As my summer drew to a close so did my internship at Maine magazine and my time in Portland. Although the bright lights of New York beckoned, I left the Pine Tree State reluctantly. As Jack said to Ennis in Brokeback Mountain, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”
I loved my internship at Maine magazine and I am extremely thankful that I got a job I liked in a city I love close to people I care about. However, working at Maine wasn’t all doe-eyed love. Certainly there were moments of tedium and longing for something else as I am sure is the case with any job. As I stuffed envelopes one day I was reading fellow student Oscar Mancinas’ blog from his semester abroad in Peru. He had just come back to the States. In his blog, Oscar wrote about an afternoon he had spent at a shelter for girls who had experienced some truly terrible things. And after his afternoon with them, he came to this conclusion:
“These girls, for me, transformed from examples of everything dark in the human spirit, to every act of genuine beauty of which that same human spirit is capable… To sum up my time with these little miracles, I'd like to paraphrase Cormac McCarthy from his novel The Road: ‘If these little girls are not the word of God, then He never spoke.’”
I smiled in an attempt to blink back tears. I knew that same joy and recognition when I was in India teaching students at the Gandhi Ashram over JanPlan. At the Ashram, I did meaningful work every day, I had the most genuine interactions with my students every day. And now I was stuffing envelopes. While I continued to stuff, my boss Sophie (who was seriously the best boss anyone could ask for) excitedly showed me and my fellow envelope-stuffer/intern Paul the layout for the lead article in September. Seeing the photograph initiated another attempt at stopping the waterworks. It was literally one of those photographs of heartbreaking beauty and normalness, those plastic bag moments of American Beauty fame that make your “heart cave in.”
The lead article for the September issue of Maine magazine is an article about Tide Mill Farm in Edmund Township, Maine (click here to read the article). Tide Mill Farm has been in the Bell family for nine generations, dating back to when Europeans landed on America’s unsullied East Coast of forests and vast wilderness. The King of England gave the first Bell a massive grant of land which remains with the family. The farm, in a word, is stunning. It sits on six miles of shoreline, the cows graze on beautiful green pastures by the ocean. The New York Times ran an article on the farm awhile back, on the viability of small dairy farms.
I took a JanPlan course on Sustainable Agriculture with Andrew Marshall (which changed my life) and learned that people have a really skewed view of what organic means. In point of fact, did you know, the same huge conventional agribusiness organizations had a major hand in determining the criteria for “USDA ORGANIC CERTIFIED” because they would stand to profit from having an organic brand?
As the USDA has it, to be “certified organic” simply means not to use synthetic chemicals. It’s a reductive and stupid standard that rips off consumers who think they are saving the world when they are actually still complicit in the same awful practices of conventional farming on a large scale.
Organic in its best and most comprehensive form of the word has so much more to do with SUSTAINABILITY both from an agro-ecology and human ecology perspective. That is, it’s about sustainable soil management and other linked agricultural practices that won’t leave a deleterious impact on the ecology that you are disrupting to grow food. And it is about providing the people who work the farm a stable and steady income for the massive amounts of work and worry that goes into growing food.
This has all been to say that Tide Mill Farm is organic and sustainable in the truest and most comprehensive senses of the words. Carly and Aaron care so deeply about the tradition and the land they are tied to and the implications of living their life this way.
Despite Carly and Aaron’s drive and dedication, there pervades the entire article an air of sadness. Roland Barthes said the thrill of listening to classical music comes from the potential for failure. The audience is aware of the difficulty of the performer’s feat, but the performer manages to produce nonetheless. But sometimes he or she can’t.
I imagine it is much the same with the farm. No matter how trained and smart and dedicated Carly and Aaron are, I cannot imagine the kind of crippling burden they have to bear in order to continue a way of life that is being rendered obsolete by normative measures of success (wealth, progress, efficiency, speed, growth). The potential of failure of their way of life weighs heavily on them, judging from the article.
But hope nonetheless persists: the opening spread shows Aaron and Carly’s son, the ninth generation of Bells, blonde-haired with penetrating eyes like his mother’s, bottle feeding a calf.
And he, with his calf, reminded me of my kids in India, on their communal farm. Of the families who kept livestock and shared their products with their neighbors—milk, meat, eggs. Of the generous people who would always feed me tea and biscuits when I came to visit their homes.
So as I continued stuffing subscription renewals into envelopes I was content, because the people I was preparing to send these envelopes to would be receiving their September issue in the middle of August. Soon enough they would see that same photograph that made my heart cave in. In early September, the magazine will hit newsstands all over Maine, and even more people will see the beautiful farm and have their own reactions.
Whether in the foothills of the Himalayas or in Eastern Maine or Peru, people live with dignity despite hardship and uncertainty. They experience sadness, but also joy in the shouts of their delighted children.
And like Lester in American Beauty, I realize:
“It's hard to stay mad, when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.”