Betty Duffy

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Life in a Box

This morning, sitting down to breakfast, my son asked me, “Can we make milk sometime?”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Are you wanting a pet cow? Cows make milk.”

“But what about the other kind—like this?” he said pointing to the carton of milk on the table.

“Believe it or not, cows made that milk too. It’s just been packaged and sent to the store for us to buy.” I suddenly felt a longing to drink a glass of warm, fatty, fresh-from-the-cow milk. And as cliché as it sounds, I was disappointed that I had lost some of the wholesomeness in this milk I have purchased, not to mention the fact that my kids think there’s some recipe for milk that we can whip up any time we please.

Looking around my kitchen, I am disgusted by the snappy writing on my box of All-Bran, the boxes and wrappers in my pantry that we open and discard every day. My son’s entire lunchbox, from his juice box to his cheese, even his fruit is wrapped in cellophane or foil—and somehow I thought I could ensure better nutrition by fixing his lunch for him at home.

So I entertain for a moment my options. We live on five acres. I could pull a Barbara Kingsolver and try to become totally self-sufficient. But that’s the way zealots think—severe changes of lifestyle are for the nuts of this world. And yet, haven’t I always felt a little bit wrong for this world, always like an outsider looking in—watching the world on a screen, getting all my entertainments from some sort of a box?

Life and all my wants have come in a package with saucy lettering, letting me know that this time I have made the right choice in my quest for material satisfaction. And yet each box has failed to deliver. Time to move on the next box? Try it this way: with ten grams of fiber rather than five, with crunchy nuggets rather than flakes. Try again, and again to beat the code, be in the know, to be part of the elite who know the secret to happy living, to have membership.

So the obvious choice is BACK TO THE LAND! I flip through a couple of slick catalogs offering the perfect apple tree hybrid; big juicy flawless apples when ordered from Stark (and peppered with just a couple seasonal doses of Sevin). Seeds from Burpee offer glossy fruits, heavy crops, disease resistance, exceptionally sweet and juicy confections. What could be wrong with any of that? Aside from the fact that nothing is free in this world (it’s cheaper to buy eggs than keep chickens), and that even the organic seed market is using slick advertising techniques, I have a certain agrarian incompetence.

Yes, I have fallen prey to every type of advertising, and have purchased not one, but ten fruit trees from the catalogs. Of those still living, four have been mauled by slugs and two by caterpillars. A cherry tree that bore fruit was attacked by birds before reaching peak ripeness. The pear tree has produced only mushy brown pears, and the plum tree drops its fruit before I can get to it. And this has been a good year. Last year, a late frost prevented any of my trees from bearing fruit.

Currently I am a dead bee keeper—and by that I mean the bees have died, not me—much the way one of my sons insisted on keeping a “Dead Fish Aquarium” once the aquatic life in our care passed on. Attempts at dog-ownership have proved a failure, and I have fear of taking on any other livestock of greater investment. The great wonder here is that any life in my care (i.e. my children) has managed to survive.

This is a modern quandary. I hate life in the box. But I am one woman with a lot of kids, and a husband, God Bless Him, who does not share my desire to grow things (unless Stark could somehow develop a tree that grows salami sandwiches). The agrarian life is hard. The industrial age obviously grew out of a desire to avoid this work. It would be all too easy to say that the kind of life I was meant to lead has already expired.

I know there are agricultural communities out there where families are helping each other in some urban agrarian pursuits. I happen to live in a community once predominately supported by agriculture, whose inhabitants, including the farmers, now rely on Wal-mart for their daily bread.

I am ready to throw up my hands and say that I belong to a culture in which we are all aliens. If I read another short story about “looking for connection in a modern world” I’m going to stick a needle in my eye. But I think I have fallen into yet another ad-trap: I am not alone in this world because I purchase the brunt of our food at the store, and I don’t live on an organic farm co-op, and I’m not a very good gardener to boot.

I HAVE membership. I have an 80 year old farmer for a neighbor who drives his tractor into our yard every Fall and disks my garden (there's my nod to Wendell Berry). In addition I have membership in a whole slew of imperfect people, some who cause me consternation, some who make me laugh every time I look at them. And some, like my children, who do both at the same time. My husband, my parents, my in-laws, my siblings, my friends: This is my membership. It is not a commune of Gen-X organic farmers. Darn. Only one or two of the people in my membership I actually chose; the rest were given to me and they don’t look a thing like the people in the pages of Country Living, but thank God for that, or I really would be living in that box.


Jus said...

WE had chickens for a year and gave them away when I was pregnant with number 4 - I decided I would rather buy eggs from a local farmer than raise my own;) That being said my garden (which is as haphazard a garden as you will ever see - with several crop failures a season) is very important to me and I dont know why. I did not grow up with it and fail as often as I succeed but I feel like I am using my former yard well when I sow seeds. I marvel at the children's plots - even though they are often overcrowded and underweeded and love watching them pick berries and squeal at their sweetness. It might just be what I will miss most when in Africa. thank heavens for the avacodo and banana trees in our new yard ;)

Emily said...

You don't give yourself credit Elizabeth. When I was at your house this summer we picked a big load of salad greens, tomatoes, beans, beets, beets, and more beets. What else did your garden have -- corn, broccoli, several kinds of peppers. ... Plus we picked lots of mulberries and blackberries, and I heard you had persimmons. You can get all the eggs you want at Mom and Dad's. And you make a mean loaf of bread. So you kind of are dipping your toes into agriculture. The problem is not just false advertising, or the fact that self-righteousness of the type like Barbara Kingsolver's makes you want to run and do the opposite, not even combined with the fact that you have never been a zoophiliac, (sisterly needling alert), but the real source is that you don't really like to work very hard. My guess is you'd rather sit and read a book - or write on a blog - than work in the yard or shovel animal poop. But don't give up hope - your children are nearing the age of responsibility. Maybe they would like a pet goat or a nice little calf. Did you see how much they auctioned the 4-H winners for in Cass County - $56/lb for a 150 lb lamb??

Betty Duffy said...

Am I that transparent, sister? It's true. I even thought it while I was writing this, and didn't put it in: I AM LAZY. What in the name of Sam would I have done with all those pears had they not been brown and mushy? I would have had to CAN them.

If anyone wants some carrots, they're still out there in the garden.

Elizabeth said...

well, i wasn´t going to say you are lazy...just pregnant. so, the pioneers had many children to help them with all the work that needed to be done (very simplified version, you know.) guide those hands that you and mr. duffy created. you can do that from a lawn chair with cheese and wine, reaping the benefits with low labor impact for mama. imperfection at it´s finest, i know, i practice this method...a lot.

JenX67 said...

You are an amazing woman. I read the others' comments. Liar. Liar. Pants on Fire. You are a gardener. Blackberries, beets, peppers. I can't even grow geraninums in my city flower bed.