Greetings from the farm 3 – WWOOFing and life in rural America

When I first set my heart on WWOOFing nearly two years ago, my life was so busy and cluttered that I yearned for a quieter existence. I wanted to acquaint myself with the rhythm of the seasons and the way they touch our lives, not just in terms of weather (says the native San Franciscan who knows precisely 1.5 seasons) but also in terms of the entire life cycle, as expressed through planting to harvest and fallow each year. What I didn’t realize was that in the bargain I would also spend much time far away from the noise and clutter of city life, and deeply learn about a different way of life that is disappearing from the American landscape.

In the process, I’ve been privy to a brief glimpse into rural America and life on a family farm, where neighbors still offer a helping hand and family histories can be traced back decades, if not centuries. It is a way of life that is disappearing from the cultural landscape of this nation as residents leave small towns to pursue job opportunities, and family farms collapse under the weight of bankruptcy or the pressures of adapting to economies of scale.

Our hosts Carl and Lorna exemplify these contradictions. Situated on 250 acres of land inherited from Lorna’s parents, both have day jobs in nearby cities in order to support a life in the country. Their only daughter lives and works in a major metropolitan area with no plans to move back once her parents grow too old to manage the property. Lorna picks up supplies for an elderly neighbor when she’s in town, Carl does heavy gardening chores; in remote areas where residents are few and services fewer, you still find that sense of “neighbors as extended family to lend a helping hand” that is being squeezed out in the race towards modernity.

And while it is true that there has been a small trickle of residents moving in the opposite direction – ones leaving the overwhelming bustle for a quieter “country existence” – for the most part these are affluent city residents who desire a second home, or otherwise invest little energy in the communities around them. An entire tradition that binds us to the land, whether through growing food or utilizing wild plants for herbal remedies, is fading away. “What I don’t get is, these people come in and buy up property, yet they tell me that my house is an eyesore when they’re the ones who just moved in here. Does that make sense to you?” Although the property is rather eccentric (“We never had any money, but mom and dad were always adding on to the house”), the various nooks and half-level add-ons only add to the charm.

Despite this, Lorna and Carl love the land and their life here. Through the years they’ve had a steady stream of WWOOFers and SERVAS guests come stay for anywhere from a couple days to four years (Lorna informed me that was a special case). People come for all sorts of reasons, from all sorts of backgrounds. In many ways, our enthusiastic (if sporadic) extra sets of hands take on the role once filled by children and hired help: that extra manpower needed to keep the family afloat and operations running smoothly. In fact, the school year – with the 3 month vacation during summer – was initially designed to allow children to help out during the heaviest farm duty months. Thus with WWOOFing, I’ve found the double benefit of glimpsing a way of life while simultaneously helping to preserve it.

Armed with that realization, then, I want to make as great an impact as possible. I want to do everything I can to pay them back for the cost of feeding and housing me – whatever I can do to alleviate the stress on their bottom line, I will gladly do. And so in my time here, I’ve weeded and watered the garden, planted seeds and transplanted seedlings, picked blueberries and pie cherries, applied fertilizer, plucked and dried herbs. I’ve also watered flowers around the house, trimmed bamboo, washed an endless parade of dishes, stacked wood, and spent copious hours weeding and watering the “orphan hedge,” a hodgepodge of trees orphaned by previous owners or the local nursery, planted by Lorna and Carl in a long, dense “L” shape that wraps around their house.

I was more than happy to help out with the former because they all directly contribute to maintaining Lorna and Carl’s way of life, whether it is bringing in additional revenue (through berry sales), growing food for the table and the herbs to spice it. There was so much to learn each day, new techniques and methods for the budding gardener in me, and the satisfaction of a new bed of transplants or a cleared patch in the garden. I admit there were times when I was vaguely resistant to some of the seemingly random tasks assigned me, especially the latter list of chores that seemed a running list of miscellaneous chores. During one particularly hot morning spent bent over the orphan hedge the cynicism took over – were they just passing on the grunt work whenever they found a couple spare hands? Why was this darn clump of trees so darn important that I had to spend endless hours here?

And yet, as I stood there clipping dried flower heads at the table one day last week, I realized that every small bit that I contributed was a vote towards maintaining their way of life. Tedious as it may seem to clip and preserve hundreds of flower heads, Lorna uses them as Christmas presents. A simple gift that brings the beauty of brilliant white and purple flowers, inspires ties to the land, and helps alleviate the cost of maintaining a lifestyle in rural America. The orphan hedge will one day serve as a wall of privacy, as much a response to the disparaging “eye sore” remarks from a handful of neighbors as it reflects their philosophy for taking in living beings from all sorts of backgrounds, whether passing through or there to stay for an extended period of time.

After all, I had a wonderful time on their farm. The fresh air, beautiful scenery, long walks and moments of introspection. Most of all, I am grateful to Lorna and Carl for opening their home and the hearts to so many travelers through the years. They have been beyond generous. In return, I can only hope that any small contribution that these two hands can provide will help maintain this lifestyle they love so much.

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