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My Empire of Dirt


Then came the last straw. The following afternoon, Caleb and I constructed most of a high-rise chicken coop in a few hours. We decided on a vertical design filled with ramps so that it would take up a minimum of the garden’s square footage (another concession to our urban setting). We equipped it with wheels and tracks so the poop could be removed from under it and the coop rolled back into place. The work was going well. At about 5:30 p.m., Caleb scrubbed up and got on his bike in order to get home in time to tidy up and attend his bartending class. At 6:30, I was putting the finishing touches on the rig. Inspired by the coop design in Nick Park’s animated film Chicken Run, I was using the table saw to mill eight-inch plywood into strips to make footholds for the entrance ramp when the blade of the saw tagged my right pinkie, destroying the second knuckle. Parts of my finger were left on the saw and on the ground.

I pried my cell phone out of my work pants using my left hand and, holding my right hand above my head, called Josh, a childhood friend who is now a firefighter and, more to the point, lives around the corner. He ran over immediately and field-dressed the mangled wound while I stood there scared—not so much of the wound, which I figured was not going to kill me, but of Lisa, who probably would. I expected her to come through the door with the kids at any moment. After another long day at the office, this would be quite a scene for her to stumble into.

Deciding not to take me to an emergency room, where we’d get stuck at the end of a long queue, Josh located a hand surgeon named Danny Fong on Canal Street, and he agreed to see me and my pinkie immediately. But before we could get out the door, Lisa turned up with Heath and Jake. Before even a hello, I said, as casually as I could muster, “Hon, I’ve banged my finger and I need to go to the doctor.”

“How?” she asked. “How bad?”

“Not too bad,” I lied. Then I came clean: “With the table saw.”

She screamed in anguished frustration. She couldn’t just resent me for my silly folly; now that I’d maimed myself in the process, she had to feel sympathy too.

One afternoon, shortly after the pinkie incident, while Caleb and I were scraping shit out of the rabbit hutch—one of the many farm chores that keep you perpetually busy while seeming to accomplish nothing—a clutch of women from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden gathered at the top of the driveway. They were judging the Greenest Block in Brooklyn competition and had been attracted by the planter boxes I had in front of the house filled with tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and cantaloupe. They wanted to congratulate us on setting such a public example for how food could be grown in the city.

Caleb and I exchanged a look and ushered them into the backyard. The Farm blew their minds.

Their excitement allowed me to see my garden through fresh eyes. The corn stood five feet high in uniform rows, green beans shooting runners up their substantial stalks. Butterflies skimmed above the fanlike leaves of the collard greens, and cucumbers hung heavily from the lattice I had built for them. The herbs were glorious—the fennel blossoms tasting powerfully of licorice, the dense rosemary bush promising years of service. Amid the greenery, bits of color flashed out—a yellow squash, a bone-white eggplant, an orange tomato. The potato plants stood so tall and thick that we couldn’t have anything less than a bumper crop. The judges from the Botanic Garden marveled at our spectacular achievement, and so, for a moment, did I.

That was one week before the tornado.

The bad joke of August 8 wiped out the corn, the squash, the pumpkin, half the eggplant, most of the beans, and the fig tree. As the storm subsided, I stood on the porch for a while, chuckling to myself darkly that Mother Nature had accomplished what Lisa could not—the experiment was hereby terminated. At least I had an excellent excuse. A tornado—who could’ve predicted that? I went out into the garden. Wandering the wreckage, I noticed two ripe figs lying in the dirt, brushed them off on my pants, and ate them. Then, without really thinking about what I was doing, I set about wrangling the escaped chickens and harvesting the damaged vegetables. I picked tomatoes, ran them through the food mill, and put them in the freezer, then salvaged the leaves off the smashed collard greens, blanched them, and put them in the freezer, too.

In all this work, I noticed something. Beaten down as it was, The Farm had survived.

You may have noticed, careful reader, that I missed my original deadline. By August 8, I should have been a week into the eating phase. However, that proved impossible. On August 1, the tomatoes were still all green, the chickens well under the four-pound minimum slaughtering weight; there were only four eggplants of a size large enough to eat, and just one cucumber. No beets and no carrots. The self-imposed start day that I’d considered immovable all along had to be moved. The new date was August 15.

This gave me time to, among other things, boost my egg yield. Eggs had not been part of the original plan (I don’t know why, just an oversight), but they became one after a salesperson at Agway foisted a mutant chicken they had no use for on me and Caleb. It was nearly featherless, with scabrous legs and feet. To our surprise, it turned out to be a hen, and after we put her on a diet of dry cat food, she produced a perfect, warm brown egg. There was great joy on The Farm.

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