a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Not too long ago, the field behind our home was planted every spring with industrial corn. Year after year, the tired soils, loaded with chemical fertilizers and liquid manure, produced their truckloads of No. 2 corn. Now and then a tractor would pass over the land, spreading its gossamer wings of poison, but I almost never saw a human being.
Then a youth conservation corps set up its headquarters next door in a newly renovated cathedral-sized barn, once a spectacular ruin perched by the side of the road. A stone’s throw from the corps’ headquarters, I live on a homestead beside the old site of the barn before it was moved. Our house sits on the lip of the old riverbed, on piles of sediment dumped here when the glacial meltwaters, and the ancient river, receded. Behind us the land levels out, then gently slopes upward, before it plummets into a deep ravine. From out of its depth the mountains begin to rise in a series of ridges and deep valleys carved out, once upon a time, by ice. Where the flatland ends, a steep green hillside rises straight up from the plane, then plunges again, forming great egg-shaped upswellings that together suggest the smooth and fleshy curves of a body in repose. The Monitor Barn, sitting in the heart of the valley, ringed by farmland and then mountains, commands and dignifies the landscape, with rows of lowly vegetable crops forming their ranks at its feet, and across the road, marching across the floodplain to the river, are the neat mechanical plantings of industrial corn.
In the beginning, when the youth corps arrived, I liked watching the teams of youth in their green outfits and hardhats walking the path over the grassy upcrest toward the woods, where they constructed trails and lean-tos. A path, writes Michael Pollan, is the beginning of a narrative and a human presence. Soon, there would be six acres of vegetables under cultivation, five greenhouses, a half dozen movable hen houses, a poultry processing facility, and a farm stand—all the food grown and packed by youth crews and volunteers, and given away to the food insecure. A human presence in the field after a long Vermont winter begins in spring with a group of English Language Learners from the local highschool, who come every afternoon for a period of six weeks. The Ells work in the greenhouses, planting and transplanting, and in the fields, tending onions and leeks and lettuces. I see them walk along the edge of the garden in their green shirts, the girls wrapped in colorful headscarves, some wearing long skirts over their jeans. They come from Africa and Southeast Asia, the Himalayas and the Middle East. They do not cut a picture that would easily come to mind when you think of the Vermont countryside.
I join the Ells on a midsummer day when they return to the farm with their summer school. Zuti, who wears a black head covering adorned with silver sequins that frames her face and falls below her shoulders, and a long plaid skirt, tells me that working in the garden is her favorite work. She planted these potatoes. “Also garlic, tomatoes, onions,” she says, gesturing over the fields and towards the greenhouses in a sweeping motion. “All of this, I plant.”
Her sister, who is 15, wears a bright blue sequined headscarf and a leopard print dress over her jeans. A Rohingya from Burma, she came to Vermont with her large family – seven sisters and two brothers– from a refugee camp in Thailand. They lived in the camp for eleven years. “We have fire,” she says. “The house was burn, so we go to refugee camp.” She leaves me to join her friends and soon she is singing out loud, dancing between the rows of weedy potatoes in her brightly colored dress.
After we have been working for an hour or so, one of the crew leaders pulls up in the pickup with bottled water for everyone. I join a group under the shade of a small tree at the edge of the field, where Dalib is speaking in Somali with a young woman who looks a little older than the others, dressed in a black headscarf and a long brown skirt. Her name is Fosia. She takes her disposable water bottle and balances it on her head as she walks back and forth along the edge of the potatoes. “It remind me of Africa,” she says, and laughs.
Dalib is a teacher’s aid and interpreter, who was born in Somalia but left his home country for Kenya when he was four. He has lived in the United States for nine years and has recently become a citizen. The teacher, Mr. Clark, told me that Dalib speaks “many languages and dialects.” When I ask him about that he is rather humble. “I speak three languages,” he says. “Somali, Swahili, and English.”
“I miss my country,” Fosia says in English. “Kenya. I miss my aunt, my cousins.” Like Dalib, she moved to Kenya from Somalia because of the war. Dalib turns to me. “She wants to go back to teach about female circumcision.”
“Yes,” she says. “I want to educate. They do it to us when we are babies.”
Another girl joins them. I ask her if she is from Somalia too. Fosia answers for her. “Yes, she’s from Somalia.” The girl turns to her and frowns. “No, I am not,” and they laugh.
I sit next to Fosia at lunch at a table with some of the other Ells. I am curious about her ambition to return to Africa to educate women, so I ask her about her plans. She is a 22-year-old senior at Winooski high school. She tells me she is interested in nursing. She wants to work for a women’s …. she struggles to express herself in English. “Case worker,” she says at last. She would like to work with refugees in Africa.
I ask her how many brothers and sisters she has. She is not sure. She counts on her fingers. “Nine,” she says finally.
We are having lunch inside the Hay Mow in the Monitor Barn – the beautiful large room that is rented out for weddings and other events. It was once the place where the hay was brought in on horse drawn carriages and then dropped down to the stables on the lower level. The Hay Mow is all wood – exposed timbers, rafters, and sheathing forming a latticework of timbers and catwalks that extend to the monitor roof, where the light pours in from the sky and falls to the floors below in long dust-filled columns.
Mr. Clark stands behind a long table where he dishes out lunch for his students. I am sitting with a group of girls all wearing colorful headscarves, between Fosia and a 13- year- old from Somalia named Nafia. She has very dark skin, a sweet, oval face, and wears braces. She speaks fluent American and has even mastered the overuse of the word “like.” She tells me she lived in Missouri for two years before she came to Vermont. I ask her which place she prefers, and she tells me that she likes her school here better, but otherwise she prefers Missouri.
“Why is that?”
“My friends,” she says. “I miss my friends.”
I ask her if she likes working at the farm.
“I like to sew,” she says.
I recall that it is Ramadan and I wonder why the girls are not fasting.
“We can’t fast when we have our periods,” Nafia explains to me. “We can stop the fast at any time. Some can fast for a week or a month.” She explains all this to me with the sweetness of a caring adult for a child who needs instruction. I notice the girls don’t seem to be eating much and are pushing the food around on their plates. They each have a half a hard-boiled egg, a square piece of zucchini bread, a small pile of chopped lettuce with some cheese on top, and canned pear slices. It does not seem like very much food. I ask them if they are given enough to eat.
“We don’t eat much,” one of the girls responds. She wears a pale grey chiffon headscarf with a pink rose over her left ear and a tassel of silver-colored beads. “They have learned that about us. They don’t want to throw food away.”
I ask the girls how they like American food. “It’s good.” I sense that they are being diplomatic in their answers. There is not an ounce of the snideness, or entitlement, that are so characteristic of American teenagers. From across the Hay Mow, some of the students at another table are calling out to their math teacher, whose name is Mr. Payeur (pronounced “pear”):
“Are you eating your pears, Mr. Payeur?”
Before it was restored, the old Monitor barn was a sad but impressive site. There was not a straight edge to be seen, its roof ridge sank like the back of an old horse, its paint faded, the color of old veins. It gave the impression of something organic rather than architectural: a creature rather than a building, that wheezed and gasped as if it were taking its last breaths. It seemed to tremble where it stood. A spectacular ruin like that still suggests its former glory; like very old men, it commands respect and repulsion at the same time. The ruin was owned by the man who would become my husband, but I didn’t know him then – at the time when his sheep liked to wander inside it for shade, negotiating the gaping holes in the floors. His cat managed to climb to the top of the monitor roof but then could not find her way down. Twice. After the land trust took ownership of the barn it entered a rapid decline; while funds were sought for the renovation, it remained as if forsaken, perched at the edge of the road, ready to collapse. Taken apart, moved, and rebuilt, today the impeccably restored West Monitor Barn is the collective achievement of the land trust, community activists and volunteers, state and federal agencies, and youth corps work crews, who raised the timbers, hammered nails, and laid down sheathing and clapboard, in what was, in effect, a community barn raising.
The architecture of an earlier time may have been more beautiful, and aesthetically, the hand-built villages of our predecessors were far superior to our contemporary squalor. But I am not nostalgic about this past. The immigrants who colonized the landscape of the northeast laid waste to it in a few short years – they destroyed the forests, polluted streams and rivers that were once full of salmon and trout, and introduced weeds, pests, and diseases that would plague us for centuries to come.
And it was built on land stolen from those who had been here for millennia. Who remember in their stories the movement of the ice sheet that ground down these hills and carved out the valley, when the Great White Bear withdrew from this earth to take its abode in the sky; when the salt sea rushed in and sea levels rose, when they lived, for a time, between a great inland sea and an ocean. They remember the great animals who roamed at the glacial margins, the lords of the barren grounds, and debated around their campfires if they themselves were to blame for their disappearance, or was it the climate that had so undoubtedly changed. They were here when the inland sea drained away, and the world warmed; who became a great sea-faring people with trade networks and alliances linking the arctic to the Mississippi, astronomers and horticulturalists, craftspeople and orators at the Great Council Fire. Thus they thrived until the Years of Darkness, when the European invaders brought war and disease from which the Abenaki perished in great waves. They saw the forests slayed, the rivers silt up where the salmon once ran. Later the Anglo-Americans who stole their land would stumble upon their observatories and call them root cellars; they would claim the original people had all fled or died away, when they lived among them still, disguised among the French, river rat and gypsy cultures living at the margins of proper society, tending their banked fires until it was safe for them to light them in the open once again.
A photo of our farm and the West Monitor Barn from a century ago shows the surrounding hills denuded of trees and dotted with sheep – an image of what much of Vermont looked liked in the nineteenth century. The sheep overgrazed the hillsides and without the forests the soils washed away in floods and mudslides. The new immigrants slashed and burned and slaughtered indiscriminately, and then they left and headed west. Some stayed, continuing to farm in the river valleys, but the upland farms were abandoned, their rock walls, built stone upon stone, were left to crumble, to be overtaken by brambles and second growth forest. Those piles of rocks, and the wild apples trees that we find on our rambles through the woods that came back, are their legacy. But the forests that we know are not the forests that were cut down, and only a few of the species that they extirpated would successfully be reintroduced – the beaver, turkey, and fisher, and the catamount, it is rumored, is making a comeback– while the others, among them the timber wolf, salmon, giant sturgeon, passenger pigeon – never would return.
This is not a past we wish to return to. Our Arcadia is not this.
I came to the rural life as an outsider, as someone who grew up in large cities, first in London, England and then in Brooklyn, New York, where I lived with my family on a block of rowhouses surrounded by parking lots and adjacent to a maximum-security prison. My experiences of natural or rural landscapes were few, which may be why they had such a searing effect on my imagination. The countryside, the non-urban landscape, was at first for me a longing, that is, an Arcadia, the imagined place of the pastoral poets and later, the Romantics, whose sense of beauty was heightened by having known the dark satanic mills of industrial England. It was difficult to extract myself from the city, and it took me many years. “It is an impossible dream,” said Holden Caufield’s girlfriend, when he tried to persuade her to run away with him to Vermont. She was right, after all; even if we have transplanted ourselves to the country, we will carry our “city troubles” along with us. As well as our heightened sense of beauty and a longing that is inextinguishable.
And so the stark distinction between town and country would turn out to be illusory. The world is fractured here as everywhere. We discover that when we try to quit the world by moving “back to the land” the same economic pressures are at work, requiring us to take that second or third job, while the pace of life allows for only a degree of more leisure and poetry than the city life we left behind. A farmed landscape, after all, is an extension of the city, existing in order to feed it, and is in turn shaped by the cultural and technological exports that further erode any distinction between the two. At the physical and biological level, no leaf, microbe, or atom can escape the poisonous effects of urbanization, and now the entire world’s weather is becoming deranged– which is what Bill McKibben meant when he declared the end of nature.
There is a kind of romanticism that is, as the scholar Leo Marx says, simple and sentimental, and another that is imaginative and complex. In Virgil’s pastoral, written in a time of war and political upheaval, it is not the distinction between town and country that is important, but the tension between peace and war, permanence and disruption, home and exile. It is not an escape from the realities of civilization – it is home. The lost paradise of the later pastoral poets had its origins in the very real loss of lands, confiscated by Rome and rewarded to soldiers at the conclusion of the civil wars, lamented by the shepherd-poets of Virgil’s Eclogues: “You see where civil war Has led? …I’ll sing no more; kids, now your grazing days are over…” Neither is the farmed landscape that I regard from my window a vision of innocence, but a damaged land that has been shorn, flooded, eroded, dug up, and poisoned, and is today being regenerated by the exiled, who will have to make of this strange land a new home. It is as marked by war and upheaval as the Eclogues.
I know that not all wounds can be healed. But watching youth crews go to work on that piece of land the way the body’s cells go to work to heal a wound– to repair a broken food system and an economic system, to create an alternative to a culture of couch sitting — I can hold before me an image of what it will mean for people to take care of one another, as we will have to do. We are learning, in the words of Sir Alfred Howard, in his Agricultural Testament, “to look at the wheel of life as one great subject and not as if it were a patchwork of unrelated things.” The sheep fertilize the grasses that in turn sustain them, the legumes fix nitrogen for nutrient-hungry maize. We are discovering the meaning of resilience and finding a way to be useful. It is the best image I have to hang onto that suggests we might endure.
And now, I am ever conscious that under the rules of the new America, neither Fosia nor Nafia nor Dalib would be admitted here. The Rohingya, Zuti and Rosie among them, who came here because they were persecuted as Muslims, now find themselves in another country hostile to followers of Islam. I am also ever conscious, and deeply troubled by, the truth that it is rural America that has embraced these policies – a rural American that is so badly in need of a healthy infusion of youth corps thinking, its embrace of diversity, its generosity, that sees the wheel of life as one great subject, and not a patchwork of unrelated communities.
One day near the end of summer, I stop by the farmhouse where the farm crew and staffers are preparing for a community meal, to celebrate their final week of work on the farm. I follow the sound of Michael Jackson blasting to the back of the house. There are three large baking pans containing a shepherd’s-pie-in-progress lined up on a bench in the center of the living area. The kitchen is packed with cooks who are chopping up greens and salad fixings for a great big garden salad. Bits of food are sprinkled over the carpet and seem to go flying through the air. There is a party atmosphere in the kitchen, but no alcohol, only loud music and heaps of food. It is the crew’s next-to-the-last day and it must feel like the last day of school is near.
Stephanie is in charge of the shepherd’s pie. She is following her family recipe, only she has substituted green beans for peas, which she has layered on top of the ground meat, and is now applying the mashed potatoes using her bare hands. She is wearing a tank top and shorts – not her green uniform – and her hands are covered to the wrists with mashed potatoes. She leans into her work as if she were using her whole body and when she lifts her right knee for a moment, I think she is about to crawl right on top of her shepherd’s pie. When she looks up, smiling, she looks as if she is coming up for air.
The following spring, I volunteer to help plant onion seedlings with the Ells one afternoon. Many of them are returning for their second or third year, but there are new faces among them. Crouched down over the ground, we loosen the clumps of clay soil and press the young onions into the earth. When we have planted nearly three quarters of the row, about the length of a long city block, crew leader Nicole thanks the group for their hard work and tells them they can take a break before their bus arrives to take them home. “You don’t have to stay,” she says, “but I’d really appreciate it if some of you volunteered to help me to finish this row.” Most of them – and all the boys – vanish before I can even turn around, but three of the girls have volunteered to stay. Rosie and Zuti are among them, whom I met that day in the Hay Mow, the ones who explained to me so kindly about Ramadan.
When we reach the end of the row, Nicole thanks us and then urges the girls to hurry off to catch their bus home. I watch the two of them run down along the rows of tender young onion shoots standing upright in their new beds, the girls’ long skirts and headscarves flashing their colors like the wings of birds, vanishing behind the hill as the evening comes.
Sources: Virgil’s Eclogues. Translated by Len Krisak. Philadelphia: University of Penn. 2010.
Alexis Lathem is an environmental journalist and author of the poetry collection, Alphabet of Bones and two chapbooks. A 2018-21 Black Earth Institute fellow, her poems and essays have appeared in About Place, AWP Chronicle, Beloit Poetry Journal, Chelsea Review, the Hopper, Hunger Mountain, Gettysburg Review, Saranac Review, Spoon River Review, and other journals. She has worked as a staff writer and organizer in environmental and food justice movements, and received her MFA in Poetry from Vermont College. She teaches writing at the Community College of Vermont in Winooski, a city with a population that is twenty percent refugee.