Hope Springs Eternal
Words by John Lee
What is it about 40/50-somethings that yearn latently for a life in the dirt? Kristin Kimball's A Dirty Life, to mention just one, draws the romantic picture of a bucolic life and what life might be like were it to be simpler, off the grid, unencumbered by the exigencies of what most of the rest of us have to put up with every day. Why is it that we all can't have a peaceful co-existence with nature—the cock's crow a welcome wake-up, the lowing of the cattle a peaceful lullaby? Why can’t we have partners who relish the same earth-centered values and appreciate the vagaries of an early or late frost that ruins this crop or that? Isn't it all good/nature's way? What is it about harkening back to the halcyon days of yore when men were men and women were, well, women?
Kimball’s romantic adventure does not hide some of the more exciting downsides of farm life in a hard-scrabble community and she makes the daily difficulties seem adventurous. I can completely understand and sympathize with her honest narrative.
I was lucky enough to grow up on a small farm in Vermont where self-sufficiency was the fondly imagined goal. Up on the end of a long dirt road, we thought we were in heaven (at least metaphorically). While my parents may have wanted to be reliant on the farm's production, in fact, there was always a cushion. When fish was on the dinner table, it was not always the trout we caught for fun and Tom Sawyer-ish adventure. We had a huge (or so I thought) garden and my mom did put up an awful lot of food for the winter. We also bought what was in season from the local grocer. We milked cows, collected eggs and slaughtered a pig and a cow for meat and made maple syrup. We never worried about rationing in case of an ill spring. It certainly was not hand-to-mouth and it also turned out to be unsustainable.
What this life did do, however, was to osmotically inculcate an indelible set of values that has led each of us five boys to modest lifestyles, a strong relationship with domestic production and an affinity for the cycles of nature and their relative importance. We all fish, know how to hunt, know what to do with what we are fortunate enough to catch or kill, and feel fortunate for the knowledge. However, none of us could make a go at dirt farming in some very rural areas, although a couple of us tried with marginal success. We could not eke out a living that did not require some sort of larger market economy that would fund our good intentions and greater romantic pursuits. But we learned from experience what it is like to lose a calf, be felled by a tree, or be unable to fix a broken piece of machinery at a critical moment. We saw first hand that when life was hard, having a good relationship was even harder. Distance may make the heart grow fonder but perceived drudgery, hunger, cold, and sick animals do not. We saw our neighbor's farms go for second homes as real estate values and the perceived need for liquidity rose. The good life did not look as good anymore. When your partner says “it’s the cows or me” be ready to lose both as that is the inevitability.
That being said, I, for one, still sometimes sentimentalize about a 'dirty' life away from the clamorous telephone, the invasive attraction of the Internet. My heart harkens to the thrum of a seasonally harmonious lifestyle where everything goes according to Hoyle. I wish that I had been able to share the opportunities for the misadventures of a blithe and youthful spirit with my kids. They seem harmless in retrospect although my parents were not so sure. I am incredibly fortunate to still be in farming in a community where my good fortune is appreciated and unique. I am thankful for my blessings and my opportunities. Come spring as I peruse the seed catalogues and muse about the poetry of a life in the fields—Elysian or otherwise—I fantasize about ‘the old days’ remembering life as I wish to. Spring can do that to you; it heralds the hopes and joys of a new beginning.
By the way, I enjoyed Ms. Kimball’s evocative narrative. She tells a good story for these wintry evenings and I hope the novelty of misadventure and romance never wears off.
John Lee is the manager of Allandale Farm (Boston’s last working farm), which specializes in naturally grown local produce. Each summer, John manages an outdoor children’s program on the farm. He writes for local news outlets and is deeply involved with farming and locally grown issues in Massachusetts.