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.
“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.’ “
“…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…”
“…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…”
“…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.”
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.