We were sitting on the front porch outside the house early one summer morning, more of a six foot wide deck than a porch, with no railings and no steps, the porch an idea incomplete in actualization, like so much in our lives then, in front of the main door to the living room, the door we never used in winter because it let cold air directly into the belly of the house, and never used in summer because it had no screen and let all the flies into the house. Everyone was there to begin the morning meeting on what was a warm, glorious, bright, sun filled summer day, Vermont at its stunning, fecund best. The dogs and cats cruised around the dangling legs of the people seated on the edge of the deck. They rubbed themselves and wove in and out of people’s legs, porch support posts, and standing children. They snapped at flies and lolled in the sun. They gazed down the road. It was going to be a scorching hot day.
The chickens scratched around looking for grain and bugs. The flies buzzed the half empty breakfast dishes. People were rolling and smoking cigarettes, or quitting smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee or giving up drinking coffee, finishing breakfast or fasting, everyone awaiting to start the meeting so we could get on with the day, at least twenty of us sitting or leaning on the edge of the porch, standing on or near the porch, watching the horses in the field, playing with the kids, brushing their long hair, petting the dogs and cats. A most beautiful Vermont summer morning. And there was much work needing to be done, fields to be planted and harvested, horses to be hitched, trips into town, machinery needing repair, construction and maintenance projects, animal husbandry projects. Kids care. House care. We had discussed this all in last night's meeting and were waiting now to make a few last minute accommodations, when far down the long driveway leading to the house we noticed a black Volkswagen driving slowly towards us, hardly kicking up dust.
No one we knew had a black Volkswagen. Natives of northern Vermont and hippies didn't do little Volkswagens. VW vans maybe, although parts were hard to come by, but not bugs. Never. We were Dodge Dart, Volvo, and Chevy people.
By the time the Volkswagen reached the sugarhouse we saw that there were New York plates on the car. By the time the VW reached the remains of the animal carcass and the car engine hoist in the side yard we could see that there were two men with dark clothing and heavy beards in the car, two men wearing big black felt hats, big black beards with curly sideburns, and long black coats. The car stopped right next to the porch. The engine was turned off. The men stepped out into the dust of our driveway and the bright Vermont sunshine in their long black coats and shiny black dress shoes. It grew totally still on the deck, all eyes drawn to the VW. No one said a word. You could hear the flies buzzing. Our mouths were opened in anticipation. This is not a dream, I thought, although I wondered for a moment.
"We are here to find the Jews," the shorter bearded man said.
"A CIA ruse," whispered Charlie under his breath.
"We want to know why so many Jews are joining communes," the taller bearded man said. "We are traveling around Vermont, visiting communes, trying to find out why so many Jews are drawn to live on them. We've been to Glover, and to Packer's Corners. The people there told us the Franklin commune was rich and prosperous.
One by one people started to drift away from the porch, molecules dispersing from the center. Tasks all of a sudden seem urgent. There were so many things to do, and talking to two crazy guys in long black coats from Brooklyn who are looking for Jews was not one of them. I looked around and within sixty seconds there were only three of us left on the porch, the only Jews on the commune.
"Why don't Hasidic women have equal rights?" Leslie asked them with her fierce, deep, and abiding feminist attitudes on florid display as she walked away before they could even answer.
"I don't believe in god," Hutcher said. You could tell from his pronunciation alone that he'd spelled it with a small letter gee.
"How can you not believe in God?!" one of the Hassids asked, quite genuinely shocked.
"Just a question of which myths and fairy tales you choose to believe in," Hutcher said, and he too walked away.
"So, how many Jew live on this commune?" the taller one asked me.
"Well, three," I said, "the gorgeous woman with the dark hair who just walked away from you, the guy with the bushy beard who just told you god didn’t exist and walked away from you, and me, who has a lot of work to do and is now also going to walk away from you."
"Wait, please," the tall one said earnestly, "we really do want to see your commune, to understand why you are living here."
I’m thinking about this when two year old Maia comes running over to me from around the corner of the house. She has a smile on her face stretching from ear to ear. Her hands look like they haven’t been washed in days. She is carrying a piece of toast with honey dripping from it. Her clothes are filthy. Her mouth is ringed with crumbs. A squadron of flies is following her looking for breakfast. She is still the cutest sweetest creature I have ever known. And more than that, she has clearly been sent to rescue me.
"They need you over there," she says, pointing to Barbara and Libby who are watching their little messenger and grinning while preparing to hitch the manure spreader to the old John Deere tractor. They have clearly sent Maia as their emissary.
"You are the sweetest little pumpkin I have ever seen," I say to her. "Come on, we're going to show these gentlemen our farm, okay." I look at Libby and wink.
"Okay. Let's show them Piggy and her babies first," says Maia, who I pick up into my arms as we walk from the porch toward the big garden.
The way our farm is laid out, in a pattern established generations before we ever set foot on it, like so many Vermont dairy farms, the barn stands between the house and the nicest vista on the property. The idea being that when you look out from the front of the house, from the kitchen, from the living room, or from the deck, what you would see is the barn. After all, the barn was the lifeblood of the family farm, and apparently you needed and wanted to see it when you look out from the comfort of your home. Industry before beauty. The problem, of course, is that if you are hippies and the massive red structure is all you see when you look out the window you know you are being cheated of a view. And in order to see the stream at the bottom of the meadow behind the barn, or to even see the rolling hill rising behind the stream into the hardwoods where the sun sets and the moon rises, you have to stand inside the barn with the door to the manure pile open.
We walk on the rutted dirt road between the house and the barn, me in my overalls and big boots, Maia her floral dress and flip flops pulling me along by the hand, the Hassids in their black long coats and no longer so shiny shoes beside us.
"The field you see in front of you is our vegetable garden,” I say, “we have over three acres of vegetables under cultivation. Lettuce, tomatoes, summer and winter squash, potatoes, onions, string beans and pole beans. We planted it by hand. We weed it by hand. We fight the bugs off by hand. No chemicals."
"It is so very, very beautiful," says one of the men.
"You are truly blessed," says the other.
And as I look out over the field in that moment it does feel as if we are blessed, although I have never thought of it that way. The sunflowers have started to bloom. Incredibly beautiful golden sunflower petals glisten in the morning sun. The light pouring trough the petals reveals their translucence. Drunken bees, drawn to the cornucopia of sunflower pollen, are stumbling into the aura of the flowers. In the movement of the sunflower heads on the tall stalks you sense the breeze.
At the end of the barn is the cattle run. At the bottom of the run are Piggy and her babies, a dozen of them grunting and rutting and crawling around on their mother who has been laying against the fence her belly fully distended. When she senses our approach she shakes off her slumber and the piglets to raise up on her stubby legs, alert for food. I show the Hassids the pigsty feeling a bit defensive.
“Run up to the garden and grab one or two of the tomatoes that have fallen on the ground, Maia, would you,” I say.
“We bred this pig,” I tell the Hassids. “The boar is in the barn. He’s just too big and nasty to let out. Takes seven or eight people and the better part of an hour to get him back in if he’s free. Tried a leash but couldn’t hold on to him. A very tough old man, Arnold. That’s the boar’s name.” I’m smiling. “We’ll sell some of these piglets before winter and slaughter the others for meat. They never cost us a penny. The first pigs were given to us. I know they’re not kosher, but they can be mighty tasty.”
“God is good,” says the tall one.
“You are richly blessed,” says the other
“This is so beautiful,” they say. “My God, look at this wonderful place you have here. It is a gift, a mitzvah, a sign from God. Look at those hills, those fields, those wonderful animals. Oh, God must love you so much!”
I like these guys. They see the place as it is, beautiful as it is. Even in its dirtiest aspect.
Maia comes running down to the pigpen. She throws the tomatoes inside the fence. There is joyous squealing and grunting before the tomatoes are turned into pork. She is laughing. I am laughing. The Hassids are laughing.
I take the Hassids inside the barn, show them the horses, and give them the independence from technology rap. They are attentive and appreciative. They seem to understand why this place and the choices we have made here make sense to us. I am struck by their enthusiasm. It is earnest and genuine. Our farm is, of course, spectacularly beautiful and they are seeing it for what it is. They do not see the warts, the mess, the broken down machinery. And if they do, they’re not saying anything about it.
“What magnificent animals they are,” says the shorter of the men. “And so many little ones. God must love you. It is a sign. A gift. You are so blessed. It is a marvelous wonderful marvelous wonder.” You gotta like this guy.
They ask me more about the farm, about how many people live here, about what we really do, about what inspires us. They are surprised we appear to have absolutely no spiritual or religious practices. They keep saying, “God loves you,” as if the fact they really believe it quite simply means it is true. I am a bit in awe of their affirmative positive energy. I show them the rest of the barn, the chickens, the hay we have harvested. I talk about self-sufficiency and political relevance. The dogs follow wagging their tails. I am aware of my dirty overalls, my hair, untended and uncut for months down around my shoulders. I see myself through their eyes, a rural Jewish giant who needs a shave with a beautiful two-year-old child in my arms who is still smiling across an entire continent.
“I really have to get to work fellows,” I say, “people are waiting for me.”
They nod. We start back toward their car. They continue effusive in their praise and enthusiasm. It is ridiculous, but I too am still smiling.
We reach the house. They shake my hand earnestly. Passionately. They climb into the VW.
“It was a pleasure to meet you,” I say, “good luck on your journeys.”
“It was a pleasure to meet you,” they say. “You have such a gift here. God is so good to you.” They are bubbling over with excitement as they climb back into their car. “Count your blessings,” they yell with that same ridiculous enthusiasm from the rolled down car window. “Remember God loves you,” they shout. “You are blessed one thousand times,” they say. “Remember to pray. Give thanks,” they say. They start their engine.
“Say a thousand prayers!” they are shouting. “Remember that God loves you. Tell God you love him! The world is good! The word is good. God is the word. God is good. Lay on your phylacteries every day! Remember!”
“You know,” I say, almost as an after thought I could have sworn I’d said to myself, “I’ve never put on phylacteries in my entire life.”
“What?” they shout in unison, “you have never worn teffilin? It is a blessing, a mitzvah, something that must be done. It is an honor, a duty to do so.”
It’s like a Charlie Chaplin movie. The car which had started to roll slowly forward down the hill screeches to a halt. It grinds backs up to the porch. The two guys in the black beards and coats jump out of the car and run over to me.
“But you are Jewish, yes?”
“And you’ve never laid teffilin?”
“Laying tefillin is a mitzvah, a blessing. Please, if you would be so kind, perhaps we could lay tefillin on you here and now.”
I think about it for all of two seconds. “Sure,” I say, “Why not?”
So the short one goes back into the car and takes out a beautiful deep blue velvet pouch with gold embroidered lettering on it. From inside the pouch he removes the phylacteries, the small black leather boxes with the lengthy leather straps attached.
“Let us say the morning prayers together,” the short one says.
“This will be good,” the tall one says. “It is an honor for us, a blessing to be able to do this for you.”
“Stand here,” one says. “Give me your left arm.”
For me this has all become a little embarrassing. But it is also strangely moving. I put Maia down. I stand in front of them facing the early morning sun arisen over the distant hills as they wrap the ritual boxes and thongs around my arm and fingers. They say words in Hebrew, rocking back and forth, eyes closed, enraptured.
“Repeat after me,” one says. And I repeat the sounds that seem so familiar, even if their literal meanings are completely obscure.
The prayers are soon over. My arms are unwrapped. The ritual objects are placed back in their ritual containers. I pick up Maia who has been standing there watching this entire process eyes wide. The men are smiling. Their eyes are shining. We shake hands again.
“God is good,” they say for the hundredth time.
“God is good,” I say back.
They get in the car. They start the engine and roll slowly down the driveway yelling out the windows, “God is good.”
I hold onto these images. The incongruity of the Hassidic men in their black long coats standing in the mess that is our commune that morning, seeing the beauty that I saw, perhaps even seeing more beauty than I saw, showing me the very beauty they have seen, opening my eyes to a kind of enthusiasm I do not usually feel. It is good to have had this moment of phylacteries being wrapped on my arms as the working day is about to begin. I take Maia’s hand. We walk together toward the manure spreader.
The men call back once more, a faint echo that runs up the driveway and thru our land to end in the hills behind us. “God is good. God is very good.” I hear it softly. I see them looking at one another in the VW. They are laughing joyously. Giddy.
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.
Hippies Help Their Neighbors
We are moving as a group across an open meadow filled
with wild flowers, red clover, timothy hay, and the sweetest smelling Vermont
air, on a slightly breezy sunny summer afternoon, clouds drifting in from the
west. It is a moment we are each all aware
is precious. Perhaps some of us are
stoned, or tripping. But what would you expect
of a dozen long-haired twenty and thirty year old men and women with five gorgeous
children riding on a flat bed wooden hay wagon, drawn by a magnificent team of
horses, hippie revolutionary communists, living on a former dairy farm less
than three miles below the Canadian border and on a mission?
The day is spectacular. Clouds rush by draw off Lake Champlain into
the foothills and onto the plain that includes southern Quebec, the occupied
colonial foreign country in our backyard where Vietnamese warrior negotiators
seek refuge and material support from both the Quebec Liberation Front in
Montreal and from the American left.
lovingly cleaned and oiled chains and harnesses on the horses, which we’ve
purchased from an old farmer who hadn't used a piece of horse drawn equipment
in over twenty years, jingle and shine in the sun. The horses are gleaming, sweating, moving
steadily and comfortably in the traces.
Peter clucks to the team, "Haw, Jim. Haw."
The squeak of the wagon, the crunch of the wheels on the earth, the buzz
of insects and the whisper of wind fill the air.
eight years old, riding bareback astride Jim, the older calmer heroic gelding,
leading our common artistic entourage calls back, "Look!" She is pointing toward the swamp, toward the
old logging trail that leads through the woods to our neighbor's property over
two miles away on the now never used old logging trail through the woods. Charlie, her father, rises up on one elbow,
holds his rifle in his extended left arm high into the air. His hair blows in the wind. His skin is smooth. He is close shaven. There is no hair on his chest or back. He remembers even now that a profoundly
immoral war is being waged in Vietnam, a war that is in the minds of the
communards every day, along with whales and other species at the edge of
extinction, the impending silent spring, and huge mountains of bullshit, lies,
and deceit, while the broad democracy movement, the unfulfilled promise of
universal self-determination built on Indian bones and the theft of Indian
land, built on the backs of slaves, and the sweat of the working masses, is
still to be reborn. “Uhuru,” Charlie shouts. It means freedom in Swahili.
"Look," Beth calls again, a broad smile
crossing her face as the wind pulls the corners of her mouth back to the edges
of her ears. It is Kisha, our three
legged wonder dog, hoping and running to meet the wagon, bouncing through the
meadow as best he can to join us. The
smile on Kisha’s face is as broad as the smile on Beth’s. Can anything be more beautiful than this day,
this team of horses, this wounded dog, these beautiful people? Life is good.
We are on our way to Ken and Grace Spooners, our
neighbors, each of whom is easily eighty years old. They live on the same farm on the top of the
hill that they have lived on for over fifty years. The have a herd of maybe thirty cows that
Grace still milks two times a day by herself, or sometimes with hired help, Ken
having lost a leg to cancer a few years back.
They have a team of horses older than they both are, which they never
use but cannot bear to part with. They have a yard filled with cats, and a sign
posted on their property that says, “No Hunting.” They mean it.
“Anyone hunts on my land,” says Grace, “is sure to be
cursed. Fellow shot a deer in that lower
pasture maybe thirty years ago and danged if he didn’t poke his eye out the
very next year riding around careless like on a tractor.”
We stand in awe of the Spooners. They are the real people we seek to emulate:
honest, hardworking, knowledgeable, kind, even politically savvy and
liberal. They have telephoned us late in
the morning to say the weather looked ominous, that they had some recently
mowed hay down in a field almost all of which has been baled, maybe five
hundred bales at most, but that they would never be able to get the hay into
the barn before the rains come and if they leave it out it will be ruined. Might we be able to send over a man or two to
help them get the hay in before the storm hits, they ask.
Naturally we are all tremendously eager to respond to
the call and help the Spooners, and by the time we’ve discussed who might go
over to help them, and how we would get there, and what impact it will have on
the day we had planned, it has turned into a spontaneous little adventure that
almost everyone wants to be part of. So
we hitch the team to the flatbed wagon and off we go, over the meadow and through
the tremendously beautiful world we have the privilege to live in, a world we
are aware of and take great pleasure in.
The Earthwork communards often said when at a loss for words to describe
the choices we are making that we seek to “walk in beauty,” and that mantra
guides us on our mission, where a sense of beauty and proportionality is a
matter of common reverence. We are so
much the creatures of our teachings and expectations.
We emerge from the logging trail through the woods into
the Spooners’ old apple orchard. The
ride to the Spooners’ would have taken us more than half an hour in a fast
pickup truck on county roads. It has
taken little more than an hour riding with a ton of people on an old wagon
cutting through the woods. We ride up to
the Spooner’s farmhouse through their hay meadow.
“Looks like five hundred bales easily,” says Charlie.
“Maybe five gazillion,” says Adrian, all of five years
old. “Five hundred gazillion,” says
Dylan, who knows the number of stars in the sky and specializes in kitchen
chemistry and animal ears.
“Whatever it is, let’s do it fast,” says Barbara
pointing to the sky.
Ken and Grace are on their porch waiting for us, smiling
and waving like kids. It is delicious to
see them. We have so few contacts
outside the farm. And they are quite
literally thrilled to see us, people who have given them hope for the
future. Their old tractor and hay wagon
are hitched and ready to go.
“Should we use the horses and the tractor both,” asks
“No, let’s rest the horses,” says Peter, “it’s probably
just as fast loading one wagon with a full crew as loading two wagons with half
“Do you folks want some milk and cookies,” Grace asks.“Milk and cookies!” the kids scream. We have not had cold milk or cookies in years
Grace has already put out a plate of cookies, a pitcher
of milk, two jugs of lemonade, and some napkins. We act like the starving savages we are. There has been so few of these simple
pleasures in our harsh and pristine world and the kids tear into the cookies
without the slightest sense of manners or propriety. I am embarrassed to my bourgeois core, but
Grace seems oblivious and delighted.
“What nice children,” she says more than once. “And I see they like my cookies.”
“Like your cookies?
Grace did you make these? Where
do you find the time?” The women are
particularly in awe.
“I made them last evening,” said Grace, “it was my grandmother’s
recipe you know, and I make them just the way she did. The trick is to chill the dough before you bake
the cookies, never understood why, but it makes them sweeter and softer.”
“Let’s let these folks get to work, Grace,” says Ken.
“Good Lord, just take your sweet time, Mr. Ken Spooner,”
And in a flash everyone has had a cookie, maybe two, and
the lemonade and milk is completely gone, disappeared, without a crumb or a
drop left, as if starving locust or scavenger ants had marched across the porch
devouring everything in sight.
And now the communal horde, who have hardly even
had enough fresh water to brush our teeth with for over a week, are ready to
“An army marches on its stomach,”
says Grace. “Louise dear would you go
into the kitchen and bring out that other plate of cookies, please?”
“Ken, we really got to get rolling,” Crow says.
“Let’s have one of the woman drive the
tractor. Let’s put two men up on the
wagon stacking. And let’s have six
people in the field throwing the bales up onto the flatbed. Time’s a wasting.”
“It’s a plan,” says Charlie, “let’s move it.
”Libby gets into the tractor seat.
It is for Crow another of those moments when incredible beauty appears.
It is what he longs for, what he seeks and reveres. Libby appears as simply the most beautiful
woman he has ever seen, a Botticelli-like figure with reddish tinted golden
wavy hair sparkling and blowing in the breeze.
It is breath taking.
Spiritual. This is real, he
thinks. It is not sexual. His gaze shifts to the sky that is
backlighting Libby and creating the aura around her. The sky is still bright and sunny in the east
but heavy gray clouds are moving in from the west. The breeze has picked up and the leaves of
the trees are rustling. Pine needles
fall and tufts of milkweed drift across the surface of the earth. It is a moment of seeing what is real, or so
it feels, a moment of remembering what is real, what is important, of why they
are doing what they are doing and more specifically why he is doing it.
“Walk in beauty,” he says to himself.
He looks from Libby to Charlie and
Peter. They are magnificent. Breugels.
He loves feeling so positive, loves the love welling up from his chest,
filling his head, tasting it. A
delirious energy filling him.
the people,” he yells.
“Uhuru,” Charlie yells.
“Come on, brothers,” says Marcel.
Hutcher is standing in the field with a bale in his hand
quietly waiting. The reward of
collectivity is productivity.
Peter and Crow climb onto the flatbed. Barbara, Lou, Mary Pat, and Shannon stay back
with Grace, Ken, and the children where they’ll find more than enough to do
around the barn and the house to help out a neighbor. They love socializing with Ken and Grace
whenever they’re able anyhow.
“Can we do anything for you, Grace,” I hear Lou say over
the hum of the tractor as it pulls away.
“Well there is some wood I could use brought up to the
house. And the horses haven’t been
walked in over a week. And I’ve got a
load of wash downstairs that could use hanging and drying.”
“No drying today,” says Shannon pointing to the sky and
everyone laughs as if it was a tremendous new joke.
It is hard to find enough folks on most Vermont farms to
carry out the duties and tasks demanded of the family dairy farmer. If you don’t have kids or a working extended
family you are generally sunk. It is
part of the reason so many small Vermont dairy farms are forced out of
operation. The margin of profit is
simply too small and the need for grunt level manual labor too great to support
the operation of a profitable herd. Ken
and Grace survive in part because their income is supplemented by social
security and Ken’s disability check.
They pay a local man to help with the milking and the mucking out of the
stalls. He appears most days. It eats up any profit they might have made,
but it sustains them in the only life they know. They could surely give up the herd, but a
purposelessness and ennui would befall them and they would wither and die. And they know it.
Harvesting hay is crucial to any dairy farm’s
operations. It is the base feed that
will sustain the herd through the long Vermont winter. If you have to buy hay you are in
trouble. It is often simply not
available, and when it is available it’s ghastly expensive. Cutting and raking hay is a one-person job
with the right equipment, as is running the hay baler. But bringing in the bales takes at least
three people to be efficient and usually four people make for the best
operation: one person, the physically weakest, drives the tractor, one person
stacks the bales as they are thrown up onto the wagon, and two people throw up
the hay bales from both sides of the wagon.
There is a very specific pattern that bales are stacked in, maximizing
the space on the wagon, stabilizing the load, and keeping the upper tiers of
bales from falling as the stack grows higher and higher, usually six or seven
tiers high, and totaling as many as seventy five to eighty bales of hay per
wagon load. It can take well more than
an hour to stack and unload one wagon.
But these are The People, the hardworking real people,
energized, super charged super efficient people, high on lemonade and
cookies. Charlie is so pumped up he’s
throwing bales completely over the wagon, from one side off to the other side
such that Hutcher has to quietly and stoically load back onto the wagon twice
as many bales as he should. Charlie has
taken off his shirt and is wearing only boots, dungaree pants, and work
gloves. The sharp ends of the hay
sheaves are puncturing his forearms and he is bleeding. He loves the blood.
“Easy big guy,” Crow tells him, but Charlie is virtually
running from one forty or fifty pound bale to the next, tossing them from as
far as ten yards away up onto the flatbed.
In less than thirty minutes the wagon is piled to the absolute limit and
headed back to the barn with everyone laughing and walking besides it.
When we reach the ramp into the haymow Libby has a hard
time backing the load in reverse into the barn for unloading. Ken has limped off the porch and is calling out direction.
“Cut her to the left, no hard left.”
It is very difficult to back up a wagon on a long hitch under
any circumstances; and a fully loaded hay wagon makes the effort just that much
harder. Besides which, you are backing
up on a ramp into the haymow that at its peak falls off ten feet to the ground
below. If the wagon wheel goes over that
edge you are going to lose the whole load and risk busting up the wagon,
flipping the tractor, and injuring the driver.
If there is only one person on your crew he or she better know how to
get the wagon backed up into the barn. But
with eight people there is a choice. The
tongue of the wagon, usually a single piece of tapered hardwood or channel iron
at least eight feet long and not more than two inches wide and two inches
thick, runs from the axle that attaches to and turns the front wheels of the
wagon to the tractor. It is held onto
the tractor, being pulled or pushed and swinging back and forth, on nothing
more than a bolt which goes through a metal plate attached to the tip of the
tongue that slides into a hole on a metal track on the back of the
tractor. A cotter pin usually holds the
bolt down and keeps it from bouncing off or disconnecting from the tractor.
“Hey, let’s unhook the whole rig and just push it in,”
Everyone thinks this is between a good and a brilliant idea except Ken, who has come down off the porch and is overseeing operations with a worried look on his face. In his day he could have backed that wagon up into the barn single handedly … and on the first try too.
“Hey ladies,” Libby yells out like a truck driver, “get your sweet buns over here.”
Barbara and Lou walk over. The gaggle of kids follows them.
The ramp is on an incline. The loaded wagon weighs well over three tons, but with eight people lined up in front of it to take the pressure off the tractor Libby can back up just softly enough for Peter to lift the pin out of the hitch and not move the wheels one inch. Once the wagon is disconnected Peter steers the wagon by swinging the tongue ever so easily first left and then slightly right while the remainder of us push the loaded wagon up the ramp and into the hayloft. We are cheering with the miracle of our strength, a dozen sweaty men and women now throwing the bales off the wagon, laughing and cheering, drunk with the sheer physical power of our collective. The hay is off the wagon and stacked in the hayloft in less than ten minutes. It is nothing short of a miracle to Ken whose eyes are wide.
The wagon is walked by hand back down the ramp, reattached to the tractor, and rolling back into the field virtually without pause. Everyone is into it now. Shannon, Grace, all of the kids, running around shrieking in the coming wind like whirling dervishes. It’s clearly right that we did not use the horses to gather the bales. Good as they are, they would have been made nervous and distracted by the noisy hand waving crowd of people rushing and milling around them. There are times when the technology is simply too efficient to argue with.
The wagon is loaded a second time in less than half an hour. The slowest part of the operation has been just moving the tractor through the field to where the bales lie. There are enough people so that distant bales are shuttled closer to the wagon’s path. We are back at the haymow, unhitch the load, and push it into the barn like old experts.
“Look at them go, Ken,” says Grace, nearly dancing with delight. “These folk are sure to have the best darn dairy farm in all Franklin County in no time at all. Yes sir sir, in no time at all.”
Oh dear Grace, if you only knew.