Column: Appreciating an old farm, and its practical truths

  • (Napali Raymundo photograph) Napali Raymundo photograph

For the Valley News
Published: 5/8/2021 10:10:06 PM
Modified: 5/8/2021 10:10:03 PM

The place was a wreck. Weather-beaten. Beaten in many other ways, too.

Broken glass, lots of rot, barn leaning, sills disintegrating. It hasn’t changed very much since I bought it 4½ years ago. Shoring up the kitchen floor was the very first job, otherwise my old iron range would have retreated to the cellar as soon as it was brought in and piped to the chimney, taking the kitchen floor with it. Of course the water got hooked up, a new electric panel installed and a bit of new wiring strung from here to there. At least there’s no paint peeling off the exterior, but that’s because there’s no paint to peel.

It’s true that the poor condition of the house and barns made the place affordable for me, but that wasn’t the motivating factor. The main reason was love, and affection.

Modern ways, styles and ideas have often frightened me — I always get the sinking feeling that we’ve gone off the path, strayed too far from the laws of Nature, from parameters dictated by the land and the seasons. Accepting the premise and the implications of today’s or even yesterday’s values and expectations is just not possible for me. I prefer the day before yesterday.

This old clapboard house stands proud — her hand-hewn frame strong, her siting a stroke of genius. Consider the challenges of traipsing through this territory in the late 1700s to locate your pitch, allocated by the town’s proprietors, then deciding where to erect your house. Find water. Lay out your fields and clear them. It wasn’t about your expression, it was about your survival. Effective immediately, your choices, your ability to assess everything from soil quality to the path of the sun in winter, would seal your fate, define the course of your life.

As misfortunes were more likely to occur then windfalls, your chances of prevailing depended on your ability to soberly evaluate everything you would need — what, where, when and how.

The practical truths of these settler farms speak to me, reassure me, even if the surviving structures have deteriorated and a long interval has passed since the land was worked. If the place has endured long enough to be here still, in any condition, suggests to me that its heart is beating yet, and can be brought once more, to life.

When I arrived early that November, I hurried to get stoves in and warm, throw as much wood as possible into the cavernous woodshed, get hay into the barn for the horses and a temporary electric fence around the field to keep them in. After that, I went to plowing up ground for the vegetable garden. I managed to get half the piece turned over with my old tractor and ungainly one-bottom trailer plow, with its wild wobble and huge turning radius, before it began snowing in earnest. The appearance of the plowed ground was uninspiring. Little did I know. As winter descended, I turned my attention to other more immediately pressing problems ... like staying warm.

I cut and hauled wood to the house with the horses all winter long. The two old iron stoves consumed whatever I fed them and their appetites were never satisfied. The house was moderately warm during the day when I was able to feed fires often enough, but cold, cold, in the depths of night.

By late February, the warmth of the afternoon sun streaming through the tall, west-facing windows warmed the room nicely, promising spring, which came as it always does, one step forward, two steps back, and accompanied by a stupendous mud season. I learned that my side of the hill melted before the pitch heading to Strafford, so you got two mud seasons for the price of one.

Experiencing that initial spring on this old place was wonderful, every few days news birds arrived, settling in the thicket by the marsh, and little by little I began to get a feel for how to proceed.

The ideal exposure, the excellent soil coming into its own through much discing with the horses, felt like dying and going to Heaven. No, living and going to Heaven. It was hard work to disc up that poorly plowed ground, but together we managed, as we usually do. Two years were devoted to digging up a dozen or so large rocks and rolling them to the filed edge.

From the exposure, to the ample water, and the soil tilth, the prospects for vegetable growing here were excellent from the beginning. Passersby would probably write the place off as a poor spot to live, but that’s because they only see the rundown house. I know — most people live in the house, but I live in the garden.

All my life I have dreamed of having a farm of my own. How I would have loved to work one piece of ground for my entire career. But better late than never. And I’ve learned and lived much along the way.

I know my time here is not infinite, I’m hoping for 10 more years of physical strength. All I know is that I’ll give it everything I’ve got, for the sake of the land, and for my successors, whoever they may be.

From the bottom of my heart, I thank the original settlers here for the wisdom and courage of their choices and the honesty of their work, and every day I seek to make them proud, never taking for granted the promise of good land.

Suzanne Lupien lives, writes and farms in Vershire.

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