Everything smells of onions. Our kitchen, the shed, the verandah – they all smell like onions. My fingers smell of onions, staining the taste of my tea. My pillow smells of onions where my fingers have curled against my cheek.
We left the second planting of onions too long in the ground and their protective, papery skins have mostly rubbed away. The first ones we planted went to seed as soon as they formed bulbs and then the bulbs were consumed by a hard, woody stem. We collected a handful of seed but it wasn’t really worth eating them. This time, we have 84 beautiful onions in our wheelbarrow. But I wont be able to store them all in the cellar – the skins of many of them are soft and they’ll quickly rot. So brine fermented onions overflow on the kitchen bench and our visitors leave with old rice cracker bags full of onions and obligatory summer zucchinis.
Many have written about how gardening changes you, nudges you towards an agrarian rhythm that asks you to do things as they need to be done. There is little leeway – you have to pull the onions with papery skins intact if you want to store them. Fail and you lose your crop or spend your precious time laboriously chopping and fermenting what you can salvage. Your compost fills with the bits that have rotted – what a waste! All that delicious onion you didn’t eat! Your time planting and tending lost! That precious Murray River water dripped on the ground for naught!
Of course, there are things you have to learn from failure. Mostly, I think I learn through failure (although it would be untrue to say I have learnt from all my failures – that would be something to aspire to!). A 500 square metre home veggie garden is not a trivial undertaking and it will take years of iteration to get it right.
Peak summer veggie production and preserving coincides with waves of our old Alice Springs friends sweeping past. The great exodus from the desert to the coast and back again starts in about December and takes us through till about February. We sit outside retelling the year and I ask myself again and again why it is I walked away from that life? Why am I here in regional South Australia earning the minimum wage tending vines when I know I could have succeeded in some worthwhile, professional role up there? I look at my dear friends and envy them their flash camping gear, their disposable holiday income but mostly their energy of confident success. Our unfinished patio and bowed verandah seem shabby by comparison.
I think what the onions have to teach me is that the process of unraveling our disconnection from the natural world takes practice. Practice in the sense of spending the time doing something and practice in the sense of the intent to change how you are. Stay in the professional world and your time is spent operating in a world created by humans. Surely that wears a groove in your being that is not of the natural world?
Deeper than my sense of excitement about the possibility of wattleseed and regenerative farming is a growing realisation that the choices that have led me here are about seeing people as inherently integrated with the living, natural world. The frame is bigger than doing something about environmental degradation or getting biology and carbon back into our compacted soil. The reason a bumper suburban veggie garden in Alice paired with an interesting day job wouldn’t do the trick is a matter of balance. I want the way I live to press these bigger cycles and seasons into me, for the daily actions of my life to reweave me into nature (or whatever you want to call it).
In the meantime, I still work off-farm. Earning an income from our wattleseed orchard alone is still a little way off. And I still want to participate in the outside world! I do have slightly Amish tendencies but at heart I know there’s no going back in time; we need to learn to be in the world as it is. I think the question is mostly about how to do that with a deep level of integrity, choosing the path with intent rather than getting swept along in the prevailing winds. And that, along with really understanding the onion, is something which will always be a work in progress.