By Carol Ann Sayle
The plants droop in the torrid afternoon sun, hopeful that the day’s torture may eventually fade. Leaves slump to flank stalks—channels of nutrients and moisture—shielding them from scorching rays. It’s alarming to see, especially for farm harvesters Andrea and the Two Marias. They chastise me for not pouring the plants a drink or two—on ice. “¡Tienen sed!” They are thirsty, they explain seriously. I remind them that this is the plants’ natural defense—a parasol, if you will, in Spanish or English—against further desiccation.
The ladies shake their heads at my apparently innocent cruelty, and figure their jobs will soon end, for I’m callously denying plants water!
It’s a bit hard to bear this guilt as I, too, am horrified at how sad they look. I remind myself that during the night, as the temperatures back off, water will rise from the soil, enter the roots, pulse into the stems and plump even the leaves. I’ve walked out late at night, a big moon lighting my way, and witnessed this magic. Plants earlier stricken are now jubilant and turgid with water—reaching for the sky and even sharing the moisture by transpiration. I kneel, stretch out my arms to them and feel the vibrations of their renewed energy. I’m glad no one sees me doing this.
Since the water did not come from irrigation, as the ladies can righteously attest, it must have come from tiny reservoirs in the soil—the pore spaces within the soil material. That moist miracle lasts, however, only until the next day’s sun hits the sky’s ceiling when once again the leaves hang limply.
I check the plants in the morning to see if they are still wilted. I wiggle my fingers into the soil. If it is dry for the first five or six inches, I turn on the water. If the soil is very wet, and still the plants are wilted, it’s likely that a “do-gooder” has been overreacting, out of compassion. With overwatering, the plants’ roots suffocate and death is near. This happens often with houseplants, but generally it’s not a problem on a farm except during flood events. In May of 2004, at our Gause farm, 19 inches of rain fell in nine hours. The water soaked the sand down to the underlying clay, creating, essentially, quicksand. With no air in the soil, the crops drowned before the first tomato was picked. Later, as the weeds returned, dead fruit hung sadly from the stems as the farmers cleaned up the land.
Thirst is a tricky thing to manage, especially for farm workers. Like the plants, we are perky in the first few hours of cool morning air—but eventually, we drag our feet around the farm, our shoulders slumped, trying to minimize exertion in the heat, which leads only to more thirst. Farmer Austin’s brow is awash in sweat; Larry pulls up his T-shirt to mop the moisture; we ladies carry dry bandanas, which soon are uselessly wet—Marissa’s rides in her back pocket; mine wraps around my forehead to catch the salty, eye-stinging drops; the Marias wear them as kerchiefs and Andrea flops hers loosely, untethered, over her dark hair. While Marissa, Austin, Larry and I adopt shorts—the better to soak up some vitamin D—the Mexican ladies wear their long sleeves and pants as if it were still winter. But there is wisdom in their style. Like the plants’ leaves, their shirtsleeves act as parasols to keep the sun from honing in on their skin.
We all drink copious amounts of water, and juicy fruit in the field gets plucked and eaten. The fig pickers eat the good side of a bird-pecked fig; Andrea, the cherry-tomato picker, “drinks” as she goes along the row. A cucumber is suddenly gnawed for its great source of water.
In the henhouse, the chickens gang around the water trough and slurp greedily. We wet down the soil in a shady area and they fling themselves, bellies down, upon it, taking in the cool. They pant like dogs, mouths open, their wings raised slightly away from their bodies to catch any breeze.
Right before bedtime, we humans and chickens drink a lot (water, of course)—banking the liquid. For unlike the plants, we aren’t directly connected to tiny salvation reservoirs in the soil, and tomorrow promises more oppressive heat.