Visiting a working farm, I gained a new perspective on my family’s favorite winter drink–chamomile tea.
There they were–little dots of yellow and white in the garden. Like an out of focus picture, I couldn’t see each flower, or even each plant–just a blur of the blossoms in the garden patch. That’s okay. I already know what chamomile is. I’ve seen it growing wild, I’ve had it in tea, used it in herb sachets, potpourri, and other fun things.
My children and I are at Glencolton Farms for the week and determined to do everything we can to be useful, to be a part of this working farm—connected to the food we depend on.
I asked what I could do to help. “Go pick the chamomile,” was the response. The flowers were ready, and we were expecting rain.
“This will be fun,” I thought cheerfully striding out to the garden, children behind me, as the bit of morning drizzle picked up. I was confident we would fill up the large bowls quickly and move on to the next piece of farm work that needed doing.
After 2 minutes of picking the tiny flowers–flowers only, no stems–I felt that soreness in my lower back that comes from stooping over–that feeling of tightness and numbness after a long hour of doing dishes or bending down to help a baby walk or a toddler ride a bike. I looked at the few scattered flowers on the bottom of the bowl. “That’s it?” I thought. “I should have more to show than this.”
The repetitive action and the ache led my mind to wander. It took me to the blistering cotton fields where slaves spent hours every day stooping to pick the same thing over and over endlessly in the hot southern sun. A few more flowers landed in my bowl. My kiddos whined a bit. They were tired. “Can we be done now?”
I thought about the neatly wrapped tea bags we buy packed in uniform boxes so we can enjoy a hot cup of tea on winter days. Chamomile, the kids always ask for. I had never thought too much about it and now I was curious and wanted to satisfy my curiosity.
“No, pick longer.”
The soft drizzle became heavier.
“You will appreciate the tea more if you know what goes into it,” I told them, knowing that it was, at least, a self-reflective statement.
I thought about farm families who came before us, how if they wanted tea in the wintertime, they had to pick it when it was ready. There is no waiting until you feel like it. You either pick when the flowers are ready or you don’t have chamomile that year. And that led me to apply that to everything. If you didn’t harvest in those few days when something was ready, you didn’t get it that year.
We proceeded picking the tiny flowers, fingers pinching them off where the flower met the stem, dropping them softly in bowls that now had a couple of layers of flowers.
I thought about the cotton mill and any other machinery that alleviates the burden of large-scale, repetitive farm work. It is one thing to harvest enough for a family, even for a year, but it is a whole different system to harvest enough for a village, a city, or beyond. I could understand the relief these inventions brought to all whose bodies ached and suffered from the relentless bending and picking. I watch as farm communities embrace new technology–robotics, drones, apps–to lighten the work.
“Would I choose the technology…” I thought, “if this was my job?”
There is a connection, a meditative quality to the work—even with all the aches and pains. There is a built-in respect for the human element involved in a small-scale, connected food system.
I knew I would not choose the technology in this instance, however, I now better understand the attraction to technological advancements.
The rain came down a little stronger, the ache in my back more pronounced. The back of my shirt, soaked through, gave me a little chill in the cool Canadian air.
Even with the children around, picking is still solitary work. In a way, hypnotizing me to the moment, to the unspoken (perhaps innate?) challenge of it. How many could I pick? How fast could I go? Could I get all that was needed before I injured myself? Sometimes, I picked as many as I could into my hand and then dropped them all in the bowl. Other times, I would pick each one, using my fingernails to snip it right off the stem, dropping each one to nestle next to its white and gold companions.
My mind went on ahead of me–surrounded by the flowering plants, I saw opportunities everywhere. I would spin in a circle, picking from as many different plants as I could reach in my arm’s arc. Then slow down and focus back on one plant.
Have we only been out here a half hour?
I thought about the pain of migrant farm workers–how bent and broken many of their bodies are from the repetitive work–berries, tomatoes, cucumbers. I got angry with the unthinking shoppers who pluck full plastic containers from the grocery store shelves as though they are grown that way. I felt myself indignant by the inherent wastefulness of that system and the disrespect for the humans involved in it. We don’t throw away or abuse what we truly appreciate.
That was what it was about–that was why we were there right now. Despite the rain and the whines, I realized that we were doing this because I wanted to give my children the gift of appreciation–appreciating what goes into even a small cup of tea. In the process, I had given that gift to myself. Out in the field in the rain, watching the bowl slowly gain a few more flowers, a few more, feeling the ache in my back and noticing my mind wonder, it was I who gained a new appreciation for something I had taken completely for granted–something that I plucked, neatly boxed, off the grocery store shelves. Food is never just food. It has a story, it has a history. It has life. It gives life or it takes life. I knew that, but, like the chamomile patch, sometimes it is far away and out of focus.
Later, job done, and the rain pounding on the roof, I offered my oldest a cup of tea. “yes,” she said. “What kind?” I asked her. “Chamomile,” she responded. Of course that’s what she wanted.
I pulled out a full jar of dried chamomile from last year’s harvest and for the first time, the fuzzy blur of chamomile from the garden was in sharp focus–the tiny dried buds, yellow flowers ringed by faded white petals, lingering bits of stem that didn’t get quite pinched off, even the bits of dust. I opened the lid to the sweet, musty greeting of chamomile tea. Now, I knew, I would savor every sip of chamomile tea with a depth I never had before. I would think of the love and work that went into growing, picking and drying the delightful flowers. I would appreciate.
As I sipped my mug of chamomile tea, I looked back out to the garden where I saw, in perfect focus, a beautiful patch of chamomile.
Wherever you are in your personal journey toward clean living and local food, thank you for joining me in mine. I look forward to sharing it with you.