Professions have their own jargon, their own slang. In restaurants, items that run out are 86’d and groups of people are tops, harsh and choppy terms to convey information as fast as possible. Agriculture has its own words, but it’s so much more romantic to me than the food service world.
Farming has soil, which in the South is pronounced “soul.” Aside from being the literal soul of agriculture, it’s a small word to sum up the incredible world of minerals, plant matter, and microscopic creatures that make up what anyone else would call dirt. There are the kinds of soil, which are geological but not without their beauty, either: histic, mollic, and melanic epipedon, ochric, umbric, and plaggen. Some soils are argillic, cambic, or albic horizons, and some are underlain by fragipan. They sound, to me, like bits and pieces of some ancient Greek spell to ward off illness or seduce a lover. Good quality soil has tilth, a sibilant word meaning of good quality for growing crops.
In vegetable production, plants are grown in beds, long sections of soil prepared (through plowing, cultivation, and fertilization) for the needs of crops. Which sounds boring, because beds are the opposite of restful, the place, in fact, where all the action happens, for both people and vegetation. Growth, flowering, reproduction, all the work of striving towards the sun and the center of the earth and making sure there is a future in the best possible offspring. Where plants are bedded, I think of fluffing pillows of soil and roots sweetly intertwined where no one can see.
To cultivate, in agriculture, has a different meaning than broad usage, which generally means to bring something along and help it survive. Cultivating, in fact, means to destroy weeds, to cut them off at their roots by mechanical means, by hoe or tractor or hand. Rather a more violent meaning than we’re used to, cultivating must be done early and often, with no hesitation or mercy. Uncultivated beds result in plants choked out by the fecundity of weeds, who, unlike our carefully bred varieties for flavor and size, live simply to survive.
Like cultivation, I have a grim an academic love for the contrast between agricultural and common useage of the word “harvest.” “Harvest time” sounds like pumpkins and corn and Thanksgiving with a great fat turkey in the center of the table. But the turkey must be harvested, too, no differently than grapes pulled off the vine. The bacon and lamb chops have to have their juices drained and skin removed, a less scenic journey than the hay rides we’ve come to associate with the end of summer. But a necessary one for the farmer who raises livestock for meat, who loves her animals even as she ends their lives.
Spend time in a profession, and you learn the secrets of its language, the words that encompass sentences of meaning into a few brief syllables. Even as I’ve learned the terms of agriculture, I’m moved by the mysteries and the poetry that remain in their implications. The language of farming is just one of the many reasons I can’t quit thinking and writing about soil and soul and the people who work them.
I’d like to dedicate this blog to Patricia of In Good Heart Farm, who has always encouraged my love of words and of agriculture.