Josna Rege

Posts Tagged ‘tomato hornworms’

457. Farming

In 1980s, blogs and blogging, Childhood, Nature, parenting, Stories, United States, Work on April 7, 2020 at 11:01 pm

This is the sixth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.


From 1984 to 1990 Andrew and I lived with friends from the Boston area on a 60-acre farm in Winchendon, a small town in North-Central Massachusetts. In truth it was mostly woods, with less than 20 acres of cleared land, an old red farmhouse and barn, and a run-down chicken coop. We had been having conversations since 1977 about forming some kind of collective and moving to a farm, sustained economically by some of us having paying jobs in the community; but when push came to shove most of the others bailed out, all of them economically more solvent than we were, and in the end there were just five of us. Since 1980 Andrew and I had been running a small press in the Boston area with his sister Eve, moving to the farm meant shuttling back and forth to Boston every week, which we had to do until we could move the operation to the repurposed chicken coop. Letterpress printers don’t make much money, still less when half the customers, mostly environmental groups and community organizations, get a political discount; but we had to keep working at the press and couldn’t afford to get involved in another marginal start-up. In the end our housemates started a small business growing perennials and eventually added a CSA, delivering vegetables in season to local families and our friends in the city, while all five of us maintained a big kitchen garden for our own use, including putting by large quantities of food to carry us through the winters.

It was hard farming in Winchendon, which turned out to be just about the coldest town in the state, so the growing season was very short, from after Memorial Day in late May to the week before Labor Day in late August, so one couldn’t grow crops that needed an extended period of heat, like okra or peanuts. But we were still able to grow a few crops that normally thrived in the heat because we ordered from Johnny’s up in Maine who developed seeds especially for northern climes, including a terrific variety of hot chili pepper.  Maureen and Rudy had the forethought to put in strawberries and asparagus for rare times of pure extravagance, and we produced a wealth of potatoes, onions, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, beans and leafy greens of all kinds, and lots of culinary herbs. I say “we” loosely: I was never really a farmer, though I benefited from the hard work and expertise of the others. I helped a little with the weeding, killed potato beetles and tomato hornworms when they threatened our precious crops, collected eggs from the hens, picked when it was time to harvest, cooked, and ate my share—and then some.

But however isolated the community, inhospitable the climate, and rocky the soil, living on a farm was idyllic in the dark decade of the Reagan Years, when all our social activism of the previous decade seemed to have come to nought, when the very concept of society and community was under challenge by the defunding of the public sector and an ethos of individualism. We were actively engaged with raising our children–Andrew and I had one child and Maureen and Rudy another, three months apart, so Nikhil and Eric were brothers. They played at farming with Playmobil (Eric’s first word was “tractor”) and grew their first crop of scarlet runner beans at age four out of a seed packet they’d brought home as a party favor from the birthday party of a little friend of theirs, whose parents were also farmers.

In the mid-1980s, at the very time when we moved to our little farm, American farming was in crisis. Many farms, particularly in the Midwest, were up for sale. Farm debt had recently skyrocketed and now prices had collapsed and incomes were plummeting. It all added up to a consolidation of land in big farms, and small and medium-size farmers going out of business.  According to Iowa PBS, the “trend toward very large farms was initiated during the 1980s and it continues unabated up to the present day.” In September 1985 dozens of artists, organized by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young, organized Farm Aid, that started as a benefit concert that raised $9 million to save family farms, and still continues as a nonprofit organization whose mission is to keep them on the land.

Interestingly, a parallel movement to the consolidation of land in mega-farms has been a “concurrent, ongoing trend. . .for the development of small family farming enterprises, mostly organic, that is producing many new farm people” (Iowa PBS). The little farm we lived on, at least the business side of it–I can’t claim any credit for the work–was part of that movement as a member of NOFA, the Northeast Organic Farming Association, catering to the growing desire for high-quality organically grown produce (hence our hand-culling of potato beetles and tomato hornworms).

Although compared to the average American farm, our production was small potatoes (our ascerbic housemate Charlie Gamble got a kick out of near-obsolete agricultural idioms); although it never made anyone a living; and although complaints about the weather and arguments among the adults were a-plenty, we certainly put in our share of honest effort, and our son spent his formative years unplugged, in small-town America, living on a farm.

Here’s The Who singing Now I’m a Farmer: and I’m digging, digging, digging, digging, digging.
And here are more stories of life on the farm:

127. Going Up the Country

69. Wonders in the Woods

10. Ghosts of New Boston

86. Bottled Sunshine

177. The Sugar Snow

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147. Hollyhocks and Hornworms

In 1960s, 1980s, Childhood, Greece, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on May 18, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Gulmohar, or Flame of the Forest (photo courtesy of Ranjeet Jagtap)

Every year when the gulmohar tree, or Flame of the Forest, bloomed, the entire Hijli campus in Kharagpur was a riot of color. I derived so much pleasure from its flowers, not only aesthetic, but also tactile. Their long red stamens captured my imagination, and I conceived a game in which two opponents, each holding a stalk, locked heads of those rich, powdery anthers until the winner succeeded in pulling the head off her opponent’s filament. The mature seed pods of the gulmohar tree were also a source of fun. They hardened and rattled when dry, and became play-swords and percussion instruments.

Gulmohar stamens (

Shak-Shak (photo by Dinesh Valke on flickr)

The profusion of brilliant blossoms gave me another idea: couldn’t we find a way to make Holi dyes by soaking and grinding them? I never succeeded in this endeavor, but I see that nearly half-a-century later, people are using gulmohur flowers and leaves to make natural dyes for Holi and starting to investigate gulmohar flowers as a source of natural dyes for other purposes as well.

The hibiscus, showy and ubiquitous, was another flower that I tried, but failed, to put to practical use. Its common name, shoe flower, gave me the idea of using it to polish my school-uniform shoes, which were perennially scuffed and dusty. Alas, while it crushed the beautiful red blossoms, it failed to impart any lasting shine to my black lace-ups.

I wasn’t only destructive, though. One of my favorite flowers were antirrhinums, or snapdragons. Like so many children, I delighted in pinching them gently but firmly between thumb and forefinger so that their mouths opened and shut. Both in India and in Greece there were the trees, varieties of mimosa, perhaps, whose feathery compound leaves closed up if you so much as brushed up against them. Of course I did, and never tired of watching them draw together defensively.

Through the long summers in Greece, when the heat melted the tar on the roads, I found endless fascination in natural life. When we went to the seaside, I played with the sea cucumbers, making their pods snap like bubble plastic. In Athens I played in overgrown urban plots, part cultivated, part wild. The stands of hollyhocks were strange giraffe-like plants, with their long, woody stalks covered in short, rough hairs, their dry leaves, which always semed to be full of insect-holes, and their green geometric seed-pods. The flowers themselves seemed incidental to me.

Greek poppies

Flaming red poppies grew everywhere. The flowers quickly bloomed and were as quickly blown, but the seedpods lasted, and it was fascinating to watch them dry and burst open, and sometimes to pry off the cap and squeeze out the thousands of tiny seeds.

It was only much later, in America, that I would be introduced to dried poppyseeds sprinkled on bagels and cream cheese. And not having been introduced to The Wizard of Oz, either, I knew nothing of the soporific properties of opium poppies.

The small creatures that lived on the plants also gave me pleasure. I was especially fond of common garden snails, and could lie on my stomach for hours watching them moving slowly and steadily forward under their spiralling shells, their bulbous-tipped antennae stretching ahead of them, a narrow glistening trail in their wake. Like the mimosa leaves, they too would close up defensively, no matter how lightly their shell was tapped.

©National Trust Images/NaturePL/Chris O’Reilly

It wasn’t until I was an adult living in the United States, when work, not play, was at stake, that I began to see these little creatures as my adversaries. Not snails, but slugs, were our enemies in the garden in Winchendon, especially in the battle over buttery lettuce leaves, both of our favorites. It’s funny how likeable snails are, and how unlikeable slugs, even though the former are just slugs with their shells on the outside. Even the snail’s lightly sticky, glistening trail, so magical to me as a child, is loathsome slime when it emanates from a slug.

I’m not going to spoil this idyll with a litany of garden pests, but there is one creature whose life is so bound up with the plant it loves that it embodies the old adage, You are what you eat: the tomato hornworm. If I could only erase the traumatic memories of my seven-year war with hornworms in Winchendon, I could see myself taking as much pleasure in their plump succulence, as close to a green tomato as a living being can get, as I did in the progress of snails as a child.

tomato hornworm

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