I wasn’t born into farming. Neither of my parents was from a farming family. But I did have a great uncle, Laurence, who was passionate about growing his own food, and he was instrumental in my being bitten by the farming bug. I don’t know where he got it; his father was a professional poet.
Uncle Laurence lived in a lighthouse at the mouth of a major estuary in Connecticut. People may have thought he was the lighthouse keeper, but the lighthouse had long been automated, and he had no duties whatsoever involving aids to navigation.
Laurence had a little less than an acre to work with on that rocky shore, but he used what he had and he filled every nook and cranny with exotic growing things: golden chain trees, Russian olives, lilies, hollies, yuccas, and flowering plants of every size and description. When that still hadn’t satisfied his cravings to grow things, he purchased a 10-acre lot in a neighboring town. The land had some good soil and a frog pond, and Laurence proceeded to grow vegetables there.
As a child I remember being brought there, turning off the main road onto a long dirt track with a grassy hump down the middle. The dirt road led deep into the woods until suddenly a clearing opened to large gardens and, more importantly for a young boy, a frog pond, which my sister named Muddimere.
Laurence tilled his gardens with a Gravely walk-behind tractor that he transported to and from the lighthouse in his tiny Nash station wagon. He figured out that the Gravely would just fit in the back, so he wouldn’t need a pickup truck. He built a set of wooden ramps to load the machine, and away he went with the handles sticking out the upper tailgate. At his lot he built a loading dock out of mortared stone and earth to which he could back up the Nash and unload the machine at ground level. The Gravely doubled as a mower.
Every summer Laurence would appear at my mother’s door with arms laden with corn, tomatoes and squash. One summer, when I was 15, Laurence brought a mess of sweet corn, and I was pretty impressed with that. I mentioned to my mother that I might like to try growing something. She mentioned it to Laurence, and he agreed to till a new piece of ground for me in the spring.
When spring rolled around I had forgotten all about gardening, but Laurence hadn’t. He picked me up one warm June day and we went to the lot. There was a square of freshly tilled earth waiting, and he had an assortment of seeds for me. I remember almost nothing about what I planted that day. I probably planted a row of carrots, but I didn’t know then how tricky it is to get carrots to germinate. I don’t know what else I planted; maybe some lettuce.
Laurence was a kindly soul, the epitome of the clever Connecticut Yankee, but he had one major quirk that set him apart: He didn’t like to talk. He was extremely shy, and to utter a word, even to his nephew, took more effort than he was usually able to muster. He was not the kind of fatherly figure who would put his arm around a youngster’s shoulder and explain the fine points of gardening or anything else.
Yet he was an artist and a craftsman. He taught me to cut stone with feathers and wedges without ever saying a word about it to me. He taught by example. He used a sledgehammer and a star drill to cut holes in the rock. It was a slow process: Strike the drill, give it a quarter turn, strike it again, blow the dust out of the hole, strike again. It took hours. He was so patient. Once he had a line of holes drilled, he would insert two steel feathers and a small wedge into each hole, and when he had seven or eight wedges set, he would get a smaller hammer and go up and down the line giving each wedge a little tap. As each wedge got tighter and tighter in the hole, it would ring with an ever-higher pitch. He kept the hammer moving up and down the line, listening, always listening. A tap here, two taps there, and the wedges would sing. One more tap and suddenly the rock, with no fanfare, was cloven in two. A look of satisfaction would slowly spread across his face. No fanfare.
So I planted my first garden with no instruction, although Laurence was close by doing his own planting. I think he found my clumsy efforts amusing, but he never said anything – and he never said anything over the next two months while I completely neglected my garden and never visited it once. He may have found it hard to resist weeding my patch, especially if my weeds had gone to seed, but I don’t believe he set foot in my garden. He left it totally up to me. I was learning to drive that summer and had no thoughts to spare for those seeds I had planted.
At the end of the summer, I was tooling around, exploring in my Volkswagen beetle, and I chanced upon that little dirt track with the grassy hump down the middle. I drove down it and beheld my garden.
At first I couldn’t find it. It was hardly recognizable as a garden. The grass and weeds had filled it in completely till no bare soil was visible. Laurence had mowed around it so that it looked like a square of taller grasses and weedy stalks. I waded in and looked around. There was no trace of anything resembling a vegetable. No carrots, no lettuce.
I was about to turn and go home when my foot struck something. I bent down and discovered an immense, dark green zucchini. I was completely amazed. My amazement quickly turned to joy and then to pride. I harvested my first crop and tenderly carried it to the car and laid it in the passenger seat. I drove straight to the lighthouse, my chest swelling with pride. I knocked on the door and proudly displayed my harvest. Laurence seemed quite amused and made some comment about its size, but I was already tearing away to show my mother and my siblings.
Everywhere I went with the zucchini, people laughed at me. I gathered I had let it get slightly overripe, but I didn’t care. My pride was unshakable. I handed it to my mother, who valiantly agreed to cook it and serve it with dinner.
That was the beginning. The seed had been planted, and I was bitten by the bug.
About the author: Phil Norris, now in his 50s, manages Clayfield Farm, a 13-acre organic farm in East Blue Hill, Maine, along with his wife, Deborah Wiggs, and a young apprentice.