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Starting Point

A farm and its dreams for sale


I still pass it each day on the way to town, that abandoned family farm slowly becoming the past. It has a gray and fading look like the negative of an old photograph. Yet life abounds around the place: The swallows, field mice, bats and insects have taken over where humans failed, reclaiming it for their own and their lesser enterprises.

But before the takeover there was an exodus of people. The farmer, who tried so hard and failed, took his own life there. The farmer’s wife went back to her childhood home and her aging parents, to an uncertain harvest that she considered her second chance. The farmer’s sons, having watched a father’s losing struggle with weather, debt and tomorrow, headed west in pursuit of an endless summer. Now only the buildings remain, the shells of a leftover promise.

I didn’t know the farmer personally, only the stories that others wrote about him. For I was part of the nearby university “town and gown” community and I wore a gown. I didn’t know how, when it all seemed so overwhelming and he didn’t know which way to turn, he pondered the ultimate escape. How, from the depths of despair he wrote a 10-page suicide note to his wife and sons trying to explain why. How, when even words failed him, he went to the barn and hanged himself from the very beam into which he had carved his wife’s name 20 years before, and then those of his boys, each as he was named. How, when he was found swinging to the rope’s creaking dirge he was wearing his only suit, his Sunday best. How, when burial plans were discussed, his family found that they had lost even the six feet of earth that might receive his remains. And how, when all these things came out, he became a symbol of the small farmer’s plight in a depressed region. And how, finally, it was the symbol that prevailed and not the man. I could only read about some things and imagine others.

It was an old story to those who scratched the earth for a living; a sad story that hit close to home. They understood. It was also a sad story to those in the university community, but it was not the same: it was not their story, and sometimes the greatest tragedy is to make abstract what is concrete, to turn it all into a problem to be researched. There were more important lessons to be learned from a tragedy so near and yet so far -- an American tragedy, a rural tragedy, a human tragedy. And so neighbors mourned while professors looked for solutions.

The auction was the final gathering of people at the place. Strangers and old friends carted off the possessions of a lifetime, from kitchen match holders to bedroom four-posters. Boxes labeled “misc.” sold for 50 cents. Other memories for less.

The family didn’t attend the auction, this second death, this time the death of things. The souvenirs of their lives, the stations of their passing. A toy, a trinket, a talisman. Postcards from the trip out west. Put a price on those things when the bidding starts!

The family that had owned the farm for a century owned it no more; it had passed into corporate hands. Passersby looked at the farm and thought summer place or gentleman’s farm. The suburbs were swelling now, and farms were an option to developments.

And so the abandoned farm was boarded up, the fields lying fallow except for what the winds sowed randomly, what the birds spilled from the sky. A “Farm For Sale” sign was planted in the ground. The place became a portrait of absence. A posthumous tale, author unknown.

There were other failures as well in the community -- farms lost after four or five generations, after perhaps a century of continuous life. There were all kinds of reasons given: gouging by the big corporations, bad farm management, unwise government policies, weather, bad luck -- perhaps they all figure in the equation. But equations don’t always balance so neatly beyond the corporate offices and the blackboards, not when flesh and blood are a part of them. Or numbers divisible by pain.

Now whenever I pass the place I tremble because it’s seismic with memories of life -- boys swinging in tires, and a woman by a roadside stand, and men hurrying the harvest, and maples tapped for syrup, and dogs chasing one another. Everything busy with living. If I had known him and his family, I might have consorted with ghosts -- stopped and paid my respects to what had been. I might have gone out back to the family graves and tried to explain to them. I might have earned that right by understanding or my tears. I might have been a secret sharer and not just a spectator to sorrow.

Harry Paige writes from Potsdam, N.Y.

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2001