Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Early Encounters with the Natural World
The encounters I shall describe were not unusual in my time — the 1930s and 40s — but I think they must be unusual today. From what I have seen of young people today, staring fixedly at small screens in their hands or talking on telephones as they walk, oblivious to everything around them, I imagine that what I have to tell would seem to them bizarre, hardly credible. It’s only fair to say that I had an inborn predilection for the natural world, shown by my refusal to go to the movies on Saturday afternoons, as my friends did, unless it was raining and I couldn’t go to the woods where I loved to spend my free hours.
My first conscious contact with the natural world occurred at Benkendorf’s farm, a few miles from our house in a place called Richfield, a farming area where early vegetable crops for the New York City market were grown in acres of cold frames. Benkendorf’s was not an intensive farm like that but a small general farm common then: some milk cows, some workhorses, pigs and chickens, and the reason for my presence — riding horses which were rented to be ridden on the nearby bridle paths. When my brother and sisters wanted to ride and were burdened with me, I was established in a corner of the kitchen to play with blocks. Once I was taken for a brief ride around the yard. But I recall Benkendorf’s for its association with my first named vegetable: Golden Bantam corn. When my father returned from work at the end of the day during the month of August, he would often drive out to Benkendorf’s to buy Golden Bantam corn for supper. Introduced in 1890, it is still grown today, and it is the corn I plant, not wholly because of the past but because it has the “corniest” taste of all varieties.
Incidentally, all the rich land was built over after the war, and in 1951 I lived in an apartment on the land that had been Benkendorf’s farm.
My next memory: I am holding a buttercup under my chin to see if my skin will turn yellow. I have no idea why. My wife has the same inexplicable memory.
The third memory: I pick a dandelion that has gone by and blow on the seed head. If I disperse all the seeds with that one breath, I’ll get my wish. I don’t remember any of my wishes, but I know I’ve blown many a dandelion seed on its way over the years.
The next vegetable I became conscious of was the Rutgers tomato. Developed in the 1930s, I know it because my father planted a Victory garden in our backyard during the war, and the main produce was that tomato. It was a superior tomato, a little late for the Adirondacks where we live now, but I grow half a dozen plants and ripen the green fruit in the greenhouse after frost.
One bit of nature got me in trouble. I liked to chew something we called “onion grass” (probably wild garlic, Allium canadense) and once in shop class I was chewing some when the teacher ordered me to rinse my mouth, which meant I had to walk about 100 yards to another building. I did so, rinsed my mouth, and then bought a package of “Chuckles,” a gumdrop candy of different colors and flavors. Unfortunately, I had the green candy in my mouth when I returned, and the teacher, thinking I was defying him, in a rage ordered me out. As I was going away he came out yelling at me, and at the end of my patience, I told him to go to hell. I was expelled. Eventually the principal was persuaded to allow me to finish out the year. I must say in my defense that the teacher was an obnoxious bully who blatantly favored students who were athletes (I wasn’t), but no one in the school or my family had a word to say in my favor, and to this day I feel the injustice.
My favorite summer fruit was green apples, filched from neighbors’ trees.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the purple beech (Fagus sylvatica var. atropunica), a large handsome hardwood with smooth gray bark and very dark red leaves.
It was planted as an ornamental on two old estates in our neighborhood. I and two of my more imaginative playmates, Tony and Margaret Randazzo, used to roll the leaves into tight cylinders, “cigars” which we would then “smoke” as we pantomimed the gestures of adults. I supposed the color of the leaves lent verisimilitude.
Eventually we graduated to what seemed at the time to be the real thing — well, almost. I discovered that, by cutting dead goldenrod stalks into four-inch lengths and using a long finish nail to poke a hole through the pith, one could, by lighting one end and strenuously puffing on the other, provide a simulacrum of smoking (I marvel at my ingenuity). Because these improvised cigarettes didn’t stay lit for long, we conducted our smoking sessions (there were about five of us) in a kitchen with a gas stove where we could relight our cheroots. Of course, we couldn’t do this when adults were in the vicinity, but once my brother, ten years my senior, walked in on us, and, pretending to choke on the fumes, staggered around the kitchen clutching his throat and exclaiming, “Hafkaff! What’re your smoking, moose hairs?” And that’s how they were known thereafter.
We spent part of our summer in a cabin at a lake in northwest New Jersey, and there I pursued the fauna — toads and frogs and turtles and dead snakes gathered as road kill early in the morning, later to be coiled realistically on paths. Once I caught a bullfrog as large as a small dinner plate and carried him around showing him off at the other cabins. I particularly liked the red efts that seemed to spring from the earth after a shower and then as quickly disappeared. I could catch some and put them in an aquarium, but they always escaped. I became a skilled still fisherman, casting my baited hook in the water to dangle from a bobber, catching sunfish, perch, small mouth bass, and catfish. So I became acquainted with earthworms and grasshoppers as bait.
It would be pretentious to draw large conclusions from my experience, but I know this, that thus I was made familiar with the small aspects of the natural world around me, that located me, placed me in that world. *