By the time Lu and I get to the garden Barbara and Libby are also there. We have come to the garden with the strong intention of weeding, of tearing out unwelcome and unproductive plants to make greater room for the selective few, to assist the plants we favor, to cull those we did not ask to be here. Since we don’t use chemicals or pesticides all weed killing and bug killing is the work of loving hands. And every farmer knows that yield is significantly increased when you grant more access to earth, air, fertilizer, and water to the plants you love and need. Funny how love and need get merged in our consciousness.
It was a glorious hot summer day. The kind of day you dream about all year long in Vermont. A day when the air grows still, when the sun is so hot the distant trees literally vibrate when you look at them, and the familiar horizon seems blurry through the thickened air. This is the sunshine that creates mirages in the desert and even in Vermont.
That this constellation of players has gathered for this afternoon of weeding is unusual. Charlie and Mary Pat, sparked by the intense summer heat, have taken all of the kids to the local lake for a swim, something that rarely happens. Barry and Leslie have gone off to Burlington for a break from the collective routine and to visit friends. Hutch and Linda are in the house. She is quite pregnant now and not moving easily, especially in the heat. Theirs will be the second child born on the commune this year. Peter and Shannon and the infant Truax are off on some errand, spending time away and alone as they like to do. It is a release they need, although their frequent escapes are always judged and resented by some left tending the store. He is such an amazing individual as well as an individualist, our Peter. And he and Shannon resent the resentment, and rightly so. It is a wicked cycle, this complex emotional and judgmental web we have woven and enmeshed ourselves in. It is not as if they’ve gone off to purchase personal goods, or are out for a leisurely lunch at a restaurant. No one does that. And it amazes me this is so. There are so few personal indulgences taken ... ever. Everyone appears to have simply given up their very individual wishes or impulses toward bourgeois preferences. And it appears to have happened without much struggle, dialogue, or obvious intention. I do not remember the last piece of clothing that has been purchased by anyone. No one ever eats out, or goes to the movies, or buys a coffee to go. We barely permit ourselves a soda and certainly no candy bars. This parsimoniousness, this Puritan ethic, is something that has not even been discussed; it just emerged from the comprehensive worldview that has come to define this collective and from our terribly tight budget, one where we frequently appear to have no cash at all. We do not fight about money. We have few organizational precepts. Much of what the commune is in this regard appears to have emerged of its own accord. And it defines us. We don’t spend money when we don’t have to. We prize self-sufficiency and independence. We have long said that everyone must learn every farming family skill, that there can be no specialists. That means that even though Peter is the most skilled carpenter he must still spend one day a week caring for the kids and preparing meals in the kitchen like everyone else. It means that even though Linda has never swung a hammer in her life she is expected to pound nails like everyone else. If you give a person a fish, we like to say, you feed her for one day, but if you teach a person to fish, you feed her for a lifetime. I think we culled that from a poster we once saw.
We try to produce all the food and feed that we can from the land. We do manage to raise a fair share of vegetables, eggs, meat, and much of the food for our animals. We supplement their diet with grain we buy in bulk on the Canadian side of the border, less than two miles as the crow flies from the farm. We dry mullein leaves as smoking tobacco, or buy tins of coarse ground tobacco and roll our own. We always have rolling papers. We grow our own marijuana, not as a cash crop but as a pleasure giving necessity. We make our own beer. And as for those material needs about which we cannot be totally self-sufficient we try to live off the largesse of others, following which we steal, following which we purchase the necessities, food first. We have even figured out how to steal electricity, the little that we use, by disconnecting the big meter from the pole it is mounted on and short cutting the circuit so that the electric flows through it but the meter counter doesn’t cycle. We leave the meter not running for three weeks and then connect it the last week of the month, before Roger Younger, the meter reader comes out to take its pulse. “You people hardly used any electric this month,” he says. “Yes, we’re trying to be as self reliant as we can,” we say. And we mean it.
The women in the garden have taken off their shirts in an unusual display of confidence and relaxation. It is a declaration of autonomy, freedom, confidence and carelessness. Lou even takes off her dungarees and underpants. Her pubic hair is sparse. I try to keep my admiration and interest to myself. It would be politically incorrect and impolite to comment or respond to their nudity. The women are laughing and joking, excited to be in the garden, to be free of the children, to be experiencing the sensation of liberation. There is nothing more important to us than liberty and freedom. I take off my shirt, my pants and my underpants. Why not? Am I not as free as the women to be comfortable in my nakedness and in my body in nature?
And this is how we find ourselves of a hot summer afternoon in the garden in Vermont. I am not exactly one hundred percent comfortable, but we are nothing if not experimental with our lives and feelings. It is tremendously quiet in the garden, and that too is a rare sensation. Vermont can get really quiet, but the commune doesn’t have many quiet moments. It is something about the heat of summer and the lazy thickness of the air that contributes to the sense of stillness. There is no breeze. Insects are working floridly in the fields. The four of us are weeding. Very little is being said or needs to be said.
The impulse to come to the garden and spend the afternoon weeding was born of a desire to accomplish something tangible. It was discussed in morning meeting as responsibilities were assigned and priorities discussed. The weeding has gotten away from us and the garden is important. It is over two acres in size, which is quite substantial, and has been planted in waves and bursts of over enthusiasm with tomatoes, peppers, carrots, beans, peanuts, potatoes, squash, eggplant, watermelons, marigolds, and corn. It is easy to plant vegetables on a large scale. The horses and the old plowing and harrowing equipment make preparation of a good-sized field quite easy. The work of planting is easy too; it is an act of creativity and hope. And it is physically easy as well. Once the earth has been plowed, fertilized, harrowed, and ground smooth the act of actually planting seeds or seedlings, depending on the crop, is an act of inspiration and creativity that goes easily and which everyone, even the children can do. Create furrows with hoes or sticks or fingers or the toe of your boot. Drop in the seeds or seedlings at agreed upon distances apart. Cover them or their roots with dirt. Pat the earth down around them. Say something kind and positive to your babies. Pray for rain and then sit back and watch them grow. Weed them. Thin them out occasionally. Eat the edible cull.
So too harvesting is easy. Rewarding. Productive. Abundant. And also something the kids can be part of. Oh, it does get laborious and repetitive, everything about farming, taking out the manure and spreading it, chopping wood, washing sugar buckets, is laborious and repetitive, but nothing is more instantaneously gratifying than the harvest. Notwithstanding these romantic notions, the glory of productive labor has not come to be assigned to the task of weeding. No one likes to weed the garden. It is scut work, not sexy or significant. But those of us in the garden this afternoon have put on our most earnest, down to earth Chinese peasant hats, and, determined as we are, and hoping to be energized by each other, have proposed making a real dent in the overgrowth competing with, obscuring, and crowding our three or four hundred tomato plants, one hundred yards of carrot tops, and incipient eggplant parmesean. Imagining the future is important. We have set aside three hours, which we think is realistic. And with four of us working steadily as we occasionally do, mechanistically, mindlessly, diligently, and efficiently we hope to make an impact on the garden, as well as a statement to the collective.
And there we are, bent over, on our knees, or squatting on our haunches, weeding, cleared to do this work, with no distractions, the kids cared for, and no crisis looming.
We have been working in this manner for all of twenty or thirty minutes when we hear a car coming down the driveway. It does not sound like one of our cars, we are anticipating no visitors, and since the garden is a good two hundred yards beyond the house, and we are hunkered down behind some decent sized tomato plants, the car is not of particular concern. Most cars that come down the driveway stop at the house. It is the logical, respectful, and polite stopping place. You just don’t drive onto other folk’s land in Vermont, nor drive beyond their homes out onto their property. But this car we can hear has continued on passed the house, and although moving slowly, as every piece of equipment must when approaching this part of the rutted property, we hear it drive past the hay mow on the side of the barn, hear it clearly as it comes to the first open gate of the unused cattle run where all our old equipment is lined up, drive right past that gate, right out the other side of the run where the gate has also been left open, and out onto the edge of the field that is our garden.
There used to be a road here, an old logging and hunting road that connected our farm with the Spooner property about two miles away, passed the Red Creek swamp, through the woods, and over a few good hills, a road that ran past the house and through this one-time hay meadow we have turned at least partially into an organic vegetable garden. The car stops. The engine is idling. Men are talking. I stand up naked in the field. There doesn’t appear to be any choice. Barbara, Libby and Lou walk back to where they have thrown off their clothing and slip back into their shirts and shorts and stand there together. Barbara and Libby are glowering. They are good at glowering. The car is just idling about 20 yards from us with four men seated inside. There is a thirty-thirty hunting rifle in a gun rack in the rear windowsill. I walk over to the car. I feel foolish and confident simultaneously. I can’t just stand there and I can’t ignore them. I get as close to the vehicle as I possibly can in an effort to shield my genitals from their glances, but I also want to talk, to look inside the car, to act assertively, and carry on a conversation. It’s hard to do while standing this close to the front passenger side door.
The car is an old black Chevy that has been over its share of dusty country roads. I do not recognize any of the men inside it. There are six or seven open beer cans on the seats and floor of the car. There is a shotgun propped up between the two men in the back seat of the car. The men appear to be in their mid to late twenties, slightly younger than me. They are dressed in dirty overalls, jeans and tee shirts. One is smoking a cigarette. They’ve been drinking for a while and I can smell it. Christ, what time was it, one P.M?
“This the road to the Spooner place?” the driver asks.
“There is no road through here to the Spooners’,” I say.
“Used to be,” says the driver. “We were hoping to hunt us some bear up in those woods.”
“Sorry, we don’t permit hunting on our property.”
“Well we used to hunt bear in these woods.”
“Maybe, but we really don’t permit any hunting here.”
“Well then maybe we’ll just have a walk through them woods. Don’t mind that do you?”
“Yes, we do mind, as a matter of fact. Nothing personal, but you gentlemen just have to turn around and get off our land.”
This is ridiculous I think. It’s like a scene out of some bad movie. I suspect they’ve merely come here on a lark, or to ogle. And they’ve gotten an eyeful and will have plenty of stories to tell their friends. I just can’t read how innocent or dangerous they are.
“Not too neighborly,” says one of the guys in the back seat.
“I guess some might say that, but we have work to do and would appreciate it if this visit was just a short one.” I look the driver in the eye. I’ve been leaning down peering into the car window. “You fellows have a good day now.”
“Want a beer?” the passenger asks.
“Don’t mind if I do, thank you,” I say.
He passes me a sweaty cold can of ale. I put it up against my forehead. The three-legged dog Kisha limps up to the car and leans into me. “Good puppy,” I say.
“What happened to your dog there?” one guy in the car asks.
“Deer hunters,” I say. “You fellows be good now.”
I turn and walk with my back to them the twenty yards or so to where the women are standing. Lou has gotten my clothing. I slip on my jeans while staring at the car. I close the buttons on the fly of my pants one at a time, as if I’ve just taken a piss. It is a relief to have my pants on. The men in the car are talking among themselves. They are laughing softly. Barbara asks me what they wanted. To hunt bear I tell her, to drive up the Spooner road, to ogle hippies, I don’t know rightly. The men wave at us. “Want a beer, honey,” one of the guys in the back seat yells. “No thank you,” says Libby.
I see the men looking at Libby. She is a stunning woman, tall, with pale skin and wavy blonde hair. She is the only native Vermonter in our commune, a woman who understands car engines and small machines. Her father was a preacher and philanderer. Her mother has become a true friend. Libby dies of cancer well before her time.
The car backs up and turns around. It drives back out the driveway the way it came.
“What the hell was that about,” demands Barbara.
I honestly don’t know. I pop open the beer. I pour a little onto the ground as a libation. I take a sip. I offer the can to the others. Barbara shakes her head no. Libby shakes her head no. Her eyes are firing darts. “I hate that shit,” she says. Lou takes the can and takes a sip of beer.
“You were quite brave,” she tells me in a lilting tone, not too serious but serious enough.
“I was scared shit and didn’t have any ideal what the hell would happen,” I say. “I hate feeling so vulnerable and powerless.” I want to talk about it.
“I’ve got vegetables to weed,” says Barbara, who doesn’t want to talk about it. “I’m glad the kids weren’t here. What should we do if those men come back?”
We’ve had discussions around this issue many times before. Many times. FBI men, border patrol, state police, and oglers have all dropped in to say “hello” to us. We once stopped at the state police barracks in St. Albans on the pretense of asking a question about something or other, our opportunity to check them out and say we also knew where they lived, when we noticed an oversized map of north western Vermont roadways hanging on the wall with a red pin in it right at the beginning of the driveway to our farm.
“What’s this pin here for,” I asked the sergeant behind the counter.
“Damned if I know,” he said.
We had erected a quite substantial chain link barrier across the driveway when we moved onto the farm. Two eight inch round fence posts sunk into four-foot deep concrete filled holes we’d dug on either side of the driveway, but we never used it, it just appeared too unfriendly, was so unheard of in Vermont, and was such a hassle for us to open and close on our many trips up and down the driveway each day. Maybe we should use it after all.
“Well I’m right mighty pissed off,” says Libby, “right pissed off,” she mutters as she walks back toward the house, her weeding over for the day.
“I wish I’d had a gun, I’d feel better” I say.
“Me too,” says Lou.
“That would’ve made it ten times more likely something nobody wants to happen would’ve happened,” says the ever practical Ms. Barbara. She is right.
“I’m going back up to the house to see about the kids,” I say, forgetting for the moment they’re at the lake, wanting to make sure they are okay, wanting to feel connected. I pour the rest of the beer onto our good earth.
“I’ll go with you,” says Lou.
We leave Barbara in the garden. We tell the story that night around the communal fire. Once. We never talk about it again. We never see the men again. No one in town ever says anything to us about it. We never ask.