Mud beneath your nails
Strawberries, sunflowers, and the interconnected world
It’s been three months since I took a leap of faith back into writing-as-career, and in that time, I have edited and published a novella, written the first draft of a novel, and, as of last night, finished a novelette draft. (The novelette is the Penelope/Odysseus retelling I told you about a couple of newsletters ago and YES it was supposed to be a short story and NO it would not stay short and ONE DAY I will learn how much plot I can reasonably shove into 7 thousand words.)
I am happy about my productivity over that timespan, but I know full well that I am also pretty good at launching myself into work and more work until I hit the brick wall, head first. One thing I am trying to do is take breaks before that happens. So last weekend, even though I wasn’t totally exhausted, I actually took a weekend off!
I took it off from writing, that is. I still did my taxes and taught my awesome Saturday morning creative writing students at the School for Young Writers and drafted the newsletter before this one, but nary a word of creative writing did I commit to the screen! That’s progress, okay?
On Sunday, I slathered myself in sunscreen, put on my sturdiest shoes, and drove south of the city to Streamside Organics, as part of the Open Farms Day event. I get a weekly vege box from Streamside weekly, and when the email inviting me to visit came, I thought, oh sure, if I have the time.
And then, because I took the weekend off, I had the time! I had some anxiety about whether I’m the kind of person who gets to traipse around an organic farm, as if there’s a kind of person who gets to do that, but you know what I mean - I had visions of artful shots of dappled sunlight on the water as Instagram legend Verity Serene escorts her rosy-cheeked toddlers Rivergreen and Winterdale (who adapted to sleep training instantly) through an organic forest and encourages her viewers to embrace their Inner Divinity by buying specially charged river rocks from her store. I do not fit anywhere in that picture.
Well, my fears about being surrounded by linen-wearing Insta-fluencers with big hats, wicker baskets, and perfect hair were instantly dispelled. There were well over a hundred people there, and there were people wearing linen (and t-shirts, and shorts, and jeans) and lots of wicket baskets (and tote bags and backpacks) and most people were sensibly wearing some form of hat. But they were a wonderful variety of folks. There were lots of kids. No one had perfect hair. Turns out, organic farms are places for everyone.
Our hosts were fantastic; welcoming, knowledgeable, and able to explain complex biological horticulture in an interesting and accessible way. There was one kid in particular who asked a lot of questions at every stop, and while some of the adult group members smiled or muttered, our guides took her seriously; they answered each question in detail, with respect for her curiosity.
We were encouraged to forage. If you’ve never eaten sun-warmed strawberries straight from the ground, strawberries that have never been assaulted by refrigeration, then I have to encourage you to put it on your bucket list. They’re sweet and tangy, and they taste like strawberries, not wooden, watery, vaguely pinkishness. I kept some to accompany the pound cake I made that afternoon.
We checked out the enormous greenhouse, with its seedlings growing happily in the warm, humid air, and rows of enormous tomatoes (again, they taste like tomatoes), and vertically planted watermelon vines, net slings taking the weight of the plump, green fruit as they ripened.
Streamside grows cover crops to encourage beneficial insects and fix nitrogen in the soil; they undersow red clover and buckwheat with a crop of yams (not sweet potatoes, American readers: these guys). These weeds suppress other, less beneficial weeds, and attract a parasitic wasp that lays its eggs in pest aphids.
What struck me most was how deeply interconnected everything was. The sunflowers we were invited to pick were a cover crop rejuvenating the soil, but they also attracted human visitors. We paid our dues in labour, planting native trees along the banks of the Irwell to improve soil retention and provide food sources and shade for the life in the water.
It was dirty work. I sweated and stomped on my spade and tore matted weeds out to get at the soil. I sat on my butt as I squeezed a plant out of its seedling pot and clawed soil back around it. I showed a little girl the tiny spider crawling over my dirty hands, and she told me about her pet spider, which was big and furry and had died.
It was the real version of the Insta-dream - dappled sunlight on the water, sure, and also mud under my fingernails, and a kid who really wanted to whack in stakes with a rubber mallet. It was the sweaty, real version of happiness, not the smug and unattainable projection of it.
I ended the trip with fresh fruit in my tote bag, sunflowers precipitously propped up against my dashboard, and an idea for a romantic hero: an organic farmer with a touch of magic, trying to keep the bad bugs at bay and the weather kind, reluctantly opening the farm-stay flat to a proper British movie star who needs a place to hide from scandal…
Some of you have written really lovely reviews of my magical romance Bespoke and Bespelled, and I’m thrilled! Reviewers are describing it as “delightful”, “fun” and “thoroughly engaging”, and that makes me so happy - “fun” is exactly what I wanted readers to get out of this novella.
If you’ve read Bespoke and Bespelled, or even if you haven’t, don’t forget that all subscribers to my newsletter get the FREE short story prequel, “Taylor Made”, about stitch-witch Marnie’s Christmas theatre adventure (with kissing). If you’ve lost the welcome email with the link in it, just drop me a line and I’ll sort you out!
And if you haven’t subscribed, go ahead and do that! It’s completely free, and you’ll get the welcome email with the link to download the story right away.
This sounds like bliss 🧡