Wednesday, May 25, 2011


I grew up in a beautiful, suburban neighborhood of ranch houses just south of downtown Nashville. Before it had been such a neighborhood, it had been rolling fields, pastures, and farmland. The area's past still tells its story through the tree lines that once served as property lines. I just missed this landscape by a few decades.

As a child I experienced echoes of the farm life when I'd go to my grandparents' house in west Tennessee. I played in barn lofts and gathered a few eggs, I named a farm cat or two, but I was too young to pick up on all the intricacies of the farming schedule, and most of my grandparents' farming days were in the past. My education to this "way" of life was done through the retelling of stories more than it was through actually witnessing the day to day routine of a farm.

Unknowingly, I grew up assuming working farms were pretty much a thing of the past and were only still happening in tiny pockets of our country. I wrongly assumed most of America was urban or suburban, even though I'm sure I correctly answered a question or two from a map on a standardized test telling me otherwise.

Now we live in a small Ohio town, and I'm never more than a mile or two from a contemporary, working farm. I can buy all our meat and chicken and dairy from any number of these farms (though, financially, I'm still trying to figure out how to swing this), and from May to October I'm less than a 5-block walk to a farmer's market any given Saturday morning. To get to the nearest urban center, I spend 30 minutes on highways surrounded by working farms. My education continues.

In our little backyard, I'm trying to reclaim some of the practices of my grandparents, and frequently, as I'm thinning out the vegetables or wondering what's wrong with my squash, I regret that this wasn't a regular part of my own upbringing, that so much skill and knowledge was lost in the span of just one generation. I hope my girls grow up with an internal awareness of the seasons in a way I didn't. I hope they recognize that their outdoor chores are determined by the patterns of nature, that the changing of seasons doesn't just affect their clothing options. I want them to recognize this cycle as valuable and worth their notice, not oppressive and backwards.

When I first saw the cover of Elisha Cooper's Farm, I was pretty sure this would be a good text to supplement our family's everyday experiences. I'm always happy to find books to enrich our family's story with the stories of others, and this one looked like it might give a bigger picture to the one we're trying to create in our home. Farm follows a year in the life of a family farm, from sowing to harvesting. It goes beyond naming the animals and their sounds to explaining the everyday workings of a farm in a very poetic and intriguing manner.

The tiller turns the soil, "and the fields change from the color of milk chocolate to the color of dark chocolate."

The combine harvester eats the corn: "It bites stalks, pulls them into its mouth, separates kernel from cob in the the thresher inside its belly, burps out husks."

The children return to school and a rooster goes missing: "Did a fox get it? September shows that some things are not forever."

And the pictures are spot on. I'm grateful that these scenes aren't as foreign to my girls as they would have been to me.

My grandparents' farm is still standing, but barely. The animals are long gone, as are most of the family members. There is very little about the farm that I would call "working," but when my 98 year old grandmother looks out the window of her house, the same house in which she was born, I imagine her mind sees moments like the ones Cooper captures in his book. Fortunately, these scenes and the realities they represent are more prevalent in America than my younger self had thought.