On Thursday afternoon, I found myself staring hopelessly at the crispers of our two refrigerators in the bunkhouse. “Virginia,” I hollered to my housemate, with whom I share a name, “how the fuck am I supposed to fit all of this in here?!” I had just picked up our two CSA shares, and I had to laugh as I realized that the biggest problem in my life at that moment was too much abundance. It has been a slow start to the season; with all the rain, we had to push off our first distribution by a week, but suddenly our fields and fridges are full of food and we’re doing our best to hang on as transplanting and weeding and harvesting carry on at full tilt.
Even beyond the satisfaction of my material needs, I also feel as happy as I can remember being. There is something so profoundly right about this moment in my life—the work, the people, the landscape, and this abiding notion that I’m on the right path (in the sense that it’s right for me, that it’s what I need to be doing).
A Wendell Berry poem that strikes me as particularly appropriate:
Learn by little the desire for all things
which perhaps is not desire at all
but undying love which perhaps
is not love at all but gratitude
for the being of all things which
perhaps is not gratitude at all
but the maker’s joy in what is made,
the joy in which we come to rest.
There’s this conversation that I’ve had innumerable times in the last year or so, since I embarked on my farming career. I will be chatting with someone, an old family friend or a new acquaintance, and invariably they will ask me what I’ve been doing with myself post-college, and I’ll tell them. I’ve been working on a farm. Double take. Working on a farm? Doing what? Well, I grow vegetables. I plant them, water them, weed them, harvest them. I also raise dairy cows. Feed them, milk them, clean up after them, care for them when they are sick. That’s what I do, every day.
There are some people that “get it” right away, but many (perhaps most) can’t quite figure it out. I don’t know exactly what about it is so baffling—maybe farming isn’t a real thing that actual people do, part of that disconnect between the soil and our dinner plates, or maybe I just don’t look the part. I think the truth lies somewhere in between—people know that farmers do exist, must exist, but the way farmers are painted in popular culture (unsophisticated country bumpkins) and farm work is perceived (hard, monotonous work that doesn’t pay), it seems inconceivable to people that anyone, especially someone not born to a farming family, would choose that life of their own accord.
These conversations were especially hard for me when I first started farming. I was living and farming where I grew up, in a community that’s pretty oriented toward a conventional conception of success (and farming, needless to say, doesn’t fit into that framework). Truth be told, I didn’t feel totally confident about the path I was on, either, which added a whole new layer of difficulty in articulating why I was farming. I haven’t had any great revelations about what I’m doing or where I’m going, but my feelings have gradually been shifting over the last year so that now I struggle to imagine my life not working with my hands.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have had a number of independent experiences that have woven together in the fabric of my thoughts, though the ways in which they are connected are not immediately apparent to me. I want to untangle them, puzzle them out, make sense of them. They are part and parcel of this latent vision, not yet articulated, of the world and my place in it. I have had a number of provocative conversations recently with people I love, mostly in the fields or over food, about my path, my sense of purpose, my plans for the future, and have also attended a couple of events (most notably, a screening of a documentary, The Economics of Happiness, and a lecture by Bill McKibben, author, climate change activist, and founder of 350.org) which have prodded me think about my life in a global context. In some ways, I wish I could craft a sort of mission statement that was more clearly defined, but all too often, I find that others are more articulate about what farming means to me. I found this piece in the most recent edition of Small Farmer’s Journal, and Paul Hunter expresses it better than I fear I ever could:
Though sometimes drowned out by the rattle of machinery or a tractor’s roar, farming lets one work his thoughts, own what he thinks beyond the chuff and clatter of the everyday. With the harvest that chance comes in spades, when the time spent working with others fills with old stories swapped back and forth, with banter great and small. Moments when you learn who’s hiding there alongside, even as you chance to show yourself. With work on the land as backbeat, in the pulse of its rhythms, how its moments condense and relax, your understanding accumulates, as you come to savor what matters.
So for some is working in the open a way to deflate pretension, in effect a spiritual practice? Because in the field there can also be the illusion that all this I have grown. At the other end of the balance there is always ambition to be weighed, even when it stops well short of arrogance. Some farmers follow the plow and the herd because nowhere else do they have a deep enough sense of the difference they can make, where that difference begins and ends, where it makes a stand. What living actually means, what can be directed and sustained, given a turn to sustain us.
Then too, if art is an ordering and abstracting of what is, a reshaping of reality to elicit thought and feeling, then farming can also be an art. Animal breeding might be a kind of living sculpture, a graze and a frolic through time that seeks to approach perfection in each permutation, each embodiment. A living refinement of one’s need. Likewise raising domesticated species of plants and trees that they grow more attuned to the home place, more productive and beautiful, become more artful in their living understatement. More true to form.
The palette is nature herself, her chosen colors ratified by the seasons, the brushes contraptions of steel and wood, leather and rubber, and the scale, even miniaturized in gardening, is beyond reach of any canvas. To build and create and repair, to breed and water and feed and nurture, to prepare on an intimate scale and usher forth the life to come what else could it be but an art.
-excerpt from Paul Hunter’s book, One Seed to Another, as found in Small Farmer’s Journal, Volume 35 Issue 2