20 October 2010
What Do I Do When I'm Not Writing?
Readers often ask me what I do when I'm not writing. Well, if you read my entry, My Writing Day, you know that a writer is always writing, even when she's not actually writing. As she goes about her day, running errands or cooking a meal or sometimes (I'm embarrassed to admit it) talking to a friend, she is thinking about her characters and what they are about to do.
But I do also do other things besides write. I happen to be married to a guy who feels about farming the way I feel about writing. So, one of the things I do when I am not writing is farming.
Bill grew up on a farm in Nebraska. The family was too poor to afford their own farm, so they were sharecroppers, farming someone else's land.
It was a tough life, and the family barely got by. In fact, when Bill was nine, his father had to take a factory job. As the oldest of five, Bill was left in charge. Weekdays, Bill had to get up extra early to finish his chores before driving himself and his brothers and sisters to their one-room schoolhouse in a horse and buggy. No, he's not a hundred years old! It's just that Papillion, Nebraska, in the mid 1950s was still a pretty rural place.
Bill went on to become a doctor, but farming was in his blood. Wherever he went, even when he was stationed in Labrador, way up near the arctic circle with only a two-month growing season, he planted lettuce, rhubarb, potatoes. By the time I met him, Bill was living in Vermont, in a co-op in town. The condo association tried to make him happy by bending the rules and letting him put in half a dozen raised beds to grow his greens and vegetables. (When he told me about his raised beds, I couldn't imagine why he had to ask anybody's permission to raise his bed off the floor! That's how much I knew about farming!)
But Bill wasn't happy living in town. Soon after we married, we moved out to the Vermont countryside. Ten acres of solitude for my writing was the way I thought of the new place. Meanwhile, Bill was thinking, ten acres to farm!
It began with one vegetable garden, that somehow morphed into three. There was the greenhouse garden, to get an early start in late March while there was snow on the ground outside.
Then came the lower garden, which kept getting longer and wider. Meanwhile, his parents, who had recently moved into town, asked if they could have a garden on the property as well. That's how the upper garden got started. When they died in 2001, it seemed the best way to honor their memory, to keep their garden going.
Here's some of the many things we grow in these three gardens and on these ten acres: tomatoes, lettuce, arugula, cabbage, asparagus, red peppers, corn, leeks, onions, garlic, shallots, broccoli, eggplants, cucumbers, potatoes, rhubarb, beets, pumpkins, zucchini, green beans, pole beans, basil, chives, dill, apples, melons, pears, Asian pears, chestnuts. I can't believe this cornucopia -- it took writing it all down to make me wonder how we find the time or energy to do our other work: Bill's medical practice and my writing.
The animals came a little later. First, it was just going to be one cow, but the cow we got, proved to be pregnant. (I suspect that Bill already knew this. To me, she just looked like a fat cow.) Very soon we had a cow and a calf, who soon became a heifer (that's the teenage stage of being a cow). Bill wanted to breed her, so we needed a bull, which is how Ferdinand joined the growing herd. Right now, we have four cows, three of whom are either fat or pregnant, a bull, and a steer.
One time, while Bill was at an overnight meeting, I stayed home, farmsitting. A call came from Paris Farmer's Union. They had a delivery for Bill to pick up. I drove over, and guess what it was? Forty-eight chickens, four goslings, and four guinea hens! I admit, they were so cute. That's always the problem. I intend to be reasonable, and then I fall in love.
That's how the rabbits joined us. Who doesn't love a bunny or two or three or four or six? Kittens are also impossible to resist. And we did need help with the mice population in the barn. Two of these kittens came from the humane society. The third was a fluffy grey kitty from a farmer neighbor, who had over a dozen cats roaming on her dairy farm. Nothing is more satisfying than to rescue an adorable little critter from certain death. Like I said, falling in love keeps getting me into trouble.
Every farmer needs a helper. That's where I come in. I've done everything from collect eggs and harvest beets to feed calves their bottles.
So, if you come across a farming scene as you are reading a Tía Lola book, you can be sure that I've tested the chores personally. A few times, I have been caught writing instead of farming.
Photographs courtesy of Julia Alvarez and Bill Eichner
Gracias to Random Acts of Reading -- randomactsofreading.wordpress.com
for being the first to share this essay.
Copyright © Julia Alvarez 2010-2015.
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(please contact my agent, Stuart Bernstein).
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