CURWOOD: As winter moves into its final stretch, the first thaw is not far off. Nor is the work it will bring for commentator Wallace Kaufman.
KAUFMAN: On the day my daughter Sylvan arrived for a visit last November, the garden succumbed to the first hard freeze sweeping into this part of North Carolina. As we stood in the kitchen, seeding and cutting the last pile of peppers, half of them terminated in the bloom of youth, I said, "Well, this is the last chore the garden will give us this year."
Yet a few days before her arrival, I had broken down the eight-foot-high, dry stalks of artichokes, and I knew their tubers were waiting to be dug and cleaned. The fact is, I couldn't wait to get the year's food-making business over, and settle into winter pursuits: writing, reading, carving and wood-turning. I pushed the artichokes out of my mind. I also pushed into a dim corner of memory other waiting duties.
How do I avoid reality? Let me count the ways. I must replace posts in the deer fence around the garden. The roof leaks around the chimney. The black walnuts should be cracked and picked clean of meats. I have three jars of grape and berry cordial that have to be strained and re-bottled, and I have several days of cutting, splitting, and stacking if I'm going to get through till April without burning fossil fuel. Believe me, I have just begun to count.
I'll do these things. I have to. Would Henry David Thoreau say of me what he said of his farmer neighbors? "How few ever get beyond feeding, clothing, sheltering, and warming themselves in this world, and begin to treat themselves as human beings?" Thoreau says a laborer like me should do the minimum and then move on, to adventure on life now.
I suspect that despite his warnings about work, Thoreau knew as well as I do that one's work and one's adventure can be the same. Back in November, as I stood next to Sylvan cutting into each pepper, I was reminded as I always am that no fruit or vegetable has such a great variety of shapes and fine curves and concaves as the simple bell pepper.
When my duties drive me into the woods to find a red cedar from which I can cut a fencepost, I stop for the thousandth time to smell the fresh-cut end and to note the bishop's purple of wood that has never been exposed to air. When I dig the post holes, what comes out is not mere soil and red clay. Many lives come out: grubs and worms and sometimes a ring-necked snake. Down the six-inch shaft of a single post hole, I can travel to stranger places than I imagined when I was a five-year-old boy digging a hole to China.
Touch the work of evolution in a single grub or read the movement of continents in a chip of rock. I would tell anyone who looks on this kind of labor, do not assume that the laborer is not also an adventurer. Someone somewhere today is paying hundreds of dollars for the adventure of whitewater rafting on a boat of fine and tough synthetic cloth. I am content that I must now take my old shovel to the garden and dig artichoke tubers and wash the red clay from their pink skins, and have a first taste of the crisper than apple white flesh. I have never seen two alike. Nor have I ever known two laborers alike.
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CURWOOD: Wallace Kaufman is the author of Coming Out of the Woods: The Solitary Life of a Maverick Naturalist. Coming up: conservation politics reach new peaks in the mountains of western China. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
Now, this consumer update with Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.
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