Monday, April 13, 2009

Any Farmers Here? by Shelley Gillespie

In early February, I attended a UCSB conference on Food Security and Sustainability that addressed food issues through interdisciplinary approaches - literature, history, social sciences, film. My kind of conference. In a packed room on the sixth floor of the Humanities building, a speaker asked the audience, "Are any of you farmers?" Close to the last row, I raised my hand. Very few others raised their hands. This conference was based in academia, after all. Later in the day, another speaker asked, "Can I see a show of hands, how many people here are farmers?" I held my cup of tea and didn't raise my hand.

I became a farmer in Costa Rica. I made my way at the age of twenty to live in a small, coffee-farming, mountain town. How? First, I fell in love in the States with a man from Costa Rica. I proceeded to drop out of college to accompany him home with our dream of farming organically. We drove thousands of miles across Mexico, into Central America. We reached Arturo's town and his parent's house on a foggy afternoon, waking them from their siesta. His parents were overjoyed with the return of their black sheep son and with me,the young - se ve tan joven, tan joven - gringa wife.

I didn't fully understand until later, when I spoke Spanish more fluently and had absorbed cultural nuances, that by joining the men in the fields I defied the accepted role of a woman. This was 1995. Women harvested coffee and collected coffee wood for cook fires, but carry a back pack sprayer or prune the bananas or thin the coffee sprouts? Rarely, if ever. Much less the daughter-in-law of Egerico Segura, the hard working, respected, land-owning, coffee cooperative board member. Still, this family I married into valued hard work above anything else and despite the town gossip, I won my place in the field with don Egerico and his sons.

I remember my first day in the field. I marveled at the shiny dark green leaves of the coffee plants that rose six feet around me. The day's work: pruning the banana plants that grew among the coffee bushes, reducing the banana clumps to three stalks. Banana plants create folds of fibrous layers to form their stalks and when cut release a sap that stains your clothes and hands. Some of the stalks were as big around as my waist. I whacked at the stalks, turning them to pulp, splattering myself with sap. There is an art to cutting down a banana plant and I needed this first lesson. Arturo's brother appeared by my side. He must have heard the whack-whack-whack of my machete and not the clear cracking of a falling banana. He pointed to his eyes and then back at the plants. Look. I spoke very little Spanish and he refused to speak the little English he'd learned on a restaurant stint in New Jersey. I wasn't sure if my presence in the field was humorous or annoying to him. He aimed his glinting machete at the top of the thick stalk. He sliced down at a forty five degree angle. He aimed his machete up at another forty five degree angle, to cut a wedge out of the banana. Slowly, he cut more of the wedge until he could knock the top part of the plant onto the dirt. Then he took aim at the lower section and with strong, swift strikes of his machete sliced the stalk into sap-oozing sections. He motioned that I shouldn't let the stalks fall onto the coffee plants. Later in the day, Arturo gave me my second lesson: use the weight of the machete to guide your strike otherwise your muscles won't last a day in the field. I already knew, with all of my heart, I wanted to last more than a day.

I memorized the weather of the region. Black clouds barreled into the valley from the Pacific, fierce with lightening, dropping the ocean in a thunderous downpour, often before we could make it home. In the dry season, the hawks shrieked and Egerico said, "Summer is coming." The dry heat could fry thoughts right out of me as I left droplets of sweat on the soil. I felt sexy in my thick-soled black rubber boots, the shoe of choice for every campesino. Shovels and machetes, rock bars and desbajadores became extensions of my own body. We sculpted the terrain in our constant efforts to save the soil's fertility, terracing acres of hillside. Mid-morning breaks became a ritual I savored. Sitting in the shade, drinking lemonade out of recycled Coke liters, and chatting. At the end of the break, the machetes were sharpened; little flakes of steel fell from the blade. The Dota valley and those hillsides and the teachings of Egerico, Henry, Arturo and all of the other men I worked with, turned me into a farmer.

I'm still telling this story today, even after I left the farm over four years ago. I raised my hand at that conference because my experience as a farmer formed me. I am a farmer.

But wait, when was the last time I strapped the leather machete sheath around my waist? When was the last time the back pack sprayer with the faulty lid sloshed its 16 liters of fish emulsion down my back? When was the last time, thinking about my vegetable farming in the States, that I hauled irrigation tubes across hot sandy soil? When was the last time my hands were so callused they snagged on my clothes? I couldn't raise my hand again in the afternoon.

In the spring of 2007, I agonized over a decision that seemed immanent. I had to leave farming and my friends' farm I'd been working on. I was waking up every morning with numb hands. I desperately wanted a new challenge. I cried every day. If I walked away from this work, who would I be? I couldn't see any other story to tell about myself. I can not claim to be a farmer if I am not active in the field. At the same time, I see now, farming, like writing, influences how I experience the world and what I care about. The physical labor with its just fruits is only one element. I've also learned a way of observing from farming, a close eye for "the gleam of particulars" as poet Naomi Shihab Nye puts it.

I recently applied for a farming position with a local high school. In writing about my experiences in my cover letter, I wondered about the web presence of the farm I built with Arturo and what these potential employers might discover online. I found the website for the farm which Arturo has turned into a collective. There is no mention of my contribution. I have been edited out of the history of Sol Colibri. I felt a shot of anger. I took most of the pictures on the site. I created the logo. So much heart felt labor after so many years of my life. Slowly the anger calmed to contemplation. Does this really matter? Ego says yes. Does it really matter? Not really. In fact, it's interesting. Look closely at what we choose to tell or not tell. Look closely at how attached I am to the stories I tell about myself. In the end, I am a writer through it all, composing lines, deleting lines, in constant effort to tell a good story. I am a farmer, let me tell you, and I am not a farmer, as I sit here at my computer with soft hands, crafting this post.


  1. Thanks, Anne, for your paradox of storytelling post which fully inspired this ramble on my identity as a farmer. You inspire.

  2. Any writers in the house?
    You go, girl. I want to hear more.

  3. Shelley, this is so beautiful. The end sends shivers down my spine. Yes, yes, you capture "the gleam of particulars": I can see the banana-cutting lesson as if I were there; I'm sitting in the field with you on your break, getting set to sharpen my own machete. And I admire your musing on how we define ourselves--the stories we tell--and what really matters, what is essential. Thanks for this!

  4. Shelly, what a beautiful post! I felt the heat. I saw the clouds. I squirmed at the idea of fish emulsion spilling down your back. You are a writer for sure. I just posted an entry on my blog before I came and read yours. Good thing I posted first! You are a story teller. I was truly wondering why you didn't raise your hand a second time and the answer was one of the most complete I've ever received.

    my blog:



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