The Farm at Sunnyside

Asparagus season in Virginia has nearly ended since I jotted a version of this post on a notepad a couple of weeks ago, sitting under a tree at The Farm at Sunnyside in Washington, VA, where a friend of mine lives and works.

Asparagus spears burst from the ground and grow 5-6 inches a day in the spring, silky purple fingers shooting upward through the milkweed. When the weather gets warm, you have to visit them every day and harvest those that are ready to eat. You can eat the young stalks raw, juicy and sweet as fresh corn. If you let them go too long, they form tough skins—weatherproofing for vegetables—then bolt (turn to seed).

We’re out here this afternoon to pick what’s ready. The season is winding down and there are fewer spears than there were before: now you have to look for them. My eyes have some trouble differentiating colors in sunlight, so the purple asparagus and the green milkweed and the tan hay blend together in an abstract tumble of shapes and textures and levels. I run my hand along each row, three inches above the ground, until a smooth stalk brushes the side of my palm. I grab it with my left hand, use the knife in my right to slice it off near the ground, and drop it in a bucket strapped at my hip. I move on down the row this way, arm outstretched, reading garden braille.

The asparagus sway like raised hands in the breeze. I’d sway and sing praise, too, if this were my home, I think to myself, as the blue sky meets goldenrod meadow and the trees rustle greetings as I pass. The challenge, I suppose, is to rejoice even when the ground is wet and muddy, the sky a gunflint gray, the wind biting. The asparagus will reach even then, daring me to pick another, to bend again, to savor sweetness before it vanishes into flowers and fuzz no longer meant for me.

***

The hens waddle up a wooden ramp into their little home on stilts at twilight, their usually watchful eyes drooping, woozy after a day spent pecking the ground and seeking shade. We goosestep over the electric fence to say goodnight and hear them coo and gurgle back at us, as if in mild protest at the fall of night and the necessity of sleep. At this moment, I feel for the first time as if chickens and I might have something in common.

***

I heard the coyotes celebrating last night, the frog chorus, the songbirds welcoming the morning, always the wind. I woke up hot and thirsty in our tent (a greenhouse for humans). We pull breakfast from the walk-in cooler room—eggs in a rainbow of pastels, so large they barely fit in carton; radishes still caked in dirt, reminding me that they grow underground. Two-foot long spring onions with thick stems that puff like balloons when I squeeze them: I hold the bunch together and see a giant squid. There is a head of red butter lettuce, full as a wedding bouquet. Bitter, pale green escarole, bright baby kale with delicate stems, long fronds of dill reminiscent of the Spanish moss I’d seen down south in March. We scramble it all together with salt, pepper, and creamy jack cheese, then wash it down with cold cider made from the ugly apples.

***

It’s easy to wax poetic about it all—I’m a tourist here, and I don’t depend on this land for income or sustenance. The reality of it is far from idyllic. I don’t have to spend hours trudging through the fields in rubber boots under a searing sun, pounding metal posts into unwilling ground or hauling around 50-lb. soil bags. In the city I buy food and I cook food: I do not make it. The city has allowed to me to indulge the myth of my independence, both as an individual and as a human. A dubious privilege.

It’s not only good but necessary to come to a place like this, to feel at once like a blind woman amidst the weeds and a baby whose eyes have just opened. I listen differently here, where there are so many soft sounds. I’m attuned to the movements of bugs, of water under the soil. I’m reminded that asparagus is not a given, and that even beer comes from seed