Farmer's Diary: Planting Parsnips
Sweet, earthy, unassuming—parsnips are not sexy. The farm clings to them. They are a plain and primitive root. I forget how, when roasted, parsnips become sweeter than candy, crispy and tender. They taste of yellow and gentleness. Every time I eat parsnips, it is as if for the first time.
March 26, 2009, was a cold day. The sun felt distant. It was too early in the season to be planting parsnips—or anything, really. Still, I felt determined driving my Farmall Cub tractor out to the field. I was a 43-year-old organic farmer. The next day I was scheduled for a medical procedure called a partial mastectomy.
The month before, I had my first mammogram. Having a mammogram was simply something I thought one was supposed to do at my age. I believed that it would be an afternoon wasted, the first of an unavoidable yearly ritual. It wasn’t. I was told that I had ductile carcinoma in situ (DCIS). There was a cancer tumor in a duct in my right breast. It was tiny, just three millimeters round, but it was grade three on a scale that only went to grade four.
As I drove my Cub I thought of where I would be the following day. The hospital was a place that made me feel unhealthy, a world that sucked the fresh air and all of the goodness out of me and replaced it with fear. My boyfriend had kept me company and held my hand through one doctor’s appointment after another, in one stale-aired building after another. Leaving those buildings, I felt like a wild animal fleeing its cage, desperate for the cold winter air. I would go through with the operation; I was not ready.
At the time of diagnosis, I knew nothing about cancer. Twenty-five days later, I still knew nothing but I knew more about myself. Not once did I look up cancer on the Internet. I did not read one book about cancer. Instead, I slowly called my friends and family. Each night, I would have one or two long conversations on the phone. Each day, I would work on the farm.
Working calmed me. One half of my mind stayed grounded with my body, focused and attuned to the work itself. The other half was free to soar. Tethered to the rhythms of the farm, my mind sorted itself, organizing its thoughts so that when I was done with a project, I could think with greater clarity.
In those 25 days, as I picked endless buckets of rocks from the fields, as I sowed lettuce and onions in the greenhouse, I decided—without deciding— that I had no dying wish. I liked my life as it was. If this tiny cancer were to take root and grow, there was nothing more special that I wanted to do with my life. I loved my boyfriend and I loved to farm. I had friends and family who loved me. That was enough.
I would farm that summer. To not farm would be to give up. It would be giving in to an unspoken missive from the medical community that I would be better off taking it easy. They did not know me. They did not know farming.
Planting is an act of remembrance. Winter is short but it is long enough to forget that plants grow from tiny seeds. In the spring, I never believe that the small seeds that I place in the ground will grow. In the spring, I don’t believe in miracles.
Parsnips are the first crop I plant every year. And as the first they are special, not like the crops that will be planted later on in the summer when planting done daily is a chore, when there is no time to contemplate the magic of a germinating seed. Planting parsnips has always marked the beginning of a new year. I would plant them on one of those bright and sunny April days. I would head out to the field, happy, the Beatles blasting from the open windows.
That year, there were no open windows; the Beatles stayed locked in their dusty jackets. I felt Beethoven. At that moment, the day before the operation, I needed to be a farmer. I needed to create the space to think, to reaffirm who I was. The parsnips could have waited but I couldn’t.
As I drove my tractor I thought about how many weeks it would be before I could be a farmer again, not the indoor office farmer but the outdoor farmer, the tractor-driving farmer. I didn’t know when I would be able to pull a rake through the earth, to shape a flat garden bed, a bed that would catch the rain, and let it gently sink down to the seeds below. I didn’t know how long it would be before I would be healed enough to work the fields.
I anchored my breasts against my body with one arm and steered with the other, holding on tightly. I felt fiercely protective of these breasts. I had never thought much of my breasts until the moment my surgeon casually told me that if I wanted, he could remove both of them. He told me this at our first meeting—less than 24 hours after my primary care doctor had called to tell me that I had cancer. I left his office with my shirt soaked through with sweat.
I was going to plant the parsnips in a spot that hadn’t been covercropped, where the bare ground looked dusty, hard. The rains and melting snow had packed the soil; the runoff had left the surface covered with tiny rocks and big sand. Bits of straw, dried from the winter winds, lay scattered on the ground. It was hard to believe that there was life just below the surface.
I love my Farmall Cub. It can do so much. Mine was manufactured in the early 1950s, I like to think, for farmers who were just trading in their mules. It is a simple tractor. A Cub can do anything. It is tiny for a tractor, just 12 horsepower, so although it can do anything, it can only do it on a small scale.
Lowering the hydraulics, I began to drive across the field. To drive straight across a field requires focus. I could not think about cancer, or doctors, or about what would have happened if the tumor had not been found. I had to focus on one point across the field and aim for it. I emptied my mind of all thoughts as I drove across the field straight towards a clump of grass 160 feet away.
My gaze went back and forth between the tall yellowy clump and down under my feet, where the beds were being prepared. Attached to the belly of the tractor were two iron shanks. As the tractor moved forward, the shanks, now lowered into the soil, dug into the ground, each leaving a deep furrow in its wake. They ripped deep into the earth, mixing air into the packed ground. The lifted soil was brown, soft, inviting.
When I reached the other end of the field, I raised the hydraulics, lifting the shanks out of the ground. I turned the tractor around and prepared to drive back, to make the second bed. My dog was waiting at the other end. My boyfriend and I had made arrangements for a friend to come over to take care of her in case things didn’t go well, in case I had to spend more time in the hospital. I aimed my tractor at my red-brown dog and drove back across the field, the shanks digging up the dark earth.
After I made four passes with the Cub, I got off my tractor and looked at the new beds, each with two deep furrows running down their length. A row of parsnips would be planted into each furrow. The pathways would be where the tires had left their tracks.
I looked at these pathways wondering: Would I be walking on them throughout the summer to thin and hoe and weed? Would I be walking on them in the fall to harvest? I had no idea how the next day might change me, or how the weeks after that would go, or whether or not I would go through with the radiation treatments everyone expected me to have.
I squatted at the edge of the field and dug my hands into the freshly tilled earth. The soil was cold but not wet. I sifted the soil through my fingers over and over again, long after my hands began to chill. I did not want to get up, to go back to the barn to get the fertilizer; I did not want tomorrow. I reached for my dog and hugged her, burying my hands, now black like the soil, into her thick fur.
Everyone is given the same post-operative instructions: Rest for one week. But what did that mean for a farmer? My dog—warm, content, smelling of dog—would not tell me. Would it mean I could farm again on the second week? On the third week? My surgeon, when pressed, would not answer my questions. His only concern was a perfectly orchestrated removal of my tiny tumor and a small bit of the surrounding tissue from my right breast.
On one level, I refused to believe that the small tumor in me presented a problem. I couldn’t think of myself as having cancer. I was healthy, fit and strong from 20 years of farming. I worked hard and ate well, giant meals inspired by days spent surrounded by organic vegetables. My friends, too, were shocked. It didn’t make sense to them.
After I spread the fertilizer, I drove the Cub back over the rows a second time. This time the shanks mixed the fertilizer into the rows as they dug. When I drove the Cub back to its place in the barn, my dog did not follow me. Because I had left the garden cart with my seeds and tools at the edge of the field, she knew that I would be back.
The muscles in my arms woke up as I used the rake to guide the heavy soil back into the furrows, until they were three to four inches deeper than the smooth beds in which they lay, the perfect depth for planting the seeds. I felt like a tractor, each drag of the rake moving the soil to exactly where it should be. I wanted to know: When will I be healed enough to do this again? Will I be strong enough this summer?
Parsnip seeds take longer to germinate than any other vegetable seed. They bide their time for four to five weeks but if the soil stays the right damp, they will sprout. They will emerge after all hope of them germinating has died. The entire row will arrive at once, sturdy plants marching into the distance, their green contrasted with the dark of the soil. What cannot be seen are their tan roots starting the journey down through the soft soil.
My tears fell into the furrows as I sprinkled the parsnip seeds. I was planting a crop. I didn’t know if I would be alive to eat it—that past week I had written a will and a living will—I was crying so hard I couldn’t see what I was doing. It didn’t matter. In my life as a farmer, I had planted so many seeds that I didn’t need to see. I could feel my way through. I grabbed small handfuls of the seeds. They were flat and flakey and so light that the smallest wind could catch them and blow them away. I scurried down the rows bent over, my hand brushing the earth, dribbling the seeds so that each one landed just where it should be. The seeds would be happy here in these furrows.
When the seeds were in, I used the rake to smooth the beds. I raked them over and over, longer than I needed to. My tears mixed with the dirt. My boyfriend, home from work, watched me, my dog by his side. There was nothing he could do. He could only love me and not question my need to farm.
With the seeds in the ground, we left the field. It was even colder now, though I did not feel it. The sun had set. We walked through the growing darkness to our still house. I was as ready as I could be.