“You got to get behind the mule in the mornin’ and plow.”
— Tom Waits
He wasn’t a mule, really, just a big friendly plow-horse named Dan, as gentle and good-humored as a Golden Retriever. Off-season, Dan’s only job was to take me or my dad or any of my friends on slow rides through the woods behind our house. But come planting time, Dan had to go to work.
Daddy was one of 12 kids in his family. They numbered that many because in the early 20th century, a family in the backwoods of northern Georgia had to raise its own farmhands. Some of those 12 stayed on their own farms, raising cattle and hogs and chickens and crops. A few of them, like Daddy, did in-town jobs. But making a garden every summer was in their blood, all of them. Not little backyard gardens in raised beds, but big gardens that would produce enough food to put up for the winter.
Daddy’s three terraced fields totaled about an acre, and when summer came, he would put Dan in the traces and start plowing. He could have bought a tractor, or even borrowed one from one of his brothers, I suppose, but Dad believed he and Dan could — and should — get the work done. Then, when I was 11 or 12, Dad decided I was old enough to get behind the plow-horse.
The job was to take Dan down a straight line from one end of the field to the other, turn him around, point him straight the other way and plow another furrow two to three feet over. And over and over again.
“Keep him straight, son,” Dad said. “You got to keep him pointed straight.”
To say I was pretty good at this job would be charitable. When it came my first year to get behind Dan, the plow handles were only a bit lower than the height of my shoulders. Thus, it was difficult for me to maintain the constant downward pressure on the plow that helps a fellow dig a deep enough furrow and keep the horse plowing down a straight line.
My first effort at plowing left me feeling three things I’ve never enjoyed: hot, sweaty, and disappointed. But Dad believed that eventually I would get it right. I remember a few comments like “Now that’s a good, straight row.” What I don’t remember is ever painting the whole field with good, straight rows. Every time, there came a point in the day when I’d just have to look at Dad and say, “I just can’t do no more.” Then he’d take over, and the field would get plowed.
Later in the summer, I’d get sent into the same field with a hoe to chop weeds from the feet of the growing stalks of Silver Queen corn, with vines of White Half-Runner beans climbing them, growing together toward a harvest — a bountiful one — every fall. The Reece family never ran short of corn and beans to eat.
I’d also be sent into the smaller field on the next highest terrace to do another hot, sweaty job I didn’t like: “cuttin’ okree.” If you have never ever grown okra, that vegetable which binds our holiest-of-holy stews, gumbo, you might not know that the harvest requires you to take a short, sharp knife into the field to cut each pod from its stalk. You might also be unaware that those fuzzy hairs on fresh okra will leave you with a fierce itch if you don’t have the good sense to wear long sleeves.
By the time I got a driver’s license and a used Mustang from the mid-’70s ugly period, I left gardening behind for good. It didn’t make any sense to me get hot, sweaty, itchy, and disappointed when you could just go to Piggly Wiggly for the stuff.
My aversion to gardening lasted for more than 40 years, and I trace it directly back to the first year when Dad decided I was old enough wrap the reins around my wrists and steer the plow behind Dan.
Then, a bit more than a decade ago, when weekly farmer’s markets began popping up, something happened to me. I remember my first visit to the weekly market on the grounds of the Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta. I picked up some fresh tomatoes, some corn, and some yard eggs. (Gathering eggs from the coops in my Aunt Mary’s yard had been one of my childhood jobs, too.) I remember talking to the farmers, who had deep knowledge about exactly which varieties of tomatoes and corn they were selling, who could tell you what breed of hens their eggs came from.
Back home in the kitchen, I did some tomato-slicing, some corn-boiling, and some egg-scrambling, and I had an epiphany. All this stuff tasted way better than what I could buy at Publix. The tomatoes weren’t mealy and bland; they held distinct sweet and acidic flavors. The corn had a sweetness and tang that couldn’t be matched in the grocery store’s produce section. And those eggs? They tasted just like the eggs from Aunt Mary’s coops. In fact, everything I bought tasted exactly like my food memories from childhood.
This epiphany did not wean me entirely from the ease of the supermarket, but it certainly increased the number of visits to farmer’s markets. Then, three years ago, as spring began, I found myself with an uncontrollable urge to plant some tomatoes. I did not go out and buy a horse and an old-fashioned plow, but instead went to Home Depot and bought an electric tiller. I used it to turn a small patch of ground in our backyard and bought a few heirloom tomato plants, even though I knew they’d be harder to grow than the hybrid varieties. We got maybe a half-dozen tomatoes in that summer of 2018. The next summer I got more ambitious and added habanero peppers to the mix. My tomato luck didn’t get much better, but we brought in mess after mess of habaneros. It’s a good thing spicy food is beloved in our house, and there is still a jar of dried habanero flakes in the kitchen cabinet that we toss into stews, onto pizzas, or into whatever we feel like needs some serious kick.
As 2020 rolled in, I decided to go whole hog in the dead of winter, planting seeds in starter trays in the basement — two varieties of tomatoes, four kinds of peppers (including some plain old green bells), and even one of the hardest things to grow, a vegetable that takes three years before you can even harvest for the first time, asparagus.
We harvested tomatoes and bell peppers into mid-September, and there are several ethereally green asparagus ferns waving in the wind from a bed mulched with wood shavings. If I can keep them alive for two more years, we should have some asparagus to eat in 2022.
But I remain a sloppy gardener who see-saws from great ambition to a great reluctance to keep it all tended perfectly in the oppressive heat of a Georgia summer. As summer wound down and I tried to keep the late-blooming tomatoes staked and tied up so they wouldn't wind up dying on the ground, a song by a Los Angeles musician I’ve loved for 40 years, Tom Waits, kept going through my head: “Get Behind the Mule.” It’s a shambling blues, almost seven minutes long, delivered in Waits’s gravelly whisper. It’s full of images of shady characters with names like Big Jack Earl and Birdie Joe Hoaks, but in the last verse there’s a lesson I think Daddy would get behind:
Pin your eye to the line
Never let the weeds get higher than the garden
Always keep a sapphire in your mind
Always keep a diamond in your mind
In the mornin' and plow
That verse sounds like what my Daddy tried to tell me the first time he told me to get behind old Dan and plow. Listen to the wisdom I’m giving you, and pin your eye to that line. I’m gonna hand you a hoe to keep those weeds down, and always keep the harvest in your mind.