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Beets Me

Detroit Dark Red Beets and January King cabbage are the only vegetables still worth harvesting at our farm this time of year. The beets’ flavor has remained sweet, their texture soft when steamed or sautéed. Their color is akin to Merlot. And though the January King cabbage may not be royalty, as cabbage heads seem more egalitarian, especially in the midwinter days, its heads are tightly woven, well shaped, the flesh sweet when sautéed. Those two strains seem to thrive on the winter extremes—the heavy frosts, the monsoons dumping over two feet of rain in a few weeks, the balmy, sun and fog days, while the daikon radishes have long since rotted, the round, red, cherry bells have turned to pith, the carrots smell like the insoles of rubber rain boots after a peace march. 

A few days before the big demonstrations of February 15 and 16, a friend from Berkeley dropped by the farm, while I was up on the roof of our new chicken coop, banging two-inch tacks through corrugated steel. Trying to, anyway. The nails tended to bend. 

“Hello,” she said, her voice echoing the cultural pruning of one self-described as a “Jewish Grandmother.” A decidedly New England flavor to her accent, bringing to mind the harbors of the North Atlantic somewhere, though she’s lived in the Bay Area for decades. “I was wondering if you could spare any beets. I’m entertaining a house full of guests this weekend, with the peace march on Sunday, and I thought I’d make up a big pot of borscht.”

“You know where they are, I guess,” I hollered. I forgot to mention to her about the January King cabbage. My mind’s been anywhere but the actual growing crops, lately, as this has been the season for strengthening fences, servicing tractors and trucks, or making other improvements in the general organization of the farm. One step up, two steps back, just like any other time. “Wish I was going to the march, but I guess I’ve got too much to do, here. I don’t know, though. I’d feel awful silly about building a chicken coop if they’re gonna blow the whole world up, anyway.”

“You just keep doing what you’re doing, Spec. The chicken coop can be your statement.”

“Yeah, well, this is such an exciting time. Don’t want to miss out on all the fun.” I didn’t tell her that I’d just returned from Wal-Mart, where I thought I’d saved about twenty-five bucks by purchasing motor oil, two-cycle engine oil, bar and chain lubricant, and hydraulic fluid from those departmentalized shelves. I didn’t tell her that I’d stood, waiting in line, like a tanker off the coast of Spain with my shopping cart full of petroleum, gazing around me at the demographic slices of American Pie that were doing Valentine’s Day shopping in droves. There I’d waited, among all those candied hearts and bundles of red roses, with oil for our organic farm, with plenty of time to think about what the hell I was supporting. Minutes passed. There was actually a clock up there on the wall, right next to this poster that portrayed a bunch of starry-eyed people of course of all sexes, ages, and races, with hands on their hearts, pledging allegiance presumably, claiming something to the effect that Wal-Mart cared about our community. I wondered what the hell Wal-Mart really knew about Ukiah. I was saving money, though, I told myself. I was saving less every minute. By the time I’d gotten out of Wal-Mart, and driven back to Boonville, I’d been ready to pound some goddam nails through galvanized metal. I should’ve been using a cordless drill and those hexagonal screws with the rubber o-rings that were made for the job, but I really just felt like pounding some nails.

I was glad to be finishing the roof of the coop, anyway. The walls were mostly done, with odds and ends of wafer board gleaned from the scrap piles of new construction sites in the valley. Most of the pieces were the standard four-foot widths, cut off at two or three feet, so the width was wider than the length was long. 

The tallest pieces went along the bottom, and worked around all four sides, getting screwed at the ends to the studs spaced four feet or thereabouts. Some of the plywood pieces were two feet wide and the full eight in length, so they’d helped to tie everything in. It was a good thing all the wood was wet, because the studs jutted out three to four inches from where the corner posts faced, so each wall took on a somewhat bowed appearance, like the body of a boat. 

The walls had gone together smoothly, though towards the top of each side, as the spaces shrunk, and the larger pieces deviated to odd lengths and shapes, the whole job began to feel more like piecing together a puzzle. I cut the pieces with a chain saw. These techniques were ones you wouldn’t find in a construction manual.

It had been one of those jobs that would have been difficult to accomplish without the aid of a cordless drill—I mean that I’d have had to do things differently, with just a hammer and nails, especially the rusted sixteens that had been weathering for years in a faded, degraded, plastic, washing basin outside the barn. I had to be grudgingly grateful for the drill’s ability to pull those edges of wafer board together, using thin strips from the inside—with a hammer and nails, I’d have knocked the walls loose from the two-by-four ribcage.

But I was on a mission. I’ve had the sordid experience, before, of awakening with an uneasy sense of duty after haphazardly throwing a chicken coop together with pallets and chicken wire—that uncertain dread of approaching a coop through the morning dew, listening hopefully for the peeping of the chicks. If there is one weak spot in the whole structure, the raccoons will rip it loose, and the coop will be as silent in the morning as a graveyard under a blanket of winter snow. Gore and guts have been strewn through the bushes; they’ve covered the floor one too many times.

So I was grateful for the cordless drill that helped sew up every seam in the walls. My rustic pride, my barbarian virtue had to admit that the techs who’d put together such a contraption were making it easier for me to use salvaged materials. The drill had been a Christmas present from my father. I’m too cheap to buy something like that. I’m too skeptical of its necessity. 

“People have been getting by just fine without cordless drills long as I can remember,” my grandfather would say, his voice riding the braying of mules and draft horses for thousands of years. “All the time you save, it won’t even pay for the damned thing, and it’ll run out of juice on the big lag screws, you’ll end up needing the hand drill to finish the job.”

On the spur of the moment, though, when my father’d asked me over the phone what kind of tool I could most use, I’d thought the cordless drill would be awful handy around the house, at the farm. 

It had been no surprise at Christmas to open a large, brightly-wrapped box, and find a shiny, orange, pinnacle of modern engineering. 

I think of my father every time I pick up that drill. He roots for the Republican Party with the same fervor that he lends to the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ efforts in their football games. “I think the President is doing the right thing,” he told me over Christmas, as we dined on burgers and fries at the Ukiah Brewery. He was serious, too. “It’s just like in a football game—you have to be aggressive, you have to go right for the center, otherwise people will walk all over you.”

I’d tried to point out that if the Nebraska Cornhuskers took on a bunch of random civilians, nobody would probably be killed, but it wouldn’t be a football game, either.

“Your just using metaphors,” he’d said.

Then I’d lost my cool, right there over the French fries. I started ranting about all the monologues you hear from the news reports, or from the stages in the peace marches, all the stuff I’ve been hearing so much of that it’s filled me with incoherent confusion and fizzing, undirected rage. “The whole freaking thing is about oil and egos.”

“Freaking! Freaking!” he’d said, mocking me. 

(I’d said “Freaking” because I’d been speaking to two people of the mental state that would have completely turned to ice if I’d used the hot obscenities that had been howling from the bottom of my soul. I couldn’t believe I was even discussing this subject with the two loving parents who’d nurtured me from the very suckling stages of infancy. We’d all been trying to avoid it for days, but it had eventually surfaced, like bad gas after indigestion.)

“You’re just living in an ideal world, out here—when are you going to join in with the rest of society?”

Had I known, then, about the peace rallies that would be taking place all over the world, about how the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, and the state of Maine would all pass resolutions opposing the war, I might not have felt like such a freak. I might have suggested that perhaps my parents were the ones living in a naïve shell, carrying their medieval crosses like the hopeless fundamentalists who wag their fingers in the middle of Bourbon Street at Mardi Gras.

I didn’t have anything articulate to say, though, and felt like dirt for putting my mother through the agony of seeing her son and husband in a diabolical debate. I felt like a horrible host for putting them through my political tirade. The truth was, and is, that I’ve never even been to the Middle East—I used to think the Middle East was Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. I don’t know what the hell is going on, there. I barely know what’s going on at the farm, where I spend all my days. It was so absurd for me to be arguing with my father over how to run a nation, how to engage in foreign diplomacy, as if either one of us would be making those big decisions soon, or would be consulted by those at the helm.

In the following months, I relived that entire scene at the Ukiah Brewery every time I picked up the cordless drill. It was torture. I thought about what I might have done differently, to avoid being in an argument about something none of us were going to reach and change, the way we could change the oil in a car. I could have drunk more beer, I told myself. I could have smoked more herb, to mellow out. I kept telling myself that my parents were perhaps only misinformed, that if only they knew the facts, they’d not feel so strongly that war was the solution to a problem we would not otherwise even necessarily be worried about.

“But how do you know YOU’RE not misinformed?” my father had asked.

I’d stuttered something barely audible in response to that. What I’d wanted to say, but could not find the words, was, I AM misinformed. We all are. We always have been. We always will be. That’s the nature of our brains. We’re trying to figure out what’s going on around us at the same time we’re trying to respond, create, or just fucking survive in an apparently wild, indifferent universe that will one day swallow every last one of us the way a robin gulps an earthworm. 

So the chicken coop has become my argument against war. It represents many arduous hours of blood, sweat, and headaches, trying to put the pieces together, which basically is all any well-intentioned, human being is ever trying to do. And while I know that the tarpaper Natasha helped me wrap around the building to protect the wafer board will one day break down and be earthworm food, along with the chickens and me and everything I ever do, I’d still be bummed if somebody dropped a bomb on it. I know you can’t go anywhere people live where you won’t find evidence that somebody spent tedious time trying to put the puzzle pieces together in a way that would protect whatever sacred life or truth they hold. Maybe somebody has just mopped the floor. Maybe somebody spent an afternoon trying to get the window to fit in the frame, or just baked some bread, or just had a moment where they noticed the way soap bubbles gravitate towards one another as they drift and skim over the surface of dish water. 

“There’s no difference between you arguing with me, and your country going to war,” my dad had said. “You’re fighting a battle, just by arguing with me. It’s the same as going to war.”

What could anyone say to that? So I had to make my peace poster out of wafer boards and old two-by-fours and screws. Secure the walls, dig a trench under the split-rail redwood foundation and fill it with shards of gravel from the side of some nearby hill. Pound the gravel in with the end of a broken hoe handle.

I was trying to use an old length of redwood to fill in one of the uneven gaps towards the top of the coop, when Natasha appeared from around the edge of the blackberry brambles. 

The board was too rigid to bridge the gap, and it split while I was trying to nail it.

“Looks like that board doesn’t quite fit,” she said. “Maybe you should pull it out.”

“Might as well beat it to shreds trying to make it fucking fit!” I shrieked, frustrated as hell. I started to whale on the board. It split to splinters. “There! Don’t even have to pull it off, now! It’s gone!”

“Think I’ll let you work by yourself,” she said.

It was only through the grace of God and the divine intervention of women’s wisdom, deep breaths, and beer that the walls of the coop ever managed to take their shape. 

Meanwhile, the tractor was calling like a Belgian horse from the barn. The John Deere needed its transmission flushed out, as water had transformed the contents to something like the sap of a milkweed plant. The motor oil looked like more like espresso than coffee. 

I saved that job for a Saturday, since my son was over for the weekend, and he was riding his bike around in circles. It seemed like a good time to drain the oil, while I watched him splash his bike through the mud puddles. He was having a blast.

At the suggestion of some folks who know more about mechanics than I, diesel fuel was flushed through both the engine block and the transmission, to help clean them out. They’d suggested to start the tractor, run it for a few minutes, then shut it off and let the whole mess drain out over night.

The bike was caked with mud when we called it a day.

The next morning, rather than riding his bike, my son chose to wash it. He sprayed it off, then filled a bucket with soapy water, and used a rag to clean the spokes, the rims—every spot he could reach, while I filled the oil on the tractor. We both worked rather silently on our projects while listening over the radio in the truck to the live broadcast from the peace rally in San Francisco. I recalled once upon a time tinkering with old combines, tractors, or lawn mowers with my father while the broadcast of a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game resonated through a single AM radio speaker billowing dust with each emphatic syllable bellowed by the play-by-play announcers.

“PEACE!” trumpeted my son, in a sarcastic echo, imitating the voices from the stage at the San Francisco rally. “All we want is PEACE!”

Indeed, some of the actual speakers sounded more like Adolph Hitler than Martin Luther King, jr., the way their voices raged. Most of the millions who took the streets on Feb 15 and 16 could have just as well articulated our common desire as the raging voices that often radiated from the various stages. No one person can speak for the majority of humanity, anyway, so what the hell?

I loaded the buckets of used oil into the truck, along with immense wads of dirty, degraded, greenhouse plastic that have been rotting for decades, and my son and I headed up Mountain View road in our faded old one-ton diesel, bound for the valley dump.

“Why do those people keep saying the same thing?” he asked, referring to the radio’s voices. “Peace! Peace!”

“Yeah, I wish they’d just play some goddam music.”

At the dump, I first unloaded several milk crates of beer bottles into the recycling bin. Then it was time to empty the used oil. My son leaned over the screen while the hydraulic fluid filtered through.

“It looks almost good to drink,” he said.

We dumped about nine gallons of oil through that filter, and watched the black and white mix like cream in coffee, swirling together and disappearing.

When the oil buckets were empty, we drove up to the dumpsters to unload the plastic. The old plastic was crumbly, in lengths up to a hundred feet, all wadded up and filled with moss and winter rain—the job might have been easier in the summertime. While I unraveled the mess, my son hunted through the scrap pile where people stick old TV’s, refrigerators, or other odds and ends that someone else might find a use for.

“Dad!” he shouted. “Look! Can you use this?” In his hand, he held up a hand drill, the old-fashioned kind where you manually twist the bit into the wood.

“Sure enough! They’re really handy. They never run out of juice.”

Indeed, when we returned to the farm, I tried the hand drill out, putting the bit in that drives Phillips screws, and we added some finishing touches on the chicken coop. It worked like a charm. I remembered how, before the cordless drills, we used to dip our lag bolts and screws into used motor oil to help preserve them and make them easier to drive. It worked okay, compared with the cordless model, like the difference between riding a bicycle and driving an electric car. Either way, you’re doing twenty-five in the breakdown lane.

My son’s mother picked him up at the barn, and they went back to Ukiah. 

Natasha came out to the coop, once again, to check on its progress, or to see what the hell I was up to. She was carrying a paper bag in one hand, an e-mail printout from somebody in the other.

“This hand-drill actually works,” I said. “Almost as good as a cordless.”

“Oh, good!”

“It’d be handy, anyway, if I forgot to recharge the batteries.”

“Good,” she said, sounding a little bit like my son’s kindergarten teacher.

“Or for lag screws, it’d be handier. Those cordless drills—“

We got an e-mail from your dad. Want to hear what it says?”

“I don’t know.” 

“Anyway, ‘I just want you to know that we’re not quite as different as you might think,’ he wrote. ‘Your mother and I pray every morning that God will direct our leaders to find a peaceful solution.’”

I felt lighter than hydrogen on Mercury, to hear those words. They rang like freedom bells in the recesses of brain tissue where outlaws have been hiding out like desperadoes of the old West. I could sense the whole world changing, more with every breath. 

Natasha still held a paper bag in her other hand. 

“What’s in the bag?” I asked, thinking it might be some scones, or a burrito, or maybe even a bottle of brown ale.

“Seeds,” she said. “I was wondering if you might be ready for a break from the chicken coop. Maybe we could plant some beets.”

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