Prayer for a Timely Frost
by Gregory Dunn
by Gregory Dunn
By October’s end, the first frost has hit the farm. Dead tomato plants hang from trellises, fruit rotting at their feet. The pepper plants, once lush and green despite the summer’s heat, now are dead sticks with blackened leaves and shriveled fruit. Corn stalks, stripped of their ears, stand tall but dried and brown and rattle in the fall breeze.
The cabbages, though, are fat and green in their nests of frilled leaves, and the brussels sprouts sweeten with the cool weather. The winter squash -- fleshy butternut, lumpy blue hubbard, ribbed green acorn -- cure on benches in the shelter of the vacant greenhouse, while pumpkins squat among their vines in the fields.
Spring’s promises and summer’s labors are behind us, and all our victories and defeats stand in plain view. The bumper crop of potatoes. The splendid beans, plump and sweet and plentiful. The poor tomato harvest plagued by a cool summer and late blight. Parsnips lost to this year’s vigorous weeds. Ahead lie only the final preparations for winter: clearing the fields, sowing cover crops, repairing and stowing all the tools strewn about during the frenzy of the growing season.
At the end of all this labor comes Halloween, one hinge on which our farming year turns. The longer I work on the farm, the more I sense these turnings. I look for them, and I delight in them.
About the second of February, the cold world sets its face toward the sun and begins its slow ascent to spring. I have forgotten about last year’s toil, and I am itching to get outside and plant. Longing for green, I page through seed catalogues, consult planting tables, and ponder dates to maturity and harvest. I begin to wake.
By the first of May, these plans are put into action. The spring thaw is well behind us, with its rush and tumble of running water and the way new growth bounds forward after the strong spring rains. Though the cool weather crops are in the fields, the greenhouse still overflows with seedlings ready to be transplanted. With the lengthening days, the land grows stronger, and my strength along with it, and it feels good to sink my hands deep into the warming soil.
When August arrives, the fields brim with the summer’s riot of growth, but after only a couple of weeks the heat breaks, the humidity and haze lift, and the month becomes flavored with autumn. Though I stand amid the plenty of the harvest, the cool breeze on the back of my neck is a foretaste of the coming chill, to be followed by the frost, the freeze, and the final blanket of snow covering the fields.
By September, the long season is taking its toll. Crops are being lost to pests and diseases, or simply slowing down with the shorter days and cooler weather. Tools are worn, dull, crusted with dirt, or flat-out broken. I feel this winding down, this general dissolution of things, also in my body -- my back, my knees, my shoulders. I begin to long for that first frost.
And by the end of October, all our work points toward winter, a final winding down of the year before the coming of the cold, dark months. These I have always experienced as a slowing, a numbness, a kind of death. Once past the distractions of Christmas and New Year’s, the reality of winter weighs down on me all through January, and it takes the full force of my effort to arrest my freefall into the darkness.
So October for me is both the last hurrah of life and a kind of preparation for death, and Halloween marks that shift from light to dark. In this context, the bonfires, the revelry, and the general tomfoolery of Halloween make sense. The holiday scratches an itch.
I have heard it argued that the modern person, divorced from the old agricultural rhythms, is thereby insulated from the reality of death. I don’t know if that is true, but I do know farming puts you in touch with death at least once a year, every year. You learn it is part of the cycle, a piece of the whole. This creature dies, falls to the earth, and is reincorporated into the soil. So, too, will I.
All life is predicated on death. No nourishment comes to our mouths but for something dying. This is a mystery we are embedded in. Indeed, though we may have forgotten this lately, it has been known for some time: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
So why not make peace with death? Celebrate it, even. Death is close to hand, so why not incarnate it with stylized death-masks leering from windows and porches, or slung crookedly across a child’s face as she swings her arms and legs to jangle her plastic bones, grinning madly behind the mask as the world once again turns on its creaky axis.
About the Author:
Gregory Dunn lives in and writes from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the greenhouse manager for Trillium Haven Farm, a CSA in Jenison, Michigan, and intermittently blogs about his experiences there at The Sparrow in the Hall. He was published most recently in the July/August 2009 issue of Eclectica Magazine.