I'm thinking about questions. How I think of them, how I ask them, how I answer them for others, how I receive answers from others. After eating my lunch, I strolled around the orchard for a few minutes instead of diving straight back into work. Yesterday, driving the tractor slowly back and forth across the edge of the first field, I had noticed that the large plum trees hovering over me were nearly bare of fruit. It stuck in my memory. I was refreshed from eating and lying down a minute, my mind was at ease with my goals for the rest of the day, and I gave myself time to investigate.
How many plums are developing on the trees around the farm stand? Not many. They're dangling, sparse green ornaments, from a few branches here and there. Not the loaded limbs we saw last year. And the trees are looking spindly, leaves small and shriveled on the lower branches, just a few lush areas near the canopy.
Why do the plum trees look so shitty? I ask Ted before I run off to get more fuel for the rototiller. He doesn't know either, hasn't had time to take a close look. Maybe a fungal disease. But for sure, the pollination was awful in the cold wet spring when the trees were blooming. I shrug. A question for the books.
As I'm helping make a new batch of potting soil, I get asked a few good ones by Trina, a friendly middle-aged woman who's been coming "until my back starts to hurt" about once a week this spring, and Sienna, a sophomore in college who miraculously keeps finding time between classes and homework to volunteer twice a week. What's in that fertilizer you're mixing? What's the sand for? Is coconut coir a substitute for peat moss? What's the styrofoam stuff (perlite) made of? I've been asked these questions so many times this year that I'm finally starting to feel more confident with my answers, and I explain what all the ingredients are made from and why they're in the mix. The more I'm comfortable with the answers, the more I can think up questions of my own: What fertilizers have you used in your garden? Have you seen plants that are deficient in certain nutrients? What's your garden soil like? I want to fuel questions breeding questions like this more often.
Later in the day, my learning curve becomes fully apparent to me. I do the same things so often here: fill trays, train people to seed or transplant, harvest and wash produce. Right when I start to feel like I know what I'm doing and can make good judgements, I'm exploding with new questions when Ted asks me to set up a couple irrigation lines that've been sitting over the winter. I've moved and set up a ton of lines, taken them down for the winter, and I've watched Ted make a couple minor repairs, but I've never started from scratch like this.
The things I'm not sure about: which lines to use? Which pipes are interchangeable and which ones need to stay with their set? How do we inspect the sprinkler heads and clean them out? Which end risers will work with each system? How do I exchange the male fixture for a female fixture so it clamps onto the riser in the ground? How do I flush the system out?
After giving me the run-down and in the midst of answering my last questions, Ted pulls the best move on the farm. We're both feeling the crunch of the end of the day, needing to just get things done, and he's explaining how to flush the system out.
"Leave the end cap off and turn the water on until all the debris shoots out the end. Do it with the sprinkler heads on." I must have a questioning look on my face. "You could do it without them, but no, just trust me, do it with them on."
He turns to keep talking with David, I accept the answer, and start to rummage through the pipes to find which ones to grab first.
"Well," he turns back with a wave of his arm, "it's because if you leave them off, the system won't have enough pressure to really blow them all out. Water will shoot out of the first two or three, and the rest won't get flushed and you'll have to clear them once they're on anyway. That's why. And it'll save you time."
Yes! There it is! The unsolicited Why! I realize in that moment that so many of the people I work with are wondering about the Why of everything we do, and the whole point of me being here is to give them that. To work without the Why is fine for some, and unnecessary to get the job done, but to get the Why without even asking is such a gift. I want to offer it more, in more depth, to more people. It makes sense of the seemingly banal task of snapping off flowers from bok choy heads, or shoveling foot after foot of heavy soil onto row cover, or taking the time to hoe out every-last-almost-invisible weed. It makes it more valuable, bearable, empowering.
Why water the cover crop? A Duck Corps volunteer from the university asks as we walk out to move a back-up set of irrigation pipes to where the original set didn't fit together. Because the soil needs to be just the right moisture to till.... And I go on, savoring the feeling of being able to offer the Why. But for all the thousands of questions I ask and answers I give, farming will always throw me more to wonder over.
With a lot of carrying of pipes, walking back and forth to get tools, turning water on and off to fix jammed heads, and answering a now-delightful stream of questions from Isaac, a regular volunteer who's been dropping by for an afternoon every week, we get them working. Ah, sweet success.