Sometimes when the air is just right, its invisible ingredients comprising a particular admixture of humidity, pollen, fragrance, and who knows what, it is as if a person has been carried back in time.
That happened to me the other day. It was hot, humid, a little sneezy. A neighbor’s mower was running and you could almost taste the news that a thunderstorm would be upon us before long. All of which created a mental link to a time I remember and think might carry some useful advice.
It was my undeserved good fortune to grow up in a neighborhood, as that word was once used. Everyone knew everyone else. While it was not the picture of neighborly harmony, people got along pretty well. There was the occasional neighborhood gathering: a Labor Day picnic, a Christmas party at some nearby church, and best of all the Halloween celebration, in which all the neighborhood kids went from house to house at once on a hay trailer pulled behind Carl Hunt’s tractor and then everyone got together at the Gregorys’ place for a wiener roast and bonfire. (The suburban word “cookout” had not yet found favor.) The fact that most of us were on an eight-party phone line might have contributed to our mutual familiarity.
My reverie into the past, though, landed at a less happy part of that life. I was taken back to the most hellish of childhood activities, the weeding of the squash and cucumbers. It was a miserable task; I suspect that it still is. Sweat and dust would mingle on your forehead and slither into the corners of your eyes to create a combined itching-burning sensation. Little bits of dirt and weeds and tiny bugs added to the general discomfort. The sun was too hot and the weeds seemed to have sent their roots clear to China. Enthusiasm was nonexistent, because even if you were entirely successful, squash and cucumbers would be all you’d have to show for it. It was different from weeding the tomatoes, though even that was not immediately joyful.
But it was part of the machinery of our neighborhood, which made all our lives much better than they would have been otherwise. We always grew way too many squash and cucumbers, and sometimes tomatoes, too. We would give them to neighbors, or trade them for things they produced. We raised Rock Cornish chickens, which were tasty if a little small. We also raised New Zealand White rabbits for meat. Many of those went out to neighbors as well.
In return, products that we would have gotten at the store came from neighbors, too. Each Saturday morning Joe Crane would come round, having saddled up his plow horse, with two galvanized buckets, one on each side saddle-bag style, whence he would sell good, fresh eggs, three dozen to the dollar. In exchange for meat and produce, we’d get milk from Harold Biellier. He was famous in the poultry world for having developed the “egg-a-day” chicken, but it was the milk from his cows that appealed to us. It came in wide-mouth gallon glass jars. The cream rose to the top, where it got skimmed off by my mom for her and my dad’s coffee and for other special uses. We begged her to leave a little with the milk, which made it so much better when shaken all together. She said she would if we were good, but did it anyway. It was great milk.
Other neighbors had their specialties. The Cervinkas had their Heart-of-America goose hatchery, which specialized in “weeder” geese. These were sold as goslings to strawberry farmers, because the geese loved to eat weeds but hated strawberries. (Oh, for geese that hated squash and cucumbers as much as I did!) Then, at season’s end, the geese would come back. Roast goose was a traditional and popular Christmas main course, and some people liked it at other times, too. (I never did, but I was voted down.)
Like many, we kept a steer or two, usually two, one a year older than the other, on the back pasture. They kept the pasture under control and we had high-quality beef for the cost of the calf and having it taken to Bolerjack’s to be butchered and wrapped. If someone had contributed cracked corn to supplement the grass during a drought year, that person would get some of the meat.
Late summer was especially busy, as my parents took time from their jobs to “put up” produce. We had a small grape arbor, both black and white grapes, whence came juice and jelly. Tomatoes and pickles were canned, as were sweet corn, beans, and tomatoes. Corn and green beans, lima beans, and such were frozen, too, and put in the deep freeze in the breezeway. All these things would be eaten all year by us, with some distributed to friends and neighbors.
So in many ways, though not all, we were self sufficient.
What was hard for me to understand as I grew older was that there were people who didn’t live this way, because it so obviously made sense. Harder still was the now-current notion that there is a political aspect to it, that in order to do what we did one must hire a graduate community organizer and establish a people’s revolutionary food collective or something. I think that the fact that it’s all gotten entwined with politics (like everything else) has given people a distaste for it before they’ve bothered to learn more.
It’s simple: it costs next to nothing to grow more than you need of a garden crop that you’re growing anyway. Then you can give or trade it to a friend or neighbor (the two categories often though not always overlap) who grew too much of something else. Everyone is happy. Oh, and it’s good when people are nice to each other, which is demonstrated in that kind of transaction. I should note that it doesn’t scale, nor can it be forced upon people. But because each person knows a different set of people, the way it expands is in the fashion of a bunch of small Venn diagrams, each overlapping others by a little. That way, everyone is proud of his contribution.
I’m reminded of a story I was once told, about two families who shared a driveway. They were asked how they managed to prevent it from becoming a dispute — who would maintain what, and so on. “It’s easy,” was the response. “We each do more than our share.” No lawyers, no organizations involved.
It’s the kind of thing that behooves us to think about, as the nature of our society becomes increasingly jumbled, confused, and ominous. A little industry at home can produce a strong barrier against much uncertainty. And when neighbors are doing the same thing and they decide to let their efforts overlap, the effect is multiplied.
Once you’ve experienced it, you come to know an extra benefit: On those days when the air is just right, its invisible ingredients comprising a particular admixture of humidity, pollen, fragrance, and who knows what, the aroma is all the sweeter.
Especially now that I’m too old to have to weed the squash.