Growing food

On making words and growing food in the mountains

Deepa Bhasthi

Deepa Bhasthi

Deepa is a writer and a farmer living and working in the hills of Kodagu district in South India. She has been published in ArtReview, LitHub, Himal Southasian, Atlas Obscura, Hyperallergic, MOLD, The Guardian and elsewhere. Her research interests are in the areas of sociolinguistics, food politics, land versus landscape. She occasionally works on visual art projects. Her website is: http://deepabhasthi.wordpress.com

A writer and artist couple, after most of their adult lives spent in a metropolis, decided to move to the hills in southern India to grow their own food. The writer of the duo continues her work for publications in India and abroad while also drawing parallels with her farmer identity. This adventure of their lives is not easy, but every day is a new lesson. The writer examines how writing and farming are at the same time poles apart and yet not that dissimilar.
 
I could begin here with a choice of anecdotes – how I grew up in the provinces, then lived in a city for the longest time, how I always longed for the mountains, then came to live here at Home – as like a coming full circle. I could tell how in this life in the hills, I live with my partner and many dogs, and how one day we will have a pet donkey on the farm who I am determined to name Ernest Hemingway. I could string these anecdotes together like the mountain range that laces the northern corners of my little district, and they would become a glamorous new-age tale of how a writer-artist couple quit city life and built a farm in the distant hills. It would of course all be true. But I fear calling myself a writer or a farmer-in-progress: seeing this life as anything but utterly privileged would sound grating. Especially to me.

For when is it that we become wholly something? When we think it? When we are in the process of becoming something? When we have a set number of years under our hat as something, as someone? Maybe it’s a lifelong practice. Perhaps the whole of existence is an endeavour in trying to be.

On days when not pondering the questions of if and how I am, I find myself being a writer. I used to be a journalist in the big city, in one of the lifetimes I have lived. Bengaluru was New York and London, though not quite as darling as Paris. It was the end in the process of becoming what I studied to be, a journalist in the city of opportunities. All capital cities are beacons of light when you come from the periphery. But a long road later, somewhere in the middle of being a sometime-artist and a fulltime-writer, the old longing to be Home became an itch that wouldn’t leave me alone.

Then came COVID-19. How could it not feature in every thought, this extraordinarily terrible year? My partner and I were hoping to move by the end of this year, or early next, but whose plans turned out as expected this year? Was the pandemic the reason we moved? We get asked that a lot. It was, to the extent that we found ourselves unwilling to wait any longer for all the pieces to fit just right, for the right bank balance, for the perfect weather.

Here we are now, living out of boxes. I can’t find the notebook where I’d written the ideas I was going to work on this year. I don’t know which box contains the pen that I need to get my notes exactly right, or most of the talismans that made my writing studio just the right kind of inspiring – those odd photos and stray pages cut out of magazines, the crocheted bookmark or the stained plastic dog that I got for ₹5 nearly thirty years ago.

It’s the fifth month without a studio now. We make do with borrowed things in disproportionate places. I jam my old table in a corner facing a firm wall instead of before a beloved window as in my old home. There is no wi-fi, no food delivery app when we are too tired or lazy to cook, no taxis on call, no conveniences. We bake our own bread and pizzas now. We don’t feel any lack, though, for we had grown out of the shimmer of cities a long time ago. Other aspects are different too: it’s odd that people have the time to be nice, to talk niceties. The intrusion of small-town life and the charm of that very same thing is the pendulum I desperately cling to on difficult days.

And amidst all the boxes of our past lives are seeds that we bought to start growing food. Given the weather where we now live, and the new pace of time and seasons, these seeds are just the beginning in what will be a lifetime of (hashtag) farm life and homesteading. Along with the farm, we have a home of our own to construct, on the land but perhaps more so in our heads.

That home, which will perhaps only ever be an idea, is where I have been finding myself a lot lately. I am Home, in the building where I was raised. It is a 60-year-old house set in a valley below the tallest point in my little town. I am home, in the provinces where I’ve longed to be every week that I was away. I am home, where everything feels like my ground zero: here are the people I’ve always known, the familiar street, all those connections traceable back a couple of generations.

And yet in this returning, I cannot recognise this home in my blood. The landscape has shifted space in my head. Sometimes it is claustrophobically small; sometimes it is too vast to process during swiftly passing days. This physical, visceral, ancestral land is most often like a vague inkling that is untranslatable into language.

I have freelanced as a writer for longer than I have worked in media organisations. I never became rich from my words, and probably never will, but I got by just fine doing what I love – reading good books, watching nice movies, with some travel and plenty of music at my feet. With marriage to an artist-teacher came less stress over household-type worries. Living in a city, we didn’t need a car, but we adopted a dog who made us laugh every day. He chewed through three pairs of shoes and odd sandals before settling down under my writing desk and following me about the house like one of the Pied Piper’s children. He still does, walking ahead of me, unused to the nature all around us, but ready to discover the taste of every leaf and insect.

It was meant to be an event, the Big Move. We were going to bid farewell to all our friends, visit and say goodbye to favourite places together, but also alone, for we had separate memories to think of. But then… 2020. When we decided that now was the moment to exchange our steady and regular life for the life of trying to build a farm, a minimal and sustainable life with trees, bees, hills, steep village roads, a small car, the weather and a lack of anonymity, I told myself farming would not be too different from writing. It was going to be more physical, but in land that hadn’t been sown for three decades, where the soil was black gold. How hard could it be?

And farming has proved similar to writing. Both processes feel like infinite time. One waits and waits and waits, at the mercy of mood, muse and weather, for something to spark and bloom in the mind or soil. Then there is more waiting for an idea, or a bean stalk, to meet the sun and grow into a coherent shape. Just in the way writing is not merely putting pen to paper, a seed installed into the soil is hardly all of farming. At the periphery is reading – of words, of the weather – and the construction of an ecosystem where new words and plants can have a life. “I hate writing, I love having written,” Dorothy Parker said. Having the freshest of produce at arm’s length is as lovely as it sounds, but the activities that aren’t posted on Instagram and find no mention in accounts of some charming rural life are absolute hell – the waiting, the digging, the dependency on weather, the time. Just as in writing, so it is with farming life.

In this era, it is easy to pontificate that, faced as we are with uncertainty, one must follow dreams – that life is about choices, that to have peace you don’t need much, and so on. But the underlying reasons why people like us can up and leave our lives behind should never be lost between sentences. My husband and I do not have children, by choice. We are healthy, young and financially able enough to undertake such a transition. We are both introverts, so a social life and the utter lack of it here were never factors to consider. We live on land that has been in my family for nearly a century, so we have a unique safety net.
 

Growing food
Growing food. Picture @Sandie Clarke for Unsplash.

In our social media-dictated worlds, we tend to curate our lives to show the happy shiny rosy bits. Life in the mountains is hard. On some days, it feels impossibly so. And there are of course things we miss. There is expansive physical space here, but the lack of space in our heads is a constant issue to grapple with. It is all a process right now, I tell myself.

On some days I turn to Wendell Berry, that great writer-farmer. Perhaps it is because he writes and farms too, and has done so for decades now, that I take comfort in his words as a way to know that such duality is possible – that the sheer labour involved in these two ways of life is doable. Predictably, I love The Mad Farmer Poems (1), for in their attention to land and to the intensity of weather, I find something to relate to.

At night make me one with the darkness.
In the morning make me one with the light.

In a city, with its odd work schedule, there is a blurring of lines between the times of the day and the changing of seasons. Here, what I best love on the farm-to-be is how affecting the weather can be. Among us homesteaders, the condition of the weather is never small talk, never just a conversation-filler. It is, quite literally, our livelihood, the one big thing that affects the lives of our land, our animals, our soil and the food we eat.

Berry advises the mad farmer not to fret about the crops, to let them stand in the weather on their own. The real produce from a year’s work is the farmer’s mind and the cropland itself. As he says in “Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer,” (1) the finest fruit that farmland can produce is a careful farmer…

When I rise up
Let me rise up joyful
Like a bird.

When I fall
Let me fall without regret
Like a leaf.

As we sow, so shall we reap. As with words, so with the crops.

 

Deepa Bhasthi

 

References:

  1. Berry, W., “The mad farmer poems”, 2008.
Received: 07.11.20, Ready: 17.12.20. Editors: Robert Albro, Jessica Brown.

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