It’s been almost a month since Keren and I settled in the country. “Settled” might be too strong a word. We’re still trying to figure out how things — mechanical, institutional, structural or natural — work. I guess we’re settling in the same sense you settle into a cool lake on a steamy day: You want to be in it, but there’s something kind of uncomfortable about the process of getting there.
There’s so much to learn when you move to a totally new place. For example, my big triumph last week was getting a neighbor to tell me, in fewer than 500 words, and with driving directions that included actual names of roads, what we are supposed to do with our recycling.
We also managed to find a farmer still making those manageably sized, rectangular bales of straw (ones we would have used as props in a play back in the city to designate “country,” — and which are uncommon now since the popularization of the balers that make those giant rolls you can see in the farm fields bordering the interstates). But the path to that transaction involved a lot of hand gestures to explain what it was I wanted, the shape and size, as if I were ordering street food in a foreign country.
And then there’s all the subtext, or as Raymond Carver might have it, what they talk about when they talk about … well, anything.
Take that straw, for example. I wanted it for mulch for our new vegetable plot, part of a community garden shared by three other households. (For now, I’ll set aside the Vatican City-like intrigues of how the plot we were given was parceled out by the neighbors.) The application of this straw has caused all sorts of wonderment among our fellow gardeners. Half the time when I go down there, I find people talking about how we’ve laid out our plants (in the zig-zag of the French intensive method!), or what we’ve planted (tomatillos!), and now, the straw. It was clear that the straw had people really talking. And finally, on Friday, a young father came over the hill to ask about it. He had introduced us to his kids and his dog the week before.
“My parents have been making a garden here since I can’t remember,” he said. “But I’ve never seen that. What’s it supposed to do?” It wasn’t said unkindly and he seems like a perfectly fine human being, but the whole interaction smelled vaguely of a reconnaissance mission.
So we told him about weed control and water management. As always in these situations, I played up my ignorance of the environment. “We’ll see what happens,” I said. “Every new garden is an experiment. We’re still learning the soil here.”
I’ve deduced that our interrogator is the son of the gardening couple who hectored us on our first day, letting us know that we were doing everything wrong. Digging, planting, watering. It was all wrong. So by the time we got to the laying on of straw, we had fully confirmed we had absolutely no idea what we were doing.
Yesterday, Keren and I went out into the garden to try out a new tomato-staking strategy she learned from the farm she is working on this summer. It involves string and rebar posts and it’s called the Florida Weave. (An evocative name that tempts me to name a new square dance after it, once I can figure out some additional moves.) As we squatted near the base of the tomato plants, a boy of about 10 rolled by on his bike.
“Still liking your straw?” he asked. There was a sneer to it, then a snicker.
As always in these situations, I played up my good nature. “Oh, yes,” I called cheerfully.
Several minutes later, I asked Keren what she thought that was about. “It’s so hard to be different,” she said.
It is. We are already so different here. So city. So gay. So tomatillo-French-intensive, anti-Roto-tiller, north-south green-bean-planterish. We hope to win them over with salsa later in the season, with favors accepted and returned, with kindness to their plant-trampling dogs and churlish children. It’s how we do.