I think there are two kinds of memories: moments and sensations. They're similar, but vastly different in the way that we carry them with ourselves through life. Moments- which come and then last in recovered experiences- are like paintings for the senses. They are the references that we continuously come back (or that keep coming back to us) in a flood of images, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes that are static in nature. If they change, they change only slightly. Or we remember them with difference. Sensations- the other tip of memory- can't necessarily be placed. They overwhelm our senses in a way that strips us of all rationality and transport us to entirely different realities.
I think I had to start there because I'm having a hard time pulling through my recollection of the past week without floundering in the vastness of some of these seemingly small, but so terribly meaningful experiences.
On the 18th I biked out of Tolland State Forest (on the same dirt roads that I biked in on, turns out it is in the middle of nowhere), and headed West through the Berkshires to get to Hawthorne Valley Farm. It was only a 45 mile bike, but it was rather hilly, so I took my time and went easy on my tired legs. I barely peddled downhill and waited as long as I could to start kicking my bike into gear going up the road moguls (east coast hills). The air was cool and it felt incredibly powerful to drift by stumpy swamp foliage on my way out of the reservoir. I was still reveling in the kindness of the cops who'd let me crash on their spare campsite the night before. Think the feeling was something of gratitude.
Around eleven o'clock I stopped for a snack and coffee in Great Barrington, MA at a café called Fuel. It was a railroad building, so I bought myself a cup of joe and muffin and then found a place in the back where I could stash my four bags of stuff underneath a table without feeling like I was completely in the way. It's where I wrote my last post. It kind of pounded out. Wish now that I'd been able to show a little bit more of the "gratitude" that I felt that morning. Perhaps capturing the grueling ride the day before was more important though...
Anyway, while I was in the middle of this bastardly damned recollection of the day prior, a woman sitting across the isle from me asked me where I was going. We chatted very briefly at first. I mentioned that I was biking to Seattle (probably offhandedly so, because... I have to admit it kind of makes me feel like a badass time I say it) and then she sat down again. About two minutes later she turned around and asked me to write her a poem. She was working on a poetry project.
Maddy, who I later interviewed for her views on climate change and environmental degradation, is a teacher at Parsons and Barnard who has been collecting poems from travelers for the past few years. She's from Brooklyn and every time she rides the subway she asks a stranger to write her a poem. You can check out her poetry blog at www.poemsbynewyorkers.com. She was in Western Mass because her relatives were at a camp out there. Although I was a slightly different traveler from the norm, she believed I fit in. Was kind of spectacular to be included. I asked her if I could interview her afterwards. We spent a while talking about spontaneous interview styles. I learned a lot from her.
She actually gave me a gift-- a newspaper clipping-- that she suggested I pass on to the next interviewee. Her idea was that I could build an exchange between those who I interviewed along the way. All the credit goes to her, but I'll be doing this the rest of the way as I make my way West with Ben.
I probably overstayed my welcome in Fuel, but it was so worth the journaling and chat time that I spent with Maddy. When I emerged from the dark back room and out onto the sidewalk in Great Barrington I fought back a squint for a few minutes. The sun was out and people on vacation with their children were swarming the sidewalk. They were clad with ice cream melt and smelled of sweat and sugar. Wandered around for a little while amongst the brick buildings looking for postcards. The town was pretty hip... and pricey. When I was walking back to my bike with all of my bags slung over my shoulders, an organizer stopped me asking to donate to a local labor organization. He mentioned that low-income folks were having a hard time making life work in the region. He was wondering if I could donate time or money. I couldn't offer either, but he stayed with me. On the bike out, stop and go past historic looking houses and past a private jetport where I watched a little yellow prop-plane take off, I wondered what people actually did for work there.
[[I actually googled Great Barrington later that week. Apparently it was the location of the first coal-fired power plant in the America. The birthplace of GE. Manufacturing jobs have since dried up and most of the blue-collar work force (if it exists at all) is living in nearby, Pittsfield now though. What a name, right? Other things notable Great Barrington: it was the birthplace of W.E.B DuBois and it issues its own local currency. The history is kind of fascinating.]]
I arrived at Hawthorne Valley Farm around 4 o'clock after about a two hour ride through more rolling hills and my friend, Noah, immediately put me to work milking cows. This is where some of the more sensational memories of the past week begin for me. I wasn't about to admit it to Noah when I got there, which was probably dumb, but I was so dehydrated that there were several times I leaned over to milk a cow and I nearly fainted in the slop gutter. The whole activity kind of rushed by with a viciousness that's hard to properly do justice. I remember being immensely proud of the fact that I learned how to strip out a cow, laughing to myself that I was touching so many teats, and impressed with the enormity- yet somehow precious- presence of the animals that I was getting so intimate with. I'm a vegetarian that would probably someday like to go vegan... but somehow I was less conscious of that personal ambition when I was patting down the rears of these mamas [and even less later when I was feasting on the fresh cheese the farm makes]. It was a crash course lesson in machine milking.
There is something terrifying and wonderful about the sound that a vacuum milk pump makes when you put it on the udder of a cow. For a brief second, while you're bent over with your face stuck up underneath the rear legs of the beast, the machine sucks at dry air before you make contact with a teat. It's a shhhhhwoosh that Noah was quick to show me how to avoid, but that I had trouble with all the same. Purely mechanical, yet essential in application for the farm's dairy procedures, the milker (I'm not sure if that's technical, I'm really just winging all of this) pumps out the quarters and sends raw milk directly to the central milk collection on the farm. Hawthorne Valley is incredibly careful not to over-milk any of the quarters and is just as protective of their milk container as they are the cows that produce for them.
I was showed the milk tank in the creamery a bit later on. It's a large, chilled metal container. Full of milk. I felt a sensation of connectedness... and separation. For some reason I thought about the first bastard that stuck his mouth directly underneath a cow teat and stripped milk into his mouth. Was he jealous of the calfs? Then again the mechanical shhwooosh came flying through me as I glanced at the tank. We're all just animals. Just animals.
Now flash back.
It took us about three hours to finish up milking. We let the cows out to pasture, cleaned the barn, fed the calfs with some hay, and then closed up "shop." I finally got a good look at the farm as the chorus of singing cows wandered out to the hay paddocks. Hay fields as far as I could see to the south, a veggie field to the west with a forested hill for a backdrop, red-paint barns behind me, and massive white hay covers that arched over piles of bails about three times my height. The feeling of evening quickly approaching. Magic hour. I snapped some poor-quality photos then begged Noah for food and water.
Noah is an incredibly kind and humorous lad of twenty-three. He'd offered to host me in his shared loft space in an empty guest bed on somewhat last minute notice. I've been trying to visit him for the past 3 months, since he started woking on the farm in February, and the bike trip offered the best opportunity to really become immersed in his world. I was planning on volunteering for the three weekdays that I was going to spend with him.
The bunkhaus, the loft space where Noah lives, is a wonderfully active space shared by five other farm apprentices seeking to learn the secrets of biodynamic farming that make Hawthorne Valley Farm so incredibly special. The residence, particularly the kitchen, has an aura around it that awakens a deep sense of community and groundedness in earthly work. It has unvarnished wood walls, a 10 person wooden table decorated with fresh flowers, a windowsill herb garden, poetry pinned to the walls, and a well worn gas-fired stove adorned with an ever-present cast-iron skillet. All of the cutting boards are wooden and cut with a particular funky knottage in the nature of the wood. The knives are sharp. Food is shared. Although the bunkhaus has an enormous living room, people don't seem to spend time in the room. There's hardly a moment when others are home that they will find themselves in the kitchen alone though.
I feel like I could recount all of my experiences in this kitchen with an acuity that is remarkable for how little I think of my kitchen at home. Have you ever stared at the contents of your cabinets without reason? I have a habit of doing that at home. Just to see if there's food. I'm kind of annoyed by the habit I make of it. There's a sensation that I felt at Hawthorne Valley I didn't feel anywhere else. I can't seem to grasp it completely yet. Noah kept me extremely well fed. I ate so much food. I demolished the fresh bread and cheese supply. I owe someone for all of these feelings. Struggling with the concept that it might be that be that I just owe the pleasantry to the larger farm in general. Food. Food. Food. Sustenance. There is a spider web somewhere that keeps the kitchen held together with a vast spiritual nature. Only became more apparent as my visit extended. Work-dirt piled up underneath the heaters by the window with a view of the farm.
We went drinking in the hay paddocks with the cows that first night. The moon was nearly full and cast some pretty mystifying silhouettes of standing cows in the valley. The wind blew in to the hay fields from the South and I shivered over the beer in my hands as we squatted in the long grass. Company was warm though. Noah's friend from Northampton was in town and the new Camp Director Ari chatted with us most of the evening. At some point I protested the chill of the wind and we went inside. I fell asleep on the couch dreaming of cows' udders and werewolves. I slept like a baby. Stuffed with bok choi and rice and tofu and bread and Yingling.
Next day Noah and I woke up slowly. Sunday was his only day off during the week. We helped one of his friends build a chicken coop in the late morning and then went on strike. Rest of the day was devoted to swimming at another friend's house in Elizaville, NY and drinking a badass IPA called S.W.A.G. There was some consistent musing through the day about the meaning of "Private Property" signs near public swimming holes. The water was refreshing. Can't say anybody has ever been able to own that feeling. Sensation, sorry. Early bedtime because of work on Monday.
If there's one thing I grasped while I stayed with Noah, it's just how hard he and the rest of the farm work to make their bread [ :) ]. He mentioned that it compiles. Monday through Saturday he's bent over from 6am to 5pm in the weeds, walking through never-ending fields of snap peas, or looking at the underside of a rather tempestuous cow.
On Monday I was saved from the morning's labor and took the afternoon to attend a CRAFT session at another farm with Noah and the other apprentices. We all drove to Williamstown, MA to see another working dairy farm, Cricket Creek. New fondness arose in me for cows that I'd never experienced before in my life as I watched them walk in from pasture. We sampled much of the farm's cheese-- and I think I was briefly transported to a milky heaven.
Received a call from friends going to bed in Barcelona around 8pm. Heartbeats... and cheese. There's something about new and different cultures that ripen the taste of something that can seem so familiar.
It was the solstice on that Monday. I remembered a friend that had passed 5 years ago.
Fighting exhaustion, but unable to sleep. We attended a bonfire lit by the Hawthorne Valley camp staff that had just arrived the day before. We got weird. People sang songs along to an artfully-played guitar and howled at the moon. We really howled. The crickets and peepers took us home on a walk through more moonlight hay fields. Anticipation for the next morning of work on the farm sank deep into me. A thunder storm barreled through the valley around 3 in the morning. Noah claims that he hardly slept that night.
We woke up early to harvest chard, beats, and turnips. My hands were coated in a layer of dirt. I loved my dirty hands. It was an enormous harvest. The food was cut for the Farm's 300+ CSA members. They'd be happy. At the end of the day we cut thousands of garlic scapes. I think I still smell like Garlic.
I'm still struck by the whole-farm meeting that was organized on Tuesday. We talked about stellar movements. This was the first full moon solstice since '67. Fortuitous, Noah and I joked. It's called a strawberry moon. It was rising in Capricorn (at least I think that's what they said). There was an incredible consciousness for the cycle of life. Someone mentioned that the Earth was in the process of switching from exhaling to inhaling. I fell into a stellar calendar. Then we got back to work.
There's always more to do on the farm. But at the end of the day we were off to see the remaining members of the Greatful Dead play with John Mayer at Saratoga Springs Performing Arts Center.
Long day gets longer. Extends into weed-infused, boozy, tuesday-night dream. Surrounded by some 80,000 heads bobbing. Head throbbing... in a good way. Lawn seats that we fought for so that we could see the stage. Consistent dance. Lost in the moment of some ridiculous guitar solo and the vague association with John Mayer's face on a super-sized screen. The thousands of people dressed in tie-dye. A sensation of collective will. We all wanted to get lost. And when the drummers took their solo we all faded into some primal part of our being. Yaaaz. In the middle of it. Square in the middle. Electricity that drew from the essence of life itself-- a free-form performance with precision and beauty. How can we wonder about the methods of production? Where does the beat come from? At the beginning of the show Bob Weir encouraged us all to register to vote so we could "really change something." Hard to be that "found" listening to the Dead.
I wasn't that drunk, but I'm surprised I was able to wake up at 5:30 the next morning to harvest basil.
Last workday on the farm, Wednesday, and I made the most of it. A CSA volunteer arrived at 8:30 and helped us harvest basically all of the basil in one of the larger beds that Noah and Co had planted. I interviewed him while we bunched the basil with rubber bands and got high on basil smell. I mean, not really high, but that stuff smells incredible.
The end of the day and I interviewed another friend, Camille, about her dreams to become a brewer. We walked through the hay fields in late afternoon, what some would probably call evening, and talked about the intersectionality of beer brewing culture with gender, economic development, and sustainability. She mentioned that beer might be responsible for the origins of society itself.
Noah and I went out for Mexican food in a nearby town and talked about the future of the summer over margaritas. Good food. But not from the bunkhaus kitchen.
When we arrived home we continued drinking. I had sent a package to Noah's house via Best Buy that preoccupied me for nearly an hour. A professional recording mic. Recorded our conversations at the Bunkhaus kitchen table and looking forward to sharing some of the conversation on our deepest darkest secrets.
It's here that I was completely lost in sensation. A togetherness. Not going to say I'm a fanatic now but Biodynamic farming, Rudolph Steiner and the Waldorf school got to me.
In the morning I slept through my alarm and was unable to say a proper goodbye to the folks who made my time on the farm so special. [Thinking of y'all now with fondness. Thanks again!]
Hit the road and biked through the Hudson Valley listening to some haunting podcasts. Think it was a "Radiolab" episode that nearly had me crying on the side of the road as I stared over at the Catskills to the West. Not particularly sure why, but was especially touched by this episode about a premature baby born at 23 weeks and 6 days (also name of the episode). Reminded me of my little brother that was born pre-mature. Thinking of how my family has taken care of me and enabled this and many other journeys of mine. Hearts... and cheese (because I have to bring that back).
I arrived in Beacon and had an hour-long conversation with a local artist, Rick Rogers. We met at his studio and talked about the premonitions he had for the future, the beast that technology can be -- positively and negatively-- and climate change. At the end of our talk he gave me the best tip on camping spots outside of the city.
I camped yesterday underneath the loveliness of a colorful sunset on the river. Oh how lovely. Yes. How lovely. I want to make Beacon my home someday.
Drinking coffee at the Foundry Cafe for the past 4 hours and writing this post. Biking to Nyack today to meet up with Ben. Reunion will be sweet.
[Happy [late] Fourth!] days 14-26: "West. We're going West. And tomorrow we're going West... And then we'll go West some more."
July 6, 2016
days three and four: Dover and Durham, NH
June 14, 2016
Alex Freid: On Building the Post-Landfill Action Network