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.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

If It Be Now: Some Old and Even Older Words (Jennie)

I began writing this entry in July, shortly after the collapse of the Benson barn. I had difficulty completing it at the time; the event was overwhelming and raw and I struggled to write clearly. I have been meaning for some time to finish what I started. This was a momentous event, and I feel that it is important to include a description in our log:

“Well, Jen, what do you think?” Eddie Benson has disembarked from the house-sized front loader he was operating and is crossing the drive toward me. I am peering into a concrete and stone-filled hole in the ground; the last remaining evidence of the Bensons’ beautiful century-old hay barn.

“I don’t know, Eddie.” I say, sadly shaking my head.

“Just another day on the farm!” he replies.

It has been an ongoing manifesto of Eddie’s, and a personal project of his to impress this awareness upon us, that a farmer must be ready for anything. You can’t plan too far ahead, and there is no “control”. Every day is a new day, every hour a new hour. A farmer is someone who rolls with the punches, and is prepared to fix any problem, or to spend half the day trying.

When I drove to Kay-Ben on Thursday morning, two hours after learning of the barn’s collapse in Wednesday night’s freak windstorm, I could hear my pulse in my ears and I was afraid. I knew which barn had fallen and that two cows had died, but I didn’t know which two cows and I didn’t know how the family was holding up. From my brief conversation with Becky, I could only tell that things were very hectic.

When I pulled up to the Bensons’ yard, parking on the road because there were so many cars in the driveway, the energy was vibrant and hopeful. The yard was full of people, community members who put their own agendas on hold to pitch in and help the Benson family save their animals and clean up the colossal mess. In the center of the yard, folding tables were piled with donuts and sandwiches and water. Near the barn site, fifty or more people were picking up debris and waiting to move hay, once the loaders managed to gain access. Some of them had been at the farm well into the night and returned early in the morning to continue the family’s efforts. I grew up in a small Maine town myself, and recognized from my earliest consciousness this scene: women chatting and organizing food, men and women lifting and hauling, children scampering about through legs and under tables. Pitching in. I found Becky, ascertained that none of the most valuable cows had died, and hopped into a truck full of strangers to help bring additional picnic tables from a neighbor’s yard.

It was reaffirming to be on the Benson Farm that day, to see and to participate in the community support of this generous family. It was heartbreaking to see the barn caved in on herself, thrilling to hear the tales of heroics that brought seven buried calves to health and safety. It was dreadful to imagine Janice, a dry cow who was standing alone in the basement of the barn when it fell, and infectious to hear the stories, over and over again, a community cementing this event in the collective memory. Generations from now, the children will hear: “Remember when the Benson barn fell . . . I couldn’t even see my truck through the rain . . . I looked out the window across the yard and I just knew . . . they were standing in the sunshine, with the barn collapsed all around them . . .”

It was an overwhelming day full of myriad mixed emotions, but what most surprised and impressed me was that the predominant feeling on the farm was one of gratitude. Gratitude: that none of the family was hurt. Gratitude: that none of the most valuable cows, representing significant financial investment, had died. (Just two days before the collapse, I had helped to move all of the show cows, $60,000 worth of heifer, across the road from the basement of the hay barn to the heifer barn). Gratitude: that nothing worse had happened. “Eben had been planning to go over to the barn with his friends, before the rain.” said Eddie. “How lucky am I?”

Nevertheless, the event did represent substantial loss. Saying goodbye to a century-old icon and a space full of memories for generations of family members is not easy. Replacing the much-needed storage and housing facility is emotionally and economically stressful.

“It was a beautiful barn”, I say to Eddie.

“It sure was.” he agrees.

This cornerstone of farm life, that you must be adaptable and prepared to chuck your plans out the window whenever nature throws you a curve ball, must manifest in both large and small ways. Some days it’s an unanticipated rainfall or a tractor that won’t start. This summer, we observed a mammoth demonstration of farmer adaptability. “I can’t believe you’re writing a play about farming and a thunderstorm flattens a hay barn” said a Broadturn intern. “It’s your fairy tale ending for the play,” says Ryan.

“You know, Eddie,” I say. “We’ve all noticed that each week, you somehow manage to make our visits to the Benson Farm more unique and dramatic than the last.” I indicate the absent barn with a nod of my head. “There are four weeks left in our project!”

“There are, huh?” Eddie pulls at his chin and nods. “We’ll think of something.” He says.

Flexibility. Adaptability. Preparedness. Acceptance. I have only observed, but to me it seems that farming teaches a person how to live with wisdom and grace in a way that few other vocations can. On the other hand, perhaps this is one of those ways in which farming and theater aren’t so very different after all. I find myself mulling over Hamlet, and a few of my very favorite lines, ever:

“ . . .There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come - the readiness is all.”