The Watermelon Ritual

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Chores, labor, monotony, routine, physical. All describe my life here at the ranch. Each morning we rise just before seven (a comfortable hour – yes: I know and am thankful) to feed the horses, sheep, and chickens. We clean out paddocks, change straw bedding, scrub water tubs – all before breakfast. As each day’s work comes to a close, again – time for chores. Before dinner, of course.

Some days are harder and longer than others, but all are built on and around the schedule that our charges demand. The animals and plants in our care depend upon this continued and regular attention, and it forms the backbone of our life here.

Often, words like “chores,” “monotony,” “labor” and “routine” enliven a host of negative connotations among disciples of the so-called modern day, eliciting responses as mild as “simple” and as harsh as “PEASANT.” It’s why you probably never heard your high school guidance councilor suggest that you explore farming as a creditable career. But what many suit-wearing, cultured sophisticates don’t understand is that within the confines of a life devoted to physical routine, there lies an invaluable opportunity.

And that is: watermelon.

Every day here, Emily (my housemate, colleague, and companion) and I get up together, do chores together, make breakfast together, ride together, clean together, study Spanish together. And each day, after a laborious and yes – monotonous – morning and early afternoon, at an hour that varies slightly from day to day, our keen awareness of the day’s progression indicates to our sixth sugary sense that it is time. We descend upon our little outdoor kitchen. One silently opens our modest, gas-powered refrigerator. The other reaches past the spiders for our single cutting board and only chefs knife. And together, we butcher four thick dripping triangles of crispy red watery goodness from the godly green egg of mother melon.

This is the power (or at least one of the powers) of routine. Because when routine becomes a lifestyle – not just a “workout” or “diet” or “happy hour” – it is transformed into ritual. And rituals have meaning.

Any myopic belittlement of the agrarian lifestyle on the part of academics, paper-pushers, suburbanites, or politicos does nothing more than belie any commitment to meaningful pursuits they’ve signed for in student debt, contracts, mortgage payments, or oaths of office. To claim one understands meaning in a human life without understanding the things that make that life possible – how a well-pump works, when to plant tomatoes, or what to do with a dead chicken, to name a few – is poo-diddly-doo.

Don’t get me wrong here – there are certainly many other non-farm-related routines that have the power to become sacred. But there’s something really especially powerful about a ritual that is so fundamentally entrenched in, well, fundamentals. Food, water, shelter. The true necessities of life.

It makes the watermelon all that much sweeter.

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Full Disclosure: I’m not only living and working on a ranch, but reading Joel Salatin’s “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal.” Hence the bitterness.

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Bugs on Bug Terms are Better than Bugs on People Terms

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The short of it:

Spiders are my friends because spiders eat flies. And flies suck.

The long of it:

When I was growing up, if a bee even so much as drifted within eyeshot I would alternately shut down completely or launch into a panic attack. Don’t ask me why – I’ve never even been stung or even near stung. Spiders? They’ve always made me sick to my stomach. I’m not a total weenie when it comes to creepies and crawlies, but I’m certainly a bit of city kid.

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Fast forward to my current seat…suctioned to a white plastic arm chair by the inevitable build up of sweat beneath my thighs as I attempt to enjoy the still and sweltering evening while bats circle the patio at a right tear…and those days of radical emoting seem quite distant.

Here, the diversity and quantity of insect life is astounding. No mosquitos – thank god – but more spiders, bees, hornets, flies, ants, moths, scorpions, tarantula hawks (look that one up for a good time), cockroaches, and daddy longlegs than you could shake a stick at. Outside, inside, in between. They’re everywhere.

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And you know what? Of all those terrifying insects from deadly to creepy to invasive to downright disgusting the worst of them is one that I previously had no qualms with: the fly. Hands down.

Not something I would have guessed prior to this immersion course in the living with insects.

It really all came together for me when Emily (my Australian roommate and domestic partner here at the ranch) and I had endured nearly an hour of constant “zzzzzZZZZZzzzzzzzzZZZZZzzzzzZZZZZzzzzzzzz” from three incredibly obnoxious flies making desperate laps of our room nonstop since after dinner. A dinner which was half spent eating, half spent trying to get flies off of us and out of our food and drink. We made the decision that they had to go.

Easier said than done. After another thirty minutes fruitlessly beating the walls with rolled up newspaper, we stood on our beds facing each other, speechless and defeated, as the endless drone continued to taunt us.

I reached up to make one last swat at a passing shithead, when suddenly “ZZ—-“ – all went quiet. One of the eight or so spiders dotting the ceiling had yoinked the fly right out of the air and began digesting it silently overhead.

Finally. A moment in peace thanks to my previously least favorite bug.

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Spiders, well, they kill flies and the rest of the time they generally mind their own business. Scorpions are rather slow, and don’t often venture far from their hiding spots. Cockroaches are scardy cats – and hey, at the end of the day they’re harmless. Ants (well, most) don’t bother anyone. Daddy longlegs you can toss around like it ain’t no thing. Bees have no interest in wasting their stinger on you, and here they have plenty of other things to keep them occupied. Tarantula hawks just wish they could fly better.

But flies.

They’re a menace.

Who knew?

Sometimes, more of a bad thing (along with other bad things) is actually a good thing because it puts all the bad things in perspective.

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The End of a Hard Day’s Work or Snot’s True Purpose

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There is nothing as satisfying as standing limp under a lukewarm outdoor shower in the early evening after a brutal day of physical labor in the hot, still Mexican air watching daddy longlegs run from the flowing water while scraping brown and black gobs of goo out from the deepest darkest crevices of your sinuses knowing that what comes next is a cold can of Modelo. Ah.

Unless it’s a Pacifico. Which was the case after a long day of paddleboarding in Los Barriles over the best shrimp tacos I’ve ever had:

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Ideas that Come at the End of the Dry Season in the Desert

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The desert really is a different animal. Living here is far and away unlike living in an environment blessed with abundant water supply. If a plant or animal (or person for that matter) doesn’t have the capacity to survive on its own, it will die. Unless a human decides to invest very large sums of time, money, effort, and resources (often imported) in its survival. Note “survival.” “Success” takes a whole lot more.

It takes huge amounts of water to keep this ranch going. Water drawn from a well supplied by an aquifer that is being abused up and down the Baja peninsula. Every non-native plant (even many of those native to the area but usually found growing only along arroyos) needs to be soaked thoroughly twice a week. Any edibles need to be soaked twice daily. Each of nine horses drinks ten to fifteen gallons a day. Ten or so sheep drink a few more. The chickens, maybe two or three. Then there’s the water used to wash and shower and drink. Approximately zero percent of that water is rainwater. Chronic drought means the aquifer we’re drawing from has not been properly restored in years. It will rain here, but the few torrential downpours aren’t enough to keep things moist year-round.

All I can think is: what and who are really meant to be here?

For some reason I’m beginning to think a bunch of expats with resource-heavy hobbies and a swimming pool might not be it.

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I’m not saying my hosts are irresponsible, by any means. In fact, they are very mindful stewards of their land and the resources available to them, making a commendable effort to minimize their impact and promote the health of the ecosystem.

All I’m saying is I’m not sure the desert is a great place to do anything but live a desert life.

And that life is one that is dictated by the availability of water. Perhaps there’s a reason Mexicans tend to treat plants and animals with what appears to be disregard and (to some) cruelty, especially when it comes to food and water. Because here, it’s every living thing’s own responsibility to do what it’s gotta do to survive. In the desert, the luxury of manipulating flora and fauna to suit one’s own needs just doesn’t exist.

And I think I believe that this fundamental scarcity is at the root of Mexican culture – and all cultures borne of an arid landscape, I’d imagine. Being dependent on a resource that is seasonal and often unpredictable keeps people here cognizant of nature’s power. It puts people in their place, I guess. Which is at the mercy of mother earth and father space-time. In the US, we’re big-headed assholes who think water comes from pipes and weather is controlled by a busty bimbo on network TV. Generalization, yes. Untrue? No.

It makes me think of how difficult it is to get people at home to appreciate the seasonality of fruits and vegetables. How about we take away your water for nine months out of the year and then see what you learn about patience and thankfulness and reality?

Us water folk have a lot we could learn from the desert.

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Roots on the Road

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As some of you may know, I’ve up and skipped town for a summer sojourn out west. While I’m a bit belated – by three weeks or thereabouts – in posting news of my departure (or really anything for that matter), I’ve decided that the lessons learned thus far and those still-to-be-acquired on this short trip are still worth sharing.

The plan is/was as follows:

  • San Diego, CA – 1 week
  • San Jose del Cabo, Mexico – 3 days
  • Rancho La Venta, Baja Sur, Mexico – 1 month ← I am here
  • Love Apple Farm, Santa Cruz, CA – 2+ months
  • Monterrey/Big Sur, CA – 1 week
  • Utah – 1-2 weeks

To experienced travellers I imagine this sounds like a quick vacay, no biggie – but alas I do not yet qualify as particularly “well-travelled” and as such consider this more of an “epic self-led quarter life crisis summer camp adventure.”

Why now, though? Why here? What even is Rancho La Venta? Aren’t there farms near Philadelphia? Don’t you have a great boyfriend and a great apartment…not to mention plenty of potential jobs and educational programs to pursue? Why any of it?

All good questions. All questions I’m hoping to have a better answer for afterwards.

All I know now is that I needed to go.

After twenty-six years living in Philadelphia, things were finally beginning to become unbearable. Environmental stagnancy, reappearing (and newly emerging) bad habits, and an ever-increasing awareness that a whole lot of my values and goals were going to be quite tough to pursue from a third-floor apartment in the thick of the concrete jungle of South Philly built up like a short shake and a bottle of kombucha to get my ass moving.

This sudden restlessness made me more keenly aware of a frustration that’s also been building over the year and a half since I started exploring careers in food, food systems, and the like a year and a half ago. Shackled by my urban locale and inconvenient resume of administrative strengths, my attempts to get more intimately acquainted with the source of my food were met with many hours hunched over a computer screen instead of the intended crouched in a chicken coop.

I hate cubicles. I told my mom that after my first desk job after high school. I told her I would never work in a place where I had to dress like that and sit in a fucking box (well, at the time just “box”) every day.

And somehow I had ended up back in one.

Screw this. That’s basically where I got to.

After a quick inventory of all the things I know I love in life (a good shower after a hard day’s work in the dirt, cooking a meal for friends and family, a good canter past a tree-lined river bank, shopping the farmers market with no more plan than spend the cash and fill the basket, a fine glass of artisanal beer – or cider or wine – paired with the perfect bite, being a know-it-all about something I actually know it all about, freshly-picked fruits and vegetables unadorned, a drink (or two or three) with good friends, the feeling of sweat dripping down my sternum, an impeccably casual tasteful tablescape…you get the gist) I started my research.

Anyway. Many hours of interneting, emailing, Skyping, and booking later, here I am. In Mexico. On a hobby ranch. With no contact to the outside world except in the five foot radius around a router from 2004.

I’m here to work (hard). I’m here to learn (anything I can). I’m here to ride (horses, paddleboards, boats, pick-ups, you name it). I’m here to eat (yes, I do love tacos). I’m here to think (and not think). I’m here to go (with the flow). I’m here to figure (it out). I’m here to search (yeah sorry: my soul). I’m here to live.

And hopefully, when I return, I’ll have a better idea about where the real me wants to go next.

I can’t promise anything, but I’m going to try to find the time, energy, and internet to post a bit about the things I’ve been doing, the thoughts I’ve been thinking, and the lessons I’ve been learning. Stay tuned.