Today I planted seeds. I went and volunteered at Johnson’s Backyard Garden again this morning, and was this time directed to the greenhouses. I couldn’t have been more thrilled, having heard about greenhouse-duty on my previous visit. They told me that most people tried to avoid the monotony of seeding hundreds of trays for hours at a time in a balmy greenhouse, but I was secretly hoping I’d be sent out there.
I slid back the large door to the greenhouse and was greeted by the sounds of classical music, floating up from the back of the building. Or perhaps it was the front, and I came in through the back – there were large sliding double-doors at either end, wide enough to pass hand carts through; and up the center ran a pathway, on either side of which were rows and rows of seedlings at various stages of germination. I had to stop for a moment and absorb it all: the scents, the sudden change in humidity and temperature, the music that came wafting up from the recesses of the place…
Usually when you hear or think of “community service” in our society it’s in the punitive sense. It’s something that people are made to do as recompense for some crime or transgression against the community. Misdemeanor offenders are given the option either to pay a fine or do community service to square their balance sheet with the Law; and since it’s only a small subsection of the population that are trained to think of terms of Opportunity Cost (or, more probably, most of the people who are presented with this option don’t make enough money for their time to have to consider that equation), most people are more comfortable with giving up their time versus their money.
This has a double negative effect. Firstly, by and large, the only people doing community service are people who have gotten busted for something and are more likely to be of a less-than-savory nature. Secondly, it reinforces the idea to society-at-large that community service is something you only do when you’re made to, or when you’ve gotten in trouble for something.
The small of my back was beginning to ache in earnest, and I was having trouble keeping my eyes in focus. When you perform a single monotonous task involving one or a small set of objects, the shapes and patterns stop making sense; like when you write a word over and over and first it starts to look as though it’s spelled wrong, then it ceases to look like it’s even comprised of letters. The black lines dividing each cell of the planter trays became harder to see, seemed to take on the same color as the loamy soil filling each cell. The seeds began to blend together until they were no longer individual units, but a kind of particulate soup, homogeneous and inseparable.
I didn’t want to stop, though; I wanted to see how many trays I could fill. Not least of all because I wanted to outstrip the older woman sitting across from me (we young men have reputations to uphold, after all); but just for the sheer purpose of it. I wanted as many plants as possible to have my hands as the ones that started their life.
I’ve been in plenty of trouble, to be sure; but I’ve never been assigned community service. It’s always just been fines; I don’t think they even gave me the elective of doing community service (probably because I’d have done it, and the State is hard-up for cash). Every time I’d heard of somebody being assigned to do it, it was always something menial or trivial or even downright pointless – painting a sidewalk, or working as an hourly ‘volunteer’ at Goodwill, or something equally lacking in relevance. That’s probably one of the downsides to being told to do community service: you’re also told what it is that you have to do.
This, though, was something real. My first real Service to my Community, in that truest sense of the phrase. Of the thousands of seeds that I planted that day, the vast majority would sprout and grow; and of those sprouts, a very large proportion would then go on to produce a crop that could each feed dozens or more people. The seeds I planted will go on, with much love and care and attention from a cadre of others, to feed hundreds or even thousands of people. I will probably even end up buying some of it back at a farmers’ market, at some point.
That must be sort of what it feels like to be a farmer – that knowledge held in the back of your mind that the hours of labor and days of worry and months of patience all go to serve the highest purpose: being a source of sustenance (in this case literal, but there are many kinds of sustenance) to your community. I’ve never really had that feeling until I went and did this. I think that’s a feeling one could build a life around maintaining…