Smoke-drift from the Canadian Fires casts an eerie, orange-red glow over the Farm. Moon travels the night sky as a ball of fire; Sunset carries hints of the apocalypse. What’s more, a serious drought has settled upon us. The shallow spring that waters the livestock has already dropped below its lowest level from last Summer. I had put off measuring until yesterday. Less than two feet of water left. Just a month ago the spring was overflowing, the water-table near ground level. And then the Rains stopped coming. There is a second well here at the Farm, just behind the old Farmhouse, which sits near the crest of the land. When I moved onto the Farm a bit over a year ago, I found the upper well only by parting a thick tangle of vines. A bucket and a rope still hung there. From what I can tell, the Old Man drew his drinking water by lowering and raising that bucket, until the day he didn’t wake from his sleep. The well has not been drawn from in two decades. Last Spring, a neighbor told me that this was rumored to be one of the deepest hand-dug, stone-lined wells in the area—seventy-five feet, by his recollection. My measurement finds the bottom at about sixty feet, but the miracle of the thing shines regardless of the number. How in the heck did they do it? A sixty-foot-deep hole dug into the ground, lined with a dry-laid stone wall three feet thick, trying to fill with cold water the whole time. This week I will work to drop a pump down into this old marvel, all the while fumbling to remember how to pray for Rain. As I gather toward the story’s telling, I am wondering what it looks like to turn and face the past in a time of cascading ecological and social troubles. But first, this week’s
Invitations and Requests:
Sunday Farm Frolic 6/11, 3-6pm: Our request for your companionship at our Sunday Farm Frolics will become more vigorous as the gardens come on. Dozens of Tomato plants will be asking for trellising, Potatoes for hilling, beds for mulching, Garlic for scaping, Cabbage for krauting, and more. If Rains do indeed return, we will have loads of produce to distribute, and our Sunday Frolics will turn toward harvest, preservation, and distribution of food. We will ask you to take produce home with you for your household and to share with your neighbors. The work is followed by a simple shared meal at 6pm. A main dish from the Farm will be served, and we welcome your additions of sides or desserts.
The next Gratitude Feast will be Sunday July 2nd. Mark your calendars and invite your neighbors.
Have you noticed that this weekly email comes with the title The Peasantry School? In the days preceding last Sunday’s Feast, a group of five of us gathered in songful courtship to those words. Unbeknownst to us at the outset, we became the School’s first unofficial cohort. The lead teacher was none other than the place itself—or, more accurately, themselves. This place—or neighborhood, or landscape—teaches with a style that is demanding for the relentlessness of its generosity. In next week’s Newsletter, look for a more formal invitation to consider joining us for our second go at sharing the practices of radical hospitality and homemaking that guide the work here. Gratitude Feast Immersion: Wed. 6/28 through Sun. 7/2.
Feast Supplies: Would you keep your eye out at yard sales/thrift stores for 10” Cast Iron Pans (for warming and serving the hot dishes at the Feasts)? We are looking for 7 or 8 of them. Also, ceramic or metal serving platters for cold dishes for the tables? We’ve received some plastic ones that are showing cracks after just one Feast.
Drawing Water from the Old Well
At what point in the ecological unravelling do we turn to one another and say “The world is turned upside down”? Or, “Everything that seemed important yesterday no longer holds water in the face of such a crisis”? I passed such a tipping point this week when, in addition to the draught and the unprecedented early-season forest fires, I got the following warning from a friend: “They will be treating the Ausable River with lampricide tomorrow. I know you swim and bathe in the River. Please be careful.” Parasitic Sea Lampreys have moved into the Broad Lake here called Champlain, impacting fish populations. The solution: to pour poison in the rivers where they breed. This place where I live is generally considered to be one of the most ecologically resilient in the nation, and some have predicted waves of American climate refugees seeking asylum here in the decades ahead. Call me an alarmist, but business as usual doesn’t seem to fit with the smoke show, the drought conditions and the poisoned River that have come to call this week.
I have written a few feel-good pieces lately, and without fail those are the ones that people tell me they enjoy reading the most. The Feast here last Sunday was indeed joyful and heartwarming, and the feel-good stories could fill pages. During the toasts before the meal, Erika said, “I am grateful that my cheek muscles are sore from so much smiling.” The afterglow from the day’s gathering made it hard to say final goodnights to my companions and climb into bed. And then the following morning the smoke arrived, making audible some demanding questions. Is the work of the Farm an adequate response to the big story of our time? At what point does feeling good amount to truancy? There is no right way to answer that searing second question. We could head into a quagmire of our daily decisions: whether or not to drive our cars, use air conditioning, buy organic produce, install solar panels. We could compare and contrast ourselves with one another and make tallies of guilt and goodness. That seems to be a sure recipe for continued unravelling, and a fair description of the current state of affairs whenever ecological collapse is acknowledged.
I am suggesting that looking directly at Medusa has the consequence of turning our hearts to stone, and turning our vitriol against either ourselves or our unenlightened neighbors, or both simultaneously. Let’s see if we can interrupt that pattern for a moment. Could we, instead, turn ninety degrees to one side and try to notice what’s happening in our peripheral vision? Here’s one thing I see there: many people my age and younger are deciding not to have children. As a gay man, I would seem to have an easy excuse. I take it, instead, as an assignment to learn how to uphold other cultural functions, and the work of the Farm amounts to a lunge in that direction.
So what does it mean that many of the young no longer see childrearing as a worthwhile use of their time and attention, or as their responsibility to their ancestors? I offer you two of the responses I have heard over the years. “I am not interested in giving up my lifestyle freedoms,” and “I can’t imagine bringing more humans into the world, given the direction things are headed both ecologically and socially.” We are entering very sorrowful terrain here, but these decisions are being made every day in our peripheral vision. By turning toward sorrow, we might be able to keep our hearts from turning to stone.
I write a lot of words down and send them out into the world. Every once in a while, in a moment of grace, someone comes along and distills down acres of my thoughts. Last Fall, I invited a silver-haired elder to take a look at the old Farm buildings here. This man had, for three decades, led a local historic preservation organization in town. We were meeting for the first time, and apparently he was impressed by my affinity for the past. Once we finished our tour of the Farm complex, he said to me, “There were people who lived in this very place just a few generations ago whose ecological footprint was almost unmeasurably small compared to ours today. And it seems we would rather cover the world in solar panels than imagine that there is anything worth remembering about the ways that they knew how to live.” I have told this story many times, but I am struck now by the overlay of the previous paragraph. From what I can tell, the people to which this elder was referring didn’t carry any aversion to childrearing.
I don’t intend to ask you to carry these sorrows against your will. In fact, I encourage you to clock out at any time. But I do hear with some frequency from people who read these letters, particularly people younger than I, that something I have written has reduced their feelings of loneliness or despair. They write to thank me for putting words to things they see and think about every second of every day. My allegiance is to them—the canaries in the coal mine.
So what happened to the story of drawing water again from the Old Well? In short, my neighbor Steve lent me a pump yesterday and I was able to fill the three-hundred-gallon tank that gravity-feeds out to the Sheep and Cows in the pasture. As I was pumping water last evening, the Rains came in and blessed the parched ground here with nearly half an inch, with more on the way. The spring will take three inches of Rain to fill back up, but this week’s showers will at least slow the drying and keep the garden plants alive.
But the story of the Old Well is also a metaphor for something mysterious, marvelous, and mostly-forgotten: a healthy, living culture. In his seminal book, The Unsettling of America, author and farmer Wendell Berry describes it this way:
A culture is not a collection of relics or ornaments, but a practical necessity, and its corruption invokes calamity. A healthy culture is a communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, aspiration. It reveals the human necessities and the human limits. It clarifies our inescapable bonds to the earth and to each other. It assures that the necessary restraints are observed, that the necessary work is done, and that it is done well.
Asking the Old Well for enough water to keep the Sheep and Cows and gardens and humans here at the Farm alive through a drought can be translated as a plea for the reclamation of the living culture that Wendell so eloquently invokes. He wrote those words down just a year or two before I was born in 1980. He wrote also, in regards to the decline of rural communities, “If we allow another generation to pass without doing what is necessary to enhance and embolden the possibility now perishing with them, we will lose it all together.”
Through the smoky haze yesterday, I heard the following searing questions: Is the work of the Farm an adequate response to the big story of our time? At what point does feeling good amount to truancy?
I cannot give you any tidy answers. The questions serve not as problems to solve, but rather as tools for wayfinding. Absent solutions, I will leave you with the following story. When I attend the Episcopal Church in town, I sit behind Bill and Kitty Murray. The congregation there numbers around ten. Each time I arrive, Kitty turns to me, places her hand on my forearm, and says, “I know where I am now that you are here.” Kitty has been attending that church every Sunday for ninety-four years. Given that I just moved to town a year and a half ago, you can probably imagine what it feels like to have someone of that vintage take hold of your arm and say something like that to you. Kitty and her husband Bill both have significant health and mobility challenges, and so it will take some further convincing to get them out to the Farm.
I have a not-so-secret aspiration to see how many of the ninety-plus set from town I can get to attend the Feasts. Mostly, I don’t try to convince anyone to do anything, but in this one area I make an exception. At the Feasts, we begin by singing songs. Then I offer a welcome before inviting people to speak their thanks into the air. I concluded my welcome in this way:
I am grateful for the capacity of places to hold memory. I hear those memories in the stories of the old people, yes, and also in the forgiveness of degraded soils and the regular return of rains and the sudden onset of Summer, in the dark fields of fireflies, in the breeds of Cattle and Sheep, the seeds of Lettuce and Cabbage and Cucumber, in the old recipes and the old songs. The food served this evening is nothing less than all of that goodwill, come round once again. Thank you for being here to taste it with me.
And then I stopped talking, and left the floor open. It can be mighty intimidating to speak in front of eighty people. After a few moments of necessary silence, something miraculous began to happen. The oldest folks in attendance began to tell stories of the way the fabric of a communal life was stitched together when they were young. You could have heard a pin drop as everyone stretched their ears in the direction of the old ones.
I can’t tell you if the work of the Farm is an adequate response to the big story of our time. But I can tell you that the work stubbornly imagines that the oldest among us could still be holding a few memories that might serve as clues to the living culture that Wendell describes, the one that “assures that the necessary restraints are observed, that the necessary work is done, and that it is done well.” The work that might keep our hearts from turning to stone as the world burns.
With great care,