The thing most instantly striking as I was dropped, alone, along the overgrown field’s perimeter, was the absolute and unmitigated silence. Glimpses of beige hats and the loping mass of tractors moved through my peripheries, but between those figures and myself rested a near material solitude. Garlic scapes rose chest-level and appeared vibrantly healthy in the noon glare; yet, at ground level, countless blooms of mugwort and lamb’s ear threatened to strangle the harvest.
I arrived at Sang Lee Farm in Southold, Long Island, without so much as an hour of field experience beneath my belt. Like many of my privileged peers, I possessed a notion of manual labor as something alien and romantic: a burdensome fact of life I had been spared, that by consciously subjecting myself to would somehow advance my perceived moral superiority. I had decided that I was to be a farmer—for a short while, at the very least. Not once did I wonder whether I could handle the work physically; even as Fred Lee, my boss and owner of the farm, drove me in his golf cart towards the field, my new job manifested as little more than abstraction and daydream.
That first day I pulled weeds for six hours, vomited twice, and verged on passing out every time I shifted weight from one foot to the other. I was exhausted after the first hour. By the third, I felt as if my vitals were crashing. Thoughts of retreat played through my mind with compounding regularity as the hours dragged like a till through wet soil. The weeds became not a task or enemy, but a bizarre totality, remaining equinumerous without regard to the hundreds of their rank and file I had uprooted and cast aside. I had never felt more ganged up on in my life.
When I returned home that evening, I collapsed in a warm heap on the even warmer sofa. I didn’t want to go back, but I felt like I had to; my life at this point seemed to me a series of promising starts without a single follow-through, entering countless projects with enthusiasm and vigor before bailing the moment I encountered the slightest difficulty. Friends and family had begun to worry that this was not just some unfortunate aspect of my adolescence, but a defining character trait. And while I would have never admitted it, I was worried that this was the case as well. At the very least, I thought to myself, first day must have logically been the hardest.
But on the second day, tedium struck. On arrival to the farm, I was immediately driven to the same field previously attended, on which my progress clocked in somewhere around one row every three hours. Same garlic; same weeds; same contained and heaving quiet. I was still unsure of farm policy regarding personal music players, so I returned to my haunches and set to pulling with no company but that of my thoughts.
It was a strange period to spend so totally within myself—by the third day I had become proficient enough in the art of weeding that my arms could set to their task nearly automatically, allowing my thoughts to whir unchecked and internal. I had just graduated from high school, and that summer stood as the sole buffer between myself and a journey off to college. And, as anyone with life experience extending beyond greenest stripling knows: change is terrifying. So I was equipped with what felt like geologic amounts of solitary time to mull over and chew on and grapple with a future that seemed positioned just beyond my quiet plot of garlic, an eventuality that I was not so much approaching, but that was encroaching with manifold corridors left unmarked and leering. Perhaps this is why I returned to Sang Lee after two hours’ work emptied my knotted stomach: when staring towards the zenith of mountainous anxieties, nothing sharpens a perspective quite like the introduction of head-pounding labor.
By the conclusion of my first week at the farm, I had spent roughly thirty hours weeding that same plot of garlic. I wish I could report that, as I punched my time card and drove off to spend a weekend on the couch, the field rested neatly manicured and inhabited only by scapes saluting a dusky sun; but as my introductory week on the farm came to a close, nearly two-thirds of the crop remained choked by battalion upon battalion of weeds. Part of me worried I was to be immediately fired on return—another part hoped this to be the case. I had worked at a speed that I felt to be my absolute capacity, and I had failed to complete the simplest of tasks.
However, when I returned on Monday, I was greeted by a beaming Fred Lee. I hopped into the passenger seat of his golf cart and we puttered off towards the larger fields. This time, though, we continued right on past the garlic plot, Fred driving us towards what looked from my vantage to be some miniaturized rainforest. I mentioned that my previous job was still incomplete and that it would likely take me another two weeks to finish, expecting some sort of anger or, at the very least, a disappointed nod of recognition. Instead, Fred let out a quiet laugh. “This is organic farming,” he said, pulling up beside the largest single field I had thus far seen. “We don’t stop working when a job is finished—the job is never finished. Our days are governed by urgency, and right now the situation at the tomatoes is dire. That garlic was considered lost—we had no one to weed it for weeks—and now we have a couple dozen more crates than we expected. Try not to beat yourself up.” Vindicated, I went to work on driving posts for the tomatoes with newfound vigor.
Tomatoes, I came to learn, are far too big. Over hundreds of years of tinkering and toying with the plant’s genetic makeup, the varieties of commercially produced tomatoes have grown like pituitary tumored giants. Therefore, it is the farmer’s responsibility, having molded these Lovecraftian monuments, to prop up the tomato plants before they spread across the ground and rot. Easy enough, I thought, having enough sense by this point not to say it out loud. The posts were about five feet tall and an inch and a half thick, requiring me to plunge them into the ground like a victorious gladiator. Next, they must be hammered into the soil. This involves taking a large, cast iron tube, closed on one end and fitted with handles on either side, and slamming it over the posts until they are adequately secure.
Now, at this point in my life, I was aware of the flexible nature of time’s passage, especially while working, and assumed there was a positive correlation between the task’s difficulty and the rate at which time elapsed. However, there was nothing to prepare me for a job in which I pounded objects with such regularity that the effect was metronomic, essentially ringing a muffled bell for every second that passed, with three beats of rest as I walked to the adjacent post. Time didn’t elapse, it merely was. The effect of this being that by the day’s end it truly felt as if I were present and vividly aware of all twenty-one thousand six hundred seconds; yet, as I returned home, there was absolutely no cognitive input that required consideration. It was time without experience, except for the vague sensations of growing stronger and utter exhaustion by shift’s end.
I spent weeks among the tomatoes, laying posts, pounding, and then wrapping sturdy twine around the plants’ stalks. The work was hard; brutally so some days, when the sun at its apex brought the temperature on the farm to the low hundreds, usually shortly after noon and right as shoulders began to ache before going totally numb. But every day I could feel the work growing a little bit less trying—not quite easier, more of a slow eradication of despair as I grew accustomed to the physical nature of growing tomatoes. Every morning I got out of bed a little more quickly, and I could feel something like excitement developing right around the start of my second month. For the first time in my life, I was working hard—a fact that pleased me in and of itself. In a period of my life in which completing a single book seemed an arduous task, I could feel myself being lifted from some incorporeal sluggishness with the most bodily of means. And more than merely the pleasure of finding enjoyment in a task that I was wholly responsible for, I think I was learning, somewhere out in a field, crouched down to pull weeds or with a twenty pound iron pounder raised above my shoulders, that hard work was actually possible.