My desire for land started gradually, until suddenly it had gripped me like the unbearable compulsion some pregnant women feel to eat dirt. It was a primal urge. I felt it in my mouth, back near my molars. I felt it in my hands, which wanted to clutch.
To clarify: I never felt the need to eat dirt during my pregnancies. My strongest craving occurred during my third pregnancy: It was 9 o’clock at night, and I had to have walnut shrimp (an Americanized dish served at most Chinese restaurants: batter-fried shrimp and walnuts slathered in a creamy sweet sauce.)
“I would crawl over broken glass for walnut shrimp,” I moaned to my husband, who tracked down the only place where it could be obtained so late at night: the Panda Express at the Oakland Airport.
My craving for land was like that.
It began rationally enough, almost as an intellectual exercise. I was researching Vermont dairy farming for a book I’m working on, and I kept reading heartbreaking stories about the demise of small family farms: farmers who could no longer afford to keep farming, children who didn’t want to continue farming, land that was worth more to sell off or develop than to keep.
In the five years since our family moved to Vermont, I have come to love this place passionately. I want to raise my children here, and when they grow up I hope that some of them will choose to stay, because I certainly plan to grow old in Vermont. So the fact that part of what makes Vermont Vermont was at risk — small farms, undeveloped land, local agriculture — hit me right in the heart.
What could I do?
I’m married to an economist, so I’m somewhat of a realist when it comes to the ability of government programs or agricultural subsidies to effect change. But what I could do was some version of Voltaire’s exhortation at the end of Candide: “We must cultivate our own garden.” What I could do was to get a plot of land in Vermont, care for it, and not develop it.
Once I had this idea, it was difficult to shake. It also seemed do-able. Vermont is the second least populous state in the nation (after Wyoming); due to an abundance of supply and lack of demand, it is possible to buy a house with multiple acres of land in Vermont for a relatively reasonable price.
The more I thought about it, the better it seemed. Our current house is a perfectly lovely 25-year-old cape set on one wooded and rocky acre along a paved road in a neighborhood where the houses are close enough together that we can see four other homes from our windows (when the leaves are off of the trees.) After five years in Vermont, this seems suburban and wimpy.
I craved a hundred-year-old farmhouse down a dirt road on multiple open acres with outbuildings. Such a setting would allow me to garden without my spade hitting solid rock 1/2 inch into the ground. It would allow me to plant vegetables and fruit trees and flowers that need at least partial sunlight in order to thrive. It would allow my children to range freely, without my having to worry about cars on the paved road out front. It would allow us to try raising chickens for a second time. (Our first flock of hens was massacred by neighborhood dogs; I know that massacres are a rite of passage for chicken owners, but these dogs had broken easily into our coop because we couldn’t sink fence posts securely enough into the rocky ground.) It would allow for the future possibility of larger animals: a few sheep, a couple of pigs, perhaps even a horse one day if our daughters continue to love riding.
This would be a lot of work, but it would be my work. Writing is a stationary and solitary profession. The idea of caring for some livestock and land in between hours of sitting at my computer was appealing: I could be a female version of E.B. White or Wendell Berry. And yes, we have four children: four children who, in another year, will all be in school at least part of the week. Four children who could help with chores, fondly recall their childhood on the family farm, get married on the land where they were raised.
It made so much sense to me, on both an idealogical and a practical level.
Notice that all of the pronouns thus far have been in the first person singular. And I am no longer a first person singular: I am part of a marriage, a family of six. In order to make this dream a reality, I would have to convince my un-dreamy, un-handy, and un-willing-to-take-financial-risks husband — and, to a lesser degree, my children — that it was a good idea.
So I put some logical limits on my dream. My children are incredibly happy in our town school, and nobody wants my husband to have a longer commute, so this land would have to be located in our current town. It should have 3 or more acres, and preferably some usable outbuildings. Odds are that the house wouldn’t be a new construction, but it couldn’t be a dump, either. And, of course, there were financial limits.
I kept my eyes open as I shuttled our children around town, and narrowed my focus to three or four properties that would be appealing if they ever went on the market. I settled down to wait; we weren’t going anywhere, so I was in a great position to be patient and watchful.
Then one of those properties went on the market.
It was an 1890’s farmhouse with 5 outbuildings, set on 16 gorgeous acres of mostly-cleared land with stunning views of the Green Mountains. It was actually closer to town — to the schools, my husband’s office, and my parents’ house — than our current home.
Of course, the timing was terrible: Our entire family is relocating to California for the first five months of 2016 for my husband’s sabbatical.
Also, it was outside our price range.
I went to look at it anyway, first with my parents and all my children in tow, then with my husband. The house needed a complete interior lead paint abatement and re-painting, a new perimeter drain, possible asbestos tile removal, and there were five rooms that appeared to have gone untouched — used only for storage — for 40-some years. Still, the potential was there if we were willing to work towards it; I could see the beautiful house it would become over time.
So I held onto hope, because that’s what you do when you have a dream, right? I held onto hope for 25 days, up until that house sold. And then I mourned it hard.
It has occurred to me that this desire for land is my version of a midlife crisis; that, at almost 40 years of age, I’m hoping to rediscover my purpose and youth in a plot of land rather than a sports car or a tattoo or an affair. And it occurs to me that there are two ways of responding to a midlife crisis: either you come around to peacefully accepting that all the paths that once seemed open to you have narrowed down to the path that you’re on — or else you get bitter. Maybe I need to accept that my life — our life — is not going to end on a multi-acre small-scale farm. As I’m constantly reminding my daughters (and quoting Mick Jagger): “You can’t always get what you want.”
But maybe, maybe, this isn’t so much a midlife crisis as it is a natural desire: the desire to find a little corner of creation and sink roots down deep, to have the ability to raise your own food, to preserve some of the world’s beauty and pass it on to your children.
My husband and I had dinner with a couple who’ve lived in Vermont far longer than us, who have first-hand experience with farming. We discussed my dream of land. “Feel free to talk me out of it,” I quipped.
They didn’t. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to own a piece of Vermont,” said the husband. “Go down the rabbit hole.”
His wife’s response was more serious. “This is what we were made for,” she said. “We were created to be stewards of the land. And if that’s what God is prompting you to do, then maybe you should listen to it.”
Maybe I should; maybe I will. In the meantime, there’s a book of Wendell Berry essays beside my bed, a brand-new membership card to our local food co-op (finally!) in my wallet, and our weekly CSA starts up next month. I guess that’ll do.