Greetings Neighbors and Strangers,
I’ve had a fever dream called Covid. For days and nights on end sleep arrived only as a dream portal, each set of storied images pulling me down and then ejecting me back out into a state of wakeful torpor. I knew I was on the mend the first evening I climbed into bed and felt the sheets soft and dry against my skin—the subtle pleasure of inhabiting a healthy, sensing body.
For someone who has read David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous eight times—and given over large swaths of my waking hours for years to noticing the hundred ways the surroundings might be subtly courting my attention—I have never before had my senses so thoroughly held hostage. I don’t mean to assign Covid a nefarious motive, any more than I am willing to ascribe virus status to myself and my Western human contemporaries, even as we seem hell-bent on pillaging the life-world for every last bit of anything that we desire.
Covid was simply continuing to do his work in the world after he slipped the doorway of my nostrils. Once I set down the war metaphors handed me by the dominant society—and the self-reflexive victimhood embedded therein—I was able to notice that the aliveness I call “me” had entered into conversation with an animate being of tremendous power. We can “lose ourselves” in conversation, and thank goodness. The defended self is a lonely and sterile tower. Finally, some three and a half years in, Covid was no longer an idea, or something to form opinions about. Covid was a someone, a guest who hadn’t knocked or waited to be invited in.
I’ll go so far as to say that I’m grateful to have been in conversation with a being this powerful, to have been laid low and humbled—and reminded of a few things. I am not saying, “I am grateful that Covid is in the world,” or that I wish the illness upon anyone. Rather, I am saying that I am grateful to be of this world in a time of social and ecological unravelling—the only time and place I was granted a go at being alive.
The reminders? The Virus turned me away from the ever-present seduction to take up residence elsewhere by asking me to loosen my hold on the reins and soften my gaze on the road ahead. The Virus brought me to a complete stop, in fact, and then asked me to watch as the protective walls and roof of the carriage in which I was riding dissolved in a gentle Fall rain. The Virus asked me to re-inhabit a body that is permeable to other bodies. And then to cultivate an unshakable sense of gratitude for being alive even if that aliveness arrives in our time with a degree of seemingly-unbearable vulnerability and uncertainty. My increased capacity for gratitude hasn’t yet slipped away even as my Covid symptoms steadily recede. That’s the place from which I write you this note—this week’s Peasantry School Newsletter.
Last week’s post, The Food Church, was republished by writers Dougald Hine, Caroline Ross and James R. Martin, and their praise for that story sent quite a few new folks here as subscribers. This week’s newsletter amounts to a thank you note and a welcome letter. Dougald Hine has the distinction of teaching the only online course I’ve ever willingly signed up for, and I’m so glad I did. Along with his wife Anna Bjorkman, he began a venture with a remarkable name: A School Called HOME. The couple is offering a new course with a similarly invocational title that begins in a few weeks time: Regrowing a Living Culture. Dougald has served as one of this newsletter’s most outspoken advocates and mentors, and I can’t thank him enough. You can read some of his fine writing on his own wrestling match with the Christianity of his begetting in a series he titles Into The Deep or in his latest book At Work in the Ruins.
I settled in a valley nearby where two landowners asked if I would graze the Cows on their field in a way that would benefit the community. They offered the use of the land as a gift. This was no small miracle given the fact that I hadn’t the money to purchase land. Their courage, and the courage of many others in that town to see beyond the imaginal confines of market scarcity, set in motion a remarkable neighborly effort called Brush Brook Community Farm.
That website—which is still live—describes the project as “a bourgeoning agricultural gift economy.” “Gift economy” served as a ready-made handle for the work at the outset, but over time I found myself increasingly shying away from the phrase. The work of growing, gleaning, cooking and preserving food that would be offered as a gift to anyone who was hungry for any reason refused to submit to such an easily-digestible moniker. The work asked us—eaters and farmers alike—to loosen our grasp on everything that seemed to be keeping us safe and secure, comfortably separate and supposedly alive. I tried out other phrases to describe the practices that emerged as we gave and received gifts of food, care and money with our neighbors: reckless generosity, radical hospitality, and voluntary impoverishment.
The Peasantry School—another seemingly-disharmonic pairing of words—was born out of the ashes of Brush Brook Community Farm. I was granted the opportunity—another unearned gift—to attempt to plant some of the learnings from those initial non-market feeding efforts into the soil of an abandoned farm some distance away from there. That Farm now goes by the name Sand River Community Farm, which has the beginning of its own website. That new site reads:
What will we do on the day the grocery stores stop having food on the shelves? Will we dig deeper trenches? Or will we set the table with everything we have left and invite the whole neighborhood over for dinner?
You could read these as questions of human nature. Are humans inherently greedy or generous? Or you could read them as questions of custom and practice. Once we allow land and food to become commodities, how long before we lose our ability to see anything else?
At Sand River Community Farm, we are stubbornly unwilling to give up on humans. And hopelessly in love with the possibility that it hasn’t always been this way.
How would we farm and feed one another if land and food weren’t for sale?
Imagine for a moment that the steady creep of the market into our woodlands, farm fields, lakes and rivers, our neighborhoods, households and even families, has robbed our ability to remember our deeply human generosity? Our capacity to sustain one another? Our capacity to neighbor? How might we go about remembering?
At Sand River Community Farm, we grow and glean, preserve and serve food as a gift to anyone who is hungry for any reason. But our work isn’t charitable, at least in the way that word is commonly used. We search for old patterns of neighborly care in the falling-down barns and abandoned farm fields, by tracing our finger along the spine of old stone walls running through the woods. The work of the Farm attempts to set a bountiful table and invite the whole neighborhood to supper, asking the oldest among us: “How did we feed one another before everything had a price tag on it? Before the grocery store arrived in town? Before everything came from somewhere else? Before we were consumers? How did we neighbor back then?”
You could call Sand River Community Farm a burgeoning agricultural gift economy, but you would risk sounding a bit grandiose. Instead, you might notice that it is still socially taboo to invite your neighbor over for dinner and then hand them a bill. In reverse, it would be rude to take out your wallet and hand your host twenty dollars as a way of getting yourself off the hook after a particularly generous meal. You might imagine that a home is one of the only remaining places where food isn’t for sale. With that in mind, you could make the following humble proclamation: “Sand River Community Farm sings a love song for home in a displaced time.”
Of all the fever dreams I had while I was sick last week, one continues to haunt me. I wandered the aisles of a small, post-apocalyptic grocery store. The aisles were as empty of people as they were of food—only a few stacks of bagged dry goods such as pasta and rice. With no staff anywhere to be seen I took a few bags and tucked them under my arm. At the end of the aisle, I turned and nearly crashed into my neighbor, Steven. He and his partner Ashlee run a small, grass-fed creamery down the road from me here in the real world, and I was more than surprised to meet him in the dream, where we looked at one another and agreed that we couldn’t understand why everyone else seemed nonplussed by the fact that the industrial food supply had dried up. There was no village council meeting forming within sight of where we stood, no protests, just an eerie silence. At that moment I was ejected by the dream back into my bed.
Over the past year, I’ve begun describing the Farm as a place to practice sharing in preparation for the day the grocery stores stop having food on the shelves—disrupting our inherited images of fenced compounds guarded by barking dogs. But the statement never seems to disturb people as much as I expect it to, perhaps in the same way that saying “we’re all going to die someday” easily remains an abstraction. After a couple of generations of grocery-store-living we start to hear a sentence come into regular rotation:
Food is a human right.
I won’t deny the human-upon-human horrors of our time, and the uneven distribution of the consequence of food shortages across the human population. But lest we all start bobbing to the beat of the war drum without considering the additional consequences of the words we employ to try to make things better, I’ll ask you to try saying the following aloud:
Life is a human right.
The words catch ungratefully in the back of the throat, not unlike the persistent dry cough that accompanied my body aches and sore throat last week. Let’s try a different phrasing and see how the sentiment, and the action-plan changes:
mystery we call life
extends the gift
in the form of food.
How we carry the gift,
and carry one another,
will determine how,
human life continues.
Many thanks to you for reading.
With great care, Adam
Photo by Ben Sklar from a couple years back. The skull is one of the offspring of the Cows mentioned by name in the piece. Photo provided by Adam Wilson.