My North Country Memoir
It was a North Country day. The clouds, long and flat, sat low in the sky. It was almost five o’clock, and the sun had begun to set. The air was sharp; it felt clean. Taking a breath was like quenching thirst. We were far past the mid fall days where you could merge between inside and outside without adding or shedding layers, but today we left our jackets and hats at home. We wore sandals, thick flannels, and tough khaki pants. It was nice to feel the bite of cold air one last time before the snow fell. We didn’t have to wear socks, but we could’ve if we wanted to.
The North Country takes on a personality this time of year. She flaunts her colors and says, “look at me, listen to me, taste me, feel me, and bask in my aromas for I am here now, and in just a few weeks I’ll be gone to a desolate frost that will to some of you, feel like a lifetime.” The winter months are long. Not much grows, and everything seems sparse, hungry, and cold. The sky is grey and big. The leaves are gone, and the ground is covered by heavy snow. You sometimes see deer and other wildlife, but even they stay huddled in their thickets, only leaving to find food and water. Snow covered fields seem endless, and pine forests look thick, healthy, and green. Winter is the longest season. It is haunting and hollow, if you don’t know what to look for.
For a farmer, winter is a time to take a break from his fields. Implements are stored away in the barn, and are replaced by wide shovels, and a good axe. In the winter a farmer fills his day by shoveling snow and chopping wood. There are other things to be done, but the majority of the day is filled by these two monotonous tasks. Framers also know how to take care of their families. A true sign of a good farmer comes around February. At this time they know how well they’ve done by how much food they have left. Is the root cellar full? Are the shelves still stacked with canned goods? A good farmers life is recorded in surplus and dearth.
A good farmer knows how far off winter is. They can tell by the trees because old trees shed their leaves early in the fall and young trees lose them sometimes as late as mid November. For a farmer to know that winter looms close in the distance it is a matter of maturity. This knowledge is a like a natural deadline, the last of the fall’s tasks need be completed before the first frost.
Mike Corse, and Bill, from “Farmer Bill and Annie’s Farm,” are my farmers. The majority of my volunteered time has been with these men. They have lived in the North Country since before I was born. Bill has been farming for the better half of sixty years. Mike has only been farming for about five but he says, “I quit a good job, because this is what I wanted, this is what I knew was right.” When I look at these two farmers of the North Country, I can tell who has been at it longer. Bill is big and round, his overalls clip high on his chest, and his hat looks old and used. He has a high voice, glasses, crooked teeth, and the most sincere smile I have ever seen. He is the type of man who started farming because he felt it was all he could do in the world. Now, in his older age, he has realized that his awkward look and genuine smile have inspired young egocentric students like me to be like him.
Mike is much different than Bill. He is a good height, fit, and smiles like J.F.K. His forearms are as round as a butternut squash. Mike is younger than Bill. He has a wife, and two kids who are still in high school. He is as much of a dad as he is a farmer, hoping not only that his garlic makes it through the winter, but also that his son gets a full scholarship into college. When I go to Mike’s he welcomes us with a generous but quiet “hey guys, and Lizzie,” the cross-country star I volunteer with, in his signature black wool cap, and high rubber muck-boots. Mike and Bill both work slowly, but they work hard.
To them good farming is good preparation, and good preparation equals a plump and bountiful winter. If all I was to take away from this experience were good preparation skills, I would die a well-fed man. Mike and Bill are good men; they have healthy bodies, and well-fed families. They are humble and when complimented they reply with a quirky smile, or a quick head nod followed by a “thanks, I’m just doing my job” or “ this is my livin’ thanks.” Mike and Bill are there for people. They may not appear to be the most generous in conversation but they know what it is like to fail and be helped out. They are there to lend equipment, help, and meals. They have big tables in their homes. There is always extra room for one or two people to share a meal. A good meal is meant to be shared; it is a sign of accomplishment and of good work. A farmer that can eat well through a winter in the North Country is a good one.
Life in Northern New York takes patience. It is place where clouds loom thick and heavy during the day, then disappear at night revealing a clear deep sky. Rain sometimes falls for days, killing everything that hasn’t yet sprouted. Heat can invade and wilt everything from chard to raspberry patch. Living in the North Country is sometimes hard, frustrating, and the growing season is short. Winter can feel lonely and hollow. During the cold months, neighbors are always close. They are willing to help shovel driveways, chop wood, tend sugar shacks, milk cows, and let the dogs out. People enjoy staying busy. If there isn’t work of their own to be done, they are out helping someone else. The small farming community of Northern New York is rich, hearty, and wholesome. Each season is bountiful; the fall’s apples are crisp whites and pinks. Spring is warm, and wakes up like a quick nap. Winters are long and cold, but homes stay cozy because of their low ceilings and good wood stoves. Summer brings long days, late sunsets, and lots of vegetables! All though there are times when the work seems endless and life feels like the muck that sloshes around at the bottom of a vegetable cleaning bucket, it is rewarding, wholesome, and lovely. People who choose this life in the North Country can stand on their properties or with their families after a long day of work, look at the dirt filled scars on their hands and say, “We did this ourselves.”
It takes time to learn how to love this place. I love it because the North Country is one of the most beautiful parts of New York State. If you have never lived here, then you have never seen true simplicity. I don’t mean simplicity as a synonym for convenience. Life here requires time, energy, and patience. You have to be humble and learn to work with the land. Bill Mckibben says it best in his book of true stories about people living lightly on the earth, Hope, Human and Wild. “We need to learn to live in a way that both satisfies human desires, and pays attention to the limits the planet places on us” (51). The planet limits farming in the North Country. The growing season is short but people have found ways to live in harmony with planetary limitations by developing root cellars, building green houses, and canning a years worth of homegrown food. If you live here, you will learn very quickly that most tasks are done by hand, and practices are passed down from generation to generation. Life here means learning to use equipment like swedges, sausage fillers, and cider presses. Tradition is like good farmland; it gets richer as the years go on, but only if maintained. I learned tasks like doubling digging raised beds, properly stacking a winters worth of firewood, and pressing apple cider. I have the up most respect for farmers in the North Country, and because of their guidance I’m thinking about being a farmer and homesteader myself.
It only takes one person to press apple cider, but tonight it took three. The apples had been sitting in bags for almost two weeks and they were soft. Two weeks ago they were the best apples I’d ever eaten, but now they were rotten. Wes and I decided that Tuesday was the day we were going to finish pressing cider. He is the kind of guy who is always “on a mission!” When Wes decides he is going to do something he drops everything else in his agenda and completes his task. He is a simple guy from a remote Island off the coast of Maine. In some ways I think Wes works harder then all of us, but he always feels like he hasn’t worked hard enough. When most students get in their cars to drive home, Wes gently starts his 1986 Volvo wagon (he is the only person who knows how to start it), drives to a ferry and rides an hour to his island home. Wes has been working with Bob Washaw since his freshman year of college. Bob keeps Wes around because he knows how hard Wes works. When we got to Bob’s he was resting his forearms on the porch banister and watching the road as if he were waiting for us to arrive. He told us he was going to finish pressing his apples on Friday. We thought we had the last apples of the year, but ol’ Bob Washaw took that award home. It doesn’t matter when Bob gets his work done. Bob is similar to Wes in the sense that he works hard, but Bob often has more than one task going on at once. He is the kind of guy that puts a little time towards all of his tasks rather than finishing one at a time. The first thing Bob said to us was “O you guys need anything? Do you need any help?” Wes replied with a “No thanks, I think we got it, this is my friend Nick.” Bob smiled, said “Hey Nick, alright then, I’ll be in the house if you need anything.” I wanted Bob to stay, and teach me more about using old equipment, and tell me about his life in the North Country. Bob didn’t stay, but I quickly learned that Wes knew more about old equipment than I’d thought. After all, it was his press, and nobody knows how to use Wes’s things better than Wes. He bought the old press from an Amish man a few years ago. This press has made over three hundred and fifty gallons of apple cider. It takes about seventy-five apples to make a gallon. I am not a math man, but I do know that that’s a lot of apples! His press is old, it has character. The wood is grey like drift wood. It is cracking on the top beam where the press comes through. I don’t think she has another three hundred and fifty gallons in her, maybe fifty. We were being careful not to turn the press too much, on account of the top beam splitting! This type of work in the North Country is bittersweet because a very cold season lies ahead. Kristin Kimball says it best. “Funny that out of this scabby and difficult season flows all the sweetness of the North Country year” (132). Cider pressing can’t be done inside the warmth of a house, and the apples won’t return until next fall. However, when spring does come around the cold of winter fades and the bustling work of a farmer restarts.
A friend of mine named Larry Erpleding is homesteader in Colorado. He told me to “stop cowboying” his trailer hitch once. Larry isn’t the guy who would answer if I asked him “what’s cowboying?” I knew what I was doing, I wasn’t being gentle. Larry didn’t go to college, he taught himself how to build cabinetry and then started a family at the age of twenty-four. He couldn’t afford to buy new equipment so he had to learn how to use old hand powered machinery. “Stop cowboying” is just slang for “hey, be gentle with that, it is the only one I have.”
There are certain things everyone needs to know about working with old equipment. One, its lasted this long because everybody who has used it in the past has been gentle with it. Two, you can’t just go out and buy a new one. And three, there are not a lot of people out there anymore who know how to fix it. These rules apply especially to people who are working with equipment that has been hand made.
Half the time old equipment breaks because people don’t know how to use it. This kind of information is the information that needs to be passed down to my generation. If I want experience with old tools, and methods I need to go to my grandparents, and sometimes my great grandparents. Why was tradition lost? My grandmother knows how to can food because my great grandmother taught her to. My mother can’t can food. My grandfather knows that that putting calamine oil on a dog relieves its poison ivy because his father used to hunt with dogs, and knew how to take care of them. They couldn’t afford food or a vet so they hunted grouse, and took care of their dog. My father doesn’t hunt, and our dog goes to the vet.
What happened? My grandparents raised my parents in the same town they grew up in? Changing environments is not an excuse for loss of tradition. Culture should be inherent, not created. What happened to the baby boomer generation in small towns? I can understand some tradition being lost in a bustling city like Chicago or New York, but not in the small town of Chautauqua Lake that is just ten minutes from an Amish community. Maybe it has something to do with names. It seems like my farmers Mike, Bill, and Bob have generations of knowledge. They also have simple names. My family consists of Edward, Gracene, Parker, Winifred, Albert, and Diana. Not simple names. This may be extremely odd thinking, but I can’t think of a better reason for why I don’t know what my great grandparents did. Passing down tradition is the simplest way to ensure a good quality of life. Doug Jones, a native farmer of the North Country shares my same ideas. “Their grandparents knew the art of providing their families with a year-round supply of diverse foods grown either at home or on nearby farms”(19). Mike, Bill, and Bob live simple lives because they have learned to grow their own food, build their own houses, and live as close to the land as possible.
The skills I’ve been learning from my friends Mike, Bob, and Bill I’ll use for the rest of my life. Ideally I’ll have a side job somewhere just to get me started, but then I’ll be a farmer. Maybe I’ll be a farmer in the North Country of New York State.
If I am going to be a farmer in the North Country, I need to learn how to be a farmer in the North Country. The legitimate growing season is only about three months long −June, July, and August, but Doug Jones who is also an editor of the Rootdrinker says the growing season in the North Country is seven months.
The summer farming months are the most bountiful. The trees are big and green. When it rains, it is a healthy rain, one that makes people say, “We needed that.” The grass is so green it looks bright. The soil is a deep rich brown, the color of good tobacco and dark coffee. It is a nostalgic time. Summer farming is slowed down. It is a time when you can lay on your back between tomato rows and stare at the sky. There isn’t a lot of pressure to get the work done before the first frost. It is okay to just let your plants grow on their own. Anyone can farm in the summer; it is what you do with your surplus that makes you a good farmer.
Mike, Bill, and Bob are canners. They have been canning for years. Canning is a process like growing. You do work, and then wait. With experience you know when the time is right to eat. Canning is a way of saving food without refrigeration. Everything from meat to beets can be canned. The temperature needs to be just right, or the jars will explode. The seal needs to be perfect, or your jar will fill with mold. Canning is a complicated process. Farm families in the North Country understand that learning how to can is essential if you want to eat sustainably and locally. Maria, Mike’s wife taught me how to can. Guess where she learned to can food, her mother. She said she canned over three hundred jars this year. She plans to eat every bit of food she canned before the next canning process a year from now. In her kitchen above the sink are three deep wooden shelves. They run the length of her wall and are stacked full of glass quart jars with silver tops. She has fruit jars of applesauce, peaches, and strawberries. She also has jars of cucumbers, pickled beats, cubed venison, seasoned chicken, hot peppers, stewed tomatoes, beans, acorn squash, butternut squash, spiced shallots, oiled banana peppers, and wild honey soaked onions. They grew every single bit of food on their shelves, and in their own garden. Canning is very similar to taking care of old tools. They both begin with tradition and are essential to living simply in the North Country. Farmers in the North Country know many way to increase the quality life by living as simply as possible. Wendell Berry describes some of these methods in his Bringing It To The Table. He explains how people who seek out a simple life must also learn to work with the seasons.
“Those were hard times−not unusual in our agricultural history−and so a lot of the fetching and carrying had to do with foraging, searching in the fields and woods for nature’s free provisions: greens in the springtime, fruits and berries in the summer, nuts in the fall. There was fishing in warm weather and hunting in the cold weather; people did these things for food and for pleasure, not for “sport.” The economics of many households were small and thorough, and people took these seasonal opportunities seriously. For the same reason they practiced household husbandry. They raised gardens, fattened meat hogs, milked cows, kept flocks of chickens and other poultry. These enterprises were marginal to the farm, but central to the household (81).”
Outside Mike’s house is a long rectangle of fallen leaves covered with a white mesh cloth and staked into the ground. This is a little trick North Country farmers use to keep the ground warm and insulated. The frost came this year in mid October, and the ground hardened fast. Frost kills anything that is still growing except Swiss chard. “Last year, we were brushing the snow off the chard before we picked it, that stuff will grow in a foot of snow!” Mike’s wife told us after I almost pulled up her chard plants during a late earth-tilling project. Under the leaves, Mike has planted over three hundred garlic bulbs. They will sit there all winter, growing underneath a warm blanket of wet snow covered leaves. Little farming tricks like allowing garlic to grow during winter, and eating chard until is covered with snow are essential to increasing the growing season in the North Country. In the early spring, when the snow begins to melt, Mike will pick all the garlic. He will save about half for seed, and put the rest into CSA boxes. When I was working with Mike at Bill’s farm, I helped put some CSA boxes together. I was amazed by how much food Mike gave away each week! The boxes were filled, and heavy. They contained tomatoes, squash, potatoes, shallots, onions, chard, lettuce, peppers of all different shapes and sizes, carrots, beets, a small jar of maple syrup, and around Halloween, a pumpkin!
CSA or community supported agriculture is fairly modern, the business and production of running a CSA will develop in the future. Farmers have been sharing their crops for a small fee with their neighbors for years, only within the past few years has CSA turned into a business. Learning how to efficiently run a CSA is similar to learning traditional farming techniques. It is the beginning of new a new practice that will become tradition. Running a farm and supporting the local economy with CSA is where the future of small-scale farming lies. Mike, Bill, and Kristin Kimball hold the beginnings of tradition in their hands. It is up to people like them to recreate a style of farming that allows farmers to survive by using their land effectively. Modern farming is like the Back to the Land Movement of the 70’s, with a “back to tradition” approach.
When I think back and reflect on all that I’ve learned I am most appreciative for having been given the skills to pass on tradition. Living simply to me means removing life complications like hiring a mechanic to fix cheaply built tools and going to a grocery store once a week to buy food. Sometimes, it is okay to leave your land for something you need. Establishments like the 1844 House and the Potsdam Co-op are places where we can go to find local food. They are like the early markets, before major grocery store corporations were created. Tradition is defined as the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation. Everything that we know can fit into the category of either custom or belief. There for, everything that we know and do in this world can be tracked backed to the beginning of time. I am most focused on tradition that faded away within the last one hundred years. Traditions like draft horse plowing, small scale growing, preserving, planting, and providing for a community rather than an entire country are essential to learning how to live as simple as possible. It is important to note that tradition isn’t just a process; it is a state of mind. Mike and Bill use large tractors, but that doesn’t mean they don’t follow the tradition of their great grandparents. They carry the truth and respectability for what generations before them thought was important.
Tradition isn’t going to just all of a sudden take over.
It is a learned process. If people are going to bring tradition back they need to honor and respect it. As Wendell Berry says “A change of heart or of values without a practice is only another pointless luxury of a passively consumptive way of life.” This ideology starts with a compact group of people and then spreads out slowly. In other words, it starts local then goes global. I see the North Country as one of the places where tradition is coming back strong. More and more people are taking on responsibilities like running a CSA, growing herbs in a window box, and shopping at their local farmers market. Mike’s kids value the work he is doing partly because being local is everywhere in the media, and partly because they see his passion for preserving tradition. Passion is created, but when shared among a community of people who are as passionate as you are then the chances of that same passion lasting for generations is greater. Thanks to the guidance of my literary figures like Berry and Kimball, and my physical mentors like Mike and Bill, that passion is ingrained in me. I will share my passion with my new friends of the North Country and pass it on to whoever may come into my life in the future.