The town my husband and I live in was predominantly farmland in the early part of the 20th century, hundreds of acres sprawling with growth and sustenance. But then farming became a losing proposition and, over the last several decades, much of the land has been sold to developers. It’s still a small town to us, but not to the locals who’ve lived here all their lives; there was quite the public rancor when the first traffic light was installed about 10 years ago.
I understand the resentment locals feel toward newcomers, especially those who live in the McMansions that were a more attractive investment in better economic times. More people has resulted in a new elementary school, a new firehouse, a new police station, and now two multi-million-dollar projects—one a new high school and the other an expansion of the town’s library. This has meant higher taxes for all, ours alone tripling in just the few short years we’ve been here. And so, I wonder about those who planned on dying here in this town where they were born, if they are finding the place unaffordable because of the newcomers like us (though my husband and I are of more modest means than most). I’ve made a point to get to know the locals whenever possible, the people who helped shaped the character of the place we love and now call home. Like the owners of the small working farm just up the street, Pat and Hal.
Pat and Hal were both born in town; it’s the only place they’ve ever known or wanted to. I learned from their daughter that Hal was the archetypical bad boy in high school, the one that Pat, ever the good girl, couldn't resist. There was upheaval in the family over their union, but Pat and Hal persevered, marrying, working the land, raising a family, preserving the values of a life built on sweat and blood. Pat still hangs clothes on a line outside. To save electricity to be sure, but to also capture the smell of sun-dried clothes and sheets, a soothing aroma to breathe in when you pull on a T-shirt in the morning or when your head falls upon the pillow at night. The kind of smell few remember anymore.
Pat is in her late 60s, but her stamina belies that of a 30-year-old. I’ve seen her in the fields as early as 6 A.M. and as late as 7 P.M., planting, tending, harvesting. Hal is in his early 70s, but the biker bandana he sometimes ties across his forehead and the impish glint ever present in his eyes provide a glimpse into his wayward past. He has long lost his enthusiasm for the effort a farm requires. But not Pat. Every year Hal shrugs burdened sighs as Pat expands the fields, as well as the offerings for sale in their small store to include locally-grown herb and flower packs and container gardens overflowing with pinks and purples and blues and whites. Pat works the farm for the love of land; Hal works the farm for the love of his wife.
There is a simple elegance about a farm, the very machinery it all—plant, tend, reap, sow. But within each step lies something only the farmer knows, a quiet knowledge of the secrets held in the land, the seeds, the weather, all the variables and necessary adjustments that will affect the most important end—the harvest. And such is the wisdom of those who work the land, full of secrets learned through the effort and born of the earth. There’s nothing like a farmer’s view of life, a common sense found almost nowhere else, to turn your head around and question your own perspective. And that perhaps is more the attraction for me than the freshly picked lettuce or tomatoes or squash I’ve come to buy, to step into the world of Hal and Pat and take a respite from my work, to take a breath and remember that life doesn’t have to be as complex as I make it. Too often I forget my own connection to the earth and the land. But not Pat, never Pat. The beauty is in her hands, dirty, calloused, and rough from the love of the work, the love of attending to all those secrets.
I watched Pat one Mother’s Day out in the fields. It was raining and cold, raw for May. But she was out there nonetheless with her grandson, regardless of the holiday that should have kept her indoors, pampered and fawned over by family. Her grandson wanted to grow and sell strawberries that year and now was the time to get the plants into the ground. So there she was, in the fields, imparting a lesson to a boy who shared her farmer’s blood, a lesson about manifesting a desire. She showed him how to give the plants to the earth, how to cover their tender leaves and protect them from the fickle New England weather, how to tell when it was safe to remove the covering and let the sun do its share of the work. And when July came, she made sure he was the one harvesting, washing, and packing the berries for sale. No free rides, but a life-long lesson if you want one. That’s Pat—working, sustaining, honoring the gift of the land.
Hal prefers to spend his time inside the small shed where the produce and plants are sold, chatting with the locals instead of sweating and bending in the fields, hiding from Pat who will find something for him to do if he’s idle too long. Hal likes to make fun of the newcomers who ask in June where the corn is. “Don’t they see the stalks out there are only two feet tall?” And there’s the incredulous shake of his head when a customer browsing today’s selections inquires as to why the strawberries aren’t still available at the farm in September when they’re for sale at the local grocery. It makes no sense to Hal that people don’t understand the cycle of things, don’t take the time to just pause and think about it. The customer leaves and Hal asks about my husband, who has undertaken some daunting yard work, and offers the use of some of his equipment. Then he shows me some wildflowers, bunches of them in pails half-filled with water. “Pat just picked those. She’s out in the fields cutting some more.” Of course she is. That’s where Pat always is, where Pat’s world makes the most sense.
I walk home with a bag of fresh vegetables and a bunch of wildflowers, courtesy of Hal. I amble up the drive and think about the secrets in our land, in our two-and-a-half acres. I wonder about the remnants of the old farmer’s walls that stand sturdy still, the stumps that remain where loggers took all the oak. In what ways did this land make sense to those who wandered here before us? I linger here and listen to the echoes in the birch, in the breeze, in those farmer’s walls, to try to hear the ancient secrets I know are stored here, too.
I hesitate to go into the house, where I will close the door on this moment and return to my office and to my latest editing project—a horribly executed math book that I’ve been struggling through—and return to a world that doesn’t hold nearly the kinds of secrets, the kind of sense, that a farmer’s world does.