Chatting with Jorge

May 1999

" In which Eric holds on to his hoe and his end of the over-the-farm-fence reparté..."

We live on a piece of land that used to be an alfalfa field. On all sides of us are alfalfa and corn fields that still are alfalfa and corn fields. The field to the north of us belongs to Las Señoritas, two sisters, in their 60's, who are still called señoritas, maidens, because, as far as anyone is admitting, that's the way it is. To the east are two fields belonging to Tio Benja and Tio Toño. Everyone calls them Tio, which means uncle. Respected older men are called this way. West is don Gregorio's field, which is actually sitting fallow as don Gregorio has moved on to the city and hasn't chosen to, or hasn't found a sharecropper for the field. It was the one he would have like to sell me, but I had my eye on this one, his too at the time. South is the field that Jorge, also called Coco, works. I don't see much of the neighbors, they don't come around much to work the fields. The exception is Jorge. He's on his field cutting alfalfa most days to feed to his dairy cows. We shout greetings back and forth, occasionally getting into a chatter over something or other. But mostly he's cutting alfalfa and I'm coming or going from the office to the house. The office-house path, a long one, runs along Jorge's field for a bit, so we catch each other as I make my way along the trail. Usually I'm pushing myself along on some task and don't feel inclined to stop and slack jaw. In the last few weeks work has really been quiet. I made the big push and got a lot of buying done before the rainy seasons set in. So, I've been using my well earned open time to get some plants into the ground and have been out working the land there along the office trail. Jorge has been watching me, curious at my sweating exertions. He must assume, correctly, that I don't know more than a squirt about planting and farming. Meanwhile he's done it all his life. But, at the same time, being that I'm a gringo, could just be that I know some tricks that the haven't found there way down to southern Mexico yet. Often our slack jawing will include a bit about how agriculture is handled up there in El Norte, the size of the tractors, the types of hybrids used, fertilizers and so on. Jorge is formally schooled in agro-engineering, though you'd never know it as he's chosen to live the life of a country farmer. But he knows a few things on the subject. He knows well that agriculture is big industry up north and often makes jokes comparing the local methods, scythe cutting and hauling in horse drawn wagons, with the methods in the U.S.

"Yeah Eric, they must have pretty big scythe up there to cut those fields. Must feed the gringos special fertilizer so they can handle those scythes."

I've decided to plant black beans and a local type of pumpkin. Both are crops heavily consumed in our household. Jorge has been watching me work my piece of field. I'm afraid I've disappointed him with agro-technical tricks. I'm working with a hoe and a shovel. But I don't think he's too disappointed. The show is good.

The other day I was out getting my pumpkin beds ready. I was digging holes in the ground, mixing the soil with compost and then refilling the holes. I'd just pulled the seeds from a pumpkin I'd quartered that morning and was going to let them dry out for a few days before putting them in the ground. Jorge was over in the alfalfa, cutting with his hand scythe and checking my work from time to time.

"Planting, Eric?" he shouts across to me, working on getting a chat going.

Jorge has a reputation, largely spread by his mother, for being quite lazy. Its not entirely false and he'll often spend goodly amounts of time while out cutting alfalfa standing along the edge of the field engaged in conversation with someone or other. Jorge is a good talker, and I don't think he minds at all getting away from the house where his sharp tongued mother is constantly reviling him for his motivation levels. I enjoy talking to Jorge and have had good talks with him. But that was mostly before we actually lived out here, back when we were just building. Now that we live here I've wanted to make it clear, in a cloudy way, that I haven't got the time for long jabbering sessions. It's true you know, that I've got plenty to do.

"Yup." I answered in a non-committal fashion. "I'm planting."

"Must be planting seedless oranges, no?"

I couldn't figure out why Jorge thought I was planting orange trees, wasn't even sure I'd heard him right and was about to say I was planting pumpkin, but held my tongue for an instant. I've done enough prattling with Jorge to know to be on guard. He's got a devious mouth that's often engaged in trickery, for which I respect him greatly. To just up and answer 'No, I'm planting pumpkin.' would be to not engage in the game. I'm seldom sure what the game is, but it is always best played with an answer that shows you're wise to it and aren't a fool who can be tossed around. I do my best, sometimes I do fine, though often enough the little nuances and double meanings of deep Spanish elude me. But, because I hold my own from time to time and dish out my own abuse, folks figure I'm hip to the word jousting. And it isn't such a rare thing that a lot of tricky words will be flying around, and I'll know perfectly well that some crafty teasing is going down, but I won't have a clue what is really being said. Still I'll say something, anything to sound like I'm up with things. And I'll get a reaction like that was a stinging and well placed response. I'll act hip to it and never ask anybody what was really going on. Got to keep the smoke screen up. I like to tell myself, in these situations, that deep down I really do get it, that my knowledge of Spanish is deeper than I admit to myself... and that they're not just humoring me. I didn't give Jorge the straight and narrow 'I'm a-planting pumpkin.' I caught myself just in time and, being considerably hipper than that, I answered with a stumbled,


" I said you must be planting seedless oranges Eric. I see you digging and filling those holes, but there aren't any seeds going in 'em. Gotta be seedless."

Jorge will slide out a joke, a nice fat line like that and just let it float for a bit, watching you in a distant sort of way and seeing if it works. He knows my Spanish is pretty good, but it ain't 100%. And aside from that, He's not sure how bright I really am. And I can't help but loose myself to laughter, which, in the game, means you've been got, because if your real slick you know what's coming and don't get surprised into laughing. As I'm laughing I remember a Sven and Ollie joke about how they're doing the same thing, digging holes and filling them in again, one after another, when an old farmer whose been watching them comes along and asks what the heck they're doing.

"We're planting trees" replies Sven.

"That's right," adds Ollie.

He then explains how Jake is sick today and Jake's the one who puts the trees in. So I say to Jorge, once I get my serious face back,

"No hombre, I'm not planting seedless oranges, just planting regular old oranges. Only thing is that don Sevey is sick today and he's the one who plants the seeds."

And with that I get him right back. Jorge is slick, but he'll get all twist-eyed laughing too, which is one of the things I like about him. As to who don Sevey is, he's the old guy who works around our land doing odd jobs. He's a fine worker, though not to bright, steady at the job but with the noble pace of a tortoise. It's not uncommon for his character to be debased in the exchanges between Jorge and I.

Someday I ought to apologize to old don Sevey, for karma's sake. But I don't think I will. Today I was out working on the bean rows that I'd planted. Don Sevey, a bean farmer from way back, had informed me that it'd be a good thing to get those weeds out from around the beans, seeing's how once the flower is on them you can't touch them at all. He hadn't actually told me this, I'm the boss and authority around the place and workers here figure it's best not to ruffle feathers. He let Rachel know one afternoon, told her it might be a good idea to thin out the seedlings too, which were coming up in clods of six or eight, just as I'd sowed them. She passed the news on. So I was working with the hoe chopping weeds. To make the time pass I'd pulled the boombox to the office door and put in a tape. About midway though Jorge came bouncing into his field on his old horse cart, shouting a greeting. Once he got the horse set loose and feeding on the border grass of the neighbors field he came over to cut alfalfa close to the office. Since the alfalfa there was already pretty well cut over, I suspect he was doing more listening than cutting. Must have been curious to see what kind of music I listened too. After a spell he shouted over to me,

"What's up Eric?"

Quick to sound like I knew something I answered real casual,

"Oh, just weeding out these beans. Wanna get the weeds down before they put on flowers. Can't touch 'em after that."

Jorge nodded, " I see you're putting music on for them."

"Yeah," I snicker, " they like it."

I point out that, if he takes a moment to look, he'll see that his alfalfa along this edge is also benefiting from the audiotherapy. He appreciates that and stops cutting for a minute to stands and stretch the way he does when what he's really getting a lung full of air to work on talking with.

"There was this study," he begins "learned about it in school, where they experimented with playing tape recordings of applause to plants. They proved that the plants did better when they were applauded to three time a day."

"I've heard of something like that." I throw in, still working on sounding like I know a thing or two.

"Well, it turned out it got criticized and never went anywhere."

"Now why's that?" I ask, a bit upset, figuring it had to do with something like the powerful fertilizer lobby suppressing it. The abuses of corruption and coercion aren't uncommon themes between Jorge and I. He's usually explaining to me how it works here in Mexico. And letting me know how best to take advantage on a local level.

"They tried pushing it, but nobody would adopt it. I guess they couldn't get the farmers to walk up and down the bean rows on their two acres applauding."

He got me there. Once I quit grinning enough to talk I repeated that I heard about studies like that. I had.

"I heard that plants responded well to classical music. Imagine that, if applauding was hard, imagine the years of study it would take for a peasant to learn to play classical music. Then he'd be sitting out there with his neighbors Mozarting away the morning. Seems like applauding would be a lot more practical."

He thought that was worthy of a laugh. We both felt pretty satisfied over the quality if the interaction, elevated by a good laugh and each having dished out a fair piece. Jorge bent back to his work and I got to hoeing again. When he'd cut an armload of alfalfa and picked it up to carry to the wagon he added over his shoulder,

"You'd get better results with that music if you put it over there by don Sevey, might get him to work faster."


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