I have no idea why I like to read books on farming but I do. I have warm memories of the farm of my youth though my experience there was limited to brief visits. On days off I sometimes gravitate toward the writing of Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry or Ohio farmer David Kline or other writing set in rural places. Maybe it’s because I’m a shepherd and a shepherd tends a flock—my life is pastoral. Recently a farming book caught my eye and I was surprised by an interesting passage in it. In the passage my interest in pastoral work and pastoral settings come together. It’s a true story about a gesture a church makes toward a couple at a pivotal time in their lives. The author and her husband are about to begin farming in up-state New York. They ride into town on bikes, set up camp on their property and ride back into town. Here is the story:
“By the time the tent was pegged down it was nearly dark. We retrieved our bikes and retraced the last part of the ride, back into the village of Essex. I was bone tired, and still jet-lagged from a recent trip to Asia, and the only thing I wanted more than sleep was food. For some reason we failed to bring provisions, and my blood sugar was dropping below the level required to keep me sane. I wanted food like a wolf wants food. I wanted food so bad I was angry about it. I sat on a bench outside the town hall while Mark went to explore our options. When he returned he sat down and put his arm warily around me before delivering the bad news: the only place to eat was in Inn, and they wouldn’t take us, despite the empty tables I could see through the window, because we didn’t have a reservation. There were no stores, and the next town was a five mile ride away, mostly uphill. It was fully dark by then, and I didn’t think I could make it back to the farm, let alone next town, without something to eat. I seethed, hating every quaint quarter of a place so small and stupid you could actually starve to death in it …I considered whether or not I would be arrested if I were to sleep on the bench and decided I wanted to be arrested, because they’d be required to give me a ride to the jail in the car, and feed me. The only traffic light in town blink endlessly to an empty street.
We were fixed in that tableau of misery by the glare of a pair of headlights pulling into the parking place in front of our bench. A man with a silver hair got out, carrying a covered casserole dish. He smiled widely at us, noted our bicycles, asked us where we were from and where we were going. Mark told him we come up from Poughkeepsie and we’re camping at the Essex Farm. Well, he asked, “Are you hungry?” Even in my desperation, I could feel the “No thanks,” on the tip of my tongue, the city habit of distrust for any show unsolicited kindness. But Mark had already excepted on our behalf, and the man led us across the street to the basement of a big stone church and opened the door onto the sounds of clattering silverware and chatter and laughter rising up from the sea of gray hair.
It looked like we were crashing some kind of geriatric mixer, but I didn’t care, because I had caught sight of the long tables against the wall, crammed with food. I could see plates of sliced ham, baked beans, mashed potatoes, and bright for Jell-O salad studded with fruit and topped with globs of pastel Cool-Whip. The man who brought us asked for everyone’s attention, and fifty lined faces turned toward us. He introduced us as traveling long-distance bicyclists who wouldn’t mind some dinner, and the room erupted in applause. The next thing I knew, someone had me by the elbow guiding me through the crowd toward the tables laden with calories, placing a plate in my hands, pouring me a glass of iced tea. I wondered briefly if I was stuck in a dream, if this is some kind of cruel mirage, but soon I was seated and eating. It was the kind of food that Grandmothers make, the kind invented to fill the stomach at the ditch digger or farmhand. I ate biscuits and gravy, green beans with slivered almonds, a drumstick fried chicken. There was an urn of hot coffee, too, and an entire table dedicated to desserts.
When my peripheral vision returned and I could speak again I learned that we stumbled into the centennial celebration of Essex Community Church. There weren’t many young families in Essex, it turned out, and they were Episcopal. Everyone in the basement knew each other intimately, and most were in some way related. Many of the people I met that night would become important in our lives. The man who found us on the bench was Wayne Bailey. A few years later his wife, Donna, would knit a pink sweater with white piping for our infant girl, with a little cap to match. The small and wrinkled woman he sat next to was Pearl Kelly. She told us that night that she loved bicycling, and until she turned ninety and could no longer get her leg over the bar, she would bike from her house to the ferry, for a joy-ride across the lake. Three years later I was milking a cow when her daughter-in-law came out to our barn to tell me Perl had died. She had farmed all through life just down the road from us. Her vegetable stand is still there, paint chipping, it’s ridgepole succumbing to gravity.
We went back to the farm that night fed and warm in all ways, carrying pieces of cake wrapped up and napkins. I was entirely unused to that sort of common kindness. I didn’t think that communities like this were supposed to exist anymore, in a country isolated by technology, mobility, and work.”
Never underestimate the power of a simple church picnic or carry-in dinner. You never know who is nearby hungry as a wolf, angry with hunger.
June 3, 2013
You can read about Essex Farm and order the book here