radical shift: economist into farmer/forager

Airstream/Dennison Lee

Dennison Lee is one of several people I know who have shifted their life radically recently, some in response to the recession and their work drying up, and some hoping to find a more satisfying way of living. Dennison, who had plenty of work as a transportation economist, is one of the latter. He spent about a year getting ready for his move “out”, saving money, and trying on different plans in his head before he hit on the right next step.

He gave up his New York City apartment to join forces with Jim Grillo, a farmer he knew from the Union Square Greenmarket and moved four hours upstate to Jim’s farm. He lives there in a gutted Airstream he brought on CraigsList for $3,800, and outfitted to be his spare living quarters.

Dennison has become a farmer and forager as he explores other ways of being in the world. He has intentionally embraced a demanding, deeply improvisational way of living – the deal with farming - that he finds more alive and meaningful than he experienced working and living in the city. It is the first step on his new and uncharted path.

Here are some images of Dennison’s new life, and excerpts from a recent email about the virtually-organic Northshire farm being hit by the late blight (the virulent disease which has destroyed crops across the North East), and his vain attempts to forestall it by using an organic spray and finally, in desperation, a chemical spray used by mainstream farmers. It offers another glimpse into the improvisational, live-by-your-wits nature of farming, the complex mix of forces at play, and the philosophical mindset it has fostered in Dennison.

Improvised Airstream Interior/Dennison Lee
Field/Dennison Lee

“So our tomatoes have had the shit absolutely kicked out of them by the late blight…In my own mind, I’ve already written off the entire tomato crop as a total loss…anything we can salvage will be an unexpected bounty. You learn quick as a farmer that you can only do so much.  Perhaps some of the wisest words ever written come from the Tao Te Ching: “Do your work, then step back.” It’s become something of a motto to live by, and certainly provides much-needed perspective in the face of crop failure. The classic American equivalent is of course the utterly delightful ‘Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you.’ “

Blighted Tomatoes/Dennison Lee

“…Jim, armed with wisdom acquired from many decades of farming, is surprisingly sanguine about the whole situation.  Of course, much of it is due to the fact that all else has gone our way this season — we’ve done quite well with our foraging thus far this year, finding goodly amounts of ramps, morels, chanterelles, and wild watercress.  We’ve also developed some extraordinarily good baby greens mixes that have rapidly built fan bases at the market and have been learning how to grow some excellent Asian greens.  If we lose the tomatoes, we’ll try to make it up with the other stuff…besides, since we plan on continuing to grow all winter in greenhouses, we’ll be okay in the long run. In an odd twist, this late blight is curiously entertaining, as it provides great fodder for rural get-togethers — folks at the barbershop are sharing old Amish treatments….and competing farmers at the Greenmarket are commiserating in peace…”

Dennison Lee

“…I find myself taking a very philosophical stance, using it as a lesson in letting go as per the Bhagavad Gita….find myself reading Gandhi’s commentary and returning to his words: “What is lawful for one may be unlawful for another.  What may be permissible at one time, or at one place, may not be so at another time and in another place. Desire for fruit is the only universal prohibition. Desirelessness is obligatory…”

Dennison Lee

“…I find the late blight to be symptomatic of the excesses of our way of life — we’ve been forcing the earth to yield the fruit of our desire against Gandhi’s advice. This can only last so long before the chickens come home to roost. By the way, Morse from Windfall Farm told me today that he simply does not plant according to traditional monoculture conventions. Instead, he mixes up all of his crops so that no single pathogen finds a concentrated bounty to feed on.  He claims to be relatively unaffected by the late blight…somewhere in there is a valuable lesson to be learned.”

rubys-tomato3

Stay tuned!

To reach Dennison, email him at [email protected]

Related Post: On Tomatoes and Improvising (Keith Stewart, the farmer featured in this post, has written an excellent piece on late blight for the Valley Table (see “Locally Grown: When It All Goes Wrong). You can read it here.

6 Responses to radical shift: economist into farmer/forager

  1. Sally 09.10.2009 at 9:44am #

    PS. This email which came only 2 or 3 weeks after the first (posted above) indicates where some of Dennison’s path may lead, after a long summer of farming:
    “I’m far more of a forager by nature, much preferring to eat directly from the hand of God rather than through the hands of Man. To me, an appreciation for the vast bounty of wild edibles that we can learn to consume would free us from much of the toil we endure as we force the earth to yield the things we want rather than the things we need. We’ve been working 12-13 hours per day for four months now and I’m thoroughly exhausted. It’s been an invaluable learning experience, but I can’t help coming to the conclusion that there must be a better way to live.

    Foraging points the way to an alternative way…”

  2. Lori 09.21.2009 at 2:33pm #

    i’m curious to know how (or, i guess, if) he will live in the airstream in the winter. they are notoriously difficult to heat/insulate for winter living.

    we have an airstream that we want to use as a guest cabin/office in the meadow by our house, but we’re a bit concerned about mice. when it is parked by our barn, our cats keep it mouse-free. but if it’s further out, we’re not sure we can keep the vermin out.

  3. Dennison 09.21.2009 at 10:17pm #

    I definitely plan on spending the winter in my Airstream. We already had the first frost up here at the farm, and I was perfectly comfortable under my down comforter. I used a small Vornado space heater that night and it did a very good job. If I need to, I’ll bring in an oil-filled radiator for the really cold nights this winter. I can’t imagine that it’ll get so cold that a union suit and thick comforter can’t do the trick.

    Once it snows, it’ll likely be even warmer inside the Airstream since snow is an excellent insulator. As for mice, I certainly don’t have any now…can’t figure out how they’d get in since the Airstream is resting up on its wheels. The only creatures that have gotten in thus far are some ants and a few flies.

  4. Sally 09.21.2009 at 11:20pm #

    In West Virginia, in a lovely spot by a river that was once a town called Silica (now completely disappeared), there was an abandoned school bus that some ancient hermit had made his home. He busted out the back and built a giant stone hearth right onto the back of it, a hearth like you’d find in a country house….

  5. Dennison 09.22.2009 at 1:04pm #

    What a lovely image you’ve painted, Sally, perhaps I need to find an old school bus! I have been meaning to build a cob oven at some point…

    It occurs to me that my Airstream may be a little better insulated than most because of the work that was done to it by a previous owner. After the interior was entirely gutted, a gorgeous wood floor was put in…it probably provides better insulation than the original design, while also being less prone to vermin invasion.

    In previous incarnations, my 1976 Airstream Sovereign has served as an on-set dressing room for an actress, then as a recording studio for her husband. To my knowledge, most of its recent usage has been stationary rather than mobile.

    Guess I’ll find out just how cold it’ll get inside this winter…

  6. rick olivier 05.31.2010 at 1:25pm #

    ..you might consider placing hay bales (or wrapping with fabric, synthetic, etc) under the perimeter of the Airstream…this is a well proven way to keep the floor much warmer by preventing cold air from ever getting to the belly pan…

    ..many swear by their catalytic propane heaters, too, though you must open a window a bit as they consume oxygen in the space….

    good luck, course its summer now and cold won’t be an issue..

    you’ve done a great thing thus far!

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