by Mike Connelly 11/12/04.
I had never been even close to the East Coast
before. But there I was in mid-state Vermont,
sitting in the middle of a hillside pasture that was
green as could be in September, and without a
sprinkler in sight.
I was a fish out of water, to be sure. I was the
token wild westerner, a couple thousand miles from
everything and everyone I knew, hanging out with a
bunch of funny-looking, funny-talking strangers with
names I’d never heard before.
There was the vegetable farmer with a long white
beard who was also something of a poet. There was a
sugarbush tapper who, when the planes crashed into
the towers in 2001, started walking the next day,
all the way from Burlington to New York City,
pushing a cart containing messages of hope from the
children of her home state.
There were hippie chefs who loved to eat red meat.
There were Brooklyn Jews helping African-American
grandmothers grow food on vacant ghettos lots. There
was a woman in her 70s who fed herself year-round
from her back yard in suburban New York State. There
were environmental activists. There was a lesbian
sheep farmer. There was a Buddhist monk.
And then there was me. I’m not exactly sure what
qualified me to be included with this particular
group of people, but let’s just assume it was
something good, okay? Every once in a while I have
to be reminded that this is a big giant world, and
that people really are different in different
places, which unfortunately means that I must be
different too, and not just “normal,” which is what
I generally assume.
Anyway, I was to spend a week with these people,
gathering each day in a 200-year-old hand-hewn
hardwood barn to talk about the one thing we all had
in common: A deep concern for the fate of the
American family farm.
Most of these people brought with them stories of
decaying farm communities, of dispossessed families,
and of the seemingly unstoppable flood of pavement
and buildings rolling over the green grass, the dark
soil, and the blood of the generations. The city
people talked about the insanity of their daily
lives, and the desperate flailing of individuals and
communities that have no memory at all of what it
means to be truly, deeply connected to the land.
And the activists offered confessions. They talked
about how much of their work sometimes seemed so
pointless. While they were saving an acre here or
there, 100,000 acres were being lost forever. They
wondered out loud whether all these years they had
been missing the point, missing some critical piece
of the puzzle.
I myself talked about the Klamath, and frankly I was
moved at the responses I got from these folks –
folks who fit just about every stereotype of “The
Enemy” as we’ve heard it described by defenders of
the Klamath agricultural community (myself
included). I heard long-haired, left-wing radicals
from the biggest city in the world weep audibly as I
described what we – not just the farmers but all of
us – had gone through over the last couple decades.
I also ended up doing a great deal of listening. In
fact I’m pretty sure I learned a thing or two –the
first one being this: There is nothing – nothing –
more important in our lives than food.
Sounds pretty obvious, doesn’t it? Well, I’m here to
tell you it is most definitely not obvious to the
vast majority of people in this day and age – not to
city people, not to suburban people, and not even to
most rural people. We can’t even let farmers off the
hook on this one. I mean, what’s crazier than a guy
farming a thousand acres who goes to the big chain
supermarket for most of his family’s food? Doesn’t
that seem at all odd to you? If it doesn’t, then
it’s good evidence of how much we’ve lost touch with
what farming has always been all about. To me it’s
at least as crazy as the city kid who doesn’t know
that milk comes from a cow.
It’s especially silly when we consider that, even in
major farm communities like ours, the store food
we’re buying was trucked, trained, shipped, and/or
flown in, often from a half a world away. I mean,
for pete’s sake, why is it even possible to buy an
Idaho potato in Klamath Falls?
For the week I was on this New England farm, we were
fed three squares a day, and not a morsel was grown
outside 60 miles of the farm. And we ate good, I’ll
telling you, with meat and cheese and sweets to
boot. Which brings me to the second important thing
I learned on that trip.
There’s something fairly powerful about keeping
yourself and your loved ones alive with food that
came from the ground right in front of you. It makes
you feel a part of a place. It makes you feel like
the place is a part of you, too.
I don’t mean that in some mystical new-age kind of
way, but in the most practical, matter-of-fact way
possible. If you work the land, and the land makes
the food, and the food makes you and yours, which
makes it so you and yours can go back and work the
land -- then by God you’re part of the land, and
it’s a part of you, plain and simple.
There’s a holiday this month called Thanksgiving,
and it’s no accident that it falls during the
harvest season. The pilgrims on our holiday
decorations were not grateful for shiny cars, big
screen TVs, or presidential election results. They
were grateful for food.
There are lots of things that we can be thankful for
this month, but at the top of the list should be the
food we are blessed to have on our table. This food
fills our bellies, but it also fills our hearts. It
fills our hearts with the love of the people seated
at our table, and with love of the land where all
our lives come from, and where all our lives will