Farm News

16

Farmer John Writes: One Cannot Understand Russia with the Mind

Introduction


Dear Shareholders and Other Friends of the Farm,

Twenty years ago, I wrote a story about the six weeks I spent in Russia. I am finally sharing it. I believe the story bears on the Russia of today.

For parents: this story contains some graphic imagery. I suggest you read it first, before deciding to share it with your kids.

For readers of Farm News: This story strays off the farm into Russia; it is not characteristic of my usual themes in Farm News. However, for the sake of getting to know your farmer better, and getting to know Russia better, I am sharing it with you today. The Russia you will get to know better is the Russia I visited and wrote about 20 years ago, but the story also bears on the Russia of today.

The story is simply reporting, an experience on the ground of the Russian people. Nothing is embellished or exaggerated. Until today, it was an unpublished and unshared story. (I have several more unpublished short stories and unpublished long short stories, all autobiographical.)

One Cannot Understand Russia with the Mind is a long short story. It is about a 60-minute read.

 

Ukraine


I was wondering recently about H-2A workers from Ukraine. The H-2A program is sponsored by the U.S. government for bringing in workers legally from other countries for a limited period of time. I had already selected my crew of H-2A workers from Mexico for the 2022 season on my farm, Angelic Organics. Still, I wondered about the Ukraine H-2A situation.

I called a service in Iowa, iWorkMarket, whose website says it specializes in procuring H-2A workers from Ukraine. The owner, Irina, answered the phone.

“Hello,” I said. “What can you tell me about your program for H-2A workers from Ukraine?”

“It’s a terrible situation. I had so many Ukrainians lined up to come work here. I had their visas in order. So many farms are counting on them. I now have to cancel their visas. They have to stay and fight. I am so crushed. I am lost.”

“So sorry to learn this, Irina. What can you say about Ukrainian workers?” I asked.

“They are the best. They don’t cause problems. They are neat. They take their shoes off to enter their homes. They are good cooks. They work hard.”

“What about drinking? Smoking?”

“Never a problem. Well, one smoked. I told him he would have to stop smoking to work in the States. He stopped.”

“Do you get to know these workers personally?”

“Many of them. Many of them work within a few hundred miles of me here in Muscatine. I go to the farms to visit them, or they come to visit me. They are simply the best.”

She added, “My husband wants to go and fight with them.”

“Are you Ukrainian?” I inquired.

“I am Russian.”

Russia


In the early 2000’s, I received the following email from my then partner, Lesley Freeman, who was living in Novgorod, Russia, also known as Veliky Novgorod:

“I was walking one day to the Mogilevskys’ place on my way home from yoga class. The Mogilevskys are a family of artists and musicians and they had adopted me as a daughter. I was walking along, thinking how glad I was to have this family, how they were making my stay in Russia feel absolutely like home, how anywhere, even cold, faraway Russia can seem like home if a person has the right people surrounding her. Then I heard a loud thump and turned to see a body flying through the air and land on the curb of the nearby busy street. I walked over, saw the woman up close. She was lying there in the wet, dirty road, body twisted this way and that, but still breathing. The brown car that had hit her had pulled over a ways up the street. I panicked.

“Then I heard a loud thump and turned to see a body flying through the air”

“A group of spectators had formed at the spot. I frantically insisted that a person with a cell phone call 911. The spectators watched me blankly and did nothing. I ran to the shop on the other side of the street, to the telephone shop. I thought, the shop will have a phone and call 911 for me. I was frantic. No one would call. My language skills were truncated under the stress, maybe no one understood my pleas. I went back to the site of the impact. The sixty-five-or-so year old woman’s purse was lying in the middle of the street, and no one was retrieving it. I retrieved it and as I did was shocked that no one was taking action at all, and that I actually had to myself. The old woman’s shirt was half off and no one was covering her. Someone finally did call 911.

“In about fifteen minutes the ambulance came. The emergency staff emerged from their antiquated vehicle–a dirtied white VW van-shaped vehicle without flashing lights or sirens that looked like it should also be admitted to the hospital immediately. They stood around like the rest of the spectators, doing nothing. They weren’t even covering this woman. I asked the woman in a white coat who was sitting in the vehicle if they could at least cover her right away. She said that this ambulance wasn’t outfitted for anything of this sort and that they had already called the real ambulance. The woman in white seemed tormented and embarrassed by the situation; it was obvious that she, too, was horrified that immediate help was unavailable.  

“The real ambulance arrived in another ten minutes. It was a reassuring-looking vehicle, much like the kind in the U.S.–white exterior, blue flashing lights, blue cross on the sides. They opened the rear. A man checked the woman’s face. They got out a stretcher. They stood around. No one covered her. They put the empty stretcher back in the vehicle, then took it out again as they had decided to put her on it after all. It took three of them to get her on it. They pushed the stretcher into the ambulance and then stood around.

“I had begun to walk towards the Mogilevskys’ place at this point, sobbing, sympathetic, appalled. I looked back every so often; after thirty minutes the woman was finally inside the ambulance, but it had not yet whizzed her to the hospital. Emergency staff were standing around on the street discussing who knows what (perhaps what to do about the driver who hit her) and no police whatsoever had arrived at the scene.

“As I was resuming my walk toward the Mogilevsky family’s home, a place where it was quiet, homey, happy, loving, a man stopped me on the street to ask what had happened. I told him and he replied with a nonchalant “c’est la vie.” However, my mind at this time was filled with examinations about karma, fate, good, evil, love for one’s fellow human, the likelihood of Russia ever working properly as a country with a population to tend.

“I arrived at the Mogilevskys’ in a tearful condition, and though I experienced some sympathy from the mother, the father, a doctor, went on and on about whose fault was whose, about how pedestrians should look both ways when crossing the street, that when people aren’t on crosswalks when they get hit it’s their fault. Then he said that Russia simply has no money to support faster, better emergency service or effective traffic control. And he told me I need to understand better that Russia is not America–that, in Russia, life is difficult and unpredictable, that it can change any minute without warning. He said that, in this tough Russian world, people can really only strive to be good, kind individuals and go to work and not agonize over all the problems, lest they lose optimism for life completely.”

Lesley, a citizen of the U.S. who had once interned on my farm, by this time had already lived in Russia more than a year. Now she was studying Russian ecology and the Russian language through a fellowship. Lesley’s emails often made me think that Russia was an incomprehensible country.

 

Lesley Invited Me to Russia


On my flight to Russia, via Hamburg, Germany, I pondered what I knew, or thought I knew, about the country. I knew from the Weekly Reader that came to my grade school that the Russian satellite Sputnik had embarrassed the U.S. Since then, I had gotten sporadic, disjointed impressions of Russia from news stories and history books.

I was never much impacted by the Cold War hysteria. We never had to hunch under desks to practice for a nuclear attack. I never scanned the horizon to see if maybe the Russians had dropped a bomb on our cornfields. I remember that Nikita Khrushchev got mad and hit his shoe on the table on national television. My dad loved to talk about that. I can’t remember why he was banging his shoe; maybe he was raving about how great communism was, and how it would overtake capitalism someday.

Sometimes on television, Russian leaders embraced and kissed one another’s cheeks. I remember my dad saying that’s how it was done in some countries, that it was like shaking hands for us. I also remember from Life Magazine that Khrushchev, when he came to the U.S. in 1959, thought we moved cars around from one location to the next, so that he would see a lot of cars wherever he went. He was sure that a country couldn’t have that many cars wherever a person would go.

The thing about the Czars and emperors and Catherine the Great, Ivan the Terrible, the Bolsheviks, the White Brigade – these never came together for me in any kind of cohesive way – I simply could never get a picture of how things had unfolded in Russia. I remember reading that Russian history books were often getting revised to accommodate yet another official version of Russian history, so it seemed pointless to try to learn anything about Russia from Russia. I didn’t trust American accounts of Russia either; I figured the U.S would have its own vainglorious interpretation of their adversary or rival.

I did, however, in a sort of vague way, suspect that Russia was not given due consideration for the horrors it had endured during the Second World War, nor proper respect for its valiant role in resisting and overcoming the invading enemy. I don’t know why this feeling resided within me; it was just there.

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment made me feel like I was getting at the true Russia, a Russia of deep love and terrible suffering. I read it out loud one winter as I traveled around Mexico. With almost every turn of the page, I sobbed. I sometimes wondered if Dostoevsky’s Russia had survived the twentieth century.

In late January of 2002, I flew to Russia via Hamburg, Germany, to visit Lesley. I was sure that I had a few stereotypes of Russia that had somehow gotten past my guard, but mostly I knew that I just didn’t know much at all about this country where I was going to spend the next few weeks. I knew that my main purpose there was being with Lesley and working on a book about my farm; that if Russia was going to get to me, it would have to sneak in around the edges of my intended life there.

I got off the plane with a swarm of German businessmen. They hustled in their black trench coats towards the customs station. They seemed like they were storming the airport–trot, trot, trot. They panted towards the Customs officials, literally running. German men running towards Russia – this is not new, I mused.

Embedded in the gray tile floor in front of the row of customs booths was a line of black tile. Fixed in this black line in the floor, in front of each booth, was the image of a man’s bony face, his eyes deep-set and shadowy, his finger to his lips. “Shhh….Quiet. Don’t talk. You are entering Russia, No talking”.

Lesley met me outside of Customs. She is little, with curly brown hair, a soft expressive mouth, and eyes that look askance in a way that make her seem perpetually mysterious, as though she is always feeling a secret. She plays guitar, mandolin and violin. She seems like she’s always got something exciting going on, something to wonder about.

 

God Wanted Us to Meet


Lesley and I headed into Moscow. One of the first things we did was go to Red Square. I thought there would be a tank sitting there, or a missile, but there wasn’t.

We used to celebrate May Day on my farm. We handed out May Day Baskets, and danced around a May Pole. Someone would usually mention the big military parade that was going on that day in Red Square. It didn’t seem like such a sweet use of May Day, but one year, we had vodka maple syrup snow cones at our May Day party to honor the Russian Military May Day.

The huge expanse of Red Square was now a mecca for hawkers. Enterprising Moscovites were selling furry Russian hats (ushankas) to tourists caught unprotected from the frigid Russian wind. Others hawked mittens.

We walked to the perimeter of the Square and discovered great arenas of commerce. Tom Tailor, Dior, Versace, Swatch, Gentlemen, Marina Rinaldi, Clinique, Pioneer London, Escada, Benetton, Cachere, Articale, L’oreal–Red Square was surrounded by a massive shopping emporium. Lesley and I wandered the grand and sometimes garish edifices hosting these fashion empires.

A deaf/mute man approached us, and gesticulated. We could not understand what he wanted. I offered him rubles. He refused. He showed us bruises on his stomach and legs. It seems he had been beaten, there, in the emporium, in a staircase.

We later found ourselves in the upscale Great Canadian Bagel. Our waitress, Julia, was in her mid-twenties, bright, open faced, long brown hair, big brown eyes. There weren’t many customers, so Lesley, she and I got to talking, and soon Julia started telling us about her life. She was Muslim, had fallen deeply in love, married, had a child, then a second. Her husband had gotten in trouble with the law, and two years ago he had been sentenced to four years in a Siberian prison.

(Note about Lesley and her Russian: Russians everywhere were most pleased by Lesley’s mastery of the Russian language. Many Russians said that Lesley spoke like a Russian. Lesley was the always-willing translator. My interactions with Russians recorded in this account were via Lesley’s translation, except for the occasional times when the exchanges took place in English.)

“My husband is a good man,” Julia proclaimed. “He just got in with the wrong crowd. But it has been so hard; my mother has taken my children and me in to her home. If my mother had not helped me, I don’t think I would be alive today. For a while, I didn’t know how I would feed my kids. Now that I am working at this nice restaurant, I can feed them.”

“Do your kids know where their dad is?” I asked.

“I tell them he is at a hospital. When we visited him in prison nearby, before he was sent to Siberia, my son saw him through all the thick glass windows. I told him it was so no one would catch his disease.”

“Is there any way you can get your husband out early?”

“The government said he could get out early if I came up with $1,500. An attorney had all the papers drawn up. So, I took my jewelry that I had gotten for a wedding gift, worth $3,000, and sold it for $1,500. On my way back from where I sold it, I was robbed.

“I thought there might be another way to get him out, as that was the only $1,500 I had access to. I went to another attorney. This attorney wanted money up front. I sold my fur coat, and got $100 for him. The attorney simply disappeared. I never saw him again.

“Then I finally somehow got all this paperwork done, petitioning for an early release, and it was in my mom’s car, and my mom’s car was stolen, along with all the paperwork.”

Julia went to check on another order. I sobbed, trying to conceal my tears from her. Russia, I thought, this is Dostoevsky’s Russia, a country of deep love and terrible suffering.

She returned to our table, “I have my faith in God. And I love my husband very much. He is a beautiful man. I will always love him.”

She added, “God brought you into this restaurant today. God wanted us to meet.”

As we were leaving, Julia said to us, “and you two. Are you going to get married?”

Lesley and I looked at each other and smiled.

“Please invite me to your wedding,” Julia requested.

Later, Lesley would share the love story of Julia with her favorite Russian family, the Mogilevskys.

“Lies,” the family said. “All lies, just to get your money. It is the Russian way.”

The next night, Lesley and I took the train to Veliky Novgorod, a seven-hour trip north west from Moscow. We sat next to a young, cheerful, attractive, university-educated Russian woman. After a bit of engaging conversation, I asked, “What do you look for in a man?”

“First of all, he brings home money. A man’s first responsibility is to bring home the money. If he can’t do that, he really has no worth.”

Lesley noted later that many Russian women had echoed this sentiment to her.

 

The Once Illustrious Novgorod


We arrived early in the morning, and took a cab through the Russian cold towards Lesley’s apartment.

We passed through a commercial section of the town. Trees were scattered about. Georgian style buildings flanked the street, hinting in the early dawn at their soothing pastels and staunch, reassuring forms. Inscrutable words in Cyrillic script advertised shops and services.

We were soon out of the commercial area. Gloomy high-rises in every direction loomed towards a gray sky.

From a Novgorod travel brochure: “Novgorod is a city of 250,000 people. It sits on the Volkhov River, just below its outflow from Lake Ilmen. It is the earliest international trading center of Eastern Europe, starting in the eighth century. It is the earliest center of education of Russia, beginning with a school for 300 started in the eleventh century. Novgorod is widely regarded as the birthplace of Russian democratic, republic traditions. Medieval Novgorod was one of the greatest art centers of Europe. It was a major center of book production. It boasts the oldest church in Russia, Saint Sophia’s Cathedral, built in 989. It was once the political center, the capital of old Russia, Russe. Due to its splendid architectural beauty, Novgorod was for centuries regarded widely as the Florence of Russia.”

In the late fifteenth century, Ivan the Terrible plundered Novgorod the Great, and took away its status as political center/capital, and even stripped The Great from its title, reduced it to simply Novgorod.

Novgorod experienced heavy blows to its early glory. However, it remained a splendid city, a living testimony to a thousand years of Russian culture.

Then came its biggest blow. Early in the Second World War, the Germans leveled Novgorod.

Lesley and I were riding through this once illustrious thousand-year-old Russian City, but it had been completely rebuilt in the last fifty years. Barely a trace of its former majesty remained. After a few minutes, we arrived at Lesley’s apartment on the fourth floor of a gray high-rise.

“Welcome to my world,” said Lesley, gesturing to her home. I quickly explored the two-room apartment, eyed its drab wallpaper, its ragtag collection of furnishings. I noticed a huge map of Russia spread out on the wall above Lesley’s kitchen table.

“It has a certain Lesley hominess to it,” I offered.

Lesley smiled.

I looked out her kitchen window at the dozen or so residential towers that formed a perimeter of the view. Their boxy balconies seemed to be in a continual process of collapse. These protuberances of concrete were molesting the very sky above them. The gray of their shabby, crumbling walls was sucking the color right out of my face.

“Those buildings are ugly, Lesley, so depressing,” I commented.

“Agreed, but when you open a door to go into a home from the stairwell, it’s cute and pretty and clean and homey.”

My gaze turned downward. Below me was a cluster of charming old cottages, incongruously flanked by the concrete towers. Some of these cottages were built of logs, others of wide planks. They were sturdy, one-and-a-half floor structures, modest, but with occasional architectural flourishes. Some had intricate designs carved into their eaves, swirly wooden emblems in various colors attached to their walls, curly-cued trim around their arched window.

A few of the houses were painted in vivid colors; mustards, greens, blues. The windows and eaves were festively trimmed in complementary colors. The cottages were not fanciful, but hearty and cheerful—outpourings of the Russian folk spirit. Some of the homes had a little hut in the corner of the yard that served as the banya (Russian style sauna.)

All of the homes had space for vegetable and flower gardens, perhaps a fruit tree. The home just below us had snow-covered raised beds in its front and side yards. There was an aura of neglect that pervaded some of the homes, as though the encroaching parade of high-rises was soon to level the remaining community of cottages, a different sort of conquest than that wrought by the war, but with a similar outcome.

“Lesley, these houses are so great,” I said. “Here we see the old Russian spirit at work–the charming architecture, not at all ostentatious; the banya, the space for flowers and vegetables. These people are living on the land in the city. It’s urban agriculture right before our eyes. I wonder if most of them like it in those homes, or if they are just waiting to get into those high-rises. We’ve got to meet someone who lives in one of these homes.”

“We can probably do that”, Lesley said. “It is not an easy life, in those homes. They have no running water, no central heat, and no indoor toilets. They have to walk to a public well and pump their water by hand into buckets and carry them home.”

Lesley added, “And then there are the private houses of the new rich—they are referred to as the New Russians. You see them about town, huge imposing homes. With Perestroika, most people got poor, but some got very, very wealthy.”

“Speaking of money, I think I left my purse on the train,” Lesley said. “It had maybe eighty dollars in it, and some important papers.”

We returned to the station in pursuit of her money and papers. The train was no longer there.

I wrote for the next few days. Occasionally, Lesley and I milled about Novgorod. Except for the fur coats worn by some of the women, almost everyone dressed in black. The people of Novgorod looked somber.

“This grimness that I feel. Is it the economy? Everyone seems so freaked out, like they expect something awful to happen any second,” I observed.

“It’s the Russian way. Many people have two jobs. People wonder how they will put food on the table. And life for Russians is so unpredictable; there’s no telling what could happen tomorrow, no way to count on stability, or that anything will go as planned or expected.”

Lesley and I sat on a bus, aglow in animated conversation. The other passengers stared at us sullenly. “Look at how people stare at us, Lesley. And if I stare back, they don’t look away.”

“Russians stare. They stare a lot, right into your face. And they will never look away if you stare back.”

“No one on this bus is talking; not one person is smiling, except for you and me,” I observed. “They all dress up as much as they can afford to. Everyone’s shoes are polished. Women cake on the makeup. They all seem to want to look like they aren’t poor, and look as much like one another as they can.

“And then there is you, Lesley. Rumpled. Patched blue jeans. Candy cane scarf. You are one of the most affluent people on the street, and you look like their idea of a bum.”

“Yes, I guess it is a mark of affluence to dress like I do–American style affluence. But I just look different anyway. Curly hair. Different face. I would look different no matter how I dressed. And then I am with you. You don’t look Russian.”

“So many of them have bow lips,” I stated. “Have you noticed their mouths? Shaped like cute little bows. Even on a broad face, there will be this narrow little mouth, creased at the corners, all puffy and adorable.”

We got off the bus, walked down the icy sidewalk.

“Lesley, that babushka (grandma) back there, sitting on the sidewalk. She has four carrots for sale, and maybe six turnips. She is just sitting there, in the cold night. Will anyone buy her carrots on a Sunday night?”

After a few days in Novgorod, Lesley again went to the train station. She located the train we had ridden from Moscow and found the woman who had been in charge of our train car. A passenger had found Lesley’s papers and money, and had given them to this attendant, who had safeguarded them in the hopes that their owner might return for them.

The attendant gave Lesley the purse with all the papers and money inside. Lesley gave her a twenty-dollar reward. The attendant invited Lesley to her home in Moscow, a very Russian gesture.

A Russian friend later told Lesley that this woman probably made fifteen dollars per week. This return of the purse caused Lesley and me to talk about honesty, about integrity, about the old Russian ways.

That night, an American friend of Lesley’s was assaulted outside a Novgorod grocery store, was badly beaten up. The four men made off with about a dollar’s worth of rubles.

I met Lesley’s American friend, Bradn. Bradn was soft-spoken, considerate, and generous in talking and listening. An apprentice minister, he had a small Lutheran congregation in Novgorod, supported by a German Church group. In 1933, the communists closed The Lutheran Church in Novgorod. A couple of people in Bradn’s congregation remembered attending it back then as little children. It had reopened in the 1990’s.

“Bradn,” I said to the minister, “how was it for the people in your German congregation during the war?”

“Oh, they didn’t fight. They are all Germans. They were shipped off to camps.”

“What was it like for them when they came back?”

“They didn’t get to come back for a long time. Some of them came back five or ten years after the war was over; some didn’t get to come back for thirty years. That’s just the way it worked here. The government decided when someone returned, and sometimes it was just the bureaucratic process itself that took years, or decades. Sometimes it was more a form of punishment, for one reason or another.”

One afternoon, Lesley and I met a babushka coming out of her Russian cottage, a few blocks from Lesley’s apartment building.

“When were these built?” Lesley asked the old woman in her friendly, curious way, as she gestured towards her house.

“In the 50’s,” she said.

I thought, how could they make these homes so cute and detailed right after the war, right after their whole world had been laid to waste, when resources were so scarce, and now, sixty years later, they can only build impossibly ugly things that do not go an iota beyond the most basic utilitarianism? How could the Russian people, with roots so clearly in the country, in the soil, be so abruptly deposited in austere high-rise apartment buildings, no vegetables in their yard, no family banya out the back door, no chickens nesting in the lean-to? How was this leap so suddenly made?

 The babushka took a liking to Lesley and me, and invited us for lunch. She had bright eyes, unusually smooth skin for her seventy-eight hard-working years, and a very alert manner. She sat us down in her cozy dining room to a meal of chicken soup, fish, and bread, with a little vodka.

“Lesley tells me that you had quite a time of it during the war,” I said, after a few minutes of their conversation in Russian, which Lesley had just summarized for me.

She replied, “I was in Leningrad during the war.”

(Note: Saint Petersburg was called Leningrad for a while, so I will use the names a bit interchangeably in this account.)

“I was seventeen years old. The Germans blockaded us for 900 days. My aunt died of starvation in the second month, just fell over. There was no food. There was a bread ration, 250 grams per day and 100 of that was clay. People chased after rats to eat them. I buried so many people.”

“How do you feel about Germans today?” I asked.

“How should I feel? They destroyed our cities. They tortured our men. They killed our people. What should I feel?”

She continued, “I have lived in this house for fifty years. I work hard every day. I chop wood. I take care of my fourteen chickens. I take care of my house. My husband died twenty-two years ago.

“I didn’t think life would be like this in my later years. The war seemed like it was the worst that life could be, and it seemed like when it was finally over, life would be so much better.

“But now people get killed right outside my door. There never used to be killings in this town, never. Three murders just this year. And people get robbed around here. People are so hungry today, they steal cats and eat them. I had two cats. I have one now. Some people ate the other one. What kind of a world is that?

She continued. “I went over to the phone company two years ago. I said ‘I want a phone. You put in a phone for me. I’ve been waiting fifty years for a phone. I’ve been promised a phone for fifty years. Where is my phone?’ And the guy said, ‘lady, don’t think you are getting a phone for free. No one gets anything for free.’ I said, ‘I was in the front! I was in the blockade in Leningrad! I defended my country! Your country! I want a phone. Is that too much to ask for defending this country?’ And they finally came over and put in my phone, and while they were at it, they put in phones for all the war widows in all these homes. Took ‘em a day. One day. We all waited fifty years, and when someone finally decided to do it, we all had phones in a day. That’s all it takes is someone deciding.”

“I was in the front! I was in the blockade in Leningrad! I defended my country! Your country! I want a phone. Is that too much to ask for defending this country?”

The babushka went into another room, came back with a vest loaded with military medals. I don’t know if they were all hers, or hers and her late husband’s.

“Every year, the ones around Novgorod who were in the blockade meet. I won’t go any more. The group is shrinking so fast. They are all getting so old. We are all getting so old.”

“You like living here?” I asked.

“Yes, it is my home. I have my garden. I have my chickens. But the government plans to knock it down, to put me in one of those cages they build. Just a cage, that’ s all they are.”

“I notice they have pretty much leveled the homes just a block down the street from you,” I said.

“Can’t you tell them you don’t want to go?” asked Lesley.

“The government doesn’t care what I want. They don’t care about me. They don’t care about the Russian people. They just do what they want. They took almost all my savings that I had in the bank. Took everyone’s pretty much. Just a few years back. My daughter gets twenty dollars per month for her pension. She can’t live on that. I have to help her out with my pension.”

“Do you have anything you are happy about?” I asked.

“I didn’t think it would be like this.”

“Are you happy when your chicken lays an egg? Are you happy when the sun shines through your window?” I asked.

The babushka tried not to smile, but finally, she looked radiant, and years younger. She was grinning ear to ear.

 

A Wheel Chair and a Palace in St. Petersburg


Lesley and I made the four-hour train ride north to St. Petersburg for a long weekend.

St. Petersburg seemed an odd city for Russia. It has a very western European mood about it. It has huge parks, immense ornate churches, wide boulevards, hundreds of museums, a wide range of ethnic restaurants, and palatial edifices, the greatest being the winter palace of the Russian Emperors. Some historians allege that the city was built as a message to Western Europe that Russia wasn’t a cultural and architectural backwater.

In St. Petersburg, many clubs were being revived that had been closed during the Communist period. The English language papers were full of promotions of these clubs: a dance club that had been closed for seventeen years, a performance space that had been closed for twenty-three years. There was even a music club that had been closed for eighty years that was reopening. I wondered who kept these memories alive so long; who was walking around thinking gee, I sure did have a good time at that club eighty years ago. I think it’s time to give it another go.

Nevsky Prospect, the main thoroughfare of the city, was lined with upscale consumer stores, fancy coffee shops, a small palace here and there, an occasional magnificent church, and many international chain hotels. (Out of curiosity, Lesley and I checked the rates at a Radisson – $450 U.S. a night for their cheapest room.)

On the Nevsky Prospect sidewalk in front of these opulent edifices, a frantic woman approached Lesley and me, “Please buy a map. My baby sister is so hungry. Please, just one map.” Another woman offered her mittens for sale. A rosy faced, young, handsome man, a veteran without legs, sat in a wheel chair wearing a military jacket, his hat extended for donations.

One very cold night, Lesley and I went to a Chinese restaurant. We chose not to sit in the main dining room, as there was loud music playing there. (Almost all upscale restaurants in Russia had very loud pop music blasting away. The music drowned out all conversation; one could eat, drink, gawk, and listen to music, but conversing was not possible.) We found a relatively quiet dining area near the entrance.

Shortly after sitting down, a blast of cold air suddenly swirled around us. Upon investigation, I discovered that the entrance door had blown open. (It was not visible from where we sat.) I asked the waitress to close it. She did. In a minute, it blew open again. I got up and closed it, sat down. Again, it blew open. Frigid wind blew through the restaurant. I closed the door again. Again, it blew open. I looked for something to prop against it. Of course, this would prevent customers from entering, or they would push over my barrier upon entering and create quite a disturbance. I wondered for how many years this door had been blowing open.

When we were done with our meal, the waitress cleared our table. She piled plates on her arm, higher and higher. I thought, she doesn’t know how to pile plates, bowls, and cups on her arm. She is just imitating someone piling plates on her arm, maybe a waitress she had seen and admired in a movie. After the stack of dishes got very high, it started to wobble. It suddenly shifted. She reached for it with her other arm. Good, I thought, she is going to take off a few plates, and make two trips. But no, she adjusted her stack of dishes, and then added more to the stack. It became preposterously high, comically high. I readied myself to leap for the falling dishes. She walked briskly away. The dishes spilled. I leapt. I missed all of them, as they clattered to the floor.

A little more about Russian restaurant service: it is a term that easily merits the status of oxymoron. For example, once, we asked for our blintzes with our appetizers. The waitress brought them as dessert. We said, “We asked for the blintzes with our appetizers. We thought you forgot them.

The waitress said, “I know, but I thought they would be better as dessert.

Another time we placed our order and said, “We are in a hurry. Can you please serve us quickly?”

There was one other customer in the restaurant. The waiter disappeared into the kitchen, returned several minutes later, and asked, “What things would you like in a hurry?”

We answered, “Please bring us things as they become ready in the kitchen.”

The waiter disappeared into the kitchen, came back several minutes later, and said, “The kitchen says that we can bring things as they become ready. Do you want me to put in your order?

We replied, “Please, immediately. Can we have coffee?”

There were normal sized coffee mugs in tall stacks on a neighboring table. The waiter brought us coffee in demitasse cups.

We asked, “Why are these cups so small? These are not coffee cups.”

He said, “If you want a normal size cup, you have to ask for it; otherwise, you get this size.”

Because service was often so slow, we usually tried to get our check while we were eating our entrée. Often, when we were trying to get our bill, there would be several waitresses in a corner chatting and smoking. We would wave our arms, wince, gesticulate, and cough loudly to get their attention, just so that we could pay our bill.

The waitress would finally just come and slap our check down on the table.

This was not just a slight of Americans; many Russians corroborated this impression of Russian restaurant service. Restaurants really didn’t seem like they belonged in Russia; they seemed like impositions on the culture–odd, considering how fantastic Russian home cooking was and how gracious and hospitable Russians were in their homes. 

While in St. Petersburg, we took a ride to Pushkin, a small town nearby where the Russian emperors had their summer palace, (built in 1710-1714 by Emperor Peter the Great, as a present, a rural retreat, for his wife, Catherine the Great.)

The drive from St. Petersburg to Pushkin is through a ghetto of crumbling warehouses, monstrous gray factories (many abandoned), piles of junk and industrial refuse, drab apartment buildings, on a completely broken highway with occasional stretches of deep pooling water in it, as there was no system for draining away the melted snow.

I wondered: how could so many public works by such a powerful country as Russia be so collapsed, so slovenly, so lacking in foresight? This is a country that prides itself on its engineering feats, but it does not require an engineer to know that water needs to drain off of highways. It doesn’t take a genius weather consultant to know that water freezes in Russia, and that frozen water will bust the roads, so it is better to not have the water there for it to freeze.

I wondered what the view was for the emperors when they journeyed from winter palace to summer palace, if they would have banned urban squalor from their view.

The summer palace was immense and gilded. Something seemed not right about it, though. Didn’t this structure go back several hundred years? I wondered. No, it turns out that it was almost completely demolished by the Germans as they approached Leningrad. And the German troops cut the ancient trees on the grounds to keep from freezing as they shelled Leningrad.

The summer palace was a reproduction, basically, an echo, of the Russian Empire’s opulent past.

Lesley and I put the required green plastic booties on, and wandered through the palace’s cavernous chambers. It felt wrong to me. I didn’t want to be there, protecting its reproduced floors with my green booties. I leaned against a wall. The guard reprimanded me for touching the wall. But this echo of your past needs life, I thought. It needs a smudge of life here and there.

Some rooms had photos of what that chamber had looked like after the Germans had destroyed it. A rubble wall here. A piece of floor there. We came upon the amber room, being slowly restored by grants from a gas company in Germany. There were little promotional brochures about the wonderful German gas company which does business in Russia. I thought of the Germans getting off the plane that had brought me to Russia, how they had run towards the immigration area, now soldiers of commerce.

I pondered: why did the Russians ever rebuild this palace anyway? Didn’t it represent everything that communism was opposed to: opulence, oppression of the poor, elitism? Why rebuild a memorial to a time that communists found revolting? Why didn’t they put that money into road drainage?

And Catherine the Great–didn’t she summer in this palace and collect massive works of art from Western Europe? Has she reincarnated since those days? Could she be a sullen guard in one of the palace’s gilded rooms? Perhaps she is the guard who admonished me not to touch. She sits there, in the reconstructed palace, day after day, protecting the walls, not recognizing her ancient home, not remembering her dinner extravaganzas, her art collections, her lovers. But every few months, while sipping tea on her break, something about the palace seems strangely familiar to her.

We headed back into St. Petersburg. It was awash in lights and shops and bars, much of it also an echo, a reproduction of its former overwhelming, incongruous western European grandeur. Could we really have an idea, even slightly accurate, of life within this city, during the blockade–no running water, no electricity, often no food, for two and one-half years, the coldest two winters of the twentieth century. Eating rats. Eating corpses. Shells raining down on this transplanted architectural extravaganza, laying it further to waste each day. Is this part of the somber mood that so many Russians carry within them? The war was finally won, but what was lost? Are Russians still in grief about the immensity of this trauma to their world? Does the next generation, and the next, take this grieving on, perhaps unconsciously?

In Russia, when you want a ride, you just put your arm out. Every fourth or fifth car will stop. You bargain a price, and away you go. These cars are not certified taxis. They are driven by moonlighting Russians. It is a standard way to travel about a Russian city (and I consider it a general barometer of how safe Russian strangers are to be with; if the drivers weren’t safe, it wouldn’t be a universally-used system.)

In St. Petersburg, one of these cars gave us a short ride. The driver’s name was Igor. He was a handsome, broad-faced man in a dressy leather jacket. When we mentioned we might want a ride to Novgorod, he told us that he wanted to take us there. We agreed on a price, and the next day we headed off on the four-hour journey to Novgorod, Lesley and I both in the back seat.

As he navigated his way through the squalid, chaotic outskirts of St. Petersburg, he began to tell us about his life. He had training as an engineer, but ten years ago he had lost his job, as engineering opportunities had almost completely vanished in Russia. He had savings then, and since then he had amassed more money working for a tractor manufacturer, rebuilding tractor engines. He had sent his wife to medical school, and she had become a doctor.

We sloshed through a kilometer or so of water standing in the highway. Hulks of tractors and trucks were scattered in the mud throughout the lots that flanked us. Men in rubber boots and coveralls waded about, carrying pipe, hoisting hunks of steel with the occasional working forklift. Collapsed buildings languished in the background.

Igor continued. He had $100,000 in the bank when he went to bed one night a few years ago, and the next morning he woke up, and he had $25,000. It must have been the same event that had happened to the babushka we had met in Novgorod, the one who had been in the blockade. Somehow, the government had suddenly impounded everyone’s savings in Russia, one of those devaluation strategies that bails the government out, and ruins millions of its citizens. For the last two years, Igor had made no money. He had been living off his savings. Five days earlier he had run out of savings.

“But your wife is a doctor,” I said. “Can’t she keep things going?”

“She makes fifty dollars per month as a doctor. Doctors make nothing.”

“How does she feel that your money is gone and you are driving a cab now?”

“She doesn’t know my money is gone. And I’ve been telling her I am out looking for a hard-to-find car part these last few days.”

He spoke with a peculiar energy, singing his words out robustly, snappily, enthusiastically. Rather, his speech seemed like a valiant attempt at enthusiasm.

“How come your country has so much money?” Igor asked. “It’s just got so much. What is their secret? You don’t have to tell me. I know the secret. It’s the Illuminati. They are here in Russia, too. But in Russia, they take the money out of the country, and give it to the Americans. I know all about the Illuminati.”

Igor told us he had wanted to take us to Novgorod, because a true pagan culture had flourished in that area 1,000 years earlier. Not long ago, he had become a member of this recently revived religion. This religion gave him hope for his life, his family, for Russia. A few weeks earlier, in front of his wife, he had taken his cross off his neck. He had told her he was done with Christianity. He was taking up the old way, the ancient way, from before when the Christians came to Russia and corrupted Russian folk life, the pure spiritual life.

“It’s the Illuminati. They are here in Russia, too. But in Russia, they take the money out of the country, and give it to the Americans. I know all about the Illuminati.”

The old way had a code, a simple code. There were four rules for the men: 1) be in relation to your surroundings; 2) protect your family; 3) pray to the old nature gods; and 4) tell the truth.

There was one rule for the women: obey your man.

“Is your wife interested in this pagan religion?” I asked.

“I’ve taken her to one meeting. She doesn’t seem to want to go back.”

“Are there any women who belong?” asked Lesley.

“A few,” Igor answered.

I thought of the conversation Lesley and I had recently had with the young woman on the train to Novgorod weeks earlier, when she had stated that the man has no worth unless he is bringing home the money.

Igor felt he had lost his worth, and he was chasing a new/old religion to get it back.

We were bouncing along on the main highway to Novgorod. It was a remarkably broken, tattered stretch of pavement. I looked out the window at a tremendous flat expanse of land. Snow was melting, exposing splotches of black soil here and there in the fields. But perhaps field, singular, would be the more appropriate term, because there were no fences anywhere. A hundred years ago, little farmsteads must have dotted this countryside, but today it looked like just one giant field. Russian agriculture: industrial, immense, impersonal.

“Would you leave Russia, if you had a choice?” I asked Igor.

“I love Russia. She is the motherland. I love her. I would never leave her. I would like to see other parts of the world, to see your country, for instance, but I would always come back to Russia.”

Here and there, little houses, mostly drab, lined the highway.

“What do the people in these houses do?” I asked Igor.

“They are mostly widows. They have nothing to do. They get tiny pensions. They get two channels. One shows soap operas from Western Europe. Mostly they watch soap operas.”

“Could Lesley and I buy one of these houses and live there, maybe have a pig?”

“Sure, they would sell you a house. Maybe $500. $2,000 for a nice one.”

“Would the widows be nice to us?”

“Sure, they would come over, bring you some borscht.”

“Would they think it was weird if we didn’t watch television?”

“Very weird. They would not understand that.”

“Lesley, Lesley, how much age difference is there between you and John?” Igor chirped. (He usually addressed Lesley as Lesley, Lesley.)

Lesley did some quick math. “Thirty years.”

“Your relationship is perfect,” he said. “Lesley, Lesley, you are so young. You certainly do everything John tells you to do. It’s the way it should be.”

Lesley and I looked at each other and giggled.

I said, “I don’t know what she should do. I don’t even know what I should do.”

Lesley said, “Sometimes I do what he tells me to; sometimes he does what I tell him to do. We don’t have a rule about it.”

Love in Novgorod


Upon arriving in Novgorod, we took Igor out for dinner, in a restaurant built into the thick fortress wall that surrounds the Kremlin. (Many cities in Russia besides Moscow have a Kremlin, an enclosure of fortified walls protecting the inside of the city.) We ate in a vaulted room, its stone walls seven feet thick. The room had been built 1,000 years ago, about the time that Igor’s new religion was getting phased out by the Christians. As I watched Igor eat his fish soup, I wondered if there were spirits in this ancient chamber to which he had been praying.

Lesley and I settled into life in Novgorod. Lesley spent part of her days studying Russian, part doing volunteer work on various recycling programs. I worked on my writing and managed voluminous amounts of emails regarding the upcoming farming season at Angelic Organics back in Illinois. It was a romantic stretch of life for both of us, as we had time to explore each other, spend time with Lesley’s fascinating array of Russian friends (there were only about ten Americans in all of Novgorod), watch the figures in black walk through the snow from our window, and be out in Novgorod a bit.

Kostya, one of Lesley’s musician friends, a boyish, restless twenty-one-year-old, was writing his dissertation on the Yippie movement in the United States. We invited him and his friends over to Lesley’s apartment for a night of wine, vodka and to talk about hippies and yippies. (I had been a bit of a hippie myself.)

Kostya and his friends Diana and Andre came for the evening. Diana was pretty and buoyant, an actress in local theater. Andre was handsome, and elegant in a quiet way. Diana and Andre were lovers. Andre and Kostya played music together in a band that was dedicated to Shambala (a heavenly place).

Kostya said that he was having trouble writing his dissertation, as there were only official Russian accounts of the Yippie movement in the U.S. The official accounts said that the yippie movement was all caused by hooliganism. (Hooliganism is a word that has been adopted into the Russian language.) We spent the evening merrily talking about hippies, yippies, free love, and the Vietnam War. Although they were nicely dressed, clean-cut youths, Andre said, “We are all hippies at heart, me and my friends. We love nature. We aren’t run by money. We do what we believe in.” Much of this exchange was in English.

Diana, who seemed so excited to be with us, but who seemed rather out of the loop because she knew very little English, finally ran into the living room, came back swirling a pink boa, a red feather sticking out of her hair. She gleefully swished around for a while, and then announced with fanfare, “my grandmother lives in a barn, in a house that is a barn. I love my grandmother.”

Diana leaned towards the map above Lesley’s table and dramatically pointed to a spot in the northern hinterlands of Russia.

“She lives here!” Diana exclaimed.

“The people in my grandma’s village work hard all day, drink vodka at night, and every so often they go to the disco six kilometers down the road.”

Diana was gushing with love for her grandmother. She looked at me directly. “You come back to Russia. We go to visit my grandmother.”

The conversation turned to passion, what we each were passionate about, how to follow one’s passions in Russia, where choices are limited.

“I am passionate about music,” proclaimed Kostya. “I can always play music.”

“I am passionate about Diana,” exclaimed Andre.

Diana smiled and blushed. She said, “I am passionate about theater, but to make money, I work in emergency service, taking phone calls about emergencies.”

As they were about to leave, Diana sprang for the map, spread her arms out in a great sweep over Russia. “I love Russia,” she rejoiced. “I love Russia. Every bit of it!”

Bradn, the Lutheran apprentice minister I mentioned a while earlier, his friend Angela, Lesley and I went to a restaurant. Angela was visiting Bradn from Germany for a couple weeks. She was also studying to be a Lutheran minister.

We talked a bit about Finland, which was a few hours north west.

Bradn said, “I was in Finland once. It was the weirdest thing. Suddenly, everything was really neat and clean. I was in Helsinki. There was a great sense of order. For instance, all the manhole covers were in place. In Russia, so often they are off, and they stay that way. It would be so easy for kids to fall down a manhole.”

I asked, “So what do you think happens if a Russian goes to Finland and sees how different it is there?”

Bradn replied, “I think the Russian would think, oh, this is what happens in Finland, and something else happens in Russia.

There was a party going on that night in the restaurant. It was a holiday, Men’s Day. (Women have their day, too, in Russia.) Three Russian women were putting on the party. One of the three was a friend of Bradn. She had told Bradn that Russians get most of their fun from vodka, and there should be a more natural way, and she was going to promote this natural way with parties.

Depending on what toy-military-medal one picked out of a hat at this party, one got a special treat, a kiss or a flower. The women were dressed in funny costumes, sort of a cross between Russian folk costumes and Disney garb—satiny, puffy, below-the-knee dresses emblazoned with big fruits and giant bumblebees. They sang the old Russian songs. They stamped, warbled, and fluttered. They twirled brilliantly inside their bumblebee and fruit dresses. The three women turned the normally grave Russians into fun, lively, singing, dancing spirits.

As I watched the darkly dressed party attendees cheerily bounce their way under the limbo pole, I wondered how the war was still playing out in their lives, how the thorough destruction of their town might still be lingering, festering, in conscious or unconscious ways. Sometimes people and cultures really do get on with life, after a big blow. Sometimes they just pretend to.

The Germans had looted or destroyed the 6000 religious icons that graced the ancient churches of Novgorod. They had ravaged and plundered thousands of early Russian manuscripts and printed books. They absconded with or destroyed a huge collection of paintings by the best Russian artists from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. (A few of these items have been trickling back to Novgorod since the war.)

The Germans were dismantling a tremendous monument The Millennium of Russia for transport to Germany to melt down into weapons, when the Russians finally routed them and reclaimed the rubble that was Novgorod. This monument immortalized the outstanding statesmen of Russia, along with all those who greatly contributed to the development of the country–its culture, science, art, literacy, literature and Christianity. German troops were going to the great effort, while waging war, of relocating to Germany this monument to a thousand years of Russian spirit, of Russian history. Almost nothing was left of the original Novgorod when the Russians marched in, save the shells of a few churches, and hunks of this sculpture, awaiting transport to the land of the enemy.

This night, the Russians at the restaurant were celebrating military valor in their town that had been completely destroyed by the Germans. After all, it was still their Russian town. So what if it had been rebuilt from scratch? They were partying in the motherland.

As the four of us left the restaurant, Bradn started talking about one of his parishioners. I don’t know what brought it up, maybe it was a conversation we had been having about lips, and kissing.

“One of the guys in my congregation was telling me recently about the rats in the work camp to which he had been sentenced,” Bradn stated. “The rats were really bad, but they didn’t eat the living. However, when someone died, they ate his ears off, and his nose, and his lips. They left everything else. That was the first way you knew someone was dead, by what the rats did. One night, my parishioner woke up and he was looking over to one side, and the guy lying beside him had no lips, and he quickly looked away, in the other direction, and there, on his other side, was another guy with no lips.”

“Bradn,” I said, “what does this do today? For how Russians are with one another, how they are about life?”

He replied, “they tell these stories very matter-of-factly. Who knows what scars are there? Who knows?

“Russia is mysterious,” Bradn added. “One can’t understand it with the mind.”

Due to her being a student in the Ecology Department, Lesley had an affiliation with the agricultural branch of the University of Novgorod. Her professors knew a bit about me, and wondered if I would present on organic agriculture to the agricultural students. Russian agriculture, the dean revealed, is all about chemicals and huge scale, but the farms were broke. They had no money for inputs.

The Russian professors had considerable exposure to the conventional system of U.S. agriculture, which could not transfer to Russia, due to all the capital and technology involved. Occasionally, U.S. universities of agriculture hosted the Novgorod agricultural faculty, but back then (early 2000’s) the word organic was never mentioned. The dean hoped I could offer another way of raising crops, a more natural way that did not require much capital or new technology.

In the meantime, my visa was expiring and we only had a week to get an extension, so that I could stay in Russia to do my presentation.

To renew my visa, we explained, certified, got stamped, bribed, walked, got stamped, got questioned, called, went back, went ahead, called again, got stamped, got called, paid a bank fee, got asked why my visa was blue–it should be yellow.

The police who approve it need a gift, vodka.

Okay.

Oh, the police didn’t like the color of the visa.

Spasibo.

Try this hotel. They give extensions.

Thanks.

Oh, John is going to present on organic agriculture at the university? Have the university write up an official invitation. Make sure to get it stamped. Then it will be easy to get an extension.

Got it.

Why did you get this official invitation from the university? That will look very suspicious. Don’t show this invitation to the police, or you will never get your extension. You need an invitation renewal from your sponsor in Moscow.

Spasibo.

Why did you get the invitation renewal from Moscow? You don’t need that.

It’s the law, and you said to do it. The visa law requires it for an extension.

No one follows that law.

Why is John registered in St. Petersburg? The police will send him to St. Petersburg for an extension. They won’t do it here.

That’s a long trip.

At the very, very last minute (Here are your two bottles of vodka), the visa extension came through.

My farm Angelic Organics had been written up in a Russian magazine that was a sister publication to Organic Gardening. It was a nice five-page color spread in Russian, and Lesley and I decided to make copies to hand out to those who attended my presentation.

We went to the copy center, and the employees acted like why were we bothering them with a request for copies. How could we do that to them?  There were many people working in this copy store, and not one of them seemed busy.

“Can we get these copies by eleven tomorrow morning?”

“Oh, that could be done.”

“Great.”

“But we are not going to do it. Probably not. Maybe, but maybe not.”

“If we leave them now, will it be more likely that they will be done by eleven tomorrow?”

“If you leave them now, they definitely will not be done by tomorrow, not by eleven, no way.”

“What if we bring them in first thing in the morning, will that make it more likely or less likely that they will be done by eleven?”

“More likely. But it does not seem all that likely.”

“How long does it take to do the copies? Your machines look very automatic. They look fast.”

“It doesn’t take long to make the copies.”

“Why can’t I get them by eleven, then, if I get them here first thing in the morning?”

“I don’t know. You might be able to.”

“Are you thinking that maybe there will be some other people here first thing in the morning, who will want copies done right away? If I get here right at opening time, will that make my chances better of getting them done right away?”

“It could.”

“Can you collate them with the machine?”

“Sure.”

“And staple them?”

“Yes, but you don’t want us to do that.”

“Why?”

“That will be expensive.”

“But it needs to be done. John has a presentation to give. We are in a hurry. We want it done.”

“No, you don’t. Not with a machine. Too expensive.”

“Can you do it by hand, then?”

“Sure.”

“Great, do it by hand. Does it cost when you do it by hand?”

“Yup.”

“How much?”

“Can’t say.”

“Will it cost more than it would cost to do it automatically?”

“Might. Don’t know.”

We spent maybe twenty or thirty minutes in this copy store, negotiating so many different aspects of making 150 copies, while the whole staff watched and listened. This was a store dedicated to copying, to business support. Many high-tech machines sat idle in this office, while we spent everyone’s time discussing our eight-dollar transaction.

I gave the presentation on organic farming to the agricultural class. It was in a huge university building that served maybe 2,000 students, and had one phone line to it. It was not an old building, but it looked like some of its gray walls were already falling off their frames. The street that led to the building was rubble.

Lesley had informed me about the Russian education system. “There is no money for textbooks. Students go into the classroom. The teacher reads from the textbook or from notes, and the students write down what he reads. Then they get an examination, based on what the professor read to them. There is little opportunity to ask questions in the class, to interact with the professor. It is simply not done.”

This synopsis of Russian education inspired me to begin my presentation with questions about who the students were, where they were from, what they hoped to do after graduating. I wanted to know my audience, and I wanted to create a space in which students could reveal themselves. My questions didn’t seem to register with the students, as I was asking them what they were about in life, and I guess they had never been asked to consider that, or were too preoccupied with survival to consider it.

I spoke on organic fertility and weed control as practiced on my farm. It was quite interesting to present to this mainstream agricultural group; there were several professors and administrators there, in addition to the students. They seemed quite open to hearing about organic methods. I reflected that a group of U.S. agriculture students and faculty would have been much less receptive to my presentation.

Afterwards, I asked the dean what these students would be doing after graduation. He said, “Selling things in big cities, retail jobs for most of them. A couple, if they are lucky, will get to go on and do agricultural research.”

“How many of them will end up on farms?” I asked.

“None,” he said. “The farms are broke. And they are all dismantled. There is nothing left of the huge collective farms. One person maybe got a mower. One person got a plow. Maybe someone got a harrow. Now they are trying to figure out how to get anything done. The curriculum at the university is designed to prepare students for these jobs that don’t exist anymore, that haven’t existed for ten years. That is the way the university works. It takes forever to get anything changed. So, we just keep training students for jobs that aren’t there.”

The dean added, “I am going to adopt your fertility system of leaving half the ground fallow in cover crops. We make so little money at the university. All of us who work here have to raise some of our own food, just to survive. I think your system might help me.”

On my last night in Novgorod, Lesley and I went to a nightclub to say goodbye to her friends, Bradn, Kostya, Diana, Andre and others. They mobbed us, hugged us, kissed me goodbye, hugged some more. I loved each of them.

As we walked into the snowy night, I said, “Lesley, there were so many people in that club who just kept looking at you. They don’t get to meet many Americans, and you are one, and they want to know you. And you speak their language so well. It is so perfect. You are a star in this city.”

“It’s you they want to know, John.”

We left Novgorod the Great in the morning.

Novgorod the Great?

After hundreds of years of waiting, of hoping, perhaps of intermittently petitioning the authorities in Moscow, Novgorod citizens could now call their city by its glorious old name again, Novgorod the Great. After being stripped by Moscow half a millennium ago of its status as the political center of Russia, after being overshadowed culturally for the last 200 years by St. Petersburg, after being smashed into bits by the German army, now, as ancient Novgorod incongruously hunched in its cloak of gray subsistence architecture and pride of place, by decree, it was officially, once again, Novgorod the Great.

 

To Moscow


With just a couple of days remaining before my extended vodka visa expired, Lesley and I traveled to Moscow, from where I would fly home.

The trip to Moscow was through mostly flat terrain. Snow fell much of the way, smearing the broken pavement, and bedazzling the tall pine trees that occasionally lined the road. Numerous cars and trucks had spun out into the ditches. We passed through many villages, with their mysterious mix of drab and festively painted cottages.

Along the highway, the villages sold things to the travelers, sometimes under awnings, but more often, just out in the elements. Everything, including the sellers, was covered in snow.

Each village had its specialty. One had stands of fish and pickles. Another sold blankets. In the middle of the open country was a car with bed pillows stacked high over its roof and its hood. In a later village, small patches of snow clung to dozens of prominently displayed beach towels featuring tropical birds, Cadillacs, and naked women. I wondered how it would feel after a shower to rub myself dry with one of these garish towels.

Moscow is the Manhattan of Russia, a flamboyant splay of monuments, traffic, parks, gleaming (and shabby) high rises, and honed entrepreneurialism. It pulses, throbs with life. How had Moscow come about, with its flair, its vitality, and its extravagance, in a country so somber?

Upon returning from his tour of the United States, Khrushchev allegedly had decided that the reason the U.S. was so rich was all the corn planted there. He made a decree that no potatoes or carrots could henceforth be grown on the collective farms, only corn. For the next five years, Russian agriculture was all about corn, and the citizens went without potatoes and carrots. Or so one Russian told me.

Perhaps there was some truth to this Khrushchev story. The rest of Russia, at least what I had seen, seemed so plundered. The countryside was so stripped of life. Perhaps it was the once fertile fields, the once robust farms of the country that had somehow fructified Moscow. Whatever the emptiness was in the countryside, it seemed there was a corresponding fullness, robustness in Moscow. I imagine there were many policies for mandatory tithing–quotas on mines, forests, fisheries, and oil fields– that were designed to transfer wealth from the outer reaches of the Empire to this robust mecca of cosmopolitanism.

The following is an account by Lesley of our first night back in Moscow.

 

The Orange Coat
by Lesley Freeman


“Due to heavy snow during the day’s drive from Novgorod to Moscow, John and I were an hour and a half late to meet our friend Nastya in the Metro station. I imagined Nastya waiting for us on a bench against the station’s white marble wall, the noise of the screeching trains in her ears. She’s asking the various people who take seats next to her for the time before they jump up to greet their dates, friends, and other individuals and hurry off with them. I thought she might be gazing up at the Metro station’s ceilings: high, arched, and lined with outdated mosaic images of Soviet life–an artistic journey available only to those Metro-goers who are too early, too late, or waiting.

“Our driver dropped us off across the street from where we needed to be, so we rushed down into the nearest underpass, the Moscow version of a crosswalk. Little shops lined the grim interior of the tunnel. As we rushed through, I stopped short in front of one of the shops and excitedly pointed at a bright orange coat. John liked the coat, and I liked the coat, but we were late so we rushed on.

“Maybe Nastya would still be there, we mused as we rode the extensive escalator deep into the area underneath Moscow’s famous Arbatskaya region. She wouldn’t wait an hour and half, would she? No, by now she’d be late for the hippie dance class she had invited us to. But maybe she was there. We glided off the escalator into a long, bright marble tunnel choked with masses of people and lit by monstrous metal chandeliers covered with images of hammers and sickles. 

“We walked forward, paying as much attention to the masses of moving people as to the possible presence of Nastya. But Nastya was gone. John and I stood there, getting knocked into by rushing Muscovites. We slowly went back to the escalator.

“We stood at the top, a bit out of the way, watched people go by, feeling sad that we’d missed our friend. Both John and I stood a bit more, looked at each other, looked at more of the Soviet chandeliers.

“John suggested we go back to the little shop in the underpass and look at the orange coat that had caught my eye. He was getting excited at the prospect of me having the new orange coat he knew I wanted, and the excitement infected me. We went back to the shop. The coat hung on the door where it had been before. We walked in. Women’s clothing lined the walls. I took off my shabby corduroy jacket and John slipped the orange work of art onto me. I displayed the coat for John; he ooohed. I spun around in front of the mirror, and the saleswoman ahhhed. I was dancing in the coat.

“I wanted more room in that tiny little shop so John and I could spin around and embrace and be in love and I‘d be in the amazing orange coat.

“The saleswoman saw my danc-ey movements, turned on the radio, and started dancing with me. She wore an old whitish loosely knit sweater with light blue and pink highlights with tightish black stretch pants. Her greyish blond hair matched the sweater and her middle-aged face was creased by what had probably been a difficult Russian life. 

“John began dancing, and we were all giddy and laughing, the saleswoman especially. She was so thrilled to meet us, she insisted, from way deep inside her soul.

“The three of us danced in a little circle, danced in a group hug. John and I were giving in to the flow of this experience, and we both loved the joyful connection we were making with this random woman. And my my my, did she love the connection she was making with us. She bounced right out of any hardship from which she may have been suffering. 

“There was more group hug-dancing and the woman kissed my cheek. The music was loud. The shop was tiny. She asked us if we were married. John and I laughed, looked at one another lovingly. No, we smiled, we’re lovers. 

“She told us John was her dream man, that he had the right sportsman-type shape, the right face, the right way about him. She waved her arms around close to his torso to demonstrate that she more than approved its form. She stepped back and admired him, her hands cupping her cheeks which had become extremely blushed. She’d never met anyone like him, she maintained. Did John know anyone like himself in America? She was looking for a good man with the right body who would be her perfect husband.

“John was being his considerate self. He’s a natural matchmaker. He looked at her with understanding, and seemed willing to help her with her search for a man. 

“I was ready to pay for the coat; I had the rubles out. 

“She grabbed John and danced with him.

“I danced to myself in the mirror. The orange coat was amazing. It matched John’s furry green and orange neck scarf. I turned to look at his dance with the woman, perhaps for some guidance; John always seems so composed and self-assured in bizarre situations. “I caught John’s eyes and smile which communicated something like “can you believe what’s happening!?” I smiled back at John. The woman had him in her grasp. 

“When she finished appraising and almost fondling him, she remembered me and insisted in an apologetic voice that I shouldn’t be jealous, he’s just so perfect. I know it, I thought, still entertained by the situation.

“I finally filled with shock, as it became clear what a fantasy world this woman lived in, completely unable to control herself, unable to resist her desire.

“I looked at John, a person who hates saying no to people, a person who would rather give people money, time, and affection than see them lacking or upset or rejected. John helped this woman to feel loved and accepted.

“I gave her the money I had been holding. She took it but never counted it. Red-faced, scared, and sincere, she insisted I not be jealous, that my man was simply the very perfect man. I nodded and, somewhat stiffly, hugged her and smiled some reassurance, hoping to take the edge off her possible upcoming progression of emotions. 

“And the saleswoman passes the hours by in her tiny store, looking out into the underpass through an unclothed section of window, perhaps hoping to see John again. Disappointment, shame, satisfaction…who knows what her emotions were, became? But, without a doubt, a piece of her fantasy came alive that day.”

 

End of The Orange Coat by Lesley Freeman

(Years later, Lesley told me that she had held on to the orange coat as long as possible, but every time the coat got wet from rain, it smelled more and more like burnt rubber. Finally, it smelled so much of burnt rubber, she had to discard it.)

 

The Sixth Epoch


Rudolf Steiner said that the sixth great epoch in human evolution would be centered in the Slavic world. (The fifth epoch is Middle European; the fourth was Greco/Roman; third, Babylonian-Assyrian-Chaldean-Egyptian; second, Persian; and the first was Ancient Indian. Each epoch lasts about 2,200 years.) In a lecture on May 30th, 1908, in Hamburg, Steiner said that the “impulse…for unity and brotherhood…will eventuate in the sixth epoch.”

It is tempting to think that Russia is slowly preparing for its eventual mission in the unfoldment of human culture, that much of its apparent dysfunctionalism and clumsiness is simply the process by which it is staggering gradually to the forefront of earned world leadership based on love between human beings. The epoch timeline would have Russia taking front stage about 1,600 years from now, so there is no big hurry. Ironically, the dominant characteristic of the sixth epoch will be free will.

The Russian preoccupation with subterranean beauty via their subway systems is perhaps a foreshadowing that the Slavic peoples are preparing for their eventual role of benevolent world leadership. They are starting where foundations will have the most endurance, deep within the earth.

The subways in Moscow are splendid in their beauty–bright, gilded, graced with opulent chandeliers. Reliefs of hammers and sickles are scattered throughout the subterranean chambers, ornamenting corners and railings. Immense mosaics of robust working men and women, toiling to farm and to run the factories of Russia, preside on the ceilings and gleaming marble walls. Great moments of Russian history are lavishly commemorated in sculpture and painting in the hallways and chambers of the palatial underground passages. Statues of Lenin and other military leaders loom above the bustling Russian crowds.

Perhaps the woman who sold us the orange coat is playing an important role in the unfoldment of the glorious Slavic epoch to come.

Lesley and I went to the fancy bagel store, Great Canadian Bagel, that we had visited in the middle of the night several weeks earlier. Julia ran towards us, gave us big hugs.

“I got the paperwork done again,” she smiled. “He will be released either in May or in the fall. I am so excited to be getting my husband back.”

“Wonderful, Julia!”

“Did you two get married?” she asked.

 “No,” I replied. “We didn’t get married.”

“Please invite me when you do. I really want to come to your wedding.”

 

Crash?


Upon leaving Moscow for the airport, Lesley and I were in an accident. I later pieced together that a driver in the opposite lane of this eight-lane highway had done a U-turn. The car crossed the median into our lane of ongoing traffic and clipped a car ahead of us, causing that car to do a 180-degree spin.

This car that had once been ahead of us pointing forwards was still ahead of us, but now with its front end pointed in our direction, going backwards down the highway. Imagine, it had been going forward at, say, sixty miles per hour, and suddenly, because of this 180-degree pivot due to being hit by another car, this car was no longer facing forward, but facing backward, now careening down the highway backward at fifty miles per hour; it was going in reverse at fifty miles per hour.

The driver stared at us through her windshield, a look of horror and helplessness on her face.  

Accidents often seem as though they are occurring in slow motion. This collision that was about to occur with our car was so gradual, I felt that time had offered to almost stop, giving me time to ponder life, to ponder Russia, to ponder my soon-to-be mangled body. This woman seemed to be barreling down on us as we skidded towards her on the busy eight-lane highway. It seemed like it took forever for us to get within striking distance. Finally, the two cars met. I awaited the crumpling hoods, the shattered windshield, our driver lurching into the steering wheel, crumpling his chest, as Lesley and I would be hurled over the front seat through the windshield, ending up on the hood of the woman’s car.

“I felt that time had offered to almost stop, giving me time to ponder life, to ponder Russia, to ponder my soon-to-be mangled body.”

None of this happened.

The cars came to a stop with barely a nudge. I only then realized that the woman who was bearing down on us was actually zinging along the highway in reverse. She wasn’t hurling towards us; she was hurling backwards down the highway. She was going the same direction we were going, but in reverse, because she had been clipped by another car. Our car was going just a little faster than her car, and just before our two cars came to a stop, they touched each other, almost like a kiss. It was kind of a head-on collision; technically it was that—two cars meeting face-to-face, head-on, on a highway, but with a smooch, not a crash.

As we came to this gentle halt, I wondered if her car was a metaphor for Russia, that it was going in the same direction as the rest of us, just a little bit slower, and it was doing it backwards.

10

Farmer John Writes: Progress on the Angelic Organics Shareholder Directory

If You Haven’t Yet Signed up for Your 2022 CSA Share

The growing season will soon be upon us. 

If you aren’t already on board for 2022, join us by signing up here. Be sure to log in to your membership account if you were a shareholder with us in 2021.

Update on our Shareholder Directory

Amanda, Nathan, Haidy and I have all been working towards launching the Angelic Organics Shareholder Directory. I wrote about the upcoming directory in my last issue of Farm News, and mentioned the holiday as an intended launch time. Some of what is in this issue of Farm News is somewhat redundant with the last edition, but I want to make sure you get familiar with the overall picture, before the launch.

Victor is getting us ready to grow

It turns out that the back end of this directory, the part the four of us have been working on, is more labyrinthian than we realized, hence more daunting. We have even hired a consultant, Luana, from the company that offers the platform for the directory (www.Brilliantdirectories.com). She is fabulous and has saved us many hours by helping us to better fathom and distinguish the extensive directory features and by helping us to gradually get it ready to launch.

All of this work on our part is intended to make it simple for you to set up your directory profile and to actually use the directory. The more confusion we wade through now, the more easy it will be for you later to join and use the directory—at least that’s our theory.

You might be a person who is thinking right now how can it be that hard? You might be thinking can’t they just publish a paper directory like they did in 1995?

We think it’s better to have a directory that keeps with the times and that doesn’t clutter your curated refrigerator door. We also think that you will agree with us once you join the directory and start to use it.

Today, I simply want to offer you an additional  overview of the directory, now that we are more familiar with it. The directory will offer two types of profiles for you to create: a business profile and a social profile. You can create one or both, and more than one of each. 

I am just offering the broad strokes here. I know that without you having the directory on your screen now to explore and work with, some of this might seem too abstract, but I think it’s important to background you further in this overview.

The Business Listing

The business profile is for our shareholders who own or partially own a business. We are hosting the directory especially to support our shareholders who are entrepreneurial. It’s not for non-profit organizations, such as hospitals or schools, since one cannot own or partially own a non-profit. (A shareholder pastor or rabbi could post their place of worship in the social directory, since they don’t own their place of worship but are affiliated with it.) If you work for Target, no business listing. However, if you are an insurance agent, who has your own agency, you would qualify for a business listing. We know these distinctions can seem a little complicated, but again, the business side of the directory is intended to support our entrepreneurial shareholders.

The business directory will have all sorts of ways for our shareholders who are enrolled in the directory to find and contact the businesses they need. Shareholders will have numerous ways to feature their businesses. 

A shareholder business owner (or partial owner) will select a category for the business, and sub-categories that represent the business. The directory will have about 20 main categories to choose from, and well over 100 sub-categories. It was great fun for us to come up with the sub-categories, which range from puppeteering to mural painting to voice overs to car detailing to dog walking. I’m sure we missed a few.

If a spouse or partner of the main shareholder wants to make a business profile–fine.

If someone who shares a share (funnily known as a piggybacker) wants to create business profile—fine.

If you have more than one business, there will be a way to enter that in the directory.

These business profiles will be offered for free for the first 6 months. If the directory drives good business to our shareholders, we will likely implement a small fee for the service. 

Only current shareholders who are members of the directory can access the directory and its business and social listings.

The Social Listing

This part of the directory is for shareholders who would like to learn about fellow shareholders and perhaps choose to interact with them. Most of the profile details in the social profile are optional, so that shareholders can be as private or as disclosed as they choose. Some of the optional details that can be posted in a social profile are school affiliation, hobbies, volunteer activities, address, phone number, etc. The more shareholders share about themselves, the more connections with fellow shareholders might be formed. And of course, creating a social profile is optional; no one will be listed in the directory who does not choose to create a profile.

The social directory is completely closed to the people who are not enrolled in the directory; it will not be available for interacting or viewing to non-members of the directory.

If a spouse or partner and children 13 years or older of the main shareholder want to create social profiles—fine. 

If someone who shares a share (a piggybacker) or spouse or partner and children 13 years or older want to create social profiles—fine. 

The social listing is free. I just want our wonderful shareholders to get to know one another better and to build shareholder community wherever they are.

In Moderation

The directory will be moderated. Inflammatory and contentious posts will not be allowed. The directory is intended to be a place where people can come together out of shared interests and respect. 

we love the seasons

Launch Date?

We’ll probably launch this month. We are extremely busy with a host of other farm tasks, preparing for the upcoming season. The directory is a priority, but so are many other things here priorities. 

I am very excited about this directory, so I keep moving it along, no matter how busy I am with other things.

Warmly,
Farmer John

7

Farmer John Writes: Angelic Organics Shareholder Directory

(Note for our 2021 Shareholders: deliveries are now complete for the season. Thank you for being part of our farm this year. The following is an announcement about our upcoming Service Directory.)

The Launch

We will soon be launching the online Angelic Organics Shareholder Directory. The directory will help to support our shareholders’ businesses and it will also hopefully facilitate shareholders’ cultural and social relationships with one another.

heartfelt

Sound Lofty?

Before our CSA came into being, I hosted a lot of parties at the farm—big parties, with food, performances and, of course, antics. Why? Because I like to bring people together, to get people talking, learning about one another, maybe falling in love. I suppose my farm was an early version of a dating app. (The only thing that got swiped back then was a jacket).

Once our Community Supported Agriculture program started here in 1990, my active social life dwindled. I mostly just worked non-stop to build up the farm and to keep the farm going. I still have the impulse to bring people together: that’s the main thing, in my opinion—what happens between two or more human beings. But how to bring people together?

I wrote about our upcoming Shareholder Directory in Farm News, Week 20, Agriculture Supported Community. The following are some excerpts.

“The current CSA arrangement creates a relationship to the farm, but this relationship is more like spokes in a wheel. It does not structurally facilitate a relationship between shareholders; it primarily facilitates a relationship between the farm and individual shareholders. The sacrament of our shareholders eating from the same farm doesn’t offer an adequate form for them to connect with one another.

“My inspiration for having a CSA farm was to bring people together, to build community through the wondrous place of an ever-unfolding farm. However, Angelic Organics farm is really too distant from most of our shareholders for it to become a hangout–an ongoing, drop-in place of awe-inspiring, life-affirming encounters…the CSA [directory] can help my dream of nurturing shareholders to come somewhat true by facilitating encounters with and support for one another near where you live.

“In our former Shareholder Services Directory, created in hard copy in 1995, shareholders had 85 individual listings; at least one out of ten shareholders listed a service or a product in our directory.

our original hard copy Shareholder Directory from 1995

“The directory was very popular. Years after we published it, shareholders told me that it was still serving them as a resource.

“I wrote the following in the introduction to our former Shareholder Services Directory. It will apply to the upcoming directory.

“Healthy food from Angelic Organics is a unifying theme for members of our CSA, but it is just a beginning. Food does not satisfy all our various needs; there is so much more that we rely on in our everyday life. Use the service directory to support your health, your environment, your children, your legal and financial needs, your emotional and spiritual wellbeing, your business—what an ideal way to weave community into the diverse membership of Angelic Organics.”

End of excerpt from Farm News, Agriculture Supported Community.

The Upcoming Angelic Organics Shareholder Directory

The upcoming new Angelic Organics Shareholder Directory will be swanky, compared to the hard copy version we published in 1995. It will be online and will offer many features that will help it to be very useful to our shareholders. (Brilliant Directories will offer the directory platform.)

I won’t elaborate on the features yet. Nathan and I are still wading through its plethora of options to determine just how to make it as useful as possible. I just wanted to get you used to the idea of this forthcoming directory now, so that when we launch it, you will be more prepared.

This newsletter basically offers the impulse behind the directory. When the directory actually launches, we will send instructions for just how to engage the directory.

This is the Party

I’ve noticed that our shareholders tend to feel a bond with their fellow shareholders—if they ever get to meet them. I have been told many times by shareholders things like, “We were carpooling to Minneapolis and I found out that the driver was also an Angelic Organics shareholder!” and “Turns out that the secretary at my law firm is an Angelic Organics shareholder—been doing it even longer than me.”

Our CSA is Agriculture Supported Community waiting to happen. Is it a community waiting for my first huge weekend-long party that everyone attends? Doubtful. Let’s consider this directory that party.

The Directory Will only be Available to Current Shareholders

The Shareholder Directory will only be available to current Angelic Organics shareholders to post or to browse. (In this case, that means shareholders who are signed up for a 2022 CSA share.) It is possible that we will eventually allow browsing of shareholder businesses by the general public, but for now, we will keep the directory cozy and only make it available to our shareholder community.

You Can Have a Social Profile

There are church membership directories, school membership directories—why not a CSA membership directory? Of course, you, the shareholder, will decide if you want to appear in our directory or not, or just how much you wish to disclose about yourself. This social profile portion of the directory will always be closed to non-shareholders.

I would like to let shareholders know of other shareholders who attend the same place of worship; whose kids attend the same school; who loves golf, or tennis or boating or yoga; who have the same delivery site; who would like to car pool to a Farm Field Day; who lives a block or two away; who would like to get together for shareholder potlucks.

Of course, this will only work if enough shareholders participate, but if they do, party’s on!

This part of the directory, the social profile, will be free.

You Can Also Have a Business Profile

The shareholder directory will make your service or product available to your fellow shareholders. Shareholders will be able to discover you online by service or proximity, and text, email, or call you about what you offer. You may post your business for free for the first six months, after which we will evaluate how useful/lucrative it is for you. After 6 months, we might start charging a fee for your directory listing.

There You Have It

Well, there you have a broad outline of the intention for the Angelic Organics Shareholder Directory—more to come as we get nearer to launch time, which will likely be this month.

It’s a gratifying holiday project for the farm and hopefully for our shareholders.

Warmly,
Farmer John

4

Farmer John Writes: Honor the Farm

Extended Season Week 4, December 6th – 11th, 2021


Finale

This is the final week of the extended season, and the final week of the 2021 season. We have been fortunate with the fall weather, with yields, and a good crew. I hope you feel that the farm took good care of you this year.

What’s Next?

My tendency is to ramp up the work when the season ends and go full tilt until the next season starts, because there is so much that needs to be done here that we cannot get to during the busy season. Haidy recently pointed out to me that I should be strategic about what winter projects to take on, as there should be at least some downtime in the winter. She’s right.

Final Installment 

The topic of farmstead design has been overdue, I guess, as it has dominated my last few newsletters, including this one. Upon just now reviewing the four newsletters for the extended season, they all address my approach to farmstead design from various angles.

Hints 

I can only offer hints of my design process, due to limited space in the hard copy and limited time. It occurs to me that I could write a chapter and probably a whole book about the design projects here on the farm, what informed them, limited them, expanded them. I hope that my brief indications that I am offering here might give you some insights into my process and perhaps provide you with a richer experience of the Angelic Organics farmstead when you visit it. Perhaps my musings will even inform some of your own future design decisions. 

A few of my design standards/insights/methods are:

  • I let the building (the project) speak to me. 
  • I use recycled or salvaged materials when they fit the purpose and the design.
    • Salvaged materials are often more authentic than contemporary building materials.
    • Materials emit their essence. 
      • Marble has the vibration of marble, the intrinsic quality of marble.
        • A surface conveying an image of a marble surface is not marble, just like a photograph of a person is not the person.
  • I endeavor to build what will never need to be updated. 
    • I renovated Haidy’s and my limestone home 50 years ago with a limestone addition, slate, marble, hardwoods, stained glass and wrought iron. Over 75 items of architectural salvage are incorporated into the design of our home, not primarily because they are salvage, but because they are authentic and inherently beautiful.
      • What these materials offer aesthetically is key to why these materials were selected and key to the intrinsic and enduring beauty of our home.
      • Haidy says the design is timeless, except, ironically, the bedroom needs to be updated, because it was designed by a designer according to principles that were modern or current at that time
        • I suppose a better term than update is to undate, as timeless design has no date.
        • Does the Acropolis need updating?
  • It usually takes way too long to get back to an unfinished project, so I give a project my all to finish it, once I start it.
    • I consider it unethical to not complete a project; such incompletion weighs on my conscience.
  • Most projects are fraught with unexpected construction challenges and cost overruns.
    • If I expect these, they are not unexpected.
  • When I think the project is near completion, it’s not.
  • The remembered past, the known present and the likely future all enter into how I work with a building.
    • As much as the future seems known, it is still a mystery. I design for specific future purposes, knowing that other unanticipated purposes might emerge and need to be served by the design.
  • I pretty much never draw a sketch or a blueprint. My guys here on the farm, who have been working here for years, know what I want with a few gestures and words from me.
  • Sometimes, a building will want a feature that seems excessive or preposterous. The feature might be an alcove, a shrine, a blue light, or a disco ball.
    • It’s hard to know what to do then. Often I go with it, because I think in the long run, the building knows best.
    • Sometimes I refuse to indulge the building, because buildings, like children, can be wrong.
  • Echoing a lament of film directors, seldom do I get what I envision. 
    • Occasionally the result is better than I envision; often it’s not as good. 
    • Sometimes I let it be when it disappoints me; sometimes I remedy it—it all depends.
  • Saving, energy, using non-toxic materials, conserving water are important.
    • These reside in the realm of ecological function, and one might add ecological aesthetics.
  • I always consider how my fellow human beings will feel while entering into and being in the spaces I design.
    • Even when I am on a tight budget, the creative impulse must be integrated throughout the building project. It will still shine through.
      • Beauty is not to be added on, in case there is time and money for it. Beauty is as essential as function, and must be integrated, not patched on later.
  • After a building project is completed, a policy of order and cleanliness is continually upheld in the space.
    • Frank Lloyd Wright even looked inside the closets and cabinets of his clients to see if they were upholding his design standards throughout their home.
  • With the proper care, buildings metamorphose, and eventually flower.
  • The space between the buildings is part of the design of the building. 
    • A farmstead is a constellation. Stars shine forth in part because of the space between them. 
  • I don’t design to make myself look good. I design to make other people look good (and feel good).

Balance

Appropriate building design relies on many delicate processes, because the whole design has to harmonize—colors, textures, shapes, sizes, materials, windows, light, the space between the buildings, etc. For instance, a beautiful element can be too sensational for the rest of the structure or the constellation of structures. I pondered the entrance to our milkhouse for years, because it had to be special, but not so special that it took away from the rest of the farmstead. 

I finally chose a vintage cottage door with leaded glass that has a slightly rounded top, echoing but not imitating the arched roof. In spite of its slight flair, one might even think that the door is original to the milkhouse. Installed above it is a round window embedded with colored glass prisms that cast multi-colored light into the interior in the mornings. The combination of arched door and prismatic window is almost a bit much, but the milkhouse is a centerpiece of the farmstead and it wants to be just a little flamboyant. It doesn’t seek to dominate the rest of the farmstead; it seeks to heighten the experience of the whole farmstead. I could not achieve this sort of aesthetic without love and respect for the milkhouse and farmstead, and the corresponding guidance that the milkhouse itself has imparted to me. 

milkhouse in foreground, vintage door, round window, dormer windows

photo of east milkhouse wall at night

morning light from the round bejeweled window plays on the north milkhouse ceiling and dormer

This guidance was informed to a degree by my history with the building: I chose the arched form when I was eight; from when I was nine years old to twenty, we kept our milking equipment in the milkhouse; I poured hundreds of thousands of gallons of milk into the cool stainless tank inside the milkhouse; when we sold the cows, I converted the milkhouse into a cozy apartment where I lived for several years. The milkhouse was like a friend or a partner–supporting me, housing me, comforting me–and, when it was time to re-purpose it, it whispered to me how to proceed. This process is about as local is it can be, given that I saw the milkhouse built in 1957 when I was 8, and have had it in my heart and my mind for the decades since.

Feeling My Way

It is important to note that this process does not come about primarily from thinking; it comes about from feeling—feeling my way into the form, into the history, into the need. The feelings emerge into the world of conscious thought and also penetrate into the will. I do not understand the process by which the buildings here speak to me and share their needs and wants with me. It is almost as if the buildings are entities, are beings. What I do understand, however, is that love is at the basis for the whole process, from beginning to end.

A Hike

While hiking the Italian Alps, when I was taking a break from touring with the film The Real Dirt on Farmer John, the corn crib on the farm spoke to me for many hours, day after day, suggesting colors, arches, walkways, staircases, even insisting on a disco ball. These images formed more vividly in my imagination than they even exist for me now in the physical. Not only did they vividly form as images, they formed as sequences for how to achieve the actual construction results. Over the next several years, I executed these designs in the corn crib, as it requested.

I refer you to the Metamorphosis of the Peterson Farmstead for a photo review of the re-purposing of our corn crib, which was mostly inspired by visions/imaginations that I received while hiking the Italian Alps. Below are samples of photos you will encounter at that link. Notice how the corn crib eventually flowers.

corn crib under construction in the mid 2000’s

corn crib exterior today

corn crib interior, where we used to stop the corn and oats

You will also find in that link documentation of the renovation of the main barn, and the renovation of the farmhouse. This link will provide you with a feeling for the vast scope of work with the buildings here at Angelic Organics, including how they continue to metamorphose.

To learn more about my inspiration for the creation of spaces on the farm, check out my presentation given in our barn loft as a pre-conference event for the 2012 Biodynamic Conference, Awakening to the Social Organism of the Farm and the Design of Social Spaces.

The Money

I’ll note that this imaginative design process never takes into account where the money will come from to finance the projects. The buildings never whisper to me how to afford the needed changes while they are imparting their longings to me. I thought that my tour with the film would at least provide the funds to replace the leaky roofs on my buildings, but no. Maybe, if I were to love money the way I love my buildings, money would start to speak to me.

Haidy Said

“A building is like a child. At first it’s like a baby, and you are not really sure what it wants to become. Over time, it expresses itself more and its personality starts to emerge. You help it become what it wants to be.”

Our Best to Your Holiday Season,
Farmer John, Haidy, and the Rest of Us at Angelic Organics

2

Farmer John Writes: Honor the Human Being

Extended Season

This is Week 3 of our 4-week extended season. Only shareholders with an extended season share have deliveries left this season. If you are unsure of your delivery schedule for the rest of the season, check your delivery calendar in your membership account.

Garlic this Week

If you ordered a garlic bulb this week, you might get a bag of garlic cloves instead. The cloves were left over from our garlic seeding this fall. There are about as many cloves in a bag as there would be in a bulb, so you are getting an equivalent amount of garlic in your bag. 

Thanksgiving Feast

Farm employee Amanda and her mom Ann presented a most beautiful, delicious Thanksgiving feast for the crew last week. Everyone was lauding everyone else in light of the industrious work performed over the long season. It was the first time most of our crew had ever experienced a traditional Thanksgiving meal, and they were most enthused and appreciative. (Sorry, no photos. We were too busy enjoying our event.)

The H-2A workers, who have now all returned to Mexico, emphasized the tremendous financial opportunity they had received by being able to work here for $15.31 per hour, vs the $12 per day they would earn in Mexico. (In addition, they received free housing, utilities, and the use of a farm van. Their travel expenses were also paid by the farm.) At the lunch, they shared that many dreams for their lives in Mexico were made possible by their wages here this season.  

A Crop of Buildings

Whereas I have raised seasonal crops over many decades, my buildings represent one crop—one continuous effort through decades of prosperity, insolvency, illness, and vitality. It is no wonder that I consider my farmstead a major component of my life’s work. I have been creating, maintaining, and re-purposing the buildings here for over 50 years. When I offer a tour of my farmstead, I am really offering a retrospective.

You might think, when reading this issue of Farm News, that you signed up for a share of food and you might wonder why you are being subjected to another farm newsletter focused on farm design and beauty. Well, Angelic Organics is not just about its food; it is about the whole range of life and activity here, including the built environment. If you don’t already, I encourage you to take an interest in the whole farm, since it is the whole farm that functions in a way that brings you your food. In the local food movement there is a suggestion to “know your farmer,” and this newsletter will help you to know your farmer better.

Plants are Pre-Determined. What about Buildings?

I do not design plants. I tend them. The seeds that give rise to the plants are the designers of the plants. I design how the plants are tended, where they are raised, how they are harvested, but the plants grow from seed that is our heritage and that is mostly pre-determined according to the variety of the seed.

The built environment here is about 15 buildings or so, comprising the farmstead and our home. The ongoing design and rejuvenation and new construction is a most compelling and mysterious process for me. A seed is going to become the plant that is already determined by its genetic makeup—not so, a building. How does a building come to be, or come to be something different than it already is? Of course, there are architects, designers, engineers and project managers who produce buildings and renovations via their informed, educated processes, but in my world of buildings, I am the architect, designer, engineer and project manager. As I mentioned in the last issue of Farm News,No Professional Qualifications, a representative of the National Endowment for the Arts told me that I had no credentials for evaluating design, buildings; no training…

But I think I Have Credentials

The Seed. You might remember from the last issue of Farm News that I actually caused the basic forms of our main farm buildings when I was 8 years old, when my mother let me choose their shapes. With the help of my parents, perhaps I am in a way the seed for the built environment on this farm. 

Lifelong History with the Earth. Perhaps another credential that should be attributed is my lifelong history of working with materials of all sorts, as I have a training in the workings of the earth, of equipment, of tools. I might have lofty ideas for a project, but my feet are always firmly on the ground. As a lifelong farmer, I am steeped in earthly reality: process, heft, strength, resistance, resilience, death, life, rust, tension, form, time…

Love. Another credential is love. If I love a person deeply enough, or a river, or a book, or a mountain, or a pet, it will reveal more and more secrets to me. This is the case for me with my farm buildings. Impressions/imaginations of how to care for and develop the buildings form out of my love for them. 

(Should I send the above credentials to the NEA representative who said I had no credentials back in 1981?)

Honor the Human Being

I of course bring certain priorities or guidelines to the design process: function is of course paramount; ecology is important; beauty is necessary. The most essential thing about any building that I build or modify here is that it embrace the human being, elevate the human being, make the human feel honored and uplifted. 

Of course, my work does not always achieve that level of embrace. A color combination or form might elevate the mood of some souls and darken the souls of others. A different hue of a color might have worked better, a window should have ideally been installed an inch lower, a floor would have ideally been a different type of wood. However, all of these design and building efforts are always an attempt to facilitate function while bringing joy or at least affirmation to the beholder, the user. Affirmation? You, the beholder, are a human being. This building is here in part to hold you in high esteem, to remind you that you matter, to affirm you. (Attentive listening offers a similar affirmation to our fellow humans.)

Even our very functional shop, built with a shortage of funds, elevates the user with its use of color and its artwork.

Concepcion and Victor discuss Concepcion’s return to Mexico in the farm shop. Notice the red, yellow and teal color details. (The shop likes to host meetings.)

framed motto hanging in the shop: “Sure, We’ll Finish the Job” (Victor upholds this motto daily.)

Perhaps you recall my Week 12, 2020, newsletter on Portals, where I highlighted several portals on the farm. Excerpt from Portals: “The room through which one enters a home is often referred to as a foyer, which has its origins in Old French as the word for hearth, or warmth. Over the years, I have strived to enhance entrances so that human beings passing through them will feel special, elevated, wondrous–will feel warmed.”

example of portal on the farm: milkhouse staircase, lazured ceiling, uplit eaves

My impulse to elevate the human being through the built environment became more crystalized upon encountering a book of Rudolf Steiner’s lectures titled Architecture as a Synthesis of the Arts, which I have now read three times. Upon referencing it here, I realize it is now time for me to read the book a fourth time.

From a synopsis of the book: “In these lectures Steiner describes…the importance of an architecturally coherent and integrated community, and how this in turn affects social unity and harmony.”

Overheard

Artist/Friend: “Let the buildings speak.”

To Be Continued

The danger of writing issues of Farm News is that certain things just want to be written, and those things don’t necessarily conform to space or time (a bit like the danger of designing buildings based on their wants and needs, which also might not conform well to space or time.) This topic of aesthetics and building design in light of my relationship to my farmstead and my fellow human beings has gotten away from me today. This issue, when I finally checked, was as long as two regular editions of Farm News.

I could condense it, or continue it in the final issue of the season. I’m going to continue it in the final issue.  

Warmly,
Farmer John

2

Farmer John Writes: No Professional Qualifications

Extended Season Week 2, November 22nd – 27th, 2021


Extended Season

This is Week 2 of our Extended Season. Only shareholders with an extended season share have deliveries left this season. If you are unsure of your delivery schedule for the rest of the season, check your delivery calendar in your membership account.

Popcorn

If your Angelic Organics popcorn does not pop well, pull the husk back to expose the kernels, and dry the ear on a windowsill or a counter for a couple of weeks—should pop to your delight after that.

Our Crew and Thanksgiving

This week is the last week of work for our H-2A workers from Mexico. Customer service provider Amanda August and her mom, Ann, will provide a Thanksgiving feast for the crew on their last day of work here, Wednesday. Thank you so much, Amanda and Ann, for giving the crew an experience of our Thanksgiving traditions here in the States. And thanks for including everyone on our whole farm team in the dinner. And much appreciation to the crew for all your hard work this season. 

field team mulches the garlic so it will endure hard winter frosts

I Think I Want that One

I wrote a bit about farmstead design last week in Farm News, Extended Season Week 1, Like a Dream that Won’t Form. That got me to reflecting on my somewhat mysterious relationship to farm buildings since I was a child. When I was 8 years old, my mother drew pictures of possible roof shapes for the new barn my family was planning to build. I chose the arched form. I sometimes wonder if my steadfast commitment to the upkeep and beauty of our farmstead has to do with my very early involvement with choosing that form. Fortunately, my wife Haidy is equally committed to upholding the beauty of our farm buildings, even though she didn’t have the opportunity when she was little to choose the arched forms that characterize our farmstead.

International What?

There is considerable attention today put on local–supporting local food, local artists, and local businesses in general. I notice, however, that city governments and real estate developers often sponsor worldwide design competitions and typically award commissions to prestigious firms whose principals didn’t grow up in the city for which the building is being considered.  

My parents talked at the supper table in the 60’s about the new style of architecture that was then becoming popular—the international style. My mother said, “with the new international style, when you visit a city, it will look like any other city.” I remember the feeling of trepidation I experienced when I heard this, though at the time, I wasn’t really sure what made me feel that way.

Does Love Matter? Does Matter Love?

I’ve been paying attention to the buildings here on the farm since I was a child, and I suspect that the love and care that I have directed towards them, and that they have directed towards me, play a considerable role in how I interpret them and re-express them. 

Art and Agriculture

Many artists during the 70’s and the early 80’s were living on this farm, doing their art work here and also helping with the farm work. It was natural to me that the buildings were treated with an artistic sensibility and that their use and function emanated from a local perspective. The forms and uses of the buildings would of course flow out of the relationship that the residents had to the location and to the activity of the place. We even formed a not-for-profit called The Midwest Coast, whose mission was our commitment to Art and Agriculture. The Midwest Coast was dedicated to noticing, creating, and celebrating synergies between art and agriculture; this included the design of the buildings.

For example, the loft of the main barn became a studio for a fiber artist. Since fiber was a primary component in her artistic activity, we incorporated muslin into the design of the walls and ceiling when we insulated them. We prioritized keeping the arched rafters exposed, since they are an important feature of the barn’s heritage; also, they offer a feeling of rhythm, which is an innate component of farm life and human life.

muslin walls and ceiling of barn loft; exposed rhythmic rafters

A Risk

In 1981, I received an artist’s grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to visit art communities and examine to what degree their building designs were informed by place and informed by the people who inhabit that place. 

Someone at the NEA said to me at the time, “We are taking a chance on you by giving you a grant, because you have no professional qualifications. Every other recipient of the grant is a professional.” I was talking from a landline phone installed in the barn. I remember saying something like, “I’m having a little trouble hearing you, because of the chickens and pigs making all that racket in the background.”

Relational?

Generally, based on my NEA funded tour of several artists’ colonies out East, my impression was that the architecture of the art colonies was not especially artistic in itself nor inspired by the locale where it was situated. The buildings often seemed designed from afar by professionals, and plunked down irrespective of place–not inspired by the sort of work that would be carried out within these communities nor inspired by the region where the work was being done. In other words, the built environment of these colonies, with the exception of the Penland School of Craft in North Carolina, generally did not echo place nor the character of the creative work that was being done there nor the character of the artists who worked there. 

I am not advocating for everyone to design and hand build their worlds. My experience of doing such is that it is a huge amount of work, an enormous commitment fraught with surprises and budget overruns. However, it intimately relates one to place, to self, to community. And I am compelled to do it—it is part of my calling. 

Local

In my twenties, I cut oak trees from my woods, cured the logs for two years, had them rough cut into lumber, cured the boards for two more years, milled them and paneled some of the walls of my converted limestone schoolhouse with them.

bathroom in our home paneled with oak from the farm

Without Credentials

For several years, a class from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, organized by SAIC Professor Jim Zanzi and former farm resident Lisa Stone, would spend a few days touring Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois folk art environments. These are places where people, generally without artistic training, would create very imaginative installations in their homes or yards or farms, often referred to as folk art or naive art or outsider art. My farm was on that tour, since, without professional training, I had created so much out of my personal history with it and my unschooled imagination of it.

I suppose that the tour organizers, in order to include me on the tour, loosely categorized me as a (definitions procured from the internet): 

naive artist: a visual artist who lacks the formal education and training that a professional artist undergoes

folk artist: an environmental artist who creates unique, personal places, which comprise of large-scale hand built sculptural and/or architectural structures…The folk art environment is quite simply a lovingly hand built, unique dream environment.

outsider artist: self-taught art maker. Typically, those labeled as outsider artists have little or no contact with the mainstream art world or art institutions.

I imagine that, to the tour organizers, my lack of professional design credentials was in itself a credential.

north wall of farm powerhouse, designed and built by Farmer John, 1983…outsider art?

limestone home addition and garden wall designed, quarried, and built by Farmer John, 1976—John & Haidy’s current home…folk art?

Long Introduction

Just this introduction to my lifelong commitment to making the farmstead beautiful, functional and relational has taken up pretty much this whole issue of Farm News. I didn’t even enter today into my process by which I design the farm into the future. I just sort of backgrounded you in my lack of professional credentials and my abundance of love and care for the farmstead since childhood. Once I began to write, I unearthed much about the history and nature of my enduring commitment to the beauty and integrity of this place. I will explore this relationship further in an upcoming issue of Farm News, as the most important thing is not my credentials or lack of them; the most important thing is the delicate, profound process by which I have continually balanced the future of the farmstead with its past while being in the demanding presence of the present. The other most important thing is that we design, work in and live in spaces that make us feel love, that elevate us as human beings, that affirm life.

Art

“It is our task in the study of method always to engage the whole individual. We could not do this without focusing our attention on the development of an artistic feeling with which the individual is endowed. This will also dispose the individual … to take an interest in the whole world as far as [that person’s] nature permits.”

     ~ Rudolf Steiner – GA 294 – Practical Course for Teachers – Stuttgart, 21st August, 1919

Warmly,
Farmer John

2

Farmer John Writes: Like a Dream that Won’t Form

Extended Season Week 1, November 15th – 20th, 2021


Our 20-week main season is now complete. This is the first week of our extended season. Only those shareholders who are signed up for an extended season share have deliveries left this season. If you are unsure of your delivery schedule for the rest of the season, please log in to your membership account to view your delivery calendar.

I notice that this issue of Farm News somehow segues from weather to farm design. So be it.

Weather dramatically impacts harvest activities as we near the end of the season. The frosts make early morning harvests awkward, because the crops that have survived the cold, such as kale and cabbage, are rather like leafy sheets of steel and cannon balls, respectively. And, of course, the field crew, depending, experiences numbness in the feet and hands and frigid cold further within their bodies. When I say depending, I mean that some of our H-2A guests from Mexico who have chosen to brave the work until the end of the season are poorly equipped to deal with the cold. Instructing them on the importance of keeping their feet warm might sound to them like the words of an overly-protective parent, as they stare at me, shuffling, shivering, rubbing their stomachs and chests briskly to ward off the cold. (Yes, we offer warm winterwear to the crew and insist that they wear it.)

Of course, there is a psychological component in one’s tolerance for cold. Victor and Pollo, both of whom hail from Mexico, stay warm. I felt Victor’s ungloved hands recently after he came in from the field on a frigid day; his hands seemed like they were fresh out of the warming oven.

This fall, with the heaps of harvest work and a smaller crew than usual, we have still managed to provide some overdue structural care to the greenhouse. That’s in addition to the massive amount of upgrades (about $50,000 worth) we did on it in early spring described in a March edition of Farm News, The Thaw, My Sister, and Your Share.

We built the greenhouse 25 years ago. The water cascading down the arched roof and pooling at the base over the years eventually rotted out the boards that serve as the seal to the ground. This past week, Pollo and Bartolo replaced those decayed boards that were embedded in the ground with long-lasting yellow pine, tongue and groove 2×6’s. Then it rained. Then it froze. We would not have been able to get to the job if we had waited a day longer. I had been wanting to do this project for years—but how to fit it in amongst all the other farm busyness during the unfrozen part of the season? Sometimes, we just make things happen, no matter what.

I must add here that, given that Pollo was in charge of the project, it would for sure be done in a timely and effective fashion. I featured Pollo in Week 10 Farm News, The Wrong Kiss. One of his more mystical qualities is that I usually only need to nod at a project, maybe discuss it briefly with him, and he already knows exactly how to do it. It’s almost as if the project is already done in the future and he just has to go through the motions to manifest that already realized future.

Pollo and Bartolo replace the baseboards of the greenhouse before the rain, the snow and the hard frost

The next step is to replace the double poly liner that spans the roof: that’s a challenging, weather-sensitive process. The day has to be very calm to drape the 86 ft x 40 ft double liner over the arched rafters and then secure it. If a wind comes up, what might normally take 6 hours can take an extra day or two. The slightest wind turns the liner into a giant, billowing kite. Years ago, I tried to hold the liner down to the ground against a breeze. It took me airborne–just a few feet upwards before I let go. I sometimes wonder how far it would have hoisted me to the sky if I had hung on.

These poly liners last three to five years. Then they begin to crack and let out the expensive heated air. The loss of heat will probably be more expensive this coming spring than ever before, given the increases in costs for the lp gas we use for heating it.

When I chose the greenhouse’s 30 ft x 84 ft dimensions in the mid-90’s, I made sure that it would not exceed the 32 x 88 dimensions of our main barn. It didn’t seem right to give the greenhouse a greater stature than the magnificent arched barn that graces our farmstead.

the main barn, 32 x 88

I did choose a form for the greenhouse, however, that echoed the arched form of our main barn, the milkhouse, our corn crib (now office) and the charming cupola that sits on top of the corn crib.

In relation to the lovely, classic buildings that populate the rest of the farmstead, the greenhouse is conspicuously gray and filmy, like a dream that won’t form. I plan to mitigate this drabness, even if it is only through a gesture, perhaps just a strategically placed streak of color that lets the other buildings know it’s on the same team as them. I want my buildings to be relational.

the gray greenhouse, 30 x 84

For me, the worst aspect of modern architecture is the garish individuality of the structures and the lack of relationship to the nearby edifices. (Most verbal communication is done similarly today, without cohesion, without connectedness, without relationship.) I want all of my buildings to feel like they can talk to one another; intruding and narcissistic forms and colors are unwelcome. The discreet individuality of each farm building here needs to illuminate, not dwarf, the individuality of its neighboring buildings.

the arched corn crib office and cupola (foreground) communicates with the farmhouse (right) and garage (left)

The farm buildings at Angelic Organics are temples to agriculture: a constellation of designs that comprise an enduring tribute to the workings of this farm. I tend these buildings in a way that is mindful of their agrarian and cultural past, and mindful of their agrarian and cultural future. They are a major part of my life’s work. They are my retrospective—my way through the past– and they are my prospective—my way into the future.

The methods that guide my design process for the farmstead are a bit mysterious to me. Perhaps I will elaborate on them in the next issue of Farm News, since this world that we inhabit is very visual and tactile and has a powerful impact on how we experience life. This is especially true of the built environment.

Overheard

Musician: I want to sing your buildings.
Farmer John: Sing to them?
Musician: Sing them. Put them to song.

Warmly,
Farmer John

5

Farmer John Writes: Agriculture Supported Community

Harvest Week 20, November 8th – 13th, 2021


Is this the End?

This is Week 20, the last week of our 20-week main season. If you are not signed up for an extended season share, this is your last week of deliveries. Thank you for being with us this season.

If you are not sure if you still have deliveries left this season, please log in to your membership account to view your delivery calendar.

bok choy

Join Us for 2022 through Saturday, November 13th 

Shareholders keep signing up for next year, so we are going to keep the 15% early renewal discount, which will be active through Saturday, November 13th. Current shareholders can opt for a 15% discount or opt to help the farm even more by foregoing the discount. Either is appreciated.

Sign up for your 2022 CSA share by logging in to your membership account and clicking on “Purchase or renew subscription”. If you choose the discount, enter coupon code RENEW15 at checkout.

For details on why early signups are important, read Week 17 Farm News, People Were Scared.

Victor and Nathan transport lettuce, early morning

Community Supported Agriculture

Community Supported Agriculture has a nice ring to it, and many of our shareholders truly resonate with its meaning.

Agriculture Supported Community

Agriculture Supported Community—how does it ring for you? For me, I lament that in my extreme busyness in keeping the farm going these past 32 years as a CSA, I have not been able to be supportive of our shareholder community in ways that I initially imagined. Yes, I have been supportive of our community by growing healthy food, providing a U-Pick garden, offering a connection to the farm through Farm News, hosting Field Days, and providing share customizing, but this hasn’t sufficiently satisfied me.

The current CSA arrangement creates a relationship to the farm, but this relationship is more like spokes in a wheel. It does not structurally facilitate a relationship between shareholders; it primarily facilitates a relationship between the farm and individual shareholders. 

hub, spokes

I like to bring people together; this has been a strong current throughout my adult life. The sacrament of our shareholders eating from the same farm doesn’t offer an adequate form for them to connect with one another. 

My inspiration for having a CSA farm was to bring people together, to build community through the wondrous place of an ever-unfolding farm. However, Angelic Organics farm is really too distant from most of our shareholders for it to become a hangout–an ongoing, drop-in place of awe-inspiring, life-affirming encounters. Also, the farm-as-hangout is really not possible without a full-time host who enthusiastically greets all with an offer of muffins, coffee, tea or juice, and orients them to the wonders of farm life; this is a hospitality dream for the distant future. An even more distant dream is a café, which firmly establishes us as a destination of warmth, food and hospitality. However, the CSA network can help my dream of nurturing shareholders to come somewhat true by facilitating encounters with and support for one another near where you live.

Renewal of a Former Form

I want to support shareholders in your dreams, your initiatives, your enterprises, and I want to encourage shareholders to join in supporting your fellow shareholders. My plan for this strengthening of bonds within our community will start with the re-creation of a Shareholder Services Directory. 

Back When

In our former Shareholder Services Directory, created in hard copy in 1995, shareholders had 85 individual listings; at least one out of ten shareholders listed a service or a product in our directory.

The directory was very popular. Years after we published it, shareholders told me that it was still serving them as a resource. (Let me know if you still consult that guide, 26 years after it was published.) 

Still Applicable

I wrote the following in the introduction to our former Shareholder Services Directory. It will apply to the upcoming directory:

“Healthy food from Angelic Organics is a unifying theme for members of our CSA, but it is just a beginning. Food does not satisfy all our various needs; there is so much more that we rely on in our everyday life. Use the service directory to support your health, your environment, your children, your legal and financial needs, your emotional and spiritual wellbeing, your business—what an ideal way to weave community into the diverse membership of Angelic Organics.”

These were some of the services and products offered by shareholders: architectural design and construction, aromatherapy, art, bakery, bicycles, bodywork/massage, childbirth and pregnancy, childcare, counseling, data analysis, dietary consultation, drum making, environmental purification, film and video, financial and business services, food, holistic health center, home inspection, legal, meeting room and cooking, mask making and puppeteering, mural painting, nutritional supplements, organic clothing and accessories, publishing and illustration, speaker, storytelling, starting a business, and voice lessons. 

1995 hard copy Shareholder Services Directory listing for the Melvins, our esteemed Ravenswood Manor site hosts and shareholders for over 30 years

Updated

Of course, the new directory will be internet based, easily searchable by location, service, etc. I am currently exploring various companies that provide templates for online directories. It’s a bit complicated today to select and host such a service, as there are many, many options available, add-ons, etc. It needs to be easy to use and easy to manage while still providing powerful and convenient features. As much as I would love to offer this service for free, there will probably be a fee for shareholders to list their businesses, as we will need to pay for the use of the online platform and to moderate the platform. (It will only be a platform for providing shareholder services and products, not a platform for political views.) 

When Will the Service Directory Launch?

I don’t usually announce a development or an offer before it is actually ready to launch. However, I have been wanting to renew our Shareholder Services Directory for so many years that I am finally declaring, before it happens, that it is going to happen—this winter. 

Former Instructions for Using the Shareholder Services Directory

I suppose this 1995 example for how to use the service directory will be applicable for how to use the new directory:

“Let’s say you want to build a house. You go to the Architecture section, find your architect, share your 3D dream. You also notice, when you are in that section, there is a fellow CSA member who can take care of your patio lighting, someone who can paint luxurious patterns on your walls, and someone who can keep your deck clean. Under Household Tools and Supplies, you find a source of kitchen accessories and ecological cleaning supplies.

“Thinking about your kitchen makes you hungry. You and your partner choose your dining destination from the Food section; the restaurant serves tomato soup. You are sure the tomatoes came from Angelic Organics

“On your way home, you whip out your guide to find the address of that aromatherapy place, because you are confident that there is a fragrance that will help you imagine your dream house more creatively. The proprietor of the store asks you which heirloom tomatoes you got in your box this week. You don’t answer; the aroma has swept you into a daydream about your dream house. 

“You continue home. Embarrassed by your behavior in the aromatherapy store, your partner suggests you improve your communication skills. He reaches for the directory. You grab it from him to find a counselor to resolve this conflict. While lurching for the directory, you twist your back. Your partner lovingly consults the guide to direct you to a chiropractor

“The chiropractor is wearing a nice organic shirt made by a shareholder. The chiropractor suggests you buy a bicycle. The bicycle makes you want to sing. 

“You get voice lessons. You become a great singer. You don’t know what to do with all your money. You consult your guide to determine who can help you invest responsibly. You realize you need an attorney to manage your contracts. The attorney looks in his directory, suggests a graphic artist to design your album cover. Your attorney just had a drum made by an Angelic Organics shareholder, and requests to do percussion on your album. If you accept, she will finance a music video

“You suddenly crave arugula; you must be expecting a baby. You reach for the directory…”

(Note from Farmer John: That baby would now be about 26 years old.)

One of My Foremost Guiding Principles

I often say, “what are we on earth for if not to help others?” The following 3 questions are my guide for how I like to engage others, though, of course, it’s not always this straightforward:

“Who are you?
What do you need?
How can I help?”

I believe that the Shareholder Services Directory will help to enliven this guiding principle.

Warmly,
Farmer John

5

Farmer John Writes: A Natural Sweetener

Harvest Week 19, November 1st – 6th, 2021


This Could be Your Last Week of Deliveries

If you get a bi-weekly share and you are receiving a delivery this week and you did not sign up for an extended season share, this is your last delivery of the season. Thank you for being part of our farm. To see your delivery calendar, log in to your membership account.

Eat from Your Farm During the Holidays

There is still time to secure an extended season share. We have a splendid array of crops available for the extended season. The crops that will likely be available are: cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, garlic, carrots, potatoes, spaghetti squash, butternut squash, chard, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, daikon radishes, kohlrabi, and popcorn. Maybe beets. (I am probably overlooking some crops.) 

Price is $80 for a bi-weekly extended season share (2 boxes); $160 for a weekly extended season share (4 boxes).

Sign up for your extended season share by logging in to your membership account and clicking on “Purchase or renew subscription”. Make sure you select the 2021 extended season vegetable share; we have had many shareholders sign up for a 2022 extended season share by mistake.

While on this Subject of Eating from Your Farm

Shareholders keep signing up for next year, so we are going to keep the 15% early renewal discount active for a while longer. We’ll let you know before we end the 15% early renewal discount. Current shareholders can opt for a 15% discount or opt to help the farm even more by foregoing the discount. Either is appreciated.

Sign up for your 2022 CSA share by logging in to your membership account and clicking on “Purchase or renew subscription”. If you choose the discount, enter coupon code RENEW15 at checkout.

How We Eat from the Farm Every Thursday

After last week’s fabulous fiesta on the farm funded mostly by a generous gift from a shareholder family (see Week 18 Farm News, What Do You Say?), I decided that all of us here could benefit from the warming, nurturing aromas and flavors of Mexican cuisine. I enlisted three of our H-2A workers who are also fabulous chefs, Jemima, Concepcion, and Maythe, to prepare lunches for the crew each Thursday until the season ends.

feast for all of us who work on the farm

the mood of Mexico extends from the farm kitchen into the colors of our farmstead

Farm Fashion: We also (sometimes) Dress for the Farm

my beloved wife Haidy and spaghetti squash celebrate the glorious colors of fall

Weather Whimsy

The fall weather is now being more like fall weather. This means that we will offer you a crop for customizing your box, but it might not be available. In the middle of the prior week, we determine what to offer you for your boxes in the upcoming week, and the weather can make a mockery of our projection.

Mixed lettuce might look promising when we offer it, but might succumb to frost; or it might keep getting rained on, hence it stays too wet to harvest; or the morning dew might be so heavy and simply might not dry off enough to harvest the lettuce on a cool, cloudy afternoon. We keep our lettuce covered to protect it from frost, but the cover will not protect it from a heavy frost. Also, the cover keeps the lettuce from drying out, so if we uncover the lettuce to encourage it to dry in order to harvest it, the lettuce might later freeze, because it’s uncovered. (Does this make you want to farm?)

Cilantro, which is very frost hardy, cannot be harvested wet or far in advance of when we give it, so it also suffers from harvest uncertainty.

Fortunately, this year we can easily substitute a foregone item with another crop of our choice (and hopefully to your liking).

You Are Reading this Newsletter

Because you are reading this newsletter, you have an idea of these challenges and you become more deeply a citizen of eating seasonally. If you are not reading this newsletter, you are apt to write the farm and ask where your promised lettuce and cilantro are. 

If You Receive Brussels Sprouts

We have finally harvested some Brussels sprouts. Some of them have blackened outer leaves. Please remove these; there will still be a lot of sprout left after you clean them. Our crew started to undertake this cleaning, but it took way too much time.

The main reason we waited this long to give the sprouts is that I wanted them to go through a frost first. The frost, which finally arrived, is a natural sweetener. Harder frosts are predicted for later this week, which will sweeten the sprouts even more. I suspect that most Brussels sprouts that you can buy in a store never encounter a frost, hence the difference shareholders often note between our sprouts and other sprouts.

Other Frost Hardy Crops

Other crops that benefit in flavor from frost include cabbage, broccoli, kale, spinach, chard, bok choy, Chinese cabbage, and leafy greens such as arugula and mizuna. They all have their frost limits though, and few of these can survive below the low twenties. (There is also a harvest consideration when temperatures reach to the low twenties—the crops might be buried in snow by then.)

The Power of Place

People often talk about shopping local, eating local, etc. I seldom hear people talk about staying local. That’s what I did. I’ve lived on this farm my whole life. Do I recommend staying local? It depends…it has its good points. Long-term shareholder and active farm supporter Claudia Haas shared this story with us recently about a young man who went back to local: Farming in a Tuxedo: Finding the Power of Place.

Thank you, Claudia.

I Could

I realize I could do a little more crop updating and basic housekeeping in these newsletters, but you have probably noticed that I like to get more—what’s the word?—comprehensive than that in my communications.

I woke up this morning planning to write a very different newsletter than this one, but the change of weather warranted some explanations about what is going on with your crops and your share customizing. 

You might wonder what I was planning to write. I don’t even want to summarize it, as I don’t want to compromise the meaning with a condensation of the topic. I’ll just provide a few visual hints. Next week, the final week of the main season, I might elaborate. 

The Temple of the Heart

The Art of Neighboring

some of you will remember this directory

organ in the temple of the barn loft

Overheard

“It’s not right to just cancel people. We all have darkness and light inside. We are all bad and good. Those people who get cancelled, they have good in them, too.”

Warmly,
Farmer John

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Farmer John Writes: What Do You Say?

Harvest Week 18, October 25th – 30th, 2021


Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme

In a nod to Simon And Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair, we offered parsley, sage and thyme this week. Rosemary, too? No.

What Do You Say?

I am dedicating this issue of Farm News to our supportive shareholders who have recently shared their experience of belonging to our farm. Many of these lovely messages are from Farm News blog comments, and also from our Facebook page. Besides these comments, dozens of you have written directly to the farm, sharing love, support and great stories. Below, I will share anonymously some of the fabulous and often entertaining messages that you have sent through the mail or emailed to the farm at email hidden; JavaScript is required.

I am not sharing these comments to be boastful about Angelic Organics, but rather to portray the loveliness, generosity and good will of so many of you. (I am excerpting from some of the comments due to space considerations.)

A Gift

I will start off by acknowledging a generous gift of money from a shareholder family (who want to be anonymous) that we decided to use for a festival of food for our Mexican crew, their friends and families, followed by a screening of The Real Dirt on Farmer John this past Saturday in the loft of our renovated barn.

The extraordinarily delicious food made me feel like we were spending the afternoon in Mexico

Our gifted chefs (left to right): Jemima, Maythe and Concepcion (They are also part of our field crew in our H-2A program for temporary foreign workers.)

After the feast: viewing The Real Dirt on Farmer John in the barn loft (subtitled in Spanish)

Newness

“Just wanted to thank you! This was my first year and your vegetable boxes have encouraged me to try new recipes and therefore, eat healthier. Delivery to our home has been great! We appreciate all you do to make the world a better place! Enjoy reading about the world of farming through Farmer John’s newsletters.”

Stewardship

“Thank you for your stewardship for mother Earth. May God Bless You and all those who care for our brothers and sisters in the plant and animal kingdom.”

No Waste

“We joined the CSA last year and were so impressed with the quality and variety of the crops that we figured we’d just gotten lucky and that this year probably wouldn’t match up. But it’s exceeded — even far exceeded — our experience last year! The turnips were divine, the tomatoes a treat, and the broccoli out of this world. One thing I’ll say in favor of this year’s customization feature: we haven’t wasted *anything*. Last year, sometimes we’d receive a bunch of delicate greens during a week when we weren’t going to be able to get to them quickly and they’d go bad before we could use them. This year, if we know we won’t be around to cook much during a given week, we’ll opt for hardier storage veggies. Then, the next week when we’ll be cooking/eating at home every night, we’ll go for the delicate crops and use them right away. So this new system has helped us avoid wasting such wonderful produce, which is always a shame. Looking forward to what the rest of the season (and extended season) offers!”

Right on the Farm

“Hello Farmer John, I just wanted to thank you. My son and I volunteered to pack beginning in Sept. It has been a very interesting and enjoyable experience – getting to see things right on the farm. My son was thrilled the day you allowed us to bring home pumpkins and a bag of potatoes (so was I). Thank you for your generosity I found you when I was searching for organic produce locally. My life has changed so much when I was told “you have cancer” back in 2020. So thankful I found you! We look forward to volunteering through the end of the season. Have a Beautiful day!” 

Overjoyed

“Hello Angel Organics team, 

I want to say a big THANK YOU for all the hard work you all put in to make sure that we have yummy veggies to eat!

I can tell that you get some criticism. I want to make sure that you know that there are folks who are OVERJOYED when we open our box of goodies and find thoughtful substitutions for veggies that, for whatever reason, didn’t make it.

May you all feel encouraged today!! 

My family enjoys being part of the local farm business, even in this small way of being part of your CSA.”

Sharing with the Elderly 

“Hi Farmer John, I want to say that this is our first experience with a CSA and it has been an absolute delight! I have very much enjoyed your news letters and my children have been able to discover new foods. When our box was really stuffed we were able to share our bounty with the elderly neighbors that live in our building they too love you food. Covid has taught us the importance of healthy food and instilling good food choices in our children… Thank you again for a wonderful experience and we look forward to discovering something new in our last few boxes of the season.” 

A Gift of Food and Hope

“Hello Farmer John and all you beautiful Angelic Organics people, So here it is Sunday night and I am finally sitting down to read your newsletter for this week–having enjoyed a delicious stir fry with the amazing vegetables from my box. I have to admit, I am somewhat of a silent shareholder. I’ve been a subscriber off and on since 1995, whenever I could put together enough money at once to afford it–which fortunately for me has been fairly often. So now, after reading about your experience of complaining shareholders and future downsizing, I just want to let you know what a gift you are in my life. I LOVE everything about Angelic Organics. The delicious, beautiful produce and herbs, the newsy, thoughtful and educational newsletters, your cookbook from way back in 2006, the days at the farm (especially when my children–now 23 and 26–were small), and all of you and your commitment to community. Angelic Organics keeps me hopeful and well fed, knowing that this kind of world, which understands everything as interconnected and acts out of that understanding, is possible and real, in circles beyond my own (although you are definitely part of my circle also :-)) Words aren’t really capable of conveying the fullness of my gratitude, but hopefully you get a sense of it. Please know that you are well loved–as is everything in my box! (Except maybe pea shoots but that’s another story.)” 

They Are Still Potatoes

“I read the newsletter every week on the way home with my box, and want you to know that my husband and I are VERY happy with everything we have recieved from the farm. We fully intend on getting a biweekly share for 2022, also. I appreciate everything ALL of you do to make sure these shares go out every week. (…also, I will accept any dinged potatoes, too. They are still potatoes.) I hope you all have a wonderful week, and I am SUPER excited about these fall veggies and winter squashes….”

To Think about what We’re Eating

“Farmer John and  Crew- 

We appreciate your farm, and are enjoying being members of your CSA. We joined in 2020, not because of pandemic reasons, but as we happened to be “settling down” (ie bought our first house, started our family), and want to support local, healthy, sustainable practices. We found your last ‘Farm News’ disheartening, and are disappointed people are belittling and rude to you and your staff. They clearly do not understand what you are doing; if they want perfect produce every time they should go to Whole Foods. We understand that being part of a CSA is similar to buying stocks in the market, but it is worth it for us. On a more day to day level, we enjoy the challenge of using items we wouldn’t necessarily buy. For example, we never had kabocha or buttercup squash before, but with it we made delicious soup, curry, enchiladas, and a chili. We share recipes with [my husband’s] sister (also a member of Angelic Organics). We are very busy, as we both work full time and have two kids ages 2 and 8 weeks, and getting these deliveries forces us to cook and really think about what we’re eating. I also think it’s good for our kids to understand where food actually comes from. 

We look forward to remaining members of Angelic Organics, and appreciate our experience thus far.

Thank you!” 

Sustainable

“I just want to say Thank You! for another summer of bountiful, healthful and delicious vegetables. We have been every-other-week shareholders for several years and are delighted season after season to participate in sustainable agriculture with you. Thank you so much for continuing to allow us to be part of your farm and sharing farm news with us. We love Angelic Organics.”

Outshines… Zdenek, too

“Just a quick note to tell you and your entire team how much we have enjoyed our farm share and we love hearing all the news about what goes into bringing the bounty from the land. We especially love to learn about the cast of characters and the skills they bring. As a site host it is always fun to greet Zdenek every week as he delivers the boxes. He appears like clockwork and always brings a great attitude along with a fun little anecdote or recommendation. Being a shareholder for the better part of over twenty years, we have learned about the many challenges presented in one form or another. Nonetheless the boxes have delivered time and again in appearance and flavor that outshines store-bought produce regardless if grown as conventional or organic. We also really appreciate the box customization options offered in recent years. It surprises and saddens me to hear that the office is fielding hostile or negative claims from certain shareholders. There are lots more of us who reco gnize that curveballs are part of life and even more so in your line of work, so please don’t let the disgruntled get you down. We honor and appreciate you!”

~ Site Host

Glad You are Drawing a Line

“Hi Farmer John,

I was genuinely sorry to read about this abusive behavior from a CSA shareholder. It boils my blood that any of our fellow shareholders would think this is an acceptable way to treat anyone, let alone the people who grow our food. I am glad you’re drawing a line in the dirt on that nonsense.

“We are a team” is absolutely what this CSA is all about. As long-term CSA shareholders we are supportive of whatever “new direction” you and everyone at Angelic decide to take the farm. Whether blemished or misshapen or otherwise, we look forward to enjoying “the future” cultivated by you and the Angelic team!

Thank you for all you do for us.”

Love

“Good morning,

I just wanted to let you know that we have been thrilled with everything that we have received over the years from your farm and for every jerk who calls and complains there are dozens and dozens of us who love what you do and who you are. I might not thank you often enough (sorry) but we love everything that you grow and how much love and effort goes into the farm.

Our kids have always loved getting the boxes with us to see what is in them for the week and have learned a good amount about cleaning, eating, and cooking vegetables. With a dietitian, physician and three active children in our household we always stress the importance of eating healthy and are have recommended Angelic Organics to several people over the years.

Thank you!”

Baby Bunnies

“Hi! 

I need to tell you that your carrots are the most wonderful carrots we’ve ever had, besides what we’ve grown in our own garden. 

 This year, our garden was home to one of the cutest wild cottontail rabbits ever.  There were four baby bunnies born in our perennial bed, and one decided to adopt our carrot/greens garden plots as his own bedroom and restaurant.  He also particularly enjoyed dessert in our bean plot on the other side of our suburban backyard, with a few nibbles of peas, dill, and fennel to round it out.  Thus, we replanted our carrots and greens three times, and did at least five plantings of beans!  And just now we are starting to get some beans for US to eat! 😊  Our carrots are few and far between, so I’m particularly appreciating yours!     But – you know – I can buy beans, carrots, peas, etc….  but the cutest wild bunny ever, living in our backyard delighting my husband and me and our two young children?  Priceless!  And so the girls and I specifically did those extra plantings ‘to feed the bunny’, and we’ll take the leftovers (which are ample).  😊  This is my favourite way to garden!

We are so glad to be back with you after several years of no CSA boxes!  We’ve had a few years of Imperfect Veggies boxes, while the girls were small enough that getting to a store was often a miraculous event.  But – I couldn’t agree with you more about how the CSA model is different from a warehouse veggie box delivery model.   We are excited about next year, having weekly boxes with you instead of biweekly. I love LOVE opening the box of real food with real bumps and dirt and garden smell!  

Thank you so much for having the customization option this year.  That was the deciding factor for us to come back to CSA boxes, since our garden is so much bigger now than when we had the boxes 7 or 8 years ago (before babies were born), and I am able to skip items in your box that are wildly producing in our garden and focus on items that our garden doesn’t have enough of at that point.  That way none of the work and yumminess gets wasted. 😊   …

We are loving the home delivery, and opted for the pick up option for next year only because of cost.  We all get excited when we see the delivery truck pull up!   And the liner bags fit our kitchen trash pail perfectly.  Your veggies arrive looking very happy and real and loved… and one of my daughters is delighted when an occasional bug shows up that she can examine in her bug jar. 😄   

Thanks for everything you do, and thank you for welcoming us back!  Please keep us when you downsize next year!”

Thank You

Thanks to all of you above and all the rest of you who recently shared your love and support for our farm. We are so moved and energized by this outpouring.

Also, thanks to those of you who signed up for a 2022 share this past week, and extra thanks to the many of you who did not use a discount.  We are most encouraged that you have renewed your commitment to our farm for another year.

(If you haven’t yet renewed your share for the 2022 season, and you would like to, log in to your membership account and click on on “Purchase or renew subscription”. Also, check out last week’s Farm News, Farmer John Writes: People Were Scared, for a thorough explanation of why early 2022 signups are so important.)

Overheard

“You live your life like an exclamation point.”

Warmly,
Farmer John