Michael has formally invited me to accompany him in "taking out the compost."
I assent, but to what, I am not certain. I know what taking out the compost means at my house, and it is nothing you'd invite anyone to join, and by no means whatsoever something to be planned in advance. All I know is, it's Stonington, and whatever you've been invited to do, it's best if you go, because it is likely to be interesting.
I'm slightly unclear on why the man is insisting on picking me up; it's a 4 minute walk to the house. When the van rumbles to the curb and I get in, Michael apologizes for the "compost" smell. I say it is something I would expect from an outing entitled Take Out The Compost, and finally understand we are not going to the house, but from it.
There's a farm.
Michael's wife, Sibby, had made a few remarks about "the farm," which in my Californian-ness I simply took to be a quaint way of referring to a backyard potager (there were hens patrolling the back forty the first time I visited the house; doesn't that make your backyard a farm? It does in my world!) No, no, no. Slightly inland from town, these guys have a few acres of land, with a creek meandering through it and an ancient barn which they are rehabilitating bit by bit. There are antique stone grain silos. There are rows of summer vegetable crops beginning to give up the ghost as October progresses. Even the compost heap that had occasioned the visit was envy-inspiring: a capacious, dug-down area where piles of green matter and kitchen scraps were in varying states of transformation into the most ridiculously perfect, espresso-black loam imaginable. Here and there a potato vine valiantly attempted to escape reversion to earth, and I saw -- so cute! -- what I took in the waning light to be a clump of wild lemon balm, which it would have been had this been my garden. As I tend to, I impulsively grabbed the stalk, to break off a few leaves and inhale the beautiful scented ether they released.
Oh, yeah. Nettles. Forgot about those guys.
About to try to ignore the throbbing in my hand and Help Out with the compost deposit, I turned and found that instead of a shovel Michael was handing me a glass of very nice Rosé de Provence. That was the end of me helping with anything other than cheering Michael on with great enthusiasm as he handled the veggie trimmings, but I sure forgot about my nettled fingers in a hurry. Only two thoughts floated about: when you have manual labor to do, it is always a civilized idea to travel with a sommelier. And, I am about to die of covetousness.
Inside the picturesque barn, Michael pointed out where they'd repaired things, what was original, where the cows had been kept, how they'd managed to salvage an irreplaceable transom window, where the "guest quarters" would be and where the commercial grade kitchen ("All Sib's idea, you know. I just do as I'm told!"). Outside this bucolic charm-bomb were meandering paths leading to a tree-enclosed area that, while still under construction, I could see was destined to become the site of the best summer garden parties in the county. I pictured paper lanterns, looping and veering barn swallows dining on insects in the twilight, the green luciferin blink of fireflies in the tall grass. The olfactory and auditory ghosts of applewood smoke and cut hay, popping corks and laughter came over me with a shiver.
Infinite posibility. Utterly transcendent.
I don't often miss New England. I left Mount Holyoke a year ahead of schedule, cramming my degree into three years to nip in the bud the increasing feeling of cabin fever the place had begun to bring on. When I miss it, it is invariably October. And this last October was a spectacular one (until that little rainy patch made things a tad unpleasant) -- richly colorful, mild; foliage colors bordering on the psychedelic, sunsets over the Sound seemingly engineered by Frederic Cole and Thomas Church and designed to give the heartstrings an unrepentant and right nasty tug.
Sibby and Michael's farm was the last freaking straw. We drank the wine -- one of those pale whispery ones that cary the last breath of summer on them; the man knows his stuff -- and walked the property. I imagined wistfully what it would be like to be part of this place. Or a place like it. Anyone who knows me in real life knows I have a strong, and growing, inner off-grid Transcendentalist artsy-craftsy chop wood cary water whackjob who actually likes doing things the hard way sometimes (come over and watch me hand-water shrubs with greywater from the laundry in a 2 gallon bucket, or spend the entire afternoon shelling fava beans, or suddenly get it into my head to teeter through the chicken run in spike heels with my leather jacket pockets calamitously full of eggs if you do not believe me). Just enough acreage, in a moderate climate, to grow most of what the family eats, to take joy in cultivation of land, of mind, of art, of spirit. Look, I know there is nothing to over-Romanticize about the backbreaking labor of actually maintaining four acres of living things. I am telling you I do not care. Since when has mindless conformity, or conforming mindlessness, ever been part of my interior landscape? I just want an exterior one to go with it.
The Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century fed on philosophical systems including German Realism, English Romanticism, the mystic Christianity of Emmanuel Swedenborg, and the Vedas (Thoreau was an avid re-reader of the Bhagavad Gita). In turn, it fed the American Arts and Crafts movement: the Roycroft Colony, Stickley, Frank Lloyd Wright. Transcendentalists were reformers, believers in equality, individual freedom of pursuit, divine inspiration and the deification of process, practice, work. It is the glorification, the belief in the inherent goodness of, striving. It is not self-subjugating: it is earned joy. It is where cultivation plays out in its dual senses of cult, or worship -- and labor, bettering, the making of something, what we call... poeisis. There is, certainly, a running emphasis on self-perfection, but this is not the dragging, parsimonious, pleasure-denying stoicism of the Puritans. (Not in this body, Pallie.) This stuff is about diligence with reward in earthly life; tend the tree, eat the apple, know you are in Paradise, be pleased with yourself for growing such good apples and make a really nice pie, and serve it to friends who will all act like they've rolled in catnip because what you have worked so hard to create is something beautiful, soul-nourishing, and real.
Interestingly, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, that Odd Couple Adam and Eve of modern poetry, were both allied with the Transcendentalist movement, though they certainly had different aesthetic deployments of it and each toyed with it and alloyed it in a particular way. Look!
I'm not a "religious" person in any organized sense of the word -- in fact, to go back to Monday's post, I think James Merrill's Orphic, sentient-universe model comes as close to what I imagine as anything does -- his God has a name. That name is Biology. The energy or force that people refer to as "God" is imagined to be the entire unending cycle of life and death, expansion and contraction, dormancy and flush, photosynthesis and metabolism -- All (which is German for "universe," language collectors). All part and parcel of a single, sapient system. Swedenborg would have a agreed and I imagine Thoreau and Emerson would have been on board too. All I can say is that the closest thing I have ever had to a religious experience occurred when I was 8 feet up in the crotch of a fully ripe Bing cherry tree in a huge orchard on a warm morning. There were other people around -- but they just faded away and all I knew was the texture of the bark and the smell of the fruit and the juice staining my hands and the sun filtering through the leaves and being overwhelmed at how, sometimes, the Universe repays our effort with beauty and abundance beyond imagining. That it is the nature of the natural world to be magnanimous. And that all is possible, is possibility, if you just commit to the process. Metaphor ingested, right?
Making things, growing things, cultivating -- means something. (Sibby and MIchael, please don't forget I am excellent with a baking stone and will never call harvesting a chore. Call me!!)
It is, again, one of the reasons we are driven to write poems, even if we do not have a pastoral cell in our bodies. Moan though we might about the seemingly endless stretches of "fruitless" labor that beset each of us, any one of us who sticks it out does it because the process is of value, at every stage.
To quote Roycroft founder Elbert Hubbard, "The love you liberate in your work is the love you keep."
Yep. Pretty Much.