a good worth fighting for- rather, it will be a movement where the goal is human freedom to live out rightousness in service to our brothers and sisters, and to our God.  The enemy will be clearly defined as an antagonist to human flourishing, and will be overcome in the very act of the protest rather than in any change we seek in the material world.
Here is a quote from a Wendell Berry poem that, as always, expresses this idea better than I could:
Much protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvement and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. Protesters who hold out for longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal. If protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. History simply affords too little evidence that anyone’s individual protest is of any use. Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.  From “A Poem of Difficult Hope”

There’s a classic song from the era of my college years that really wasn’t a song at all.  Called the Speech song, it begins with this gem of deep thought: “Wear Sunscreen!  Nothing else I could tell you is as important as that.”  In the spirit of the “Speech Song”, to kill a little free time spent among the ranks of some of the best educated evangelical students in the country, I would like to write a little speech song of my own.  My belief undergirding this letter is that sustainability- true sustainability- begins not with changes in the way we abuse or underutilize natural landscapes; it begins with the people we are.  Are we free to be good?   

The job market is neither as good or as bad as it appears to be.  You will do what you want to do as you work toward it with vigor and enthusiasm.  Most jobs won’t be unattainable because you lack of experience, you’ll rule them out because you decide you didn’t want to be “that guy” in the first place.  The inevitability of being “that guy” is something you’ll have to stomach one of these days.  We’re all becoming someone, even when we think we’re just experimenting.

Experimentation is a choice as much as stability is a choice.   Too much of the former will leave you rootless; too much of the latter will make you boring.  The two are not mutually exclusive though you will make them so.  There’s an inertia that is built into the DNA of most evangelicals that causes time to pass while they serf through life tuned out.  This force will double when you get married and triple when you have your first and second kid.  After 2.5 kids, add 18 years to find out the next time you’ll see the world clearly.  This is not necessary!

The world is an interesting place, just ask any dog.  They can find more to interest them in an empty lot than your kids will find in the rise and fall of nations.  The key to keeping life interesting is two fold.  Step one: get really good at being present to each and every situation and person you encounter.  This will freak some people out but you’ll meet life when and where it happens.  Waiting for retirement, dessert, or something big to happen is not satisfying.  People smile differently.  The air smells different in the Fall than in the Spring. It’s crazy what you notice when you’re not thinking about something else. 

Try not to talk to yourself.

Smile when you walk alone.

Look up!

Prepare one dinner menu really well.

Talk to strangers, even if only to ask the time.

Step two: integrity.  Nothing determines a life to staid, boring, vacancy like short cuts.  You’re a whole person.  You’re word is gold, take care of it.  You’re health is physical as well as spiritual.  You’re mind will only be as sharp as you make it.  Neglect any piece of your integrity and you’ll find out that doors of enjoyment are closed to you.  Keep those doors open.  Spend time with people that expand your integrity.  Most won’t be Christian but that will be ok.  Integrity is not a part of salvation, but it does help you work it out. 

Leave early for parties and get there late.  Enjoy the ride.  Plant gardens and give the produce away to your neighbors.  Cultivate hobbies you can perfect over your lifetime.  Make it a conviction to hang out only with guys if you’re a guy and girls if you’re a girl on a set regular basis.  And do it at the same place each time.  Tip well if this is a public location.  These will be the people who speak at your wedding and funeral.  Give them something to say about you. 

The best possible life doesn’t fall into place with the right choices; you will move closer or further away with every thought.