Existential Farming

September 24, 2018
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This Thursday I took my kids back to the little waterfall on the edge of our property. The walk was only about half a mile, but to make it more of an adventure we blazed a trail through a field of goldenrod and down a steep, wooded bank before following a deer path that ran parallel to the creek. Despite the short distance it took almost an hour, and not because of the rough terrain or the pace set by two-year-old Ellis. The real impediment was the ongoing treasure hunt. Its incredible success was mostly due to notably low standards - if you’re looking for moss, leaves, sticks, and pebbles, and you’re in the woods, fortune will be on your side. But as I pocketed a dozen tiny hemlock cones that my Arden was exhorting me to keep safe I spotted an incongruous flash from the mud at the bottom of a seep.

Dug out and cleaned up it proved to be an intact bottle of pale blue glass, the embossed face of which read “John Kuhlmann Beverage Co. Ellenville, N.Y.” That evening I put in twenty minutes of google sleuthing but turned up only the scantest information. The business operated as a brewery for about sixty years, at which point prohibition seems to have derailed though not destroyed it. Maybe it became an ice house or a producer of near beer or other drinks, but it wasn’t until the mid thirties that it went under completely.

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Perhaps if I had the time to go research in the Ulster County historical archives I would learn more, but it’s unlikely there would be enough to get any real sense of the business and its place in the community or of the people who worked there. And yet not too long ago it was something that generations of a family staked its name and livelihood to, that had a good number of employees, and that (assuming the beer was tasty) brought pleasure to a considerable swath of upstate New York.

The collapse into oblivion of a business that persisted for so long is a corrective to my burgeoning habit of dwelling on my farm’s future. It’s easy to be perpetually looking one, five, or even ten years down the road, a state of affairs that means even if I reach a goal I’ve set it’s already been supplanted by another. Of course there’s wisdom in trying to take a long view, especially when working within the constraints of a biological system, but focusing on what life might be in the future to the preclusion of what it actually looks like on this particular day distracts from - I say this after some deliberation - one of the few deeply worthwhile things available to any of us.

Recent rains had replenished the stream. Where it tumbled down across shelves of slate it lacquered them a glossy charcoal, and jewelweed and ferns were anchored in cracks so small it appeared the lush growth sprang straight from the rock. The kids clambered up as high as they could, splashing through the current and cupping their hands to catch the falling water. Later we waded in the pool at the base of the falls and flipped over rocks. When I caught a small crayfish with rose colored claws and dropped it onto Arden’s palm the joy I saw in her face kindled the same in me, and we shared the wonder I had felt at her age upon encountering the strange and awesome variety of squirming, crawling things.

The best way I can describe the day’s perfection is to say that the time could not have been spent better. There’s a temptation to cast it in terms of utility - that climbing will foster a sense of autonomy in my kids, or that by giving them an experience of the natural world I increase the likelihood that they will in turn pass it on to their children - but such instrumentalizing diminishes it. What made the day perfect, what made it right, was the irreducible wholeness of each moment spent together, apart from how they might or might not impact some future. The good was in the living.

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I don’t get to be in such a state perpetually, and I do so less with work than with family or friends. But I still think it’s a worthy goal, especially given the uncertainties of farming and business. A lab grown meat craze could sweep the nation. Some other company with slicker marketing (I know, it’s hard to imagine) could capture our customers. Finding things to appreciate about the farm as it currently exists should not be an afterthought. I am blessed to do work I consider meaningful, so it would be a minor tragedy to not live meaningfully while working.

But there’s a deeper sadness joined to this beauty. Eighty years is a good lifespan for a human and sixty is exceptional for a business. Children live with parents for perhaps two decades, and the window in which they will consider a short hike up a small stream an adventure beyond imagining is far briefer, perhaps a quarter of that time. The handful of those days that everything comes together for an extended, glorious idle could perhaps fill a month, and that would be lucky. And no matter the amount of presence and gratitude brought to a perfect autumn afternoon it will nevertheless slip into the past.

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