Guest Column

Calloused and Content

M y father jokes that I spent tens of thousands of dollars on a university education in order to live like my grandmother during the Depression. Last summer, I hung my laundry on a clothesline and handwrote love letters by candlelight to my girlfriend with Judy Garland stamps. I canned tomato sauce and cleaned the chicken coop when it smelled worse than my secondhand flannel shirt, worn at the elbows. I rode my bicycle often and occasionally drove my old Chevrolet truck with no radio or rearview mirror. I washed in a pond, weather permitting, and hand washed the dishes. And for three weeks, I slept in a barn on four bales of hay with nothing but a pink sheet and a prayer that the mosquitoes would not be as awful as the suffocating heat. (They were.)

I graduated this past spring with a bachelor's degree and the Hood Achievement Prize, awarded to "that senior man who shows the greatest promise through character, scholarship, leadership, and usefulness to humanity." I asked a couple of philosophy professors what it meant to be useful to humanity. Like any good philosopher, they each admitted that all they knew was that they did not know. And so I spent a couple of weeks struggling with a vague clause and a restless mind. What does it mean to be "useful to humanity"? Moreover, how was I so very useful? Ultimately, I reckoned that to be useful to humanity I must live as an active participant of my neighborhood--working, eating, purchasing, volunteering, rallying, playing, even philosophizing locally. And so I arranged an apprenticeship with my friends Jay '06 and Melissa Malouin '05 at their recently formed CSA farm in North Hampton, N.H.

Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, establishes an intimate relationship between farmers and customers. Typically, members pay in advance so all share equally in the economic risk. Members visit the farm weekly to gather their share of the harvest, possibly volunteer, and hopefully cultivate camaraderie.

My agreement with Jay and Melissa included room, board and a small stipend in exchange for full-time summer work. For most of June the barn's second floor served as my bedroom. I did not shower. I did not call my worried mother. I did not adjust the hay bales when they became misshapen and ruined my back.

Jay and I worked many 10-hour days while Melissa labored for a landscaping company so she and Jay could afford their dream to own a piece of good earth as much as it owned them. We transplanted Fairy Tale eggplant in the dark with flies at our necks. We planted our field tomatoes three times. We incessantly reseeded broccoli, cabbage, arugula, kale, chard, zucchini, cucumbers, radishes, carrots, beets and spinach because of pests, diseases and rain of near biblical proportions. We lived on our hands and knees. In July, marble-sized hail left many of our plants as meager shadows of their former selves. For every plant that persevered, there was a plant that we lost.

Even so, I was never more content or fortunate. There is something providential and transformative about hard work, even if only for a summer. When friends wanted to know why I would choose a farmer's life, I recounted the following story. One June evening, Jay and I wielded Norwegian hoes deep and hard into compacted soil. After railing awhile, we decided that we would dedicate every fifth swing to something or someone worthwhile. Our parents. Biodiversity. Terry Tempest Williams. Used bookstores. Homemade bread. Justice. Thanksgiving. Wraparound porches. Sustainability. Public transportation. By nightfall, the work complete, our shirts drenched and our hands calloused, we leapt into the black pond, thankful and satisfied.

Why sleep in a barn? Why stoop and crouch and kneel to such an extent that every pair of my khakis split at the knee? Why work such long hours for so little money? Why swing a hoe at all these days?

Love. Plain and simple.

Love of nature, sunflower and Eastern hemlock, a cool pond that becomes colder the farther down you dive and pasture that rolls to the edge of the wood. Love of sunrise and those moments in the late afternoon when gold, practically a primary color, blankets the land. Love of fresh, sweet onions and Buttercup squash that stores all through a New England winter. Love of simplicity and serenity. Love of familiar trees and familiar stars. Love, essentially, of humanity and of creation.

Mark Joseph '06 majored in philosophy and English.

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