Of Farms and Fables combines the efforts of professional and non-professional artists by engaging artists in farm work and farm workers in storytelling and acting. The result will be an original performance in October of 2011 which will engage performers and audience in dialogue about local agriculture, farming, and the future of small family farms in Maine.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Process of Gratitude (Jennie)

“What’s the matter, Jennie, you lost?” Pee Wee calls to me from across the rows of green beans. It is just after lunch. I am standing with an empty 5 Gallon bucket in one hand and a vague expression of doubt displayed across my face. I am looking for the last plant I picked clean during the morning. I check one plant and move forward in the row; I check another and move back again.

“I’m lost.” I say with a sigh. “I don’t think these have been picked.”

“What do you mean, not picked?” he asks me.

“There are still beans on them.” I say doubtfully.


Pee Wee brushes past me and strides down the row; he is merely glancing at the plants below him as he moves. Stopping suddenly about twenty feet along, he bends to part the leaves of a plant at his knees.

“Here.” He says.

I shake my head. “How do you do that?”

In my final rotation on Jordan’s Farm, Penny has deliberately assigned me to work with The Guys as much as possible. I have tagged along in the fields, nervously wielded a hoe, and bumped about on the tailgate of the truck like Winnie-ther-Pooh on the stairs. I have harvested beets, cucumbers, the first of the season’s peppers and cherry tomatoes, and I have harvested beans. Lots of beans. Flat beans, amarillo, and green, green beans.

In the cucumber patch on Wednesday, in the heat, I find myself comparing this work with four jovial Puerto Rican men to the work I have done with the women at Broadturn. Here, I am generally just trying to keep up. Here, I am always trying to understand. And here, I am gently absorbing the wisdom of Pee Wee.

“What’s next, Pee Wee?”


“Same as yesterday?”

“No, the new ones. Have to be careful.”

Making our way through the rows, I can see what he means. We stomp straight across the rows of yesterday’s harvest – picked multiple times and succumbing now to weeds and rot. After six or eight rows we come to an expanse of vibrant and virile cucumber plants; these have broad, fresh leaves spilling across the rows and a look of being untouched. Pee Wee instructs me further that this time, the ripe fruit will be in the center of the plants, because the plants are young. “Take only the biggest ones.”

And this sets me to thinking, once again, about an awareness of life’s process. Somehow, never having gardened and knowing very little about plants, I always picture the strong, beautiful, and actively producing version of the plant. (Is this influenced in some way by our culture’s preoccupation with the “youth and beauty” phase of our own life process?) It affected me to fully realize that the cucumber does not go directly from strong and virile to dead. It continues to produce, only not as much and not as well. It begins to rot at one end while stubbornly creating new fruit at the other. And from the farmer’s perspective – less care is given once those plants have reached a certain point. One needn’t be so careful of accidentally treading upon the leaves; weeds are allowed to stake their claim upon shared ground. Fruit is harvested, but quickly. No time is wasted searching among the sub-par for the perfect fruit that likely is not there. The plant is no longer worth the extra work, but this transition is a gradual process.

On so many occasions this summer, I have felt a subtle expansion in my awareness of life cycles; in portions of conversation, in certain striking visions of bolted lettuces, in the endless repetition of particular physical actions I have noticed again and again – aha! This is life at work. In our Story Circle with the work share members at Broadturn last Tuesday, we asked what they see of the farm that the average CSA member does not. To clarify: work share members help to harvest once per week in exchange for their vegetables; most CSA members simply pay for a share and visit the farm each week to pick it up. The predominant answer we received: the dark side. The completeness and the complexity of the cycle. A paying CSA member won’t see the vegetables rotting in the fields, the eggplants destroyed by potato beetles, or the chicks that die in the night. Bea and Megan broadened this observation to say: without these experiences, one’s knowledge of the food is incomplete. Because of this, the perception of value attached to the food is different.

Work Share Story Circle at Broadturn Farm

Beyond simply expanding my recognition of life processes at work, the summer has taught me about the truth in cultivation: a practice of growing food for human consumption. A miniature example: I was harvesting cherry tomatoes at Broadturn Farm last week. Despite all efforts to the contrary, I discovered a large tomato hornworm munching his or her way across a vulnerable leaf. The protocol here is to snip the caterpillar in half with a pair of scissors. Shockingly green guzzles of hornworm innards can then be expected to erupt forth from the offending pest, bubbling their way toward earth as the worm’s legs wriggle through the throes of death. I asked Sam about the hornworm. A moth, she said. The moth lays her eggs in the tomato house; the soft green caterpillars are born, and they are poised for a delightful feast (they really like tomatoes). Caught between revulsion toward the hornworm’s insides and a sad appreciation for the beauty of the life it aspires to, I was momentarily immobilized. As I stood there with my open scissors arrested inches from the worm, my thoughts were something like: “Here is a life that I am choosing to end for the good of my own kind. Hornworms must be destroyed if I am to enjoy the fruit of the tomato plant; the interests of the hornworm are directly in conflict with mine.” It was the diminutive nature of this event that had the most profound effect on me. For I suddenly realized: every time I put anything in my mouth, every time I seek to sustain myself, I have at the very least killed a hornworm. The fact that I buy my tomatoes at the farm stand or the supermarket and never see the hornworm does not change the fact that legions of hornworms have been destroyed for my benefit. What was most striking was the realization that so many exchanges of this kind are part of my own sustenance, and for the most part I know nothing of them.

We can intellectually grasp the idea that our lives are built in relationship to others, and that we must kill and eat what was once alive in order to survive. To understand those relationships as a whole being, physically and mentally conscious, is another matter. There has been so much writing and reading in recent years about the divorce our society has created between the consumer and the sources of our food. Many people feel that if they had to kill a cow, they wouldn’t be able to eat it. But what John, and Stacy, and Bea had to say is that it is the Knowing that makes the whole process okay. By knowing the animal or the plant, by taking part in the process of choosing that life for mine, you take responsibility for yourself and for your natural place in the order of things. By adding your own labor to the equation, by working to protect the eggplant you will later eat, you are more likely to highly value that eggplant when you eat it.

Called up from vacant grasslands in the back of my mind, I glimpse the watered-down teachings of various Native American peoples as they were presented to me in early grade school. There is a picture here of a barefoot man kneeling by the deer he has just felled. Some words pass between the man and the deer in the final moments before all light passes from her visage. I don’t know the details, but I know that the man has said: “thank you”. As this image fades through my mind, I find another in its place: a family around a table with heads bowed at their plates. And so I wonder, in a culture divorced from knowledge of our food, what has happened to the mechanics and the rituals whereby we place our thanks? When we do take the time to say thank you, do we know what to be grateful for? Have we successfully abstracted our “thanks” to fit a weak understanding of the gift? Where now do we find the lesson: In knowing the sacrifice of our nourishment, may we aptly express our gratitude. In being truly grateful, may we humbly fulfill our purpose here on Earth?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Tradition, Tradition (Cory)

Speaking of a pair of mutual acquaintances at Thursday's lunchtime workshop with the Benson family, Eddie and Becky's oldest daughter Kati said to Jennie, "Oh, they're wonderful. I'd have loved to have them at my wedding -- if only my family weren't so big..."

Our lunch meeting (Eddie: "It's a good thing you girls are pretty and bring lunch. I've never had so many meetings in my life!") involved only the very tip of that family iceberg, but with three generations of Bensons represented, the dining room felt quite full. The conversation took on a life of its own, with Eddie's mother's opinionated quips, Kati's high-spirited curiosity, and, of course, Eddie's bottomless supply of stories, advice, convictions, facts, and jokes. Even Allison, one of the 4H-ers we got to see compete last month at the Ossipee Valley Fair, got a couple of words in edgewise.

We heard the tale of Kati letting the cows back out one night in the hopes she'd be allowed to help the second time around (a natural desire for a little girl growing up in an environment where the most talked-about -- if most loathed -- job is "gettin' in cows"). We heard from Kati and her brother Eben about playing Search and Rescue with their dad in the sand pit ("Ever hear the expression 'land rich, money poor'?") and spinning around in the middle of a cornfield to get lost. Eddie's mom explained old methods used during haymaking and hay storage. Naturally, the tension between old and new was a topic that surfaced and resurfaced. It's on everyone's mind, anyway, since the collapse of the barn.

The Benson Farm Barn, about a month ago.

"What's something you hope you'll be able to pass on to your children?" we asked.

"Well, the barn was something," Eben joked, and everyone laughed but shot him a look. You could feel that one hit a bit hard. The barn had been a symbol, a presence, a physical reminder of the farm's and the family's proud and intertwining histories. Kati said that when the barn collapsed a flood of emails circulated among family members carrying memories of the old building. A mad rush ensued to get us a copy of The Benson Farm Barn Retrospective that Eddie's sister, Mary Benson Emerson, wrote for the Gorham Times in the wake of the collapse. The loss is something that the family feels deeply.

But the barn was also a real, functioning part of Benson Farm. It held hay and cows and Whistle, the pig, on top of all those memories. Its presence and its function influenced day-to-day farm operation immensely. I remember at our first Kay-Ben story circle, we asked Erica what had stayed the same on the farm over her lifetime. "Nothing," she answered. And yet, the barn was still there. Maybe the way it was being used had changed, but not completely. The factors of size and location, of the building's age and architecture, were limiting ones. Now the family has to figure out how best to replace that barn and the functions it served. Just watching Becky spread a map of the farm out on the table and shift a piece of paper cut to show the size and shape of the barn in the correct scale (a method I can't help noting that designers use in creating theatre sets) reveals the endless array of possibilities opened up by the collapse.

A commercial being shot on Tuesday, right where the barn used to be.

Tradition is a powerful thing, especially in a profession as historically generational as farming. Taking over a farm means inheriting the results of all the wise and unwise decisions made by its past owners; inheriting a relationship with consumers, community, and land; inheriting any debt, stigmas, and quarrels; inheriting the farm's limitations (in space, architecture, resources) as well as its potential; inheriting "the way it's been done." And if you're taking it over from family, you're that much more likely to be influenced by the ideology of the preceding farmers (likely your own mother and father!) about farming and, heck, life.

At 18, Phil Jordan, Bib's son, already knows he wants to eventually take over from his dad. The main concern he shared with us: not being sure of the right times to plant and harvest everything. He's got to gradually learn the Jordan's Farm cycle from Bib, over time. And one very strong tradition on the farm: Corn harvesting. Phil and Bib are almost solely responsible for harvesting corn, with a little help from Miguel when there's really a lot to pick. Bib did it himself until Phil got old enough, and Bib's father did it before him. The Guys harvest everything else on the farm, but for some reason, Jordan's corn is harvested by the farmer and it's been that way for a good long while.

In contrast to the other farms, John and Stacy, on Broadturn, have a greater share in helping to create tradition -- in more ways than one -- than they do in continuing it. They're first-generation farmers and their farm was little more than a run-down building amidst some fields and trees before they took it over. They've gotten to build a farm largely from scratch. They are also participants in a very young food/farming movement (Community Supported Agriculture), so they, along with other CSA farmers, are working to define this new tradition rather than figuring out how to continue an old one. But the ultimate success of the CSA movement will have a lot to do with its longevity -- its ability to be passed on to a next generation of farmers, and then a next...and that's all about tradition.

Tradition sustains. It also confines. It's a comfort, and that means it can be hard to recognize the benefit of change or re-evaluation. "Why do we do it that way?" "Because that's the way it's always been done." Hold onto something too long, and you run the risk of turning your life into the box stalls in Doc's barn we were clearing out last week to store Benson hay: full of crumbling legal-paper-stuffed boxes, dusty disassembled spiral staircases, metal typewriters, cracked claw-foot bathtubs, drawer-less chests of drawers -- once-useful things now meaningless.

The loss of the barn has forced the Bensons to re-evaluate in ways it's otherwise unlikely they would be doing right now, opening up options for change, and the creation of new traditions -- which will also, sooner or later, be broken and replaced. Because that's the way it goes: respect and learn from generations past, take what you can from them, and figure out the rest yourself until it's your kids' turn to try. Working on Kay-Ben last week, I noticed plenty of reminiscing; the mourning process certainly isn't complete; but there is also a sense of potential, of curiosity about the new and what's to come. Tradition's a powerful thing, and without it change wouldn't be nearly the thrill it is.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

sun gold, sun hot, sun killer (Keith)

Back on Jordan's, it is amazing how much things have grown.  This summer has been a farmer's dream (so long as they can keep irrigating).  Long days of bright, hot sun have all the crops ready to harvest several weeks before normal.  Today, I was in the field picking tomaotes.

Here, as on Broadturn, there is a wide variety of veggie products.  For instance, today I harvested 7 different types of tomato, 4 cherry varieties and 3 slicers.  First up on the cherry list were the bright yellow sun gold tomatoes.  These sweet little beauties turn a lovely golden yellow-orange when fully ripe.  And they ripen FAST!  Gabe and Peter swear that they picked all the ripe ones yesterday, yet today we have no trouble filling three more buckets. 

I remember Stacey from Broadturn talking about the high points of the growing season for her.  It went something like this, "Peas, strawberries, sun gold cherries. . . candy, candy, candy".  I found a few choice sun golds to test Stacey's theory, and I have to agree.  They sure are sweet as candy.  My guilty confession is that to confirm this I had several more, you know, just to make sure the first few weren't abnormalities.  Everything you read on the internet is true, so I had to make sure.

After the cherries, we moved onto the slicing tomatoes.  By then, the morning sun was beating down on us severely.  I had great respect for these plants.  The dirt in the rows was as dry as desert sand and as dusty as the Great Plains in an earlier era.  I knew that if it wasn't for the drip hoses running between the roots of these fruit bearing plants, they wouldn't last more than two or three days without water.  I felt myself starting to wilt.

We discovered something disturbing as we starting to pick the slicing tomatoes.  No, I don't mean tomato horn worms, though I admit, those are disturbing.  What was disturbing was that the bottoms of 90% of the ripe tomatoes were rotten at the bottom.  It was sorta sad to see what looked like a beautiful, ripe tomato, only to have your fingers sink into a mushy, rotten bottom upon picking.  Penny said it's because when those tomatoes set on the vines, it was an incredibly hot day.  It was more than sorta sad to have to throw so many tomatoes to the ground.  The paths in between the tomato rows were littered with bright red and yellow half rotted fruit. 

So, what I took from my day back on Jordan's was that even in the best circumstances, even when you do your best to control the environment as Jordan's does, when you fertilize, irrigate, remove pests, you still can't control the weather.  I suppose with irrigation you can make it rain, but the temperature is the temperature and the sun is the sun.  If it's bright and hot, there's nothing you can do about it except put on your shades and bear it.

On the bright side, there's a pretty good chance that there will be snow in the mountains in less than 90 days from now. . . 

You Say Goodbye, I say Hello Part 2 (Keith)

Kay Ben farm sure does look different without the hay barn. When I arrived at 5am for morning milking, the first thing I noticed was the light from pre-dawn. On previous trips to the farm, that pre-dawn light back light the old hay barn, creating a large, dark shadow with a halo of purple, blue and pink around it.

Without the barn there, the light just spills over the entire farm. It was quite breathtaking in an odd, natural disaster sort of way. The old hay barn got blown down in the big storm we had last month. It was a terrible thing, but like Eddie says, these things happen on a farm. Everyday it's something new. So, they pick up and move on.

Now what? Well, they aren't sure at the moment. They are conflicted about what to do and how to rebuild. There are several options on the table, and they all have their pros and cons. We discussed them last week while watching a giant pneumatic hammer attached to the end of an equally giant excavator pound the remaining foundation walls of the old hay barn into rubble.

They are thinking of extending the barn that was connected to the hay barn to hold more dry cows in the winter. Then they could build a separate, smaller hay barn for feed, hay and machinery. They have also considered building a completely new milking parlor. But that would cost a lot more than what they are likely to get from their insurance settlement. Eddie sometimes jokes about selling the herd and converting the farm into a golf course. The footprint of the old hat barn would make a swell starting place for a clubhouse.

I had another suggestion that I thought was really good. Since cows produce the most milk when they are happy, I thought, what better way to make cows happy than with a spa. They are hard working ladies, right? What hard working woman wouldn't like a regular spa day built into their weekly schedule. There could be a cow sized jacuzzi/sauna. Perhaps Erica and Becky could run a pedicure station? Seems like a wonderful idea to me.

Eddie said he'd think about it. He hasn't ruled anything out yet.

What I took from my last 2 weeks on Kay Ben was how they picked up and moved on and adjusted after the terrible results of the storm. Sometimes it's hard to let things go and move on, especially when they effect you on a personal level. But you have to. If you dwell in the past, you will never be able to see that sunrise for it's present day beauty. You'll just be thinking about how beautiful it used to be.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Alone, Together (Claire)

I have always been a deeply devoted beet lover, so as you can imagine, I was extremely enthusiastic about picking them. Jennie, “the guys” (Peewee, Tully, Miguel and Orlando) and I had just started our day. The first order of business: scanning the ground for promising looking beet tops poking up out of the dusty soil.

I’ve tried to grow beets in the past- once in my little pocket sized garden when I was in high school and once when I was tending a kitchen garden for an inn. However, I tend to fall on the neurotic/ greedy end of the scale and couldn’t resist “checking on” my little beet-letts. This is not the sort of behavior that leads to good hearty full-sized beets and as a result I have eaten my fare share of gum-drop sized beets. This was going to be my first time experiencing a full grown beet “in the wild”.

What I didn’t expect was that they would stick together like they did. Beets tend to grow close together- we found that many of the bigger beets had little hangers-on that grew alongside them, carving out little nooks and crannies as they grew together. It was wonderfully satisfying to pull up these dark masses, shake the dirt off the roots and pile them into your arms until you can’t hold anymore. They made a certain sort of ripping pop as they came out of the ground- announcing their presence in this new, bright world.

We brought them over to crates, sliced the greens off and tossed them in, trading notes on which are too little to make the cut, the thunderstorm we all expect this afternoon- all the things you talk about when you’ve got a day of picking veggies ahead of you and bright beet juice staining your fingers. Then we head out again, each going a different way to load up: search, pull, rip, pop!, repeat.

Harvesting creates a funny conversational dynamic. There I was in the field with five other people, but I may as well have been alone for most of it. This was even true when we moved on to picking green beans- conversation lasts only as long as your pace matches up in a row with another harvester. As soon as you hit an already picked spot- you jump ahead. If a plant has a particularly heavy crop, you pick all you can and fall behind.

Mostly, you listen to your internal monologue: thinking through those friends who have not called you back, the things you forgot to do this weekend, etc. In the green bean field, I found myself making my usual mental lists, but also finding myself surprised to be in a different sort of dialogue with the plants I was handing: apologizing every time I ripped off a leaf or two- responding to the wit of a hidden clump of beans down by the root. This is another form of conversation entirely; the back and forth between our attention spans the the plant’s yield. In Jennie’s farmers almanac, we found a warning about always “keeping up with beans”. It seems that if you don’t pick all they have to offer, they’ll stop producing. For vegetables, they seem like quite the needy conversationalists. Before I realize it, its almost time for lunch and I’ve started to map out how to make a plant puppet that can fight back. (Remember those punching nun puppets? I was thinking they would be sort of like that.)

In the midst of all this picking, I remembered something Pete (another Jordan’s employee) said during one of our first story circles there. “People who think farming is really simple are dead wrong. The simpler the work, the more you have to have going on in your head to keep yourself sane.”

Oh, I totally agree.

At the farmers’ market on Saturday, Jennie and I spent some time talking to the lovely Jamie Berhanu of Lalibela Farm. She has been selling tempeh (if you haven’t tried it yet, I suggest jumping out of whatever chair you are sitting in and running out to go get some.) and veggies there for several years and says that one of the best things about it is getting to get out of the rhythms of her farm and meeting up with other farmers and people who don’t live their lives in those some patterns. “Its wonderful to be out in the fields and concentrating and weeding, buts its also really nice to take a break,” she told us.

In my life, the closest thing I’ve experienced to this phenomenon is not agricultural, but culinary. There is a wonderful story by Laurie Colwin called “Alone In The Kitchen With An Eggplant” that sums up most of my reasons why cooking alone is one of my favorite things in life. Her fascination with eggplants nearly equals my passion for beets- their universal usefulness, the many different ways both veggies can become almost anything without costing you much at all, not to mention the voluptuous nature of each vegetable... the list goes on. What really gets both of us excited about a night in the kitchen is the opportunity to retreat into that internal monologue and simply cook. Laurie says:

Certainly cooking for one’s self reveals man at his weirdest. People lie when you ask them what they eat when they’re alone. “A salad,” they’ll tell you, but when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.

The only difference between this and my meditative harvesting experiences is that somehow cooking translates that monologue into an awfully revealing dinner choice rather than a crate of beets. Its a nice thought to cary around when you are stretching in the field and notice the other people picking around you, totally concentrated on their work. Maybe their thoughts are as normal and composed as a salad, but more likely their daydreams are more spaghetti and grape jam flavored.

Its not that I’m in favor of all solitude all the time. I’m with Jamie- Its wonderful to retreat, but its also great to end your day with full buckets and buddies to ride in the back of the truck with you.

PS: The whole time I was harvesting I had this song stuck in my head: The Beat Beat Stuff by Hannah Geogas. I invite you to substitute (as I did all day) the word “beat” with the word “beet”. I think you’ll find it turns the song into an anthem for love and root vegetables that is hard to “beet”. Get it? (sorry, I just couldn’t resist.)

Oh yeah! and PSS: I invited the group to try that Haymaker’s Switchel I wrote about last time. Here’s what Jennie thought of it:

She said that the taste of it stayed with her for at least three hours after trying it. I don’t think its going to be coming back into style anytime soon. Oh well- you win some, you loose some!


To Market, To Market (Jennie)

When I arrived at the Farmer’s Market this beautiful, fall-like Saturday, there were a number of things I did not know. I did not know that the Portland Farmer’s Market has been running for nearly 250 years. I did not know that the city manages the market, or that some of the vendors have been selling their wares in Deering Oaks Park for 25 years. I did not know that the only tempeh made in Maine is available at this market, and I did not know (though I should have guessed), that the farmers present are as diverse as Florida seashells.

The farms that we have been working with for the past ten weeks are notably varied. We have often rejoiced at the range of our experiences as we rotate from farm to farm. (“John found three baby chicks in the woodpile”, “We moved a lot of hay”, “I asked Miguel about his family in Spanish . . . and I understood the answer!”) We have often commented that this very diversity is critical to the success of our project. My trip to the Farmer’s Market on Saturday, however, was an extremely well timed reminder that these farms, these three farms that we have grown to know and to love, are only three farms among some 8,000 in the State of Maine (USDA 2008).

The two hours that I spent wandering with Claire among the many market stalls had the unexpected and delightful result of drastically broadening my view of farm production in Maine. As we conversed with first one farmer, then another, I became aware of various gaps in my own understanding slowly filling like plugs in a leak. Among the more fundamental of my discoveries: none of the farms directly collaborating on our project sell their products at market; therefore I have grossly underestimated the role of the farmer’s market in many a Maine farmer’s weekly routine and income. There are 90 farmer’s markets in the State of Maine. For many small vegetable farms, the market is the only place that products are sold. It represents the only time that the farmer interacts with a customer base. We heard multiple stories about the work involved in attending the farmer’s market; the crates and the tables have to be loaded on and off the truck; it’s a lot of heavy lifting; the bustle and activity of the market create a nice contrast to the solitude of work on the farm. And when I left, I understood a bit more about the choices that farmers make in the ongoing dilemma of how to bring their products to the consumer and how to make a living. I understood more about the choice between a CSA, a private farm stand, a farmer’s market, a co-op, and an agricultural production contract.

Our conversations with three of the farmers at the market were so lovely; I want to profile them briefly here:

Lalibela Farm

We talked for some time with Jaime, whom Claire has met on multiple occasions in her work at Silly’s. Jaime met her husband Andy while living and working on a farm in Oregon, and the couple chose to move back to the east coast five years ago in order to be nearer family. They rent their farmland and were originally matched with a landowner through the Maine Farmland Trust’s Farmlink program. After a season or two, they were approached by another landowner and moved to their present location in Dresden. When asked about the transition from working on a farm to running their own farm, Jaime took a deep breath and said: “We just . . . jumped in”. Lalibela’s products have been at the Portland Farmer's Market since their first season, and Jaime is now on the market’s Steering Committee. At the end of last season, after trying out a recipe for themselves, Jaime and Andy began selling their homemade tempeh at the farmer’s market. They sold out immediately and spent all of last winter making more. The Lalibela tempeh is now sold in 26 stores and restaurants throughout Maine.

Beckwith Gardens

As we approached the plentiful tables of the Beckwith stall, I introduced myself to a woman who had moments before been helping a customer. I explained our project, and that we were “hoping to talk with some of the farmers”. “Oh, I’m not a farmer.” She said. That’s the farmer.” She pointed us toward a tall and thin man named Jim who was replenishing the summer squash. (We have had many conversations over the summer about the definition of “farmer” . . . what makes a farmer?) We got waylaid on our way to speak with Jim, but we talked at some length with his nephew. We learned that four generations of the Beckwith family were at the market that day, and that the farm recently opened its own farm stand in an attempt to increase the presence of their product in the Yarmouth community. The nephew we spoke with had been working on the farm off and on ever since he was six, and he hoped that we were planning to include something about the weather in our play. “That’s a . . . “ he shook his head. “A lot of farmers had a really hard time last year, with the rain. Lost a lot of crop.” Beckwith Gardens has been attending the Portland Farmer’s Market for 25 years.

L & A Farm

We had a lively conversation with Lester Jordan; it began this way:

Claire: “It’s a beautiful day.”

Lester: “Considering my age!”

Lester is related to Penny, of course, and he farms 2 of 22 acres on Davis Point Lane in Cape Elizabeth. Lester wasn’t sure how much we already knew about the Jordan Family in Cape Elizabeth and wasted no time filling us in. “We were originally from Italy,” he said, “The Jordanis. We were horse thieves. So they threw us out and we went to France. Where we became the Jordáns. But we were still horse thieves. So they threw us out of there. And we went to England. But we were still stealing horses. So they threw us out of there and we came here. Haven’t been thrown out yet.”

Lester told us that he started farming a piece of his father’s land over 20 years ago, when he “retired”. Before actively farming his own land, Lester was a commercial fisherman and a manager for UPS. When he and his wife began their farm, they were farming all 22 acres of their land. They’ve limited their production increasingly in the past few years; next year they may farm only one acre, and “just do herbs”. Lester says that way he can work in the greenhouse, harvest from a chair, and control the weather.

To close, I find this history of L&A Farm from the Cape Farm Alliance website both beautiful and poignant:

“Lester Jordan grew up in a farmhouse on Two Lights Road, a stone’s throw from the ocean. His father, Raymond Jordan, owned and worked the surrounding 100 acres. Like most other Cape farmers, the senior Jordan grew cabbage, lettuce, and squash for the wholesale markets – until the big grocers stopped buying from local farmers in the 1970s. Lester says his parents arranged to remain in their home, but were forced to sell the farm to fund their retirement. The Broad Cove housing development was built on the farmland.

Today, Lester and Audrey Jordan worry that ever-rising land values and the difficulty of making a livelihood from farming will result in the disappearance of the few remaining Cape farms, but their love and devotion to L&A Farm keep them planting, harvesting, and hoping that there is a future here for working farms.”

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Green Man: a vindication for talking rabbits (Cory)

It's not my week for a blog post, but I spent the morning at the library and am full of thoughts.

The "fables" part of our project is still a bit of a mystery to all of us, but we've read and talked about a few fables over the past couple of months; and considering that the only sharply defined ethnic/cultural subgroup on the farms is that group of Puerto Ricans we call The Guys on Jordan's, we've wanted to take a look into Puerto Rican folklore to see what we could add to our working library. The University of Southern Maine library happens to have a copy of The Three Wishes by Ricardo Alegría, which I spent a pleasant hour reading.

A lot of the stories were more familiar to a girl raised on Hans Christian Anderson, Æsop, and the Brothers Grimm than I had anticipated. The book's intro cites the main cultural influences as Spanish, Mongolian, and African, and stocks stories with your standard princes and princesses, clever rabbits, evil stepmothers, good-for-nothings (Lazy Peter, here), and the town simpleton (the charmingly moronic Juan Bobo, on whom more in a moment). Religion is a relatively strong presence, with the Devil starring in a number of the tales and one young girl surviving live burial under a hot chili plant thanks to the blessing of the Virgin Mary.

One of the early stories features three equally strong, handsome, and brave princes, who are brothers and all in love with the same princess. She can't choose between them, so her father sends them out to bring back something valuable -- the one whose gift is most valuable will have his daughter. The princes (who bear no animosity towards one another, despite their romantic predicament) split up and each finds a valuable item with magical properties; when they rendezvous, they find out that the princess is dying. Each contributes his magical item to the cause, and the three of them together manage to do what none could have alone: save the princess's life. Because each of the brothers' items was equally instrumental in saving the princess, the king can't decide who should marry her, and everyone in his kingdom is split into three factions over the issue. The tale is open-ended; we never find out who actually marries the princess. In fact, we as listeners are asked to decide which brother we'd support.

Remarkable and relevant to me in this tale are the lack of rancor among the brothers (we're told, in fact, that they love one another dearly), and the spirit of teamwork it lauds. Most tales like this end with one brother ultimately turning out to be judged the cleverest or strongest or just, in some way, "best." But these three brothers are a symbiotic triptych. Having spent the summer with three dynamic families whose farms depend completely on the family members' willingness to contribute massive amounts of their time and their unique talents, that's a sentiment I can appreciate.

There were the usual "talking animal" stories, of which I've noticed I've grown extra skeptical since Eddie trashed Charlotte's Web and Disney movies at our last Kay-Ben story circle. But then there were Juan Bobo stories.

Juan Bobo is a Puerto Rican stock character. The first paragraph of "Juan Bobo, the Sow, and the Chicks" (Juan Bobo, el puerco, y los pollos) sums him up pretty well: "Well, sir, once upon a time, in a long-ago town, there lived a widow and her son Juan. As the boy did strange things and was a bit of a fool, people called him Simple John, or Juan Bobo."

In "Juan Bobo, the Sow, and the Chicks," Juan Bobo's mother goes to church to hear Mass, leaving him to take care of the animals. While she's gone, Juan Bobo hears the sow groaning -- and thinks she's upset because she wants to go to Mass, too. He also hears the chicks crying -- and thinks they're upset because they want to sleep in a tree. The havoc that results? Juan Bobo dresses the pig in his mother's fine clothes and sends her off to church, and he skewers all the chicks on a stick and hangs them in the tree so they can sleep. The sow heads straight for a mud pit to try and roll the uncomfortable clothes off of her, and the chicks, of course, are dead as doornails. "That day," the story ends, "Juan Bobo received a whipping that he still remembers."

That's a story that does just the opposite of Disney sentimentalization. Juan Bobo makes the mistake of attributing human motivations and desires to animals, and he -- or at least his bottom -- pays dearly for that mistake. That's a story I can imagine some of our farmers telling. But...the "talking animal" stories came from the same culture, a culture with a strong tradition of farming. I wondered for a while how to reconcile the Bensons' dismissal of talking Disney animals with the longevity of these tales. Their point about the way that turning animals into furry people causes all sorts of wrongheaded notions among laymen about animal feelings and animal rights is a persuasive one, but the staying power of old "talking animal" fables ought to indicate there's something pretty potent about them.

In the folklore section I happened across a book about the Green Man by William Anderson. I'm sure you know the Green Man, even if you don't know you know him, and no, he doesn't sell canned green beans. This is him:

and, this is him:

and, so is this:

He has a long history, during which he's made the transition from pagan icon to staple of church and Christian symbolism, and I found myself getting sucked into the book -- into page after page of Green Man images, into analyses of what the Green Man has represented through the ages and what he came to represent at different times. Encased in, and often regurgitating through mouth and even other orifices, leaves and vines and assorted greenery, he's (naturally) associated with nature, and man's relationship with it. But the relationship is far from simple for the Green Man. Is he "one" with nature? Tortured by it (as his expression, especially in regurgitating mode, sometimes seems to express)? At odds with it? Nurtured by it?

The Green Man is also a symbol of creativity. Writing of the connection between Khidr (a Muslim figure) and the Green Man, Anderson says:
[Khidr] is the voice of inspiration to the aspirant and committed artist. He can come as a white light or the gleam on a blade of grass, but more often as an inner mood. The sign of his presence is the ability to work or experience with tireless enthusiasm beyond one's normal capacities. In this there may be a link across cultures...
"The ability to work or experience with tireless enthusiasm beyond one's normal capacities," hm...another one of those things that both artists and farmers have probably experienced...

There's lots more to say (like a whole book's worth, at least) about the Green Man, but at the least he got me thinking about symbols. They're important and powerful things. And as we sit here and interpret a Green Man carved into a cathedral arch six centuries ago, hundreds of years before the name "Green Man" was even a twinkle in a scholar's eye, we are putting words to many things that the sculptor probably wouldn't have thought to name, though he was certainly expressing them. Symbols mean something to us, but it isn't always easy to express what. If it were, we wouldn't need the symbols.

So -- talking animals. When a rabbit and a tiger are friends, and what that means is that the rabbit's always playing tricks on the tiger because he's so damned clever and the tiger, after being duped every time, gets angry and tries (but fails) to eat the rabbit -- well, that's a little bit of a stretch to think that's the way a real rabbit and a real tiger would behave. The rabbit and the tiger in the story are symbols for certain kinds of people and for certain kinds of friendship. Like the Green Man that pops up in church architecture all over Europe and across other cultures, taking different forms and guises, with expressions varying from pensive to somber to downright threatening -- so, too, the clever rabbit/ant/coyote/spider of myriad folktales; so, too, the powerful but dull tiger/lion/wolf/bear. The meanings of these symbols aren't always clear, in large part because they're not always clear-cut. They express something inexpressible about human interaction, something perhaps a little too embarrassing or emotional or rooted in truth to people the tale with humans.

I think the Disney criticism holds. Disney animals aren't symbols. As you watch Thumper in Bambi or read Watership Down (which is, for the record, one of my all-time favorite books), you aren't revisiting a tried-and-true two-dimensional character. The narrative redefines for you what an actual rabbit is, instead of allowing you to interact with a nebulous accumulation of understanding around the symbol "rabbit" that has naturally evolved, gaining depth with each passing year, each telling of a tale. Disney animal characters are (or are meant to be) three-dimensional. The depth in a symbol isn't character depth; symbols are two-dimensional. The depth lies instead in the complexity of the symbol's associations. And those are cultural and develop organically over time.

And finally, this is the section that pulled me into Anderson's book.
We think of the Green Man as a visual image, as an object sculpted in stone or carved in wood, but the emotions he expresses transcend the form and their vitality is equally powerful when transmitted through the dance or the dramatic rituals of folk custom and in the rhythms and melodies of poetry and song. We do not only look at his leaves and blades of grass: we hear them singing and speaking to us; we touch and smell and taste his vegetation and his fruits. When an affection for a particular plant or tree is aroused in us we are linked through an emotional bond, more subtle and immediate than the effect of scent, to the greater world of vegetation of which the plant or tree is a part. It is a deep, wise world, one to which we can only respond because we possess it in our own natures and in the instinctive symbolism of the soul, in the tree of life that forms the spinal column, in the roots of our feet and legs, in the branches of our arms, and in the flowering and fruiting of our thoughts and feelings in the crown of the head.
It's a little hippy-dippy even for me -- and yet, yes; several times this summer I've felt a shadow of that connection with the growing things, the earth around me; and I hope that a touch of the Green Man graces next summer's play.

The Green Man goes modern: this is a recent interpretation, the Whitefield Green Man.