by Lisa W. Roesing of South Russell, OH
The crowd had begun to converge. Farmers, naturalists, earth lovers, and tree huggers, made their way to The Common, the center hub of the Common Ground Fair. The grounds are set up like a wheel. Each spoke of the wheel consisting of different vendors and each ring hosted different activities and events such as the children’s activities, folk arts, livestock, food stuffs, and many exhibitors.
Demonstrations range from sheep and dog demos to compost and recycling. There are stone workers, fleece and fiber; shearing, washing, carding, spinning and knitting. You can see and learn about poultry, planting, solar energy and driving a team of mules. However, the most overwhelming, amazing thing to me about the Common Ground Fair is that it is all organic and 90% made in Maine. The fair is presented by Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, MOFGA. I felt like I was walking around in a wonderful dream. This, this place, these people, this state of mind is what I believe the future is all about. It drew me, sucked me right in, I felt at home, happy. I felt like, this is me, right here in Unity, Maine. I missed Abbie, my daughter back in Ohio. I wanted her here, to see this, to feel what I was feeling. The peace of the place, the joy and freedom was all around me as I literally walked in my father’s footsteps to the nearest bench to listen to Lynn Miller of the Small Farms Conservancy speak.
I had met Lynn the day before. I had walked by his booth many times for a glimpse of him, but, no Lynn. The back and current issues of the Small Farmers Journal (SFJ) were stacked on tables. His books on horse drawn equipment and training the work horse were piled high, but still, no Lynn. Darcy, my stepmom, and I decided it was time to do some shopping as Pa went to check out the Energy and Shelter Participant’s Area. We didn’t have to walk long to get our shopping done as I spied exactly what I wanted within a few booths of where we were. A small black rock with a spiral of silver in the center, hanging from silver chain, screamed out to me from the artisan’s booth. It is me and I’ve worn it almost every day since. The necklace being just one of my purchases, I justified spending more money by starting my Christmas shopping and buying gifts to bring back to Ohio.
Heading back to meet up with Pa, Darcy asked if we should make our way past the SFJ tent once again and I replied sure… a little dejectedly. I thought for sure I wouldn’t get a chance to meet this man. As we rounded the corner I was surprised to see him sitting there in the corner gobbling down an oversized sticky bun. I was nervous that I wouldn’t recognize him, but, unquestionably there he sat. I didn’t want to disturb him, but Darcy gave me a little push and I stepped into the tent and softly said “Hi, Lynn.” He jumped from his seat and proceeded to pull his handkerchief from his pocket and began to clean his hands of the sticky confection. I stood with my hand out, shaking slightly from anticipation and then instead of shaking my hand, he took it in his, bent and gave it a kiss. His whiskers tickled my wrist and the rim of his fedora tapped my upper arm. There probably isn’t another man in the world that I could name right now that could pull that off. I looked into his twinkling eyes and he put me instantly at ease. I told him that I had written several essays that he had published in his magazine and wanted to thank him and meet him in person. Darcy said hello and we were introduced to his wife, Kristi. Lynn recognized Darcy from the draft horse show the year prior. She and Pa coordinate the show as members of the Farmers Draft Horse, Mule and Pony Club (FDHMPC). He, Darcy and Kristi reminisced about the year prior when they had to leave the contents of the booth behind. Pa and Darcy had mailed it to them in Sisters, Oregon. I remembered Pa and Darcy telling me about this incident last year and that is when I swore I would attend Common Ground Fair to meet Lynn Miller and here I was! As we parted he handed me a small booklet entitled, Small Farms Conservancy 2009.
He said, “Perhaps this will give you something to write about.” I started rolling the booklet into a tube, my nervousness returning. We talked a bit about the draft horse show the next day. The club had asked him to judge, but he was previously committed to lecture at that time. We said goodbye and left his booth. I walked aimlessly for a while, Darcy following along probably wondering what the heck was wrong with me. We eventually caught up with Pa at the stone workers exhibit. I showed him the booklet, which was slightly sticky and a little misshapen. I was nearly giddy when I told him about meeting Lynn and jokingly told Pa that I was never going to wash my hand again.
We meandered around, eating, learning and laughing a lot. It was a day to enjoy the fair, for tomorrow it would be time to do our part in educating the public about Draft Horses. The sun was hot, yet the air was cool, perfect weather for a fair. We stood at the edge of the Agricultural Demonstrations where members and non-members of the draft horse club were demonstrating plowing and harrowing. I recognized Steve and Rebecca Akeley with their Fjords and Bob Crichton the Mule Man. Sounds of bluegrass bands, the movement and the murmur of people excitedly discussing different events and things they had learned, happily energized the air. There was no fighting, bickering, angst or impatience that one might find in a group of people this large. Some of the food lines were long and there were a lot of hungry people, me being one of them. My serenity gets a little challenged when I’m hungry (a little too hungry) and need to wait in a long line. But, just as I found myself about to complain, the unforgettable smell of Sweet Annie wafted by easing my hunger pang. The herb, Sweet Annie was everywhere. Huge bunches stuffed in back packs, tied in wreaths and some fair goers even wore it on their heads. Its scent filled the air around me, such a perfect, gentle reminder to keep the peace.
Sunday morning came in wet and cold. We bundled up and left the hotel in Bangor to start our trek to Unity and prepare for the Draft Horse Show. My brother, Jeff, his wife, Colleen, and their baby daughter Ellie showed up before us, ready to judge. Jeff looked smashing in his khaki pants, fleece vest, Pa’s yellow rain slicker and black flat wool cap. Colleen was feeding Ellie and preparing to hit the fiber tents and hook up with some old friends. Darcy, as acting secretary for the Club, was preparing entries and getting the show set up and underway. Pa was working with Gordon Curtis, a past president of the club and very active member, with items that needed to be unloaded from his trailer for the obstacle courses. We awaited horses to show up and entries to be brought in. I stood back and let them do their thing.
I watched and took in all that was going on. These are moments that I want to capture and hold tight to, when my family is joyfully working together to educate the public about working with draft horses. I don’t necessarily miss the showing part, the ribbons and the competition. I miss the time together around the gentle beasts and inquiring public. In the past I’ve called Pa or Jeff on rainy fall days here in Ohio and heard the unmistakable sounds of trace chains clanging against the wiffle trees. Or, I’ll hear a teamster calling to his team. “Team!” the teamster would mutter firmly and I can see the muscles ripple in the rumps of a pair of Belgians as they prepared to pull the scoot through the obstacle course. I can smell the fresh cut five foot logs that had been cut the day before and placed on the scoot. The sound of the horse’s hooves sucking in the wet footing and the smooth, loud hiss of the sleds gliding over the fresh earth can almost be heard over the heavy breathing of the person on the other end of the phone line. My brother or Pa would interrupt my vision with something like, Lisa I got to go I’m at Waterford Fair in the middle of the Scooting competition and I can’t hold the phone and help too. Whenever I have one of these phone calls I want to be there. I want to magically teleport myself to that Maine fair. I want to smell the horses, hear the sound of my brother telling his team to “Gee Ovah” as he shifts his baby from one arm to the other. I want to watch my Pa pace out the course with his long sure strides. I want to hear the creak of the collar and the tightening of the chains as the single horse pushes into the harness after being hitched to a twelve foot log for the twitching contest.
Here I was, finally at a fair with my family, none of us competing only supporting FDHMPC. All I could do was stand and watch, they had it all handled. Where was my place, what was I to do? Slowly we started to see trailers pull in. Kris and Darcy Fraser and their family, Pete Stratton and Kathy Simmons showed up as well as Bruce Pierce and Steve Akeley. All of which are members of the club with exception to the few non-members Tracey Wilkerson and David Stevens. With the entries all in, the first class was called just a few minutes after 9:30 am. Junior showmanship and adult showmanship classes were first. Then the halter classes were next, which I missed for some reason, must have left to grab some breakfast. I made it back in time to see the show interrupted by Bob Crichton (a long time member of the club) and a team of eight mules, hitched to a forecart. He had been plowing the day prior with Don Nickerson and his team of blacks. The ride and draft classes followed and were judged by Colleen as Jeff was at a bit of a loss. I was proud of my brother and his wife, to see them using their expertise and being respected by their peers. It was really amazing to me to watch just how confident, yet considerate in their judging they both were.
After lunch Jeff, Pa and Gordon set up the obstacle course for the hitch classes; cart, wagon obstacle, pair scooting and single twitch. The fine rain kept the crowd away from the fair. The day before there was record numbers of over 25,800 people. But, not much of a crowd on this day, they must have all came the day prior. The show went on. We had just begun the hitch classes when Darcy said, “Isn’t it about time for Lynn Miller to start his lecture?”
To which both Pa and I answered in unison, “Yes”.
“Well, don’t you want to go listen to it?” She replied.
“Yes,” we both answered again together.
“Go on then, I can handle the show for a bit” as she bent her head over schedule and took the microphone from Pa.
“Really?” I asked. She didn’t need to tell us twice, but what a responsibility she just took on to give us such a gift!
“Yes, go!” she ordered. We went.
Like I said a small crowd had begun to converge and I was following Pa at a quick pace across The Common. I knew he had his eye on a bench and I was barely keeping up, when he turned his head and said “I’m headed for that bench, I have to sit my feet are killing me.” I just nodded and hoped that I got there in time to share the bench with him. The rain had slowed and nearly stopped as Pa slid his body down on a wet bench just ahead of another listener. I had missed out on a seat next to him and chose to stand behind Pa. I had heard Lynn speak once before at Horse Progress Days in Mt. Hope, Ohio and Pa had subscribed to his over-sized, brown covered magazine for as long as I can remember. Needless to say, we were both very excited. He didn’t disappoint.
He described what it was to be a small farmer. It doesn’t take much. He talked about the conservation of land and farms. He had a musician and actors to prove his points. At this time I can’t even recall what those points were, but I do remember this. Besides telling us that he believed the Small Farmer will save the world, he told us about his dream. I heard a bit about it at Horse Progress Days, but then he was dreaming. Now he had taken action towards his dream and established the Small Farms Conservancy with Larry W. Brewer. He discussed the proposed programs for the Conservancy, including, but not limited to; information services, farmland preservation, farms in trust, enhancement of local marketing, an agrarian think-tank, small farm awards and fellowships, micro-loan programs, farm and farm family insurance, retirement program, apprenticeship clearinghouse, education advocacy, farm caretaking services, farmer’s legal assistance, estate planning, legacy programs, cultural outreach and education. Phew, ok… I didn’t remember all that, I had to pull that off of the sticky booklet that he gave me. What I do remember is the vision that he painted. It went something like this. Picture a 100 acre farm and on this farm lives a farmer and his wife. They need insurance, retirement, they are older and don’t want to see what they have worked so hard for go up for sale to a developer, ultimately destroying their dream. With the Small Farm Conservancy they can have insurance, a retirement fund and someone to assist them in planning to keep their dream alive after they are gone. Just suppose in one corner of their farm they build an assisted living home dedicated to retired farmers. The retirees can look out their windows and see a working farm. If the farmer had an animal that needed assistance and couldn’t figure out what to do, he could march himself right down to the assisted living home and ask any number of retired farmers. Imagine if in another corner with the Conservancy they built a school that held farm workshops and programs geared toward farming. The farmer’s child or even a member of his community could attend classes there. These attendees/apprentices may eventually be caretakers of this couples farm. Then envision in the third corner a graveyard. What farmer’s wouldn’t want to be laid to rest on their farm, eternally overlooking at what he or she created. I think there was something in the fourth corner, perhaps it was the farm itself, but neither Pa or I can remember.
At this point of the lecture some listeners had knelt down into the damp grass. Some were sitting, some were actually lying down. I decided to schooch down next to Pa and rested an arm against his knee for balance. While Lynn continued with his lecture I was seeing our family farm, High View Farm, my Grandfather’s farm, my Pa’s farm, my farm. My knees were beginning to throb and my backside had begun to get wet from resting on the heels of my shoes. I stood, Pa sat in front of me methodically nodding his head in agreement with Lynn. I almost reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder to show support… to be supported? But, I refrained, why? I’m not sure. I know he struggles with what the family farm will become after he is gone. We’ve all told him not to worry, but I know he does. I’ve thought in the past that no matter what happens to the farm it will always be in my heart; it is a part of who I am. Could I sit by and watch it fall into a developers hands? What’s a Farmer’s Daughter to do? I fall into the same quandary as Pa.
When Lynn’s talk finished, we walked sullenly across the fairgrounds towards the show ring, each digesting the lecture. The scooting and twitching classes were underway. We thanked Darcy and Pa pitched right in to help. Again, I felt there wasn’t anything for me to do but watch. I went for a walk around through the fiber tents once more, contemplating what I had just heard and who I had heard it with. I made it back to the show ring in time to help pick up and load the car. With the car freighted, we made one last round. We stopped at the office to drop off the left over ribbons and such, we made our way through the Exhibition Hall and past the Volunteers Common Kitchen. Making our way back to the car, we devised a plan and filled in Jeff and Colleen on our idea to stop in Bangor for supper. The day done, the show over and the fair closing until next year, we slowly made our way out of Unity, Maine.
The Common Ground Fair and Lynn Miller have left me to ponder a few things. They both represent so much that I believe in and want to achieve in my life. I’ve begun to question what the future holds for High View Farm. I wonder where and how I’ll fit into that future and I know it’s getting closer and closer! The pull to get back on the farm is almost overwhelming. When I’m there visiting I don’t have to try so hard to hold onto who and what I am. I just am! Sitting here in my house in northeast Ohio at my computer, I poke away at the keyboard. It keeps me sane and happy, conjuring up memories of family, Maine and a way of life that I miss and love. Don’t get me wrong about the life I lead here in Ohio though. I do love and appreciate my life as a stay-at-home mom, wife and writer and this was also a dream of mine. The pull is getting stronger though, the distance is too great. It’s as if my soul is hooked to a chain that extends all the way to Maine and every few days someone there gives it a little tug. I know it’s time to turn my want-to’s into will-do’s. Just like Lynn did with his Conservancy. I want to support the farm, nurture it, walk the fields and woods, and assist my Pa and Darcy in their dreams of keeping it a working sustainable farm.
I’ve dreamed for so long about moving back and now it’s so close I can taste it, I can feel it, my body aches with a desire for all that is High View Farm. My hands crave the feel of a set of single reins. The smooth, leather slipping through my gloves, Pa speaks to the horse in his quiet gentle voice, “Whoa there, Red.” I watch and learn as Pa wraps the heavy chain twice around the fresh cut pine and places the cold, rusty colored hook over a link. I can feel it. My lungs long for the sharp cold air. I inhale. The snow settles under my snow shoe clad feet as I help assist Pa in collecting the sap. The woods silently welcoming me home. I exhale. It won’t be long. My eyes yearn to see my Gram, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, my family coming towards me. Arms open wide. Anticipating the hug, the feeling of being held and holding a loved one close. All is well. My feet ache to push deep into the fertile dark soil of the garden that has been lovingly tended by generations of Winslow’s. Darcy and I in the hot summer sun fill our buckets with strawberries to be used in ice cream, short cake, jam, and even some to be sold at the farmers market. Abbie and I walk the old logging trails, where only family, friends and horses have tread. I’m almost there. My tongue hungers for farm and sustainably grown beef, eggs, lamb, butter, milk, and vegetables. I swirl the heavy cream into my coffee and add a dollop of syrup. Syrup, that I sat and watched boiling with a big heavy book in my hands. It will be soon now. My nose has an itch to smell the pine trees, the horses and the dairy. The fresh mown field and hay drying in the sun waiting to be raked into windrows. The memory of Sweet Annie wafting by as I walk in my father’s footsteps and my soul is instantly grounded, my serenity restored. I’m ready, I’m coming home.