June wanted to know if I had any gardening experience, and sheepishly I e-mailed back something about my background in “small-scale urban” agriculture, thinking of the failed 9-by-9-foot vegetable plot I’d had in the backyard of my family’s three-flat in Chicago when I was 12.
To tell the truth, I knew nothing about farming, couldn’t tell the difference between a trowel and a shovel, straw and hay, a large sheep and a really small cow.
But, then, that was part of the fun. I had a couple of weeks to kill in Europe, and in the middle of a sleepless night at my apartment in Paris, it was suddenly obvious that I should go work on an organic farm – if for no reason other than to e-mail my urban, laptop-tethered friends back in the States, “And now I’m going to go work on an organic farm!”
So I came to be e-mailing with June, the English owner of a 16th-century chateau and 20-acre organic plot in Normandy.
I found her through the network of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, which made me a potential WWOOFer, her a “WWOOFer host” and our joint venture – my labor in exchange for her guest room and cooking – something called WWOOFing.
There are, it turns out, thousands of people in the world who say these things regularly. The directory listed 343 farms in France alone.
I’ve never been particularly organic, and I had a vague sense that my best qualification for this job was that I like to do yoga, which is something organic people seem to like, too.
The movement, though, doesn’t draw the bulk of its WWOOFers from farmers hoping to bring new organic techniques back to their own backyard polytunnels.
Rather, the idea appeals to the adventurer, the wandering soul, the liberal who wants to do more than pay for carbon offsets. I felt a little of all that.
And then I felt just giddy when I looked at pictures of the farm on June’s website where she promotes the bed and breakfast she and her partner David also run on the property.
The place was breathtaking. And I was going to be staying for free somewhere English weekenders pay 100 bucks a night to vacation? Hardly seemed fair.
“Yeah,” a friend said when I confessed this, “but aren’t you going to be doing a lot of manual labor?”
I bought a pair of gardening gloves with cute strawberry-shaped stitching over the knuckles and boarded a train to Normandy. The next day I got up with the sun to spread compost in the polytunnel.
For two weeks I worked alongside Antje, a 24-year-old woman who’d just finished a three-year carpentry apprenticeship in Berlin, only to discover she didn’t want to be a carpenter after all.
We spent most of our time preparing the garden for winter – weeding, mulching, potting plants in the greenhouse. I quickly grew sore from the work. Then the cute strawberry stitching started to chafe the skin on my knuckles.
But I’ve never slept as well at the end of a day – or felt as useful – in front of the computer. Physical exhaustion, it turns out, is very calming.
I often wondered what exactly Antje and I were doing there, why a hundred other WWOOFers had come through June and David’s farm. WWOOFing isn’t quite like having a job; it’s also not really like being on vacation.
June and David had seen all kinds: There was the woman from New Zealand who’d been WWOOFing for seven years straight, the English woman who’d only do housework if she could blast ABBA on the stereo, the Canadian couple fleeing from their families.
But what did they have in common that made mulching for strangers in another country seem like a great idea?
After all our time together in the garden, and our free afternoons spent on bike rides to the coast, I had the sense that Antje and I were both there biding time, trying to figure out what to do next in the real world.
Spending long, quiet mornings weeding a strawberry patch, if nothing else, is good for thinking.
“Well, I guess that’s not a bad reason,” June said, when I told her my theory of why many people came.
When I asked Antje why she had come, she thought for a few moments and told me in French that she wanted to “faire quelque chose extraordinaire,” for a little while.
She wanted to do something, literally, out of the ordinary, but also extraordinary in the more ambitious sense. She once told me she thought the best part of being in Normandy was that she could bike alone through the countryside singing songs from Chicago as loud as she wanted.
“I’ve got it!” I yelled one afternoon as we were pushing our bikes back up the gravel driveway of a cider orchard near the farm. A brainstorm, my new calling!
“I want to be a sweet-potato-butter taster!”
We stumbled over our bikes, laughing.
“I want to be a mattress tester!” Antje sang. “Specializing in water beds!”
A month later, she passed through Paris on her way back to Berlin where she really had to decide what to do next. I was back at my apartment, studying French and trying to devise other adventures.
“Are you ready to go home?” I asked her, referring to the sense that we had to figure things out before we could.
“It’s not that I want to be a gardener now, or a farmer,” she said. But she had planted these spinach seeds, and every day she had checked to see if they had grown into something bigger. She’d never experienced that simple satisfaction in carpentry.
It was, we decided, what we both now had to find off the farm.