Commentary: When a farmer tells a story
April 9, 2013
Walk a farm with a local farmer, and you’ll hear a story.
You may hear about his or her accomplishments, markets, favorite crops and such. You may hear about how he or she found the land and what kind of accident of luck brought it about.
But at some point in the conversation, you’ll hear about the place that is the farm and the characteristics of place that make that farm unique. You’ll know it’s coming when the farmer’s gaze goes distant, maybe to a tree catching the evening light or to a particularly well-tended place on the farm that meets with approval.
We don’t live in the valley where square farms, chiseled flat and seemingly without natural feature other than sun and soil exist. We’re hill farmers, and where we are matters.
We have tree cover, good and bad soil, steep or gentle slopes, south or west exposure, plenty of water or maybe not enough, and we have wild places where we don’t usually sit alone at night.
It’s not just what I farm. It’s where I farm. Like our farmers, our farms are unique.
I spent most of today driving around town doing errands. The rain of the past couple of days on top of last week’s rain has made the soil too wet to work, too wet to plant. But what I wanted more than the sense of accomplishment of getting things done was to be home.
Home in time to feed the dogs, home in time to close the greenhouse, home in time to watch the fading light, home to see the last flight of our resident red-tailed hawk, home in time to hear the evening chorus of tree frogs begin.
Over the years of living at Riverhill Farm, I’ve come to think of myself as a custodian. Imagine the satisfaction of a custodian sweeping the halls of a school, wiping down the bannisters, cleaning up the debris of the day. That last sweep when the day is done, a last glance down the hall, and then closing the door behind. That’s my job, and my responsibility is a daily one.
I’m also a husband to this farm. When I’m away from it, I miss it, as pure an expression of love as one needs to describe.
Wild, wet, shivering weather and scorching summer, mud and dust, for better for worse.…
Truth is I’ve done better with this landscape than I’ve done in many of my human relationships. It’s a kind of faithfulness that can’t be breached. As many human kindnesses as I’ve received, at times I’ve been ungrateful.
Yet, as many tribulations as nature and this farm have inflicted, I’ve been forgiving. Through this fidelity to place, I’ve begun to know it.
What does it take to know a place? It offers up that which comes of its own, natural force that’s law of nature, seemingly indifferent.
We are hill farmers, and instead of undifferentiated, flat soil, we have topography, and that topography has called upon our creativity and endurance against sometimes unpleasant odds.
Each generation of farmers in our community has had to come to terms with the limitations of the land along with its great physical beauty.
It’s not unlike most relationships, if you can imagine it as that, and we come to know it through the constancy of our affection.
We are hill farmers, and our farms tell a story.
It’s the story of those who have worked the land before us. Our work is a continuation of their work, like an unfinished list of tasks handed down from one generation to the next.
Our capacity for work may be different and our goals may not be exactly the same, but we continue their work because we continue to work the place and the place has demands of its own. We come to know the place and its history through our familiarity with it and that familiarity is born of daily work.
The land I farm had just three European generations that worked it before me, and I never met any of them.
I never heard their voices, never knew their disappointments, never heard their stories. Yet they are here all the same, and you could say that their stories are written on the land.
There’s a stack of stones they left after clearing the fields. There’s a grapevine trunk thicker than my arm, and it still bears fruit.
There’s a basin in the woods that caught rainwater and fed their livestock. There’s a foundation wall to the barn that burned down and an ancient oak tree under which they rested on a hot day. These are some of the stories I know.
Alan Haight farms with his wife, Jo McProud, at Riverhill Farm in Nevada City. To find out more about Riverhill Farm, or to read Alan’s blog, visit http://www.riverhillfarm.com.