“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” —Henry David Thoreau
I had a plan. For one year, I sat down to write. While I learned to wield words better than ever before, the plan cracked and my words were ousted as lifeless, for I myself was lifeless. When rejection (a chest wound) fell, all of my silently festering soul-wounds started screaming again, and I started gleaming glances at all of the dreams I’d been dreaming, including dropping out. It seemed like insanity to those around me, a foaming fantasy, so I left campus to call Campbell by the waterside. He hadn’t answered when I’d called him previously, but those calls had been idle itches; Campbell must have smelled the burning necessity when he picked up. With his voice I remembered all that we’d had together, all that we loved about him, all the wisps of wisdom we’d found by the late-night candlelight. There was a reason he’d left when others, including me, had stayed. He told me that, as always, it was not my plotted and rotted plans that mattered—it was the present, the now, the moment. I should decide to return or leave in late August, on the very moment I was meant to move magnetically. My laughter, so innocent and full, so resoundingly pure after such poison, startled those on the docks, but I couldn’t help it. I thanked him, leaped up, and started running with joy despite the gawking, falling was rising and rising was falling.
I went looking for ways to start living again and found Many Hands Farm Corps, a brand-new educational program whose stated goal is to grow farmers and help farmers grow. It was radical and I was ripe. It didn’t matter that I didn’t want to be a farmer, because I wanted to live and they wanted people who were still breathing, thinking, living. It took some pacing back and forth and a few doses of purposeful redirection by those who love me so much they hear when my heart skips a beat from telephone wires away, but I did it. I left for Amherst, MA by Amtrak the day after my twentieth birthday. I had no plans, no expectations; I was a new man in a new decade.
George Daniel the bearded picked me up in his messy white Subaru. We drove past the farm—I’d get to see it later—towards their house. When I saw it, its perfection, its possibility for home and community, I couldn’t believe they’d pulled it off, those men of Many Hands Farm Corps—it was magnificent, and they were clearly magnanimous. Eric gave me a quick tour. I could take a shower and do laundry once a week; if it was yellow, I was supposed to let it mellow, but if it was brown, I had to flush it down; we would have communal breakfast, lunch and dinner; they had beds, couches, guitars, banjos, compost piles and tree forts. This was a house that would truly be lived in; it would be my home, our home.
I jumped in to help make dinner, a few dishes for a potluck composed of meals made by local chefs, corpsmen and women from last month, as well as our CSA members and some of our farmer friends—all to celebrate the success of the June crew, the old and wizened, and the July crew, the new and ready. The difference between us was evident. The June crew had a glow of dirt and tanned skin, of smiles and laughter, of adjustment and capability; they were a crew. The July crew was awkward, intermingled, anonymous; we were clean and cautious; we would shed tears and sweat before we knew each other. It would be one month before the situation was inverted, before we were a crew, before we had the glow, before we, too, were a part of the community.
One month, indeed! I had no idea how I would make it, but I’d been told by the wise woman that anyone can do anything for a month, and I could, I did, I’m done and changed. I lived one month of full days, of hard work, of health and happiness. Every day we woke up early, ate breakfast, went to work, worked, ate lunch, worked, bathed in a swimming hole, came home, did chores, ate dinner, and had a lesson or hung out before finally crashing, exhausted and not-quite-yet-ready-to-do-it-again. On Saturdays we had half days, and we had Sundays off. In total, I worked at 13 area farms, almost all of which were organic. We weeded, hoed, harvested, fertilized, seeded, transplanted, tilled, butter-knifed, moved bales of hay, mulched, staked, trellised and un-trellised. We also managed to do a little work with horses, honeybees and cows. The work was hard, sweaty, and dirty, it was hot, cold, and smelly, but it was evidently important. We’d hand some food to our CSA members who would thank us and tell us how much they enjoyed it, or we’d harvest food from our farm and take it home to prepare for dinner that night.
Our farm couldn’t always feed us, so we did have to get food elsewhere. At one farm, the leaders traded their labor for food; we went to farmers’ markets; we went to several grocery stores; we dumpster-dived. Is ten hours of labor worth seventy or eighty dollars of dairy? Why is so much good, organic, and local food wasted at farmers’ markets? Where does all of the food in conventional grocery stores come from? How is Whole Foods able to offer organic and local food in a format which is so similar to conventional grocery stores? Why is so much food available in dumpsters? These questions and others like them presented themselves to us over the course of one month. I think all of us had some kind of desire to “understand food”, and I think even the most agriculturally-aware members of our group had some notions about organic, local food and conventional, imported food that were clarified, refined or squashed by the people we met and the experiences we had. Many of the farmers we met were in ever-increasing-debt, or they were rich enough from previous lives to float on without worrying about money, so that it was clear that growing good, organic food for a local community was not necessarily a profitable or economically sustainable one. Similarly, the workers were paid poorly in relation to the difficulty of their labor, which meant that they were either young, privileged college students or graduates who sacrificed higher-paying, easier jobs for work that matched their ideals about ethics, food, or the world around them, or they were poor, legal migrant workers or poor illegal immigrants who worked long hours and seemed to have little to no chance at running a farm themselves one day. I understand that much of conventional agriculture—defined by its use of herbicides, insecticides, fertilizers, mono-crop farming, GMOS—uses illegal immigrants, and that those farms might collapse without them. I want to be perfectly clear that when we worked with migrant workers and illegal immigrants, I did not ask them very many questions because I felt uncomfortable, and when I did ask them questions they stated that they were happy to be able to feed their families; furthermore, it is evidently a complex issue with many variables and murky value conflicts that I do not understand to any satisfactory degree, but something felt wrong at those farms, like the world was groaning with the weight of us, our civilization.
On several occasions I realized how little I’d been exposed to the nature which surrounds us and the food that nourishes us. Those of us who encounter food solely at grocery stores are Wang Lung’s sons, a generation of humanity without years or even days of hard-earned appreciation of food and land, of animals and the earth. How could we be anything other than apathetic without the experiences which are necessary to feel those earth-groans? I realized that the bouquets did not grow on bushes, that their flowers had been planted and harvested, that they had leaves which had been trimmed, and that they had been arranged ever-so-carefully. I realized that some crops are easier to grow than others, and that some crops are so weak that if we didn’t like them so much maybe we’d let them die off. I realized how much food is used in enormous quantities to make new products—tomato sauce, salsa, wine, milkshakes—and how having those products available at all times often requires enormous mono-crop farms, sacrificing diversity and soil quality for mass-production. I experienced more of these revelations when talking with one of the young women in our crew, who was a vegan. While I sympathized with her basic premise of not eating meat, I simply wasn’t knowledgeable enough about each animal product (dairy, eggs, fish), its origins, details (grass-fed, free-range, factory farms) and ethical considerations to understand the entire vegan attitude; when we worked together, I took some time to learn about veganism by asking her questions about every facet of her decision. I learned the obvious-but-hidden facts that in order to get milk, dairy farmers have to repeatedly impregnate their cows, separate them from their calves, and ultimately kill them for meat when they can no longer produce milk. Furthermore, she told me that we are the only species to drink another species’ milk, or to drink milk after the age of two. She told me about the not-so-obvious ethical atmosphere which her choices about food gave birth to, namely that by sacrificing certain foods for her ethical choices, she found something in common with the experience of her kosher step-sister. For her, veganism was the closest she came to a religious experience or tradition. Her careful distinction between morality and ethics—that morality was reminiscent of religion, so she preferred to speak in terms of ethics—was foreign to me. One consequence of this distinction was that that she chooses to be a vegan—she does not feel compelled or obligated to be one. Another vegan that we met did not agree; she felt (perhaps morally) obligated to be a vegan, as do I. All of these conversations revealed facts, questions, and differences surrounding not just food, but also ethics and empathy.
Our time at Many Hands afforded all of us daily (re-)revelations of the basic-but-oft-obscured idea that eating good food with people you care about, whether they be your co-workers, friends, or family, is the basis of any happy, healthy community. For an entire month, we ate almost no food alone, something which I think was a feat even for those in the crew who regularly eat meals with their family, or with friends in dining halls or apartments. Meals did not just mean food: they meant smiles, laughter, and good conversation. Our work also offered us plenty of spontaneous snacks: raspberries, melons, carrots, all of them given to us in gratitude and joy by the farmers we were working with. We were not just consuming food together; we were growing food together. The deeper foundation of the idea of sharing food is about its origins: food that is grown and prepared with care and thought, love and concern is going to taste better. A good, home-cooked meal will invariably taste better than anything cooked for a dining hall or a fast-food restaurant. Again, this is not a new discovery, but an ancient fact that modern civilization conceals with Pop-Tarts and TV Dinners, an ancient wisdom that we must reclaim with our own two hands (but just one mouth). So go! Cook a meal; invite friends and family over; enjoy! Make it a regular occurrence, a means to understanding one another, and a way of life.
For me, Many Hands Farm Corps was not just a job and an educational opportunity, a perhaps-just-once-in-my-lifetime chance to learn about hard work and food; it was also a chance to live. The farming life is one of experience and action—we worked hard, got dirty, and lived communally. In one month, I was afforded so many chances to do something I’d never done before, to get uncomfortable and shout for joy. I jumped off a rock and into a lake, recited my poetry at s’more-campfires, hiked mountains, and went on a night hike to a cemetery, where I saw a shooting star; I pooped outside, got poison ivy, drank raw milk, made medicine, drove a golf cart, saw snakes, went mushroom hunting, ran a roto-tiller, helped with Food Not Bombs, dumpster-dived, went on a rope-swing, ate at a restaurant we provided with produce, saw a blacksmith, stood under a waterfall, helped move a car, picked up hitch-hikers, played tug of war and murder in the dark. I got in a constant rhythm of doing something; if there was nothing going on, we made our own plans. In the months and years to come, I hope to keep the life-fire burning, to remember the rhythm of doing and move my feet to the beat.