Friday, November 30, 2012

Farm intern Maya Binyam ‘15 on what her Ethiopian father taught her about what it means to depend on the land:

Boston is a cold city. In the winter months a biting humidity saturates the air, threatening to freeze car locks and the tips of hair. The sunlight is static, even in the summer, and reflects but never warms.

In this landscape of fractured water and light, my father attempted to make a home. He cranked up the heat and filled the rooms of our house with things he knew would never survive outside—dainty potted basil plants, an ugly bulb too big for its pot. He was proud of this thing he had created for us—this warm oasis—because it meant we were no longer affected by Boston’s characteristically sporadic temperature declines, its unexpected noreasters. We were comfortable.

After a few months he stopped watering the plants. The leaves wilted and eventually turned brittle, but this was something to be proud of. We had begun cultivating things outside of the home, things more important than plants. We were going somewhere.

I think my father was surprised, maybe even a little disgusted, when I told him I was interested in farming. I was a junior in high school and had a naive, idealized understanding of sustainable agriculture. I planned a summer full of spontaneous bus rides and weeklong stints at farms in Maine in Vermont, where I imagined I’d become wise with the weeds and make perfectly asymmetrical bunches of chard. I was sick of my sanitized, increasingly dry home. I wanted to get dirty.

I returned from my trip rather proud. I had dirt under my fingernails, scrapes on my knees, and dark, dark skin. I excitedly told my father about the abundance of sweet, orange Sungold tomatoes and how good it felt to plant beets, to be an instigator of slow, continuous change. He was polite, smiling at all the right moments, but his furrowed brow revealed a persistent disapproval.

My father grew up in the arid highlands of northern Ethiopia, where his family owned a plantation. They grew barley and sorghum, and for the most part things were all right. These were the years before the notorious famine, and although there was always enough food on the table, my father came to learn—as his parents and grandparents had learned before him—that a life measured by the growing seasons has potential for tumult. Predicted rains would invariably flood and the usually noncommittal sun would eventually turn harsh. For a cultivator, the worst was always yet to come.

When my father escaped, he didn’t want to look back. He indulged his delight in filling our home with a strange amalgamation of potted plants and then intentionally neglected them, not to be cruel or wasteful, but simply because he could without having to face any tangible consequence.

For a long time I dismissed my father’s disapproval of my interest in farming as the result of a lack of understanding. I thought he was blinded by a lifestyle of drift (from Ethiopia he moved to Romania and stumbled throughout Europe before finding a temporary home in Boston), and that despite my attempts at convincing, he would never get the importance of growing roots.

I realize now that he understood all along. His surprise, disgust, disapproval wasn’t born out of naivety or ignorance, but out of a keen awareness that my ideal was so astonishingly disjointed from the reality of farm work as he had experienced it. He had taken so many steps away from a bitter past dependent on the success of the harvest. Who was I to willingly, enthusiastically return?

I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about reappropriation—of terms, images, histories—how we might be able to twist and bend these things into their most basic forms and use them as building blocks to create something not necessarily better, but more truthful to our understanding of how the world works at this exact moment.

I’ve also spent a lot of time attempting to delegitimize my enthusiasm. I’ve been chipping away at it, trying to whittle it down to a liberal elite naiveté or an abtruse academic pursuit. But despite the disapproval that threatens to become my own, it persists. And I think there’s something to this, this insistent durability. While I’m not yet exactly sure of what that something is, I think it has to do with presence, with the space that we, as urban farmers, occupy at this specific moment. My experience, our experience, doesn’t have to reflect that of my father because, well, why would it? We’re Yale students sticking our fingers in the ground, foolishly falling in love with small seeds that become beautiful and then die. This enjoyment, this unequivocal pleasure, isn’t counterfactual or unfounded. It’s a celebration of the history of farming, its failures and its successes. More importantly, it’s an attempt at a celebratory future.