Dear Folks, “Home,” wrote my friend Bert DeVries from Holland when I moved away from Foundation Farm. “What does that mean to you now?” And recently my father wrote from Illinois, “it sounds like you have two homes now instead of one.”
Sometimes it feels like two homes and sometimes it feels like none. I have started thinking a lot about “home”, a concept I’ve taken completely for granted until now. I’ve always had some sort of home. Even when it was a home in motion, like the years Dennis and I lived in various student apartments and the year we lived in a Land Rover in Asia, I never felt homeless. All the way through college, home was where my parents were. Then home was where Dennis was. Then home was Foundation Farm whether Dennis was there or not. Now where is home? What does that word mean?
Around Christmas I felt homeless. Blow-Me-Down Farm is definitely a home, and a lovely one, but it is a home for a nuclear family, has been for generations, and still emphatically is. Ruth and the girls were bravely and graciously making a Christmas for themselves, the first one without Peter, and doing a fine job of it. But I was not only not Peter, I was a reminder of differentness and change in their lives, which, for a few days at least, they didn’t need. I was an interruption of their experience of home. Fortunately, I had a lot of work to keep me in my study, but it was difficult work and I needed to pace and grumble, and so I inevitably got in their way. I hope they will find it in their hearts to forgive me.
Over at Foundation Farm I would have been welcome; I was probably even missed. But they were also busy working out the next steps in their lives. Richard was bravely and graciously making the first Christmas for his two kids separate from his wife, Suzanne was packing to go to India, Dennis was gearing up for a teaching term and trying to save a DOD contract. I could have fit into all the chaos, but to tell the truth, it hurt to go over there. Especially around the holidays there were too many memories over there, and it wasn’t home any more.
At the Quimby place John was used to having Christmas alone, because Brenna spends Thanksgiving with him and Christmas with her mother Beverly. He and I were going to help out at the community dinner for the homeless (how fitting! — the people who need to define themselves as “helping” are, of course, getting their own needs taken care of too), but when we called to volunteer, we found the dinner wasn’t going to happen. I walked over to the Quimby place on Christmas day to deliver some cookies and found John roasting his first-ever turkey for a neighbor family he had invited over. He was adapting better than I was, but then he has had more practice, and for now he has more space to do it in. I could have stayed and been welcome, but by that time I was in such a funk that I wouldn’t have enhanced anybody’s party. I walked back home and went to work fruitlessly on my Quality of Life paper (again, how fitting!).
So I felt awful. I felt, a little bit, for a little while, whether it was justified or not, like I didn’t have a place on the planet to call home, whatever home is.
Robert Frost gave the most dismal possible definition: “home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in,” if I remember it rightly (I’d go check, but my Robert Frost book is packed up somewhere in a bunch of boxes next door in my ex-home). Economically, home is where you keep the capital goods that provide you with utility (home is where the washing machine is) and status (home is where the Persian rugs are) and pleasure (home is where my piano is and my dog and my cats), and productive ability (home is where the garden is, home is where my computer is?). Home is where you can be just exactly who you are without restraint, and though everybody may not approve, at least no one is surprised, and no one contests your right to be that way. Home is a physical space you can arrange not only to meet your needs, but to express your personality, to show the world a reflection of your individual inner landscape. Home is a place of love and support, a place that strengthens and restores you between battles with the outside world. Home is a place you can share with your friends, a place where you can be generous and hospitable because there is not only enough there for you, but for others too. Home is the place where you have a high probability of finding the people you most love when you most need them.
I can see for the first time that the truly homeless people of the world (which I, of course, am not) are deprived of far more than shelter from rain and cold. They’re deprived of the opportunity to be productive and giving, to be restored, to be welcomed, to impress their individuality on any physical space, to be themselves, to be full partners in the human race.
I can also understand by direct experience (I understood it before only intellectually) what the many brave souls who have come to live at Foundation Farm have had to go through, and why for some the place never became home (for others it did, which is a tribute to them and to us). If I ever again become a member of a community-home, I will be much more understanding.
I like to believe there’s some Grand Plan, some Wise Reason, for everything that happens to me, and I can see some value in this relatively mild experience of homelessness. It certainly is part of a strong pattern in my life right now, giving up my marriage, my job, my Dartmouth office, and finally my farm — I feels like I’m slowly letting go of my worldly attachments (except my computer, boy, don’t you even TRY to take away my computer! And 14 file drawers full of papers. And my new Honda. And two sheep. Worldly attachments are a relative concept, I guess). I don’t know why I’m going through this letting-go period. Sometimes I think I should do it more and faster; it’s the traditional path to enlightenment, after all. But I haven’t made any conscious choice to seek enlightenment by relieving myself of the burden of earthly attachments, and I obviously still feel attached, or it wouldn’t hurt so much to pull away. So why am I doing this? I don’t know. Every time I look around, it seems like the next step to take is in the direction of letting go. So, delaying, resisting, and complaining, I let go.
Over at Foundation Farm Richard has sold his old house and has some money to invest. So Dennis, who always feels better when he Has a Plan and is Doing Something, is finally working on our old condominium idea, turning the farm into a place where the residents jointly own the grounds and individually own their living spaces. I’m glad to see this happen at last, and it pushes me to sell out my half of the farm for Richard to buy. Suzanne may finally get off the fence and buy in too, or else decide once and for all that she does not want a long-term future there after all. In any case, I may soon be the one with money to invest, so all this thinking about “home” may take a practical turn. I’m actually scanning real estate ads (fainting at the prices) and wondering what kind of home I really want now.
So far I am not close to being clear enough in my mind and purposes to buy a house. I suspect the present time of unattachment is a long way from over. If I think about having a home totally alone (unlikely, given my history), then I could get excited about a little new energy-efficient house with heat-mirror windows, warmed by a wood stove and a puppy and some kittens. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? If I want space for lots of other people, transient or permanent, which I think I do, then all I could afford would be another falling-apart New England farmhouse. That would be a nuisance, but also informal and companionable and fun, and with the help of other people I could come closer to living off the land than I could ever do by myself.
Fortunately, this is not a decision that has to be made this week, or even this year. You’ll probably get to watch it unfold in future letters.
It has been wicked cold around here this week. The Eskimos know snow so well they have lots of names for it — we have lots of names for cold. In January in New Hampshire anything above 25 degrees is “warm”. From 25 to about 15 is so normal it’s not worth commenting on. From 15 to 5 is “cold”. From +5 to -10 is “bitter cold” (those are the exact words the forecasters use: “Tonight will be bitter cold with lows of -5 to -10.”) Below -10 is what I call “wicked cold”. We’re well prepared and we function with complete normalcy in all colds except wicked cold. Wicked cold sneakily penetrates all your defenses and finds out all the weak spots in your clothing, your car, your water pipes, your barn, your livestock.
In the -20 nights this week, followed by days when it barely got above zero the Whybrow’s truck succumbed, as did Dennis’s truck and even the trusty 150,000-mile Toyota (my Honda sounded sick, but it started and ran). The water supply in the Whybrow barn froze and we will probably not see running water up there again until spring. A pipe burst in the back bathroom of Foundation Farm. All animals and people seem to be fine, however. The duck sits down a lot to keep her feet warm. The sheep under their 5-inch layers of wool are oblivious to the cold. We often lose a chicken or two in weather like this, and egg production is down a little, but so far the biddies are just clucking quietly and hunkering down and doing fine.
The weatherman is predicting a break this weekend, with temperatures all the way up in the +thirties. When it gets that warm I start going out to get the paper without even putting a coat on, and I begin to use the word “balmy”.
It’s time for my annual review of the progress of the column and for setting 1988 targets. By any reasonable standards it’s been a good year. The number of papers taking the column is up, income is up, subscribers to the Dana Meadows News Service are up:
1985 1986 1987
number of papers 8 15 22
monthly income (gross) $200 $700 $1000
subscribers to DMNS 28 60 85
I have broken into the Midwest with the Columbus IN Journal and the St. Louis Post Dispatch. I have broken into the major city papers with the Post Dispatch and the Philadelphia Inquirer. I lost three papers over the year (the Cape Cod Times and the Allentown PA Call, which never had taken many pieces, and the Kennebec Journal, which took a lot and liked the column but changed its editorial policy). But I gained more — in the last month I’ve sold my first columns to the Lawrence MA Eagle-Tribune, the Brunswick ME Times-Record, the Binghamton NY Press. There are others I hope will sign on soon, in State College PA, San Jose CA, New Bedford MA, Bangor ME, Syracuse NY, Rutland VT.
But I didn’t make last year’s target, which was 50 papers. I didn’t even come close. It was an outrageous target, of course, and I couldn’t have made it without the help of a syndicate, so the real target was to get nationally syndicated. That didn’t happen. I talked to 7 syndicates, all of which turned me down.
So the 1988 target is to get syndicated and to get into 50 papers. Week after next when I go to Washington for the National Geographic Society, I will even get over my shyness and ask James Reston for advice. You are my witnesses.
I’m teaching at Dartmouth this term, the first time in more than a year. It will provide some welcome income, but more important, it provides a welcome contact with wonderful young people. The course, appropriately, is Environmental Journalism. I’ve never taught it before, but of course it’s a subject I’m obsessed with these days, so I’m having fun, and I think the students are too. The first day, I asked them to rip apart my first draft of the column for that week. Now they’re working on columns of their own, and they’ll work up to long magazine articles. The goal is for all of them to get something they write for the class published somewhere. They’re good — I think they’ll do it.
Speaking of long articles, the January/February Harrowsmith has an article of mine taken from two columns on nuclear power I wrote last June. It’s a nice magazine; I’m proud to appear in it. And, for those of you interested in the economics of free-lance writing, it paid $600, which is a bonanza for me.
Coming next month: the National Geographic Society and the Quality of Life.