I am standing in the bathroom searching my body for ticks.
Ticks and I go way back, back to when I was a kid scouring the woods around my house. Yet, I never got used to their crusty bodies and their unquenchable thirst for blood. When I’d find one attached to my skin, I would claw and scratch at it until the insect was finally dislodged. No calm plucking. Not me. I know how their sinister existences play out. Why, a tick might hunch on a blade of grass or a low hanging tree limb for two, five, even ten years until a snack of blood like myself comes strolling by. The eerie patience of the woodland tick!
I find one almost immediately, right in the Junk Jungle.
Egah! I claw at it savagely. I imagine a haze of chemicals descending upon the Earth, a green cloud of death choking the strange life out of these disgusting parasite. But I know that, even on a small scale, this is not going to happen any time soon.
Not on The Patrick’s organic farm.
I met Eric Patrick in Memphis, when he and his wife lived a couple blocks from me. He was a corporate accountant for a very large company. He was also building his own sailboat.
“How to you make a boat?”
Eric shrugged. “I found the plans online. It didn’t look hard.”
Online, building a particle accelerator may not seem too hard, but Eric wasn’t intimidated by the task. He bought the materials, assembled his tools, and built himself a sailboat. As sailing vessels go, nobody was going to write a poem about Eric’s boat anytime soon. It looked like a homemade sailboat. I noted that the cabin seemed unfinished, and I asked him if he had any plans for making it more comfortable. You know, like adding a bench or something.
Eric looked at me, genuinely perplexed. “No,” he decided. “Why would I do that?“
Eric is the only Pragmatic Romantic that I know.
However, Eric is not totally without bursts of pure romance.
He and his wife, Audrey, named his organic farm Foggy Hollow, an allusion to the white mist that settles on his land. He and I walk the grounds of Foggy Hollow in his boots – I don’t own boots, so I wear his. The ground is spongy beneath our feet. It’s been a wet summer.
“This is where we’re growing lettuce. And here are the watermelons,” he says, pointing to random patches of land. It’s hard to tell what I’m looking at. An organic farm lacks the aesthetic quality of a more traditional farm, with its nice neat rows of plants. An organic farmer cannot use pesticides or chemicals that will strip the soil of weeds and bugs. So everything looks overgrown and random, even though I know it isn’t. Eric doesn’t really do random.
Eric hands me a small ear of corn. The weather has been rough on corn, but I take a bite, and the corn is sweet and delicious. I ask him about subsidies and grants, and he responds, “A change we can believe in!”
Eric is a big Obama fan. You can tell because his Toyota Prius bears a couple Obama campaign stickers. Apparently, the new administration has been generous to organic farmers.
“I’m getting a grant to build a conservation fence,” he tells me. “Right now, there’s a whole lot of grant money available to organic farmers, but there’s not many around here. So I get what I want.”
Eric believes in what he says and what he practices. While others are content with talking about preserving the environment, Eric is, well, starting an organic farm. With a conservation fence. And plans for making his own electricity by building a hydro generator from the crystal-clear creek that runs through his property.
There is a great deal of property, too. Only about half of it is flat. Carved out of the rolling Tennessee landscape, Foggy Hollow looks nothing like the flat corn and bean farm I spent part of my childhood on in Illinois. I try to convince Eric to buy a four-wheeler. Not only for the fun, but because it would be a help on the land. Eric hems and haws and keeps claiming that it would run out of gas. The joke’s not funny the first time, but he says it at least twice. I sense something deeper. Finally, I discover the real reason for his reluctance.
He doesn’t want another gas-powered tool on his organic farm.
Several years ago, for reasons lost in the ether, I paid The Patrick’s a visit to their Memphis house. Eric was outside, as usual, doing outside stuff. That’s yet another point of difference between he and I. Eric loves being outside, loves the heat, the bugs, the wind. Me, I like climate control.
I found Eric doodling with what appeared to be weeds in a hanging pot.
“Tomatoes,” he explained. But he was all excited and giggling. He spent the next ten minutes telling me about his damn tomatoes. I don’t care about tomatoes, but I tried to share his enthusiasm. He’s a friend. But it’s impossible. Eric was goofy for his tomatoes. Later, I related the story to Mrs. Angry, then forgot about it.
I didn’t realize that I had witnessed the genesis of Eric’s obsession with organic farming.
Audrey has been married to Eric for eleven years. With him, she has moved to South Carolina, Memphis, Hattiesburg, and two places in Nashville. When Eric announced that he was giving up the secure lifestyle of corporate accounting for organic farming, she didn’t flip out. Instead, Audrey embraced the idea and became a farmer’s wife.
I watch Audrey shave a fresh zucchini with a cheese grader. She wears an apron. When dinner is ready, she rings a big bell in the backyard to summon her husband to the table.
Audrey used to work with Mrs. Angry at Youth Villages in Memphis, helping troubled inner-city kids learn how to balance a checkbook and apply for a job without setting the neighbor’s cat on fire. She used to spend her free time at coffee shops sipping java, or perusing the aisles of trendy bookstores. Now she spends a great deal of time prying produce from the earth and driving her oldest son, Liam, thirty miles to school. If there was an adjustment to be made adopting the organic lifestyle, it doesn’t show on Audrey.
“We love it here,” she says simply, and she’s especially proud to lead us on a hike atop their hill, which boasts a splendid panoramic view of the hollow. There’s not another house to been seen. Like me, they once lived in a neighborhood where houses were built nearly wall-to-wall.
I wait for Audrey to admit a single regret, or to utter a selfish complaint. When none is forthcoming, I goad her. “Don’t you miss neighbors?” I ask like Iago. “Wouldn’t you like to wake up without having to shake spiders out of your shoes?”
Audrey laughs and continues with the making of her homemade pizza. She is youthful and merry, and she seems to gain energy from long hours. I realize then that no amount of goading would yield the response I expected. Audrey really did love it here on the farm.
Eric is having trouble making the CD player in the aging Nissan Altima work. The machine stubbornly spits out the compact disc with Eric’s every attempt. The car has more than 160,000 miles on it. Eric expresses some minor annoyance.
“There’s a great song about chickens on this CD,” he says between clenched teeth, and I decide that this would be the quote that sums up my weekend at Foggy Hollow.
There’s a great song about chickens on this CD.
We’re on our way to the Cumberland River. Eric’s eldest son, Liam, and my eldest son, Angry Junior, sit in the back seat, engaged in the critical talk of 6-year-olds. Trailing behind the car – upon a steel-mesh cart that normally hauled organically grown squash, corn, and tomatoes – was a large yellow kayak.
Even though the CD player isn’t working, I tell Eric I’m glad we selected the Altima over the Prius. I tell him I don’t want to get beat-up over the Obama stickers.
“You’d be surprised,” Eric tells me. “There are a lot of hippies that come out here wanting to get back to nature. I’ve seen Obama signs.”
That might be true, but mostly I’ve seen muscle-shirts, the Stars-and-Bars, and strange skull formations. Or maybe that’s just what I wanted to see. Eric has nothing but positive things to say about his neighbors, who aren’t all farmers. One, for example, repairs boilers.
“Boilers?” I repeat. Who in the hell has a boiler?
Suddenly, the CD player comes to life, and Eric has his chicken song. And he’s right. It might be the best song about chickens ever. If there’s a better one, I don’t want to hear it.
We launch the kayak on an inlet where many men are already fishing from their Ranger boats. We look a little out of place – two men and two small boys – paddling clumsily in no definitive direction among those who fish in silence. As it turns out, kayaking is work, and I decide to let Eric do most of it. Farming is like a membership to Gold’s Gym. After two months working the land, he had lost 15 pounds.
I make up a fictional mission to amuse the kids: We are on a quest to find a rogue Indian warrior, Chief Hippopottimo, and convince him to bury the hatchet and smoke the peace pipe with his White Father. We scan the wooded banks for signs of native activity – a smoke signal, perhaps. Eventually, we beach the kayak on a rocky shoal along the Cumberland, and we test our courage in the chilly waters.
This is how Eric relaxes. Apparently, Audrey had to force him to unwind on Sundays, or he’d be out in his fields pulling weeds or doing whatever organic farmers do. As a result, Eric has learned deeper things about himself. For example, he has gained a new appreciation for country music.
“I identify with it,” he admits. “You know, about working the land and freedom. Not the religious stuff.”
Eric isn’t a spiritual man, yet he seems to have found a kind of spirituality all the same. He has a profound respect for the power of the sun. He has made peace with the forces of weather and he has forged an alliance with the strange organisms that make his soil fertile. Eric has found his place in the world.
It’s just not my place, apparently. Every time we pass a boat, I shout, “Ahoy!” Eric tells me that shouting “ahoy” at a guy will get you beaten-up quicker than having an Obama sticker on your car.
Mrs. Angry is in her element in calf deep water, hunting for crawdads.
Bordering the back-end of Foggy Hollow is the cleanest stream I’ve every stuck a toe into. It looks like the saline solution I soak my contact lenses in. It is home to a colorful ecosystem of aquatic things that fascinate my sons. Mrs. Angry bounces from rock to rock, gleefully capturing enormous crawdads.
I stand in the center of the creek, barely moving. I don’t want to slip. I don’t want to get wet. I wish I can check my Facebook account. Suddenly, Angry Junior screams, “Snake!” and instead of fleeing to the house, Mrs. Angry and Audrey attempt to rustle it. Eric sits on the shore, his feet in the water. Huck Finn grown up.
Eric is not a hippy. Not exactly. But he definitely isn’t an accountant, although by his own admission he was pretty good at it. Nowadays, he dreams of ways of engineering a solar-powered tractor. Every Wednesday and Saturday, he and the family load up the Altima and drive to Nashville. There they sell their hard work to the city folk who like the idea of organic food, but lack the fortitude to grow it themselves.
I’m not even one of those guys. My philosophy is more chemicals, more irradiation, more hormones. Hell, if it’s good enough for the FDA, it’s good enough for me. To Eric, that makes as much sense as shouting “ahoy” from a kayak.
Mrs. Angry wants to take the kids and visit the chickens. Audrey wants to start dinner at the house, and I nearly break my neck joining her. The house sounds air conditioned and tick free. I see Mrs. Angry and Eric across the field, on their way to the chicken coop, with my two kids and the two Patrick boys trundling behind. I think that maybe it wouldn’t be bad living out here, on the land, making stuff grow. Instead of sitting in a sterile office, staring at my computer all day, dreaming up ways to sell stuff.
And then I feel something crawling in my pants, and I hurry to catch up with Audrey.
Eric and Audrey Patrick live outside of Nashville on their organic farm they call Foggy Hollow. You may purchase their chemical-free produce at Franklin Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, and the East Nashville Farmer’s Market on Wednesdays. Eric doesn’t write nearly enough posts on his Foggy Hollow blog, which you can access here.