My uncle inquired recently whether, in the midst of farm chores, I ever stop to savor the beauty. I said, “Oh yes, and sometimes it’s not even because I forgot what I came out to do or where I left my pruners!” He recalled milking the cows on my Grandma’s farm and then milking the neighbor’s cows, all at the crack of a cold, New England dawn. The mist would lift off the fields and let the sun radiate through. He said the feeling stopped him in his tracks, milk buckets in hand. I’m not a crack-of-dawn person but I remember that weathered wooden barn by the apple tree, the smells and sounds of the warm, steamy-breathed cows. I recall my other uncle amazing me by pitching a bale of hay from the truck up to the loft, where light filtered through the barn boards and the bits of hay and dust fluttered down like confetti.
I’m not always aware enough to stop and record that moment that will stir up good feelings again some day. Once, my three little terriers were romping in the spring grass on our walk around the meadow, bouncing for the pure joy of it, and I thought, “Geez, these dogs have it pretty good.” It took me a full minute to realize that I have it pretty good, crazy dogs included. I have, however, on my own farm, stood among the overgrown cosmos and zinnias facing a psychedelic sunset, closed my eyes to feel a coming rainstorm, and devoured slurpy plums right off the branch, then told the tree, “You are BRILLIANT!”
These sensory imprints are rooted in a moment but also in a place, in a relationship to a place. When the whole world seems to be bonkers or worse, we have both memories and tangible places of beauty, joy, and peace to sustain us. Ancestral homes, childhood swimming-holes or wading streams, a first-job summer camp, a breezy meadow, a sheltering grove of trees, old barns, a certain kitchen… Places with smells and flavors and an identifiable feeling to the air. Building an underground bunker could save us physically from world events, but we need these places intact to sustain our spirit.
For such places to persist for us, we must sustain them too: leave open spaces undeveloped, keep pollutants out, keep water clean and flowing, protect soils from abuse, and support caretakers of the land. Most small produce farmers are judicious with water, disturb as little as possible, and avoid toxic amendments, because they farm where they live. They maintain large green spaces, hedgerows and wildlife habitat. They work to keep soil from becoming lifeless and blowing or eroding away. They try to keep family farms in the family, but don’t always succeed.
Sustainable farming, large or small, aims to protect the environment, benefit society with healthy food and good jobs, and bolster the local economy. You can sustain these small businesses and lovingly-stewarded spaces by buying sustainably farmed foods, but also through farm tourism or classes, U-pick outings like that pumpkin patch in the crisp fall air, and farm celebrations, where perhaps you will make your own impressions of fresh flavors, sights and smells to sustain your spirit.