Out in the cold

Selling the family farm severs connection with place and past

  • Sale day at the Bair family farm.

    Courtesy Julene Bair
  • Life on the farm, c. 1980s.

    Courtesy Julene Bair
  • Life on the farm, c. 1980s.

    Courtesy Julene Bair
  • Life on the farm, c. 1980s.

    Courtesy Julene Bair
  • Life on the farm, c. 1980s.

    Courtesy Julene Bair
 

Page 5

When the spring thaw came at this new home of mine, I began working as if my livelihood depended on it, the way I'd seen my father work every spring of his life. It was visceral, this need to put down roots again. Each weekend I would bound out of the house after my oatmeal and begin digging and double-digging, uprooting old posts, sinking new ones, pulling wire, building wood frames for raised beds, trucking in dirt, and mixing it with the fortuitous pile of dung left by the previous owner's horses.

Walking back to my house after a glorious morning sowing the first cool-season seeds, I noticed an affirming statement playing in my head. I think it had been repeating there for weeks, then had begun to crescendo. I heard it now because this was the moment when seeds had touched dirt, opening morning on the farm, my farm, no matter how insignificant in size.

I removed my mud-caked shoes and rushed to write down the refrain, so startling in its naked hope. This will save me, the voice said. I had a fundamental belief in the power of spring dirt, a faith I'd absorbed growing up.

It will save me from grief over the farm. The one true cure, actually growing food in my own soil. There was no going back, but I could go on.

John Locke was partly right, I decided. Mixing our labor with the soil earns us something, although it is not ownership. The goal is oneness. And sometimes, when we're not too tired to notice, even joy.

Later, when I'd suffered back spasms from spading all day; when I'd made my first mistakes and had to re-dig a bed, removing manure and replacing it with topsoil to get the nitrogen level right; when my broccoli transplants burned in the sun and my drip system blew out from too much water pressure and my compost pile forgot to heat up and I had to re-collect grass clippings, remix them with dead leaves and put in a ventilator pipe; when bindweed covered the old manure pile and, unwilling to follow my father's policy of sterilizing the soil wherever bindweed grew -- Because it's rooted all the way to China and if you don't get it, it will get you! -- I hoed it and it grew back and I hoed it again and it grew back again; and when the weather got hotter and gardening was insinuating itself into my work week and making it almost impossible for me to make my mark in my "real" work, as my father had in his, another refrain entered my head. No one knows! These were my father's words when he had trouble with his help and he'd been working a month straight without taking a day off and his kids wouldn't come home and lend him a hand. He was right. We didn't know, but I have an inkling now.

One night, I sat up in bed with this realization stabbing me in the heart: He helped Grandpa break that land out with horse-drawn plows! My aching back, callused hands and fatigue are penance, a little offering in recognition of the years of toil that he put in.

Each week from late spring into early fall, my labor bears vegetables and fruit, culminating in warm, orange-meated melons. Eating their juicy flesh, I imbibe summer. I join my flesh with my adopted soil. But this satisfaction does not silence the calliope that plays in my dreams as, each night, the auctioneer gavels off my father's tractors and tools.

Five miles of roots! I keep thinking. Ever since I left our farm, at age eighteen, my home there has been abstract. I never would have moved back. Still, in signing that line, I ran a blade under myself, severing access to my identity as adroitly as the new owners' plows severed the roots beneath the remaining buffalo grass.

Selling the farm, no matter how many times I rethink it, no matter how unavoidable or rational, will always be the worst decision I made in my entire life.

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