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A Letter to John de Cuevas

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January 15, 2019

By Scott Chaskey

On November 29, 2018, our friend John de Cuevas passed away … in remembrance of John and his extraordinary gifts to the community, Quail Hill Farm’s poet/farmer Scott Chaskey sat down and wrote a “Letter to John.” We all will miss John’s spirit and passion for farming, food and life.



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Hello John:

I’m thinking of you today, missing you, as I walk through our Amagansett fields, the fields we know equally well, if from a slightly different perspective. So it seems best to write, to greet you with words, something else we know equally well, from a shared perspective, and my thoughts are enlivened by the landscape you were moved to settle in, to celebrate, and to preserve.

For words are used to communicate—through speech, signs, letters, literature, puzzles!—but also to investigate, to search for roots and meaning, to discover the magic and the humor in the act of naming, the mysterious, unpredictable beauty at the heart of language (you were fascinated, for a lifetime: “I leave pens and pencils everywhere, to take notes!”). Even in the briefest conversations your subtle style of storytelling would emerge—a mixture both serious and playful—whether we spoke of songbirds, sourdough bread, the plays of Shakespeare, the diverse, natural beauty of the island we called home, the food plant we each prized above all others: garlic! Your stories emerged from an intricate depth of experience and learning, whether you quoted a favorite author, or a new book, discussed avian migration, or described one of the places you came to know well—southern France, Paris, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Arizona (“But Amagansett has it all,” you said). And through story you wove your gift for friendship as well, often introducing the next person I really must know (you were right!). When I published a book, “Seedtime,” you purchased copies and supplied me with addresses for 15 close friends (now that is a real gift to an author). Something a poet friend said of another applies to you: “…his manner is tender…Withal so kindly.”

With a ‘joie de vivre’ you welcomed the young people we hired to labor and learn at our community farm, each year, and came to know them. As an incredibly supportive, enthusiastic farm member from the beginning—for almost 30 years—you commented: “You find the most wonderful group of young people each year…how do you do it!” (Answer: Luck…and we love caring for the soil, as did you. As Pablo Neruda exclaimed: “Oh yes, the planet is sublime!”). And at the close of each farming season—to thank the farmers—you prepared your table for us: fresh fish, sourdough bread (with wheat from our fields) warm from the oven, garlic in olive oil, delicious wine, stories gathered from your wide interests and studies and travels. Thank you for gracious invitations, yearly, to “The Bakery,” your elegant yet modest home in the oak and beech woods—a name perfectly chosen for a man who loved food and simple gifts: wheat, water, salt, a live culture nourished and nourishing for over 50 years!

Through study, teaching, and a diversity of work you were open to life’s complexities: romance languages, the law, investment banking, philanthropy, science writing, ecology, the evolution of birdsong, and yet you never tired of praising the (often denigrated) occupation you did so much to support: farming. Perhaps because of your fondness for pigs (learned in the stalls), you could fully appreciate the wisdom and humor in the farmer’s adage: “Oh, it’s all muck and magic!” And share in it, as you did, choosing to walk—not drive—to the farm and across the open fields you helped to protect. And your way of walking, so particular—purpose in your stride, “places to go,” yet also with the ease of a naturalist, content within woods or on walks across our rich glacial soil. You missed the warblers that not long ago visited these same woods: “Now they are gone, and their beautiful song…we must do what we can so as not to lose more…”

So there you are John, aware of the song of small birds, of how golden is friendship, aware of asters and timothy in the valley, wheat in our farm fields, of the tracks made by other wildlife where you too loved to walk, an environmentalist in the mold of Aldo Leopold: “Conservation is a state of harmony between men (and women) and land.” You and your family worked to protect that harmony—especially in the “place of good water”—with your dear friend, John Halsey, and the Trust for over 30 years. Thank you.

“At 86 I’m no longer up to speed,” you wrote when you retired from decades of composing crossword puzzles—with cryptic clues—for Harvard magazine. I was witness to that speed (for decades) as you took impish delight in racing me along Town Lane—you, by bicycle (determined at age 80, with a great grin), I on my tractor. In the same spirit you wrote a note to a Cryptic Crossword Puzzle: “Warning, clues contain puns, anagrams, or other outrageous devices!” And so does the world, John, “the great globe itself,” in the words of Prospero. And it also contains “Passages that come from the heart”—one of your clues. Thank you for sharing your passage with so many.

With Gratitude,

Scott