Saturday, January 14, 2012

Storybook Farm

Recently we went to visit Kate Stout at her North Creek Community Farm in Prairie Farm WI. Kate is a veteran CSA farmer entering her 19th season as a Community Supported Agriculture farm. Naturally we hung on her every word. She had an ever- ready smile and good natured retort for the girls as they would run up to us midsentence in their adventures exploring the hay loft, the horse stalls, and the hoop houses pretending to be Laura and Mary Ingalls. “That’s probably why I became a farmer” Kate grinned, “All those children’s books we were reading, Little House on the Prairie and all the rest of them…”
Mary Azarian is one of our favorite illustrators…and it is a genuine pleasure of mine to watch in wonder as our little farm begins to shed it shaggy coat of rubbish and over growth and resemble the wonderful farms and households humming with handwork crafts she so beautifully illustrates in her books. She makes her prints largely from wood harvested on her own farm, in Maine where she still takes commissions for hand colored prints via email and mail.

Trina Schart Hyman’s drawings are the benchmark for a home filled with whimsy, practicality and simple beauty. I still aspire to have window sills crowded with geraniums in clay pots and zinnias cheering my front walk. When, in her “Little Red Riding Hood” mother is packing a basket of freshly made bread, home churned butter, and a bottle of wine to take to Grandmother’s the reader finds herself salivating with each word and glance around the cozy kitchen, carved chairs and quilted table cloth.
In a world that has long left the horse and buggy days in the dust…except for in out of the way pockets here and there where the Amish diligently plod on…it was the Ingalls family and their wagon ride across Wisconsin and the prairie states that gave my girls the ambition to override initial trepidation when it came to appro aching our own horses upon their first arrival on the farm.
It is a strange wonder to me that we fill our children’s heads with storybook farms, with cows that play tricks on their British farmer, with horse drawn maple sugaring days, and little lambs cavorting in the sunshine…we read aloud about Laura and Mary living in their sod house and receiving one pair of mittens and one stick of stripped candy for Christmas, we encourage them to try making butter with some heavy cream and a mason jar…watch them thrill to to simple discoveries of the freckled boy Dickon, the sickly Colin, the unearthed key, and the secret garden coming back to li fe…and then when they come of age we promptly disregard these golden years of idealization and cozy dreaming and tell them to snap to it and find themselves a cubicle somewhere which affords them the benefits of health insurance, dental insurance, and life insurance, with two days off a week to recover their wits at the lake or the park or the couch before going at it for another week, and so on. At the very least it makes for a fractured life, in which the aspirations of childhood are snuffed out in favor of a collective view of “security”.

The other day I burnt a batch of pancakes listening to a father and daughter duet on a new CD recently released by Marine on St. Croix fiddler Brian Wicklund:
“Someday my darling when I am a man,
and others have taught me the best that they can
They’ll sell me a suit
And they’ll cut off my hair
And send me to work in tall buildings.
It’s goodbye to the sunshine and good bye to the dew.
Good bye to flowers and goodbye to you.
I’m off to the subway I cannot be late. I’m going to work in tall buildings.”
Recently our good friend left her spinning wheel at house to “see what would happen”. Around the same time we decided for the sake of true industry, peace, and present-ness that we would cancel our internet service. One can’t be in two places at once…and the constant presence of this blog, those emails, and other rabbit holes had my mind down too many paths at one time, and not very present to the inquiring wide eyes of the two sprites I happen to live with. The result of this abrupt unplugging was that, with the frenetic desire to occupy myself in the evening I lunged at the wheel and within one half hour was stunned to find that I had learned to spin. Ask anyone who doesn’t know anything about anything about spinning and they will inevitably mutter something sheepishly about Rumplestiltskin. They might not know how in thundering tarnation one turns the coat of a fat sheep into a spun yarn, but they do know for certain it was a vital piece of a favorite story they remember from long ago… (Which makes me think we really ought to rally to bring back common knowledge of these household crafts if for only to make our own fairy tales more accessible and vibrant to us again…but I digress…)
Rumplestiltskin is exactly who or what came to mind as I struggled to figure out how to connect two separate pieces of roving in spun thread…just when I was about to drop kick the wheel out the back door onto the lawn I became aware that it was speaking to me. As it refused time and time again to cooperate with my notion of how it ought to work that dear wheel seemed to speak to me and say “you must let me spin. You must trust me at my job and busy yourself with yours and then you will see what we can do.” I was quite put into my place I can assure you. But I relu ctantly set the wheel spinning quite fast, worked at the business that belongs to the space between my two hands, that of drawing out the fibers and keeping the twist out of them for the brief second it requires till sliding onto a new section…like magic the bits of carded fluff were twisted into yarn which was cheerfully winding round and round the bobbin. Now what I mean about all this Rumplestiltskin business is this. The same suspension of disbelief that was required in me as a child to hear the story to its end about the little crankity man with the fiery red hair who spins straw into gold for the despondent maiden was kept in that heart’s cupboard where I found the scrap of faith to allow the wheel to spin sufficiently and turn my old Dalma’s wool into yarn. There is more that is true about our fairy tales than is not. When Joel Salatin spins true tales about the secret life of perennial grass, putting all their energy into their roots, 95% sunshine and "thin air" and 5% soil eyes widen with a newfound appreciation for the magic of the natural world.
The more our life comes to resemble something from a story book the more familiar it seems to appear to our children, and the more evident it is to them that there is vital work going on here that we can share.
Here’s to “Once upon a time” and “forever after”.

visit: for a visual feast.

and to listen to "In Tall Buildings" as performed by Brian and Clara Wicklund and the Barley Jacks

Sign up for a dynamite share with Kate at:


  1. Well said, good lady, well said. One my mothering delights is to read with little Edmund books about chickens and trees and chivalry and know that his wonder at these marvels is not confined to his imagination only. Because, on our little farm, he actually can feed chickens and name the trees and defend the weak from the Saracens and hordes.

    We heartily encourage dreaming in our family. The "Kitchen Knight" was Edmund's gift for the fourth day of Christmas, and he opened his wood castle-dollhouse on the first day of Christmas because, well, Mama and Papa couldn't wait any longer to play with it. It is a pleasure to have children who allow us to play with their toys. :)

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. And, oh, you have a spinning wheel. Sigh. I am forcing myself right now to focus solely on perfecting the skill of sewing clothes for myself and mastering more domestic artistry in the kitchen; I also have two embroidery projects to finish for the children. It seems to me that I should wait to take up spinning until I have a ready supply of wool at hand from our own sheep. But, I confess that I just Googled fiber art classes in our city and discovered that there is a local spinning guild which meets regularly at a local fiber shop, and I think that I might just have to sit in on a guild meeting.

    I have everything to learn about spinning and weaving, but it interests me so very much. In ancient English law, according to a great book I just finished called "The Year 1000", men were referred to as "weapon-persons" and women, as "wife-persons" (wife is the Old English for weave); women were actually given more protection under the law then men because civil society recognized their invaluable contribution to fostering order and stability, one of whose particular manifestations was their work to clothe their families through their spinning and weaving. Women were even buried with their cards and spinning tools.

  4. Katie,
    Trina Schart Hyman's "The Kitchen Knight" and every other fairy tale she's illustrated are single handedly responsible for my learning to draw princesses. (Which keeps me in good stead with 2 girls and you can imagine!)
    I admire your practicality and hutzzpah in learning to sew clothes for your family....I always spurnned spinning before because it didn't seem practical...but then I ended up with a basement full of fleeces, so there you go!
    LOVE LOVE LOVE the old ancient English law bit...keep posting such fantastic stuff as all that....I keep thinking...yes, yes, that's it...there's something inate and understandable in all this farming stuff even for moderns like all of us...that's why this life continues to be such a discovery of all the wonderful reasons its so fun being alive! Thanks for your kind comments.