The Epic Joe Series Continues (Part 1)

It finally occurred to me that in order to communicate with Jo about time, I needed to talk in terms of sunlight. A man who lives on solar power pays attention to sunlight, without a doubt – so it was with this in mind that I called Jo this morning and said I’d come by for barter “around sunset.”

I arrive a little after 5 p.m. so there is no longer any direct light (the sun dips behind the ridgeline at about that time, and Joe lives up in a holler so when the light goes, it goes). It is agreed that I should fill my prescription first, since there are no lights in the herb shop and neither of us feels like dealing with lanterns or headlamps. The Herb Shop is cold but clean, and I comment to Joe on its tidiness as he pulls Mason jars of herbs off the shelves.

“Yup, been cleaning up. Going to try and be more organized this year about it all,” he said.

I work quickly in the fading light and as I sift ten 6-gram doses of ground cinnamon, puffs of it form small clouds over the ecosystem of my hand. For a moment I become lost in another world, gazing at the cinnamony-air. Cissy has added two new herbs to the Rx and taken two off. I see her again in three weeks to report and hopefully this time I can get through the emotions and energy that need sifting without going off the deep end.

It is dark by the time I finish and I find my way by feel down to the footpath and across the hillside to Joe’s cabin. I find him in the greenhouse hunched over five trays with empty starter pots. He instructs me on how to fill them each properly with peat moss starter by filling them first three-quarters full, then tapping the soil down with the backs of my knuckles, then adding more soil and tamping it firmly with the base of an empty pot of equal size.

Joe’s hands are raw from winter’s cold air, and today his knuckles look swollen. When he taps the soil down with the back of his knuckles, the soft, pink meat of his palms turns upward. Somehow this contrast between two sides of the same hand appears profound to me. The scab from a gash he received earlier this winter chopping wood is healing up quickly, though, no doubt due to the herbal salve he’s been putting on it. Atop his head is a navy blue woolen beret, which lacks any ounce of firmness. It sits flatly on his head without moving, a half-inch long dart of fabric poking straight up from the center of the hat. He completes his demonstration and looks at me for approval.

“Yup, and then we’ll plant some Ginseng, Ok?”

I nod and begin my work in the dark. Joe turns on the radio for Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now! and I get to be like a fly on the wall as we listen together. Joe works efficiently in the kitchen on his dinner (but we’re not far from each other because nothing really separates one room from the next). My hands feel massaged by the soil and its scent is calming. Although I work steadily, I am calmed by the task at hand. Light is apparently extraneous, even for specific work such as mine, and Joe cooks using only one bulb to light the entire downstairs of his cabin.

As I finish each tray I bring it into the kitchen for his inspection. “Yeah, sure fine,” he always says, turning back to his food, which now sizzles in a cast iron pan. I fill five trays according to his method – that’s 136 small pots – and bring all my work inside where he instructs me to set it down on the kitchen table (the only table).

His dinner is finished but I notice that it goes uneaten, remaining covered in the pan on the unlit stove. Next, Joe teaches me how to plant the Ginseng.

“It’s local!” he says, proudly. “Yup, see one here and another diagonal to it.”

“And when will they sprout up?” I ask, hoping there’s a chance I can see the fruits of this labor come spring.

“Oh, you know, some might sprout in a year, some might sprout in two years. It’s very difficult to grow you know. It’s hard to know what will happen.”

In no time I have two trays complete and am ready for the more complex task of filling the remaining three trays, which hold larger starter pots and require different seeds for every pot. Different seeds mean different labels, which means using Joe’s label system, which means learning something new, to say the least…

(To be continued tomorrow…)

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