Fiddleheads, F*ck Ups, and Life on the Farm
“On the farm there isn’t a maze of an ecosystem but just a simple human plan.”
Early Summer 2018, Barre, VT
Luke, a co-worker of mine from nearly ten years ago (going from farm to farm, he is a lot of people’s old co-worker), is hired on as a delivery driver to bring our vegetables down to the New York City market. He looks the same now when he comes into the trailer during dinner as when we first worked together. He remains short and brown-blond-haired with a mustache over his upper lip, a tongue piercing, a necklace tucked beneath a white T-shirt, and cargo shorts. We worked on a farm that grew so many carrots we’d spend most of October and November picking, topping, washing, and sorting them. After work at the bar or in our beds, we could close our eyes and still see orange shapes on the sorting table, moving down the incline.
Bad luck always seems to court Luke, or he it. He masterfully fashions complex fixes to simple problems. I saw him catch on fire using a propane torch to burn off weeds. His shredded and grease-covered work pants ignited like a wick. The burns healed but he kept having nightmares about it, the flames, being swallowed and killed in them. I took Luke to the hospital when he dropped a steel tractor attachment onto his foot, which had swelled into an egg by the time a doctor saw him.
Luke’s car always shit the bed, bingo hall money went missing around him; there were defaulted loans, failed loves, FarmersOnly.com dates, drinking and pills, not drinking and pills, which I don’t know much about, except that he broke his heel once and maybe liked the medicine too much. Luke always had some kind of job though, unlike the people who would appear in tents at night on the farm where we worked, only to disappear in the morning. Sometimes we plowed up syringes in the dirt.
Luke once told me bluntly, “At least you were born with the right parts,” meaning I was born a girl and wanted to keep being one, not like him.
Luke had a bleeding heart for animals, which complicates life for a farmer. He once made me help him rescue a groundhog as it lay in the middle of the dirt road, arms and legs raised toward the sky and shaking uncontrollably. Its family had eaten most of our cabbage and peas that year; Luke wrapped the creature in his flannel shirt and took it home, feeding it more of our vegetables while it recovered in a cardboard box. He called the vet for help, but they said, as a rule, they don’t help groundhogs.
I sometimes gave Luke rides home with his dog up the steep hill and away from the Winooski River. Often they wore matching bandannas. One day when I stopped to pick him up because his car inevitably had broken down, he said he’d been crying. He was wearing sunglasses, but I would have known anyway as he said, sniffling, “The vet says Sully only has a few months to live.” He said Sully had a tumor.
“Is he feeling bad?” I asked.
“His eyes are watering,” Luke said as I turned to look at the dog in the back seat, and it was true, Sully’s black shiny eyes streaked the fur below in dark tears.
“It’s gonna be really lonely without him,” Luke said. Our old boss was afraid of what would happen if the dog died, knowing that Luke and Sully were each keeping the other going.
Soon after Luke gets the delivery job on Diana and Sam’s farm, I have a beer with our old boss. He tells me Luke stole seven hundred dollars from the farm account this past winter when he was supposed to be farm-sitting. First it was charges at liquor stores, but by the end of the week Luke was getting cash right out of the ATM. It’s bad but we’re both kind of laughing about how fucked-up everything can be.
Later that week, as Diana and I go out fiddleheading, through the greening hills just the two of us, I warn her about Luke. I hate to do it, but I’m scared something bad will happen, worse than just losing money. “I just wanted to tell you so you know,” I say lamely. She listens, but decides to keep him on anyway. Luke is a friend and there aren’t many innocent people to do work out here that pays this little.I get to know the animals more quickly than the other farmers, though we come to like each other.
Then, it is just another day fiddleheading, but this time they are perfect. It is like going snow-blind, a maze of green-white curls (every living color now a hyphenated green), nearly all the unfurled fronds at an ideal eatable stage. Diana and I harvest sixty pounds into grain sacks in a few hours before she spots the game warden sitting in his truck on a road behind the railroad tracks on this unclaimed land. We leave before he sees what’s in our bags.
Struck with a terrible thirst, because we’ve gotten so hot clamoring blind through thickets on the Winooski River, Diana buys us each a Sprite at the Jiffy Mart on the drive back to the farm. It is a treat to go out like this. Comparatively, the cultivated farm fields are harsh and ordered, no shade or cool water. And on the farm there isn’t a maze of an ecosystem but just a simple human plan: here will grow a row of carrots, there one of lettuce.
A chicken is dead in the shade beneath the coop, of what I don’t know. The soft down around her vent shows no blood. I crawl beneath the house on the hardened ground among the living birds to drag her stiff body out by a foot. I carry her hanging this way to the pig pen and drop her in, her wings catching air before her dead weight thumps down in the mud. She’s pig food now. Finally, the phantom of some chicken in the pen is real.
Three of the pigs are dressed appropriately in black, the fourth is spotted. One of them gets ahold of the chicken, parading it nervously through the pen, away from its littermates. The chicken is dropped and dragged through the wallow until its entire body turns from sienna plumage to a hard impenetrable mud brown. Finally, a black pig bites at her head. A crack. Either the beak or skull is crushed and the first taste of food leaks out of her.
There is the unpleasant task of plucking to be done with the mouths of these lumbering omnivores, but they parse through the feathers into breast. Now livid pink emerges from mud. The colors are changing fast. Spots stretches out the wing bone and begins to strip the flesh away. A black pig runs on stocky legs to a corner with the crumpled head and neck, separated now, to ingest all to himself. This act of wild eating makes them look even fatter than they are.
Spots has broken into the bird’s captivity. The hair around her snout is yellow with the yolk of an unlaid egg. She tears open the stomach and brown processed grass and grain tumble out into the mud. Then the gizzard emerges, an iridescent clamshell. Spots begins to eat the intestines. Without good canines she can’t quite cut them, instead sucking them up as a continuous thread. The cracking of bones subsides and the chicken disappears. Now it is the sucking of cartilage, nibbling and biting away what is left. This, their summer afternoon. A black pig continues to chew a foot. Their heads are all pointed down at forty-five degree angles in abstract concentration as they saw through the tough bits.
Soon, the pigs are so big it is time to send them to the slaughterhouse. The three black pigs follow the allure of grain into the horse trailer reasonably well by 6:30 in the morning. Spots won’t go. Her head smashes on the tailgate as the slaughterhouse driver and the farmers try to force her up onto the trailer. Shit rolls out of her. “Watch out,” I say to the driver, and he moves his shoe before it lands. She will be loaded by force.
The driver grasps one of her leathery ears and her hind food as she screams. Her head is again thrust against the steel tailgate while she resists with her huge neck. Her blond eyelashes open then close while her head is suspended there, in a peaceful moment of sheer will. The driver and the farmers are bleeding. But Spots is forced on in the end by incremental thrusts. Once the trailer door is bolted shut Diana brings the driver a cup of coffee so that he can take a break before he pulls out of the barnyard.I like living with them, the people and the dogs, on top of everything growing.
After the pigs are gone, I leave my remaining companion, the wayward chicken, a crumbled cracker in the dirt, but she doesn’t eat it for days. I think animals like salty processed food just like us and I scatter it near the spot where I saw her daily eggs deposited. This morning on my way into the trailer from my cabin I notice the crumbs are finally gone. In their place a bulbous white and black poop. The meal has been taken and the hen stands in the 7:00 am sun near her three hundred amber-colored sisters, a nice time of day for plumage. They all came together in the mail, the post office phoning to say they’d arrived inside cardboard boxes, peeping through airholes, fed solely on the remaining yolk that surrounded them. When hatched, they travel without further hunger or thirst for the first two days of life.
The hen sees me and begins circling my feet in the tall grass before I disappear into the trailer for a. breakfast of coffee and a fried egg, one of the many cracked eggs we can’t sell. At dusk after a day of hot work in the field, in the shop, in the greenhouses, I walk out the back door of the trailer with a bowl of early summer nettle soup, and again the hen surfaces from the unmowed perimeter of the fields.
Ever since the pigs were taken away to the slaughterhouse, the chicken stands at the edge of their fence looking into their pen and squawks for them. She hides in the tall grass, bleating into the empty paddock. It is mysterious to me still what they think of one another, being creatures of entirely different constitutions.
And now, the chickens have gone too. The free chicken, my familiar, left an egg cracked open on the path to my cabin before being packed up in her coop and moved to a rented field a few miles away, trading in her singularity for membership in the flock.
Now that the farm’s animals are gone, I listen for the shy hermit thrush, never seen, sounding from the woods in a continuously alternating tune. It is both mechanical and spontaneous sounding. A chirp and thrum at home with the routine sounds of chain saws and tractors, humming motors and human activities, nearly all of it produced in little pockets of land where no one can see.
I get to know the animals more quickly than the other farmers, though we come to like each other. Our fondness is partially born from the dumb proximity of sharing our coffee in the morning and our beer at night and by sharing the purpose of the farm, our hard work in the same service. Plus, they have a good sense of humor. I like living with them, the people and the dogs, on top of everything growing.
The day we move the chickens, the whole crew goes to the Wayside for dinner. It is a one-hundred-year-old diner with the best homemade rolls I’ve ever had and maple cream pie. The menu is full of strange novelties like carrot ice cream, honeycomb beef tripe, and of course, this time of year, fiddleheads in the eggs and the shepherd’s pie. “Yankee Cooking at its Best!” Six of us stuff into a maroon booth and order pink frosted glasses of Love Potion No. 9 and chocolate milkshakes. Soon the table is filled with chicken and biscuits, platters of fried fish and clam rolls. It is fun getting big plates of cheap food and everyone’s happy.
When we finish, greasy and tired, Lee piles the leftovers into a box, pouring milkshakes over fish strips, French fries, and bitten-up breadcrust, and feeds it all to Tess, the dog, in the parking lot. We laugh as Tess eats the ugly compost of our combined dinners and watch to see which she has first. When Tess eats a Big Mac she takes the patty out of the bun, then licks the condiments, and finally eats the roll. A nimble-snouted Belgian shepherd, she’s always been refined in spite of remaining an unfixed bitch.
Excerpted from Pig Years by Ellyn Gaydos. Copyright © 2022. Available from Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.