Having Both Lives
Farming and Writing in Vermont before 1972
Written onSeptember 01 , 2011
Why anybody would want to be either a farmer or a poet when there were spools turning in factories was beyond the grasp of the old man. That his grandson should desire to be both was almost enough to bring on a stroke.”
According to the grandson’s biographer, “Determined in his course, Robert laid the whole matter before his grandfather. He would have a farm, live on it, produce his food with his own labor, and write poetry.”
And although the grandfather eventually purchased a farm for his grandson, he turned it over to the young Robert Frost with no real encouragement. “You’ve made a failure out of everything else you’ve tried. Now go up to the farm and die there.”
As we know, Frost exceeded his grandfather’s expectations. And many more have succeeded in this stroke-inducing thing—being both farmer and writer—and particularly here, in Vermont. And because of these dual efforts, we have a cultural harvest of literature. All of the farmer-writers mentioned in this article had firmly established their books and crops by the time I came into the world in 1972 (hence the title of this article), and all of them have inspired me since I moved to Vermont in 1997 with foolishness and feistiness, endeavoring to cultivate a farming and writing life of my own.
Five years prior to this move, I had accosted a farmer-writer, Scott Chaskey, at a sustainable agriculture conference. He had just retrieved a notebook from his car and was heading back inside when I ran up to him and asked the author of This Common Ground: Seasons on an Organic Farm and head farmer of Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, New York, my burning question: “Which comes first, which are you more of—a writer or a farmer?” He sighed and gazed across the lot, then back at me, and said, “Well, I’m a writer. I’m a writer first.”
Perhaps the forefather of farmer-writers in Vermont is Rowland Robinson, born in 1833 in Ferrisburgh, on his family’s farm, Rokeby, which is now a living history museum. Robinson’s collection of stories, Danvis Tales, was republished by the University Press of New England in 1995. According to poet Hayden Carruth’s extensive and deeply researched introduction, Robinson began writing stories in his early 40s, as a sideline to diversified farming, which included three flocks of Merinos and an engraving/illustration business. The Danvis Tales are about rural life in a fictive town that, by Robinson’s own admission, bears a great resemblance to his own. “Suffice to say it is in the state of Vermont,” Robinson writes of the book’s setting, and further, barricaded by mountains and roadless areas, “thus fortified against the march of improvement.” His stories endeavor to capture the ethics, antics, and relations of his neighbors, using phonetic reproduction of their manner of speech. Here are two passages from ”Little Sis,” a story in Danvis Tales, one with a taste of the vernacular, another showcasing Robinson’s talent for description.
“Good Lord o’ massy! if I hain’t jest about clean tuckered aout!” Mrs. Purington gasped, exhaling a longdrawn sigh as she dropped her portly person in the creaking splint bottomed chair... “Whew ‘f ‘t ain’t hot, jest a-roastin,’ bilin’ hot! Huldy, reach me a dipper o’ water, won’t ye? I’m e’en a’most choked.”
“She suddenly realized how still it was, that there was no sound in the kitchen but the buzzing of flies, the ticking of the clock, and the fluttering splash and chip, chip of the potato washing and paring, and that from out doors came no sound but the lazy “crating” of hens, the dolorous mixture of peep and cluck wherewith the half grown chickens expressed their contentment, the dry clap of the locusts wings, followed by his long, shrill cry when he had lighted in the chip littered yard, and from farther off the faint ringing of the mowers’ whetted scythes.”
In 1934, nearly one hundred years after Robinson’s birth, another writer-farmer set out to enunciate the rural neighborhood, this time in Craftsbury, on the edge of the Northeast Kingdom. Elliott Merrick and his wife drove north from New Jersey to eek out a book and a life. “It was our idea that it might be possible to go directly after the things you want. We wanted to write and farm, so we wrote and farmed.” On the homestead where Merrick penned Green Mountain Farm in 1948, and eventually six other books, the daily demands of both callings complemented each other.
“I get my best ideas for writing when I’m farming, and my best farm ideas when writing. Milking cows is very fine for ironing out plot difficulties. There is something soothing and stimulating to the mental processes in that rhythmic tug and squeeze, that quiet physical rote movement of it, the cow’s warm flank, the smell of hay, the white streams building up the pail.”
Another ambitious couple, fleeing a “society gripped by depression and unemployment, falling prey to fascism and on the verge of another world wide free for all” moved to Vermont from New York City in 1932. The book they published in 1954, subtitled How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World, subsequently became a kind of Bible for other “back to the landers.”Living the Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing chronicles the means of a new existence with origins in the Jeffersonian model of the gentleman farmer, advocating that a person hone his muscles although food-bearing labors, and hone his intellectuality with paper and pen. On their homestead in Winhall, the Nearings built both stone edifices and substantial books, breaking their days into four-hour increments, alternating “bread labor” with personal enrichment activities, while upholding such principles as #1 “We wish to set up a semi-self contained household unit, based largely on a use economy, and, as far as possible, independent of the price-profit economy which surrounds us” and #7 “We will keep no animals” and #10 “We will build of natural stone and rock.”
When poet Hayden Carruth purchased a little home in Johnson in 1963, he had no agenda for social change, nor did he wish to farm. He just barely sneaks into this article because he wrote in a cowshed, kept hens, cut his own wood, and lent a hand to Marshall Washer, the dairy farmer next door—and because he wrote brutally and beautifully about all of it. In his poem “Emergency Haying,” from his book From Snow Rock and Chaos, published in 1973, he writes of these two labors, farming and writing, announcing his place amid them,
Coming home with the last load I ride standing
on the wagon tongue behind the tractor
in hot exhaust, lank with sweat,
… I help—
I the desk servant, word worker—
And can hold up my end pretty well too…
But as for what constitutes a life of “real” farming and writing, I’ll lean on another practitioner of both, Noel Perrin, who moved to Thetford in 1963. Perrin wrote essays about agriculture that ranged, as he put it, from the “intensely practical to the mildly literary.” In his first book of collected essays,First Person Rural, published in 1976, he wrote, “The difference between ‘a place in the country’ and a farm is chiefly a matter of livestock. It is New England anyway. You can own 200 acres, you can pick your own apples, you can buy a small tractor—and you’re still just a suburbanite with an unusually large lot. But put one cow in your pasture, raise a couple sheep, even buy a pig, and instantly your place becomes a farm.”
And with that full commitment to Both comes, of course, compromise, and at times, chaos.
This reveals itself in a slender output of written work, as with the gifted farmer-poet from Danville, Herbert Elliott. As his daughter explains in her preface to the exquisite single collection of poems by her father, Take Your Last Look, from which some poems first appeared in the New York Times, “In 1950 my parents bought a larger farm on the lower flanks of Diamond Hill. The new farm, with more cows and a larger turkey business, meant more work. By the mid fifties they were raising as many as a thousand turkeys per year. He wrote no poems about turkeys.” But he did write exquisite verses, exemplified by this poem, “Mystic”:
He keeps his cattle waiting
Beside the pasture bars.
He sows his land at nightfall,
And reaps beneath the stars.
What if his herd is standing?
There’s something more than yields
Of barely, corn, and clover
In starlit night bound fields.
Perhaps if Elliott had not needed sleep there would have been one hundred more lovely poems as this. In Frost’s case, it was his 300 Wyandotte chickens that, more often than his poems, suffered neglect.
Frost became “versed in country things” on his first farm in Derry, New Hampshire, where he lived from 1900–1911. After a stint teaching, then traveling abroad, he bought a farm in Franconia, New Hampshire (now called “the Frost Place”). Frost’s affiliation with Vermont was established through the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, where he taught, the farmstead he purchased in Ripton after his wife died in 1938, and his home in South Shaftsbury, where he lived in the 1920s.
Reflecting on this life, Frost admitted with exasperation:
“You see I can manage a poem in the singular way well and not feel the strain, not too much. In the midst of my work on the farm I could handle such a task. Sometimes one would grow out of an idea, leaving me relaxed. At other times the idea would produce second growth, forcing itself as a Siamese twin on its predecessor. That would bring trouble of spirit, and more than likely right in harvest time. I would be in a terrible stew, fever likely. My legs would ache, my head would ache. Eating was out of the question. Sleep?... The farm work had to go on, and as I have said the strain was pretty bad—pretty trying. But, what to a poet were stooks of grain from Vermont, across the mountains; or a broken down fence with a cow bellowing on a knoll against the sky? In such a state I wrote—can’t tell how—or even why. The chickens remained unfed, and the rain swept in to spoil the grain.” [from Louis Mertin’s Robert Frost: Life and Talks-Walking]
Essayist and “Sometime Farmer” Noel Perrin explained his multiple vocations in less dramatic terms, saying he was a half-time teacher, half-time writer, and half-time farmer. “That this adds up to three halves, I am all too aware.”
Though the Nearings, the Merricks, and Noel Perrin offer so much in the way of articulate, even humorous advice, my hypothesis is that there are as many different people aspiring to have both lives as there are different ways to realize those lives.
And regardless of whatever becomes of my endeavors, we’re lucky, I think, for Robinson and Frost, for Merrick and Nearing, for Carruth and Elliott, and for Perrin, all breaking the sod, as it were, for all of us coming after. Their wisdom and insight, their honesty and disciplined efforts, their legacy is the work, the work they did before and after the other work they did, having both lives, giving us another harvest.
From Elliott Merrick’s Green Mountain Farm:
“The best way to write is hoeing corn… Hoeing corn on a hot day is one of the finest incentives to writing. The dust is dry and the hoe handle chafes and the shoulder blades drip sweat… I think of my cool, shaded room and my nice dark smooth desk and that beautiful white paper… Soon I am there, filling up pages… After several hours of this… it is a pleasure to go back to the cornfield and just sweat, no thinking. Ah, the bite of the hoe blade into the earth… after long hours cramped in a chair!”
“Speaking for Them,” by Hayden Carruth
The bleeding cow
has rubbed her neck on barbed
wire against the flies,
which return, crawling
in her eyes. She looks up,
a sorrow, raising her great
head in slowness, brown eyes rising
like pools of earth.
From “A Blue Ribbon At Amesbury,” by Robert Frost:
Such a fine pullet ought to go
All coiffured in the winter snow
And be exhibited and win…
The one who gave her ankle band
Her keeper, empty pail in hand,
He lingers too, averse to slight
His chores for all the wintry night…
Carruth, Hayden. Collected Shorter Poems 1946-1991. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1991.
Elliott, Herbert. Take Your Last Look. St. Johnsbury, VT: 2004.
Merrick, Elliott. Green Mountain Farm. New York: Macmillan Company, 1948.
Mertins, Louis. Robert Frost: Life and Talks-Walking. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.
Nearing, Helen and Scott. Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World. New York: Schocken Books, 1954.
Perrin, Noel. First Person Rural: Essays of a Sometime Farmer. David Godine Publisher, 1978.
Robinson, Rowland E. Danvis Tales: Selected Stories. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1995
Some Farmers Writing in Vermont after 1972
Ben Hewitt, The Town That Food Saved; Making Supper Safe
Brad Kessler, Goat Song
Bette Lambert, A Farm Wife’s Journal
Chuck Wooster, Living with Sheep; Living with Pigs
Writing About or by Farmers, Anytime, Anywhere
(a Biased List by Julia Shipley)
James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Wendell Berry, Harlan Hubbard: Life and Work
John Berger, Pig Earth
Willa Cather, O Pioneers; My Antonia
Jean Giono, Joy of Man’s Desiring (trans. Jody Gladding)
Knut Hamson, Growth of the Soil
Harlan Hubbard, Payne Hollow Journal
Mildred Kalish, Little Heathens
Verlyn Klinkenborg, The Rural Life
Dudley Laufman, Bull
Gene Logsdon, At Nature’s Pace
Gary Paulsen, The Winter Room
Virgil, The Georgics
E. B. White, One Man’s Meat