Memory-Building on a Family Farm

Reader Contribution by Jonny Malks
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On my first day of work at Dayspring Farm, it rained all morning. I felt sheepish in my green raincoat and hiking boots, grinning my “hellos” to the year-round staff I met at the farm’s weekly meeting. My professor and mentor, Charlie Maloney, had been kind enough to offer me some work at his family farm when my other summer plans were canceled due to COVID-19. After learning about the numerous benefits of ecological growing in Charlie’s class on Sustainability and Agriculture at William & Mary that past spring, I was thrilled to have the opportunity.

So, setting out that morning, I drove the 40 minutes from Williamsburg, to the Middle Peninsula of Virginia, crossing the concrete bridge by WestRock Paper Mill at the point where the Pamunkey River flows into the York. Mountains of castrated trees stood out against a grey sky that began to spit rain. SUVs and pickup trucks pounded across the way. The cranes that worked the mill lifted the trees into a loud machine that fed a light-tan pyramid of pulp standing three stories high. This water and its shores, once lush in native vegetation that would have rejoiced in such a cooling rain, now sat trapped beneath cement. These trees would never dance again; they were separated from their roots and branches, lying supine to be grasped by metal. I felt an emptiness I’d come to perceive as a sense of permanent loss.

Arriving at the Farm

I arrived. To keep a rookie dry on his first day, Charlie and the managers assigned me to weed the ginger in one of the farm’s four high tunnels. I crawled on my hands and knees and listened to the droplets drum on the tunnel’s plastic roof, reflecting.

Amidst a pandemic that had shown me — more than anything — how far removed we’ve all become from the very land beneath our feet, the scene at the paper mill deepened my concern. And here I was, alone again, tending to baby ginger in a rainstorm. It wasn’t more than two days ago that I’d been with my family, curled up on a couch in the suburbs of Arlington, where I’d grown up. Where was I now? My lower back was screaming, and the weeds seemed to multiply with preternatural vigor right before my eyes. I’d almost finished my first row when Charlie came to check on me.

The man is a 70-year-old meteorite: short, strong, and pensive, who has been farming at Dayspring since he and his partner, Miriam, bought the land in the 1980s.

“Why don’t you come outside and help us with something?” he offered, smiling. “It looks like you’ve worked long enough in here.”

We stepped outside together. There was a break in the rain, and the plants around us stood out happy and cold, steeped in the vibrant color of their contrast with the greyness of the clouds. This was the first time that I’d spent a moment with Charlie alone on his land. I quickly felt his immense pride in the sandy loam beneath our feet, the earthworms that called it home, and all the crops that grew out of it without the help of the neonicotinoids, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers that are used upon 99 percent of our world’s agricultural land. But there was something more than pride in his movements and the way he spoke about the place he lived and worked. Straining for a glimpse of this fugitive element, I almost fell over a tray of young flowers that Miriam was preparing to plant in a neat row by the barn. Gathering myself, I managed my best greeting.

“It’s such a pleasure to have you on the farm this summer!” Miriam responded. I blushed.

“Why don’t you help us with these xenias?” said Charlie. “You dig the holes, I’ll prepare them, and Miriam will come behind to tuck in the plants.”

Lucky Bucket 15

They told me about how the rows had to be straight and how I was a “natural with a trowel.” I couldn’t tell if they were joking, but I loosened up and smiled. I learned that “preparing” the soil meant dropping a scoop of organic chicken feather fertilizer into each hole. Charlie carried this amendment in a galvanized bucket with a twisted handle and a faded number 15 painted on the side. He noticed that I was staring and chuckled.

“What? Haven’t I told you my bucket story yet?” I shook my head, and he took off, recounting how his father had been a sharecropper who took a seasonal job at the tomato cannery in town every winter to make some extra money for his young family. I was struck by how much Charlie knew about his father’s daily life and history, as he explained how the workers at the cannery would skin the tomatoes into metal buckets by hand and send them down a conveyor belt to be processed. I noticed a distant quality in his gem-blue eyes as he continued:

“Well, when the cannery finally went bankrupt and closed, they gave each worker one of those buckets as a memento. My father got lucky number 15,” Charlie beamed, holding up the relic. “Now I use it as my special fertilizer bucket. It reminds me of Dad.” By this time, Miriam had planted her last flower.

She stood up and looked over the land she loved and said to no one in particular that “these will come up beautifully by the end of the summer. They’ll attract the bees and keep the cycle going.” And then I understood.

Memory-Building on the Farm

All this time I’d thought that, once lost, the intimate memory of one’s connection with their home land is forever severed. But Miriam and Charlie were living proof that it’s not. The element that mingled with their obvious pride in the farm was memory, a memory that was built and rebuilt over their 30-plus years in the place they still call home. To “keep the cycle going” is to trust that once-bountiful land will never be completely decimated and to believe in the nourishing, restorative process of memory-building that emphasizes our indelible human reliance on healthy soils and ecosystem services for survival.

At the end of that first day, Charlie took me on a tour of the farm to make sure I knew the layout of my new workplace. Our last stop was the woodlot that borders his property where his kids, now in their 30s, once built a treehouse and put on plays by firelight.

“I would always recommend including a woodlot to anyone looking to buy farm property,” he says. “It’s so important to have wild space in an agricultural system to encourage biodiversity.” He’s staring down at the decrepit treehouse, now full of wolf spiders and rotting wood. The green paint on its aluminum is weathered, and the spring-fed creek that borders his land trickles, constant just beyond our field of vision.

“Plus,” he says with a glance 20-or-so-years away from me, “it’s great for the kids.”

Jonny Malksis a sustainable agriculture student and food systems educator in Virginia who uses the knowledge of how to grow food to build community. Connect with him on Facebook and read all of Jonny’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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