This Country Life: Ties that Bind

My now mostly overgrown farm of hayfields and dense woods once belonged to more industrious types. The place was surely grander then – some 200 years ago – and served a far more functional purpose than I have so far set for it. It’s as if I’m living in the shadow of human beings much harder working than myself, an idea I find both fascinating and a bit intimidating.

And one I’m really trying to work out for myself: What’s my purpose here? Should I stay? And if I do, what, if anything, do I do with it all? I continually ask the spirits around me (I’m sure they’re there) for any input or advice they’d care to suggest.

So far, all the response I’ve gotten was, “get some chickens.”

I’ve been told by people who’ve lived in Hartford for generations that my home was once the main house for a farm of a few hundred acres belonging to the Maynard family, stretching from one horizon on the southern end to another on the north, nestled between two hills on the east and west. Before any other houses sprang up on the road, before electric poles and phone lines went in, before asphalt was even invented, my house oversaw it all.

It’s hard for me to imagine back that far, that my home was actually standing well before the first world war.

Beans and potatoes were apparently the main crops here then; there is evidence in one of the back fields of the soil depletion potatoes cause, where only thick, woody wildflowers and alpine strawberries will now grow. They are things that love poor soil,  and stones, and baking under constant sunshine.

Piece by piece the land was sold off, and the farm gradually shrank to the roughly 40 acres it is now. Other houses and utility poles eventually brought civilization to the road, and my once isolated farmhouse was drawn into the bigger world at last.

Back in the 1970s, the last Maynard married a Batkay, and the place became the Wii Vegetable Farm. They continued to grow beans and potatoes, but on a much smaller scale, and grew other crops like rhubarb and asparagus, as well as ornamental flowers. There were three huge greenhouses out back for starting seeds and transplants, where now only the bony, silver skeleton of one remains.

Pressed into the concrete threshold of that last greenhouse is an imprint of four hands locked in a circle. I imagine it’s the hands of the Batkays and their children, but I don’t really know. Every time I see it, it makes me stop and think and remember that I’m not the only one who has ever been here. Nor will I (most likely) be the last.

But am I meant to be a farmer? Am I ready to plant my hands into some concrete like those before me did and leave my mark on this place? I honestly don’t know. I had dreams of that once, on a large scale. But the winters here are so hard and long sometimes, I don’t know how committed I ever could be to that life.

I see myself now as more a steward of the land. I enjoy the open fields, walking my dogs through them under the wide-open sky, watching the real farmer in his giant old John Deere tractor mow their grassy bounty every year for hay for his dairy cows, knowing that (even indirectly) I’m supporting a local industry that’s struggling to survive. I love the lumpy hay bales, and keeping watch over them for the brief period of time as the cure before the farmer takes them home.

And I like the space –though it can seem more like emptiness sometimes. So I feel the urge to fill it, too, with horses or sheep or goats, maybe even a cow or two of my own. I long to see them grazing out there in the afternoon sunlight.

I’d like to walk up to them with carrots or small apples from the old trees out back, and feel the rough tickle of a muzzle as they took the treats from hand. It’s a happy memory from my childhood, that feel of a sudden warm breath on my palm, followed by the soft lips and whiskers of my horse. It’s a memory so keen it makes my chest tight, that thought of having a horse in my life again.

The thought of rows of lettuce or kale, however, while possibly income-producing, doesn’t have quite the same effect.

If I had animals, I think the loneliness of this country life would be lessened. They would keep me present, grounded but moving at the same time, even in the dregs of winter when I want nothing more than to be gone from this place. The animals would make me stay.

But fields of crops, I’m not so sure. Crops can get eaten, blighted, frost-killed. And I don’t think I’d ever feel quite as committed to them. My vegetable garden is enough to manage as it is, thank you. Though I am rather itchy to get out there and start digging…

So as spring arrives and the rebirth of all things follows along with it, I’m thinking again about trying to make something of my life here, of strengthening my ties to this place that once called to me so deeply. I’m contemplating a few changes to the house itself, adding some creature comforts that would bring more warmth and convenience into such a old and all-too chilly place, things that would help it become a more inviting home and get my soul through the darkest, bleakest times of winter.

And maybe (hopefully) I won’t be alone here next year. Time and circumstances will tell, really. But it would be a most welcome addition, indeed.

My mission, I think, should I choose to accept it (whether I farm or not), is to preserve this place for myself, for others, for coming generations. To have help to do that, to bring more life here whether through the presence of another person and/or more creatures to share it with, would go miles and miles toward creating a life here for myself, one that I want to live. I think it would make a world of difference.

Then maybe I would go out one bright morning and place my palm in the circle the Batkays made, and join my hand to theirs in silent agreement, saying, “Yes, I’m with you. Lets see what the future brings, together.”

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