The Garden Report: Learning from Steinbeck

Fri, 02/27/2015 - 10:15am

On Feb. 17 and 18, the Island Free Library and Island Bound Bookstore hosted a 76th year anniversary celebration of “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. Memories of reading the book 40 years ago just wouldn’t suffice. It would have to be read again. What struck me was how much of the book I didn’t remember. Only a general impression remained, and I thought that perhaps there were many great works of literature collecting dust in the shelves of my mind that deserved to be taken down and re-examined.

In the introduction to the Penguin Books edition I read, Robert Demott writes:

“If a literary classic can be defined as a book that speaks directly to readers’ concerns in successive historical and cultural eras, no matter what their critical approaches, methods, or preoccupations are, then surely “The Grapes of Wrath” is such a work.  Each generation of readers has found something new and relevant about it that speaks to its times.” (pg xi)

I was not the only member of the group that gathered on Feb. 17 at the library for the opening reception and “Art and Writing Response” who discovered a lot in the re-reading of this classic tale of migrants from Oklahoma heading west for the golden land of California in the 1930s. After all, most of us had first read the book as teenagers, perhaps in school, perhaps not. 

Elsbeth Crawford wondered if some of the social themes of the book may have inspired her choice of life’s work, although she hadn’t explicitly remembered them. Years ago, it was just a wonderful read, having been pulled from a bookshelf in her father’s library.

The themes that most resonated with me on the second reading were those of the environment and the economy. And now, upon more reflection, I’m maybe having an “Elsbeth-moment” myself — wondering if perhaps some innate reaction to the book when I was 14 has led to a prolonged interest in the environment and sustainable land practices — that we can not just use the land, we must feel that we are a part of it, we must cherish and nurture it. We can no longer think as “colonists,” using up the precious resources of one area and then just moving on to the next. Sooner or later we will simply run out of room.

Steinbeck describes an Oklahoma at a time when small farmers gradually lost their ownership of their farms to the banks, at first becoming tenant farmers on their land and then being pushed off by the banks that had their own ideas about farming.

“The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects, having the incredible strength of insects. They crawled over the ground, laying the track and rolling on it and picking it up. Diesel tractors, puttering while they stood idle; they thundered when they moved, and then settled down to a droning roar. Snub-nosed monsters, raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it, straight down the country, through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies and in straight lines…

“The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was a part of the monster, a robot in the seat… He could not see the land as it was, he could not smell the land as it smelled; his feet did not stamp the clods or feel the warmth and power of the earth.”  (pg. 35)

And then came the drought, and then the winds, sending great clouds of dust into the air, blowing away the precious top soil that had nothing to anchor it down. So the people moved, headed for the fertile lands of California, hoping to once again put down roots — to claim an acre of their own and to start again. 

What did they find in California? I won’t tell, not believing in giving away endings. What I do find supremely ironic though is that California, now in its fourth year of a severe drought, has, or will, find itself in the very same state as Oklahoma did in the aftermath of the dust-storms of the 1930s. Except that the situation is actually worse: What was once a most fertile valley is becoming desert. 

This has serious implications for the world’s food supply. It is not that we will all starve, especially here in the United States. Rather we will see the effects at the cash registers of the stores we shop in — indeed we have already been seeing it, reflected in the sharp increases in the prices of food, especially produce, dairy products, and even eggs over the past few years. The wholesale price of eggs in California rose over 30 percent in 2014.

This is of course one of the many reasons to plant one’s own vegetable garden, one’s own little orchard. Not only can we provide fresh fruits and vegetables for ourselves, we can maintain the diversity of species lost to the grocery store shelves, expand our palates beyond what has been selected because it travels well. We can eat purple carrots, blue potatoes, and rainbow chard. We can plant heirloom varieties, then save the seeds and plant them again. 

To get out and dig in the dirt, to break up the clods and “feel the warmth and power of the earth,” to be ever mindful of the intricacies of nature and the ecological balances that must be retained, restored and respected, not ripped through, sliced open by the blades of those heartless tractors. 

I was heartened to read at the beginning of the year, when all sorts of pundits make predictions for the “top trends” that are coming, that one of the top trends in food would be, not kale, but the emphasis, by young farmers in building fertile soils. 

Admittedly, it’s hard to think about gardening right now, while the world — our world — is ensconced in snow and ice. But the color is rising in the branches of the trees and the shrubs, and spring, the calendar version anyway, is just three weeks away. It’s almost time to plant the peas.