Dear Folks, The call I had been waiting for, dreading, and yet also praying for finally came Sunday morning, February 4. “Karl’s gone,” my Mom said.
Karl, my stepfather, the sweet, capable, funny man my mother married when she was 59 and he was 64. They had 21 happy years together, but if you’ve been reading this newsletter for awhile, you know that the last years saw a long, slow slide in Karl’s health. For two years he’s been on oxygen, unable to walk more than a few steps, going in and out of lucidity. So painful to watch. A full-time worry for Mom. And yet, buoyed by mutual love, they found scraps of happiness even then. Mom brought him special things to eat. On nice days she wheeled him outside. For Christmas she got a neighbor to make a bird-feeder to set up outside his window — he always loved the birds. One of my favorite pictures of him was taken just a few months ago, out on the edge of the retirement village in Oklahoma where they live. In the picture Karl is on his beloved electric scooter, next to a fence marking off a farmer’s field. He’s playing Chopin on his portable tape recorder to the big black-and-white cows. To his delight, the cows are coming over to listen.
Life is precious, every minute. You can love, even when you’re confined to a wheelchair. It’s not over till it’s over. And though you’ve been expecting the end, though you’ve been hoping for relief from the suffering, it’s still such a shock and such a sorrow when the end actually came.
Fortunately, I had a column written a week ahead. (That just NEVER happens. Karl would have said The Man Upstairs was preparing me). Fortunately, I have two wonderful farm-mates who could say, “go, Dana, we’ll take care of everything.” Fortunately I’m not teaching this term. And fortunately stand-by seats opened up like magic on planes from Lebanon NH to Boston, from Boston to Cincinnati, from Cincinnati to Tulsa. That evening I arrived in Tahlequah to find my mourning Mom curled up in a chair with a wool shawl over her and the TV turned to CSPAN, her normal tranquilizer, which was failing to put her to sleep. I was so, so thankful to be able to be with her.
We spent the night and the next morning weeping, and then things began to accelerate. Karl’s only child, Earl, arrived, and we planned a memorial service. People in the village got the word, and the pies and jello molds and muffins started coming in. We went to the funeral home, we ordered flowers, we made the sad phone calls, to friends and relatives, to official agencies that had to be contacted, of which there are more than you would believe. Let me put in a good word here for our Social Security system. That was one of the least bureaucratic and most helpful of the calls I made.
By Tuesday Mom and Earl and I were able to face the chore of clearing Karl’s things out of his room in the full-time-care wing of the central building, where he had been living for two years. The managers were very nice; they didn’t push for us to get that job done, but we knew they needed the space. We were beginning to be in a businesslike mode; we were happy to have work to do.
The relatives came rolling in — Earl’s kids, my cousins, my brother and Lorna, his significant other. Wednesday afternoon we had the service in the chapel. About a hundred people showed up. It was short and very sweet — Karl would have loved it. We sang “Be Still my Soul” and “Blest be the Tie that Binds” (the hymn that was sung at Mom’s and Karl’s wedding). The sermon was on the 23rd Psalm — “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me, Thy rod and Thy staff shall comfort me.” Earl thanked everyone for being so kind and caring to Karl. I read a little story that Karl told Mom once, which she had the foresight to write down. It was one of his happiest memories. Here it is, in his words, an 80+ year old man remembering a summer long ago. It says so much about who Karl was.
Way back in the middle of the 1920s, when I was in high school, my mother and I lived on a one-acre farm. Our house and garage took up part of the land, and the rest was planted in peonies. Each June at picking time these brought in some badly needed cash.
Two of my school friends like to come to the farm and help me hoe the peonies. This was swell for me, and the three of us became good friends.
After the garden work was done, we liked riding around the country on our bikes. On one of our rides we found an old buggy — a real surrey with a fringe on top! We like this rig and visited it often. It had been discarded by a farmer.
Then one of my buddies found a Model T Ford. Its owner had no use for it. Now we were excited. Maybe we could mount the surrey top on the Model T and make ourselves quite a unit to drive.
We each chipped in $20. We paid $40 for the Model T. Finally we got the surrey top and the Ford to our farm, and they were quite a sight!
We started by cleaning each piece. As we did, we could see what had to be done to make our unit. We bought boxes of bolts and other things we needed — like Bandaids. At that time we could get 100 bolts for a dollar.
The car was badly rusted, but after hours of cleaning and tinkering, we finally had a reasonable chassis. The surrey top was even more work. We had to sew through the heavy canvas, and it had to be cleaned. We mounted the surrey top on the chassis using the bolts we had purchased. This took a lot of drilling of holes in both the metal chassis and the well-seasoned oak of the surrey frame.
Finally it was put together. After all the scraping, sanding, and painting, it looked pretty good! But we needed seats. This took several trips to the junkyard and was our final purchase.
None of us had a license to drive, so we stayed away from city streets. What fun we had! Anyone who saw us wondered what kind of rig that was!
As the weather got cooler and we knew school would start, we decided to sell the unit. That was easy; it looked real sharp. Our total costs had come to $50, leaving us a balance of $10. We sold our mechanical surrey for $50. Our whole summer of fun cost us nothing.
As long as Karl Quist lived, no machine was allowed to malfunction in his vicinity. He was the head of maintenance of eight elementary schools in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, where my Mom was a teacher. When I was a kid in one of those schools, Karl seemed to me a big, kindly bear with a booming voice; the kind of person you knew you could lean on if you had trouble. He loved my mother as she deserved to be loved and I was infinitely grateful to him for that. He was my Papa Karl, decent, honest, helpful, faithful, humble — they don’t hardly make ‘em like that any more.
By the end of the week things quieted down and I knew I could come home. (My brother stayed a few more days.) Mom was on a roller coaster by then, often plunged into tears, but also reclaiming the vitality and fun that are natural to her spirit. For years she hasn’t been more than five minutes away from Karl; now she can go for rides in the country again, play bridge, never miss bell-ringing practice at church. Some early spring days came to Oklahoma that week; it was sunny and in the 60s, and she and I went out into the country to visit a friend who raises Angora goats. (White and curly-haired, they look like small sheep, but with horns. There’s also an emu farm out there. I thought of bringing home some goats and emus, but then I thought I better check with my farm-mates first.) One afternoon Mom banged some tennis balls against the garage door. She began thinking about planting peas and potatoes.
She’ll be fine. She’ll just be sad.
Meanwhile, back at the farm, it was below zero this morning, it snowed 8 inches yesterday, but the windowsills are filled with spring. Chrissie has taken over the seed-starting responsibilities, and she needs to be reigned in. First she filled up the two-tiered planting shelf that John made to fit the big south window in my bedroom. Then she had Scot build shelves for the windows in the two bedrooms upstairs. Nearly all those spaces are now filled with little green poking-up pansies, celery, peppers, petunias, early greens, primula, and above all onions. Chrissie is starting an onion empire. I think we’ll need to plow up all of Plainfield when it comes time to set them outside. And inside we’re only getting started. As the weeks go on, it will come time to start cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, several rotations of kohlrabi, many kinds of flowers, and of course tomatoes.
Where are we going to put them? I ask. Don’t worry, says Chrissie. By then we’ll have the greenhouse up and the plastic cover back over the hoop house, and we can move all this early stuff outside.
Someone stop this woman!
Actually, of course, I love having spring sprouting in the windows in February, as I love keeping the house full of winter-flowering plants: paperwhite narcissus, azaleas, cyclamens, amaryllis. Winter is by no means a dead time around here.
Scot is trying to figure out an irrigation system for the brook garden. As its name implies, this garden is down on the floodplain, quite a distance from the house. A branch of Blow-Me-Down brook runs along two sides of it. The only way we have ever been able to water that garden has been with buckets pulled up from the brook. During last summer’s drought that was a killer exercise for such a huge garden (roughly a quarter of an acre). So I thought maybe we could have a simple solar PV panel powering an immersion pump to fill a couple of barrels with hoses coming out their bottoms. Nothing expensive, because normally we have regular rains, and it doesn’t pay to sink a lot of money into irrigation — except for disastrous summers like the one we just went through.
Well, nothing ever turns out to be as simple as I think. If we want to sprinkle, we need pressure, which means some kind of tower to put the barrels on. That tower could be not only expensive, but a total loss when big icy floods move over that land, as they do nearly every winter (last week, for instance). So the tower has to be removable. If we want drip irrigation we’re not sure how much pressure we need. There are many kinds of pumps, many kinds of barrels, many kinds of fittings for attaching hoses. Every day Scot and I come up with and then reject another plan.
Suggestions from readers are welcome.
The three early surprise lambs out in the barnyard are thriving, and there have been no more. The rest are apparently going to arrive on schedule at the end of March. The chickens are responding to the lengthening days by laying well, and two Buff Orpington hens are already broody, trying to hatch out chicks in midwinter. I try to tell them to wait a month and I’ll set them in nice, private brooding boxes and stop taking their eggs away, but they won’t listen. Buff Orpies are very stubborn about brooding. The cats are hugging the sunny windows and the woodstoves. Emmett the pup (who now weighs about 70 pounds) is showing enough signs of maturity to be allowed into the polite parts of the house. He may turn out to be a well-mannered dog after all, though the cats still have to give him daily lessons in restraint from compulsive cat-chewing.
Winter is the time when we can think about the future of the farm and the community (in the growing season there isn’t time to think about anything!) Chrissie, Scot, and I are now clear enough about our intentions to be putting out both ads and vibes to bring new people to the farm. We have two bedrooms free, and even a plan for housing more people than that. A house with six acres that border our back field happens to be for sale — an elegant Cornish colony house, plus a carriage house that has been made into a second unit, so there are actually 10 bedrooms there. It’s pricey, but it’s been on the market for a long time, so maybe we can bid the cost down. We’re a long way from acting on this idea (and we don’t have the money), but it would be a way of expanding the community without violating the zoning laws.
It would be especially nice to find a farmer or a farming couple to live there — they would look right out on eight level acres, also bordered by the brook, that we currently ignore because the field is half a mile from our house (through the woods — more than a mile by the road). A neighbor hays there, but that field could produce much more value than a hay crop.
I’m holding in mind two possible futures for myself and asking the universe which is needed. On the one hand, after the MacArthur Fellowship is over and I fall into poverty again, I could embrace the poverty, sell my possessions and the farm, live on interest, and become an environmental mendicant monk, owning only what I can carry, and traveling around the world working at no charge with Balaton people wherever I can be useful. This image was of course inspired by Marcia Meyer. It has great appeal to me, because it’s so simple. I can see immediately how to do it.
On the other hand, I could enlarge the farm and community, increase the degree to which we support ourselves from the land, and establish the Sustainability Institute, which could fund itself by public-and private-sector consulting and publications on systems-based sustainable resource management. The Institute should be able to get by on much less money (or charge lower rates) than others, because of the frugality and self-sufficiency with which we would live. I could hire some of the great young people I know who want to live that way, who are eager to serve the cause, and who bring more expertise in both systems and specific resources than I can summon on my own. Jointly we could take on more of the opportunities I now turn down — from speaking to projects — because I don’t have time to do them. This option scares me, because it implies a lot of management, which is my least-favorite way to spend my time, and because it poses a risk not only to me, but to others who would depend on me for their livelihood. I don’t begin to see how to pull it off. And yet the universe keeps tugging on me to try it.
This month the community and institute seem much more real to me than they have before. I can see the project that can launch the institute, and I’ll be writing a proposal for it this week. Some of the necessary people are visible and circling round, maybe ready to alight. What I need to do is get a formal vision statement down on paper, so people can take a look at it, ask hard questions about it, help refine it, and, perhaps, sign on. I pledge to do that before next month’s newsletter comes out.
Meanwhile, Scot, Chrissie and I are pretty clear about our vision of the farm-mates we need right now. We need people willing to work seriously at human community and at loving this land, caring for it, and making it productive. Folks who want to work for a sustainable, equitable world by trying to live that way, as well as by reaching out to others who want to live that way. People who might like to tinker with renewable energy installations, food-drying, fruit trees, computers. Someone with a good drill press, says Scot. Someone who can play the cello, says Dana. Someone with a little irreverence, says Chrissie. Someone who can train puppies, who rejoices at the returning songbirds every spring, who has or is willing to learn skills of human relationship. People who clean up after themselves, who don’t mind shoveling manure, who appreciate organic veggies fresh from the garden, who are working at physical, emotional, and spiritual health. People, I would add, who are willing to buy in, to be owners, to go at it for the long term.
In return we offer good cooking, good soils (but a lousy climate), three reasonably sweet-tempered and energetic farm-mates, a well-equipped farm with tractor, barn, root cellars, a palace of a chicken house, a large, organized shop, clean air, clean water, forests, swamps, cuddly animals, a beautiful view, a piano accompanist for the cello, hand-knitted wool socks, zillions of books, a good selection of National Geographic and opera videos, and next year’s wood all put up.
We have immediate openings. Spread the word.
For this month’s mailing experiment, we’re trying envelopes for out-of-U.S. subscribers and larger stickies for in-U.S. subscribers. We appreciate your feedback.