Harvesting Ginger Flared up My Procrastination.
They say people are as tough as nails; Lena was tough like the iron ore mined to make those nails.
She was 58 inches of pure muscle carved from hardship the way ocean crashes into a shore leaving a history of encounters. Sinewy veins roped around her arms like garden lattice. Her face was a map forged from squinting at the sun. She was a second generation healer, always spouting remedies her mom taught her when she was young.
I was a tad too old to be her daughter, instead I cared for her in that respectful kind of way sisters give each other love through the space between them.
I rented a house from her that had one wall, which isn’t a figurative description, but a literal one. It had one wall facing the mountain, while the other three sides were open to the elements. Wild orchids and sprays of awapuhi hung inside the three open sides while rain beat onto my floor at a slant. Anything and everything got soaked two feet from the edge of my home.
Any fruit or vegetable left over from a meal, I chucked into the yard any which way; it was my best compost situation to date. Our agreement was one day of work per week on her farm. And I’m sure that if the house had four walls, it would have been a very different agreement.
Lena’s boyfriend was Wave, or at least that’s what we called him — a transplant absconding from the rat race on the mainland. The Big Island of Hawaii boasts of being the southernmost outpost of this nation, and the locals take that to heart, running amok, exploring alternative ways to live their best lives.
Down south, as in South Kona or South Point, I remember the man who built a round house by stacking gigantic lava rocks in a circle. He wore a pointed bamboo hat like Chinese farmers and strolled the highway as if on a spiritual walkabout. There was the gothic tribute guy who rode a motorcycle and wore eyeliner, and was probably the first metrosexual I ever knew. Now everyone’s a metrosexual.
There were the trust fund kids and illegal pot-growers, but most of us cobbled together a living doing whatever got us by. The land was cheap, no matter if it was a pile of rocks, no hook-up to the electric or water grid; South Kona people oozed that pioneering spirit — if there’s a way, they’d find it.
I liked Wave best when he told stories about protesting the indecent harvesting of whales with Sea Shepherd. “Our boats were half the size of those whalers, but you think that stopped us? We’d ram ‘em! Jump on deck and read ‘em the Riot Act!” Wave would tell stories like this, gulp his breakfast beer, then hurl a boulder off a cliff.
I never liked him much, except his stories had an element of impossibility that was hard not to appreciate.
Once in a while, Lena would show up to work with a bruise on her arm or her chest. She’d feign a careless fall. I, at 19, naively thought if I could just hang out pulling weeds long enough he’d stop beating her because, you know, sometimes people acquiesce to their conscience… but he never did stop and she never forced him to leave. The cycle of abuse bewildered me.
I couldn’t understand why adults, given their wealth of experience, couldn’t stop doing stupid shit.
Therein lies the rub; experience doesn’t necessitate wisdom, only time lived.
Nevertheless, her perseverance as a farmer showed me how I could never hack it like her. Maybe I could be the nails, but I was definitely not the ore.
The good days, we weeded her garden. I was slowly becoming acquainted with what seemed like 23000 varieties of edible plants. Then after pulling the strays, we’d curate a heaping salad full of herbaceous smells and sprigs of eatable blossoms. She was keen on chopping up real fine herbs like gotu kola and lemon verbena; chewing one her salads was like eating a bouquet.
But most of the time Lena gave me the sweaty-crotch and finger-blisters kind of work, and when the treachery was over, we’d slump on a rock, smacking mosquitoes and sharing a roll-your-own American Spirits with fresh dirt smudged on the shaft.
I remember she said something like, “My land taxes are due soon. Better plant some green beans… radishes.” Simple, living day to day, or bill to bill, was her style.
One reason working for her felt like slow death was that Lena’s farm was on a hill and the ginger was no exception. The ginger grove spread underneath tall overhanging mango and Christmas berry trees, creating the perfect suffocating mix of shade and moisture for an army of mosquitoes that controlled the air waves.
I harvested the area by hand and a small sickle. Each day, I’d squat for hours in mud dark like chocolate pudding. My hands were wrist-deep in the gloppy soil, feeling for the web of ginger roots. My fingers crept along the rhizome, inch by inch. My fingers did all the work; my vision had no place there.
In Sanskrit, ginger is horn body or shringavera. They described the healing root as something comparable to an animal like a young deer’s antlers. I don’t disagree that ginger is reminiscent of something corporeal, but to me, ginger felt like the spine of a giant — thick and formidable. Or maybe it was like the vine leading up to the giant. Either way, if you’re Jack, you run away as fast as you can.
Harvesting ginger challenged my default to procrastinate; I took too long to pull the sucker out. Farming is all about timing and I failed to see the signs. Though Lena was the expert. She’d squat beside me whining about Wave, all the while find several four-inch sections, snapping off perfect-sized rhizomes for some future foodie burning to make Tom Kha Gai, wiping off the mud, and getting on with her day.
I’d still be there like a blind mouse, feeling my way through the mud, muttering about which way to best use the blade.
But I got better because survival is part quick study. Until one day I exposed a huge labyrinthine section of root as big as a bed so I stood up admiring the fully intact maze, grinning to exactly no one in sight for miles. “I did this. This is mine,” I said to myself. I loved farming because of the tangible small victories.
Luckily, Lena paid no attention to my shortcomings. I wager she liked my camaraderie too.
With her relationship always on the fritz, we had plenty to dish about. And on my side of the story, I knew from the first day that her house with one wall wasn’t my forever home, but I stayed a long time, helping her sort things out, planting the radishes, paying the land bill, feeding her kids when she untangled her horse, and making ginger tea when she’d suddenly end up with a bruise on her face.
Watsuki Harrington is a biracial woman who during her twenties became, among other things, an exuberant lettuce farmer, a cautious acrobat, an exceptional cheese-monger, and a ruthless art consultant. Her essays have been published by Fleas on the Dog and The Heartland Review. She is a candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing at Rosemont College next spring. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her family and her dog, Lucky.