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weeding

It was the perfect day to hold a hoe, to hit the earth, to chant out loud, and to clear a row.

“Have you ever used a scraper hoe?” my farmer friend asked. “No,” I told her, but trying to sound more earnest than sassy — because I really wanted to be of use — I added, “but I’m a quick study!”

She’s a serious one, the farmer. A good one. Someone who might seem a bit intimidating from afar. But in getting to know her, it just seems there’s a no-fuss approach that runs deep. I appreciate this; I share a similar streak.

She took me to a long row approximately the length of a short-course swimming pool and told me that it held tomatillos. It looked to me to hold a lot of weeds, but as she pointed out the small plants, only a few inches high, I began to see a pattern.

It had rained last night, and I knew from my front flower garden and the handful of weeds that I’d pulled from it this morning that it was a good day to yank a living thing, roots and all, from the earth. I bent down and pulled at a weed expecting to extract it easily, as if it were greased. Instead, it clung obstinately to the cracked and clumpy soil, breaking low on its stem.

All of the rain, my friend explained, had turned the clay-heavy ground into cement. “The results of industrial farming,” she said ruefully.

Midwestern farmers have long depended on drainage tile to remove excess water from fields. But it also carries away nutrient-rich top soil. The existing tiles in Iowa alone would reach to the moon and back — two times. This micro farm is an attempt at something different.

While I bent and pulled and tried to figure out what was a weed and what was a plant, I thought how everyone should have to do work like this on a regular basis to better understand where there food comes from and the challenges to grow it free of chemicals and in a way that replenishes the earth instead of suffocating or draining of it anything vital. This should be part of every kids’ schooling. In the long run, it strikes me as way more necessary than much of the curriculum.

As I started into my weeding project, scraping and whacking, it amazed me that anything grew in this dirt. There were so many rocks that it seemed I could have paid homage several times over in a small cemetery. I pulled them into a pile and then leaned down and scooped them into the path that separated me from some cabbage. (Today, my back feels the effort.)

The other challenge was that the primary weed I was removing looked remarkably like the adolescent tomatillos. It was a cruel joke. Like there was a real oak and a pretend, “bad” oak side by side, and I had to play God and decide which was which. Sometimes the tomatillos had a yellow flower, a showy give-away of their true identity. I also discovered partway into the project that I could use the hoe to gently pull back the leaves:  a red stem indicated the weed, a gray stem was the real deal.

The chant from my yoga teacher training bubbled up out of nowhere–Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya–and I started it up at a low hum–repeating and repeating with ease. The other sounds that accompanied me:  A worker’s dog yipped whenever her owner got too far out of view. A herd of sheep from across the gravel road occasionally baahed at an audible level. And a mower kept at its insistent chore in a nearby field.

The work was hypnotic. The weather perfection with a bright blue sky and a strong breeze. When I had just a few yards left to go, I paused to admire how clean the rows looked. The plants, which had previously disappeared into the chaos, now dotted the bed at an orderly pace, separated by irrigation hoses. I didn’t want the task to end, although my hands were sore and chapped, and I could feel that the decision not to put on sunscreen, thinking it was late enough in the day to be safe, had been a poor one.

Once I was done (though weeding is never really done, it’s just an improvement on what was and within hours can seem pitifully insufficient), I set my nifty hoe against the barn and walked to pick up my CSA batch–an overflowing bag of the expected, including sweet lettuces and tiny carrots, and the challenging. I nearly passed at the fennel but then recalled my intention to learn to make mussels with fennel and Pernod.

On the drive home, a podcast asked: “When was the last time a few hours flew by without you noticing?” I smiled. How lovely not have to pause for a moment toward an answer.