by Vanessa Blakeslee
“Go to the farm,” a voice inside me said, quietly but firmly—the voice I had lost touch with for some time. Midmorning, January in Florida, and I was sitting on the Lake Maitland fishing pier, part of the condominium complex where I’d lived for fifteen years. I found myself drawn to the lake, where the snakebirds and cormorants would fish and spread out their oily wings to dry in the sun, while I sipped green tea and waited for the cocktail I’d taken to kick in and calm my brain. The year before I’d spiraled into a dark depression, and, although outside circumstances had improved—I had gotten out of an abusive relationship, started working in a friend’s bookstore, and finished editing my first novel to be published in the fall—lately, alone, I found myself slipping down the rungs again. Terrified of the disturbing side effects that I’d experienced in my brief stint of taking antidepressants the previous year— night sweats, nausea, and most of all, emotional numbness—I was determined to claw my way out by other means this time, no matter what. So each morning, I popped GABA and theanine, eschewed coffee for green tea, and began my day among the sunshine and shore birds.
Only I was barely above water, as the waves sloshed the dock, mug warm in my grasp. “Go to the farm—it’s time.” There again, that voice, pulsing like a heartbeat in my temples, resounding in my ear. What farm? And what would I do there? The only farm I knew of was the free-range cattle farm belonging to mother’s first cousin and her husband in southwestern Minnesota, a place I had long intended to visit at some point, but circumstances had yet to align. I had no experience with farm labor, or even of gardening; a city dweller throughout my adult life, I didn’t keep houseplants or pets. On a working farm, what would I possibly do? And yet something in me yearned to perform the physical and repetitive, among people I had known my whole life and could therefore trust. To fill my hands with tasks and empty my mind.
“Go to the farm.”
Around this time I received an email from my longtime friend, a writer who lives in Minneapolis, wanting to know if I was indeed going to attend the AWP writers’ conference that would be happening there in April. I had every intention of going to the conference. How could I ignore this coincidence?
I brought up the intuitive urge about the farm to my doctor, himself not a fan of pharmaceutical intervention, and who, unlike previous doctors, had guided me quite brilliantly through dealing with root sources of distress. “You’re learning to trust yourself again,” he said. “Call your cousin.”
April would be an active time, my mother’s cousin, Audrey, wrote in our correspondence, but I was welcome to stay for as long as I liked, and work in exchange for room and board. “Calves will be coming, and planting will need to be done at the Easy Bean”—this was her daughter and son-in-law’s organic vegetable farm nearby, so there was not only one but two farms where I could be deployed. I had made the point clear that I was not seeking time to write, this visit, as I so often do at residencies, but to be put to task. In fact I did not intend to write at all; words imbue thoughts, and I needed a respite from those. I must have said something like, I’d been through a rough patch, and was “putting my life back together.” I had only the vaguest notion of what I needed, but Audrey’s brisk candor filled me with faith and a small dose of trepidation: “There’ll be plenty for you to do. We could use the help.”
I made my travel arrangements. After the conference in Minneapolis, I would stay on at the farm for two weeks.
Moonstone Farm sits on the softly rolling lands of the Minnesota River Valley, a few minutes from downtown Montevideo in western Chippewa County. Upon first approach, through dust blowing over the fields of Big Ag on either side, the dark green farmhouse among trees appears almost like an apparition. The weather is unusually warm when I arrive, the buds blooming. The farm belonged to Richard’s great-grandparents, Johan and Johanna Handeen, who had emigrated from Sweden and settled here in the 1870’s. Tall and lean, Richard bears an unmistakable smile beneath his cap and greets me with a firm embrace. Audrey possesses the familiar, shorter stature of my mother and their Italian-American relations; her manner is infectiously energetic and direct. In the 1990’s the Handeens decided to part ways with conventional farming and embrace permaculture and holistic management. All of which I heard about when their family came to visit during the summers of my childhood in Pennsylvania, and at last get to experience firsthand.
Audrey briskly shows me around—the summer kitchen flanked by farm cats, the cheery yellow “broodio” guesthouse, available for rent per night (an idyllic writer’s retreat for another time, I note) and beside the river, the vineyard rows dotting the endless blue sky.
Mornings, before breakfast, I unlatch the door to the chicken coop and the hens run out gaily, eager for the scraps I toss. Now and then one escapes the fence and must be chased back underneath. The young cattle, black coats smeared with muck, look on quietly, save for the occasional snort. Eggs, still warm, are tinted a pale blue and green; some of the birds are descended from the South American Araucanas, or “Easter egg layers.” The ducks lay eggs, too, the yolks larger and of a delectable richness. When I ask about the birthing of the calves, if Audrey and Richard need to assist the cows in the process, I find out that no, the calves are born in the field, no human intervention required unless a more serious problem arises. Thus my city dweller’s dramatic fantasies, shaped by numerous scenes from movies and TV, are dashed. No one will be called to a barn in the middle of the night to save an animal writhing from a difficult labor, least of all me.
Tasks begin. I peel garlic for hours, brown mush embedding beneath my fingernails, then roast the batch. Buckets of raw honey await to be ladled into Mason jars, to be sold in the Moonstone farm store by the road. I shell corn, its kernels a deeply lustrous red, some for seed and some for grinding into meal, an heirloom variety called “bloody butcher.” I bake and bake and bake: cookies of every variety for Richard and Fernando, the herdsman-in-training, to grab when they come in, two large flans for an upcoming Brazilian potluck with the neighbors, some cornbread tinted a ruddy pink, made from the glorious bloody butcher. I wash countless dishes; through the window above the sink, a craftsman is building an outdoor pizza oven. Each day the tower rises, stone by stone, at a steady pace.
I could listen to music, or talk radio, but I don’t. I perform my duties and relish the silence of the summer kitchen. Nor do I read; I may have tried but I couldn’t. At night I fall asleep soundly, tired from a full day’s work.
One afternoon, the dog drags into the yard a still-bloody hoof from a carcass. Another morning, a farm cat, the most ancient and with the fewest teeth, strikes down a small rabbit. She tears it apart on the stoop, choking down the flesh with only paws and gums. The chickens hunt for insects as I plant rows of carrots. Will I get worn out from this, bored, exhausted? There is no sign. But something is happening, incrementally, inside—time slows here, and so does my mind.
The temperature drops. I’m to work a day or two in the Easy Bean greenhouse, the farm owned by the Handeens’ daughter and son-in-law, Malena and Mike. I bundle in a sweatshirt and gloves, drive an old Jeep with a finicky ignition on the straight gravel roads, clouds and sky never ending on either side. In the greenhouse, there is the radio crackle of NPR, low chatter and laughter among the handful of us who straddle stools and transfer seedlings. The soil is cool and moist beneath my fingertips, the air inside shockingly humid as Florida, the land from where I come; soon I strip off my sweatshirt. This, I need too, camaraderie and warmth. Nights, there are big meals, folk music: accordion and bass, singing, stories. I am getting reacquainted with myself.
But who is this self with whom I am getting acquainted? For I am uncovering aspects of myself I didn’t know existed, and rapidly, somehow. Each day on the farm feels like three.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings says in her essay collection, Cross Creek, of her small farm in Hawthorne, Florida: “I was fitted by temperament and by inheritance for farm and country living, yet to take it up after some thirty years of urban life was not too easy….I see no reason for denying so fundamental an urge, ruin or no. It is more important to live the life one wishes to live, and to go down with it if necessary, quite contentedly, than to live more profitably but less happily. Yet to achieve content under sometimes adverse circumstances, requires first an adjustment within oneself, and this I had already made, and after that, a recognition that one is not unique in being obliged to toil and struggle and suffer.”
At the close of my work-stay, something inside me has shifted. What I feel is a newfound trust in myself, and for all its beauty and brutality, faith in the natural order of things. A rekindling of awareness and humility for the corporeal realities of farm life—birth, death, and the blunt, inescapable honesty of that—works some kind of magic. A country medicine not only for the mind, but for the heart. I return lighter, happier; the supplements I briskly shut away in a drawer. How many others who are suffering may need simply this—a grounding once again in the rhythms that marked our lives for millennia? A reconnection with the tangible and sensory, apart from the world we’ve built, with its characteristics increasingly digital and elusive, and isolating.
In the years since, I have sought out writing residencies with a sustainable farming mission and work-exchange opportunities, at the Rensing Center in South Carolina and this fall, at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts in Nova Scotia. Some may consider this a waste of time; for me it is a slowing down of time, that when I sit down to write I am more deeply in touch with myself and the natural order – I have worked for my bread, and that labor precedes the making of art. So, too, I have returned to Moonstone Farm with my partner, although our duties were not so all-encompassing; inspired, he wrote a jazz composition while there. We will return again, possibly in a different season, to experience the summer or the harvest. He and I had been acquaintances that turbulent spring; I could not know then, would not have guessed, that when I returned from Minnesota, shortly thereafter, our friendship would blossom into a deeper love.
I write this now from a residency that does not come with such duties but borders a farm, whose chickens wander over to peck in our yard and whose tomcat boldly stalks the bushes. As Flannery O’Connor found, the hens make amiable writing companions. And recently I made a day trip to the farm just south of Gainesville that once belonged to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, where she wrote Cross Creek and The Yearling, now a state park in her name. As soon as I entered the gate, I knew why she had chosen to make her life there, as a writer but foremost as a human being.
“We were bred of earth before we were born of our mothers,” Rawlings writes. “Once born, we can live without mother and father, or any other kin, or any friend, or any human love. We cannot live without the earth or apart from it, and something is shriveled in a man’s heart when he turns away from it and concerns himself only with the affairs of men.”
Vanessa Blakeslee‘s latest book, Perfect Conditions: stories is the winner of the Foreword Reviews’ 2018 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award for Short Stories (Gold), the 2019 IPPY Silver Medal for Short Story Fiction (Silver), the NIEA (Gold), and was a Chicago Tribune “Summer Reads” Pick, among other accolades. She is also the author of Juventud (2015) and Train Shots: stories (2014), both of which have received awards and critical acclaim. Find her online at www.vanessablakeslee.com.
Photo source: Ricardo Gomez Angel/Unsplash