The Earth Knows My Name

Date April 30, 2007 at 10:00 PM

Categories Health & Beauty


I can tell you exactly when I conceived a desire to talk to the author of A Garlic Testament. It was Thanksgiving six and a half years ago, when a bad tooth kept me from driving up to Dutchess County in rural New York to share turkey with an old friend's huge Russian Jewish family. Claimed by a sweet lassitude induced by fever, I curled up in my favorite chair under a blanket and spent the whole day reading a book I'd discovered on the shelves of our local library. From the moment I read the epigraph taken from Edith Wharton, I knew something was up. Sipping tea in the wan light of a snowless November morning in New England, I, a garlic eater, granddaughter of Italian immigrants, and recent escapee from a career teaching literature-gave myself up to the spell of this most literate and witty farmer, a poet leaning on a shovel watching water, diverted from his true calling-or one of them, for clearly he is a philosopher, too-and found the very moment when I felt he had understood and found words for what I was trying to do in my first book.

It would be nearly a year before I'd find myself sitting in the cool of the Crawford's living room in Dixon, looking out the same window Stan looks out, watching a friend paint his orchard, in this passage.

Resting, staring out the window: staring through glass I had puttied into frames I had built myself-I watched the painter standing in the afternoon sun, halfway down the lawn, midway between my armchair and where we would soon resume our work washing and packing vegetables.

I began to see what any painter would have to leave out-in order to produce a two-foot by three-foot token of something I knew to be immeasurably vaster and more complex.

Not to be seen were generation after generation of human hands that had grafted scion to root stock to convey that half-natural, half-cultural creation, the apple tree, through the millennia to this valley, across ocean and continent.

The painting that would reveal this landscape would be like one of those crowded group photos-a family reunion in a park, say-with hundreds or even thousands of people, the old and the young, the living and their memories and ghosts, all of whom have had a hand in what can appear, from a certain angle, at certain moments, to be only a quiet landscape of trees and open ground.

- from A Garlic Testament

Perhaps because my book is really an extended act of grieving, an attempt to find, in listening to others, a trace of the lost story of my own immigrant kin, this idea of a family reunion, of rewriting what time, distance, and death have covered over, made tears spring from my eyes. It was just this-an attempt to make visible the human story that is usually hidden from view in most books about gardens and farms-that I was after in recording the voices of ethnic growers who found, in the private passion of their work on the land, a way to keep their culture alive.

The night before I left for Santa Fe on my first trip to New Mexico, I read this passage aloud to Stanley Crawford over the phone, having screwed up my courage to call a total stranger to blurt out how much I loved his book. Then I told him how I was beginning this book of my own, and asked if he would be willing to introduce me to some of his Hispanic farming neighbors? "Sure,"€ he said. Just like that. I should just look for him at the Santa Fe Farmers' Market, and then we'd talk and he'd show me around.

The next day, Page Allen, a well-known painter and college friend who'd been inviting me to Santa Fe for years, took me to the Farmers' Market. Stan was president then. We walked down toward the back of all the farm stands, the smell of roasting chilies in the cool morning air, and there he was, a string bean of a man, as my mother would have said, who pulled up a bale of hay and lowered himself down, leaning forward to listen as I told him again what I was trying to do. After a little while he stood up and led me through the market, introducing me to folks. That's how I met Loretta, David, and Jennifer Fresquez, whose story I tell in the opening chapter. They stood smiling before a table laden with gorgeous dahlias and baskets of vegetables, a big sign that said "Monte Vista Farm"€ behind them. As soon as Stan introduced us, they said of course I could interview them. Later that day, Stan called to give me the name of Clayton Brascoupé of Tesuque Pueblo, then the director of the Traditional Native American Farming Association. Before the week was out, I had driven the red pickup Page had lent me up and down the Rio Grande Valley, relearning American history from the Fresquez family up in Española, and from Clayton, as we walked his family's garden on the flatlands near the Tesuque River.

Finally the day came when I drove all the way up to Dixon. Rose Mary had baked cookies, and after Stan spent time telling me about books I should read, and sharing a list of names and phone numbers for people at farmers' markets all over the country who might help me, we rose up from the living room and moved to the kitchen table. As we sat munching cookies, I thought with longing how deeply rooted to this place they were. Everything Stan describes in his writing was all around me, so that I felt I'd been there before, all except the ditch. There wasn't time to see it that day; someone else would take me walking alongside the ditches-and I only knew what they were because Stanley had taught me in his books. As I walked each farm and garden, I knew he was the first to teach me a new way to see.

I met Deborah Madison and Stan Crawford on the same hot, clear day in September at the Santa Fe Farmers' Market. Deborah was writing Local Flavors then, and invited me over for coffee on Sunday afternoon. We sat and talked for a long time, she in a red leather chair bought with prize money from one of her books, her husband Patrick's paintings on the walls behind her, light streaming through the large front windows. I asked her how she came to write her books, and with extraordinary generosity, she told me about starting the Greens restaurant, and then, years later, being invited to write the cookbook that made her famous and began a long and distinguished career teaching Americans new ways to think about food and why it matters to think about where it comes from. Then she asked me about my book. But of course it wasn't a book then. It was an idea, and a box of tapes sitting at home, and me hooked up to a transcription machine, transcribing the voices of immigrants as they told me stories of growing up on the land, leaving for America, then starting over-and what it felt like to put their hands in American soil and grow the foods and trees of their homelands. I knew I was on to something, but at that stage, the collecting stage, I was still unsure of how I would shape these stories into a book. I felt shy and awkward, like a pretend writer. Deborah invited me into her study. She showed me photographs of some of the hundred farmers' markets she was visiting; vibrant, gorgeous images. "I love putting books together,"€ she said, with confidence and ease. I wanted to be able to say the same thing one day.

Bringing me into the spare room where she kept part of her library, Deborah pulled books off the shelves and handed them to me. "You should know that person,"€ she'd say. (This was a whole different literature about food and farming, one Deborah did not see as separate from other works of culture.) As I wrote on a pad-I still have the pages of notes-she gave me the names and addresses of farmers and food writers, poets, editors, and photographers. Letting me see her at work, sharing her books with me, believing-on the basis of what?-that I had promise, Deborah became one of the guiding, encouraging presences every writer needs to go on when a project swells and the need to earn a living slows you to a crawl, so that you wonder if you will live long enough to get it written.

It was Deborah who encouraged me, read small pieces I sent her and responded with enthusiasm and admiration. In dry spells, when the life went out of the project or the need to make money pushed creative work to one side, I took comfort in her praise. I had changed course so radically at a relatively late age. Sometimes, even I thought the risk I was taking was crazy. Then I'd feel tired-not the sweet tired Stan describes at the end of a long day when he and Rose Mary would go down to the water to swim. Spent tired, emptied out tired.

Two years after my first visit to Santa Fe, when I was still working part time to raise money to finish the interviews, spending hours transcribing my tapes, I called Deborah to ask her about something. When she heard I was still working without an agent, an editor, a contract or an advance, she said, "Would you like some help?"€ Within a month I had an agent in New York. When the book was finally finished, it was Deborah who wrote the lines that, more than any other, captured the heart of what I tried to do.

When you are just beginning, when you have walked away from everything you know and had prepared yourself to do and find yourself in the grip of an idea and decide you will go wherever it takes you, the best fate you can have is to meet a few giving people who have covered the distance and know a good bit more than you do about the writing life that is anchored in real dirt. I finished my book about 9:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve a few years ago. The lamp on my desk made the only pool of warm light in the house. The windows were black against the cold air outside. I put the last page on the tall stack of other pages, and turned off the light. I thanked the people whose voices helped me keep going, and went to bed.

The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic America by Patricia Klindienst. Beacon Press. Now available in paperback.