Tuesday I went out back into the garden and picked a mess of green beans. Of all the things I harvest back there, the beans are my least favorite, not because I dislike their flavor but because they grow at just the right height for me to have to bend my knees and lean in to pick them. After a while, my knee joints and back hurt. The leaves are verdant and lush and the beans hide in among them, a strategy, I suspect, developed in the long millennia before we domesticated and hybridized them. That ability for the beans to camouflage between the thin stems and the broad leaves means other things are hiding in there too—yellow jackets and arachnids—and I might get stung or bitten on the bare hands that I snake in to find the beans.
But I had no mishaps except a sore back and knees and I picked myself a mess of string beans. That’s what my father used to call them, and I remember when I was a kid we used to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on the big wood-cased radio that sat in the front room, and there was a character called String Bean on that show who strummed a banjo and cracked corny jokes. My dad used to laugh at him a lot, but he wasn’t always so jovial when he demanded that I eat my string beans at dinnertime. The only ones we ever got in our house were the kind that were canned somewhere in California or came frozen from Safeway. Not like the ones I picked on Tuesday.
I picked them, and washed them and cut off the ends and then sliced them into inch long cuts and then blanched them in boiling water, chilled them in ice water and then froze them, but not until I had eaten a plate full…just plain, no pepper, no salt, no butter. Just plain. They were sharp and sweet. And even though they are frozen now, when we pull them out in November, when the slant of the sun’s rays lay like back porch light refracted off the icy bird bath, they will still be mighty fine chow.
There is something about growing and harvesting beans and broccoli and squash and tomatoes and beets that sets my mind at ease. I don’t know exactly what creates the satisfaction. The work is simple, things I learned long ago that besides the vagaries of the weather and water, seem to work no matter what, and I get a crop and I share it with friends and eat it and put it up. It is ….hmm…is it fun? No, I think it is more than that.
I always wanted to be a farmer since my high school days back in Casa Grande, AZ. The majority of the economic activity there was agriculture related so it was in the blood, so to speak. I even owned part of a farm one time in Lordsburg, NM; a big, twenty-five-hundred acre corn farm with ten wells and houses and a mule out in the trap behind the barns. The farm sat just below the foothills on north side of the Pyramid Mountains and the upper fields were steep with long runs so the irrigation water was like a torrent when it sluiced into the bottom end. We never farmed it. It was in the 0-92 program with the United States government. If we grew zero crops on it, they would pay us ninety-two percent of the historic yield of the crops grown on the place.
We got the farm from a bank in a trade and I doubt they knew about that particular largesse or they probably would have kept it. We spent the money on other things besides seed and fertilizer and tractor parts.
When I told all my farmer friends we were on welfare with the 0-92, they got a little antsy in their pants, because most of them were on some form of income redistribution where the government transferred money from the United States Treasury to their pockets for growing a particular kind of crop, or as in our case, no crop at all. A lot of those farmers used a strategy where they farmed the subsidy program, and not wheat, or cotton, or corn.
I used to get a chuckle when I heard them talking about the state of the nation and all the poor folks in Phoenix and back in Chicago on the take from the government. I pointed out that so was I, and so, in many cases, were they. According to their ways of looking at it, their kind of income redistribution was okay, other kinds not. Occasionally there were sharp words thrown around, some threats and then a wife or two would have to step in to keep the peace.
Once my partner and I palavered about planting a field of beans on that Lordsburg outfit because beans were outside the 0-92 program and we had a patch of land that we could have tilled and sown and watered. According to the professors at the agriculture college the price of beans was high right then and if we hit a lick we could make some money. Above and beyond our welfare payments.
But we didn’t. It might have turned out to be a lot of hot work; sore knees, sore hands, sore back. Instead, I think we went bird hunting.