Dear Folks, It’s Sunday morning, amazingly mild (in the 60s), with the clouds of a departing storm sweeping over, letting in beams of sun. All day yesterday the valley was lashed by a nor’easter, the rare storm that slams at us backward, from the east, from the ocean, bringing enormous amounts of water. An east wind is a sign of trouble around here.
There were three inches in the rain gauge this morning. The brook and pond are looking like their normal selves again. I’m sure the groundwater isn’t yet fully recharged, but as far as I’m concerned, the drought is over.
Though it was wild and woolly out, the household had a productive Saturday anyway. I spent the morning in the greenhouse, pruning and repotting the houseplants — azaleas, Christmas cactus, cyclamen, geraniums — and bringing them to their winter stations indoors, so we can take that greenhouse down for the winter. (It’s a 4-part lean-to that fits onto the garage-size basement door. It’s covered with plastic, so it doesn’t keep out the winter cold and can’t bear a heavy snow load. We take it down every fall and put it back up every spring to house newly started seedlings.)
Scot was also busy in the basement, building (I think Scot is never happier than when he’s building) something we have needed for a long time, a hoop house — a freestanding movable greenhouse made from arched steel tubes (electric conduit) covered with plastic. It will go over the fall greens in the garden, to carry them as far as possible through the winter. We have a glory of lettuce and arugula and tatsoi and mache and collards out there. The hoop house ought to keep the snow off them and trap heat for them. When we want the house in the spring to set over starting melons, peppers, tomatoes, or other heat-lovers, we can just move it to another part of the garden.
So yesterday afternoon, as the wind sent the rain sideways and the electricity flickered off and the ducks had a rollicking time splashing in the rivers coming out of the gutter drains, Scot and Chrissie and Marcia were out in the garden, lashing together the frame of the hoop house and watching huge white pines crash down in the forest. I accused them of not knowing enough to come in out of the rain, but they assured me that it was a warm rain, and they were decked out in slickers and they were having fun. Anyhow, the frame is now up, waiting for its plastic cover. We think we might let the ducks stay in there this winter — but we’ll have to keep them away from the greens.
I am just rejoining the human race after a bout with a flu, so I stayed inside and made sure the hoop-house crew had hot corn chowder and baked squash when their job was done. Cam and Kinari came over and we had a candlelight dinner, then they watched Gandhi, while I went to bed, and the wind wooshed around the house.
This flu is only one of many signs from the universe that I have taken on too much this fall — or at least that I’m not going at it all from the calm place within me. Adding teaching to my already crazy schedule is not working. I’ve canceled out on two weekend meetings that I would have loved to go to — the Pew Scholars meeting in the White Mountains and a National Geographic Research Committee retreat on Cape Cod– because I was so far behind on columns, farmwork, Balaton Bulletin, and grading. I’m holding up several projects I’m part of, because I just have no time for meetings, or even to read and respond to documents. There is no way I’m going to answer any mail until Christmas. And my housemates will tell you I’m in constant “bulldozer mode,” in my head, scrambling to meet deadlines, hard to contact, always in a hurry.
I hate bulldozer mode. This is not the way to live. It is no demonstration of sustainability or even sanity.
I’ve been telling myself there’s a simple solution — don’t teach any more. (I hardly do. This is my first course in almost two years.) The amount of money I make is trivial. And why should I spend hours working with 11 Dartmouth students, when I could be talking with 50 Pew Scholars, or speaking to hundreds, or communicating with millions through my column?
But then another part of me says, a long-term, deep relationship with a few outstanding students can have payoffs far beyond what the numbers would suggest. Some of my best friends and most valued colleagues are my former students. One of them just wrote a cover article for the Atlantic about the worthless of GNP as a measure of economic progress. Another is a skilled and fearless journalist in Africa. (Those two are on my mind because I’ve just heard from them.) Some of the kids I’m teaching this term are clearly going to be stars of activism and commitment. There’s no greater privilege than in working with them. And I learn a lot myself when I teach — especially when, as this term, I teach ethics.
Something in me strongly needs to keep a hand in teaching.
So I could stop the column — it’s not going anywhere, it’s not getting syndicated, it would free me up a lot not to have to put it out every week. Or stop the Dear Folks newsletter (though writing it doesn’t take long, and Chrissie has taken over most of the time-consuming mailing job). Get someone else to put out the Balaton Bulletin.. Get out of the network about U.S. consumption, or the dawning stuff with Gar Alperowitz about post-capitalism, or the National Geographic. Sell the farm and buy a condo in town, so I can work all the time — no that direction definitely does not lead to sustainability or sanity!
I have to cut out something, but I love everything too much to cut it out!
Well since I wrote those complaining paragraphs several hours have passed. Now it’s Sunday night, the greenhouse with its shiny new cover is gleaming in the last light, I’m playing Mozart to soothe my soul, and we’ve had a Crones meeting.
Have I ever told you about the Crones? It’s an informal group of seven women friends (Marcia’s arrival has turned it into eight), all over 50, all professionally amazing, all seriously spiritually searching. They include a nurse-practitioner, two midwives, two college professors, two psychological social workers. I just love them all. I think they’re beautiful in every way, and I’m thunderstruck by their achievements. And when we get together in our occasional, unstructured way, my spirits are always lifted.
Today we talked about being overbusy, of course. It’s a disease that infects us all (except Marcia, who had by far the wisest things to say about it). We talked about the honest enthusiasm and the unconscious arrogance (if I don’t do it, it won’t be done well) that drives us. About the inner resistance that can sap our energy. About how easy it is to let quiet time get shoved away by Doing, and how easy it is, once that has happened, to lose all sense of inner direction. About how guilty we feel if we ever take a day just for Being, without any to-do list. About the purposes of a Sabbath — including its social sanction of quietness, so that rather than feeling guilty, one can feel dutiful devoting a day to contact with a Higher Power.
If I allowed myself to take a Sabbath, I’d spend much of it walking around my farm, just looking, or talking quietly with friends, or reading stuff I don’t have to read, or playing the piano.
Doesn’t that sound wonderful?
The one weekend trip I did take this month was to an event that nothing could have kept me from — my Mom’s 80th birthday party in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. My brother Jay and his friend Lorna (who live in Wisconsin) and I had fun arranging it through long-distance phone calls. We roped in our cousins and uncle and some of Mom’s oldest and best friends, with whom she taught for many years in Illinois. (My mother was a teacher of kindergarten and first grade, and then of educable mentally handicapped children and children with learning difficulties. Did you know that?) We spread the word and started assembling a “memory book” of happy or funny memories of Mom that each friend wrote down for us. (I learned a lot about my Mom that way! She has always combined one of the best and kindest hearts in the world with just a little spice of — well, rebelliousness to authority, shall we say? That small naughty streak is one of the things I love most about her, and judging from the memory book, many of her friends agree!)
The party had to be fairly low-key, given that it was held in a religious-oriented retirement home, and that my stepfather Karl is easily tired — but it was beautiful. Lorna and Jay and I dolled the place up with streamers and balloons and flowers, and they brought tons of Wisconsin sausage and cheese and apples, and we had a huge cake (with a big icing heart on it that said, “Happy Birthday Phebe, the Heart of the Family!”) and coffee and punch and the whole nine yards. Mom’s cousin Ollie drove in all the way from Garden City, Kansas, and other friends came from Harrison, Arkansas, and Karl’s son came with his family. There were maybe 80 people, I didn’t count.
The best part was Mom. I wish you could have seen how beautiful she looked! She had a new pink dress and pearls, and her eyes were as sparkling as if it were her 16th birthday instead of her 80th. I was just knocked out by my love for her — as I am so often.
After the party we had some good quiet time just with the family, my two dear cousins whom I get to see far too seldom, my uncle, Karl, my brother. We all went to church together on Sunday and out to dinner afterward.
I may not get to Pew Scholars meetings, but I do get to the important things!
Chrissie and I had a great trip on one of the most glorious days of the fall to Shelburne Farms over across Vermont on Lake Champlain. I almost never agree to speaking engagements, but this one I couldn’t say no to, because Alec Webb asked me, and because I got to see the farm, which I hadn’t visited in something like 20 years. It’s a massive estate, put together by the Vanderbilt family in the last century, now becoming a nonprofit educational institution for sustainable agriculture and living. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, on a peninsula sticking out into the lake, with views of the Green Mountains and the Adirondack Mountains, and with sweeping green fields and the biggest barns you can imagine — actually much bigger than you can imagine. You could set our house, barn, orchard, and all our gardens inside the Breeding Barn at Shelburne Farms and still have room for quite a few bowling alleys or skating rinks or miniature golf courses.
The farm is mainly in grass, grazed by a herd of Brown Swiss cows, whose milk goes to cheese made in one section of another massive barn. There’s a woodworking shop using wood from the farm’s forest. There’s a bakery, and a petting farm for kids, and a pre-school, and a lot of good educational space for visiting classes. The possibilities for what to do with the place are endless and just being explored. It was exciting to be there!
Meanwhile, back on our little tiny farm, the leaves have gone through their burst of unbelievable color — as glorious as ever I’ve seen it — and yesterday’s storm pretty much stripped them all from the trees. The grass is still green; the sheep are still out on the pasture. We’ve had only one frost, bad enough to kill off the cucumbers and beans and marigolds, but the protected flowers up by the house are still blooming. Unbelievable to still have roses and nasturtiums and nicotiniana this late in October!
Flocks of juncoes and whitethroated sparrows are swirling through, heading south. The ram Satchmo is sniffing the air, knowing that his great moment of lamb-making is almost here. The Buff Orpington chicks have grown up into pullets and are just beginning to lay. Young Emmett is turning into a somewhat more mellow, though still far from trustable, half-grown dog. He’s going to be a good companion and handsome too. We had him neutered this week, so he’s been a little subdued (for him) and we’ve had to keep him on a leash until his stitches are out. I think old dog Basil appreciates the relative quiet.
We’re working away at the fall chores — the root cellar is crammed with potatoes and squash and carrots, most of the wood is stacked away, the chicken house is cleaned, the tulip bulbs are planted, the greenhouse will soon be down. Though I have been less available than usual to help, we’ve been blessed with a parade of harworking visitors. Sarah Feldstein has been here twice, and we hope she’ll come again — she’s a real farmer. Maartje Wils has come by twice and has thrown herself willingly into harvesting cornstalks and washing windows. It’s good to have a Dutch housewife around! Barbara Vaile showed up out of nowhere for two days of hard work and then drove off into the sunrise, carrying Maartje, whom she had never met before, for an exploration of other farms and communities in New England.
All these are people looking for community in some form or another. Some of them might settle here — that’s partially what these visits are about. All of them help us to define our own concept of community, what we are trying to build here, and what form (both physical and human) it will take next. We still have room for a couple or a single person, but we haven’t been putting out active vibes to fill that room, partly because the room itself needs some repair, and partly because we need more clarity. We’re thinking of an even larger community, one people could buy or build into, but that would require more land or another farm, because we can’t build anymore here. We have a vision of a real working farm (meaning, by definition, one that actually makes money), but we know that would take full-time farmers. We know our larger purpose is to experiment with living as sustainably as we can, and to serve the world in its experiments in that direction — but we’re not absolutely sure whether in real time that means we should put more time and resources into a solar hot-water system, or forest thinning, or heart sharing. (Answer: all of the above, but then we get back into time-crunch and bulldozer mode again!)
So the real job, the most important job, is to work on community and to take good care of the land and buildings — however much the world wants me to do other things. Come to think of it, that’s a lot more consistent with teaching and writing than it is with speech-giving and international traveling and political organizing.
I wonder if there could be a message there?