“My mother used to bake bread in the hard times. She would put the warm loaves in a short barrel with a tight lid—to keep the ants away. So this one time, barrel or no barrel, them ants was on that bread in the barrel—looked like little sesame seeds. My dad, he said throw it out.
“Mom, she wasn’t going to be defeated. She put them loaves on a flat baking thingy, fired up the oven. And us kids watched them ants come running out that bread to save their lives, all baked and crispy. And we ate that dang bread. And maybe a few baked ants.”
This was Farmer Orville holding court on the southwest corner of his wraparound porch where the breeze was. We were watching ants crawl out of my bowl filled with a pound of blackberries, fresh picked, my fingers stained with juice.
One paying customer (Orville won’t take money from me), an immense fat old man wearing a straw hat, was on his second full bucket of berries. He walked from bush to bush, his shoulders rocking up and down like an oil pumper. His wife was waiting at home for the start of jam season.
A doe and her fawn stood below in the old dry lake bed and grazed. Ruby Puppy was sound asleep in her pen in the sun. She can’t come out and play when customers are around—she’s too aggressive and could knock an old person down. The north field was filled with giant rolls of hay.
“The wife and daughter are goin’ shopping today,” Orville said. “So my wallet will be losing weight.” Quilt Queen loves to shop. She never has enough earrings, sweaters or gewgaws. Her slogan regarding her husband is, “What’s his is mine, what’s mine is mine.”
It was hot at nine am. Eighty-five degrees, eighty-five percent humidity. You either take a long walk just after sunrise or you hole up in the air conditioning. I go through two tee shirts and pairs of socks and underwear on days like this, which means I have to do laundry once a week. I’m pretty sure Quilt Queen does laundry every day.
But rejoice. My friend Cartney gave me a bunch of first heirloom tomatoes. I’ve been looking at them reverently as if I were in Chicago’s Art Institute. I’ve photographed them with a table of Indian artifacts. Now I’ll have to eat them. The good news is Orville now has tomatoes for sale.
Blackberries, local blueberries, Calhoun peaches, melons, kale and spinach, green beans, melons, radishes and carrots, lettuce: all of it is available locally, all fresh, all desired, all coveted. Orville gave up on strawberries, damn it.
A blackberry (not those abominable plastic clamshell mushy berries at the supermarket) is a metaphor for life. Unless you toss it into your maw and tongue mash and swallow without tasting. Most people live their lives without seeing, without tasting, without savoring. A blackberry is a perfect thing. A tomato is an edible jewel. A Calhoun peach reminds me of Georgia O’Keefe’s flower paintings, female and lush and gushing nectar.
Orville on tomatoes: “I grow ’em, I don’t eat ’em.”
His joy is in the planting, the nurturing, the cage building—even the weeding. His last breath will be inhaled while weeding, on his knees, secure in his Missouri Synod Lutheran way that God and the angels are nearby.
As for me, existentialist, I am thankful for this wrinkled farmer who will never be warm enough on the hottest day. He is a man among boys. He is open and loves to laugh and look at ladies picking blackberries and eat bacon. He is gruff to cats and dogs even as they nuzzle and cuddle with him. He is conservative in the old fashion sense. He wonders why people just don’t get along.
“Having once put his hand into the ground,
seeding there what he hopes will outlast him,
a man has made a marriage with his place,
and if he leaves it his flesh will ache to go back.”
That is a segment of a poem by the Kentucky poet Wendell Barry And that is Orville.
I love, “Bread”. Nothing beats fresh berries off the bushes. I remember picking them and popping them straight into my mouth every time we kids went berry-picking. One in the mouth, one for the bucket. one in the mouth, one for the bucket… Gene captures not only the image of a situation, but one can TASTE when he writes!