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One More Letter

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Quail Hill Farm
December 3, 2019

By Scott Chaskey

Thirty years ago upon our return to the U.S., after living for ten years in England, my father-in-law invited me to a Saturday meeting in Amagansett of an agrarian experiment handsomely named Community Supported Agriculture. Bill King and Connie Fox, my artist in-laws, were part of the original ten families that formed the first CSA in New York state, Full Circle Farm, in Bridgehampton. Full Circle became Second Circle, and when Deborah Light donated twenty acres of land to the Trust, Second Circle became Promised Land Farm, with seventy or so families participating. John Halsey, always innovative, recognized the value of a community farm on conserved land, and for fifteen years or more we were the only land trust in this country to embrace the marriage of the two.  From the little house on Jagger Lane four of us (the Peconic Land Trust team at the time) discussed preservation, field fertility, seeds and crops, machinery, and fostering community. Renamed again (discovered by Deborah on a vintage map), the roots of Quail Hill Farm began to spread.

Over the years, inspired by my work in the fields I have written scores of letters to our farm members. Here is an excerpt from 18 May, 1996:

“And when the fields are fresh and greeeeeeen…” is the phrase I’ve used to answer the blackbirds and catbirds this spring. I am recalling the voice of a master of the meadows, my great friend Edgar Wallis, who mentored me on the cliffs of the Penwith peninsula overlooking Mousehole, Cornwall. He would pass our cottage on Love Lane each day on his way to the “mountains” to plant or cultivate or pick violets, the winter flower. We worked together in the steep meadows above the sea, turning the dark soil by hand, as he taught me the use of the long handled Cornish cliff shovel and the songs of the male voice choir (“…’eard in London and on the BBC…”). Raised in a family of fisherman, he was proud to claim his independence: “I took to the land!” Returning at dusk from meadow work he would often plunge hands into the fuchsia hedge, and through parted branches impart a few final sweet notes to us in the garden below. Then the hedge would close and in the damp air a shadow figure, often holding two baskets of violets, would shout: “I’m off!”

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Now at the close of 2019 I offer this, from a book in progress, a chapter entitled “Inexhaustible Ways of Seeing:”

In his meditative essay, “The Tree,” the English novelist John Fowles observes that “Achieving a relationship with nature is both a science and an art, and beyond mere knowledge or mere feeling alone…” I have been lucky to begin and end each day in a room embraced by an elegant beech tree (2nd floor, Quail Hill farm office), and I suppose my daily work—the practice of agriculture—can be a very good way to approach such a relationship, primarily because one is exposed to what Nature is made of: sun, soil, water, wind, roots, stems, flowers, seed. But so often the sense of purpose, intrinsic to agriculture—something I have praised for many years, now having found it—can also obscure what may be purposeless in Nature, at least in the sense that we use that word.

Deborah Light, who donated the fertile land that I have farmed for three decades, in order to preserve it from development, later in life became a Wiccan Priestess (she embodied the role before it became official). She attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions several times, sharing the stage with Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama in Capetown, South Africa. Wicca is a neo-pagan, Earth revering religion, and Deborah was pleased to be known as a “Hedgewitch.” I learned as much from Deborah’s way of being in the world as I have from the study of conservation ethics and practice. The intrinsic value of land and the diverse species that inhabit the land, both plant and animal, macro life forms and microbial life, is based on something much greater, more expansive than “best use” or market fluctuations, and to intuit that value, to be taught by it and learn from it requires something beyond the human effort we are presently devoting to it. The natural world, the whole substantial pageant (to borrow from Shakespeare) if it exists for a purpose, that purpose is not solely ours to order or to legislate, and to achieve an enduring relationship requires an openness to both the seen and the unseen.

Many times daily I rub shoulders with the beech tree that hugs our farm shop as I pass going outward to our nearby fields, or going inward to my desk. For centuries beech bark was used by scribes for writing tablets. Sheets of bark tied together became some of our first books: the Anglo-Saxon ‘bec’ and German ‘boche,’ root words for the beech tree, are intertwined in meaning with the word ‘book.’ Beech is a synonym for literature.

No longer does the ground interfere with my friendship for the whole being of this graceful living thing. In the words of the British author/adventurer Robert MacFarlane: “…you must imagine the ground almost as a mirror-line, because a tree’s subterranean root system can spread nearly as wide as its aerial crown.” The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, who explored archetypes, dreams, and poetic metaphor, wrote that life itself is like a plant that “lives on its rhizome.” What is above ground may last only a single season, but hidden from us, beneath the soil surface, “underneath the eternal flux,” the rhizome endures.

It is time for me as a writer and seedsman to “tune in” to the rhizome. For years I have given attention to growing food on conserved land to nourish a community, and you in turn have nourished me with words, yes, and with your faith and support for conservation and for regenerative agriculture (the new term): building fertile soil. At the close of this year, in the damp December air on this other peninsula, holding (in spirit) a basket of violets, I will celebrate what together we have learned. With gratitude and a smile I acknowledge: I took to the land! And in harmony with the cycles of the seasons, and a reverence for soil, seed, rain, and sea (and the work before us), I leave you with a shout:

“I’m off!” Thank you.
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