Jun 11, 2011

Blast from the Past

Wow, who wouda thunk it would be possible to find something so obscure, antiquated, and un-tech, on the innernyet? Sunday surfing, I bumped into info & images about Birdsfoot Farm, of all things.

This is an organic farm in upstate New York, actually an "intentional community" that began as a commune in the '70s but morphed into other things over the years, that I worked and lived on many years ago.

At the time, I was in college; my parents had ran out of money and didn't tell me - yes, I was privileged enough to be going to a private university that cost big bucks, and I was clueless enough to expect that of course I would just go... however, my rude awakening into reality happened while I was standing in line to register for classes - oops, parents didn't pay the bill. Oh well.

I remembered seeing a poster at my local food co-op advertising apprenticeships on some farms further north, so, being interested and having already worked on a farm before, I decided to check it out.

Myself and some other college students made the trip north together to take a tour of all the participating farms, and over the course of a week of visiting, the farms and the students selected each other. I chose Birdsfoot because it seemed the most diverse - there were about 5 of us who interned at Birdsfoot together, all of us taking leave from college.

The other farms were much smaller; they were mostly homesteads rather than farms. One was run by a family, a husband and wife with 2 kids, whose first house they had built together had burned down, and they lost a child in the fire. I will never forget them. They had another child and built another house, by themselves. They farmed with oxen, didn't bale their hay but pulled it into the barn in giant piles on a flat tarp sort of contraption, using the oxen. The dad was literally just like how I imagined Paul Bunyan; a mountain of a man, who could do anything, it seemed. He made all his own tools in his blacksmith shop. He did all the heavy work on their house; built the foundation, felled all the logs. Their house was beautiful, made from timber from their land, and every square inch of it was like a beautiful sculpture. It was small by any standards, but easy to keep warm in the harsh north country winters. They had a windmill and batteries to store energy. They raised oxen, and always had at least 3 teams - one seasoned and working, one in training, and one set of youngsters. I'll never forget the chance I got to try leading the seasoned team, walking along behind these beasts who worked so well together, yelling "haw" and "gee", watching them turn together, the one on the inside stepping slower, the outside one faster... and I'll never forget, home at Christmas and telling my suburban friends about all this, and they didn't believe me, they thought I was making it all up. It was a completely different world.

Another place was run by a woman, a NYC escapee, who made all the pots and pans, plates, cups, blankets, many of her clothes. She was a potter and a weaver, and had built her house with a friend. Like the others in the community, her house was small, efficient, beautifully built, cozy. I remember that she kept the "new yorker" magazine next to her composting toilet. That was the first composting toilet I had ever encountered, and I was pleasantly surprised that it didn't smell at all.

And there was a dairy farm run by a couple with one child who worked harder than any of the other farmers, who got up in the dark every day to milk, whose 12 year old son did his chores willingly and was so polite and intelligent and who beat me at chess.

And the family that was the most hard-core, who had no road or driveway to their house, who had no phone - everything had to be hiked in through the woods, and you had to go visit them in order to talk to them.

The landscape was a bit scrappy, having been farmed and logged for decades. Most heated their homes with firewood. Beautiful, graceful, gigantic, dead elms dotted the land between open fields. Gently rolling hills were covered with neat patchworks of planted fields, interspersed with scrubby lowlands and bits of left over forest. Some farms were junky and some houses were covered in tar paper. Some houses had windows that were glazed with clear plastic in the winter. The poorer of the Amish also made their homes in this country. They call it the "north country" and it has long, very cold winters, and a short growing season.

My adopted community was one of "back to the land" people who helped each other survive. They were part of a trend that had started back in the late '60s and early '70s, when "back to the land" people moved into northern New York State, where land was very cheap. Most were from elsewhere - the suburbs or cities - and had to learn everything the hard way. Some didn't last, but many stayed, and formed the community which is strong to this day, in the face of the vast majority of these experiments of the time having died out by now.

It was like nothing I've ever experienced before or since. Living this way involved hard physical work, and it was very intimate - everyone depended upon each other for everything - getting work done, being social, cooking meals, political activism, childcare, making music. We got together, all the farms, a few times - to help each other get the hay in during high summer, to help someone put up a house in one day, to have a social gathering with all ages, making our own music, and literally enjoying the fruits and veggies of our labor.

My most cherished memory; it was just after Thanksgiving and many had come out to help put up a house. I will never forget this. The farmer had already cut, milled, and assembled the timber framing, white pine from his own land. Giant stout posts and beams held together with notches and pegs, no nails. We hoisted these supports up and put in cross beams and joists and we framed windows and doorways, put it all up in a day and got the roof on, all farmers helping each other with a huge feast in the middle of the day, hard work in the cold and I was in heaven and I'll never forget it. It was just like in that movie "Witness", but without the funny hats. But it was better, because these were people that I knew and had worked along side, people from the farm community that helped each other. It was true community and it was amazing.

All of this was not only a life changing experience, but it turned out to be the best way for me to afford to eventually finish college, since I made literally no money to speak of while on the farm ($5 per week). I was able to go back and finish up with every kind of financial aid and loan and grant and work study program available, after declaring my financial independence from my parents.

At Birdsfoot Farm, the other college students that I interned with were much more politically aware than I was at the time, and the people who made Birdsfoot their home were very radical. I stayed for about a year, learned to do everything, and became very politicized. We read "The Nation" everyday and had long political discussions while out working in the fields, in the sun half naked, harvesting, planting, chopping wood in winter.

Doug Jones, one of the original founders of the farm, was a Harvard drop out, and was the driving force on the farm. He made it into the envy of farmers all over the area, because of it's soil, which was rich and fluffy and amazing. We only shoveled uphill. We only planted when it was raining. We fed plants with manure and manure tea. We composted everything, and did rotational and companion planting, into deep double-dug raised beds. Doug would travel during the draggy winter months to visit other organic farmers in the southern hemisphere, where it was warm, and bring back seeds to try out. He planted a collection of amaranth that was incredible; it flowered with giant seed heads in deep jewel tones of purple, magenta, and red, and shaped like heavy fuzzy convoluted brains and strange contorted tentacles. He grew mutant giant tomatoes from Mexico which were deeply folded and striped red and yellow, and just so many different types of plants and varieties that I had never seen before. Doug had created an underground tunnel for warming early spring plants, which had a wood stove at one end, and a chimney at the other. He kept the wood stove going constantly in the early spring, keeping seedlings above warm. He was the most serious farmer I had ever met.

Birdsfoot Farm doesn't even have a web site, and its the sort of place that may never have one, or email, or a fax machine... so it was a happy surprise to stumble upon these images... Now I'll have to dig through my old photos, scan and post them...

I'm so happy to have found anything at all about Birdsfoot on the internet and to find out that it still exists and is thriving. They're still farming organically, and they started a school.

Back then we were weirdos, but now organic is gourmet. I feel so thankful to have had the experience I did, although it makes me sad for what I see lacking in much of modern life. Its not only living out in the boonies and being so healthy and doing physical work rather than working out in a gym, and so many other things, that were a part of it. I think the most important part is the intimacy of being responsible for each other, literally, for survival. That is so lacking for most people these days.

Here is an audio interview as well...

ps. Apparently there is now a web site for Birdsfoot Farm!

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