It’s between four and five in the afternoon. I’ve spent the morning studying and schooling my children, and the early afternoon chasing down and checking off household tasks.
So now it’s between four and five in the afternoon. I change into my farm clothes: jeans, long sleeved T-shirt, duct-taped boots, straw hat, gloves. I climb into the seat of my tractor, put earbuds in my ears, crank the engine, and lift the front loader off the ground. I’m heading out to the far end of the front field to my mulch pile.
It’s a big pile, given to me by the people clearing land to build a grocery store in town. It consists mainly of ground pecan trees, although I have dug up the occasional construction lumber scrap. I drive up to the edge of my mulch pile, to the spot where I left off yesterday. I lift the loader bucket, turn its sharp lower edge downward, and reach high over the pile and as far out as I can. A tap on the reverse pedal and a downward slice with the bucket brings a cascade of loosened mulch down in front of my tires. The mulch is packed, both from time and from the dump truck driver’s heroic efforts to really fill the space I gave him. This two-step is the quickest way to get a scoop of mulch. Stick the bucket lip straight into the packed pile and you’ll be stuck, jiggling the control stick up and down, bouncing the tractor back and forth as it strains to lift that too-heavy load. No, no. Scrape and scoop. It’s a much quicker routine.
Fluffy bucket of loose mulch obtained, I three-point turn and trundle off down one of my main field paths. It’s a bumpy ride. My farm was a peach orchard in another age, and it retains the ghost of the earthworks made by farmers who are part of the earth now themselves. Too, a tractor’s suspension system isn't as engineered for comfort as, say, a Lexus.
The bumps in my field taught me, quickly, not to be greedy with whatever I carry. It seems like a good idea to heap it high to save yourself a trip or two, but the bumpy path equals a steady dribble of attrition all the way there. I shake my scoop vigorously before leaving the pile. Everything extra falls back. No sense in mulching the path.
Between the uneven ground and the non-Lexus suspension, driving my tractor is an active sport. I read once that horseback riding is a core workout for the rider, even though it looks like the horse is doing all the work. I wonder how a tractor riding workout stacks up against a horseback riding one as I navigate the path, one hand on the wheel, the other gripping a side handle, my stomach muscles tight, my non-driving leg braced against the floorboards to keep me light in the seat. Light enough to keep every bump from jarring my dental work loose, but heavy enough that the tractor knows I’m there and doesn’t shut off completely, a sulky “OPERATOR OUT OF SEAT” message on its instrument panel. It’s a constant balancing act, but it’s second nature now. Sitting relaxed in the seat is for driving leisurely home down the paved driveway at the end of the day. If I want to get any work done with any kind of speed on the field, I’ll have to brace myself like this.
The peony rows are perpendicular to the path, so I three-point turn again to line myself up with them. I’m dropping a layer of mulch between existing plants, and it’s a delicate process. Too big a dump, and I’ll have to come back and uncover a plant. Not enough, and I have to reposition and try again. Tractors do a great many things well, often better than other tools, but they struggle with “delicate”.
On top of its general ponderousness, a tractor has a blind spot directly in front of it due to the bulk of the engine. This is often just where I need to see. I’ve learned to work in that space by a combination of memory and feel: get a good look, then drive up to do the work blind. I lift the bucket high out of the way before easing the tractor tires into the furrows down each side of a raised row of peonies. Then I look, scoot forward, dump a little mulch. Sight off the next plant, scoot forward, bounce the bucket to sift mulch down into the space between it and the next. The later it gets, the more the mulch catches the low, slanting light, a curtain of brown chunks and splinters shaking down from the bucket lip, dust sparkling as it floats up. There was a time when I didn’t know how to drive a tractor, when I was a little afraid of it. Now it feels like an extension of myself, my much stronger hands, my cast iron hero suit.
One scoop of mulch will usually fill the spaces between three or four peony plants. There are 25 plants per row, 20 rows per plot. Between 5:00 and 8:00, I can hope to mulch seven or eight rows. Each scoop moves me a little farther down a row. The mulched rows scroll out behind me, a record of work done.
Is mulching peonies the best idea? Reports from different locations are mixed. Some growers and gardeners in cold climates say that mulch helps keep the roots from heaving out of the soil when it freezes. The soil doesn’t freeze here, so heaving isn’t an issue. Growers in hot-summer areas report that the black plastic often used for weed control stresses their plants. Now we're getting closer to home. Other growers would never dream of putting mulch anywhere near their plants for fear of harboring fungus. One can get very confused trying to follow everyone’s advice.
What I know is that my plants on my farm in my location seem to love wood chip mulch. Those growing anywhere near it are noticeably larger and healthier than others farther away. They actually seem to be more resistant to fungus, maybe because of their increased vigor. So, since I’m building the boat of a South Carolina peony farm as I sail it, I’m out here on the tractor, giving them what they tell me they like.
When my bucket is empty I drive off the far end of the row–brace my leg and stomach, big bump here–down the face of the hill, and back to the mulch pile. I’ll go around and around like this while the shadows get long, while the seed heads on the grasses growing among the peonies turn into fuzzy glowworms, golden in the last light.
Sometimes I’ll turn the path corner to find Jess, backlit golden like everything else, coming toward me slowly. It isn’t a field that invites hurry, unless you’re the farmer. I’ve laid it out this way on purpose, and I’m glad to see it’s working. He’s done with work and he’s come to say hello. He’s brought a bread pan full of figs he picked on the way. I kill the tractor engine, pull off my gloves, and enjoy them with him. I tell him about the podcast I’ve been listening to, how sad or funny or fascinating it is. He tells me something he’s read that he knows I'll like and he’s right, I do. We stop before we eat all the figs, saving some for our one child who likes them.
He goes back to the house to start dinner. I reposition earbuds and gloves and crank the engine again. Around and around and around I go, scooping and dumping, as the light leaks from the sky, leaving only a rim of pale red atop the black lace of the trees. Above is solid blue-black, and the first stars begin to show.
Only a few more scoops until 8:00 now. I turn on the tractor’s headlights to get the dumping right. The lights in the house come on too, and I begin to lose my desire to be out here in the dark. Now I’m checking the time after every scoop. 7:51. Maybe four more and then I can go. There’s dinner in the house, a hot shower, and those tantalizing golden windows. 7:56. Two more.
Finally, my phone relents and tells me it’s 8:00. I dump the last dusty shreds, navigate down the row, and bump over the edge of the hill for the last time tonight.
On the way back to park the tractor behind the house, I pass between two rows of dense trees. The darkness is thickest here. I pause at the edge, lower the engine to idle, and kill the headlights. It’s pitch black beneath the trees. I wait…wait…wait…then flip the headlights on and off once. The shadows light up with pinprick yellow lights. Fireflies. I wait another minute. Flip my headlights. They light up in reply. I don’t know what’s going on in the tiny minds of the fireflies–is it “Jackpot! Biggest mate EVER!”?--but I know what’s going on in mine. I’m flirting with the fireflies. Can there be a simpler joy?
Eventually I remember the promised shower and dinner. I bid my firefly lovers good night and go lumbering away through the night. I park the tractor, turn the key, and listen for a minute to the early-night sounds I’ve been drowning out. The house windows are rectangles of light in the darkness above me, my family moving back and forth behind them, and for a second I think I might know how the fireflies felt. I collect my gloves, phone, earbuds, sunglasses, hat, scramble down, and head toward the good things in the house. I’ll be back tomorrow, or maybe the next day, to climb up in the seat, brace myself, and go around and around again.