Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Last Trip to the Dacha

Tomorrow we are going to button up the dacha for the winter. Or at least we are going to try. As always there is too much work to do up there: We have to pick all of the carrots and the beats, dig up the corn and take all of the cabbages. I think we are looking at perhaps up to 15 bags of goods to have to transport back to town. And then I have to get the field plowed and after that, the garlic needs to be planted. And then, other than cleaning up a little, we will be done.

It is a matter of priorities how much work you do at a dacha farm. Probably it would be better if I lived up there full time and only came to town once or twice a week. I say this because last year, when I was up there more often, I had much more time to try and keep things in order and therefore we had a slighter better yield as concerns things lost to insects disease. But then again we planted smarter and had a better plan this years so maybe we came out of it about even.

I have often thought of this by the way; just giving in and living at the dacha full time. Truth be told, even though last year I was so out of money that I was eating exclusively and directly from our field, I must admit that the moment was quite satisfying to my soul. Maybe it was that this sort of arrangement breeds a love for the land that no amount of poetry can imitate. Or maybe it is that the work creates a bond with the land, a very deeply felt bond and one that resonates with some very ancient and powerful emotions. And why not? Wasn’t it only a very few generations ago that we were all were agrarians, we all lived closer to the land and make things with our hands? It is not so bad to be a human being tilling his own soil. You learn to like weather. You learn to like it a lot.

But then again if I was to make the move and go up there on a more permanent basis I would need some things to make this more of a reality. First of all I would need some animals. I would say at least a cow and some chickens. We have no animals up there now both because we are veggie and also because of how much time we are away. But I think you need to have at least a couple of goats for milk. You need them because aside from selling the eggs and milk (and cooking with them) these animals make the fertilizer that makes the next year’s crop that much better. And of course we would need a horse to help with the work. You can also help other people if you have a horse as well. After this, I suppose a refrigerator would be good. And a phone; both for communications and so that I could deal with my internet needs. There is electricity up there so I could drag the computer up without a problem. And also, maybe a TV would be cool… A cassette player… And I think I would like more than the hot plate we have up there to go along with the wood stove. And of course a blender would be good. You got to have a blender.

Of course if I had all of those things up there than it wouldn’t be village living. Well, this is not entirely true because almost all of the permanent residents have these things. They are all hooked on TV like the rest of us. And they now buy a lot of the things that they used to make themselves. But I do agree that all that materialism does sort of defeat the purpose of getting closer to the land. I guess I sound like a purist here but allowing for the rhythms and tempo of life to be your metronome rather than the TV page is not such a bad thing really. I think it is a pretty useful tool as a lesson in life in general.

And of course this was one of the main ideas of the former Soviet Union. They were all about the land and so many of the lessons that they taught came directly from earthly sources. You can see this all the time of you have kids around because all children’s school books, especially math, are full of country analogies. And of course everybody here knows all of those lessons about how to keep things going on forever and ever. Did you know that if you chew on a battery it will work a little while longer? Try it and see. Of course, a lot of that is limited material access, but it is also common sense as well. And I guess in the end common sense is what all of this was about.

Economically, I would like to say that there is an argument here in Belarus for living in the country but there is not. Back in the day there might have been a slight material advantage to have a place in the country. If you worked with KolChoz, a job which would pay you about the same as a doctor, you would have this plus you would eat what you grew and would have the right to sell your extra. In the old days you probably came out pretty much ahead of the game in the end. And this would be especially true if you liked manual labor. Don’t laugh, some people do: Look at how many people live for their time in the gym. And I am sure a lot of what I like about working at our little farm is from this thinking. I get the workout and the salad I eat afterward.

But these days the pursuit of money is so deeply imbedded in the minds of Belarusians that the minuscule profit potential compared to the amount of labor necessary to pull it off makes all of it rather unattractive. Why break your back working in the fields under a hot sun when you can find a better job in a factory for better and more secure money. Of course most families here still have their lands; grandma and grandpa still live out there and their pensions, much larger than KolChoz wages create a situation for the retirees much like the old days. But for the younger people dacha-farming is now only a weekend project, a five or 10 time a year excursion, a working weekend or time with the folks. It is simply not possible to be small time farmers anymore for most.

In fact the whole dacha system is slowly giving way to larger tracts, private ownership and more modern methods of land management. Just a few months ago I heard that the president began allowing for larger tracts, as much as five hectares to be allowed to private citizens. The land can be acquired for free but of course there are also many tax and governmental restrictions that go along with this. You have to use the land and prove that you can in fact manage it, but it is possible. And with this change will come along mechanization to replace hand labor, larger scale enterprises to replace the individual one acre lots.

Now certainly this is a logical step especially if there are not enough willing individuals to maintain their smaller, individual plots of land. I don’t know which part of the “as usual” chicken and egg argument this is; did the people run from the land because they wanted better money, or was the money simply taken out of working the land. Or, was the work really so hard that men and women couldn’t do it anymore, or is it that the machines really are simply cheaper in the long run and therefore more profitable for large scale land owners? Probably these are all true but in any case and for good or for bad, times they are a’ changing.

But if the dacha system does go away, it will be one of the last pillars holding up the fading ideas of the former Soviet Union. And I for one think that these sorts of things were not necessarily bad. Yea, you could argue that the lessons learned in farming don’t have a hell of a lot to do with life in New York or Moscow. But I might argue back that they do. Who says that diligence and patience, knowing the consequences of your actions and realizing that all things have and need the right care, conditions and time in order to grow are not universal ideas? The USSR thought so and demanded that all of their students receive education in basic farming skills. Everybody here has at least a basic knowledge of how to work the land, how to grow things; everybody knows potatoes. It is considered here a basic fact of life.

And though an argument also exists that having a fixed economy demanded that people be tied to the land and that the dacha system was as much a weight tied around an individual’s neck as it was a place to come from and call home- just another way that Stalin kept the proletariat down- I myself am going to be very sorry if and when it goes away. In fact, as this season comes to an end, and regardless of how messed up our financial situation is and has been during all of this, I find that I am sorry to see its passing. And what makes it even worse is that I don’t know if I will be here for next year’s planting. It is like saying goodbye to a friend and thinking that it will be the last time you are ever going to see them. And for a fact I know that my life will be much less if I am not here next season.

In my life I have many times rejected opportunities to take easier, sit down jobs so that I could stay outside a little longer. Early in my bike career there were some “suits” who laughed at my electing to stay in the saddle rather than coming inside where it was warm (and where supposedly the better money was). And now that I have been here and have been involved with our little plot, I absolutely see where that yeaning came from and why it suited my soul as much as it did.

Call it the call of the wild if you want but I never had anything like this in the states available to me, necessity or no. And I want to tell you that in spite of the pain, it has been a great pleasure to have had our little place for the last two years. Either despite the necessity or because of it. I would even go so far as to say it has been a pleasure and an honor to have been able to eat directly from a field I myself established and tended. And in terms of helping me deal with the depression our situation often leaves me in, our land has been like a large chunk of solid gold right in the middle of an otherwise nightmarish situation. I am not sure if I would make application for a larger tract though. Mostly this is because I know Tatyana probably wouldn’t go for it. Though she is actually pretty good once you get her out there, her reticence to work in the fields would not bode well for future success. But also this sort of move does require capital and we simply don't have the financial outlay to cover the added expenses. So as far as that goes, though intrigued by the thought, I don’t know if I would. But I would definitely not give up our land if I have the opportunity to stay. Absolutely not.

Anyway, what I am getting at is that at about the time the last plowing has been done and the garlic is in the ground and the last weeds have been burned, I am going to be relieved but also a little sad to be finished. Winters are long and cold here. We may have hot water heating here in town, but in another way, it is cold here too. Mostly, I am going to miss the sound of life in the village. The quiet. And the smells. And the pain. It is too much work. It really is. But it is great to be able to have it.

Oh, and I forgot: A weed whacker would be great. I forgot to mention this before. A weed whacker would make my life so much better. Seriously, just to be able to not have to use the scythe and hoe for this part of the job. Oh yea baby, that would really do the trick!

Thanks for all of the cool letters. It is nice to know both that I am being read and that the work is appreciated. And thanks for the sympathy as well. In answer to the question of where I get the material for the Polish Police and Administrative Corruption page, it all comes from simple keyword searches on the net. And so I am going to keep adding to it for a little while longer, at least until the archive seems full enough to make the basic point. And because there are so many references to choose from, that it really hasn’t been as hard as I thought it would be and because I like overkill, why not go for some decent numbers. And also I should mention that I am soliciting personal stories as well, so if any of you want to write out some of your uniquely polish, polish experiences, send them in; lets put them up too.

Thanks again for reading me. More soon…