An Excerpt From: Pot Farm, By Matthew Gavin FrankBy TNB Nonfiction
April 23, 2012
I would say: At dusk, the crops’ silhouettes held to the sky like herons cemented into the earth, leaves flapping feebly in the Northern California wind, unable to lift themselves from the forthcoming hands of the Morning Pickers, and the watchful green eyes of Lady Wanda—I would say that, but I was likely stoned. It’s just as likely, the crops didn’t look like herons at all, there was no wind, and it may not have even been dusk. It could have been morning. It could have been afternoon. Having worked on a medical marijuana farm, filling six notebooks with scribblings of varying degrees of sense, and engaging in the attendant and standard subcultural vices, I have made of myself an unreliable narrator.
Indeed, much of my memory of the experience exists somewhere between the hazy and the disturbingly vivid—it is the stuff of fever dream and emotion, and drugs, and hangovers and hard physical labor. The pot farm, and that stage in our lives, still clings to reality with a tenuous grip. But that’s exactly what the place and that time were: tenuous. I have, by default, forgotten certain things, and am deliberately going to leave others out, like how, on our drive out to California, my wife and I stopped along I-80 to sleep in a small town outside Lincoln, Nebraska, one day after a tornado destroyed much of the region. I am going to leave out the detail of the giant yellow Super 8 Motel sign that lay crushed in the middle of Main Street.
I am going to try not to dwell on the details of our lives up to this point. How we moved into my parents’ house after my mom was diagnosed with cancer, and, because my father still works six days a week, and they maintain three large dogs, my wife and I became responsible, for just over a year, for their feeding, walking, watering, and shit-removal. How we slept on an air mattress in the bedroom I grew up in, and, (I will certainly leave out any discussion about how weird it was to have sex there, in that room where I discovered masturbation and fantasized about the “popular” girls while listening to a cassette of Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet,” because everybody writes about that) always, before falling asleep, cried too much, laughed too much, talked too much, were too fucking silent.
How that stint drove us to do something deliberately foreign and “off the grid,” they way people do when they realize, but are fleeing from, the awareness that they may have just shed their youth, or whatever it was that allowed them carefreedom. How we quietly said goodbye to ourselves, packed up the car, and took off West, thinking, without saying it, that we could somehow have a hand in jumpstarting a new phase in our lives. Some people have children, or shave their heads. We took off for the pot farm—not because we’re a marijuana-crazy couple or anything, but because it sounded like the experience could spark…well…something.
Besides that, given the nature of the pot farm and the people who work there, I am changing names also. Unreliable. I am Binjamin Wilkomirski, and James Frey, and Helen Demidenko, and Wanda Koolmatrie. I am waiting to be crucified on Oprah, then sign a seven-figure deal.
So I was likely stoned and let’s say it was dusk, and let’s say the crops looked like some kind of water bird. My wife and I strolled the first few rows before the communal dinner, our shoes picking up soil as we go. I do remember that: the place was soily, though soily’s not a word (and soil-rich sounds too “green,” and soiled sounds like a dirty diaper). Unreliable.
I must admit: I’m a little neurotic about engaging the whole “mom-with-cancer” thing. Such events seem ubiquitous these days, and I hope you don’t think that this is one of those stories. I do have to warn you though: It’s likely to come up again, but only to further the main thread—the pot farm thread; to provide a dramatic (and truthful!) backdrop, as in, “…a passionate love story set against the backdrop of the post-revolution ’30s and ’40s Mexico…” (Variety, review of “Tear This Heart Out,” by Jonathan Holland, Dec. 19, 2008).
So: In Mendocino County, summer confuses itself with fall; fall with winter. Likewise, the seemingly dissonant landscapes commingle—rocky headland shore, redwood forest and wine country overlap, yielding an environmental cassoulet that somehow works together. You can fact check that. I’m pretty sure I’m right.
The crops average just over six feet tall, looking down on my wife and me as if concerned parents, hands on their hips, braced to praise or punish. Behind us, the sun wounds the sky, scores of tents from the Residents’ Camp whip like sails—another would-be moveable species held into place with cement shoes, or stakes, or the bodies of the weary crew.
I’m switching to present tense here. That’s my choice, I feel, even though this happened in the past. I’m hoping it lends this tale some of the same paranoiac urgency I felt while living it. If you care about that sort of thing…
We can hear the tinkling chorus of four acoustic guitars making their way through a mocking, overwrought rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” I probably rolled my eyes and mocked a dry heave—my usual response to Journey—though, secretly, I choked down my uncool reflex to hoist my right fist into the air. Maybe I should feel more comfortable being myself around my wife; after all, we were married five years then. What’s wrong with me?
As the moon asserts itself, the guitars suddenly go quiet, one of the singing voices missing the cue, left stranded without music: Hold on to that feeee-lay-eee-aayng! I am quietly jealous of the picking crew. They seem so at ease making asses out of themselves, which is to say, being human. I feel I can learn something from them.
A dull orange cloud of Durban Poison smoke hangs over the Residents’ Camp tonight. This exotic strain of medical marijuana was only this morning the bane of our existence, as the Pickers were asked to trim even more quickly and carefully than usual.
“We have three times the requests for D.P. than any other,” Lady Wanda told us this morning, “More than Northern Lights, more than Trainwreck.”
That Lady Wanda allowed some favored Pickers to sample such an in-demand product spoke to her benevolence. As Johanna and I watch the sky drain itself of light, the Residents’ Camp seems to yawn as one. Some crewmembers take pre-dinner naps, some pre-dinner walks, some stretch and meditate at the evening yoga class in Lady Wanda’s cavernous basement, some sit alone and smoke their paycheck, enjoying the crop.
I nod to Hector, one of the Treetop Snipers stationed fifty feet up a south-leaning redwood, knowing full well that, while on duty, he would never nod back. I reach for Johanna’s hand. Hers is smooth with oil, mine still sticky with resin. She’s here at Weckman Farm as a resident massage therapist. Her friend, Robbi, with whom she grew up in Overkalix, Sweden, is the Farm’s resident yoga instructor. A thin, well-muscled woman, Robbi is what my robust Jewish grandmother would have called “a little piece of gristle.”
Remember: names have been changed. Sometimes, this refers to the names of places. I made up the name Weckman Farm, because it sounds a little like the farm’s real name, though not in the way that you’re thinking. Another admission: because I can’t see you, I am going to be presumptuous from time to time. Please don’t be offended. Also: “Johanna” and “Robbi” are not from Sweden. They are from another non-North American country—one that has seen a bit more unrest in the 20th and 21st centuries.
It was Robbi who got us these jobs. In order to obtain work on a medical marijuana farm, one needs a recommendation from either a current or a former employee. Access to the property is restricted to current employees. It’s very incestuous, but without the risk of a three-eyed baby. They haven’t yet proven that pot causes that.
I’ve got the grunt work (though Johanna insists that massage is no easier), working as a Picker, harvesting the many strains of marijuana for Lady Wanda, reefer heiress and owner of Weckman Farm. Each morning, when I go out into the fields, Johanna sets up her massage table and lotions and oils in a corner of Lady Wanda’s basement—the room Johanna sometimes calls, The Hall of Mirrors or The Mausoleum.
“I swear I wouldn’t be surprised to see skeletons shoot from the walls like in a Spielberg movie,” she told me.
I quietly hoped she was thinking of “The Goonies,” (yes, I know, it was directed by Richard Donner of “Lethal Weapon” fame, but Spielberg wrote the story!) and not of some Indiana Jones movie, because this would mean, as a non-North American, her cinematic knowledge would be “deeper”—was “The Goonies” as popular overseas? Anyway, whenever she says things like that, and we’re around people, I have to fight back the urge to give her a deep kiss—the sort that leads to other things. I’m not leery of public displays of affection, but I also don’t like to torture myself.
I’ve never seen the room, but picture it like a Spanish catacomb, with a rounded brick ceiling and rounded brick walls. On more than one occasion, I’ve pictured Lady Wanda reclined on a chaise lounge in the opposing corner, serenely sipping blood from a silver cup.
The crew has assured us that, while a ruthless businesswoman with a zealous work ethic, Lady Wanda has a heart of silver, if not gold, but of course, the crew is a group with consciences either great or absent, and here, on Weckman Farm, if you want a thoughtful answer, it depends on who you ask. For such a clandestine enterprise, the crewmembers really are a bunch of, what my grandmother would have Yiddishly called, yentas.
Lady Wanda prefers housefrocks—pastel ones—but given the massive red half-moon dangling from her tan-lined neck like Turkish jewels, and the ocean of milk-white flesh spreading beyond, she spends many an afternoon in a XXXL tank-top as well. Lady Wanda is built like a multi-tiered wedding cake in mid-collapse, the flour milled from something bullfrogish and a pinch of Mama Cass. (Insert your own manifesto on exaggeration here). She could pass for sixty on a bad day, thirty-five on a good one, but probably rests somewhere in her upper-forties.
Her voice is that of an opera star falling down a spiral staircase, her words carrying vibrato dragged over a speed bump. Vocally, she favors, “Honey,” as in, “Bring that crate of bud to the flat-bed, Honey.”
By flat-bed, she means the cargo bed attached to the one-seat tractors, used for hauling the red crates of freshly-picked marijuana to a series of storage sheds. From there, the crop will be sorted, cured, dried and packaged.
Legislation surrounding the harvesting of marijuana is, under California law, constantly in flux, and traditionally, either over- or under-enforced. Currently, it is legal to cultivate marijuana on a “caregiver” basis, meaning that the crop must be used for medical purposes. As a “caregiver,” Lady Wanda is permitted by California law to possess eighteen marijuana plants per patient served. Mendocino County extends the law a bit, permitting one-hundred square feet of plants for each awaiting patient. With her hands in the air, the undersides of her formidable arms shuddering, Lady Wanda forcefully assures her crew, “I conform to all the goddamn ordinances!”
Still, whether a grower is compliant or not, local law enforcement is known to raid these farms, arrest many of those involved in their operation, and, reportedly, decimate the crop. Helicopters piloted by the California Department of Justice often fly low over the pot farms, visually estimating the number of plants on the property. Of course, many of my pot-smoking-picking-selling sources on this are biased, but there are certain articles to be found about such things, and there’s a later chapter about my first-hand experience with one of these helicopters—but, of course, I was likely stoned at the time. Sorry.
Each grower is issued a government-certified permit to cultivate a certain number of plants for a fixed number of patients. If an airborne law enforcement official, with binocular aid, suspects that the farm possesses even one more plant than the allowed number, the helicopter will land and, according to Lady Wanda, “All Hell will break loose.”
In 2005 alone, Lady Wanda warns her crew, employing her favorite slang for the local law enforcement, “Johnny Screw confiscated over a million-and-a-half plants in this county. And stole quite a bit of money as well. They have more guns then we do. We’ve gotta watch each others’ asses.”
Here, the wind would likely sweep the lip of her flowered housefrock slightly to the left, bestowing upon her speech an added emphasis and the threat of glimpsing one of her magnificent thighs. I admit, I now overuse the whole Johnny Screw phrase, much to the annoyance of my friends, without citing Lady Wanda as my source. I doubt she’s the persecute-for-plagiarism type.
I listen to Lady Wanda, whether she’s talking about ass-watching or crate-hauling. Perhaps it’s not only her hulk I find intimidating, or the fact that she’s managed to domesticate something as wild as the wind, but this is the first time I’ve ever engaged in employment quite this, well, underhanded. Additionally, rumors circulate among the crew (though nobody claims to have seen it) pertaining to the size of Lady Wanda’s gun collection.
Always at her command, I drop my scissors to the soil, and carry a crate-ful of recently trimmed marijuana buds—about six pounds worth—to the flat-bed of a one-seat tractor driven by Charlie the Mechanic. By this time, the sweat ringing the chest of my shirt rivals the expanse of Lady Wanda’s sunburn, and I will think of Johanna calmly performing some cranial-sacral therapy in the air-conditioned comfort of her New Age mausoleum.
A Picker (also known as a Trimmer) is responsible for grooming the marijuana buds with a pair of nail scissors, making them perfect. Like harvesting wine grapes and other ingestibles, the pruning of the product is of utmost importance. I reach elbow deep into the plants, the leaves, oils, resin, wayward clippings tattooing my arms with the smell that will stay with me for the season; the smell that permeates my clothes and shoes and tent; the smell that will ruin a chair if I sit down; the smell that will infect a carpet if I stand up.
Everyone on Weckman Farm bears this olfactory burden, though rumors circulate of special soaps and shampoos that almost get rid of it. Of the many rumors saturating Weckman Farm, this is the most often dispelled. It is because of the smell—a jogger bull moose’s dirty laundry— that the Pickers are rarely allowed into Lady Wanda’s house, save for The Mausoleum. But even her mansion, formidable as a bulwark, is susceptible. Because Johanna sleeps with me, the odor of premature marijuana attaches itself to her and, in turn, Lady Wanda’s gothic basement. Pickers talk of Growers who, every season, have to replace their furniture.
Reaching into the crop, without removing the soon-to-be-smokable bud from the plant, I manicure the stuff, pruning away all rotten segments: marijuana that has grown small tufts of white mold; marijuana that has desiccated too early; the large outer fan leaves that have fallen into brittle dryness. I collect all of these clippings in a crate and carry them to the one-seat tractor. The work itself is hard and monotonous. If it were legal, these mundane details of my work at the pot farm would be of about as much interest as my summer spent detasseling corn outside Normal, Illinois.
Charlie the Mechanic will not stop staring at me until I successfully deposit the crate on the flat-bed, as if he’s trying to divine the secret ingredient responsible for the miracle of human locomotion. Every time I set the crate on his tractor (there are many, given that a Picker may opt to work twelve-to-fourteen-hour days), Charlie exhales through his nose and speaks his refrain, “That’s it, brother.”
His voice is trapped in rasp, predicting the tracheotomy he’ll certainly have to receive in a decade or so. A two-day-old beard permanently clings to his face like playground sand and, in the early mornings, his hair glows ethereal orange. Never having fully recovered from his tours in Vietnam, Charlie enjoys his Seagrams 7 whiskey a bottle at a time and his Winston cigarettes by the carton.
Rumors spread among the Pickers: some say that Charlie used to be a millionaire oil tycoon and had a fleet of tankers working under his command somewhere in Alaska, but when his wife left him, he went to ruin; some say that when his wife left him, he became an ice cream truck mechanic in Los Angeles. The common denominator is the flight of the wife. Rumor also has it that he occasionally drinks tractor fuel.
Always, at day’s end, I tell Johanna what I’ve heard. This is our favorite pre-dinner ritual.
“You can’t believe everything you hear in this place,” Johanna tells me as we round one row of pot plants and disappear into another, “Rumor also has it that everyone who works here is a great liar.”
By great, I hope she means talented, but I’m pretty sure she means big, fat.
“Maybe they just like to tell a story,” I say.
“I’d love to see a list of Lady Wanda’s prerequisites,” she says, smiling, too tired to laugh at herself.
This is our privacy together, when I can marvel at Johanna’s ease with the world. After Chicago, and living for a year in my childhood bedroom, with its autographed photo of Ryne Sandberg and pin-up of Alyssa Milano circa “Who’s the Boss?” I’m surprised she still can muster it. Of the world, she’s seen so much more than I.
Dusk is slowly giving way to night (or morning to afternoon, afternoon to evening…Choose your own adventure). Johanna lets go of my hand and cracks her knuckles. She has given seven hours-worth of massage to the crew today and her hands are hurting her. I’ve had my hand cuffed into a pair of scissors all day. My hands are hurting me too.
Matthew Gavin Frank is an assistant professor of creative writing at Northern Michigan University. He is the author of Barolo, available in a Nebraska Paperback, and the poetry collections Sagittarius Agitprop, Warranty in Zulu, and The Morrow Plots. Pot Farm, his latest, is available here. Visit the author at matthewgfrank.com.
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