Thursday, December 7, 2023

The Urgent and Beautiful Gift of Making Home

frosty field, image by Ben Sklar

Greetings Neighbors and Strangers,

I don’t take in news directly, and yet the throbbing sorrow of the headlines has been creeping in of late, clinging to me as I make my rounds at the Farm.  Last year at this time I wrote a piece called Aching Beauty—my attempt to describe the excruciating experience of watching the landscape gather herself toward winter, of bearing witness as summer’s green riches bend their heads and feed the ground.  Autumn is an act of radical love that the headlines will never report.  And yet humans in these parts—even the settlers—used to live with their attention trained upon the landscape in a way scarcely imaginable today.  They couldn’t have missed the reckless generosity of life continuing.

Home isn’t a metaphor or a feeling.  Home is a capacity to bend one’s head and feed the ground.  Home is a shelter woven from restraint and from limit.  Home is an act of love that will never make the headlines.  Humans are capable of living out this kind of love.  If no one says this aloud, how could we be expected to remember?  Maybe that’s why you’re taking the time to read this Newsletter: you haven’t given up on humans either.  Well, I’m glad you’re here and I don’t take the responsibility of your attention lightly, given the troubles mounting by the hour.  Unlike the commercial media, however, your active participation will be required for this Newsletter to continue.  In fact, you and the other nine-hundred and seventy-seven people subscribed here are the ones who will either figure out how to sustain the work or not.  The kind of love I am describing asks for workers, not spectators or consumers.  Let’s see what we can do together, against the odds.

After the August Gratitude Feast here at Sand River Community Farm, a young man named Stephan who I admire greatly came up to me and articulated one of the most generous compliments I have ever received.  He told me that I speak about ideas that could easily cause him to roll his eyes, but in language that allows him to keep listening.  His observation points to the heart of the longing that animates this Newsletter—to rehydrate language as a tool for the work that is being asked of us in a time of ecological and social collapse.

I can admit it feels very risky to write about giving and receiving gifts—about love, gratitude and community—in a time when the headlines hold us entranced with stories of hate, greed and violence.  It is important to remember that the headlines are selling us those stories, and we are buying them.  Even Public Radio here in the States relies heavily on corporate advertising now.  Media is unique among commodities in that it tricks us into thinking it is free.  But fear is required for the economy to keep growing.  Fear is required to make humans into consumers.  Fear is what the media is selling.  And we are buying it, in spades.

I must pause to acknowledge the landmines in the terrain I am attempting to traverse here.  These words—love, community and gratitude—can sound terribly inappropriate in our current moment.  I am not proposing that we all simply meditate and send love to the humans dying slowly in Gaza, or the family members of those gunned down in the bowling alley in Maine last week.  The love I am describing is more like a prayer that must be enacted, more a labor than a thought or a feeling.  The love that I am describing is a radical act of home-making, and it is fed to life by the gift.

This food is offered as a gift to anyone who is hungry for any reason.

The Gift Stand opened two weeks after the Virus arrived in the States—just as the northern hills began to emerge from winter slumber.  Brush Brook Community Farm, the gift-based farming project that I helped to run at that time was forced to end its monthly Gratitude Feasts and find another way to offer food as a gift.  I decided that the for-profit bakery business that I operated, which paid all of the bills for the Farm, would discontinue bread sales and instead offer bread, alongside soup made from the Farm’s carefully grown and gleaned ingredients, at the weekly Gift Stand.

The arrival of the virus had cast our existing scarcities into high relief, and the sense of abundance—read: love, community and gratitude—made manifest at the Gift Stand came as welcome medicine, for our neighbors as well as those of us on the Farm Team.  But I grew concerned as I heard people describe the work as a “free bread and soup project.”  I replied, “the food isn’t free; it is a gift.”  But the distinction is a bit mysterious.  The subversive power of the gift works slowly, even metabolically.  Nearly four years on, the gift still works on me every day by attempting to relieve me of the spell of scarcity that is my modern inheritance.

Over the first couple of weeks at the Stand the lines kept growing, and often we ran out of food halfway through.  The people who showed up weren’t “poor” as we typically use the word today.  But they were scared, and so were we.  The interactions at the Stand, however, began to feel increasingly like a feeding frenzy, the soup and bread like piles of unwanted household possessions at the end of the driveway with a “FREE” sign.  In response, we crafted a card and sent it home with every loaf of bread and quart of soup.  The card read:

This food is our gift.
It is offered without charge
to anyone who is hungry for any reason.
It is not FREE food.
It is not value-less.
It emerges from immense
and careful labors.
This food extends an invitation,
to trade
transaction for relationship,
commerce for community.
Would you join this circle of eaters?
There is no barrier to entry,
rather a responsibility,
to consider: What are my gifts?
And how might I join hands
with others
to sustain the whole?

The “circle of eaters” image was my way of describing a group of humans who are not consumers.  I was reaching for language to touch something I had never seen—people who had willingly set down the seduction of unlimited consumption.  The numbers at the Gift Stand stabilized immediately after we sent out the card.  In fact, we often struggled to convince people to take home a second quart of soup even if we knew their family could eat at least six over the course of the week.  In the presence of the gift, people began to tell us, “But surely someone else needs this more than I do.”

I have heard this same statement so many times over the past four years.  Perhaps this is what a human sounds like who is not a consumer—a human who is at home.  Home here describes practices of restraint and limit that serve to feed the ground.  The wild is the direct beneficiary of this sort of human homemaking.  Living humans and their domesticates are the indirect beneficiaries.

In April of 2020, I began to send out a weekly Newsletter asking townspeople to sustain the Gift Stand by contributing to our detailed monthly budget request and helping us at our Sunday Work Days.  People chipped in different amounts to cover our budget request for twenty months, until the Farm Team decided to set the work down.  In the early-going, we sometimes had twenty or more people show up for our Sunday Work Day, where we tended to pastures and gardens, and assembled a twenty-gallon pot of Soup to distribute at the Stand the following Friday.  I heard regularly from Work Day attendees that they had never experienced so much love in their lives before.

The story of Brush Brook Community Farm never made the headlines.  The gift doesn’t fit into any of the standard narrative categories.  It isn’t a local farm business success story or a charity project.  It isn’t a consumer-friendly solution to the climate crisis.  The gift asks its receiver to hand over their paralyzing fears for a few precious moments and experience the aching beauty of the world.  The love for life that emerges in the presence of the gift is very difficult to touch with words.  Gratitude, community and home are some of the only candidates.  Their rehydration is the project at hand.

We’re in that landmine territory again.  How can comfortable people in good conscience talk about cultivating love, gratitude and community as the world burns?  How do privileged people keep from turning their backs on the troubles elsewhere as they engage the urgent and beautiful work of making home?  I’ll offer you an image that has helped me over the years.  As an undergraduate student in anthropology and environmental studies, I embarked on a senior thesis project asking how residents of intentional communities attempted to live out their environmental concerns.  You might imagine an intentional community as a circle of people holding hands and facing inwards.  The more I learned about how privilege works in the world—as a form of insulation from one’s consequence—I became increasingly concerned about this inward-facing orientation.  What would happen if each person turned around and faced outwards, hands still joined?  In this arrangement, the members of the circle would trade intention for attention, or even attendance.  It was this image that I had in mind when we sent out that card about the circle of eaters:

Would you join this circle of eaters?  There is no barrier to entry.  Rather a mountain of responsibility.  To consider: what are my gifts?  And how might I join hands with others to sustain the whole?

Three and a half years later, I am still asking those same home-making questions, and still hosting Sunday Work Days.  What can I say: I am as forgetful as anyone else.  I need a weekly reminder of the love of which humans are capable.  The work days are called Farm Frolics now.  Before the Frolic I attend church, one of the only community spaces I have found outside of the Farm where similar questions are being actively engaged.  When I first attended services at St. Paul’s back in March, I noticed that something immediately felt like home.  And it came as a surprise: I knew the words to the Lord’s Prayer by heart.  It was still in there from attending church as a child.  I think about the following line every day:

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. 

The first thing to note is that this is a request, not a demand.  The verb is “give,” not “sell.”  In the Lord’s Prayer, the bread of life is to be received as a gift.  Jesus’ most basic instruction is to remember that life is a gift, and that the gift inspires forgiveness and generosity.  He suggests that we can remember these things by speaking them aloud and then practicing receiving the body and blood of the world as a gift.

After Church last Sunday I raced home to set up for the Frolic, a time when neighbors are invited to place their hands on the work of the Farm: to grow, glean, preserve and cook food that will be offered as a gift to anyone who is hungry for any reason. Alongside the following beautiful humans and nonhumans, I worked to assemble a twenty-gallon pot of lamb and vegetable stew.

Ben, Catherine, and Harmony.  Maria, Dale, and Arianna.  James, Benji and Rye.  Allison and K.B.

Squash, Potato and Turnip.  Rosemary, Sage and Thyme.  Garlic and Leek.  Cabbage, Parsley and Chard.  Lamb and Beef, Sheep and Cow.

Of course, this list of contributors is terribly incomplete.  Others attended Frolics back in June when we dug the holes, stirred in compost and planted Squash and Potatoes.  South Wind brought on the greening as only she can do.  Rains came again and again and again.  Sun coaxed the plants skyward.  What about the humans who saved the seeds and tended the flocks and herds with a degree of care that can scarcely be imagined today—the ones who proceeded as if we might be hungry at day’s end so many generations out?  What about those ancestral sheep who walked alongside those old shepherds, or the plants who entered into mutually-dependent relationships with those long-dead gardeners?  Who did they have in mind?  To answer, “They were all pursuing their own self-interest” in the presence of such generosity simply doesn’t satisfy.  The statement reduces life to a gray-scale.  This is the spell of scarcity.  And yet to acknowledge what we call “our lives” as their gift to us, and then to live as if it were so, would bring the modern project to a screeching halt in a matter of minutes.  The gift is a deeply radical proposition.

The finished pot of lamb and vegetable stew—ladled into milk cans to cool in a stock tank filled with two changes of cold well-water—carries the fingerprints of many lives and many deaths.  The stew is a collection of thousands of blessings.  In The Gift, Lewis Hyde tells a story wherein one of the elders stands up before the potlach meal is served and says, “This food is the goodwill of our forefathers.  It is all given away.”  The first time I read this statement I was struck that the language is not evoking metaphor.  The food is not a representation of the goodwill of our forefathers.  It simply is their love for us.  This food—and the life it allows—is their act of keeping us in mind, and laboring on our behalf, ongoingly.  Today.  The gift is a deeply radical proposition.

This food is offered as a gift to anyone who is hungry for any reason.

This food is the goodwill of our forefathers.  It is all given away. 

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. 

How could we possibly remember if we stopped saying the words aloud and then attempting to learn, together, to live as if it were so?

With love, Adam

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Adam Wilson has taken up residence at an abandoned farm in Keeseville, NY, home to the Adgate/Schermerhorn family for over two hundred years. He grazes Sheep and Cows there, learns alongside a growing team of young working steers, and labors to write stories from and of that particular place, the farm above the bend in the Ausable where Geese stopover on their long journey. His writings include the Peasantry School Newsletter, where this essay first appeared. Sign up for it here:

2 Responses

  1. Melissa Burton says:

    Thank you for this essay. You’ve made me long for different days, I guess I needed a good cry this morning. Nature should be held in awe, in the true sense of the word, for the sheer generosity of it all. I fear that in the future there won’t be enough nature, our true benefactor, to sustain us

  2. Dorothy Hathway Forbes says:

    This beautiful and profound essay incredibly moved me. At 85 years of age, born and raised in the south-eastern Adirondacks, I was raised to believe that “nature always wins” – and learned to make that phrase a message of hope and trust (although these recent years are terrible and confusing for the vulnerable, be it humankind or other kinds of life). Thank you…

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