When I began working on farms five years ago, I was not prepared for anything I’d have to learn or do. I was especially unprepared for the way death confronted me daily, in the most casual and ignoble ways.
Of course I knew, in a logical way, that death is necessary to life. I ate meat, and every bite depended on an animal raised in an agricultural context for the purpose of being killed and consumed. But I only knew about death on the farm from an eater’s perspective, from which death seemed to be an occasional, cyclical event. Before I dove into the soil, I could romanticize the idea of death as essential, intentional, somber and somehow ritualistic, coinciding with the change of seasons and the rise of the harvest moon.
I didn’t expect that witnessing death, animal and vegetable and insect, would be constant, undignified and merciless, brutally essential to every natural process we mimic and manipulate when we farm. From the plants we weeded out of the fields, the animals and insects who died accidentally in the structures we built, to the chickens we slaughtered for food, death was omnipresent. There was plenty of death outside of our hands, too: hawks in the oaks, foxes in the woods, baby birds fallen out of the nest and eaten by ants.
My first year in farming could have ended in death, as well: Without my medication for depression and trying to remake my life through divorce and turmoil, I became dangerously suicidal. Farming was one of the few bright spots at that time, as were the farmers I worked with (Ben and Patricia and their son, Elliott), but I can’t help but wonder if I took the circle of life too personally at the time, the way it seemed to constantly hover on the edges of everything I did.
I started this essay in early June of 2017, after I tried to help a farmer save a young doe from bloat. The treatment failed and she died, essentially suffocated by the gases overproduced in her stomach. I’d had a particular connection to that goat, among the dozens on the farm; I have pictures of her climbing on my partner’s shoulders. Her death weighed on me, made me wish I could have done more or cared less.
The next day, working with Ben, I found a nest of baby rabbits tucked into a bed of onions in one of the high tunnels the farm uses for production. I couldn’t tell if the nest was occupied at first, so I cautiously dipped my hand inside the fur and straw mother rabbit had gathered and bundled together. I felt the tiny kits, wrapped up in their second womb, and the warmth of their silky bodies astounded me. Long after I had left the nest alone and gone on to finish harvesting for market, I could feel that heat in the palm of my hand, the tips of my fingers, but all I could think was that most if not all of those kits would not survive: Maybe a predator would find the nest, or the mother would abandon it, or Ben would remove it. And yet their bodies left an imprint on mine.
Those experiences felt intertwined in an important way, and I felt like it was finally the time to write about how farming has changed the way I feel about death. But I couldn’t find a way to organize my thoughts, couldn’t really find a central message or anything inspirational to write towards. The conclusion seemed to be this: “Everything dies, all the time, in horrible ways, even things you love, and there is no way to stop it and there can never be any way to stop it; Things must die and if you mourn too much you’ll never be free of sadness.”
I wouldn’t blame anyone who didn’t want to read that kind of essay. And it wasn’t the essay I wanted to write, either: I write because I need to impart the wonder I feel at the interactions between human systems and natural systems as we pursue food production through agriculture. Depressing my audience is not my goal.
So I walked away from this essay, even though it stayed in my head. On June 19th, as I watched ruby crowned kinglets snatch cabbage moth caterpillars from the kale I was harvesting, I realized I’d been obsessing over the trees and completely missed the forest. The forest is that yes, of course, nature depends on death to function — but she functions, profuse and messy and breath-taking in every moment. Maybe those rabbit kits will die, but they lived and they were beautiful. As beautiful as the cabbage moths I watched being eaten, as beautiful as the copperheads and the deer in the woods.
To spend my time in the kale (or the tomatoes or the squash) and think only about how everything will die is to ignore the chance I am given in every minute outside to appreciate how exuberant and fecund the world truly is, from the nematodes and the Rhizobium in the soil to Ben and Patricia’s children to the Carolina wrens who try to nest in the tractor. That everything must cease and decay does not spoil these things: It makes them more precious, means I need to cling to them, to drink as deeply and as often as I can from the well of life right outside my door.
The evening I had that revelation, my mother called me to let me know my Aunt Gretchen had passed away the night before.
Gretchen was an avid gardener. She joked that seed and flower catalogs were her Playboy magazines and I spent many a summer day digging and moving plants from one place to another (and another, and another) in her yard. When her health forced her to move to an apartment building, she mourned losing her extensive flower gardens more than anything else. After a little while in her new home, she set about transforming the boring landscaping around the building into a paradise. Other residents were pressed into helping build new beds, helping her transplant the seedlings she started on tables next to her windows, and keep the weeds at bay. She didn’t wait for permission from the building manager; working the soil and fostering a diversity of life was too important to her happiness to leave it to the whims of red tape. When we talked on the phone, she told me about the hundreds of gladiolas corms she’d ordered and the places she was planning on sneaking them in, and I called her a guerrilla gardener and sent her seeds from my own collection.
The best way I can possibly honor Gretchen is to continue to farm, to delight in the birds and animals and plants in every way they reveal themselves to me. I frequently second guess the decision I made to throw away a “real” career in academia for this financially unstable dance through jobs to support my need, like Gretchen’s, to be on my knees in the dirt as often as possible. Am I selfish and irresponsible for that choice? Gretchen never thought so. She rejoiced for me when I told her about how I was coming to love spiders, the way their webs hung like stars in the trees at 5am, and when I shared photos of transplanting seedling chard, my handprints pressed into the soil around every plant.
Amanda Palmer’s song “Lost” includes these lyrics:
“No one’s ever lost forever
They are caught inside your heart
If you garden them and water them
They make you what you are”
I intend to garden for Gretchen.
I was honored to be asked to deliver a eulogy for Gretchen at her funeral Mass. I wrote and read the following.
I’d like to open with a part of Charles Bukowski’s poem, “The Laughing Heart.”
You can’t beat death but
You can beat death in life, sometimes.
And the more often you learn to do it,
The more light there will be
Your life is your life.
Know it while you have it.
You are marvelous
The gods wait to delight
I have no doubt in my mind that God delights in Gretchen.
For 76 years, Gretchen beat death in life. She was a woman of unparalleled creativity and intellect, whose hands were never empty. With them, she offered up her skills and her heart to her family, her friends, and her community. Whether gardening, sewing, cooking, or healing, Gretchen’s generosity shone as a guiding light. The ample tragedy and difficulties in Gretchen’s life did nothing to dim her compassion or her dedication to filling her surroundings with beauty.
Every breath Gretchen breathed was an offering to God. Every breath I breath now is tinged with sorrow for my loss — but also joy, that Gretchen walked on this earth and now, in heaven, she walks with her daughters, her mother, her sister and brother.
If you’d like to help me honor Gretchen’s memory, you can donate to her favorite animal rescue organization: Because You Care in McKean, PA.