Sunday, March 17, 2024

Un-defending Our Selves

this is Maria, photo provided by Adam WilsonGreetings Neighbors and Strangers,

This story began right out of college, when I moved to a farm and fell head over heels in love with the reckless generosity of soil, sunlight and rainfall, especially as made manifest in the sequence of cows to grass to humans.  Can you picture the way the shape and shadow of another human face or body can take up residence in your imagination, exerting a gravitational pull on your path through the world?  Now translate that sense of attraction to the landscape.  I couldn’t keep my eyes off the curvature of a fertile meadow, glimpsed from the road, in silhouette against woods and sky.  I fell for field after field, allowing my mind to fantasize about the way a small herd of Jersey cows would graze across each hill and hollow.  Every farm I saw looked more perfect than the last.

I had become re-acquainted with a bodily desire to participate in the intimate act of making life.  Farming and eating, and the human life they sustain, are nothing less than acts of intercourse with the landscape. This was deep ancestral dreaming, loosed from rational thought altogether.  I rode in the wake of that life-giving desire for about five years.

Everything would begin to change once I was offered the chance to buy a farm with a dear friend.  Over the next six years, the effort of turning soil, sunlight and rainfall into money to pay a mortgage payment just about broke me.  Monetizing a love affair isn’t likely to work out so well.  I walked away from the Farm where I had imagined living out my days with an incurable case of heartbreak and two cows.  Six months later my ex-business partner asked me not to contact her again.  Not long after that, my nine-year romantic partnership dissolved.  But Erik and I remained family.  We co-founded Brush Brook Community Farm out of the ashes of all that loss.  It seems to me now that heartbreak was a prerequisite for the work that would lie ahead.

Unable and unwilling to go into debt again to purchase land again, Erik and I were approached by a neighbor in our new town asking if we would consider grazing our two cows on their field.  She and her husband wanted no rental monies.  They simply longed for the land to offer a service to the community.  In a moment like that, receiving a gift of land to love can change everything.  Those old neighbors of mine, Lisanne and Bill, still receive this newsletter all these years later.  Gifts are powerful, spell-breaking business.  Those neighbors could never have known what their simple act of generosity would set in motion.

The same can be said for our everyday expressions of stinginess.  We weave the cultural story we inhabit from these ordinary threads of trust and fear.  Perhaps it has always been this way for humans.  But the trust threads form a much more durable cloth.  In our time, the fabric of our shared life grows dangerously fear-laden, and therefore dreadfully threadbare.  Fear becomes a highly-effective marketing strategy; scarcity and stinginess fuel the engines of economic growth.  Trust and generosity retreat into smaller and smaller circles, seeking refuge finally within the skin-boundary we call the self.  Alone in there, our deep humanity flickers like a flame starved for air.  We may even begin to believe that it has always been this way for our kind.  That we have always been consumers.  That the living world might be better off without us.

Brush Brook Community Farm began as an experiment in agricultural gift economy by drawing one simple but firm boundary around a patch of land.  Nothing from this place will be sold or bartered.  Everything will be offered as a gift to anyone who is hungry for any reason.  It wasn’t a moment of visionary brilliance.  It was simply the only move left to make when you’ve been walked to the end of a story and found yourself standing in the cold, staring into the abyss.

Four years ago, I stopped defending myself against other humans.  Absent a price tag for any of my labors, others were free to take advantage of me.  If you believe the story of our time, I should be dead by now.  Picked clean and left for scraps.

I was granted the opportunity to tell a few of these stories to a packed room at the Food Justice Summit last week.  Sitting on a bench next to my friend Sam Bliss, we described a bit of the magic that we’ve seen emerge when food is shared as a gift.

When I say that food gifting is magic, I don’t mean that any of the stories I write in these newsletters didn’t really happen.  I mean that they weren’t supposed to be able to happen within the imaginal confines of modern life.

No Trespassing signs litter the landscape in these parts, reinstating anew each day the foundational barrier to access that begets our frenzied quest for money.  The word trespass, from trans-pass, amounts to a guarded gate on a toll road.  The traveler without money will be turned back.

Around the corner from here, a cluster of old farm fields rests on a south-facing hillside, looking out at a choppy sea of forested hills.  An old farmhouse and barn sit at the foot of the hill.  I still fall for places like this, even though I’ve been granted one to go steady with.  Last spring I called up the old woman who lived there, to see if she might consider allowing me to graze the sheep flock on her un-mowed fields.  She said to me, “I don’t think so.  I am ninety-nine years old.  I am going to die soon.  My son lives away and he will likely put the farm on the market once I’m gone.”  She died a couple of months later, and by fall I saw the For Sale sign go up.  The asking price for the 135 acres: $700,000.  The property has commanding views ripe for subdivision and development.

I pass by this old farm on one of my regular running loops.  On this particular morning, I arrive just past sunup, with an inch of new snow on the fields.  The place is singing her siren song.  I can’t help myself.  Seeing no cars ahead or behind, I scurry up the roadside bank, push through the hedgerow, and begin climbing the hillside field, soon out of sight to all but the most observant driver.  I can feel my heart beating in my chest with the thrill of the transgression.  The field flattens out on top, now completely out of view from the road.  Oak woods suggest sandy soil; meadows thick with Fern and Bramble tell a story of infrequent mowing for many years.  This place hasn’t fed humans in a long time.  The grocery stores have done their work well, displacing farmers by way of cheap food, turning the landscape into a playground for real estate speculation and recreation.

I can feel that ancient desire well up to reach out and touch the curving skin of this sandy hilltop, to run the flock through these brambles, their hungry mouths and life-giving manure calling back the grass.  The animals act as the farmer’s fingertips.  I have watched old fields respond with goosebumps again and again to the footsteps of livestock and their human caretakers.  I am currently watching this intimate encounter between abandoned grassland, ruminants and these human feet at Sand River.  The fields here easily grow twice as much grass as they did two years ago, before the sheep and cows arrived.

I push the fantasy out of my mind and turn to descent the hill to the road, this time passing between the old farmhouse and barn, leaving my tracks in the snow alongside those of Deer and Turkey.  They haven’t obeyed the posted warnings either, it seems.   I can see it clear as day: this landscape never agreed to be put up for sale, never agreed for life to be made scarce by barring access.  This landscape never agreed to defend itself against trespassers.

About 250 years ago the landscape where I live was de-commoned, enclosed, titled and thereby commodified.  We could still decide to change course.  But such a course correction would require us to set down our weapons and our deeds and our dollars and fall back into life again—a life that has always been sustained by our capacity to trust one another and the generosity that wells up from the ground again each spring.

Now that I write and speak about non-market farming and feeding, I get to meet many young people with a bone-deep longing to enter into life-sustaining relationships with their home landscapes.  But the generations older than them will have to decide whether or not to grant them access.  This would mean trading amassed savings and No Trespassing signs for a different kind of security altogether, one patiently wrought over generations by the delicate work of building and maintaining relational trust and affection—first between humans and then between those interwoven humans and the rest of life.  This falling back into relationship, this weaving, this culture work, could begin again through an act of collective courage.  We could decide tomorrow that the marketplace has no business determining who gets access to land and therefore to life.  Or we could decide to stay a course marked by fear, scarcity, possession and exclusion.  We could continue to allow the fabric of our shared life—at once ecological and social—to unravel and fray.  At some point down the road, the consequences of our collision course will end up doing the deciding for us.

Gifts are undefended by nature.  The giver has no recourse other than to trust that the receiver will remember to keep the giver in mind.  Landscapes still court human affection through ongoing and undefended acts reckless generosity.  As Stephen Jenkinson writes in his remarkable book Come of Age,

The wild seems terribly vulnerable in our time.  Were it to respond in kind to the indignities and rapacious practices we oblige it to endure, the wild would practice our kind of “desolation by payback,” our kind of retributory justice.  It would be the very undoing of the wild’s other-than-human ways of being itself.  So this defenselessness sustains the wild’s soul, you could say.  It is heartbreaking.  And if the wild expires at our hands in decades to come, species by species, place by place, it does so as the wild does, not in soullessness, not in punition, but in wild silence. 

Four years ago, I stopped defending myself against other humans.  Absent a price tag for any of my labors, others were free to take advantage of me.  If you believe the story of our time, I should be dead by now.  Picked clean and left for scraps.

Many other things happened instead, miraculous acts of generosity and neighborly care perpetrated by the very humans who were supposed to be fear-driven, self-concerned consumers.  I will continue to tell their stories as long as there’s breath left in this body.  The risk of doing otherwise is more than I can bear.

With great care,


Photo at top provided by the author.

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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. Longplayer says:

    Deeply moved. Tend your herds, but by any means, keep up the writing, Adam. I’m not sure if you are two centuries too late or a century too early. Most definitely what we need to hear at the present time as we suffer from unbridled capitalism. Be well.

  2. Joshua says:

    Really well-written and touching Adam…stellar!

    I felt that calling years back as well. Didn’t come from a Farming family, but the property my grandparents owned where my family has continued to live since the 1950’s was a Farm previously. When I moved back from Colorado after working a season on a family-owned Farm out there, I knew I wanted to move back and start working our family’s piece of heaven in a rural part of Pennsylvania.

    It’s a part-time/hobby Farm at present…a “real job” pays the bills, but it feeds my soul, even on those days when everything breaks, weeds are popping up where I’d just cleared them the week before, I’m brush hogging in what turned into a downpour…you know the drill. But it what I want to be doing, where I want to be doing it. And little by little, we’re improving, making headway, and even a little $ 😉

    Keep on keepin’ on…both at the Farm and here writing…good stuff!

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