Avatar photo

A Human Presence

Not too long ago, the field behind our home was planted every spring with industrial corn. Year after year, the tired soils, loaded with chemical fertilizers and liquid manure, produced their truckloads of number two corn. Now and then a tractor would pass over the land, spreading its gossamer wings of poison, but I almost never saw a human being.

Then the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps set up its headquarters next door in the newly renovated and relocated West Monitor Barn — a cathedral-sized, three-story tall structure, that, when it was built in 1903, represented the state-of-the-art technology in dairying. In the late 1990s, the West Monitor Barn was a spectacular ruin perched by the side of the road, a dinosaur-sized relict of Vermont’s agricultural past. Today, in its fresh coat of barn-red paint and neat white trimmings, crowned with a gabled cupola and copper weather vane set against a mountainous backdrop, the West Monitor Barn is one of Vermont’s proudest architectural landmarks.

A stone’s throw from the Corps’ headquarters, I live beside the old site of the Monitor Barn before it was moved. Our house is perched on the lip of the old riverbed, on piles of sediment dumped here when the glacial meltwaters, and the ancient river, receded. Behind us the land levels out, then gently slopes upward, before it plummets into a deep ravine. From out of its depth the mountains begin to rise in a series of ridges and deep valleys carved out, once upon a time, by ice. Where the flatland ends, a steep green hillside rises straight up from the plane then plunges again, forming great egg-shaped upswellings that together suggest the smooth and fleshy curves of a body in repose. The Monitor Barn, sitting in the heart of the valley, ringed by farmland and then mountains, commands and dignifies the landscape, with rows of lowly vegetable crops forming their ranks at its feet, and across the road, marching across the floodplain to the river, are the neat mechanical plantings of industrial corn.

In the beginning, when the Youth Corps arrived, I liked watching the teams of youth in their green outfits and hardhats walking the path over the grassy upcrest toward the woods, where they constructed trails and lean-tos. A path, writes Michael Pollan, is the beginning of a narrative and a human presence. It would take a few years before the fields would be reclaimed by the human hand. At the time, the farm program was not even a dream. Known for its work in state parks and natural areas, building trails and shoring up streambeds, the Corps had no experience with farming. As I imagine it, in gazing over the landscape from their office windows, the staff began to wonder what they might do with the land they acquired with the Monitor Barn. And in 2008, they dug up and planted their first garden beds.

A year later, the organization hired two experienced organic farmers to teach them how to grow food and to get their farm up and running. They turned the cornfield into pasture where they grazed Black Angus cattle for a season. A year later, there would be six acres of vegetables under cultivation, five greenhouses, a half dozen movable hen houses, a poultry processing facility, and a farm stand. All of that fresh produce –grown, harvested, and packed by paid and volunteer youth crews–would be distributed through three hundred farm shares in ten-pound boxes, every week – free of charge – to hungry or malnourished Vermonters throughout the growing season.

In watching the farm program grow, I have seen what an architectural monument can do to connect a community to its history, and I am beginning to see how we might reclaim the world from the damage industrialism has wreaked. What I am looking at when I gaze out my back window is a picture of a new agrarianism that bears only some resemblance to the old. I understood something about how the damaged soils were coming back to life, regenerating biological communities, how healthy soils reduce runoff and hold water to prevent flooding. I was grateful that we are no longer being poisoned. What I wanted to know more intimately was the human side of this new agrarianism. As Wes Jackson has said, “If we don’t get sustainability in agriculture, then it’s not going to happen.” What I began to see was how, if we get sustainability in agriculture, then so many of our other problems – social, environmental, and economic – can be solved, too.

A human presence in the field after a long Vermont winter begins in spring with a group of English Language Learners from Winooski High School, near Burlington, who come every afternoon for a period of six weeks. They work in the greenhouses, planting and transplanting, and in the fields, planting onions and leeks and lettuces. I see them walk along the edge of the garden in their green shirts, the girls wrapped in colorful headscarves, some wearing long skirts over their jeans. They come from Africa and Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, and the Middle East. They do not cut a picture that would easily come to mind when you think of the Vermont countryside.

I join the group on a midsummer day when they return to the farm with their summer school. I am especially drawn to the girls in their beautiful headscarves and their colorful clothing. Zuti, who wears a black head covering adorned with silver sequins that frames her face and falls below her shoulders, and a long plaid skirt, tells me that working in the garden is her favorite work. She planted these potatoes. “Also garlic, tomatoes, onions,” she says, gesturing over the fields and towards the greenhouses in a sweeping motion. “All of this, I plant.”

Her sister, who is 15, wears a bright blue sequined headscarf and a leopard print dress over her fashionable jeans. A Rohingya Muslim originally from Burma, she came to Vermont with her large family – seven sisters and two brothers – from a refugee camp in Thailand. They lived in the camp for eleven years. “We have fire,” she says. “The house was burn, so we go to refugee camp.” She leaves me to join her friends and soon she is singing out loud, dancing between the rows of weedy potatoes in her brightly colored dress.

After we have been working for an hour or so, one of the crew leaders pulls up in the pickup with bottled water for everyone. I join a group under the shade of a small tree at the edge of the field.

Dalib is speaking in Somali with a young woman who looks a little older than the others, dressed in a black headscarf and a long brown skirt. Her name is Fosia. She takes her disposable water bottle and balances it on her head as she walks back and forth along the edge of the potatoes. “It remind me of Africa,” she says, and laughs.

Dalib is a teacher’s aid and interpreter, who was born in Somalia but left his home country for Kenya when he was four. He has lived in the United States for nine years and has recently become a citizen. The teacher, Mr. Clark, told me that Dalib speaks “many languages and dialects.” When I ask him about that he is rather humble. “I speak three languages,” he says. “Somali, Swahili, and English.”

“I miss my country,” Fosia says in English. “Kenya. I miss my aunt, my cousins.”  Like Dalib, she moved to Kenya from Somalia because of the war. Dalib turns to me. “She wants to go back to teach about female circumcision.”

“Yes,” she says. “I want to educate. They do it to us when we are babies.”

Another girl joins them. I ask her if she is from Somalia too. Fosia answers for her. “Yes, she’s from Somalia.” The girl turns to her and frowns. “No, I am not,” and they laugh.

I sit next to Fosia at lunch at a table with some of the other Winooski girls. I am curious about her ambition to return to Africa to educate women, so I ask her about her plans. She is a 22-year-old senior at Winooski high school. She tells me she is interested in nursing. She wants to work for a women’s…associa…. Fosia, who expresses confidence, loses some of her assertiveness as she struggles to express herself in English. “Case worker,” she says at last. She would like to work with refugees in Africa.

I ask her how many brothers and sisters she has. She is not sure. She counts on her fingers. “Nine,” she says finally.

We are having lunch inside the Hay Mow – the beautiful large room that is rented out for weddings and other events. It was once the place where the hay was brought in on horse drawn carriages and then dropped down to the stables on the lower level. The Hay Mow is all wood – exposed timbers, rafters, and sheathing forming a latticework of timbers and catwalks that extend to the monitor roof, where the light pours in from the sky and falls to the floors below in long dust-filled columns.

Mr. Clark stands behind a long table where he dishes out lunch for his students. I am sitting with a group of girls all wearing colorful headscarves, between Fosia and a 13- year-old from Somalia named Nafia. She has very dark skin, a sweet, oval face, and wears braces. She speaks fluent American and has even mastered the overuse of the word “like.” She tells me she lived in Missouri for two years before she came to Vermont. I ask her which place she prefers, and she tells me that she likes her school here better, but otherwise she prefers Missouri.

“Why is that?”

“My friends,” she says. “I miss my friends.”

I ask her if she likes working at the farm.

“I like to sew,” she says.

I recall that it is Ramadan and I wonder why the girls are not fasting.

“We can’t fast when we have our periods,” Nafia explains to me. “We can stop the fast at any time. Some can fast for a week or a month.” She explains all this to me with the sweetness of a caring adult for a child who needs instruction. I notice the girls don’t seem to be eating much and are pushing the food around on their plates. They each have a half a hard-boiled egg, a square piece of zucchini bread, a small pile of chopped lettuce with some cheese on top, and canned pear slices. It does not seem like very much food. I ask them if they are given enough to eat.

“We don’t eat much,” one of the girls responds. She wears a pale grey chiffon headscarf with a pink rose over her left ear and a tassel of silver-colored beads.  “They have learned that about us. They don’t want to throw food away.”

I ask the girls how they like American food. “It’s good.” I sense that they are being diplomatic in their answers. There is not an ounce of the snideness, or entitlement, that are so characteristic of American teenagers. From across the Hay Mow, some of the students at another table are calling out to their math teacher, whose name is Mr. Payeur (pronounced “pear”):

“Are you eating your pears, Mr. Payeur?”

Lunchtime is also the time when the crew has its WORD discussion, a staple of all the Corps programs. The kids take turns selecting a topic from an anthology of short articles on a variety of social, political, and environmental issues. Farm crew leader Jeremy Schelening told me earlier that the purpose of WORD was to “teach them to start discussing things.” The core philosophy of the CCC created by FDR in the 1930’s – on which the YVCC is based – would anticipate the principles of the educational reformers of the 1960s, who sought to abolish the separation between the theoretical and the practical, between learning and doing. The result of this separation has been a food-dumb, ecologically unconscious urban society on the one hand, and a life of drudgery and provincialism on the other. The Corps is not a vocational training program, but an educational one that treats the whole human being, who is learning cross-cultural communication, how to debate and to problem solve, while learning how to show up on time and that onions really do come out of the ground.

On the day I sit in on a WORD discussion, before they began, Jeremy requests that someone explain to the volunteer at the table, a teenage girl who is the only one not wearing the Corps uniform, what they are doing. The volunteer looks at the book, titled WORD, and asks, “Is this like church?”

“No, it is not at all like church,” Jeremy says. Then he goes through the rules: everyone must be at eye level, only one person can talk at a time, and the facilitator cannot take a side in the discussion.

Stephanie leads today’s discussion of the article she has chosen, “Due Process and Equal Protection for Gays and Lesbians.” She reads it aloud. Then she reads the first question for discussion: “Why do people get married in our society?”

The teenagers are slumped in their chairs, while one of the Nepali girls, despite the rules about being “at eye level” is stretched out on the floor.

“Because they love each other,” Tracy volunteers in a sarcastic tone. Others echo her response. Only Ethan, an overweight 18-year-old with a round face and perpetually mirthful look, suggests something different: “They get married so that they can get divorced and get more money from their spouse.” Everyone laughs at this, and then, cynically, someone says, “Yeah. Some people get married for money.”

Jeremy prompts them: “Can you think of other reasons people get married?”  He gives them time to think but no one speaks up.

“What about for religious reasons?”

“Arranged marriages, you mean?”

“Those don’t happen in our society.”

“I think they do. We just don’t see it, “ Jeremy says.

“Can you think of any other reasons?”  He pauses. “What about to have children?”

They move on through the next series of questions with equal torpor. The whole topic of gay marriage is entirely uncontroversial. There is nothing to debate. “Why not?” they say. The Nepalis do not join in. Many of the kids are silent. I admire Jeremy’s efforts to stimulate a discussion, although it feels like we are sloughing through a swamp in the tropical heat. It is hot, and the kids are tired after working in the sun all morning. They are dirty and sweaty. I think of those Millet paintings of peasants napping in haystacks after a long morning of scything.

When they have gone through all the questions, Jeremy instructs them to write in their journals for 15 minutes. Sumitra is still stretched out on the floor, her arms adorned with bangles. Jeremy looks over at Bruce, who is doodling in his notebook, not writing. He sees that Jeremy is looking at him.

“I’m empty,” he says.

At the end of summer, I have the chance to join the crew for a meal they prepared themselves for the whole community. “This program is about coming together to celebrate food,” the farm program director, Paul Feenan, told me one day. “We focus on getting them to solve problems, to understand how a community is connected to food, and how food is connected to their learning. We focus on how food can bring people together, across cultures, by having these giant meals.” I stop by the farmhouse in the afternoon where the farm crew and staffers are preparing the meal, in celebration of their final week of work on the farm. I follow the sound of Michael Jackson blasting to the back of the house. There are three large baking pans containing a shepherd’s pie in-progress lined up on a bench in the center of the living area. The kitchen is packed with cooks who are chopping up greens and fixings for a great big garden salad. Bits of food are sprinkled over the carpet and seem to go flying through the air. There is a party atmosphere in the kitchen, but no alcohol, only loud music and heaps of food. It is the crew’s next-to-the-last day and it must feel like the last day of school is near.

Stephanie is in charge of the shepherd’s pie. She is following her family recipe, only she has substituted green beans for peas, which she has layered on top of the ground meat, and is applying the mashed potatoes using her bare hands. She was wearing a tank top and shorts – not her green uniform – and her hands are covered to the wrists with mashed potatoes. She leans into her work as if she were using her whole body and when she lifts her right knee for a moment, I think she is about to crawl right on top of her shepherd’s pie. When she looks up, smiling, she looks as if she is coming up for air.

Before it was restored, the old barn was a sad but impressive site. There was not a straight edge to be seen, its roof ridge sank like the back of an old horse, its paint faded, the color of old veins. It gave the impression of something organic rather than architectural: a creature rather than a building, that wheezed and gasped as if it were taking its last breaths. It seemed to tremble where it stood. A spectacular ruin like that still suggests its former glory; like very old men, it commands respect and revulsion at the same time. The ruin was owned by the man who would become my husband, but I didn’t know him then – at the time when his sheep liked to wander inside it for shade, negotiating the gaping holes in the floors. His cat managed to climb to the top of the monitor roof but then could not find her way down. Twice. After the Land Trust took ownership of the barn it entered a rapid decline; while funds were sought for the renovation, it remained as if forsaken, perched at the edge of the road, ready to collapse. Taken apart, moved, and rebuilt, today the impeccably restored West Monitor Barn is the collective achievement of the Land Trust, community activists and volunteers, state and federal agencies, and Youth Corps work crews, who raised the timbers, hammered nails, and laid down sheathing and clapboard, in what was, in effect, a community barn raising.

The architecture of an earlier time may have been more beautiful, and aesthetically, the hand-built villages of our predecessors were far superior to our contemporary squalor. But I am not nostalgic about this past. The immigrants who colonized the landscape of the northeast laid waste to it in a few short years – they razed the forests, polluted streams and rivers that were once full of salmon and trout, and introduced weeds, pests, and diseases that would plague us for centuries to come. All of the weed species that we curse as gardeners are exotic species that replaced the native grasses, as are the rat, the black fly, the house mouse, and the cockroach. (The honeybee and the earthworms are among the few introduced species that would be beneficial.) They did not collect manure, and evolved no system of composting, but instead used ashes from the forests they razed for fertilizer, or covered their fields with fish rot that attracted animals who dug up their crops, that stank probably as badly as modern feedlots, and left oil residues to ruin soils.

A photo of our farm and the West Monitor Barn from a century ago show the surrounding hills denuded of trees and dotted with sheep – an image of what much of Vermont looked liked in the nineteenth century. The sheep overgrazed the hillsides and without the forests the soils washed away in floods and mudslides. The new immigrants slashed and burned and slaughtered indiscriminately, and then they left and headed west. Some stayed, continuing to farm in the river valleys, but the uplands farms were abandoned, their rock walls, built stone upon stone, were left to crumble, to be overtaken by brambles and second growth forest. Those piles of rocks, and the wild apples trees that we find on our rambles through the woods that came back, are their legacy. But the forests that we know are not the forests that were cut down, and only a few of the species that they extirpated would successfully be reintroduced – the beaver, turkey, and fisher – while the others – among them the catamount, timber wolf, salmon, giant sturgeon, passenger pigeon – never would return.

This is the agricultural past to which we nod. It is a history too, of racial violence, of genocidal wars on Native Americans, of gender oppression, of slavery and religious intolerance. This is not a past we should wish to return to. In an alternative history, we could have learned from the Native Americans, who offered a model of living on the land without destroying their own nests. Who knew how to grow crops without the plow, who knew no pests and no pollution, and who knew how to increase abundance through the use of fire. They stayed warm without destroying the forests, in contrast to the New Englanders who burned on average thirty to forty cords of wood in a winter – more than an acre of forest­ in every household.

We are wiser now. That is, in a parallel course to the development of industrialism, we have learned how to farm sustainably, relearning how to work with biological relationships, as the Native Americans had understood. Here the principles of ecology can be applied to human ecology as much as to agriculture: in the words of Sir Alfred Howard in his Agricultural Testament, that bible of organic farming: “to look at the wheel of life as one great subject and not as if it were a patchwork of unrelated things.”

The wheel of life.

I know that not all wounds can be healed. But watching youth crews go to work on that piece of land the way the body’s cells go to work to heal a wound– to repair a broken food system and an economic system, to create an alternative to a culture of couch sitting—I can hold before me an image of what it will mean for people to take care of one another, as we will have to do. We are discovering the meaning of resilience and finding a way to be useful. It is the best image I have to hang onto that suggests we might endure.

And now, I am ever conscious that under the rules of the new America, neither Fosia nor Nafia nor Dalib would be admitted here. The Rohingya, Zuti and Rosie among them, who came here because they were persecuted as Muslims, now find themselves in another country hostile to followers of Islam. I am also ever conscious of, and deeply troubled by, the truth that it is rural America that has embraced these policies – a rural American that is so badly in need of a healthy infusion of Corps thinking, its diversity and generosity, as well as a WORD discussion at every table.

The following spring, I volunteer to help plant onion seedlings with the Winooski group one afternoon. Many of them are returning for their second or third year, but there are new faces among them. Crouched down over the ground, we loosen the clumps of clay soil and press the young onions into the earth. When we have planted nearly three quarters of the row, about the length of a long city block, crew leader Nicole Mitchell thanks the group for their hard work and tells them they can take a break before their bus arrives to take them home. “You don’t have to stay,” she says, “but I’d really appreciate it if some of you volunteered to help me to finish this row.” Most of them – and all the boys – vanish before I can even turn around, but three of the girls have volunteered to stay. Rosie and Zuti are among them, whom I met that day in the Hay Mow, the ones who explained to me so kindly about Ramadan.

When we reach the end of the row, Nicole thanks us and then urges the girls to hurry off to catch their bus home. I watch the two of them run down along the rows of tender young onion shoots standing upright in their new beds, their long skirts and headscarves flowing, until they disappear behind the Monitor Barn, its one hundred year old weather vane swinging in the wind, the green hills swelling with new life in the distance.


Join the conversation