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Our March 2020 newsletter, written in mid-February, described new connections that we hoped to grow. We’d just begun regular visits to the Springbrook senior housing complex. We were planning in-person Screen-Free Week activities and a neighborhood dance. We were reaching out to invite new community members to join the farm as Lorraine and Zach prepared to move away. And then along came COVID.
For the first couple of months I expected life to get back to normal soon. Instead, a year later, COVID is surging (it has spread, and killed, in our county this winter as it did not during the early part of the pandemic), and social distancing matters more than ever. During the growing season we had many outdoors visitors , but now Lorraine and I hardly see other people. (Zach is the designated errand-runner so still has some more outside contacts.) I hear from neighbors and from far-off friends about the loneliness that comes with taking necessary precautions, as well as the loneliness that comes with the deepening divide in our perceptions of what is real. I’ve written more about that particular loneliness and division in my article “Fear, Sanity, and Community” below. I think it is made worse by the straightforward loneliness of plague-year isolation.
I still don’t have a clue when or whether things will get back to “normal.” We’re focusing on finding safe ways to keep up connections during this lonely time. Lorraine calls other people who are feeling the effects of COVID isolation, and she also finds connection and encouragement in those conversations. Zach drops books, music, and plants off for our nonagenarian friend, and we enjoy hearing her take on what she reads and hears. I’m writing more letters and enjoying hearing from people who take time to write back substantively. And I try to keep rooted in prayer, to remember that, however lonely we may feel, we are all one in the One.
The Pulaski Community Services Task Force still meets monthly by phone so that official social service agencies, small volunteer groups, and others can share information and find ways to cooperate. COVID has complicated the work of keeping people fed and housed, and of helping people navigate systems that were confusing enough before. But at the meetings people keep reporting that neighbors have been unexpectedly generous and there is still enough to share. I am grateful for our meetings. I miss the time when we could gather in person, when people hung around in small groups after the meetings to discuss projects they might try together, when it was possible to put a hand on someone’s shoulder when they were grieving or frustrated. I also hear from some agencies that if/when COVID recedes they will keep offering phone and online services for their clients who live in remote areas and may not have reliable transportation to get the help they need. That’s another good thing that has come out of this hard time.
We’re trying to plan for free non-electronic Screen-Free Week activities that families can do at home, or outdoors in very small or self-guided groups. This is more complicated because this year the school’s spring break week, when we’ve traditionally scheduled Screen-Free Week activities, spans the end of March and the beginning of April so the weather’s likely to be cold. During the pandemic constructive activities are more important than ever, and also harder to plan safely. We’re figuring that out as best we can, and I’ll report on the results in the June newsletter. Some suggestions for indoor and outdoor family activities which we put together last spring are on the “Live and Learn” page of our website.
I’ve spread the word about our search for new community members in various forums. A few people have responded. Often the ensuing conversations show that inquirers are looking for something other than what this community offers. I have gotten used to this place and this life, and I forget how odd some aspects of it are. We’re religious enough to alarm some people, and insufficiently tied to any particular form of religious orthodoxy for other people. I have been reminded that manual labor is growing less popular even when it’s directly paid for, and this life outside the usual systems of financial security understandably alarms some people. I still know there is something in this life which visitors have found meaningful as well as disconcerting. (See Lorraine’s article on page 4.) I’m still in conversation with some people who intend to come visit us in the growing season when it will be easier to work and talk together in COVID-safe ways. I am also thinking about other organizations that could make good use of this land if I cannot find new community members to stay here with me.
I wrote above about trying to remember that I am still connected to all living souls even in lonely times. I also try to remember that, while this place has been home to me for a long time now, it is not my home. Many people have built and loved and learned from St Francis Farm, and in some way it will continue to be a place of gift and labor and prayer. I try to remember, also, that I am at home everywhere and nowhere in this difficult, beloved world. –Joanna
Once this health crisis passes, our worst response would be to plunge ever more deeply into feverish consumerism and new forms of egotistic self-preservation. God willing, after all this, we will no longer think in terms of “them” and “those,” but only “us” … If only this immense sorrow may not prove useless, but enable us to take a step forward towards a new style of life. If only we might rediscover once for all that we need one another, and that in this way our human family can experience a rebirth, with all its faces, all its hands, and all its voices, beyond the walls we have erected.
–Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti
Retrospective by Lorraine
This winter has given me an opportunity to look back over my years at the farm before moving on to the next phase of my life. I decided to go back and read records of groups and letters received, things saved by year and filed away without any particular purpose. Now I’m very glad to have saved them for the memories they bring and for how much clearer the path we’ve traveled seems in hindsight even though I’ve only read through 2010. For years while we didn’t address the questions and problems posed by groups in newsletters, we tried to make hosting service weeks work for us and those who came. In hindsight our decision to stop seems inevitable but not a failure. I can even see that we were “planting seeds,” an assertion that irritated me when I saw the stony ground so clearly and forgot the fertile soil since we almost never saw the growth.
At first what we’d taken on seemed overwhelming, and we just tried to cope day by day. We had to borrow money to pay property taxes that first fall, and groups had been a main source of income. Some were already scheduled for 2002, and some of those canceled after 9/11 or because of growing concerns around sexual abuse within religious institutions. We didn’t know what to expect since none of us had ever gone on a service trip and Joanna and Zach hadn’t even gone to school. The few groups we had helped with in the summer had been rather confusing with our being new and everyone else in the process of leaving. But we did know some things we wanted to do differently.
We wanted to be able to begin our days with half an hour of silence whether a group was here or not. People with more group experience told us that would only work “perhaps once in the week if the group were really mature,” but given the choice between joining us or planning their own morning prayers, group leaders chose to join us. Some weeks our visitors were restless for the first day or two, but by the end of the week many mentioned that way of prayer as something new that they wanted to take home with them. Before meals, instead of asking one of the visitors to lead a prayer which we had noticed often caused embarrassment, we gathered in a circle, holding hands while we paused to be thankful. Anyone who wished could pray aloud and sometimes we sang a blessing as we’d seen migrant workers do during the Spanish Apostolate retreats. The prayer circle before meals received favorable comments on the feedback from groups over the years.
Work was puzzling—there was plenty that needed to be done—but it didn’t always fit for a group. As fewer groups came, we did more work that didn’t depend on them. Having less income, we focused on producing more of what we ate, cutting more firewood and buying less oil, learning to repair whatever needed fixing. Off-farm projects couldn’t always wait for a group week. When I was hired to coordinate the after-school program at Rural & Migrant Ministry and the others at the farm were regular volunteers, we had to balance that with hosting groups. Some were helpful with the children, and some just made that work more difficult. Group leaders often wanted to do some project at Unity Acres, but that wasn’t always convenient for the staff there. Many found the farm work challenging but rewarding and some were pleased to learn some new skills, but often the work didn’t meet expectations of what a “service trip” should be. Supervising a dozen “helpers” who had little experience of manual labor was hard with just three of us—even if nothing broke down and no one showed up needing our help or attention.
Our stated mission of living an alternative to the consumer culture led us to question “selling” a group experience at the farm to the privileged. Volunteers who came on their own lived and worked with us without money changing hands or major disruptions to the rhythm of our days. Group leaders wanted the students to bond as a group and not to question the ideas about success of their school or community. They wanted them to “serve the poor” and to feel good about “sacrificing” their time to come here. Feedback at the end of a week often mentioned not making enough community contacts. But when Deacon Sweenie brought us two migrant workers just hours before a college group arrived, students complained about having a Spanish language table, and a Spanish major refused to talk with the men whose “grammar was bad.” But they would have liked the “experience” of visiting a migrant camp. We canceled time scheduled with local children one spring break because we didn’t want them to have to mix with some very rude and foul-mouthed high school boys here for a group week. One group leader’s frequent comments about “illegal aliens” and “welfare cheats” raised concerns about how we could welcome people in our community while hosting groups.
The history of hosting groups, the expectation that we would continue, and the evident benefits to some of the visitors made it hard to give up hosting groups. We were advised to visit Nazareth Farm and model ourselves on it, to bring in “enthusiastic young people” to run groups and stick to farm work ourselves. I’m grateful to Sr. Louise who told us in 2001 that we didn’t need to do what others had done before us, that we had our own gifts and should use those to meet the needs we encountered. I’m grateful to Vince who, after spending 3 weeks here in 2007, told us in a letter that visitors might just be starting down a road that we had been traveling for some years. He prayed that we would stretch to reach back to them while we reached forward toward Christ. Reading feedback and letters from so many who have spent time here, I wonder where they are and what they are doing and thinking. I hope the ones who found inspiration here have carried that with them and spread it in their own ways. And I hope the ones who were offended or dissatisfied with their experience here have found in some other place what they most need.
Selected quotes from group evaluations over the years:
We valued the morning silence— a way of praying and being in community that we don’t experience much.
I wasn’t sure about the idea of participating in your daily life, but the way things went met our objectives better than most trips we do. (2002)
Your open spirit allowed us to really listen and speak our minds. (2003)
The work was hard, but a good kind of hard. I learned the most from the migrant workers.
I’ve never eaten so healthy and still felt so satisfied.
I learned to set aside distractions and think deep down, how to reach out to people instead of judging by appearances.
I loved time to notice the sounds of nature and to do manual labor as a group. (2004)
I felt pressured to set aside all I have known all my life.
SFF has yet to find balance among prayer, work for itself, and work in the community.
I admire how you dealt with a difficult group. Those of us who had a positive experience will carry it with us forever.
Prayer took some getting used to but became quite peaceful.
Sharing in picking, preparing meals and cleaning up made us feel like part of the farm family. (2005)
I slowed down and thought about my life in the silence which was odd at first.
Some of the work seemed trivial and pointless. Wanted to help at UA, more experience of poverty.
I think you should be grateful enough that groups come to volunteer.
I found that the Catholic identity was missing. I was discouraged and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work that is needed to maintain the farm.
A trip to Nazareth Farm would give you an idea of what I wish for at SFF. (2006)
Work is hard and may seem daunting but in the end is rewarding. It helped to have quiet time, a set time to think about things. The food was new but delicious.
Work was hard and complicated. So much to be done as if it never ended. Really hard to just sit for half an hour of silence when we just got out of bed.
So much of what I believe was continually revealed to me during hours of work. (2007)
Liked open discussion but opinions were harsh—alternative to consumer culture was evident but not a life based on the gospels.
I tried new foods and actually liked them. We did more work than I expected but I liked it better.
More people should live simplier but not to this extreme.
I couldn’t stand the smell of the water. I liked working with my hands in the garden.
The food wasn’t my favorite—it tasted weird. Silent prayer was uncomfortable because I didn’t know what to do really.
The silence is a great way to wake up and let your senses slowly come back to you. I’m not sure if you can call it work when you’re enjoying it. You’ve made the week fun and enjoyable, complex and intriguing. (2010)
This winter I have been spending a lot of days in the shop, which provides some income to the farm and gives me time to build more instruments. I know that once spring comes I will not be able to do this nearly as much, so I am trying to get caught up now while I can. In past years we used to make toys for the refugee center in Syracuse in the winter, but since 2017 there have been few or no refugees coming into the country, and with the pandemic going on we are not able to continue the outreach to local senior citizens that we began last winter. I’ve been going into town one day a week to do necessary errands, and other than that we’ve just been keeping to ourselves. I’m looking forward to spring when we’ll be able to have visitors again once it warms up and we can spend time outside or on the porch.
The weather this winter has not been conducive to getting out to cut firewood like I did last winter. At first it was too warm, going above freezing most days so that the ground stayed soft, and more recently the snow has begun to pile up to more of a depth than I can get through with the equipment we have, though it’s not as deep as it has been in some of our winters here. I’ll just cut the firewood in the spring like I have usually done, and that should be fine, since we don’t have any large repair projects scheduled for this year. Our current firewood supply is holding up well. The main woodshed will likely be empty sometime in the first half of March and this year I will go ahead and burn the wood in the emergency stack out in the barn, as it has been there for 2 or 3 years, before starting in on the regular spring and summer wood piles. The boiler was staying hot better than usual through the fall and early winter, but we didn’t seem to be able to get the heat out into the building as much as we wanted to. I replaced the circulator pump since it was more than 8 years old and I was afraid it might be getting weak, but it didn’t help the situation. I couldn’t think what else to try, but finally it occurred to me to try replacing the thermostat in the mixing valve on the boiler intake which controls the intake temperature. I found that the old one was stuck about halfway open, and that was what was keeping the boiler hot without letting enough heat into the building. Since then it has been working fine, and I’ve learned a new thing about the boiler system.
I sawed a lot of lumber during December, finishing a few days before Christmas, and have not run the sawmill since, partly because the weather has made it hard to skid logs and partly due to lack of demand for lumber. We sold a lot of lumber in December and since then hardly any, but that’s not unusual as it always fluctuates unpredictably. Now the loft is full, so there will be lumber to sell when people start to want it again.
We didn’t start to get a lot of snow till January, and one day when I went out to blow snow with the tractor the PTO driveshaft broke apart. I had hoped to get parts in town, but the blower we have uses an odd gearbox and I had to order parts online and wait for them to come. In the meantime I used the blower as a plow, which was okay but not quite as effective. Once the parts came it was a very easy repair.
Fear, Sanity, and Community by Joanna
In the aftermath of the mob violence at the Capitol, I hear some liberals and conservatives responding to the great gulf in how Americans perceive reality by saying that people on the other side are mentally ill. My response to this is complicated by my own struggles with mental illness and my memories of our attempts to make a safe place here at the farm for other people dealing with mental health issues.
I know that kind, thoughtful, and reasonably clear-sighted people may disagree with me about the things that matter most to me. I used to think I knew how to discuss those disagreements constructively. That feels harder given the growing disconnects in our understandings of reality. I am bewildered and alarmed when people—including some whom I know and love–say the COVID pandemic is a hoax or a bioweapon. Or when they say a demonic conspiracy is controlling the government and the media and also all of us ordinary people on the “wrong side” of the political spectrum. Or when they condone violent actions to redress these imagined threats. I don’t know how to reasonably discuss our differences or seek common ground, since what I see as clear facts appear to them as Communist or demonic lies.
I am tempted to say, “These people are sick in their minds and are beyond hope” — to write them off. Some people have done this with me, saying that I have been brainwashed or am suffering from “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”
There is no such syndrome, and I haven’t been brainwashed, but I have been sick in my mind. I’ve struggled with anxiety, obsessions, and compulsions. I know how it felt to live in a world shaped by fear, how hard it was to hear other people over the blaring of my internal alarms. I remember thinking that I was protecting other people and doing a good and necessary thing (for instance, by washing my hands over and over and over to prevent imagined deadly contamination) when in fact I was just creating problems (by wasting time and hot water, making my skin crack and bleed, and worrying the people who loved me). I remember resenting loved ones’ concerns and insisting vehemently that I was JUST FINE. I remember my elaborate pseudo-rational explanations for the unreasonable things I believed and did. Sometimes as I listen to friends with bizarre and frightening beliefs I wonder if they are stuck in a similar place.
I’m not saying these friends are clinically mentally ill. I see that there are differences between private delusions and belief in widely shared lies. My unreasonable fears originated in my own brain and looked bizarre to the people around me, who urged me to get help. No public figures or online groups stoked my fears or praised me for acting on them. And while my sickness sometimes prompted me to feel misunderstood and resentful, it never prompted me to believe that other people were evil/possessed/not really human.
But I hear that people gravitate to conspiracy theories partly because they want a sense of control in a world that feels out of control, and that feels familiar. Once I had admitted my obsessive/compulsive tendencies, my mother asked me, “Is there any reason why you hold onto this? Is there something about this that you want to believe?” I insisted indignantly that there wasn’t. Eventually I actually stopped and thought about the question. Then I realized that all my elaborate irrational stories came down to one basic pattern: if I don’t do things just right, people I care about will be harmed. And this was appealing because of the implied converse: if I do things just right, people I love won’t be harmed. I can keep them all safe. Once I recognized what I had been saying to myself, I saw that it was a lie, I saw why I had wanted to believe it, and I saw why it made me miserable. After that it was easier—not easy, but easier—to let go of that lie.
I had to choose to let go of my lies. No one else could do that for me. But various things outside me helped. The loving challenges/questions, and the ongoing love, of family and friends were great helps. Books teaching constructive coping strategies helped. Doing basic necessary work, often in the fresh air and under the open sky, also helped.
We’ve offered constructive work, time in nature, resource books, emotional support, and clarity to others who come to the farm dealing with mental health struggles. Sometimes we’ve been a constructive or healing place for people who knew that they were struggling with various forms of anxiety or depression. Sometimes we haven’t been able to keep up a constructive connection or we’ve realized they needed a kind of help we couldn’t give. And we’ve found no good way to help people who do not perceive themselves to be (or at least do not admit being) mentally ill.
There are many things I don’t understand about how we might heal as a nation. But I wish that we could hold onto compassion for people stuck in fear and in false stories, and that we could keep doing basic work together. I’ve seen people with painfully divergent political views come together to feed hungry folks or contact isolated elders. Such shared work doesn’t necessarily change political views, but it weakens the sense of helplessness and isolation which make people more vulnerable to Big Lies, and it undermines the belief that all those people on the other side are scary and evil.
I hear some people say that calls for unity come at the expense of justice– that to reach out to people with extremist views is to abandon the people most imperiled by those views. I see that the danger of extremism is real and growing. I see, also, that the people threatened by extremists are also harmed by deep ongoing injustices in how our systems normally operate. We all take part in an economy that exploits low-wage workers and dumps toxic wastes in poor communities—and people’s vulnerability to these injustices is also influenced by race and immigration status. We all have large blind spots about class, race, religion, and other issues which allow us to speak and act harmfully, or to ignore the harm being done by “our people.” We are all prone to believing false stories about the world that help us hold onto a sense of control, or a sense of blamelessness. I don’t want us to unite by continuing to accept those false stories. I also don’t want us to unite with “our people” by vilifying “their people” while ignoring the vile tendencies in ourselves and our groups. I wish we could unite in recognizing our common frailty, the harm we all do, and the mercy and justice we all need. I wish we could unite in the commitment to see more clearly, to do justice, and to love kindness. Then maybe we could practice sanity together. Then maybe we could grow communities just and strong enough so that we wouldn’t be so desperately afraid.
For Christians, the words of Jesus…compel us to recognize Christ himself in each of our abandoned or excluded brothers and sisters (cf. Mt. 25:40.45)…Still, there are those who appear to feel encouraged or at least permitted by their faith to support varieties of narrow and violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt, and even the mistreatment of those who are different… We need to develop the awareness that nowadays we are either all saved together or no one is saved. –Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti (Brothers All)
My natural inclination was to see relationships, to seek the threads that connect the world, to join instead of divide.–Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
We’ve updated the Readings section on our webpage with book recommendations and quotes from our winter readings. Here are some titles that made us think. Tell us what you’ve been reading and thinking about.
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Fratelli Tutti (Brothers All) by Pope Francis
Twenty Years at Hull-House by Jane Addams
So far February seems much wintrier than December did, with knee-high snow and single-digit temperatures, but the light is lengthening, the greenhouse plants growing again after a long winter stasis, and the spring work coming on. By the time this reaches you Zach may be boiling down maple syrup, I may be pruning apple trees and starting seedlings, and some of the rabbits may be pregnant.
We’re expecting a goat kid in early May—a little later than usual, since the car was broken down on the first occasion when we might have taken the goat to be bred. Zachary contacted the butchers early to get a pig processing appointment, since last year the place was fully booked and we only got in through their extra generosity. Our old hens are still laying copiously through the cold gray days. We’re not starting new chicks this year, since it’s not at all clear if there will still be a core community here next year to eat the eggs they lay.
We’re waiting to see whether or not the shiitake logs we inoculated last spring will produce. They didn’t produce a late fall harvest as some earlier batches have done, but they may just have been delayed by the summer drought.
Last winter eagles began showing up on our land to scavenge, and we began relocating roadkill to the hayfield so we could eagle-watch more conveniently. This January we spotted a dead deer in the stream and Zach hauled it out of the water and moved it to the field. We enjoyed watching the ravens and eagles until the snow buried the deer. (Alas, they mostly preferred to show up when the snow was falling thickly enough to impede picture-taking.) Nothing is wasted…
If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow. When the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become.
–Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
Update by Joanna
When I wrote for the last newsletter I was feeling the effects of a solitary plague-year winter. Now the growing season is opening out again, and COVID vaccination is making it more possible for us to have real live visits. Lorraine was vaccinated at Unity Acres in February and March, and Zachary and I got our shots in Oswego in April and May. We’ve enjoyed seeing Marge and visiting with other (vaccinated) friends. We’re still keeping in touch by phone, email, and paper letters with folks who are farther away. During the pandemic people seemed especially willing to write substantive letters, and their thoughtfulness and openness have encouraged us. We hope that will persist beyond the lockdown time.
Back in late March/early April, during the school’s spring break week, when the weather was still cold and vaccination just beginning, St Francis Farm and other community organizations in Pulaski, Sandy Creek, Richland, and Orwell celebrated Screen-Free Week. We weren’t able to do many of our usual activities: the community barn dance was obviously out of the question, as were indoor art classes and game nights, shared meals, and even large outdoor guided nature walks. We found other ways to invite people into constructive non-electronic activities. The Rural and Migrant Ministry sent activity packets home with all the K-5 students in the Pulaski schools, and various community groups contributed to those packets. We added suggestions for indoor math, science, and storytelling activities and outdoor nature explorations. Several groups offered art, nature, and story activity kits that families could pick up and take home. St Francis Farm and Selkirk Shores invited people to come for self-guided nature walks. Only one family came to walk here, perhaps because of the bad weather, but more went to Selkirk, and scores of people picked up art activity kits.
As the weather improved, friends and neighbors came for socially distanced outdoor visits. Some were people we’ve known for a long time and missed over the winter; some were brand-new to the farm. We enjoyed their help, company, and stories, got good advice, and sent ramps, fiddleheads, herbs, flowers, and equipment for raising chicks home with them. As described in Lorraine’s article, we gave perennials to neighbors in a way that worked better than last year. In mid-May, when all of us were fully vaccinated, Jeff came from Long Island to spend a week with us. It was good to eat at the same table with a guest again. Jeff joined me in the garden and Zach at the sawmill and enjoyed bird-watching and stargazing.
This reopening time has brought more visitors, but not more potential community members. My posting of announcements that we would soon be fully COVID-vaccinated and ready to welcome fully vaccinated guests mostly elicited hostile remarks about the evils of vaccines and people who use them. We’re still discerning the way ahead, with help from our Board, and I hope to have more clarity by the time the next newsletter goes out. As friends ask us about our plans we realize we haven’t clearly communicated two things we do know now: Lorraine and Zachary will remain here through this coming winter and will move out during the growing season in 2022. I won’t try to live here and manage the farm on my own. I would like to see further ahead. I am trying to keep my focus on the loveliness that is around me now as the spring unfolds, and the good work that is at hand to do right now. I go back to what Thomas Merton wrote in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
“There is a time to listen, in the active life as everywhere else, and the better part of action is waiting, not knowing what next, and not having a glib answer.”
“Belief…means also trust, the ability to take risks, to advance into the unknown trusting that life itself can and will take care of us if we let it.”
Looking Around, Looking Back by Lorraine
I’ve been savoring this spring, realizing it may be my last one at the farm. When my back and knees have had enough of gardening, I go walk the woods road to see what is blooming there or sit on the hill or by the pond to watch the birds. In April people came to get plants from my divisions of perennial herbs and flowers, and May 13 we brought Marge for an afternoon, her first visit since fall of 2019.
Perhaps because we had snow cover for most of the winter, the woodland wildflowers seemed especially prolific. Spring beauty bloomed in mats instead of isolated flowers. The hepatica which usually blooms mostly white with a few pinks or pale blues was very colorful. Trout lilies bloomed and then seemed to disappear in a cold snap when it snowed a couple times, but then came back as it grew warmer. Leaves started to open early, then held for weeks half-open and new spring green, while the days stayed unseasonably cool into May.
My gardens bring back memories—of people who worked in them with me or planted them before we came or gave us plants from their gardens over the years. We still call the biggest one ‘Tom’s garden’ because he planted it when he lived here, and the pink peonies and Solomon’s seal came from his parents’ gardens, and he brought us bleeding heart from the Belges’ garden. Andy brought us the lemon balm, Sarah the mint and lemon thyme. The white peonies came from Barbara. Joe brought some of the ornamental grass and some came from Judy. We dug astilbe from Marge’s garden where it had gotten crowded. I’ll be taking plants for a smaller garden where they will still be reminders of the people who shared them as I hope to continue sharing future divisions in another place.
After 20 years we still struggle to make constructive connections. Last year we had too many people come at once to get plants and I was trying to keep appropriate distance and figure out how to work and talk wearing a mask and still be able to see as my glasses fogged. This year we had fewer people come, some new to us and most already vaccinated so it was easier to answer questions about the plants or the farm. I enjoyed catching up with people I hadn’t seen for a year or more. But some who had come last summer and spoke of coming this year in time for spring wildflowers couldn’t find time to come when invited.
Explaining this life has always been hard and the difficulty increases with the uncertainties of this transition time. I try to balance stepping back with being present and see with chagrin my limitations dealing with needy or difficult guests or doing my share of the daily work. I remind myself to focus on all that is good—a section of garden that is weeded and thriving, a neighbor walking our woods and field paths, a woman who comes looking for wooden toys to take to grandchildren she can visit again now. And Marge’s visit—I walked alongside the ‘chariot’ Zach was pulling and looked with Marge at the violets and marsh marigolds, watched the week-old goat kids practice hopping, sat near the flower garden and watched birds and talked about books. And we were able to hug at arrival and departure. So many blessings and more memories to be made.
Remembering Father Tony Keeffe
Father Tony Keeffe passed away on February 26 and was buried at Unity Acres on April 15. Some of you, our readers, knew him longer and better than we did. We’re grateful for our time with him.
Father Tony was born in Syracuse, where he spent most of his life. He became a priest in 1963. From 1983 to 1993 he was pastor of St. John Evangelist in Pulaski, and for two years after that of St. Francis Xavier Cabrini in Lacona. Neighbors from those churches have told us some of their memories of his kindness, good humor, passion for social justice, and unassuming neighborliness. He was involved with Unity Acres and St. Francis Farm.
By the time we came to SFF in 2001 Father Tony had moved to another parish and was near retirement. But after we met Father Tony at a Jail Ministry event he stayed in touch with us. We were nervous at first about what he might make of a Quaker family taking on the work of St Francis Farm. He welcomed us and helped us to understand Catholic traditions and terminology. When the farm was assigned to speak at local parishes, he looked over my notes and gave helpful advice. He asked about our ways of worshipping and said Quaker worship sounded like the centering prayer he practiced. He told us stories about the farm’s early days and helped us connect with other friends of the farm. When we realized we had to shape the lively charitable disorganization we’d inherited into a nonprofit corporation to hold the title to the land, Father Tony helped with that and served on our board for the first five years.
Most of all, Father Tony cared about reaching out to people in distress. He listened, prayed, and offered helpful advice as we struggled with the complications of hospitality, and he accompanied us through some very stressful situations. He talked helpfully with a Catholic guest suffering from religious anxieties that we weren’t able to address. He attended to the people around him, understood what troubled them, and worked to put them at their ease.
He brought that attentive kindness to his religious and political bridge-building. Once he told us about a Christian coming to him in dismay because they had bought a sandwich from a Muslim man who had wished Allah’s blessings on them. They felt that this must be a curse, and wanted him to take it off. He didn’t go along with that misunderstanding, and he didn’t lecture them either. He said something along the lines of, “That was a real blessing, and we all need all the blessings we can get. Of course I’m not going to take that one off, but I’d be glad to give you another one.”
We also remember how delighted, and bewildered, Father Tony was by gardening. For some years we planted his garden in the spring and tried to answer his gardening questions over the phone later in the season. We guessed that “those leaves like green sparklers” belonged to carrots, but we never did figure out the identity of “those leaf-shaped leaves.” Those visits also allowed us to get to know Father Tony’s beloved sister, Joan. Later we found Father Tony and Joan a garden buddy. Anola had garden knowledge and good knees but didn’t have a yard. She and the Keeffes grew food together for a while.
We remember with delight Father Tony’s vivid storytelling and his full-throated Johnny Cash imitations. We miss him. We are grateful for his life and the generosity of his spirit. His memory is a blessing.
My work has been pretty easy this spring. The snow melted earlier than it often does, and then the early spring cool weather was protracted through most of April and the first half of May. The maple syrup season was fairly short but productive while it lasted, and we got a respectable amount of syrup. There was much less work this year than last year when the sap had such low sugar content. I was surprised this year by how much syrup we would get from each batch of sap when we were finishing it inside on the stove.
Late in March I was asked to build a ramp in Williamstown. This is the earliest I have ever built a ramp but luckily the snow had melted from the area where the ramp had to go. I’ll continue to build ramps this year if asked. Lumber prices have gone very high but that doesn’t affect my part in building the ramps since ARISE decides where ramps are needed and pays for the materials through fundraising and donations.
During the winter our sales of lumber at the sawmill were very low, though I had a good supply in the loft and still had the same prices. May has brought some more customers so now there is room in the loft for the lumber from a couple of dead elm trees I found early in the spring. I didn’t run the sawmill at all from shortly before Christmas till April.
We had a week of nice weather in April during which I was able to bring in most of the firewood to fill the main woodshed. I got most of this year’s wood from an area near the old cow pasture which is predominantly filled with ash trees, of which many have died in the past few years due, presumably, to the emerald ash borer. Normally I use firewood cutting as a time to thin out trees that are not doing so well throughout the woods, but with so many ash trees dying I have been focused on cutting them and bringing them in before they rot.
Our piglet for this year arrived in late May, and was delivered instead of our picking it up, as it was bigger than usual. The piglet market has been disrupted by the pandemic, along with everything else, but we have always gotten good piglets from these folks so we trust that this one will work out fine. We made an appointment in January to have this year’s piglet processed in October. The butcher was kind enough to call their longtime customers to make sure they could get appointments before the schedule filled up.
Farm and Garden Update (written May 21, 2021)
This spring the weather has been as uncertain as everything else. Early and mid-April were very warm and mild. Then we had snow late in April and again on May Day. For a little while the weather stayed wet and cold and the nights frosty. Then the rain stopped falling and the nighttime lows were where the daytime highs had been. I’m still not completely sure we’re past the last frost, so the tables in front of the greenhouse are crowded with seedlings.
We have especially large and hearty tomato, eggplant, and pepper seedlings this year. When the water-bed heater I’d been using to warm those heat-loving seeds before germination finally died, Lorraine and Zach came up with a new seedling warmer made with blankets draped over a grow light frame, enclosing the seedling trays along with a small electric heater. Thus encouraged, the seedlings germinated within one week instead of the usual 2-3 and grew robustly. Jeff helped me set out one bed of tomatoes (all we are equipped to cover in case of late frost—we’ve already needed the covers once).
The onions also got off to a good start and remained thriving through a couple of snows after I set them out into the garden. We’re getting good harvests of asparagus, kale, lettuce, radishes, rhubarb, and spinach. Peas, potatoes, garlic, and chard are growing well, and I’ve just planted beans and squash. In these hot dry days I’m watering morning and evening and we’re also running drip irrigation 24/7. I am grateful for our good well.
Our young doe Robin refrained from giving birth on her due date or the couple of sunny days which followed, and instead had them late in the evening of May 7 as the dark came down and the weather turned cold and wet. She needed help in delivery; she appeared exhausted, and Lorraine and I felt exhausted too, by the time her two ten-pound buck kids were born. She recovered very well, and now she and little Gull and Grouse are flourishing. We’ve been enjoying watching the kids learn to run and to hop, and we have all the goat milk we can use and then some. The rabbits have been less successful. Our first six breedings resulted in a total of two litters, one of three kits, one of two. We’re not sure what’s going on there. The chickens, however, continue to lay prolifically although they’re becoming somewhat elderly.
Last year the apple harvest was especially abundant. This year the bloom in the orchard is scanty. I’m not sure whether this is related to my enthusiastic spring pruning, or to the odd temperature fluctuations when the trees were budding, or to apples’ tendency to bear heavily in alternate years, or something else altogether. But we are enjoying what blossom there is, and we’ll be grateful for what fruit comes.
Update and perspective by Lorraine
As we prepare to leave, memories from the past two decades color our search for successors. We recall our early bewilderment as well as our sense of many possibilities. Slowly we learned to know the place and people and saw some of our hopes realized. We’re grateful for all who helped us along the way, for all we learned from our mistakes. Each year brought changes to ways the mission was carried forward. Soon we will be leaving and others will live and work here with new vision and energy. We try to describe to them and to supporters what we remember and what we hope comes next.
Our first year or two felt chaotic. In answer to the frequent question of what St. Francis Farm was I would say, ‘a charitable disorganization.’ The deed to the farm was held by Time of Jubilee, but they didn’t know they held it and we didn’t know anything about them. After the first meeting with them, they wanted to be rid of that ownership and could only transfer the property to a non-profit corporation. We tried to find a land trust to hold the title, but any we approached would only hold land for specific purposes (sustainable agriculture, education, conservation, etc.) and we were told that we were doing too many different things. So by the end of 2003 we had formed St. Francis Farm Community.
However land trusts felt about how many things we were doing, we often were distressed because unable to do things asked of us. Sr. Louise, helpful in many ways in that time, told us not to try to do everything that had been done before or that anyone asked. She said the people around us had so many needs and we had our own gifts and should use those as we were led. For a while we continued hosting groups of students, Spanish Apostolate retreats, and injured migrant workers. We cut hay and mended fences for Unity Acres’ beef cattle and we did what we could to maintain the aging trailers, the farmhouse and barn. As some of this work ended for various reasons, we found other work that fit our mission of living an alternative to the consumer culture.
We developed the farming elements and welcomed other people to visit and learn. The permanent beds and low-till methods were productive and easier on Joanna’s back. Goats provided milk and manure to compost. Whey from cheese-making went to pigs who provided meat. The sawmill provided lumber to build various farm outbuildings, clapboards for UA, and income from selling hardwood. We started making maple syrup, growing shiitake mushrooms on oak bolts, and raising rabbits for meat. So many different things done on a small scale attracted WWOOFers who helped with the work and learned new skills and an appreciation of the cycles of life. For a few years the Growing Season Summer Program brought children to help in the garden, take home fresh vegetables, and explore nature. We sent farm produce to the soup kitchen in Lacona and to the senior housing in Pulaski. We made wooden toys for refugees in Syracuse and with families who also helped in the gardens. Zach built wheelchair ramps with ARISE and some of their workers brought clients to the farm looking for a place to volunteer, get some exercise, and enjoy nature. Over time connections were lost as personnel changed at agencies, and then came the covid pandemic. The soup kitchen closed, visitors were no longer allowed at the senior housing, and it became more difficult to welcome visitors to the farm. At the same time Zach was looking for a home in the Adirondacks where he could concentrate his work time on building musical instruments and be nearer to places he wanted to hike, bike, and paddle. And I was finding it harder each year to carry my part of the work here, physically and emotionally.
So we began to look at a way to transition. Joanna sought new community members for more than a year. When she found none, she looked for another community she could join and we began work on a transition for the farm. This legally required a dissolution of the corporation formed in 2003 with all assets being transferred to another 501c3 organization. We had our hopes of finding someone who would make good use of what we’ve built, but we’ve come to realize that what worked under ‘the farm economy’ depending on the land and on volunteer labor looks different in a money economy. In early July seventeen people from the Onondaga Nation, who came to meet us and see the farm, were enthusiastic about what they saw and understood what we valued. But when we tried to follow up with them, we learned they had too many more pressing issues to take on this farm. We approached the Northeast Farmers of Color land trust, which initially seemed interested but again didn’t have the resources to take on the farm. The American Farmland Trust expressed willingness to take the title to the land and said that they would place a conservation easement on it and sell or lease it to someone to farm. Brady Faith Center had its hands full with a farm to store project nearer to Syracuse. We kept waiting to write this newsletter, hoping to have something clear about the future of the farm.
On August 31 Victoria, the VP of the Board of the Oswego chapter of Habitat for Humanity, came to meet us and see the farm, the first step of fact-finding to determine whether Habitat could take the farm intending to develop a cluster of houses for seniors with a community center, gardens, and nature trails. She said they would make a decision in 60 days and advised us to contact other agencies, suggesting Cornell Cooperative Extension and Oswego County Opportunities as possibly interested parties. We reached out to both groups, and both expressed interest in the possibility of doing work here in partnership with other organizations. We’re also working on putting together additional information about the farm that Victoria thought would be useful to whoever considered taking the property. This is not our favorite work, but we are doing our best with it. We appreciate the patience and prayers of all who have supported us and followed our work through the years.
The Holy Spirit is at work not only in durable institutions which last through the centuries. He is at work also in ventures that have no future, which have always to be begun again. –Jacques Maritain
We’re grateful to all who have supported the farm with labor, donations, encouragement, and prayers. Since we are closing in 2022 and have more than enough money to get us through that time, please don’t send us any more financial donations. Day visitors willing to help with fall cleanup of gardens and trails would be more than welcome. (We are not taking overnight volunteers now.) We’d be delighted if you took time to write to us about your memories of the farm–let us know whether or not it’s OK for us to include any of these in our next newsletter. And we would appreciate prayers for wisdom and steadfastness as we go through this time of transition.
This summer has been a pretty quiet one for me, with no large maintenance jobs needing to be done. About the middle of June I built another wheelchair ramp for ARISE, south of Pulaski. In mid-July I began having some back problems which have come and gone, but have kept me from doing some of the work I had intended.
We got the hay in during the only three consecutive days in June with no rain. It was a dry month overall, but with very frequent light rains, and then July and August were very wet. Luckily we only made 169 bales, so it was easy to do in one session. The baler didn’t miss any knots, so it was a good finish to my hay-making career. Joanna helped me load the bales and put them into the loft. Late in July I began mowing the rest of the fields and finished in early August after several breakdowns of the haybine delayed progress. On the second day of mowing I had gotten down under the tongue to replace a sheared bolt and noticed a nest with three baby robins in it. Their parents must have built the nest soon after the haybine was parked in June, and it was about a month later that I found them. I finished mowing the field I was in and parked the haybine where it had been on the hilltop, and the parents resumed feeding the baby birds, who fledged successfully about a week later. My mother said the baby robins had been to day camp.
Our pig had some issues this year, but it worked out well in the end. It was much bigger than a typical piglet, and we were told it had been sick but had recovered. When it arrived it ran like most new pigs do and crashed into the wire walls of the pen, but since it was so big it pushed the whole pen a foot or two each time. I think it may have hurt its jaw doing this, because it would not bite tough things like most pigs do. It also seemed to have strained one of its back legs. It wouldn’t eat for a while, and Joanna helpfully figured out how to treat it, giving it penicillin injections and hand feeding it for several days. Bear brought us leftover bread to feed it since it wouldn’t eat grain at all at first. After about a month it got better and began to act pretty normally. Because it was so big we asked the butcher shop if they could move it up from October and they found a slot for it in late July. We only had the pig about half the usual amount of time, but it was as big as usual when it left. Without Joanna’s and Bear’s help I don’t think it would have lived.
The lawn mower we have been using for the last 8 years finally got too worn out in July, and I bought another old one to mow the garden paths and the lawns by the pond. On the smoother ground around the buildings I have been using a ground driven push reel lawn mower. I had meant to buy one to use when I have moved away, and I am just getting some practice with it ahead of time. It is not much slower than a power push mower, and I don’t have to worry about getting it to start. Also it’s quieter and cleaner, so I’ve been enjoying it.
Agriculture Update by Joanna
This has been a strange growing season. May and June were dry; I ran the drip irrigation day and night, and in the early morning and the evening I hand-watered the things the drip system didn’t reach. We had twelve inches of rain in July and seven in August. This caused some trouble with fungal diseases and split tomatoes, and I’ve learned not to run down the sloping path from the garden because the ground slides away underfoot. But thanks to our sandy soil and our hilltop site we’ve gotten a good harvest and had plenty to share. Some days the sky has been overcast and the air thick with smoke from fires to the north and west. That and the recently released climate report remind us that growing food will get harder as the world warms. But growing food locally and organically is also going to become more important as we try to find ways of living that do less harm. And in a time of much uncertainty, there’s satisfaction in doing straightforward and necessary manual work and producing something tangible to enjoy and share.
The apple trees bloomed scantily, but we’ll still get all we need. The shiitake mushrooms seem to enjoy the wet weather; we’ve had all we want to eat, dry, and share.
Our younger goat, Robin, got pneumonia in August when the air was bad, but bounced back well after getting antibiotics, so now we have enough milk to make cheese to share again. Our rabbits continued to have smaller-than-usual litters. If we were staying on at the farm we’d be getting in a new buck and trying to improve our breeding stock, but since we are leaving this hasn’t seemed worthwhile, and we still have all we need. It’s been easy to feed the rabbits in this wet year when the fields and roadsides have stayed green.
The chipmunks aren’t as voracious as they were last year, so we got all the peas we wanted before the heat killed the plants. We finished canning green beans in July and they’re still bearing. We have 98 quarts of tomatoes canned and 20 quarts dried, and now we have plenty to give away. Soon we’ll have finished freezing peppers and we’ll be able to send more out. The garlic throve. The onions grew large, though many split their outer layers in the heavy rain and I’m not sure what proportion will be fit for long-term storage when they’ve finished curing. Lettuce, kale and chard are doing well in the wet weather. Not so the broccoli, which flowered late and irregularly. We’ve enjoyed plenty of large new potatoes and I am expecting a good harvest once the vines finish dying.
Some of the places where we used to send produce have closed or have been overwhelmed with donations because of COVID. But at Pulaski Community Services Task Force meetings I heard about a mobile home park for seniors where most tenants were low-income and could use more fresh food. (We’ve noticed that elders and kids are more often interested in eating fresh vegetables than the generations in between.) Someone from the tenant’s association comes every Monday to pick up vegetables. Toward the end of the week a neighbor who’s in remission from cancer and eating lots of fresh organic food comes and picks up produce to eat, share with family, and preserve for winter. Bear has made more time to visit us this last growing season when we’ll be at the farm, and he sometimes takes vegetables back to share with folks at Unity Acres where he works, or on the reservation. We’re grateful for the goodness of the land and for the connections that grow from that.
Joanna’s next steps
In 2001, when I was nineteen, I came to St. Francis Farm looking for a way of life consistent with my faith. I wanted to do more subsistence work instead of getting everything I needed through a market system that hurt workers and the land. I wanted to give, instead of selling, the results of my work to my neighbors. I wanted a life in which work, worship, activism, outreach, and community were integrated, not separate pieces competing with each other. I wanted, though I didn’t have the words for it then, what I found described in Mark and Louise Zwick’s biography of Dorothy Day—a way of living “as if the Truth was true.” Often people who heard me describing what I wanted said, “That sounds nice, but you know people can’t live that way in the real world.” I decided to try and find out whether or not such a life was actually possible.
Here at St. Francis Farm I found what I needed, if not altogether what I had expected. I hadn’t expected that all the established community members would leave as we arrived. I hadn’t expected to have to set up a nonprofit corporation to hold the land. I hadn’t expected to have to say No as often as we did—most of all in the first year, but also repeatedly thereafter. I hadn’t expected to fail quite as often as I did, either in the garden or in my attempts to connect constructively across divides and be present and helpful when people were struggling. But on the other hand, there was meaningful work to do with hands and heart and brain. There was this beautiful place to work and rest in, with its wide dark night skies that let me learn the constellations, with its woodcocks and green herons and snapping turtles. There were neighbors and guests from a wide range of backgrounds to work, pray, argue, walk, cry, laugh, and sing with. Over these twenty years I’ve grown more tired but also more competent, more grounded in reality, more capable of listening before speaking, more aware of how to work well on this soil and with these neighbors. And I picked up another unrealistic expectation: that I could keep living and working here for the rest of my life.
I thought I might stay here indefinitely with my family, but after twenty years they were called in other directions. Then I thought I could get other people to join me in this life, but it didn’t seem to be what people were looking for. That surprised me at first. But over the last twenty years while I have been growing into this life the rest of the country has been moving in a rather different direction. People are living at a faster pace, working less with their hands, and having ever more of their needs and wants provided by the market instead of by gift and by direct labor. Many people had doubts about living in what they saw as a remote rural area, doing physical work, and not have personal ownership and financial security. Others who were also looking for an alternative way of life had different security concerns—some mistrusted vaccinated people, believing they were tainted or possibly subject to mind control; others wanted to join a community that would build a bunker and prepare to ward everyone else off when civilization collapsed. After about eighteen months of vigorously searching for new community members I realized that I wasn’t going to find them and that the work we’ve done here is drawing to a close. I regret that, but I also look forward to the new kinds of work and help that may take place here after us, and to my own next steps.
Next February, God willing, I will go for an internship, which may grow into a longer stay, at Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia. Koinonia was founded 1942 by Clarence and Mabel Jordan and Martin and Mabel England as a “demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God.” This demonstration involved sharing of life, resources, and prayer; sustainable farming; hospitality; and interracial fellowship—which was not universally popular in that place and time and led to a certain amount of threats and harassment from the neighbors. As that calmed down, Koinonia spread into other ministries. The partnership housing project that became Habitat for Humanity began at Koinonia in the 1960s. A refugee ministry called Jubilee Partners also began at and spun off from Koinonia. Koinonia itself is still doing sustainable farming, giving away as well as selling food, offering hospitality, bringing elders in for community gatherings and children for peacemaker camps, visiting people in immigration detention, and doing other kinds of Kingdom work that appeal strongly to me. I’ll finally get to do what I expected to do on arrival here—join a larger community of people drawn together from different families and backgrounds by a shared calling. I am looking forward to what I may learn and become there, and I am grateful for all that I have learned and become in the years here.
We’ve found much to enjoy this summer, despite the uncertainties. Father Tom McNamara came from Our Lady of Sorrows in NYC and spent three days working, singing, remembering, and thinking with us. He’s helped us find our way through complicated situations all through our time here. Sr. Mary Lou Seitz–who brought groups to the farm early in our time here, visited alone in 2011, and has been encouraging us with letters ever since–visited again for a few days in July. She worked, swapped stories, walked, and sang with us. Andy and Mary Anne have come for several day visits–our neighbor Bear, and Andy’s daughter Deborah, joined us for one of these. Marge has come each week when the weather is good. She helps us snap beans and clean garlic, looks at whatever is blooming and growing, and sometimes listens to Zach’s fiddle music. We’ve had produce to send home with all and sundry.
We’ve also enjoyed some non-human visitors. This year we’ve seen does and fawns close up in the hayfields as well as out in the woods. (They’re welcome to those places, and now that the garden is securely fenced against them I quite enjoy seeing them.) It’s been a good year for dragonflies, and we’ve been grateful for their beauty and also for their consumption of mosquitoes. Hummingbirds and butterflies have been all over the butterfly bush. And while I don’t usually pick snapping turtles up without a shovel, this palm-sized fellow was too small to bite me and was rather fun to watch.