As first light breaks the thick black of night, the most unabashed Spring choir comes to full voice. The choir’s members have traveled from afar and attuned their voices to this specific landscape—a place of Sand and Swamp, of Hickory and Oak and Pine, of River and Lake shore. Yesterday I attended, for the first time, the Saturday afternoon Mass at the grand stone Church atop the hill on the far side of the broad, sandy River, built by the French Catholics around 1900. The pew I slip into doesn’t have a service booklet to read from, so I spend an hour listening. I am struck by how much of the service is sung—simple chanted prayers committed to memory by all in attendance, save me. I stretch my ears into the shared air space as others sing, just as I would extend my hand upon meeting.
After the service, my ninety-year-old neighbor Pat calls me over to introduce me to a few people, including the priest. Father Chris has a kind way about him. I extend my hand, in greeting. Like most people I’ve met in this town, he knows of the old Farm where I live. There’ is a good bit of mystery surrounding the place, which sat abandoned for two decades. The Schermerhorn family descended by marriage from the Adgates, whose patriarch Matthew was awarded the land for exemplary service in the Revolutionary War. On that day, he was granted claim to this patch of unceded Mohawk hunting, fishing and gathering territory. I pull a stack of printed invitations to Sunday’s May Day Gratitude Feast from my jacket pocket, and hand a few to Father Chris. “Please pass along the invitation as you see fit, and join us yourself if you are free,” I say. He thanks me, and I walk from the church.
This town, known alternately as Keeseville and Chesterfield, straddles the broad, sandy River. The land rises steeply on both sides, with neighborhoods perched on the hillsides. Water power brought industry here for a spell—maybe a century and a half—with some of the mills still open into the 1970’s. Today the town carries the ghosted look of a receded industrial age. The economic tide is still out.
As I drive down the hill from the church, I notice my friend Benji’s car at the Grange Hall. Like many of the grand buildings in town, the Grange was constructed from the native, square-cleaving stone. The heavy wooden cellar door, set into stone walls nearly a meter thick, is unlocked. I push it open to find Benji just inside, taking a break from the afternoon Rain showers to use the internet. Benji works with a group of folks in town to try to bring life back to this old building, a place where farmers once gathered—for meetings and celebrations, for the mingled work of community maintenance. I’ve been in the building twice before, but this time I get to explore the hall on my own.
The first floor hosts long wooden feasting tables and old hardwood chairs to seat at least seventy, maybe more. The room is strikingly similar to the hall were we hosted Gratitude Feast in Vermont before the pandemic. I pry open the door to the second floor stairwell, startling a small group of Pigeons who have let themselves in through a small window, likely blown open by Wind. I shoe them back out and push the window closed. They have coated the stairs with their droppings and laid a few eggs, their nest a simple depression in a trash bag lying on the floor. The upstairs of the hall has large windows and white-washed walls, a sturdy hardwood floor for dancing, another hundred oak chairs, and a small stage—for plays or the neighborhood band. I am awash in nostalgia, imagining this hall’s dancing days, when I hear Benji’s footsteps on the stairs. He tells me that there is concern in the group that the floor isn’t strong enough to support a large group of dancers. This morning, as i sit to write, I wonder if that statement—we are unsure whether the floor is strong enough to hold our collective weight if we were to gather once again and kick up our heels—tells a story that reaches far beyond the stone walls of that old hall.
This morning I will attend the service at the small, wooden Episcopal church on the close side of the River. There will be seven or eight people there, mostly over eighty. I have been four times now, sitting behind 94-year-old Bill and Kitty. Kitty told me, within minutes of meeting her, that she was carried into that very church as a day-old infant in her mother’s arms. She knew Henry Schermerhorn, the old man who last lived here at the Farm where I have taken up residence. Henry left no descendants save two nephews who finally put the place on the market a few years ago. Henry would have been ninety-eight this year, were he still alive. Kitty’s husband Bill has been in and out of the hospital with eye trouble and Kitty is due for abdominal surgery this week. They may not make it to the Feast next week, but I will do my darndest to get them to the Farm for the Feast in June.
There are four old churches in town. I have been to the three of them that still hold weekly services—in search of the old guard. The memory-keepers. It is a project of longing for home in a displaced time.
Standing in the middle of the old dance floor at the Grange hall, Benji and I talk through logistics for next Sunday’s Feast. Last month I asked people to bring silverware and a bowl with them from home, as the Farm kitchen is still rough. Benji suggests that the Grange has a lot of silverware, so we walk downstairs to look through the cupboards. Sure enough, we find bags of matching forks, spoons and knives—well over a hundred each. Benji gives me the phone number for the old guard of the Grange hall, to ask his permission to borrow the silverware. Steve Pray is his name. He’s a part-time farmer and the town’s full-time mailman. On the phone he tells me that he would be glad to see the silverware used again. “That’s what it’s there for.” And then he tells me a story that does something to me, in the way that only a story can. He says, “It used to be that each time you spent a certain dollar amount at the old grocery store in town you received a complementary place setting. So the women of the Grange decided to gather all of their sets for the hall.” Steve was just a child when the silverware was collected.
The word community has become mighty slippery these days—a unquestioned good and universal longing, but where is it to be found? In residential proximity? Along the sidelines of the soccer field? Among the idealogically-aligned? I dare say that waiting for a community to call us home is a lot like sitting on a bench at a train station that discontinued regular service generations ago. The tenets of consumerism seem awfully hard on community—promising much, asking little. A community risks being mistaken for a commodity in a time when almost everything is for sale. From what I can tell, a community requires daily feeding. Food, song, dance, and rituals of thanksgiving are upheld by diligent labors. The women of the Grange decided to set aside a bit of what they could have kept for themselves. What is it that they knew, or remembered, or learned by watching their grandparents?
It will be a huge honor to set the tables for this Sunday’s Feast with this historic silverware, collected generations ago in service to the possibility of a shared life in this river town that has begun to lay claim upon my days. While setting the tables doesn’t guarantee that Community will make an appearance, that elusive guest surely won’t come calling if the tables remain un-set, the old dinner bell silently collecting dust.
There are a hundred reasons why the Farm isn’t ready to begin this hospitality work. I have moments of doubt nearly every hour, including many in the middle of the night. There are still no proper bathrooms here, no running water, no level barn floor for dancing. I haven’t yet found callers; there is no Feast band. But, ready or not, something will begin this Sunday. Tentatively. Not so much an actionable plan for community building through gift economy—more a plea and a prayer for a mostly-forgotten past. And that tentative beginning will include group singing. I send along recordings of the two songs (click on song names for links), so that you might familiarize yourself with the tunes at home if you are so inclined. The first is called “Hal-an-Tow,” the second, a simple round called “Go to Joan Glover.” There will also be a time for spoken thanks before the meal. All in attendance will be invited to add a few words to the steadily-warming Spring air.
Here are this week’s invitations:
May Day Gratitude Feast
at the Old Schermerhorn Farm, also known as The Farm above Goose Landing
1044 Mace Chasm Road. Sunday 5/7 at 4pm.
A time for singing and giving thanks will be followed by a hearty meal of Farm food, served family style.
Meat and vegetarian options. The meal is not a potluck. The food is offered as a gift for anyone who is hungry for any reason. There is no charge.
Questions or RSVP’s to: Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org
Wednesday Farm Frolic
4-7pm every week, rain or shine.
A time to gather toward the work of upholding the monthly Gratitude Feasts. A couple of hours of tending gardens and kitchen followed by a simple potluck supper.
Bring: work gloves for garden or brush clearing work, or a chef’s knife for kitchen prep. This week we will be sorting through the last of the stored root vegetables to be cooked for Sunday’s Feast.
Beginning in June, Wednesday Frolic Supper will be followed by choir practice in the hayloft of the Barn, thanks to Camilla who has offered to help us learn some new songs.
Many thanks to you for reading.
Photo at top courtesy of Adam Wilson