The third week of June, I finished harvesting garlic scapes in the rain.

I had intended to start earlier, before the afternoon storms rolled in, but work (the paying job) called me in the morning, and by the time I made it out to the leased lot where we grow most of our garlic, it was past noon and rain was already starting to spatter the windshield. Still, I grabbed my knife and harvest bin and headed for the rows. We are always behind on chores, and if I didn’t finish on this trip, it was just more time wasted. I bent over to begin checking plants. The rain picked up speed. By row three, it was raining steadily – 60 degrees, overcast, and now wet, but it was only chilly, not unbearably cold, so I kept going.

I settled into a rhythm: pull a plant toward me, cut the scape, drop it in the bin. I had 4,000 plants to cover and though the vast majority already had the scapes cut off, I scanned all of them, looking for the ones still growing, slicing off the ones previously missed.

Pull, cut, drop.

Pull, cut, drop.

The rain continued to fall and I smiled, mildly amused at myself. I’d worn an old, white t-shirt and wondered how long before it was soaked through. I thought back to crude college jokes about wet t-shirt contests and found my current situation an oddly liberating spin on them. Alone in the middle of a garlic field, my jeans covered in mud, dirty hair pulled back in a trucker cap, no makeup, a few wrinkles around the eyes, hands beat up from weeding, and a wet t-shirt. This was a contest I could win. I did win. The only contestant, hunched over, picking garlic scapes in in the rain.

Pull, cut, drop.

My thoughts meandered.

Some six or seven years ago, I won a teacher scholarship for an all-expense paid trip to Peru. 24 other teachers and me, guided through the main tourist attractions from Lima, to Cusco, to (naturally) Macchu Picchu with plenty of photo opps in between.

It was beautiful. And I didn’t enjoy it all that much. I’ve always been a solo traveler, preferring the company of one or two good people at most, willing to head off the beaten path. Eat at hole-in-the-wall cafes. Go slow. Skip the busiest tourist sites. Drink coffee. Chat with the locals. Charter busses, packed schedules, and hired American tour guides make me chafe.

But the trip was free. So I went. And one of our stops was a potato field in the Andes mountains, run by an indigenous village. We were supposed to help with potato harvest as an act of service.

I have now been farming long enough to know that we were, in all likelihood, more hindrance than help. It is a common misnomer that because farming is physical, it is not skilled. I would rather spend a hard day working alone than deal with with 25 volunteers who will step in the wrong places, damage the plants, misuse the tools, and disturb the soil. But the village was kind enough to allow us to mess up their fields.  And I, if only for the scenery and the chance to get out of the crowded cities, was grateful.

After cleaning the field of potatoes, we sat down to have lunch by a cook fire, and our local contact, a man perhaps in his early thirties, talked to us about the village, its history, and its culture.

I listened. Sort of. I remember him talking about chuño, the freeze dried potato of the Andes. About the eucalyptus plant. Quinoa. Weaving, dye-making and other slowly fading arts.

But more than listening, I absorbed his presence. He oozed peace. Something about him indicated that he saw the world differently. Knowingly. Calmly. And it wasn’t the just the tint of rose-colored glasses from traveling abroad. He wasn’t “exotic.” He didn’t dress in traditional clothes, wave around sage bunches, or chant. He lived in the city, traveled to the village for work. His job was meeting American tour groups. He had a wife, a kid, and carried a cell phone. He was, essentially, just like us – a boring middle-class dude, making a living.

But there was something else about him. Something both simple and profound. And in the course of his talk, he said three things that I have carried with me since. The first was simply:

“You don’t have to be a shaman to do a ritual.”

It struck a chord. As soon as I got back to the bus, I wrote it down. As soon as I got back to the States, I put it on an electronic post-it on my computer screen, along with the other two tidbits I found valuable, so that I would see them every time I powered up my computer.

You don’t have to be a shaman to do a ritual. 

Cut, pull, drop.

By row six, the rain was joined by clouds of mosquitos that buzzed around me incessantly, taking advantage of the water washing the insect repellent from my skin. I was rushing now, slicing scapes as fast as I could between slapping mosquitos and occasionally stopping to empty the rain collecting in the bottom of the harvest bin.

I am often uncomfortable when working on our little farm. It is cold and wet. Or scorchingly hot and still. Or my back hurts from being bent over for hours. Or I’m sunburned or windburned or, more often than not, just really, really exhausted.

Cut, pull, drop

And yet, somehow, at those moments, I’m also at my best.

It’s where I find my peace. When I’ve lost count of the rows weeded. When I can’t even wrap my head around the rows to harvest. When I’m so tired that all need for conversation, or company, or distraction of any kind peters off, and there is only the task at hand. Planting seeds, pulling weeds, or cutting scapes. Again, and again, and again.

You don’t have to be a shaman to do a ritual.

There is a spirituality to physicality. There is a constancy in nature. And there can be peace in discomfort. Somewhere, at the crossroads of these three, in between rows of garlic and clouds of mosquitos, my mind settles. My body moves, my thoughts still, and I am simply the work at hand.

Cut, pull, drop.

And I, quietly, realize I have found my ritual.


2 Replies to “Ritual

  1. Something here resonated with me and made me well up with tears by the time I got to the end. It was somehow quite beautiful to read. I agree we lose touch with what is important in life, being in touch with the earth. We surround ourselves with things that are not real and we pretend we have “made it” in the world. Well I don’t think we have unless we have mud under our finger nails, the wind in our hair and the simple peace of just being. Love and Light xxx

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