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I once knew a man who owned a farm. The farm was a small one, smaller than it had been when his great grandfather had tilled it long before. Like so many family farms the rise of huge conglomerates and grocery stores it had shrunk to far less than it had once been. The original farmhouse with its wrap around porch was still there as was the original huge barn. The farmer still pitched hay from the loft and kept the animals in pens and stables inside.
He had grown up on the farm and all his best memories were tied into the house, the barn, and the land. He was an older gentleman and his childhood stories spoke of a different time. He worked hard on the farm, as did his brother and sister. They were up with the sun seeing to the animals before they went to school and had chores when they came home. He and his brother would bring in the cows and milk them and feed them while their little sister took care of the chickens and gathered eggs. They would all gather for dinner, which was always a well appreciated affair with their mother's fresh baked bread and vegetables from the garden. And there were always pies. Delicious, hot apple pies made with apples from the orchard, fresh picked in the fall and stored in the cold barn over the winter.
On Sundays there was no work. They went to church in the morning, he and his brother dressed in their hated Sunday clothes that were sometimes hot and always uncomfortable. During the service their minds would wander to whatever plans they had made for that afternoon while they lay in bed in the darkness before sleep. They always had a plan, a mission to wander far afield and explore the meadows and woods and streams that grew and flowed on their land and beyond. Every Sunday was an adventure waiting to be enjoyed. As soon as they got home from church they would tear off the hated Sunday attire happily and with relish, careful to take the time to hand them in the closet neatly lest their mother call them back and make them do it again. They would wait for their little sister to be ready, grab something to eat from the kitchen, and head out for the rest of the day. Their mother would always say the same thing as she stood in the doorway on the porch and watched them gleefully depart. “Be back before dinner and take care of your sister,” both of which they always obeyed because hunger would drive them home and big brothers always took care of their little sisters. They only left her behind when she was sick or the air was too cold or the snow too deep for her shorter legs. Sometimes, in the winter, they would put on their snowshoes, bundle her into a little sled, and pull her behind them like a little Catherine the Great, warm and comfy with one of the dogs snuggled beside her.
In the summer they would sometimes go to the creek at the edge of the farm where they would splash in the water catching salamanders to show her and worms to make her squeal and bury her face in the fragrant grass and wildflowers. When she got older she would wade into the creek along with them searching among the rocks for salamanders herself and chasing the dragonflies as they skipped over the water. Then they would climb the hill to the meadow where they could lie in the tall grass and see the farm and the valley spread out below them. In the autumn they would catalog the changing of colors of the trees, the gradual morphing of green to gold and orange and yellow and brilliant red. They each had a favorite tree, one that they had chosen as their own and they each thought that their tree was the most brilliant and beautiful of them all. They would take out their knives and cut slender branches to make walking sticks or simple bows with twine and feathers they found on their hikes. In the winter they would follow animal tracks and learned to recognize them all. Sometimes they would find a deer or a moose or a rabbit at the end of them and feel proud of their tracking skills. They would search for imaginary treasure and collect pretty rocks and stones for their mother's garden. They never were disappointed and never came home without something wonderful to show their admiring parents.
They had no watches, no cell phones to tell them the time but they learned to recognize the position of the sun and the subtle changes in light that signaled when it was time to head home. On the way back to the farm they would stop in the pasture to joyfully collect the big Belgian work horses with their fringed hooves as big as dinner plates and their soft warm noses. They would lead their gentle, giant friends into the barn and feed and water them for the night before they headed into the house where a warm light and wonderful smells emanated from their mother's kitchen.
I stood with him one day on the porch of the farmhouse where he was born and looked out over the fields beyond. His children had left the farm and had no desire to work it. It was too hard with too little material rewards. He was sad and wondered what would become of it when he was gone. I told him that it was a beautiful farm. He gazed into the distance and told me that it was more than a farm, it was life, and for him it was. A good one.
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