Here in the Cascades spring reminds me of William Stafford’s comment about Nevada, which he wrote of as the only place in America you can stand up to your ass in snow and still have dust blow in your eye. Something like that happens here, too. After a couple of teases with spring weather, we’ve dropped into a pattern of “wintry mix,” which is a phrase our local forecasters use when they really have no idea what is coming over the mountain. It might be, as it was just the other day, 80 degrees inside the greenhouse, raining on the south side of the barn, and snowing sideways on the north all at the same time.
And anyway, I love it.
And, whatever the weather, I’ve been taking advantage of breaks in the annual spring toss-up to build a new turkey run, re-rigging irrigation in the garden, planting seeds in the greenhouse, and prepping a small new orchard of apple and pear trees. And I’ve been going to the local Bee Academy. Learning something about the life of bees has proven to be quite an education, and I look forward to writing in these pages as we build our hive and take a shot at raising bees.
In the meantime I wanted to share with you a discovery I made last evening. It is an extraordinarily gritty film about Peter Dunning, a 68 year-old organic farmer living on the Mile Hill Farm in Vermont. Dunning, a former Marine who lost a large portion of one hand in a sawmill accident, is a hard drinking, hard swearing, Yankee wild man who strikes me as a fabulous cross between John the Baptist, Walt Whitman, and R. Lee Ermey.
I like that because there is a combination of agrarian imperturbability and manic spirituality at work in Dunning that, combined with an impeccably honest appreciation for the music of the farming spheres, reveals a passionate, intelligent, and complicated man. That grand mix of energies shows up when he quotes from Berry’s thoughts on the importance of affection while climbing a barn ladder, or speaks one of his own really good poems, or points out the place he will likely die (at the foot of the basement stairs, he says, after tripping and smashing his head against a stone wall, which as a side-note will probably also ruin the potatoes) which he manages to do while butchering a ewe, fixing his bailer, running his sawmill, reading, writing, drinking, and launching a non-stop delivery of f‑bombs aimed at the madding world.
The film was directed by Tony Stone, and was originally proposed by Dunning as a film to document his own suicide. Which is in keeping with the question he asks during a particularly engaging rant against the incorporated and enforced fragmentation of modern life: “How many organic farmers go insane?”
Dunning is Everyman with a foul mouth, capable, caustic, and funny, with a real talent for painting, a severe problem with alcohol, and a passion for his farm. He believes, and when he says it the viewer also intensely believes him: “I am becoming my farm.” He reminds us that once “everything had a meaning and everything had a purpose, and that’s what is getting lost now.”
What he’s talking about is, I think, related to what Berry calls “the stewardship of humans.” In “It All Turns on Affection”, Berry wrote:
“…there must be a cultural cycle, in harmony with the fertility cycle, also continuously turning in place. The cultural cycle is an unending conversation between old people and young people, assuring the survival of local memory, which has, as long as it remains local, the greatest practical urgency and value. This is what is meant, and is all that can be meant, by ‘sustainability.’ The fertility cycle turns by the law of nature. The cultural cycle turns on affection.”
I might argue here that remaining local isn’t necessarily a requirement for sustainability — because notions of code, responsibility, and honor in both the Iliad and the Odyssey remain practical and urgent in their value — thousands of years and thousands of miles from their origin.
At any rate, the film meets Dunning at a time when the farm is hanging on a precipice. The farm has given him three wives and four children and taken them all away. He is mostly alone with his memories, his animals, his orchard and his crops, his tractors, and his booze. And despite his impressive strength and agility, his obvious passion for life in the midst of a suicidal pique, it is quite clear that the entire existence of Mile Hill Farm, 134 acres of almost mythological New England, is hanging on by a mere thread in the intense winds of a physical, cultural, and spiritual tempest.
What I found so engaging about this film is how accurately and precisely a lone man on his Vermont farm serves as a metaphor for the similar turmoils of an entire nation, and I urge you to check it out.