On Being: Lessons From the Farm — Life, Death and Self-Reliance
For my Students in the Fall 2012 First Year Seminar, Voices
and for Jon
I don’t know how I got to where I am, where I’ve arrived. At my age, soon to be 59, we’re suppose to know, have some answers. I don’t. It’s as if life just happened and I went along, foggy.
Did I direct my life or was it directed for me? Who’s the director of my life? Anyone’s, for that matter?
My first instinct is to turn to literature for answers to questions like this; literature is our keystone, the arbiter of confusing dreams. Literature and art have been with me all my life, they’re friends, guides.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Book 1 of his Confessions, speaks to my core: “I alone. I know my heart, and I know men. I am not made like any of those I have seen; I dare to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence.” This is not a conceit. It is. That’s all. It simply is what comes to me after I ask, “Who’s the director of my life?” It comes from not knowing; it’s the feeling of being out of sorts, different. And it may have everything to do with having lived in two very different cultures.
My mother tells me that I’m traveling pathways paved long ago. She tends towards mysticism: my ground was set, she says, between 1294 and 1324, in Monatillou, France, when Pierre Maury shepherded his sheep across the Pyrenees into Spain for wintering. My mother argues that we descend from this Cathar line of heretics. This might account for my rebelliousness, my always ongoing push against any and all constraints; this may account for my disdain for authority, too. It may also suggest why I find myself on a farm raising sheep.
My sister tells me that my entire life has lead to this critical point, and that it has something to do with my immediate past, filled with recollections of my grandfather – ranchero, un campesino in Argentina’s Pampas, and my own father and mother on horseback in the hills and valleys of La Cumbre, Argentina. There are pictures of me sitting on horseback, my mother or my father holding me in the saddle. There’s one of me on a burro, my uncle Julio holding me in place. There are images of me chasing chickens towards my grandmother — then she’d grab one by the neck, whirl it around close enough to my face to touch me, bleed it at my feet, and dunk it in steaming water. We’d feather it together and she’d force my tiny hands into its warm cavity so that I’d pull out its lungs. Seems as if I’ve always had this genteel country life at my back urging me along.
But I still don’t know. I don’t know how or why I’ve come to this place.
I live in Vermont. I teach at Middlebury College. Eighteen or so years ago, when teaching in NYC and our youngest son was in diapers, fast asleep in the car seat, my wife, Nina, and I drove through Middlebury. We were dreaming. And she said to me in our fantastic conversation, “Why can’t you teach here? It’s beautiful.” I replied, “They don’t take people like me here.” Fifteen years later, here I am. Middlebury knocked on my door and asked me to join them — and changed my life in the process.
Who directed whom to what?
I’m not sure why — or even how, still, but here I am on a 47 acre gentleman’s farm (for lack of a better way of saying it) trying to make what to outsiders may look like two lives work. But they’re really one: what I do as a professor in an elite, residential liberal arts college and what I do on my small, always changing farm are one in the same. I can indeed see that much — but little else.
Students always ask, “How did you get here?” When they’re really asking, How does an immigrant from Argentina end up a professor in Vermont? (Student’s questions are never what comes out of their mouths; they’re always looking for something else, more, a deeper inquiry.)
Answer: I don’t know. It just is.
Here’s what I do know. “This is what I have done,” says Rousseau, “what I have thought, what I was … I may have assumed the truth of that which I knew might have been true, never of that which I knew to be false.” It’s good enough for me.
Middlebutry College gave me room to run, a luxurious open field to experiment as a teacher and a scholar – writer, conflating all my interests — technology, teaching, literature and culture and writing. It’s not surprising that the college is in the heart of Vermont — the Middle. Vermont has brought me back to Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s notion of self-reliance:
Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — “Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.” — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that never took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
From the first moment I read Self-Reliance as an undergraduate, these words have haunted me. My spiritual, American father is Ralph Waldo Emerson, in my mind always decadent, always an aesthete, always the father of American philosophy, something that’s grand and strong, unique, and that gives rise to so much, politically, culturally, and, yes, even technologically in this country. But we may have forgotten this.
I always claimed to be misunderstood, not because I’m comparing myself to Pythagoras or Socrates, say, or even Emerson himself — that would be too daunting; rather, my misunderstanding with the world comes about because I refuse to settle and be inhabited by the conditions I find myself in. Instead, I have always chosen to abandon these, to leave these constructions behind, as just that, constructions, and abandon myself to my instincts, my sense of what Rosseau says is the truth I find in my eyes.
A Truth: There’s nowhere to hide on a farm. The animals — in my case, sheep, chickens, a cow (the second) — need attending, constantly. I am tied to their cycles, to the always present rhythms of nature. Fall into winter, where we are now, at 9 degrees F this Friday morning, the 30th of November, one week left of regular classes before exams; then dead winter and our January term; it slides into Spring — and the term begins in February; which slides into the bliss of spring, graduation’s anxious joy, and summer and the rest of life. The agricultural calendar and the school’s calendar are strangely in sync. And the rhythms of my body with them both. I adapt and negotiate the life of the farm with the constructed semester and the merciless whim of nature that, like this morning’s Artic blast, is indifferent to my freezing fingers, even under thick gloves.
No matter what Nature presents — Nature + the Human Hand, that is — I have to be out there, inside it, learning, making choices, adjusting moment – to – moment, staring into the eyes of my animals — the chickens, the ewes and their lambs, the cow — to see what they’re telling me about how they want to live. They depend on me — I them.
My wife says that all animals thrive under my hand. My sense of things is that I’m merely responding to what they’re asking of me. It began long ago, it seems now.
We had horses long ago — 4. This was when our daughter, a great equestrian from a very young age, rode; she did dressage at college, too, competing and doing quite well in the NCAA’s. But like all children, she moved on and I was left a groom to 4 very large horses — a Belgian draft (17.2 hands), a draft-cross, looking like a warm blood (17 hands), and two other draft-crosses, a paint (15 hands or so) and a cross with a black like the night Percheron (15 hands, too).
Horses are a unique animal. They’re a flight animal: when they scare they fly. But they’re social, too, and want to trust. A huge horse, like my Belgian, can feel the touch of a fly on his rump. The horse is sensitive; it needs to be approached quietly, slowly but with a kind of strength and security that it can trust. Much like students. If a teacher is too agressive, the student flies away, literally and figuratively. To get to where the heart is, which is all that matters in teaching, really, particularly if we’re wanting students to be self-actualizing citizens, we have to proceed with great imagination, treading lightly, finding our way in their worlds — but with strength, a secure touch and resolve. A horse is like this. I listen better because of my horses. I see better too — perhaps because I spent years learning the horse’s language, the twiching, the movement of the ears, the eyes.
My teaching and my farming have expanded together — and become one. My education is pretty traditional. I have a PhD in American and English Literature from NYU. I wrote my dissertation on Henry James and aesthetic decadence — and Emerson featured heavily. But mysteriously, adaptively, I teach classes in literature, composition, education studies and, now, environmental studies. I’ve been teaching since 1985, and have done so in poor schools, rich schools, private schools, public schools; I’ve been fortunate enough, given the kind of academic work I’ve done, to have spent time with students in every single grade, K-16, and graduate students. I’ve done projects, assignments, courses in each and every level. I’ve had to learn to adjust quickly; it has forced me to learn — a lot — from various disciplines, which is usually not the norm for a college professor that, even as far back as undergraduate studies, s/he works in silos.
I, on the other hand, can argue that Emerson really begins the technological revolution we’re experiencing today; it could have happened no place else but here, in the USA. What does this mean? It means that my life, as I see it and understand it, has been a series of adjustments — call these adaptations. Adaptation is how we all evolve.
In The Location of Culture Homi K. Bhabha contends that, “Our existence today is marked by a tenebrous sense of survival, living on the boundaries of the ‘present’, for which there seems to be no proper name other than the current and controversial shiftiness of the prefix ‘post’: postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism … we find ourselves in the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion.”
Don’t we feel this? Don’t we feel this “living on the boundaries” of this or that, “in the moment of transit” and complexity, so much so that we’re unsure of our centers?
The farm centers me. I understand that now. It protects me. I’ve abandoned myself to its life, its subtle language. It’s more powerful and significant then I am. But it’s hard, very hard. ”Let’s face it,” says Ben Hewitt, author of The Town That Food Saved, “Farming is damn hard work, typically done for damnable pay … You don’t get to sprawl across the sofa masticating rinds and watching American Idol unless someone else is growing the food.”
Almost a year ago this coming January, Franky, our Holstein, had to fulfill its promise.
The hand-raised, docile steer — all 750 beautiful lbs — is feeding our family, others too, friends and so on.
That was the mission, the goal: what can we produce to sustain ourselves, while looking to sustain others? What can we do organically, working with the land’s language, learning it, and letting it help us use it, but making sure we were nurturing it?
These questions were our early business plan, a design for a different future. I was trading in my Henry James for Wendell Berry and Joel Salitin, for Ben Hewitt that, up here in Vermont, is showing us how we can change, how we can live embracing a fortified self-reliance.
Sustainability requires we come into dialog with death. Eventually, it comes. It has to. Death is always present on the farm; it’s always also present in life outside of the farm, too, but we have so many distractions — particularly those mediated ones that profit from death, cover death, excite us through images of death — to help us repress this most creative of realities about life. Life is death. When we look at the fast-moving hands of a clock, is not that a reminder of the end of things? When we look at photographs taken yesterday, a month ago, several years ago, are these not meant to excite memories of a time lost, gone, left behind? In museums, what are we looking at?
The notion that we have to abandon one thing for another, constantly, is something I’ve come to accept. The challenge is to not abandon yourself and keep to a view, a wide view.
On the day of his death, I slowly walked Franky out of his stall. I had him on a rope halter and he looked at me playfully, as he’d done thousands of times before when we played in one of the paddocks. I’d chase him. He’d stop and face me. We’d challenge each other. He’d half – charge, as if he knew his power would certainly crush me. Eventually he’d settle and I’d sratch his huge head, the one that I would eventually carry to the back of our property and bury in the cold.
In January it will be a year since we put him down. We’ve enjoyed him immensely since. “Go get Franky,” we say to each other when we want a cut of him waiting in the freezer in the basement. We say, “Thank you, Franky,” when he graces our table. Franky was the first. It’s taken me a year, almost, to write about this, to come to terms with how I feel about what we’re doing, but on the day of his death, I was okay. It was natural, a course that he and I were on. We both had a purpose; there was order; we’d helped each other — and he was going to carry on, help all of us through.
I slowly walked him into the barrel of gun. In a split second it was over and we were raising him up to prepare him for the butcher.
I put my hands inside him; it was warm, soothing. As he hung there, I was in awe of his beauty, his mass, his gift to us. This is what moved me to look deeply into his dead eyes that were once so playful. I wanted to reach for him, thank him, tell him, Gracias hombre. Like that, in Castellano, like my campesino grandfather must have done before me — and before, his father, and before that, Pierre. Backwards and forwards like that, the same human action, the same human urge to produce, to nurture, to sustain inside the cycle of an indifferent nature. Ironic. How indifferent nature is to our wailing at windmills is always ironic. In such irony, the most intimate relationships, even with an animal — or perhaps especially with an animal — are what matter most. There’s the possibility of changing anything with intimacy.
I don’t know how I got here. But I do know that what I do has meaning because it’s real — life and death. I’ve put myself inside a dead animal and extracted life out of it. And when I enter a classroom at Middlebury College, my only instinct is to reach for the students’ hearts because, after all, this is where life begins and ends. The farm is hopeful. Students are hopeful. The farm and the college are the same; they are fields that can be joyful if we’re true, honest, nurturing. The work is in moving aside the manure, using it for something better. That’s what I know to be true. That and death. In between there are choices; these depend on listening and experience. It’s not an intellectual exercise; that comes after all else is exhausted.