I GREW up tasting the varied flavors of the earth. My grandparents knew the magic of turning brown-black soil into fresh-picked sweet corn, sugary bumpy berries, and tender, young asparagus. They were farmers. My mother canned and froze their summer's bounty so my father, sister, and I could feel the warmth of sunshine in her strawberry jam or blueberry pies, even when it snowed. I wanted my children to share this heritage. It would take some doing since my grandparents' farm, along with much of the New Jersey farmland I remember from childhood, had been sold and developed. Our family's livelihood now depended on disks and hardware, not rain and sunshine. My husband programmed computers.
It was probably a yearning for farmland that influenced the purchase of our first house in Arlington, Mass. The house rested on a sturdy rock foundation that originally supported a barn. The backyard had been a field whose clearing resulted in the rock wall that bordered our property. Three trees, a cherry, pear, and an apple, remained from the old orchard. In the spring my husband, Alan, broke the ground and I set out with my son, Eric, then only a toddler, to plant a garden.
Eric poked the small seeds into the soil and helped water with the hose. He ate his first vegetables from that harvest, a food group he had consistently rejected since babyhood. Each year for several years the garden expanded. There was enough produce to freeze and can.
When our second son, David, was born, time compressed into the multitude of tasks caring for a small baby involved. The garden lost ground, became half its size. We ate vegetables of the plastic-wrapped, frozen variety.
The house, too, seemed to have shrunk. Several years later we moved to a bigger house with a shaded, rock-strewn lot. Our yard proved as resistant to planting as David's two-year-old temper tantrums were to reason. I gave up on the idea of gardening.
Yet, I felt badly for this gardenless younger son who, like the typical second child, did not have the benefit of all the experiences his older brother had had. To help him realize that eggs don't spontaneously generate behind glass refrigerator doors and that pears and cherries don't come from the backroom of the grocery store, I began taking him and his brother to Drumlin Farm, a farm designed for this purpose and run by the Audubon Society.
I spent many idyllic afternoons with the boys watching the life cycle acted out before our eyes. We saw the corn grow, the mule eating the corn, and later saw the same animal helping with work necessary to plant more corn. One day we stood breathless as new chicks pecked their way to freedom and emerged from their shells damp and heavy-lidded. (An inconvenient side effect of that experience was David's refusal from that day on to eat scrambled eggs.) Still, I thought he was learning important lessons.
It wasn't until a year later, when we went to visit my cousin Margaret on her farm in the state of Washington, that I realized, with great humility, that what we think we're teaching our children may not be necessarily what they are learning.
It was a beautiful summer's day, the raspberries beckoned, taunt with purple juices. We picked a bucket for dinner. An orphaned calf bleated hungrily. David and Eric took turns feeding him from a gigantic baby bottle. At dinner we had corn, zucchini, tomatoes, and a pork roast that had once roamed the barnyard as a pig named Sherlock. After dinner we sat on the back porch overlooking fields of cattle fading into evergreen forest.
That's when David asked, "Where's the parking lot, Mommy?"
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"You know where the people park when they come to visit the farm. Where they buy the tickets."
It took a few more questions from me to realize what was going on in that little six-year-old head. The trips to the Audubon farm had taught him that a farm was an amusement park. The real, live farm that supported my cousin and her family, that had fed us dinner was, to my son, a barnyard zoo set up for his pleasure. It took no giant leap of imagination to see how this attitude related to the environmental disaster the earth now faces, how estranged we all are from the land that supports us.
I tried to explain the best I could about our dependence on farms, how there were real farms that were people's life's work and the source of our food supply. He listened impatiently, then asked if he could have some more raspberries.
The next day when we boarded the plane for Boston, I knew I had something important to do when I got home. There was a small, sunny patch on the side lawn. It would require some time and effort, but David needed to thrust his small fingers into the earth and feel its power. We had a garden to plant.