Tonight, as I am preparing to return to the farm, I feel like the selfish boy from Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, that I may be asking too much from something that only has so much to give.
All spring, through everything, I’ve been taking deep breaths and thinking that everything will be better, will get better, once I get back to the farm. The thought of the farmers already at work, of the seeds they’ve planted since March sprouting and growing has been a source of enormous comfort and an active hope that life will go on, that joy persists and will bloom.
But now here it is the night before and while I have my water bottle filled and my snacks packed and both my rain pants and sunhat dug out, I am afraid that I have leaned to much on the possibilities of a few acres, some friends, and hundreds of hours of work and pounds of vegetables.
Last year, working on the farm nicely popped me out of a funk following a bad breakup. People talk about the healing, grounding power of growing things. What I found was the delight of new skills and capabilities that expanded my bruised identity and a deep recalibration of what honesty looks like in the world. Those were good and great pieces to find then. In fact, I’d recommend farmwork for anyone who’s heart has been broken.
However, all that foolish heartbreak and confusion barely even signifies beside what I am asking of the land this time around—to help me with the sadness of my father’s death. We have been saying it is like losing half the North Star.
To remedy that deep a sense of loss, a confusion of primal identity and omnipresent guidance seems too much to ask of anything—kindly tree, living person, or beautiful landscape.
When I lived in the mountains, there was tremendous temptation to anthropomorphize them, to believe that those mountains somehow cared as much for me as I did for them. While the farmland is a little more interactive, it still is a landscape with its own ecology, cycles and systems. True, my actions on the farmscape play more immediately into the layers of systems—human, vegetable, economic, woodchuck, etc.—than my actions on a mountaintop or beside the ocean do, but still, the land itself does not, will not, cannot feel empathy. The eggplants will not grow more beautifully in an attempt to comfort me, the potato beetles will not take the summer off out of respect for the bereaved, and so on.
This winter, when we thought my dad was merely depressed from retiring, he and I talked a few times about how excited he was to get back to building rock walls at the farm near my parents’ house and how excited I was to get back to my farm this summer. We missed our farm friends and we missed working with our hands and being able to see how we were useful. My mom put natural bug spray and poison ivy repelling soaps in both our stockings at Christmas.
Until last summer, neither my father nor I had ever worked on farms, or really expressed much interest in it. He was always busy saving New Hampshire and I was usually busy in the mountains. And, even though we talked over each other more than we listened to each other, it was more special than I realized at the time to have that common ground with him, even if our farms were in different states, even if he eschewed having anything to do with the vegetable side of farming, even if I told him he wasn’t really a farmer but a stonemason on a farm. He was a stickler for correctness and passed that critical nature right on down. The important things, though, the true things, are that we each made farm friends and did a lot of good soul searching and were delighted to put our hands in the dirt with other people every day.
At the hospital, there was a window that Dad could walk to for most of his first week there. The window looked west from Concord Hospital, up the hill towards my parents’ house, not quite visible beyond the crest of trees. The farm my dad had fallen in love with, though, was right at the top of the hill, its big yellow house and barn fully visible. On the wonderful day when my sisters and mother and I managed, with the help of some kind and resourceful nurses, to get Dad outside in a wheelchair for some fresh air and to see his beloved dog, as I wheeled him back up, I took him past the window to see the farm.
“I want to get back there,” he said, his voice raspy with dehydration and hope and fear.
“Okay,” I said. “Then you will. And we’ll compare notes from our farms all summer.”
I am not sure, but I do not think he went back to that window again.
One of my saner coping strategies, from even a few days before he died has, been to try to enjoy things twice as much, because the world has lost one of its biggest, loudest, most exuberant fans. As I have been taking my deep breaths and ticking off days on the calendar until I get to the farm, part of the hopeful belief that working on the farm can heal some part of this grief is the need to get back to a hue of joy that I shared with my dad. Even if I can’t call him to swap stories about blisters and hear what’s growing there.
And that is bittersweet.
But, fortunately, this joy is not something that is beyond the land’s capacity to give. To receive that, all I have to do is follow my family’s de facto motto and just show up.