My Salt-Water Farm

A boyhood dream of good soil and willing insects

By Brian Doyle | August 16, 2013


I read Elwyn Brooks White’s three lean sweet sad novels starting at age 12, but I did not encounter his extraordinary essays for the first time until I was 15, at which point a subtle teacher gave me One Man’s Meat. I was instantly entranced, read the whole thing in about 30 hours, and decided forthwith to be just like Mr. White and have a small farm by the ocean—a “salt-water farm,” as he called his rocky plot, an alluring phrase.

There were some small hurdles. For one thing I was penniless, and for another we lived in New York, and I knew my parents well enough to know they would listen gravely and attentively and patiently to my idea for a farm before laughing so hard that my father would be afflicted with catarrh and my mother would drop her cigarette into her tea. Also I was already a basketball maniac, so I needed to find a way to run the farm between the prison sentence of school and the joys of preparing for my professional basketball career. My solution, I still think, was deft: I would reduce the scale of the farm, and entice one of my younger brothers to run it for me as a sharecropper.

The Coherent Mercy, as my parents called the imaginative force that dreamed the universe into being, had thoughtfully provided me with a fleet of younger brothers, and I chose my workforce with care: the youngest, Thomas. He was a sturdy boy, and could handle the heavy work of construction; he was a cheerful and amiable soul, happy to run with scissors or steal from the collection basket at Mass if so instructed by an older brother; and he had a wonderful concentrative capacity—you never saw a boy who could spend so many hours prying the shingles off the garage roof while meticulously saving the gleaming nails with which dad had affixed them to the roof last summer. So my brother Thomas it was, and we, or rather Thomas, set to work.

Unlike Mr. White we did not have pigs and chickens and geese and such—we did not even have a dog anymore, after little Tippy dug under the neighbor’s fence and impregnated the Great Dane, almost certainly using a ladder for that purpose, as our dad said—so we used insects. We, or rather Thomas, under my direction, marked out tiny fields and pastures, and built tiny walls and dikes, and stole tiny green houses from our sister’s Monopoly set, and even laid in a tiny pond, using our dad’s shot glass, which he wasn’t using just then because of the catarrh.

We, or rather Thomas, then recruited livestock, and here is where matters grew interesting and difficult. The easiest to collect were pill bugs and beetles, but ants were hopelessly nomadic, grasshoppers and crickets were flighty, and bumblebees, despite the fact that they looked like Burl Ives on Gay Pride Parade Day, kept stinging Thomas no matter how many times I told him to be careful and hold them by the middle.

We, or rather Thomas, tried glass ceilings, but mom wanted her bowls back so she could make the horrifying tuna and twig casserole she made every Friday, and we tried vinyl, because the Kingston Trio were heinous caterwaulers, and we tried cloth, but our sister took her raincoat back, and finally we quit the ranch altogether. For a little while we tried agriculture, even planting nickels one day, but that did not pan out either, and by then Thomas was growing weary of the labor. To this day I think he exaggerated his academic workload—I mean, spend an hour with the letter B, how demanding is that; a child could get by in kindergarten—but right about then our mom decided to start what she called a kitchen garden, although as far as we could tell the way a kitchen garden worked was that we, or rather Thomas, dug fish heads and tails into the garden and nothing ever came back up out of the dirt, except, sometimes, a nickel.

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