When I was thirty-one years old, I went home to spend a summer with my mother and father on the farm in Pennsylvania where I grew up. I left Massachusetts in late morning, drove the last part of the turnpike in the early dusk, and left the pavement in full dark. The sign for Anderson Hollow Road was chest deep in trumpet vine and stinging nettle. A rabbit skittered out across the dirt, frantic in the bright headlights and the rising dust. Beyond the trees that lined the road, the gentle fields rolled off toward the creek, and the insects crawled in the grass, and the deer grazed silently in the low places, and the fish swam among the water weeds. At the end, my parents’ farm was asleep in the dark hollow, breathing deep breaths, everything growing and dying at once.
Every time I’d come back to the farm as an adult, during holidays or just to see my parents, I’d always just been a visitor. I’d never had any interest in being a farmer, and I’d never wanted to live there. From a very young age I’d been eager to live in cities and around other people, so I’d left the farm when I was sixteen, first for boarding school, then college, then New York, and eventually Massachusetts. I went home for longer periods sometimes in those years, but just to stay a few months and earn enough money to move on to something else. The place had always made me a little anxious. It was so isolated and lonely, and the work there was so intense.
This time, I wasn’t making a completely clean break from my life in Massachusetts; my girlfriend, Sarah, was going to join me at the farm in about a month. When I’d told her that I wanted to move to a farm hundreds of miles away and without any plan beyond the summer, she was upset, but eventually I convinced her that it was important to me. I wasn’t making much progress in my job or other pursuits, and I wasn’t really sure about what I was trying to achieve in general. After lots of discussion we decided that I would go to the farm first and spend a month while she settled her affairs. Then she’d join me, and we would work together for a few months, and when it got colder and the season ended, we’d go on and do something different, figure it out from there. Her willingness to go along with a plan like this is one of the reasons that I’d fallen in love with her.
I knew that no matter what else happened I could be busy at the farm. My parents grew almost one hundred different kinds of vegetables, among them corn, okra, eggplant, basil, red mustard, and black turnips. Green beans were harvested all summer long, along with corn, zucchini, and yellow squash. Strawberries were a huge job in the spring, and then in the late summer there were rows after rows of raspberries to pick. In the fall there was spinach and kale, and after the frost, winter squash. And the biggest crop, the mainstay of the farm, was the tomatoes. I knew what I was getting myself into. I would have a full-time job, and my parents would pay me a standard wage.
I also knew that my life in Massachusetts felt less satisfying than it should have. I was getting older; the time for taking risks was getting shorter. Before it was too late I wanted to do something that felt important to me, or at least different than what I’d been doing before. When my parents had first come to Pennsylvania, my father shaggy since leaving the navy and my mother still with her New Hampshire accent, the farm they had purchased was a sad and run-down property at the end of a long dirt road in one of the more rural parts of Appalachia. Gambling so much of their future on that property was a huge adventure and a life-changing decision. They didn’t know how they’d eventually pay for things like health insurance, vacations, and tuition, but they did it anyway, and it turned out to be a decent way of making a living.
* * *
My parents’ very first attempt to start a farm had been on another piece of land, an hour south of where they lived now and outside a tiny town named Sleepy Creek. My father had moved there after dropping out of law school in 1972, and my mother had joined him soon after. They were young, and going “back to the land” seemed like it could be a meaningful way to live, and also a chance to have a huge amount of fun. Photographs from that time show them affecting moody poses in headbands and leather vests, or sitting in the tall grass with their lean red dogs, or posing nude with a huge bunch of freshly dug carrots. Growing vegetables didn’t feel like a real job yet, and it didn’t have to, because there was plenty of time to be irresponsible and free.
I was born in 1978, and by then my parents had moved to the land where they live today. The farm was a real business, and there was less time for fun. Crazy things still happened though. One of my earliest memories is falling out of a red Ford pickup truck at the only stoplight in McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania, when the rusty door latch suddenly gave way. My beautiful mother, her hair in a thick blond braid, her cutoff jeans showing her tan legs, slammed on the brakes and jumped out to scoop me up off the pavement. Everyone in town saw: the greaser farm boys at the Bedford Petroleum station, the waitress smoking outside the Little Duchess, the fat salesman at the Dodge dealership. A few years before, a story like this might have been something she could laugh about with friends over glasses of wine and a joint, but I suspect that my mother might have suddenly realized how much responsibility she had.
Even if it couldn’t always be as freewheeling as it had been once, growing up on the farm was still a huge amount of fun. I spent my days barefoot, following my mother out to the little patch below the house to look for Indian arrowheads while she hoed a line of spinach. On hot days she pulled a big galvanized tub that we used for washing vegetables out into the yard, filled it with cold water, and let me float there while the dogs lapped at the water. My father would put me in the bucket loader of the John Deere and raise me way up above the barnyard, and he would let me sit on the fender and keep him company while he plowed long rows in the bottom fields.
There were no other kids my age around, but there were people everywhere, and all of them wanted to play with me. A steady stream of apprentices, most of them just a few years younger than my parents, lived there every summer. Almost no one seriously thought that farming like this could be a viable career, and most of them were there to spend a summer in Arcadian bliss. One of them would stop working to show me how to identify wild spearmint by its square stems, and another would walk with me after a storm to look for fallen birds’ nests. At night they would drink beer down by the creek and teach me how to skip stones.
Our social life outside the farm was limited, but sometimes we would get in the pickup and drive down to Sleepy Creek, where another couple still farmed on land near where my parents had lived. There were bonfires, rough hayrides pulled by a tractor with a tipsy driver, and corn cooked on the open coals. The swimming hole behind the house would be full of naked people lounging on the rocks and riding the long arc of the rope swing that jutted out over deep water. That couple had twin girls, just a year younger than me, and as a kind of parlor trick their father would have them roll joints from the pot that grew in the woods.
I was four years old when my sister, Janie, was born, and I went to kindergarten the next fall. Things changed for us; I couldn’t wear my pajamas all day anymore, my mother had to go to PTA meetings with other mothers who wore tight curlers and carried huge purses, and my father bought a station wagon from a man who ran a produce distributor in Washington. The farm was a bigger business, with more sales but also more debt, and my father had to spend more time in his office and less time outside washing the new crop of pumpkins in the creek or getting the last few strawberry seedlings into the ground before the sun went down.
As the farm got bigger, my parents’ expectation for the business grew. Against the odds, the farm had succeeded, and now someday it would be their legacy. There were a few more years for my sister and me when the farm was a place where we felt separate from the outside world, but eventually we finished school, I moved to New York and Janie to Pittsburgh, and both of us went on to do other things with our lives. The farm seemed distant and preserved at the end of its long dirt road, and very separate from my day-to-day life. Now that I was going back there, I didn’t expect it to be the same as when I was a little kid. I still looked forward though to being back in my family’s small kingdom in the hollow.
* * *
Sarah and I lived in Cambridge, and I’d always loved living in that city. I loved how the Charles River was full of boats and how the bridges were all beautiful in different ways, and I loved the old oak trees, the uneven brick houses, and the graveyards with the toppled stones. I loved the names of the streets and the way the white spire of Memorial Church glowed in the evening above the green trees. I’d spent two mostly happy years there, eating in cafés filled with smart and beautiful girls, shopping at bookstores with piles of obscure remainders, walking through the snow to get coffee from a shop on Brattle Street that smelled like wet wool.
Sarah and I lived in a small apartment that was full of books, with an old chair to sit in and read by the open window, where the quiet sounds of the neighborhood could drift in. Our building was at 16 Chauncy Street, located in a leafy neighborhood west of Harvard Square, where the curbs were granite and the buildings were red brick. In the summer the street was vaulted over by the branches of the trees, and in the winter the snow made it quiet and lightly traveled. Our building had a black wrought-iron gate and a dark, cool lobby with a terrazzo floor. A sign noted that Vladimir Nabokov had lived there when Lolita was published. It was a small sign but I loved to point it out.
I worked in an art museum at Harvard called the Fogg, and every morning I walked across Cambridge Common, through the old gate of the Yard, and into the wide brick building full of old paintings. I wasn’t an important employee, really just an administrator, but I felt cozy in my small office. I had a huge Helen Frankenthaler on my wall, and I liked that I was pretty much the only one who ever got to see it.
I also felt like I understood the basic rhythms of Harvard, and could find a safe niche for myself. I’d never been a student there—hadn’t bothered to even apply with my middling grades and test scores—but my family did have some history at the college. In 1886, the Boston Globe had written of my great-grandfather John Colony that “Harvard has one of the most graceful oars that ever sat in a college boat” and that he was “one of the most perfect specimens of muscular development in the university.” One of my uncles had later taught film there, and another uncle still hung a framed letter from the college in his dining room. It had been sent to inform him of his ban from campus housing for damaging his rooms during a party in the 1950s. I thought I understood some of the codes and protocols that were so valuable at Harvard, and I felt familiar enough not to be intimidated by the institution.
I did not match my great-grandfather’s physical description, however. I dressed appropriately, in pink oxford shirts and a soft corduroy blazer, but it was mostly for show. For one thing I had been drinking too much. I had a chipped front tooth from getting hit in the face one night outside a bar, and I had a collapsed knuckle from punching a phone booth on Boylston Street afterward. I went to the doctor to complain about generalized aches, now of the age to secretly worry they were cancer. I was lazy and I ate badly. Unlike my great-grandfather, there wasn’t very much about me that was graceful. I think I was just bored and dissatisfied.
Besides drinking, one of my favorite things to do in Cambridge was to ride a bike around aimlessly, stopping to read the blue oval historical markers that the city had installed in various places. The one on Putnam Avenue marked Fort #1, which protected the Patriot encampment from the British, and another marked the building that had housed Meigs’s Elevated Railway, a steam-powered elevated monorail first tested in 1886. There was one that marked e. e. cummings’s house and one for T. S. Eliot’s. At Ash Street and Memorial Drive one of the signs noted that the Newtowne Windmill had been erected here in 1630 but that it hadn’t lasted because in 1632 it had been “dismantled for lack of wind.”
One evening after dinner, a week or two before I left for the farm, Sarah and I went for a bike ride to have a look at the particular sights of Cambridge once more. We had two heavy three-speed bikes from the 1960s with wire baskets on the front handlebars, one yellow and one blue. We rode down the center of the shady, quiet streets, down Hawthorn and Sparks, and through the intersection where Bow meets Arrow. We watched the rowers hoist the long, white lines of their boats out of the black river, and spied in the windows of the old houses, watching professorial types reading in front of fireplaces or polishing the silver.
At the end of our ride we stopped by the Quaker Meeting House on Brattle Street and watched the moon rise over the Charles. As we turned around to go I noticed the gate of the house behind us had been left open. It was a minor historical site, the imposing colonial mansion—now painted bright yellow—where George Washington had assumed command of the Continental Army. There was no one around, and we walked up to the front of the house like we belonged there. There was so much history everywhere in Cambridge that none of it felt particularly well guarded.
The front yard was wide and deep and filled with banks of lilacs that were still fresh and new and smelled like the best part of late spring. Once we’d made entirely sure that there wasn’t anyone watching us, we knelt down and crawled under a low arch of branches until we came to a patch of green. In a space enclosed by high bushes I lay on my back, and Sarah put her head on my chest. We relaxed in this green room and listened to the thwack of a tennis ball on the courts at the Cambridge Skating Club on Mount Auburn Street. After we’d lain there for a long while we crawled back out, stretched out the cricks in our legs, and gently closed the gate behind us.
It was hard for me to leave this kind of thing behind. In lots of ways the city represented everything that I’d always wanted—tradition, stability, and good taste—but it just didn’t feel entirely like home. There was something missing, some vital part that always left me outside, always a visitor. Everyone seemed so engaged, as if they were discovering the secrets of the universe at Harvard or MIT, living in houses like where George Washington had slept, or taking the kids to swim at Walden Pond. I guess I figured that at the farm I’d be busy enough that I wouldn’t need to worry all the time that I wasn’t doing anything important with my life.
* * *
A few days later I decided to ride my bike out to Walden Pond to go swimming myself. I’d ended my job and had a few days on my hands before I was scheduled to leave. The feeling of finding myself with nothing to do on a Tuesday morning was a little thrilling. This didn’t seem like the kind of day that I wanted to spend reading, but I threw my paperback copy of Walden in the basket of my bike just in case, and took some cash so that I could buy an ice cream cone at the little concession stand on the beach.
Most of the ride to Walden was rural, and it trailed through woods and fields. I passed a saltbox with red clapboards in a little opening in the woods, with its distinctive asymmetrical shape, and surprised two men standing under an elm tree outside smoking. We tipped our hats, and I rode back into the dappled shade. Sometimes the path would suddenly break out into open farmland, and I went through untended meadows and swampy, grown-up places where the path was raised and made of planks. In a few miles I was back on a winding paved road and coming into Lexington.
* * *
I rode into town, where Paul Revere saw “the gilded weathercock swim in the moonlight as he passed,” and then I rode on to Concord and past Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women, and then on to the Old Manse, where Emerson had grown up. Later I would ride by the birthplace of Sam Wilson, a meatpacker for the Continental Army who inspired the character of Uncle Sam.
I got to the pond and wandered down to the beach. The pond was deep and cold, gouged out of the granite by an ancient glacier, and a flat path wound its way around the shore, through tall pines and white birch. There was a pack of small boys on the beach, huddled up against each other for warmth, their bare chests tight and their lips the color of raw liver. They grabbed their crotches against the cold and ran screaming toward the frigid water.
An old woman in a dark bathing suit adjusted a bathing cap and slipped under the line of buoys that marked the swimming area. I didn’t feel as brave as her, so I took off for a walk around the pond, following two girls in string bikinis up a path that was soft with pine needles. They ran ahead, and by the time I caught up, they had left the tops of their swimsuits on a rock and were easing themselves into the water, floating on their backs, breasts toward the sun.
I kept going, passing through a bank of high wild blueberry bushes where a group of teenagers were smoking pot, shushing each other in an exaggerated way when they saw me coming, and a few hundred yards farther on an older man with a gray ponytail was sitting down by the water with a blond girl in her twenties. I could hear the distinct cadence of Thoreau’s words drift up to the path where I was walking, and I knew that he was trying to seduce her.
* * *
Three-quarters of the way around the pond I walked back down to the water and found a set of stone stairs that led to the water’s edge. I sat there for a while, looking at the crawfish poke around in the pebbles and the flickers of fish, and then I took my shirt off and dove into the cold water. After just a few seconds in the water I could feel my lungs seize up. It felt as if my blood had evacuated my center and rushed to the far reaches of my body. I rolled over on my stomach and did the dead man’s float.
I swam out to where it got a little deep, but then I turned around and got out of the water to sit on the stone steps and dry in the sun. I heard a jingle of metal, and a Massachusetts state policeman came through the trees, in his jodhpurs and distinctive blue cap with the silly stub brim. He had a hand on his gun, and he strode through the trees with purpose. I ducked down so that he wouldn’t see me, and after he was gone I drank one of the beers I’d brought and ate an orange.
I got out my copy of Walden and tried to read, but I felt drowsy. I had a sudden urge to mark the occasion, so I dipped the corner of the paperback in the water before I put it back in my bag. On my way back to the beach I went up into the woods to see the rectangle of cut-granite posts linked by heavy chains that marked the outline of where Thoreau’s cabin had been. I sat under a tall pine tree and looked at the spot, flipped through a few damp pages of the paperback, and headed back.
The little boys were gone, and it was quiet. I looked out across the water, and in the distance I could see the old woman whom I’d seen swim out when I first arrived. She was way out now, a half mile from the shore in every direction, and I could just make out the slow windmill of her arms. I watched her for a while and thought about how nice it would feel to be all alone like that, isolated way out in the middle of the pond. It was a feeling that I was looking forward to in Pennsylvania, and it made me eager to get home and start packing.
* * *
I was doing the last few miles of the drive home, the dirt road that led into Anderson Hollow, and I passed the first of the three farms on this road that had been occupied when my parents first came, all abandoned now. The blue-white mercury-vapor yard lights were lit—they came on automatically, and the bulbs lasted for years—but the barnyards were empty. The fields opposite the houses were choked with saplings and brambles and cedar trees. At one farm the planks of the barn had fallen away, exposing the bleached frame and an empty corncrib hunched over its broken ribs. At some point a huge tree had fallen and crashed through the fence that surrounded the barnyard there, but no one had bothered to fix it because there weren’t cows anymore.
Even when I was little, the land around our farm had been steadily getting emptier and lonelier. Until I was thirteen or fourteen, there was still a general store, Isaiah Locke’s, three miles away, with a glass-fronted cold case full of ham and milk, hardware in a shed out back, and an attic full of boots. My father bought his Red Wings there, and we kept a running bill that we paid once a month. It was gone now, though, along with the old men who used to sit and smoke on the bench that sat under the shelves of ammunition and nails. Their properties had been cut up and sold piece by piece, the cows gone to auction, the houses torn down, whole farms disappearing into weeds in just a few years.
The farm had always relied on local farmers and producers to provide some essential items, though there weren’t very many of them left. My father had always taken orders from his customers in Washington, DC, for country hams from Rotz Meats outside of McConnellsburg before it went out of business in 2003. He still sold firewood all winter long, bought from small woodlots run by neighbors and trucked into the city. A man who lived near Orbisonia had moved back to town after getting a degree from Princeton and had become an obsessive blueberry grower. He lived in a tiny shack hard against Route 522 and sold his harvest to us. My father has always contracted with local women to bake pies and cookies for his market, and for a few years he sold thick, greasy potato chips from an Amish woman in Spring Run. And sometimes there was a small niche that no one would expect. The man who ran the Napa Auto Parts grew shitake mushrooms that he sold to my father for a good price, and when that was successful, he grew snails and sold them as escargot.
The area around Gettysburg was once one of the top apple-producing regions in the United States, and we did a large amount of business with the remaining orchards. On a typical trip in the late summer, we might pick up two pallets of peaches from an orchard in Waynesboro, go on for nectarines and plums in Mont Alto, head to Cashtown to get five pallets of apples, stop at the cider press on Molly Pitcher Highway to get two pallets of cider, and then stop in Fort Loudon on the way home for a pallet of cantaloupes. These people would usually ask after my father and send along a message, “More Staymans in two weeks,” or “Talk to my brother on Twin Bridges Road for more Jonathans.”
Working with producers farther afield has always been part of New Morning Farm too. When I was in elementary school my father and I would drive up to Cabot Creamery in Vermont every fall and buy pallets of cheese, which my mother cut into small blocks and sold at our markets. We’d visit McCutcheon Apple Products in Frederick, Maryland, run by the same family since 1938, and Bill McCutcheon would take me back into the production line to watch the apples ride the conveyor belts and pour me a mug of cider off the line. A man named Dale from northern Pennsylvania would come once a year and unload jugs of maple syrup from his trees and leave us maple candy that my sister and I tried to love but always found too sweet to really enjoy.
There were also all the other parts of running a farm that needed the help of local people. A man near Three Springs ran a tire business on his own farm, and he would pull himself away from the soap operas he watched all day in the back of his garage to patch a tractor tire. Sonny Flasher lived in Meadow Gap, and my father woke him up a few times every summer and had him come over in the middle of the night when the coolers stopped working. There were the brothers in Big Valley who specialized in fixing irrigation pumps and the feed mill in Shade Gap that filled sacks of chicken feed from a dusty shoot. The man who’d driven my school bus was an excavator, and he would come in the spring and dig culverts to improve the drainage in the fields. There were sawmills and hardware stores, mechanics and carpenters, all forming a huge network of people that my father had built up over forty years. Some of these became my father’s friends and some of them didn’t, but he had to rely on them all to help keep the farm going.
* * *
My parents weren’t old yet by any stretch, and their farm was actually growing, even taking over some of those other fields that used to be filled with alfalfa and cows and replacing them with kale and carrots. A farm though is always a temporary arrangement, and it only lasts as long as someone cares to make a living there. Although my parents sometimes talked to my little sister and me about the future of the farm, we had both made it clear that neither of us was interested in taking the place over. Still, it made me sad to think of other people owning that land, even though I didn’t want it.
I knew somebody else would happily take it over. Most of the old livestock farms were gone because it had become almost impossible to make a living with the seventy or eighty head of cattle that those farms could support, but over the last thirty years farms that looked a lot like my parents’ had sprung up here and there. Some of these were started by people who had left New Morning Farm and gone on to build operations of their own. A few of these were very close; Green Heron was just over the ridge, and Star Hollow a mile up the creek. Mourning Cloak, named after a butterfly, was farther to the north, started by a man who looked like Ichabod Crane, and to the south a woman who had been a field manager at New Morning now ran Sunnyside. There were at least thirty organic vegetable farms within a hundred miles. Only a few of these were started by people that my parents knew, but most of them were similar in size and philosophy.
In the late 1980s, some of these farmers realized that there were enough of them that they could organize a farmers’ co-op together and gain advantages in marketing and distributing their vegetables. They met over a few winter evenings, sometimes in our kitchen, sometimes at other farms, and made a plan. They hired a man to be the organizer, and he was given an office in an old shed at the bottom of our yard. Our farm was centrally located, it had sufficient cooler space, and we had three trucks, so it was the logical place to handle the distribution. The farmers came every Thursday, in the late afternoon after work, and unloaded their produce so that it could be loaded on a truck and driven to Washington, DC.
My father had established relationships with natural food stores in Washington over his first early years in business, and the co-op started wholesaling there. Restaurants placed orders, and then larger grocery stores, and places like the French embassy. The farmers also used the co-op to sell to each other, to help pick up the slack when there were gaps in their own supplies. If there was a crop failure, one farm could supply a few weeks of green beans so that the supply would stay steady. Other farmers chose to specialize in crops that were more difficult to produce, getting very good at growing leeks or potatoes. The farmers also found new places to cooperate, like pooling their orders for potting soil or cardboard boxes in order to take advantage of volume discounts.
Once the co-op got going, the local Amish and Mennonites became a big part of the business. Small-scale vegetable production, small enough that it could be done with horses, is still a vital part of Amish life in Pennsylvania, and once an Amishman in Path Valley got his land certified as organic, the community—always entrepreneurial—recognized the opportunity. He and his neighbors started to provide tomatoes and eggplants, and they hired a man with a pickup truck to deliver their produce. Their large families helped with the fieldwork, and they were willing to grow anything that they thought would sell. One man started an operation growing kiwi berries, and another became a supplier of Jerusalem artichokes.
All the farmers still got together at regular meetings, now occasionally held at a restaurant with a function room, but also in barns and basements, too. My father was named the president of the co-op, and they formed a board. The Amishmen were prohibited by their church from joining the governance of a secular organization, but they participated in the meetings. All of these farmers spent large amounts of time alone, and these were also social occasions, providing a place to bitch and to commiserate. People shared news about troubles they had with certain crops, and others offered suggestions. Someone might discuss a new piece of equipment he’d bought, and another one a new Japanese beetle trap that he’d found effective. The Amishmen tended to keep to themselves when it came to being social, but they were friendly enough, and especially in the winter, when there was less to do at home, everyone was happy for the company. Putting all those farmers in a room together produced inevitable personality clashes and power struggles, and some of the original farmers left and others took their place, but over time the organization started to thrive.
The co-op is there today still at the bottom of our driveway, but in an even bigger building with two larger coolers. Amishmen still ride in the passenger seats of their hired pickups to drop off their watermelons and pattypan squash, and Green Heron still drops off flowers and Star Hollow brings peppers and basil. The produce goes to some of the same little natural foods stores that have held on since the 1970s, but it also goes to fancy restaurants where senators and lobbyists eat, and to the Whole Foods that have sprung up everywhere in the metropolitan area.
More than just filling the gaps now, the farmers get together every spring and figure out how they can support each other with certain crops, and our farm is heavily dependent on the co-op, both as a market to sell our vegetables and as a place to buy produce for our own markets. My father is still the president and he presides over the meetings of the farmers. It’s a large business now, but also a community. In the office there’s a plaque in honor of one of the early farmers, Sam Reist, who died at the age of thirty-nine, and there’s still a couch where people sit and talk about beetle infestations, or about how they have an extra dog that they can’t find anyone to take.
Now that there was a viable market in places like the co-op, and more people interested in practicing this kind of small-scale agriculture, I knew my parents wouldn’t have any trouble finding a young couple to take over our property. This summer, then, was one more chance for me to experience the day-to-day life of it, while it was still our family’s. I wanted to be there while my father worried constantly and my mother tried to comfort him and make the best of all the small disasters that were part of every season. And I wanted to appreciate all the ways it could make me feel happy: the way my mother called the dogs to come with her when she went to pick broccoli. How my father squeezed an ear of corn to see if it was ready, and then shucked it and ate it raw. How it felt to sit in the grass at the end of the day and watch a pickup come up from the lower fields, a cloud of dust hanging softly in the air behind it.
* * *
The story of the ninety-five acres at the end of Anderson Hollow Road, or at least the part of it that my family was involved in, started in late February 1976, as my parents followed a real estate agent in my father’s almost-new pickup. The roads were tight and winding, and then they would turn to dirt, and then sometimes, in a way that was slightly unsettling, just trail off into the woods. The agent was lost and she rolled down the window of her long, low Buick when they came to another dead end. “Lonely out here, huh?” My mother smiled tightly at her and nodded. The woman had asked the others in her office where the farm was, but the network of dirt roads was too confusing, and there was no easy way to explain it on a map.
My mother was feeling nervous about how bleak everything looked. She was used to a rural New England landscape of sugar maples, granite, and clapboard, and this Appalachian country seemed thin and used. The drive up from Sleepy Creek was a long, boring hour through the low hills, past the stubby corn and the bare black walnut trees that edged the empty fields. On the left and the right she could see the lines of the ridges running north and south, the sagging farmhouses in their long shadows. The kitchen windows were lit against the gloom, but she couldn’t imagine what the people who lived there were doing with themselves, or how they filled their days.
The agent eventually found the property just as the light was fading. The piece of land was at the end of a long dirt road that followed a loose line along a creek. It was in a hollow, surrounded on all sides by a high ridge. If she squinted, my mother could see a deer picking its way across the slope under the bare trees. Dirty snow clung to the wet places and the air smelled like mud. A few crows complained loudly. Way down below from where they were standing, she could see the creek running flat and cold and syrupy.
My father didn’t want to seem too eager.
“About how many acres is this?”
“Near about seventy,” the agent said.
Eventually they would buy a little more acreages, but my parents nodded their heads like this seemed about right. And it did seem right, even though an acre was an unfamiliar measure. It was almost impossible to imagine it spread out on that uneven ground, and how much of that land was part of the huge ridge that towered over everything. Even so, the land felt like it still does today—it filled the hollow in a satisfying way.
Below the barnyard, along the creek, were long bottom fields. They were flat and even with dark rich dirt, and they looked so fertile that it seemed that it would be a simple job to grow vegetables on them. I don’t know if these fields sealed the deal or not, but I can imagine that they were hard to turn down. Other farmers, real ones, with previous experience, might have noticed how prone this land would be to flooding in the spring, and they would have noticed issues with drainage and soil quality. My father didn’t know anything about these kinds of details yet, but he knew he liked how the dirt smelled when he broke it apart in his hands.
The other parts of the farm were less appealing. The house in particular still had a sense of the Depression around it, with a flimsy porch and fiberboard siding that was mildewed gray and sodden-looking. There was also a pigsty built out of rough locust posts, and an empty calf shed that smelled like ammonia. There was a clothesline strung between two listing wooden crosses at the bottom of the yard, and a rusty burn barrel sat behind the house, smoldering and making the air smell like burnt plastic. And looming over everything was the gray barn, the cracks between the warped boards glowing gold in the late sun.
When the agent turned her back to shuffle papers in the car, my father grinned at my mother and opened his eyes wider. She looked away, at the old house and the narrow fields, the brown grass and the dove-gray clouds, and wrapped her coat tightly around herself. If she had thought more about it she might have wondered about how far she was from her friends and family, from most things that felt familiar, but the distance would only occur to her much later. Anyway, my father didn’t seem worried about it, and she would have felt silly to bring up her concerns about feeling lonely. There were two of them, after all. She turned her face up toward the sky and listened hard. She couldn’t hear a thing, and she definitely liked that about the place.
My mother was twenty-seven and thought she was probably too young to own a farm. She was a hippie, she guessed, and she liked the idea of growing food, milking goats, and making fresh bread. She knew that she wasn’t very ambitious in the traditional way. Her mother, back in Keene, New Hampshire, would have been happiest if she got married, played bridge, and went to cocktail parties. My mother was good at bridge but she disliked both cocktails and parties. She felt uneasy in her family’s big brick house, drowsy under the old elms, annoyed by the smell of gin and tonic.
Before she moved to Sleepy Creek to join my father in 1972 she’d first gone a much shorter distance, to a house in the woods in Nelson, New Hampshire, just a few miles north. It was a typical kind of place in the early seventies, a house where people lived together, made yogurt, and dropped acid on the weekends. She wasn’t really into it, was just along for the ride, and she didn’t like acid either. She told me that once the temperature in the house had dropped below zero, and that the thing she remembered best about all that time spent in Nelson, and liked the most, was how it took days and days for the plows to come after the huge snowfalls, and how they would be trapped way out there in the woods.
On the other hand, my father had always known that he wanted to be a farmer. He’d known since he was a little kid obsessed with growing vegetables in the backyard of his parents’ house in Norwood, Massachusetts. At seven years old, when other kids collected baseball cards or read comic books, he was taking vegetables around the neighborhood in a red wagon, selling them door-to-door. He’d done other jobs since, but the plot in Sleepy Creek was his first attempt to make a living by farming. My mother took the train down from New Hampshire two years after he’d started the business. It was a long-distance blind date, arranged by a girlfriend of my mother’s from college and a friend of my father’s from the navy. It was a big risk for my mother to take that twelve-hour train ride, but my father must have seemed intriguing enough to take a chance on. Two years later they were married.
When my mother first met my father at the train station in Martinsburg, he looked like a cowboy. He was lean and tan, wore jeans, and kept his money in a worn leather billfold with a buffalo nickel on the clasp. He had long hair and a little bit of a swagger. He picked her up in a flatbed truck with the back full of tools and pushed the knives and baling wire off the seat to give her a place to sit. Then, before they went to see his fields, he stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts to use a coupon he had. She didn’t really mind, but she’d been on the train for a long time and didn’t want a dozen donuts. It didn’t matter, though. The first time my mother saw my father at the station she thought she might marry him.
My father had already been in Sleepy Creek for a few years, but he didn’t feel comfortable calling himself a farmer yet, because he felt he hadn’t earned it. He’d gotten through his very first season the year before—when growing vegetables was fun but still not something that he could honestly imagine making his living at—through trial and error. He was barely getting by, but he could feed himself, and he figured he could still go back to law school if things didn’t work out. Then he broke his leg at the end of that summer and spent his winter of convalescence reading books and manuals about improving soil fertility and raising chickens for profit. He met three other young people who were also growing vegetables nearby. One of them had been raised on a farm and another was a lapsed Amish, and they all got to be friends. By the time my mother showed up he had learned a lot, but he knew he still had a long way to go, and the idea that someday these fields could be productive enough to generate a real income was just starting to shimmer into view.
It was on that first piece of rented land that he’d come up with a name for his new farm. It was the end of his first season and there was a party with a bonfire and bota bags of wine and the pot that his friends had been growing in the woods. He’d sat up late talking, tipsy and silly, after other people had wandered off or passed out in the grass. The conversation turned to Bob Dylan and the album he’d just released called New Morning. By now, in the early seventies, Dylan seemed dangerous and unpredictable. My father liked that. He murmured the first line of the song: “Can’t you hear that rooster crowing.” Then, partly as a joke, and with the understanding that he could always change it later, he decided to call his new business New Morning Farm.
Four years after that bonfire, he and my mother got a loan from the bank and made an offer on the property in Anderson Hollow: fifty-two thousand dollars for the seventy-five acres. Farmland was so devalued that the banker was willing to look past the fact that my parents were about to buy seventy-five acres and they didn’t know what to do with it. It must have been nice to see two hopeful young people come in talking about the future, instead of another pale farmer looking for an extension on money he was pouring through a sieve. Farming had always been a hard way to make a living, but a bushel of corn just wasn’t worth as much as it once had been. The economy was already leaving traditional family farms behind, just like small manufacturers and mom and pop grocery stores.
When my parents showed up to take possession of the property that early spring, the family who’d been living in the house was still there. The man and his wife were butchering a deer in the kitchen while their little girl sat at the kitchen table with a fresh tracheotomy. The parents explained that she’d had some medical problem but didn’t go into the details. The girl breathed through the hole in her neck and looked at them with solemn eyes as her parents cut up the cold deer parts with a hacksaw.
My father asked them where they were moving.
“Tammy wants to go on up to McConnellsburg but I said, hell, ain’t nobody hiring, so why bother. Probably go to my pap’s place in Waterfall. Yinz are welcome to stop in if yinz got any questions.”
They didn’t seem unhappy to be leaving; they’d lived here for a few years and now they’d be living somewhere else. Their willingness to move on without any apparent bitterness was comforting, but my mother snuck a peek inside the cardboard boxes they were stacking neatly in the bed of the pickup, and she felt a stab of guilt. The boxes, for reasons she never understood but was too nervous to ask about, were full of empty tin cans and old newspapers.
The first night my parents spent in the farmhouse might have made it clear to them just how far out in the country they really were, and how hard a project this might be. It was a cold night, and the empty rooms were raw and plain. The plaster walls were crumbling, exposing the wooden lathe. The windows rattled in their frames, and the drafts made the iron latch on the bedroom door clink faintly. The toilet and sink were down in the cellar, installed on a concrete slab under a bare lightbulb. As my mother brushed her teeth she put her hand on the wall and felt the damp seeping through the stone.
They woke up the next morning on a mattress in the middle of a bare linoleum floor, to the sound of someone beating the pin out of a metal wagon hitch in the barnyard. My mother lay in bed and watched the flies crawl on the windowpanes, and she looked around at the things they’d brought to make a home. She had a sewing machine, an ashtray set with semiprecious stones, a copy of the novel Sometimes a Great Notion, and a Siamese cat named Eggroll. Her red Volvo was parked outside, a gift from her stepfather before she left for her senior year of college.
My father’s possessions were slightly more useful. He had a Farmall Model C tractor that he’d purchased from an old man in West Virginia for five hundred dollars, empty boxes and crates for packing vegetables, and a golden retriever–Irish setter mix named Molly Cornflake. There was a silk rug that he’d bought when he was stationed in Vietnam and a bed that he’d built out of scrap lumber. He had a wooden picnic table that he’d been using at Sleepy Creek to eat on. He also had the almost-new Ford F-150 in hunter green. He’d traded for the truck three years before, giving up the brand-new BMW that he’d paid for with his discharge money from the navy.
They went to an auction in Greencastle to find the equipment they would need to make the farm a going concern. They walked down the rows of unfamiliar implements, looking at plows and harrows and discs. Even if a lot of the devices looked obscure and complicated, my father knew that he needed a plow and a few other basic things. They also bought a kitchen table, enameled metal in a black-and-white pattern. They bargained hard for it, staring down the pinched-face woman who was selling it.
After a few days of getting settled my parents set about teaching themselves to grow vegetables for a living. It was exciting, but at the same time they were anxious, subject to a growing panic that spring was coming and that things were happening too fast. In the last days of winter, as the ground thawed and the house started to smell like mildew, they sat at the kitchen table and looked at seed catalogues and mostly picked the things that they liked to eat: tomatoes, dill, and Swiss chard.
The one crop that they really agonized over was the tomatoes. It had always been my father’s favorite vegetable, and it had been the centerpiece of all the gardens he’d ever grown. They were important to him when he was seven years old, pulling his wagon around his neighborhood in Norwood, and even more important when he was living in Sleepy Creek, when he took his first crop back to Washington to sell to his friends from law school. There was something obvious about tomatoes, a basic legitimacy that chard or asparagus would never have. Everybody loved the idea of buying a red tomato that was fresh off the vine, still warm from the sun and smelling of soil, picked just hours before in the countryside beyond the beltway. They would be easy money.
My parents also knew that marketing was part of the deal. They knew from their time at Sleepy Creek that customers in Washington would buy tomatoes from the handsome young farmer and his pretty blond wife. My father would flirt with the young women, and my mother would listen to the men while they told her how they’d always thought about moving out to the country, leaving their office jobs behind and seeing if they could make a go of it by working with their own two hands. My parents knew that they should look a little lean and hungry, but that was taken care of because they really were, and it would seem less and less like an act the longer the first summer at New Morning went on.
Once they’d chosen the varieties they wanted to plant, they spent a day building shelves in the living room and then filled them with rows of flats. They hung grow lights from the ceiling, the bulbs making the room glow a weird purple. When they were done they went to bed. All of a sudden my father was up; he had to check the old meat thermometer that he’d stuck in the flats to track the proper temperature for germination and make sure that the scrabbling sound they heard in the wall wasn’t mice eating tomato seeds. My mother lay in the warm pool of the sheets and smelled the scent of wet soil sighing up through the heating vents and watched the fat drops of condensation drip down the windows.
A few days later a huge crash woke them up in the middle of the night. They rushed downstairs and found that my mother’s cat had somehow upset the shelves and spilled all the flats on the living room floor. The pile of dirt and spilled seeds, with the tiniest of green shoots just bursting through, was bathed in the purple light, and everything looked ruined and ugly. My father chased the cat out the door and into the dark. Once he was done being angry they got the shelves set back up, and in the morning they replanted the seedlings. From then on they locked the cat in the basement at night and ignored the sad meows that drifted up through the heating ducts.
A few weeks later, once the seedlings were big enough, they set them out in the field. They started in the Lower Bottom, the field downstream from the Upper Bottom. They’d also planted Swiss chard and lettuce there, a small patch of spinach, and a row of dill. The field of vegetables needed constant attention, and every morning they went down and made themselves busy however they could, tending to them and coaxing them along. They filled buckets from the creek to water the rows, and they used their hands to pick at the weeds. There were so few plants that when one died it left an obvious gap in the straight green line of them.
In the first few days the tomatoes took off. They’d fertilized them with chicken manure, and it made the foliage heavy and green. The plants were growing too fast to support themselves, and when the leaves lay on the ground they developed a yellowish tinge, so they staked up each plant, tying it to an ash pole. The plants seemed healthier but still a little sickly. There were other problems too: a groundhog had been eating the peas, and there were heart-shaped deer tracks all around the crushed dill, but the tomatoes got the most attention. If they kept going like this they’d be bearing fruit in early August.
The first Saturday in June they got up at four o’clock in the morning and piled their boxes of lettuce and spinach in the metal bed of the pickup. The sun was rising as they approached Washington. They’d negotiated the use of a parking lot on a stretch of Columbia Road in Adams Morgan, and even if they had to rouse a drunk and sweep up broken glass, the lot was centrally located and busy. A few professional types, new to the gentrifying neighborhood, came out to buy things. The people who’d always lived there—bus drivers, bank tellers, and the people who worked at the McDonald’s across the street—also came. My parents made a few hundred dollars, and the bills made a solid lump in my father’s pocket. They went out that night to celebrate.
Back on the farm the following Monday, my father was more worried about the foliage of the tomatoes and the yellow color, almost like a spreading rash, that had developed where the plants had first lain on the ground. He looked in manuals and books and tried a few of his own ideas. In the next few weeks he sent soil off to the laboratory at the university extension, and it came back that it was deficient in lime. They borrowed a lime spreader from a neighbor and got halfway through the job before it broke. My mother crawled under the equipment and spent the next three hours with a wrench fixing the problem. Then they dragged the equipment a few more feet, and it broke again.
That night she skipped dinner and went upstairs to read. She smoked a joint, rolled out of the bag of mostly seeds and stems that she had left over from her last trip back to Sleepy Creek, and watched the pattern of the setting sun as it played across the cracked plaster ceiling. She thought about New Hampshire and her brothers and sisters, and how her mother would be making a gin and tonic now in the library of the old house on Court Street. She almost wished she was back with her family, sitting down to the luxury of a dinner that was made by someone else. This was an adventure though, and she could stick it out for a few more months at least.
At night, when my mother kept busy sewing curtains or reading, my father sat at the kitchen table and worried. When he was outside he walked fast even though he didn’t have anywhere to go. In the early evenings he took his Winchester .243 and sat for hours on a rise above the fields, watching for the groundhog that was eating the dill to come out of its burrow. He watched and watched, and then, just for something to do, he shot at one of the crows. He missed, and the flock rose and circled above him, screaming at him, scolding.
By late July there were tomatoes on the plants. My father walked down the rows and inspected every one of them, while my mother pushed a wheel hoe down the line of dill. It was hot now, uncomfortably so, and she would take breaks to sit in the shade under the big trees that grew along the creek. Sometimes she would go down to the water and slip out of her clothes and lie in the current, looking up at the narrow line of blue sky above her. Over the murmur of the water she could hear the soft sounds of my father working, scuffling dirt, and the dull clink of metal and the rumble of the pickup. She ran her hands over her skin and could feel how thin she was getting.
By mid-August it was clear that all the tomatoes were going to fail. The problem had started when the leaves at the bottom of the plants had gotten wet and started to rot. Eventually long dark cankers showed up on the stems of the plants and made them droop from the stakes they were tied to. The fruit was still there and some of it was even turning red, but they had developed the cankers too. They were suppurating black sores, little cancers. Now my father went down the row and looked at every fruit again, trying to find one, just one, that wasn’t ruined, but they were all infected.
They felt that the farm was already a failure. A neighbor my mother met at the store mentioned the early blight that came around every few years. My mother went home, walked upstairs, and locked herself in the bedroom. She smoked the last of her pot, and when my father finally came to bed they didn’t talk. When she woke up in the morning he was gone. He came back later that day with boxes and boxes of muddy turnips that he’d bought from a neighbor. For three days they sat outside with a metal tub and scrubbed them clean, and when they took them to market in Washington they sold every last one.
The season went on like this. Some things died, were eaten by deer, or just never produced any fruit at all. Some things thrived and produced way too much, so much that they couldn’t keep up and had to leave them in the field. They looked in the classified ads and found other local people who were selling their extra beans or potatoes, and they took those to market along with their own stuff. My mother baked some bread, and they sold that beside the few boxes of green beans and the bunches of dill. Every week they set everything out on the folding tables and stacks of crates in Adams Morgan and waited for the customers to buy it all. At the end of the day they went home, counted the money, and went to bed.
By Thanksgiving the season was done. By now they were buying bins of unsorted apples from the orchards around the town of Chambersburg, picking through them, and selling the good ones. The house had a real bathroom now, and they’d set up a couch in the living room. My mother’s Volvo was parked out by the unused pigsty, but it was broken down, and the weeds were already growing up around it. The walls of the house were still crumbling, but in the evenings, when the kitchen was full of the smell of cooking and Neil Young was singing on the record player, it felt cozy and warm.
One season was behind them, and they were happy. If there was another one, if they got through the long winter, they’d know more about what they were doing: no more fresh chicken shit on the tomatoes, less Swiss chard, and more dill. My father had already started talking about doing some building. He wanted to get a foundation dug for a tractor shed before the ground froze. They hadn’t accomplished everything that they’d set out to do, but the most important bills were paid, they had a roof over their head, and they had a plan, which seemed about all they could ask for.
* * *
I was on the very last part of my drive home from Massachusetts, the last quarter mile where the road ran straight for a short stretch before it went around a wide curve and down the hill into the deepest part of the hollow. I stopped the car and rolled down the window to let the cool night air in. The rows of vegetables stretched across the rise beside the road, black on black under the faint moon, and the early-summer air smelled like dust and chlorophyll. I shut off the ignition and sat in the dark. Behind everything I could see the huge black shape of the ridge. Parked in the field, silhouetted against the starry sky, was the Farmall Model C that my father had bought so long ago.
If I’d been asked that night if I was coming home because I was proud of my parents, of how they’d established themselves, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to think of it that way. But a few weeks later I ran a package to the post office and the woman behind the counter saw the return address. She said, “You Jim Crawford’s son? How’re things down there anyhow? Yinz getting plenty of beans in all this heat?” I nodded and told her that the farm was fine, that my parents were doing well. It would be the first time in a long, long time that a stranger recognized me as my father’s son. It was a good feeling, and I wondered why I hadn’t missed it more.
At the bottom of the road I could see one window glowing. My father’s head was silhouetted there as he ate his dinner. Around him, in a wide semicircle so that he could reach everything, would be vegetables: a sliced tomato and a bowl of cold beans, a half-eaten cucumber and a bunch of radishes, and a saltshaker. There would be snap peas and asparagus. There would be slices of bread and ham, and a cold beer. Across the table my mother would be working on the crossword, concentrating hard over her pencil and drinking a glass of cold milk. They’d be sitting at the same enameled-top kitchen table.
I drove past our mailbox, which said New Morning Farm, and parked the car behind the house so my parents wouldn’t see me right away. After a minute or two, one of the dogs looked around the corner of the house, saw me sitting there, and started to bark. My mother’s voice came through the open kitchen window, “Hush!” I went to the front door and turned the knob. As I stepped into the bright kitchen, my mother and father both turned to me and smiled at once. I hugged them and went to pour myself a glass of water from the metal tap. It had a particular taste from the well, cold and mineral, the way water tasted when I was a little kid.
Copyright © 2014 by Arlo Crawford