Solitary farm work is, it turns out, a fabulous time to listen to podcasts. (I know, I know – bear with me here.) Your body is fully engaged, but your mind only partially so, allowing space for wide-ranging conversations and wild stories to filter in.
And so I recently found myself re-listening to an episode of Radiolab, “Black Box,” that explored those places where the beginning and the end are clear, but the middle is mysterious. The final story looked at the metamorphosis of butterflies, in which we all know that a caterpillar enters a chrysalis and emerges as a butterfly. But in between those two points, the creature seems to dissolve into a sort of transformative goo. (Seriously, it’s gross. Cut open a chrysalis and a snot-like substance comes out.) That goo, neither caterpillar nor butterfly, has inspired mystics and baffled scientists for centuries. But, increasingly, we’re discovering that the caterpillar doesn’t just dissolve. No, some parts of it survive, including tiny specks of its brain. And if you dissect a caterpillar before it begins metamorphosis, you’ll actually find the microscopic, translucent beginnings of its adult parts, including the wings, all of which survive the goo as well.
The reporter ended the story by marveling at the conceptual switch this revelation inspires when used as a metaphor. When we think of our future selves, we generally think about what parts of current me will carry forward, what parts will still be around in 40 years. But, she says, “It’s not just what of me carries forward into the future. It’s what of my future self is in me right now.”
I can’t stop thinking about that.
Have you ever looked at a pepper seed? I mean, have you really looked at it and thought about what was inside?
Working in the greenhouse for hours, tapping hundreds of tiny seeds into tiny soil blocks, hunched over in a subtly painful way, you find yourself staring long and hard at these seeds. And every once in a while, your brain escapes the monotony and imagines the miracle at the core of your task.
Everything that the pepper needs to grow is there, every instinct to have its roots go down with gravity and its shoot go against it, to seek out and cultivate the nutrients it needs, to wait for certain temperature and moisture cures to initiate particular aspects of its development, to create beautiful flowers and delicious fruit and countless other seeds. The amount of intelligence in those flat circles that stick to my thumb as I struggle to seed them is mind-boggling. They hold the future.
I’m putting those seeds into soil many weeks before the land will even be workable, as a February snowstorm swirls outside my window, and I can’t help but marvel at the combination of planning and potential. In some very real way, peppers already exist in those seeds, and it’s my job (through planning and collaboration and hard work) to make sure that they come to fruition. But they’re already there.
I have a kid now – an increasingly-less-recent development – and maybe that’s part of why I find my mind wandering to places like this more and more. Hanging out with him feels like hanging out with pure potential. He’s present in the moment, of course, more so than anyone I’ve ever met. And he’s a real and full person right now, full of humor and curiosity and language and everything else I have. But he’s also got so much inside of him, endless paths and possibilities, and that knowledge feels both exhilarating and terrifying. It’ll be mostly up to him, of course, but I’ve got to put him in good soil, I’ve got to give him the right amount of water at the right time, I’ve got to make sure he’s getting enough light.
Farming’s fun, y’all. And endlessly interesting.
Okay, enough of these wanderings. Back to the greenhouse.