In the secret corners of Northern California, the fields are fragrant with marijuana. It's harvest time, and the outdoor crop is ready and must be quickly picked before the rains. People from all over the country are hunched over plant clippings, clearing bongs while manicuring buds for tax-free money. I've smoked weed for a long time, but had never really thought of the work that goes into getting a seed of Bubblegum to grow into the majestic bush that eventually ends up in my joint. Then I worked for a week at a pot farm in early October, and learned that each bud is the result of a series of tiny cuts made by people like me, carpal tunneling all day in these remote areas.
I was invited to work here by a friend who used to be the farm's chef. We left on a Saturday afternoon and journeyed through a labyrinth of dirt roads and nauseating curves to end up at the bottom of a hill, at a gate. We had lost the phone number of the farm, and knew it might take hours or even a day of waiting until somebody would eventually let us in.
At the gate, there was a small household, a shack within a circle of crumbling buildings. One of the structures looked like an abandoned 75-year-old greenhouse. The parents and children living at the home kept lookout for the many farms within the gates, ever watchful and ready to sound the alarm in case of an unexpected visit from the authorities.
We stopped the car and approached the gate. Locked. But suddenly a red pickup truck slimed up. The driver and passenger were queerly aloof, almost like mutants. We knew what they were up to; they had a massive plastic water jug in the bed of the truck and bloodshot eyes. We peppered them with magic words until they realized we were safe, and let us pass. Miraculously, we arrived at the second gate just as a neighbor of the farm was unlocking it. He recognized my friend and let us in.
The farm was at the top of a ridge. There were a couple of decks grafted together, some with roofs and some with tarps as roofs, and there were tent communities mushroomed in rainbow colors around the property. There was a big kitchen and a cook, who was also the hash artist. About a dozen people were working, so embedded in the task of haircutting buds that they barely lifted their gaze. The plants were fragrant and spectacularly ripe. More fragrant then you could imagine—a hallucination. We arrived and dinner was served.
The area where work and food happened was brightly, garishly lit. There was a stereo, a TV, a film projector, even a juicer and food processor. It was a grotesque contrast to the blond and evergreen panorama. I have felt a silly fear of wildlife on other very remote properties, but here I felt dominant—all I saw were skittish lizards. One night I was so stoned I was almost crawling back to our tent through the pot gardens, when I came upon a deer snacking on a pot tree. His reaction time was almost as delayed as mine. Our eyes met and he leapt away.
For the first few sunny days, flies dined on my knees while I tried to trim the sticky. A neighbor found a six-foot rattlesnake and walked to our camp with it in his fist. The snakes stalked the property, but I had never seen one. In the summer, wild boars trampled and chewed the plants.
The men who were in charge of the farm were talking with a neighbor one day, joking that if someone assassinated a pig they would have it made into sausage. Hours later, at 2 am, the neighbor brought over a slaughtered female pig. They went online to figure out what to do with the corpse. They had to butcher it immediately, and opening her belly, they found a dead fetal pig inside. They had to saw off the head.
In the morning, as the valley started to creep up to 90 degrees, the farm's bosses went to find the nearby town's game butcher; he was on vacation for a week. The grocery store butcher wouldn't touch it. The pig was rotting in the sun. They took it to the dump, which was dotted with signs forbidding carcass dumping. They did it anyway, with the trash man just feet away, not noticing the hoof that poked out of a duffel bag.
The work was tedious, but paid very well. Depending on your speed, pay was $15 to $20 per hour and all meals and accommodations were provided. There were even bottles of rum and whiskey, and an occasional keg of beer. We sat around tables and on couches, in little pockets of stitch 'n' bitch. Work started around 10 am and some worked past midnight, though my fatigued tendons would only plow on for about 10 hours a day.
When it was cold at night, people tied scarves around their faces and had hats pulled to their brows, just bandito eyes showing, and fingertips cut out of gloves. We didn't really talk much. Everyone was anesthetized.
We drank whiskey at night to keep the chill away. It was the right medicine. I went to bed destroyed, but woke up in the sunny morning refreshed and fine. Some people took five-foot bong hits with breakfast, but I wouldn't touch the stuff until nightfall. The smell, though heavenly as the dark nectar scent of coffee, started to nauseate me after a while. Of all the strains, Diesel smelled the worst, almost chemical, even though everything was organic and grown outdoors.
Every aspect of the plant delighted most of the workers. A young couple with doe faces and an inseparable bond smoked blissfully all day, starting with a small bong, and moving on to hookahs, joints, hooters, big bongs, bubblers, knife hits, blunts, and brownies. They seemed suited to the numbness, clipping and trimming away as they swayed to faux reggae.
When you handle just-born premium marijuana for hours and hours, you get a film of resin all over your hands that will not un-stick with a simple hand washing. Everything I had was fingerprinted with sticky resin. It was impossible to even roll a cigarette. At the end of a shift, or whenever the film became intolerable, the workers scraped the resin off their hands and scissors and collected the so-called "finger hash" in spice and jelly jars.
It was giggly and surreal to be there sometimes, eating our morning cereal with High Times centerfold botanicals before us, then playing with puppies and hearing helicopters in the distance. When a chopper was nearby, we would turn off the music and nervously gather in the fields. They were dotted with hand-painted Red Cross banners, visible from the sky, a plea to the authorities; these people had caretaker licenses to legally grow medicinal marijuana, but that law is precarious and not federally recognized. The paranoia was a cold breath on their necks.
I was called away to another gig, so I left the farm early. I'd planned on staying for a month, but ended my stay at a week. I was itching to go. The blades of my mind were dulling in the wheeze of constant smoke and nighttime drinking. At first, these people seemed like friends scrapping along, building a business, and trying to share the profits. But as I became more physically irritated by the work, and alienated by the social arrangements, the farm started to feel like a plantation.
When we first arrived, there was smiley-faced gratitude from the workers. But as tendons started to pinch a little, people missed their mates back in the city, and found themselves in a permanent zombie state, clipping weed with runny noses and numb feet for 12 hours a day. Workers started to wander away back to the city for little vacations.
I tried to keep the whole thing in perspective when I was tired or irritated. Hard work there can net enough money to last through the winter or longer. The stress is temporary, and the rewards can mean future mornings long with freedom—and even longer evenings. Some people were there to earn investment cash for their own farms, and worked tirelessly. I tried, though slavery even this mild was insulting to my definitions of pleasurable living.
I know people who extol the virtues of work as some kind of metaphysical calisthenics, but not me. I was especially ready to leave when the girlfriends of the farm's profiteers came to spend a weekend away from art school at the farm. They slept late, wore clean clothes, and did yoga all morning; I was slumped in a lawn chair swatting at 10 flies and 15 bees. They took the farm's fruits and vegetables and made a frothy juice that they drank among themselves.
I was relieved to leave that place, refusing to find myself at the bottom of even a micro-society's caste system. Also, I hadn't minded pooping in a hole with a toilet seat over it in the middle of a field, but I was starting to mind peeing in between pot plants or behind the house, because I was a little—maybe unreasonably—afraid of a rattlesnake biting my butt.
The pot farm did pad my pockets and offer me a bouquet of memories that I can't disbelieve—because I can't remember what happened, thanks to excessive marijuana intake. It also reminded me that my tolerance for work is very low, and that I'm happy to be a dreamer who takes long walks and lets people who are convinced that work stiffens the spirit do all of it. I would take up scissors and groom the plant I love again—but not for more than a couple hours a day.