A young student of particular promise was brought to the Master to begin his apprenticeship. The Master lived on the slope of a venerable mountain far from any village and for years had studied the minutest details of solitude. She knew she would have to forego work on this during the tenure of the student, as such studies cannot be pursued in partnership with another, nor can they be communicated in an atmosphere of conviviality. This said, she nevertheless welcomed the student into her hovel and set him to work bringing firewood. He took to the task with enthusiasm and soon had filled the wood box and laid by another large pile beneath the eaves of the cottage beside the door. He went on to bringing water from the nearby stream and even did a small washing that had somehow been neglected during the Master’s studies of solitude. The Master was pleased with the work and finally, toward the end of the day, bid the student to rest while she made some tea.
As they sipped their tea she asked, “So what do you hope to learn, Child?”
“Whatever you will teach me,” he replied.
“Well,” she said, “I learn from the mountain. Perhaps you will too.”
“Oh, I know about the mountain,” the student said beaming.
“You know about the mountain?” The Master was surprised.
“Yes. I thought if I was to come here I should learn all I could beforehand, so I studied very hard.”
“And what did you learn?” The Master asked the question cautiously, not knowing what to expect.
The student settled himself on his cushion and folded his hands to prepare for his recitation. “Well, the mountain is 3,237 meters high,” he began. “It is composed of granitic rock that was formed 800 million years ago under conditions of extreme pressure and temp…” The Master interrupted him with a wave of her hand.
“How high do you say the mountain is?”
“Uh, it’s 3237 meters high,” he replied.
“Higher than what?” the Master demanded.
The student hesitated for a moment, then said, “Higher than the sea, Master.”
“But we are many days journey from the sea. Are you saying that the mountain goes all the way to the sea?”
The student was somewhat chagrined by this line of questioning but he pushed on. “No, Master. I’m not saying that. It’s just the way things are measured… from sea level. That’s how it’s done.”
“Sea level? I’ve been to the sea. It goes up with the moon and down with the sun. It splashes and rolls and foams worse than the fishpond when the bears come for a bath. How do you measure from such a thing?”
“They don’t, Master,” the student replied looking glum. “They use mean sea level. It’s like an average… of the highs and the lows…” His voice trailed off.
The Master stared into the dim underside of the thatched roof for several moments. Then she spoke. “When I go up the mountain, there is a rock where I like to sit. It is just the right height for sitting. Is this the rock they measure to for the height of the mountain?”
The student stared resolutely at the floor. “I don’t know,” he mumbled.
“There’s a great old tree beside the rock,” the Master continued. “It’s quite majestic. Perhaps it is to the top of that tree that they measure?”
“I don’t know, Master.” The boy’s voice was barely audible.
The Master rose and grasped him firmly but without malice by the right ear lobe and led him to the door. Giving him the impetus of her hand she propelled him into the night air. “You must go and find out what you know, Child,” she called out. “Go and find out how high the mountain is.” And she closed the door.
It was two days later that the student returned. The weather had turned the worse and he was ragged and spattered with mud.
“So, did you find out how high the mountain is?” the Master asked.
“It is much higher than I thought,” the student replied.
The Master was secretly pleased with this reply but did not show her pleasure. “You’d better get some wood. I’ve used up all you brought while you were wandering around in the rain.”
In 21st Century America we are urged to believe that the amassing of great mountains of facts constitutes knowledge. Once we have taken the measure of a thing; once we’ve poked, prodded (and sometimes sliced and diced) and dimensioned a thing, we know all about it. But the world is not a world of facts. It is not, at bottom, even a world of things. It is a world of processes and relationships. The ungraspable fluidity of the natural world makes our relationship with the rest of nature artful rather than technical. I think that no place is the artfulness of this relationship more obvious than in farming. It’s true that industrial processes have found a home and perhaps forever changed the character of the vast monoculture operations of the heartland. Not so with the small organic holdings around the Northeast. Homesteaders, CSA’s of 20 or 30 members, truck farms serving local restaurants and food co-ops or peddling their harvest at the farmers’ market, these people still live within that artful relationship. Many of us strive to recapture a sense of the experience of our forebears who, we imagine, were in contact with an earth less buffered by technology or society’s own tendency to distance itself more and more from the natural world. By seeking this connection consciously we imagine that we are creating with the soil a relationship that is both traditional and contemporary; one that partakes of past knowledge and yet is open to novelty and experimentation.
Here at the homestead I sense that process strongly in the growing of garlic. Those of you who are long-time readers of this column will remember that I have professed my love for dry beans. And it’s true. I do love dry beans. Last year, 2004, we grew nearly 100 lbs. of dry beans. But garlic is different. Garlic is a circle. There is no real beginning, nor is there any definitive end to its process, so any description enters somewhat arbitrarily like a voyeur spying on an intimate moment. Even at the moment of harvest, certainly a time of endings, we are already comparing the large bulbs to the small, feeling their weight and their solidity and imagining selecting the best for the next planting. But I won’t start there at that arc of the circle. Instead I’ll move a little further on, to the moment of planting itself. At the end of this piece I give you a garlic poem that also takes that moment for its starting point and, I think, brings to a focus the rambling prose.
By the middle of October here at the homestead we will have been touched by a frost or two or three. Not the kind of cold that freezes the earth. That is still many weeks away. These are the frosts that, if I’m inattentive, will with a single faery-touch lay low the final patch of basil (the one I thought to make into a final, great batch of pesto), or turn to mush the last tender peppers. These frosts touch our mongrel grapes and finally make them sweet enough to eat. These frosts, and the shortening days, signal that its time to plant the garlic. There’s nothing scientific about it. It’s a feeling; one that I now know comes to me about the second week of October. Someone once told me we should plant our garlic five or six weeks before the first hard freeze, an event that might happen here in early November or that might hold off until the middle of December as it did one year when I was a young wannabe homesteader desperate to get a footing in the ground for a chimney so we could heat our dwelling. So is it just intuition that informs the planting? Sometimes it’s desperation. Sometimes the world is so brown, the air so chill, that I feel I’ve surely missed the moment. Other times the leaves cling doggedly to their branches and sun-drenched skies belie the season. I’m sure that garlic placed in the ground under such conditions will sprout immediately and miss its all-important winter nap. But garlic is forgiving. Here at the homestead I believe it likes October and each year it rewards my belief with abundant, healthy harvests through the worst and the best of times.
I once read somewhere (I can’t remember where, now) that no one who examines closely the process of planting garlic can miss the metaphor of death and resurrection that it embodies. The time of year, autumn, is often employed as a metaphor for endings and the garlic clove, at the very end of its cycle of growth, is brought back to the earth from which it sprang. Its character is so different from the seed. Beans will wait patiently for years for the opportunity to sprout (I love to hear stories, even if apocryphal, of archeologists finding viable seeds in ancient ruins). Garlic is prone to corruption, as is the flesh. If it is not returned to the earth within a season or two of its harvest, the soul of garlic is lost and the possibility of resurrection is missed. Orientation, too, is important as it was in the tumuli of ancient Celtic Europe where the bodies of the dead were often laid to greet the first rays of the solstitial sun. Garlic can be a profound metaphor for the fragile cycle of life of which we humans are a part, but those who have proposed this in the past have turned that metaphor on its head. Whether it was the Toltec corn maiden or the Attic goddess of grain, The Hindu cycle of reincarnation or more recent stories of miraculous return, the tales of burial and resurrection that informed the spiritual life of ancient cultures were themselves metaphors for the reality of plant propagation. The yearnings of the spirit echo the reality of the flesh. The garlic clove, the seed, these are the real things. They provide the sustenance for our bodies and for our spiritual yearnings.
On reflection, it strikes me as a great act of faith, this laying of garlic cloves into the earth. The winters here are harsh and at their heart they sometimes seem without end. But somehow the garlic survives and its first green shoots decorate the last sooty patches of snow. Its joyous return is quickly followed in the garden by those other intrepid survivors, the weeds.
The Garlic Eaters
They anticipate the first hard freeze
of fall by several weeks.
The frost-killed green of summer past
is folded into lumpy ground.
The long and narrow strip of earth raked smooth.
The ritual, rehearsed in all its steps,
is not for that less new,
nor is this new beginning,
this enfolding of their hopes.
Their dibbles pierce an earth
prepared for sleep
and briefly waken it to take
possession of the crisp and pallid cloves
in crackly casques.
“Be sure to point them up
so they grow true,” she says,
and he concedes that truth
is what they seek
there with their dibbles
and their garlic
and their frozen stretch of winter,
now their burden and their hope.
Jim lives with his partner, Laurie, on their homestead in Meco, NY where, when he’s not planting garlic and the myriad other veggies that grace their seasonal menu, he spends his time chasing down the ineffable with his net of words.