That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Shakespeare Sonnet 73
When we first arrived at Maggie’s a month ago, the glory of New England autumn was at its peak and the excitement for the new Learn to Farm student’s arrival crescendoed along with the rusty-golds and brilliant reds of the foliage. Since then things have settled into a rhythm to coincide with the uneven but steady ticking of the bronzed leaves as they blow across the road in front our white house at the top of the hill.
Our focus these past few weeks on the farm has been in fostering a connection to this place through building a meaningful awareness of it. As with any relationship, it starts with an introduction. Being shown a place by people who know it intimately and care for it lovingly cannot but inspire reverence in the hearts of those being given the introduction. Carlen, wisely, starts us off by giving us names, and then tells us a few of the more defining stories of the region. These introductions follow the pattern that we, as new members of this community, have practiced with each other in the first few days since our arrival: “What’s your name?”, “What’s your story?”, “What has shaped you?” I know this drill.
I walk in the woods and roam the fields of this ridge-top now, enlightened by the first weeks of classes, and am starting to be able tell the difference, at a glance, between the Sugar Maples that we will be tapping come spring and the brilliant Red Maples whose foliage is quickly leaving her branches bare to whistle in the wind. The fact that there is a clustering of grey birches here on the edge of an old stone wall is now noticeable to me and I can start to see the shimmering outline of the tale those papered trees might have to tell. The woods are no longer just a place to go in order to “get away from it all.” The trees have names, the landscape, stories. Stories of land use, yes – It is certain that at some time the virgin timber that once stood here was cut down, and no doubt somebody then planted corn among the stumps, and so wore out the ground and allowed the trees to return – but other stories too, that may have little or nothing to do with humankind, its wants and purposes. Like that old white oak curved into a question mark by the hurricane of 1938, as if it is asking the wind why it blows so hard, or the bedrock continually bubbling to the surface of the soil to remind the plowman of the ancient glacier’s patient, frozen plodding across this country.
After those initial introductions, there comes an invitation. An invitation to come and be an active part of the life of this place. As a group of us walks through the forest with Brad, he hands me an ax and says “let’s mark this pine here.” After a moment’s hesitation, I take the tool, feeling the heft of it, and make my first unskilled attempts to chop off a patch of bark at eye level. Next week we will return to that tree and Chainsaw Bill will instruct us in its momentous felling. An act which will have a lasting impact on that spot. More light will get to the forest floor, the two oak trees, flanking my pine, now uninhibited by the pressures of proximity may grow straighter and taller, they may produce more acorns and consequently affect the squirrel population, which would be a boon to the red tailed hawk… It is sobering to think of how deeply we may affect the place we live for good or for ill, and it will survive us, bearing the results, each of us playing a part in its succession, becoming a part of its history. I start to see my body and my daily motions as brief articulations of the energy of this place, which would eventually fall back into it like the leaves in autumn.
Without the regular acknowledgement of the integral role we play in the places we inhabit we would be tempted to – and often do – see ourselves as beings separate from our environment; living more on it than in it. We often treat it as merely an inert surface to live on and to use. We are lured by a false sense of individuality, but in truth our bodies are not distinct from the bodies of other people, on which they depend in a complexity of ways from biological to spiritual. Our bodies are not distinct from the bodies of plants and animals, with which we are involved in the cycles of feeding and in the intricate companionships of ecological systems and of the spirit. They are not distinct from the earth, the sun, the moon. By failing to see the direct connections between living and eating, eating and working, working and loving we opt out of life.
Here at Maggie’s we have been given the opportunity to connect to the land by working it and the opportunity to connect to each other in working together. Such work is unifying, healing. The connections of our society have too often been broken by the fragmentation and isolation of work. There is work that is isolating, harsh, destructive, specialized, or trivialized into meaninglessness. And there is work that is restorative, communal, dignifying, and pleasing. Good work is not just the maintenance of connections – to work “for a living” or “to support a family” – but the enactment of connections. It is living, and a way of living; it is not support for a family in the sense of an exterior brace or prop, but is one of the forms and acts of love. It defines us as we are: not too good to work with our bodies, but too good to work poorly or joylessly or selfishly or alone.