A story that poses the question of what it means to be rooted
The first season in your own field is like childhood – colourful, euphoric, and the whole thing becomes a blur in the memory, though packed with clear-cut details. The next few seasons are like adulthood, where the years gone by fold up in your memory like a concertina. Month after month, muck after muck. To the rhythm of passing time we gradually became familiar with nature, by which I mean that we entered into a partnership with it. The mist of recurring enchantment faded. The reverent, myth-making attitude was gone. We loved nature, but sometimes we hated it. Most of the time we were indifferent to it, but when the Sejm passed a law permitting the mass felling of trees we were ready to jump into the fire for it, although from the perspective of the provinces it didn’t look quite the same as in the city: the countryside sometimes needs weeding, ventilating.
The next summer I set aside the half-hectare where the broad beans had grown to be meadowland, so the rotten grass would feed up the clay. I waited for the first crop. It came up quickly and went green. I was sure that dense sowing would choke the couch grass, because it plainly hadn’t surrendered – I was still digging up shoots by the bucketful from among the vegetables, saving their lives in the process. In spring a week’s neglect is enough for your plot of land to become coarse and uncivilised, not just full of couch grass but also something that creeps like ivy, or a weed similar to horsetail with strong and endless roots.
You have to whack it with a hoe from dawn to dusk. There’s dust everywhere, white dust. I’d forgotten about the cooperative. Saving some produce for our own needs seemed as much as we could possibly manage. Did I feel humbled? Perhaps. But at that point I still felt some disappointment too, because out in the field, contrary to what I’d always thought, not much yielded to human vision. I was all the more attentive to the words of the Old Man; one day, when once again we were working something out together, he told me something his grandfather used to say, which is that that the earth never waits, and in the field it has to be like clockwork – and he tapped a finger hard as a beechnut against the face of his watch; if you’re just a day or two late it’s all in vain.
I remember one afternoon well. It was very hot. Half a day spent bullying the couch grass. Suddenly I felt a bit weak, which rarely happens to me. I leaned my chin against the hoe handle. I looked at the rye, completely weed-choked, full of poppies and lupins. Briefly everything went dark before my eyes. For those few seconds I clung to the world like a plaster. I couldn’t have hurt a fly just then. It wouldn’t happen again.
The Old Man said to screw it all. Not to take it personally. The battle can be won, but it demands greater effort. He kept repeating: year after year you have to harrow and reap, fertilise, then sow a mixture of pulses as a forecrop, and eventually something would come of it. By now it was harvest time. Each evening the combine drivers would be on their way back from the fields. They took up the entire road, forcing the cars to hug the fences like sheep. The Old Man brought in cartloads of rich rye from his field. Grain spilling through gaps between the boards lay on the asphalt. I wasn’t sorry, although my weed crop was sizzling in the heat along with the maggots. Horseflies sliced the air like fat sparks. In the second half of the year the weeds grew more slowly and there was more free time. Lower down, by the road, a shed provided sleeping quarters for the carpenters I’d hired from near Żywiec who were finishing putting up the house.
Excerpt translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
A story that poses the question of what it means to be rooted
Sometimes you have to go right around the world to find your own home. Andrzej Muszyński provides the perfect example. He started his career as a travel writer with reportage about Asia and Africa, but more recently he has focused on his immediate vicinity. Thus in his new book, My Fathers’ House, he combines the genres of diary, essay and reportage to write about himself and his own life. Now aged thirty-eight, he begins with his decision to buy a piece of land near where his family is from, in a village outside Kraków. He sowed his field and started to lead the life of a farmer, on the model of his ancestors. “I can’t see any point in working outside art and agriculture,” he writes in the first chapter, “so I wanted to earn the money to write by working the land. I was hoping this would protect me from having to go to an office and having to wear a suit, and that true freedom lay ahead of me, under the turf.” He would soon tot up many a hard clash with reality.
The first part of My Fathers’ House chronicles Muszyński’s efforts to become a farmer. He wants to work the land ecologically, without using pesticides or chemicals, but in practice it proves extremely difficult. He spends hours reading up on internet forums and social media groups for farmers, and asks Google every possible question. Nevertheless, his best source of information are the neighbours with whom he forms close friendships. They give him the most effective advice on how to plough, sow and reap.
And yet the “sorrows of a young farmer” are just the beginning. Further on, Muszyński broadens his perspective and starts to examine the earth with the help of some archaeological and geological tools. His thoughts on the quality of the soil lead him to the layer of prehistoric fossils that lies beneath the surrounding hills. He imagines the everyday life of his early ancestors, and considers the future effects of climate change. He asks from every possible angle what it means to be rooted. Will his children leave here, or will they stay? Questions that people ask themselves in many places, not just in the countryside near Kraków.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
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