I haven’t written since May. You all know that, of course – just look at the date of the last post. I’m sitting here at the Bangor Public Library – it’s quiet, i’m surrounded by books, the sun shines in the big old windows behind me and I have to type in my shadow. But I’m just not quite sure what to say.
Out of desperation I began going through my old musings stowed away in various files on this laptop, knowing that I’ve started dozens of pieces and posts that died a quick death, thinking perhaps I could finish something I’d started. And I find this piece that I wrote, over a year ago, before poundsweet.com, before I moved to Maine, before I spent a season working on a farm. It seems I abandoned it, but re-reading it now, it’s better than anything I’ve got in my brain. And so I’ll post it, unedited, because it’s still true, and hope that it will inspire me to get crackin’.
I’ve spent the past few years getting to know farmers, working in their fields, traveling around and asking questions, writing stories, reading books, getting as intimately involved as I could, short of committing myself to one farm and one project. I travel around like a bit of a hobo, learning about yeoman plows here, heritage cattle breeds there, draft horses here. One morning I’m kneading dough for sourdough bread, another I’m learning to slaughter chickens. I’m picking up bits of knowledge, but in preparation for what?
I’m beginning to wonder – is it in preparation for a farm of my own? I’ve daydreamed about it, of course. How it would work, what I would grow and which animals I’d raise. I think about where it would be, and what the buildings might look like. I’ve written essays about connecting to our food heritage, getting back to the old ways that were sustainable and smart. If I stop, and think, all signs point to the Ellms Road in Ripley, Maine. There, there is the farm that my great great grandparents worked. It’s still in the family – my step great-grandmother lives there now. She’s 95. She’s having the barn re-painted this year.
As a child, I spent hours with my sister exploring the barn, running through the fields when the grass was above our heads, climbing over stonewalls. I feel desperately, painfully connected to the place. It’s not that I feel a sense of entitlement, or that I think the farm should be mine. It’s that I think it should be worked. It pains me to see tools so well built that they look and feel as if they could be picked up and used at a moment’s notice, sitting idly. To see the straight smooth shelves that held a year’s worth of preserves empty – they look sad, and lonely. The latch on the muslin lined doors (the muslin is still there!) is worn smooth from decades of being turned as farmwives and daughters filled the shelves with jars of strawberry preserves and apple jelly, or took out a jar of brandied peaches on a wintry night. I open the door to the root cellar, so ingeniously created to hold a steady temperature and preserve the harvest, and find no bags of potatoes, no bushels of apples, no barrels of cider. The stone foundation that forms its walls is solid, impenetrable; it’s summer but it’s perfectly cool down there.
It’s one thing to see a farm that is crumbling before your eyes, or has been thoughtlessly retrofitted to suit modern times. But to visit the Ellms farm is to step back in time. The farm has not been worked in over 50 years, but it’s been kept up and it’s asking, to me, I suppose, it’s begging, to be put to use. The buildings are strong and well built, their lines straight; the hayloft begs to be filled with sweet-smelling prickly grasses from its acres of fields. There’s a pile of logs, split who knows how many years before, ready to be tossed into a stove. The pump out front is wired shut but it still works. I’m sure there are old apple trees, waiting for a stern pruning effort and ready to pump out bushels of apples for cider and pies. I’m told that the old variety Pound Sweet used to grow there.
I’d like to think that my love for the Ellms farm is about more than nostalgia – that it’s about a drive to find new ways to live in this world, ways that respect, honor and learn from the past, while bringing in all of the hope and possibility of today and of the future. I dream of showing the world, or at least my generation, that old-fashioned techniques and structures are sustainable, sustaining, and important.