Raven Flight Part 1: Walking Towards a Beginning
by Anna Maunz of PA
We rode up the hill in stunned silence. The 45-degree angle arched upwards in front of us. “We really need to start looking at topography maps”, I said to Chris – my partner of now 5 years. Stretched out in front of us was a gravel road flanked by pines, spotted with birches and oaks, even a few sugar maples. We were just coming to the end of a four-hour trip from Pennsylvania – where we had left our 15-month-old son in the care of my loving (and retired) parents. The night before, after Chris had returned from work at a 10-acre greenhouse in Maryland – we had driven the 3 hours to Pennsylvania. We were seven hours into our journey northward; one of the shorter jaunts out of many in our epic search for farm and home.
We had been searching for the last three years. Chris grew up on his families’ farm in South Central, Pennsylvania. After he roped me into leaving New York City, moving onto the family farm and re-doing an old farmhouse that had been left on the land unattended for years- we both had assumed that it would be our last move for a long while. The reality of family politics and business- after deep hurts and three years of trying to remedy them- proved to be too large of a burden to bear. One night after loud arguing and a very pregnant belly we came to the realization that we could not make his family farm our home while upholding the agricultural and familial values we had grown to believe in. We had been unable to set roots down in Gettysburg. The friends whom Chris loved had moved into the cities – or were pursuing their own lives of bachelorhood in the small town. And we found ourselves on a mountaintop with no friends, a family about to begin, and an explosive extended family life. We had a dream to start our own business and we were ready to begin it.
We made the decision. I gave birth. Chris took a job in Maryland. We moved south- into a tiny cottage by a river. We committed to ourselves that this would be our “jump year”- our year to figure out our lives, find some land, plan a business and get it going.
We moved in April of 2012. In April of 2013 we were still in our cottage by the river. We had explored multiple paths but none had come through. There was always an issue. The land was either affordable and in a location that was completely undesirable, or the landowner wanted to be involved in the business planning, or the landholder thought it would be sweet to have farmers- but had not thought through ANY of the logistics. I had spent hours on telephone calls, many hours more on emails back and forth trying to figure out if we could find a match. A person who wanted their land farmed, had a place for us to live (or was willing to have a place established), had land that was farmable, had access to water and storage, and was in a location that we thought had potential for finding good community.
Everyone wanted us. We were young and didn’t have much going against us (besides financing) that made us undesirable to people with land. Chris had his horticulture degree from Penn State, and came from a background of farming. I had worked hard in every job I’d had, apprenticed on farms, and had run a successful vegetable CSA with my sister the year before. We were young with a lot of energy and if that didn’t interest you- we had a cute baby to boot. Two families brought us up to New England (all expenses paid) to look at their land, and stay on their farms to see if they could be a good fit. We were jumping up to New Hampshire, New York, and Massachusetts almost every other month.
None of the places were right. We were (are) trying to start an organic edible nursery- a dream that takes a certain amount of infrastructure, and start up capitol. It felt like every piece of land we came across would be perfect for vegetables. Vegetables- we were both so tired of growing vegetables. Yet the longer our search stretched on the more we began to wonder. The questioning began, and so did the doubt. Every opportunity had fallen through. Chris was still working a job where he was under stimulated and underpaid. And I – by the day- was beginning to feel more and more like I had walked directly out of an interview in Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique”. I loved my son- but being a full time stay at home mother was not only something I wasn’t sure I believed in- but it also wasn’t something I wanted. I was committed to being at home with him, but I wanted to be able to integrate our lives so that I was still able to make a contribution to society outside of motherhood. All in all: I wanted to be farming. And another year of searching and wandering around the East Coast felt like an unbearable feat to be facing. We were both feeling depressed and downtrodden. We were at the end of our ‘creative thinking’ escapade. We felt defeated.
I had been receiving emails from New England Land Link: an online service that attempts to link Land Owners with farmers in New England. They felt like our life – line to a dream; a database of possibilities- almost entirely explored. Warren Hubley, the director, felt like our dearest friend in the search. “We have another email from Warren,” I would say to Chris day after day. Always thinking: hope around the next bend.
Mid April – a few days after our exact one-year mark, a listing came up. It was a pick your own blueberry farm in Western Massachusetts, and exactly 5 times out of our price range. I offhandedly showed Chris the listing and watched as the look on his face changed from skepticism to excitement. “This is it,” he said. “Let’s see when I can get off work to go visit”. I thought he was entirely crazy and was thankful for any excuse to escape our muggy little home. We emailed the landowner and she was willing to show the property to us two days later.
“Well we’ve come this far,” Chris said ignoring my eye rolls. “Let’s see what’s at the top”. We continued up the gravel hill in the car my parents had loaned us for the ride – to avoid putting more gas miles on our already aging vehicles. The silver Toyota Camry we were in felt entirely out of place. We were weaving through woods and trees, stonewalls, and then a blueberry field on our right – the picture of the house that we had seen online came into view. We pulled into the driveway – looked at each other and smiled. “Yup, this is it” Chris said. I traded out my flip-flops for Keenes, donned a puffy vest and we stepped out of the car onto the farm.
She was everything we had dreamed of and more: a bit of light at the tip of a small mountaintop. She was old farmland, good farmland; the one lasting piece of cleared land on this one lane road surrounded by wood and state forest. The stone walls were mystifying, the pond perfectly sized, the blueberries just beginning to hold promise of fruit.
We un-cramped our legs and stepped out of the car. The owner – who we had been in touch with only through email – was in the middle of the field. She came over to us tentatively – as though she had done this one too many times before. She was beautifully weathered, bright smiling eyes, and completely ageless. As we went to shake hands, she apologized for her lack of grip- she had cut her hand badly on a fence post the day before while disassembling the old goat fencing her last tenants had left there. Her name was Evelyn and she knew her farm. She was the first landowner that doubled as a farmer that Chris and I had come across in our search. We both liked her instantly.
The three of us took off walking the property lines. Up until this point the other properties we had been to see were ramshackle at best. So ramshackle that it was hard to believe – even with Chris’s amazing ability to learn new skills, and my ability to dream any house into home – of making these places livable.
This farm was different.
The land was 40 acres. Most of it in a conservation land-trust -which kept the taxes low and the chance for development nil. There was an acre and a half of blueberries with a well-established pick your own operation already in motion. The blueberries needed tending badly, but Chris grew up on an orchard and was confident he could turn them into a steady supply of fruit and income. Up until this point – no matter how much we dreamed – we couldn’t fathom how we were actually going to be able to make the jump from employed to selfemployed. “Blueberries,” Chris grinned. He was determined we could make this work.
There is one thing you must understand before I continue on. I am the risk taker, the one who takes a jump without thinking, the head in the clouds type. Chris is my balance: all things pragmatic. He was constantly weighing options as if he had a mathematical formula for life all worked out. Devoted to truth: he could sometimes take days to compose a verbal sentence, just to guarantee its rationality. He was so intentional it made my head spin. I literally had to ask him to kiss me for the first time. He was the slowest of slow movers. He was a farmer in every traditional sense of the word.
Evelyn waved us off. “Think about it,” she said, “You have a long ride home ahead of you, talk about it and get back to me.” We got into the Camry much later than we had expected. Chris – who hates long car rides – wanted to take the back roads home to get a better sense of the area. I was always game for back road driving. I hadn’t looked at a map since we left Maryland, and figured it wouldn’t take us that much longer.
We drove through beautiful mountainside and tiny town centers. It seemed that at every village there was a corner store, a little bookshop, and a coffee shop. We were tickled. Little kids on a sugar high. “We have to make this work,” Chris said. And I immediately agreed. It was perfect. Everything about it was perfect.
The buildings had good foundations and were completely livable: they suited us. A large looming barn with stalls for as many animals as we could ever possibly hope to want, an old farmhouse that was sturdy and rambling but could still use a bit of love, and a screened in porch that I could already taste us sitting on eating meals in the summers to come. But as the drive gave way so did the realities. I have mentioned that the property was 5 times out of our price range. How were we ever going to make this work? Evelyn wanted to sell and fast, but we didn’t have anything near to a down payment for that amount. We were perhaps in a worse place than where we started – we knew that what we wanted existed, and we knew intellectually that it was far outside the reaches of our reality.
Chris was convinced that he could make something work. The next few weeks were consumed exploring all options: FSA loans, farm credit, loans from family and friends. Chris was sure that we could make more on the blueberries than had ever been reported in the past (this was his industry, his passion)- but even with that as an income no matter how hard we tried we couldn’t get the numbers to add up. We finally approached Evelyn with the idea of renting to own. She had just exited a similar arrangement that had ended disastrously, and while she wasn’t jumping head over heels on the idea she was open to discussing it with us. Every day when Chris came home from work, we would settle down to reading and writing an email to Eve. It was a full month of correspondence. Finally we agreed that we would rent to own. Rent, which felt like an exorbitant amount – but that she needed to cover her mortgage on the place. Again, I felt completely baffled at the thought of us ever being able to do this.
In late May, Chris and I again traveled up to my parents, this time with the full intention of signing a lease once we arrived in Massachusetts. We weren’t sure how all of the pieces were going to fall into place – but it seemed like the best opportunity we had seen in a long time. We still couldn’t afford it. We were going in way over our heads. But it seemed like the only possibility we had.
On the way out the door I checked my cell phone. There was a text from Eve: We had a cash buyer offer. Call me.
She had sent the text to me the day before but we had been in transit – and I am terrible about keeping my cell phone on me, or checking it more regularly then every couple of days. I gave Evelyn a call. She was filled with apologies. The night before a young couple had offered her a payment in cash to buy the farm. Understandably, she couldn’t refuse. She kept us on the phone offering us other farms and options she had thought of in the area. We looked them up and then both stopped. We were exhausted. Devastated. Again.
Chris had taken the day off from work – he had given his job notice that he was leaving to move to Massachusetts. We were landed: at square one. We took the rest of the day together – walking around the small city where I grew up. How can you dream a dream for so long and still not be any closer to fruition? We laughed and became solemnly teary eyed. We were relieved to not be standing in a pile of debt that we couldn’t afford, and frustrated that we had finally found a place in this world that seemed like we could call it home- and it still be so out of reach.
It is at these points in life when my soul states very loud and clearly- that we need to go to the sea. Three weeks later we found ourselves by the ocean-side: breathing in salt air, watching our son learn to wade and play with the waves. He had no fear. Running straight into every one that crashed upon the sand. We gave ourselves a week, realizing it had been years since we had been to the beach for such a length of time. We usually had farmers markets or produce to care for, making a whole week completely unfeasible. It was such a gift. The fourth day of our vacation I had another text: Cash Buyers fell through. Lets talk, Eve
We had agreed to not even think about farm planning while away. We needed a true reprieve. I texted Evelyn back telling her so. We’ll get back to you when we return from vacation.
We had a wonderful rest of our time. The moment we returned to Maryland we were back in brainstorming mode.
We could not buy this property. Even though we were willing to take on debt, no bank – in this day in age – would loan us the money. We had no assets, no jobs in Massachusetts; it would be a terrible investment for them. Renting to own- the rent would have been 4 times the rent we were paying in Maryland, and Chris had a job there to pay it. Our savings would be completely depleted in 6 months. We were now in June. The blueberries were in full swing. We could no longer count on the crop to get us through the winter.
I went upstairs to take a shower. Hot water seems to do wonders for my brain. Standing there- I felt so sure we could make something work. I felt affirmed in our knowing that this was the right place. The only question left to answer was ‘how?’
Because it was a New England farm, there was the lovely attribute of the property having a walkthrough from the house to the barn. Over time, someone converted this walkthrough space into an art studio. It was a large studio, 1000 square feet, and there was a loft on the top. Chris and I had lived in a 9’X9’ cabin in Oregon for a season while I apprenticed on an Organic Vegetable Farm. 1000 square feet seemed positively doable. I raced downstairs to tell Chris my latest brainstorm. “What if we rent the main house out and live in the studio.” This arrangement would give us the land that we needed to see if the business we were dreaming of could work. We didn’t need a beautiful old farmhouse right now in life – we needed land – and a comfortable place to lay our heads at night. Now it was Chris’s turn to be skeptical. “Anna, I think that space was really small. We’d have to put in a kitchen and a bathroom, that would be a ton of work.” We mulled it over for all of one night – and contacted Evelyn with the idea – thinking that her chances of biting were zero to none. A few days later we were in the car on another trip north to Massachusetts.
We sat down in the farmhouse kitchen over a bowl of freshly picked sour cherries. Evelyn and her partner Dean were thinking about moving back to the farm. They could live in the main house, while Chris and I co-opted the art studio. There was a workshop and mudroom adjacent to the studio, which Eve was also offering us to rehabilitate into two bedrooms. It was the exact sized space we had been dreaming of for years. A big open room with kitchen, living area, and woodstove – with two bedrooms – a bit of privacy when one wanted. Our rent would be $850/month – only $150 more than what we had been paying in Maryland, and now we would have the space and the place to start our business. We all hugged and walked out into the driveway. Two ravens crossed the sky in parallel flight. “They’re welcoming you home,” Eve said turning to us. All Chris and I could do was hope that she was right.
We are lazy people he and I. Those who know us have no doubt that this is true. We could both sit for days on the same couch reading book after book, knitting, and listening to old time radio for hours on end. We are not shakers and movers. The only way either of us will ever live a life we deem worth living is if we place ourselves in a situation that forces us to. We want to farm. And now, here we are, in western Massachusetts, and the only option in front of us is figuring out a way to.
The first two weeks were mind-numbing exhaustion. We were both dumbfounded with ourselves; aghast at how we could have ever thought that this would be a good idea. My parents and Chris’s mom were with us, and even with all of their love and support, their hard work and good energy – we were both paralyzed by the feat we had just laid down in front of ourselves. There were so many unknowns to learn. We knew we had just opened the door to the very beginning of an eternal list of tasks and questions.
I have resigned myself to the fact that I may- regardless of denial – have a favorite author: Madeline L’Engle. Within our first week up at the farm, my dad sent a copy from his nightstand over to mine of her book, “And It Was Good; Reflections on Beginnings”. In this book she sits with the book of Genesis, meditating and sharing her thoughts all along the way. Not being an overly Biblical person, I usually shy away from books such as these. But Madeline has a way of writing and thinking that sits well with me. She never preaches; she shares her thoughts and in doing so shares herself. Her books feel like good conversations perfectly recorded. In chapter 7 she spends a great deal of time discussing the leaps of faith so many characters in the Bible faced. She put a name to all the emotions Chris and I had been feeling: “Terror anticus, it is called. It is part of the price of faith. The greater the jewel we seek, the higher the price. But it is worth it. It is worth it.”
I was thankful for a word to put on our emotions- thankful for the reassurance that there were others- the reminder of many others who have gone before us that understood these feelings of doubt and doom, and I prayed that Madeline was right.
The last two months have been completely encompassed with new knowledge: how to wire electricity, install used resourced windows, how to put a kitchen together from odds and ends found on Craigslist and from good people in the community, how to design a bathroom, plumbing, drilling through stone walls, digging 4’ ditches, finding a septic tank, reinforcing floors, insulating walls we thought were insulated, dry walling ceilings – we didn’t think needed drywalling, spackling, building window frames, door frames, kitchen sink, kitchen cabinets! The list could go on and on. Sitting here writing it, I am amazed at how much we have accomplished. None of which could have been at all possible without our little helper elves known to our son as: Grammy, Yaya, and Opa. All this work – it has been hard some days to remember the end dream. A few weeks ago I went to the local co-op to pick up some groceries (as we had to abandon our garden of surplus in Maryland), I ran out the door in my spackled covered overalls. A gentleman approached me as I was seeking out produce and asked if ‘I was a farmer?’ I had to take a step back: “Yes, well kind-of”. Right now we are construction workers, dreaming of the days ahead when we can sweat and toil over land rather than home.
Still, I have been amazed at the gifts redoing this space has given us. Already we have been introduced to faces and places that we would have been ignorant of for years if we hadn’t had this project to begin from day one. The people on this mountaintop have so suddenly and surely felt like home to us – in a way that no other place has ever felt. By necessity we have sorted out the best places for used kitchen and house ware, windows and doors. We have explored the area through hardware stores and Craigslist ads, Habitat resource outlets. We have a fabulous mechanic, the best hardware store we’ve ever been to is only 15 minutes away, we are familiar at the town center, and have been welcomed with open arms by everyone we have met. Suddenly there seems to be this immense potential for community in a place – that from the outside – one would think has none. We have kept to ourselves in the past; unable to find peers – outside of the ones’ we grew up with – to relate to, who understood our dreams and ideas. We never seemed to fit. The same man who approached me at the local co-op invited us over for dinner a few nights later. I have never felt so at home with a bunch of strangers. Never.
Where in my past lives I could never imagine taking comfort in the sound of a coyote’s call – as I now fall asleep in the darkest of dark rooms I find them surprisingly comforting. It is inconceivable how we can be so changed by our surroundings. They hold us up, mold us into exactly who we need to be. I find myself sitting in these hills, thinking of the things I have always wanted to be thinking of: the constellations, the way the air moves through the trees, the smell of fall, the possibility of swimming holes come next summer, the worries of winter snows. These same thoughts that feel frivolous or over-poetic in the city suddenly have a taste, a scent of potency that is touchable when you step out into the farm air. They become real; filled with the wonders and knowledge with which only true nature can gift us.
A year and a half ago I gave birth to a golden haired little boy. We named him Caleb. Chris and I knew nothing about babies. He was entirely new to us, a little ball of befuddlement. We spent the next months entirely overwhelmed; knowing very little about the stages of infancy, I expect our experience paralleled millions of other new parents internationally. New parenthood is a terrifyingly lonely experience. Birth was the hardest thing I had ever done, and the prize- well it was unbeatable. It has been only learning from that moment on. As we watch him grow, our only choice is to grow with him as parents and as people. Every day he brings us new joys, new obstacles, new gifts. I have no doubt there will always be challenges, but it seems that the most beautiful life changes can only come about after the hardest amount of work.
I have come to think of what we are doing now: this farm, this home, this project as Chris’s birth. It is ours, as Caleb was ours. And it is his, as Caleb was mine. Only one of us can bear this new life. As Chris was by my side every moment during my birth, I will be with him. We are in our eighth month now. This dream- this hope that has been nurtured and held in our thoughts for years is about to be born.
And as all who were once new parents will recall, there is always that frenzy of preparation before a birth. That anxious disbelief in the possibility that soon there will be new life here. The blissful ignorance, unable to fathom the sleepless nights ahead, unable to conceive of the ways our lives are about to change. Here, there is that tremor of excitement in the silence at the end of the day. That feeling that we are finally on the right path, have finally made the right choices. Now, we need just to begin. We will eke our way through these coming winter months, in the hope that come Spring, our dreams will have been planted in the dark warmth of the greenhouses’ soil, and as we water them, they will grow.