How did you become a writer?  Did you come from a literary background?

Not at all.  I was brought up on a small farm in a remote part of the United Kingdom – many of the local people had never been more than 30 miles away from home in their entire lives.  Apart from breeding sheep, nothing much else went on.  We didn’t have electricity or television at home, but my parents had lots of books.  I read and read and then began to write.  When I was about 9 years old, one of my teachers sent off a poem to a magazine and it was published.  I knew then that I wanted to be a writer but I didn’t have a clue how you became one.


Katherine Mansfield felt she had to leave New Zealand to become a writer. Was that why you left home as a teenager to go to London?

Absolutely.  I loved the landscape and the isolation of the Lake District, so it was difficult to leave, but I knew I had to go if I wanted to succeed.  Like Katherine,  I had the romantic idea that London was where it all happened!


Would you do it again?

Yes. I think you need to get away to get some perspective on your own life.  You also need ‘input’.   If you stay in a small community there’s always a danger that you become a big fish in a little pond and never really achieve what you’re capable of. And you need to find your way around the world of books so that people know who you are. The days when you could write and keep a low profile, relying on publishers and bookshops to sell the product are over – publishers expect you to go out and network to publicise your books.  We have to learn to be ambassadors for our own work.  The shy, reclusive author is at a disadvantage.


Your previous biographies have all been about women writers, including Margaret Cavendish, Christina Rossetti and Catherine Cookson.  What drew you to Katherine Mansfield as the subject for a biography?

I’ve loved her work and been fascinated by her life story since I was a teenager.  I found the John Middleton Murry edition of her Journal in a second hand book bin when I was 17, and I’ve carried it around everywhere even though it’s in pieces now.  Even then I was aware that there was a lot of myth-making, and everything I read about her just made me more determined to find out what really happened. There were mysteries, and Katherine herself was portrayed as either a rather waspish good-time girl, or a sentimental heroine wasting away like someone in a Victorian novel.  I wanted to know what she was really like.


Katherine Mansfield is a major figure in 20th century literature and has been the subject of a lot of biographies and other non-fiction books. If someone asked “Why should I read your Katherine Mansfield biography rather than one of the others?” what would you say to them?

I would say:  Read mine because it’s the only biography to be written since all the documents relating to Katherine and her husband John Middleton Murry became available in the public domain.  Katherine’s letters and notebooks have all been transcribed and printed and the diaries and letters of John Middleton Murry are now also in the Alexander Turnbull library in New Zealand.  Additionally I’ve had the help of the family who still have quite a lot of material relating to both Mansfield and Murry. There’s a lot of new information.  It’s significant that most of the leading figures in the story are now dead, so information is less likely to be withheld to protect people.  I’ve also tried to write a book that’s good to read.  I want my characters to live in the mind of the reader and come off the page as vividly as they would in a novel.


Why do you like writing biographies?

I’m fascinated by people’s lives.  You could say that biography is a kind of up-market ‘Hello!’ magazine – there’s an element of voyeurism, literary lace-curtain twitching about it however scholarly you are. But nothing beats the buzz you get, sitting in an archive, reading a love letter – perhaps Wordsworth to his wife – or turning the pages of Katherine Mansfield’s journals.  You’re touching the same paper they touched, reading the words they inked on the page all those years ago.


You write poetry and fiction as well as non-fiction. Which gives you most satisfaction?

I like all the different genres, though I’d probably have been more successful if I’d stuck to only one.  What I choose to write depends on the idea – some ideas are only suitable for a poem, other will stretch to a short story, non-fiction projects demand a much greater investment in time and research and have to be chosen quite carefully.  If you’re going to write a biography you have to like someone enough to spend a couple of years in their company.


Which writers have influenced your own writing, and which ones are your personal favourites?

Apart from Katherine Mansfield’s Journal, I also read Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ as a teenager and it taught me a lot about getting away from traditional narrative.  The other really influential book was Italo Calvino’s ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller…..’  and for the same reason.  They taught me a lot about multiple narrative threads and parallel texts.  If you put two – or more – stories together in the right way they can double up on the meaning in the same way that poetry does.  It will sound a bit weird, but the other book that influenced me was ‘Chaos’, by James Gleick  because it demolished the  traditional way we thought about the universe and how it’s ordered.  I suddenly realised that everything – absolutely everything – is made out of beautiful numerical patterns that keep evolving and changing because they are Imperfect and Incomplete.  It seemed to offer ideas about the patterning of words in poetry and prose –  and it reinforced the conviction that a narrative or a poem has to be open ended with a sense of evolving, not rounded off and complete in a dead-end sort of way that offers the reader no way of carrying the story on. It taught me that creativity comes out of chaos.  Does this make any sense?


What are you working on at the moment?

The Mansfield biography has been very hard work – so I’m taking a rest and concentrating on fiction for a while.   I would like to publish more fiction – it’s too easy to become ‘pigeon-holed’ in a particular genre.   Just now I’ve got a couple of plots burning away at the back of my head and I need to see if I can get either of them to work.



Look!

By Colleen McGrath

Humor

That people don’t look at each other here may account for the otherwise inexplicable disinterest in personal appearance in Berlin. That or city-wide depression. Nobody’s looking so who cares? Granted, in New York people look way too much. Gone are the days (and by days I mean the 80’s), when a woman can walk up Madison Avenue in sneakers and slide on pumps at her desk, oh no. You ride the subway and walk the whole distance in those puppies, no matter how far or you’re excommunicated from the club. Did you know you had to walk fifty blocks in stilettos to be considered a true New York Woman? You do. Do you see men coming to work in shorts and a t-shirt carrying a suit bag and changing in the men’s room before the big meeting? No, you don’t. That their shoes are generally not torture chambers doesn’t enter into the matter; you come dressed for your day. People are looking. From the minute you leave your house to the moment you get home, people are looking.

Not in Berlin. I have never been looked at so little in my life. Okay look, it’s not like I’m some raving beauty draped in men and chased by paparazzi, God no. But there is a lid for every pot and New Yorkers aren’t shy about letting you know when they like your pot.

Fashion is at the root of it all, of that I’m certain. Whether it’s the chicken or the egg, I have no idea but it’s involved somehow. Never before have I been in a city where the dress code rarely requires more than a nice pair of jeans and often much less. Grunge is the mode du jour, I’m assuming because it goes nicely with graffiti of which there is a plethora. Not that grunge can’t be done well, it can. It’s just that come on, aren’t there moments in your life when you long to take out most of your earrings and put on a tie?

People have either created the non-looking or responded to it, I’m not sure which, by wearing comfortable shoes. Shoes make or break an outfit, as I’m sure you know, and most often Birkenstocks are a breaker. If you start with a Birk what more can you do but put on some khaki pants and a cotton top? Maybe a skirt but you’re really pushing the boundaries there and it can really only be done if there is tie-dye involved somehow. Once in an outfit like that how much more make-up can you slap on than maybe a sheer gloss? That I own some knock off Birks may tell you a little about how far I have fallen.

At first I was relieved. Living in a huge city among people without filters made me long for a quieter, less appearance-minded place. One where I could leave the house with out make-up and not feel naked. One where clients didn’t comment on my weight gain or loss on a daily basis. Now though, if I “put on my face” as my grandmother used to say, it’s remarked on by colleagues all day long as an anomaly.

“Wow, you’re wearing make-up today. Are you going somewhere after work?”, as if there’s no other reason on the planet to use mascara.

“Um no, just thought I’d try not to look like a refugee, haha!”

They’re right of course. What for? If nobody looks, then why bother? But I sometimes don’t recognize myself anymore so maybe that’s why. Where I was maybe too focused on such things before, it’s becoming the reverse and I’m starting to miss the part of my morning that included choosing clothes and watching Charmed reruns for make-up tips.

Something in the middle is ideal, I think. I long to be accepted as I come, who doesn’t? I come with many flaws and you don’t need a microscope to find them. In a city that lives under one, it’s a rarity to meet a New Yorker who doesn’t see them. On the other hand, to not care so much that you become wallpaper can’t be the answer either. So how to go forward? Do people start looking or do we start giving them a reason to? It’s a question for the experts. Gloria Steinem! Candace Bushnell! Help! In the meantime, I’m going to dig out my heels and see how far I can still get in three inches and red lipstick.

Pockets

By Brin Butler

Essay

I was watching a girl’s reflection try on a winter coat in front of a mirror the other night. What made her interesting was how interested she was in what she was doing. She was inside a bright, hygienically-lit department store with puddles of squeaky light gleaming off the ground beside her feet. The cosmetics section and a large window divided us. I was outside in the cold watching my white breath fog up the view against the window and frantically wiping it off while a street light hung over me on Howe Street, drooling its sad creamsicle-glow into a puddle in the gutter that’d be frozen before I’d get into my front door that night.

The girl’s reflection swiveled her hips a helluva lot of degrees in one direction then swung the other way just as far, and both times she looked over her shoulder with a downward glance that didn’t betray a result. I felt less cold when she took another crack at it and bit her lip. She stood on her tippy-toes and tucked a strand of hair behind an ear. She arched her back a little, leaned over; kept tabs of the results but never tipped her hand to me by the expression on her face. Without even once shoving her hands into the pockets of the big puffy coat she discarded it, returned it to the rack, and abandoned the whole mission for a few squirts of free perfume over in the cosmetics department and started talking up some cosmetics female atrocity of a salesperson and I went on my way.

Even a winter coat is all about a girl’s ass looking okay.

Don’t get me wrong, the concern has plenty of merit. My theory on fidelity is firmly planted in the conviction that a man needs a face he can marry and an ass roughly 36 inches beneath it that makes an enticing idea and practice to cheat on it with enduring satisfaction. Lingerie has a similar cheating element built into fidelity thing, too. It’s still you under there all right, but it’s covered in pink for the 3.4 seconds it takes me to see it and tear the motherfucker off. Next time blue! Shucks…

But the girl’s reflection kinda got to me. Mostly because I’ve never tried the pockets of a coat in my life when I was looking around for a coat to keep me warm when it’s cold outside. And I’ve never bought a coat other than when it was, that day, that hour, that minute, way too fucking cold to not impulse buy—in cold blood—a coat. I’ve gone for plenty of girls that were like coats without pockets. No comfy place. No foxhole to bury to cowardly depths.

That girl’s reflection kinda reminded me a bit of this girl I used to watch at night through a telescope when I had an apartment in the Westend. When I moved in I didn’t have a TV so I borrowed a telescope off a crazy neighbor of my mom’s whose dad was shot in the face with a 44-magnum and who for the last thirty years had packratted several lifetimes’ worth of various shit he mostly never got around to using.

One of those things was a really impressive, expensive telescope complete with a laser scope thingamabob.

To make the telescope into my evening entertainment I needed dependable story lines. Over a few evenings I cased about 400 windows for activity and bought some different colored pieces of scotch tape and made a constellation of all the interesting rooms on MY window so that I could easily point the telescope to the tape and, in turn, the room, and tune in.

I never once caught anybody fucking.

Which, at first, was VERY irritating. Until after some examination I discovered that I barely caught any couples even TALKING to each other. Even LOOKING at each other. Not too many people live alone, but everybody just ignores each other. She watches TV, you go on the computer; after a while, SWITCH, shower separately, phone call, leaf through US magazine, go to bed.

I’d kinda hoped there’d be something kinky out there in the world of apartment life, but nothing prepared me for how perverse the reality actually was.

Then it got way more creepy: this one girl became the star of everything. A Japanese girl of 20 or so who arrived home to her apartment around 1130pm and went about trying on 20 dresses or so from her closet in front of a tall mirror. One after another just working herself up and tearing herself down until a big fat breakdown against her bed, fists plunging into the mattress, bawling her eyes out. And all of it like clock work every weeknight (weekends I have no idea where she went). She always tried on the same red dress last every time.

But that was over a year ago. Maybe in another 15 minutes or so she’s somewhere or other near that red dress working her way up to it. Or maybe she’s wearing it right now with somebody she loves who doesn’t even suspect there’s any particular significance to what lies in her closet. Who knows. Not me. The stars were out tonight—and maybe hers’ were too—and I was just another pervert walking over a bridge to get home with the water calm and checkered like a dance floor, the moon fat as Orson Welles’ cheek buttering the sky.

Of course, it took more than Robbi’s job offers to bring Johanna and me out here to the marijuana farm. Should I write about this part in any sort of detail? Will I be defying my own vow to keep such things relegated to the realm of “backdrop?” Should I discuss how, in 2006, I found myself living in my parents’ house in suburban Chicago for the first time since I was seventeen, this time with Johanna in tow, due to my mom’s diagnosis? How, after having lived in Alaska, Italy, Key West, New Mexico, Arizona, and a failed attempt in Vermont, that reentering Buffalo Grove, Illinois gave me the alcoholic shakes, the soothing drink to quell them being the swallowed desire to flee to some distant mountaintop, some beach bungalow, some bomb shelter in which I could grow, with impunity, a wizard’s beard beneath which to hide? Oh shit, oh shit. This is one of those stories, isn’t it? No. No. It’s just the establishment of context, right? I can’t say “backdrop,” and not give the stage-curtain a color, right? Right?

Also: I did not change the names of the places I lived. Those are accurate, as is the Buffalo Grove admission, which I’m still a little leery about. I’ve tried for most of my life to shuck that place, for better or for worse. But, hell, I played enough Four Square and Running Bases, and chased enough fieldmice, and ate enough bad food in that town that I shouldn’t fear claiming a small ownership.

Of course, this descent (for Johanna) and re-descent (for me) into B.G. crept into us like nausea with a remarkable intensity, and then, for the most part, kept quiet. We were Haleakalā, Mount Edgecumbe, Chato Volcano, and Paulet Island: dormant. (Keeping this list short was a labor—the desire to include Mount Bachelor, Mount Elephant, and Pelican Butte, was fierce, but I didn’t necessarily want you picturing bachelors, elephants, or pelicans, but, well, it seems I’ve now fucked this up. Oh well. As the gay rabbi who bar mitzvah’d me used to say to his congregation in times of Judaic woe, …and let us all say: Son of a bitch).

At the crest of my mother’s therapy, when she was (as she was so often then) sleeping, my father, never one for overt emotion, called me into his bathroom—the chamber in which he sat for hours staunching the… No. I’m gonna spare you that. I will tell you though that it was in that bathroom, after a shower, that I discovered on the blue padded laundry hamper, centrally-located in my father’s stack of subscribed-to Playboy magazines, the December 1984 issue that featured Karen Velez, who was single-handedly responsible for my later shunning of breast implants, and who forever changed the way I used and reacted to the word pendulous.

Walking quickly, I passed the walls lined with his Howdy Doody and Hopalong Cassidy memorabilia, what my mother would call, “his childhood cemetery.” He was standing next to the toilet, hair less curly than it used to be, new totem pole tattoo clinging bright to his left shoulder, staring into the blue wastebasket, shaking his head. Few sights are more pathetic than one’s father, nervous beyond reason, standing next to a toilet. Karen Velez, and the flightiness by which I defined myself up to that point, were long gone, hopefully commingling in the bottom of the same mid-Eighties dumpster. I had to slow down. I had to look. Like at a car accident on the highway. Inside, I saw a mound of her brown hair, enough it seemed to cover the floor of a barber shop, one that over-compensated by including a (misleading) superlative in its title: Supercuts. Fantastic Sam’s. Like I’m one to talk about over-compensation. I can’t seem to keep my damn mouth shut about this, breaking promises, contracts. I might as well commit here, include some remembered dialogue, milk the cow.

“Why do you want to show me this?” I asked him, my throat reacting as it would have to a sliver of black peppercorn.

He snorted softly. He looked confused.

“I think you should share in this,” he said.

****

Many times, Johanna and I delved into understandable selfishness, lamenting our loss of sanctuary, our rhythms, this wet cloak clinging to our skins, stirring our hearts to a perpetual flutter. Let me rephrase: we were pissed off. Distraught, sure, but pissed. We were solitude fetishists. A quiet evening at home, just the two of us, was our autoerotic asphyxiation, a bad late night action movie (see: Tier One: anything by Lorenzo Lamas, Brian Bosworth, or Dolph Lundgren (save for “Rocky IV”); Tier Two: anything by Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, or Eric Roberts; Tier Three: anything by Schwarzenegger, 1970-1988; Tier Four: anything by Schwarzenegger, 1989-2003 (with the exception of the—heavy on the quotation marks—“comedies,” “Junior,” for example); Tier Five: “Rocky IV”), our silk stocking. For you aficionados: This list is heavily abridged. And the logician in me wants to qualify: Order of tiers inversely proportional to alcoholic drinks consumed. The realist in me wants to counter: Order of tiers, interchangeable. These were films that Johanna initially dismissed as “a load of shit,” but by month two, she was just as addicted as I.

Many times we would go for midnight walks to the neighborhood park—the site of my first tornado slide, little league baseball games, after-school fights, the place where I lost my third tooth, falling from the tire swing, the place where I tried, and succeeded at, eating a woodchip—and sit on the swing-set, sometimes silent, sometimes raging with the urge to flee. Part of me wants to say something about the stars here—a specific constellation even (Andromeda, my favorite—it has something to do with the sea monster)—but I’m gonna pull back.

We would complain about the way the city lights dampened the night sky, about the ever-listening ears of the neighbors, likely descendants of the Original Yenta. We would talk about how my mother would surely heal, overusing the words strong and pull through, and about the many options that lie ahead for us, which looked then, when I closed my eyes, like an endless chain of yellow center highway lines, the lane separators, some even-more-scary version of David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” trailer. On that swing-set, in that park, we approached each option with equal disinterest. Then, we would go back to the house, undress in my old bedroom, and listen to my parents cough half the night. Am I really going to write about this shit in any sort of detail? Hell, no.

****

About eight months later, when it looked as if all may turn out well with my mom, my wife and I, lost and insane with the thirst for solitude and a measure of cleansing, received Robbi’s phone call and decided to take these seasonal jobs. Then, we had no idea about the Residents’ Camp and communal meals, and tent livin’, and strange showers in which we felt compelled to wear our rubber shoes for fear of contracting all things fungal… No, at the time, after a stint in Midwestern realism and all of its spiritual bratwurst, California seemed to us the physical manifestation of a cosmic high-colonic. And Robbi had worked for Lady Wanda before, so we were welcomed with hefty open arms, without much interrogation.

****

Johanna and I often talk of Chicago during our pre-dinner walks, but we don’t tonight. We’re too hungry. For the season, Lady Wanda has set up a white canvas carnival tent on the east side of her substantial house, under which three meals a day are served. From the fields, Johanna looks longingly toward the tent’s three white peaks as if they were as snow-covered and as insurmountable at the Himalayas. Sometimes, when we’re craving meat, they are. After a day of massage, when she’s hungry, Johanna can get irrationally poetic about food.

“I hope they shoe-horn some lamb into that vegetable mass tonight,” she growls.

Meals on Weckman Farm are typically vegetarian, but, I must admit, wonderfully prepared. Alex, Emily, and Antonio are the three full-time chefs under Lady Wanda’s employ, and just so you don’t invest too much in them, they will not be major players in this tale. That doesn’t mean I can’t try to describe them, though. And later on, I may even tell a story or two about them. It depends on how I’m feeling, benevolent or smart-ass; both moods likely disingenuous and forced for the sake of the narrative. (Insert your favorite proper noun that includes the word, liar, here. I’ll choose, “Fellini: I’m a Born Liar”). But for now, consider Alex and Emily pseudo-hippie wallpaper, and Antonio a bookshelf-bound and balloon-cheeked bust of Buddha. Sorry for all the B-word there. I get lost sometimes…

Alex and Emily, a married couple in their upper-twenties, are culinary school graduates who cut their teeth at a pair of well-known Napa Valley restaurants (he as a sous chef, she as a pastry chef), before finding their way to Weckman Farm. They both wear cat’s-eye glasses and beads in their hair and have a flair for breakfasts. This morning we had sea-palm (a local seaweed) quiche with caramelized onion and feta cheese. I tried to like it, and eventually did. Johanna, not the world’s biggest fan of ocean-born green stuff, bitched. She decorated the edges of her plate with these lovely little blobs of rejected magnesium.

Antonio, a fifty-year old man from Veracruz, Mexico with a robust fifty-year-old paunch, is theirsous chef, trained in his mother’s restaurant, perfecting such dishes as last night’s dinner ofenchiladas suizas stuffed with roasted mushroom and topped with a tomatillo cream sauce. Though meatless, we both adored it, and, if I remember correctly, Johanna may have clapped once.

Their kitchen is housed in a large blue-roofed shed in Lady Wanda’s backyard and includes four ranges, an indoor grill, a chest freezer, a commercial mixer and a walk-in refrigerator. Johanna speculates that not a single piece of this equipment has ever had the luxury of housing so much as a sliver of lamb.

“I think they fear real protein,” she whines, enumerating the oft-repeated list of the exotic meats she enjoyed as a girl growing up in Northern Sweden. As always, as if for emphasis, or to subvert the cute and the Christmas-y, she ends her rant with, “…reindeer!” (Not true, but it was a similar beast, and I couldn’t resist the holiday reference).

I reach for her hand again as we watch Alex, Emily, and Antonio carry plastic-wrapped aluminum food bins from the rear of the house to the picnic benches under the tent. We can hear Antonio grumbling to his chefs de cuisine, “If you two don’t stop French-kissing when you’re supposed to be shucking corn, we’re going to be here all night.” He rockets a string of what must be the most marvelously obscene Spanish I’ve ever heard, yanking the plastic wrap from the food. This, it must be admitted, happened nightly, though I confess I was occasionally turned-on by their public displays of affection. I’m a voyeur. Johanna’s fully aware of this. Sue me.

Johanna’s hand, which hasn’t lost any of its oil from a day of rubbing people, squeezes mine. The aromas of something entirely vegetal float from the tent, infiltrate the breeze, and strike my wife with a leafy disappointment. She sighs the sigh of a woman who is having something green (again!) for dinner; who is living outside for a season in a Coleman Cimarron tent—a Coleman Cimarron amid sixty others in the Residents’ Camp. This is not necessarily what we had in mind when chanting the word “sanctuary!” on that swing-set back in Chicago.

The Residents’ Camp sits like a shantytown village on the opposite end of the property from Lady Wanda’s house. Unless the weather turns to rain, or becomes the California version of cold, it’s uncommon to see a male crewmember wearing a shirt in the Residents’ Camp. The few women who make up Lady Wanda’s crew have been known to forgo the occasional shirt as well. Johanna and I are probably the Camp’s most clothed crewmembers, though we do feast our eyes on the only meat—some more well-done than others—served here at Weckman.

For a shantytown, amenities abound. Or, if not amenities, an amenity. Lady Wanda has constructed a pair of shower sheds in the Camp, replete with hot water. They are a pot farm version of clean, which is to say, dirty, and, as I said, Johanna and I don our rubber sandals with enthusiasm. When we first arrived at Weckman Farm, one shed was for the boys, the other for the girls. As the season progressed, things became a bit more co-ed. The curtains are mercifully (again: depending on who you ask) opaque. I’m thinking of Charlie the Mechanic here.

“The world’s goin’ to shit,” Lady Wanda says to the crew after the workday, “but I run my generator on vegetable oil. Enjoy your showers!”

Lady Wanda is a self-proclaimed permaculturalist. I’m not sure that word exists east of the Continental Divide. Oh: Well. Pardon my presumptuousness—I just found out that the permaculture movement began in the 1970s in Australia. I mean, like, literally ten seconds ago. The word, in print, tends to keep company with the word synergy, and who am I to deprive it of its life partner? Anyhow: praise Wikipedia.

As such a permaculturist, she has, in Weckman Farm, attempted to create a self-sufficient mini-society that avoids dependence on the many amenities of industry. She sings the financial praises of her role as ecologically- inclined businesswoman. Her vegetable oil powered generator costs her forty cents per gallon.

For a first-time Picker, this self-sufficiency can carry with it the side-effects of claustrophobia and stench. Every crewmember who arrives by car is instructed to park in an open grassy lot on a spur road off the main gravel drag that leads to Weckman Farm. We have access to our vehicles only in cases of emergency. Often, I picture our reddish Kia Spectra, lying dormant, collecting the spoiled smells of our abandoned road snacks. I think we may have ditched a half-turkey salad sandwich beneath the front passenger seat, due to Johanna’s distaste for the celery brunoise suspended in it. At night, in the tent, I would often think of this sandwich, and bugs, and become anxious and unable to sleep. Look, I’m a suburban Chicago Jew at base. What can I tell you?

Lady Wanda collects lists of her crew’s favorite products. She then sends a team of faceless shoppers into the nearest small town (not very near) to gather these items. She labels the resulting paper bags with our names in black magic marker, so we can have access to our Vidal Sassoons, our AquaFreshes, and our SpeedSticks without ever having to leave the premises. If we must send out mail, Lady Wanda collects it and has another faceless messenger truck it to the local (not very local) post office every three days. She even pays our postage. This way, a Picker has very little to do but work; this contained, sustainable world a constant fluctuation between field, food tent, and the Residents’ Camp.

The Residents’ Camp faces Lady Wanda’s mansion as if at the opposing heads of a medieval table, we workers constantly facing the nighttime queenly stare of her lit upstairs windows—a royal and intimidating job interview. The atmosphere in the Camp is surprisingly courteous, many of the workers putting away their acoustic guitars, jimbe drums, and laptop stereos early into the night. After all, many of us are working longer hours than an investment banker.

Johanna and I walk from the pungent crops to the warm mouth of the food tent. The sun has nearly dipped out of sight, only its red scalp hanging on the horizon above the rows. The air is heavy and without definitive season. It can be January or June. It can only be California.