In some ways, we may be fortunate that the house we chose falls in a middle place in time – old enough to have character and beauty and a kind of solidity, new enough that we don’t feel compelled to restore it to a past moment in time. Nor do I worry too much about the scratches the kids put in the pine floors or the authenticity of any particular improvement, although we aspire to keep the place beautiful and suitable to its landscape. My home is a fairly comfortable, moderately shabby work in progress, a mix of old and new that could be done better, but that mostly serves our needs.
So too is the landscape around me a hybrid – in a place like mine, where development only barely ever came, there’s a great deal of the old agriculture mixed in with the new, and some of what’s new is better than what’s old – a neighbor of mine who grew up swimming in the pond across the road from me observes that the forests here simply didn’t exist when the entire area was farmed. My 19 acres of woodland and their enormous value to us and to the surrounding wildlife, the environment in general, the watershed – all of them are a product of the end of a particular kind of agriculture.
Because of this, I feel free to go forward, as well as look back – yes, I wish to know what was done on my land in the past, and to the extent that it makes sense for the future, to use that past, but I’m not wholly bound by it. Or maybe that’s more like what those engaged in the project of restoration are doing than I thought. Or so my reading would suggest.
Consider two very different books about the same basic project – a new model of historic restoration. Instead of simply restoring and repairing an old house and bringing ti back to the old ways, both authors have taken on the project of restoring the agricultural landscape in which the home they own was embedded – of recreating a mixed, self-supporting, economically viable and local agriculture from which their grand homes emerged.
_Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History_ is a lovely book by Adam Nicolson, who is a wonderful writer from a distinguished line of wonderful writers. Sissinghurst is the house Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, Adam’s grandparents, restored and created their famous gardens at. I’ve never been to Sissinghurst, but as a writer about gardens, one can’t but have read Vita Sackville-West on the subject, and as a former literary scholar one can’t help know about Vita and Virginia, and of course, as the daughter of lesbians and someone who was a normally prurient teenager, one can’t help having read Nicolson’s father’s _Portrait of a Marriage_ which detailed the complex dynamics of Vita and Harold’s marriage.
_Sissinghurst_ details Nicolson’s attempt to bring back the farm that once was an integral part of Sissinghurst castle – both its landscape and economy. His father bequeathed Sissinghurst to the National Trust, with the right for the family to reside there, and this makes for a complex set of inter-relationships that Nicolson clearly has trouble navigating – he must appeal to the National Trust, to the individuals who work there, and he must sort out his own complicated motivations, particularly from the constant charge of nostalgia and his desire to act as Squire because of his family relationship to the place. The farm, he hoped, would feed the thousands of garden tourists who visit Sissinghurst each year, while also restoring a diverse polyculture that lived in his own memory to the land. It isn’t clear to me that Nicolson had fully sorted his motivations out until he wrote the book – or at least, the book reads as a sorting of a type.
Besides the remarkable job of advocacy Nicolson does in eventually getting the mixed farm started (at the end of the book this is still very much a project in its beginnings, with the results as yet uncertain), what I think is most wondrous about the book is that it does manage to address in some measure the charge of nostalgia. And this is an accusation that adheres not just to the grandsons of great women and men who inherit partial rights to castles, but to anyone who uses the past to articulate the future of agriculture. The underlying assumption is that the past has nothing to say to us, that our attachments are primarily sentimental, and that they can’t be brought into something as fundamental as food production.
But Nicolson successfully sorts out some of his own sentiment (which is real and present, and occasionally annoying in the book, like the fourth time he mentions he spent a day in one of the oldest oaks on the property – such things are infrequent enough you can forgive them, though) and begins navigating through the material history of his place, placing the agriculture, the economy and the culture of a thousand years and more of British history in context. In this context, the very short period of industrial agriculture that Sissinghurst was gathered into, becomes a blip on the landscape – a period in which we failed to value what humans from the earliest of all settlements have valued – the natural potential of the land.
There are other views of the project, and Nicolson lets them speak – he brings in an industrial farmer to make the case for straight grain production. He lets the reluctant members of the community have a voice. He does not claim to know with certainty that he is right, and he recognizes his own we unstable position – that calling for a return to the past risks significant and real costs. But in the end he recognizes that accepting the loss of place, landscape, connection to food and economy is also a choice – it isn’t an inevitability, and he has the strength to resist and best of all (for me at least) the ability to gracefully articulate his position – to recognize it is a position, its limitations and strengths, and then to stand out for those strengths. I came away from the book inspired – not to restore my castle (such as it is, although it could use it) but to stand up harder to charges of sentiment and speak more strongly in favor of the use of the past, as well as future imperatives.
This is, in its deep background, explicitly a peak oil book as well. It speaks to the degree to which peak oil has penetrated the landscape of thinkers itself that Nicolson allows peak oil into the book, but doesn’t feel he has to explain it. He can thus allow the deep contradiction of an organic and industrial farmer, both set to evaluate the merits of the Sissinghurst project to stand together, each exposing the limits and vulnerabilities of their position. The industrial farmer knows that the fossil fuels that make his way possible won’t last, and has pinned his hope on the idea that at some point we’ll fix it – that we have no choice. The organic farmer has little faith in someday and believes it can be fixed – but the choices are starker. Although Nicolson states a position, he doesn’t feel the need to resolve the ambiguities, even for Sissinghurst.
Or maybe he does. Consider his last paragraph:
There is no hierarchy. Past, present, and future are all equally coexistent and Sissinghurst is becoming a place that responds to all three. And through that reconnection Sissinghurst will again, reaquire, I hope, a sense of its own middle, a confidence that it can turn to its own resources and find untold riches there. It will become, in the best possible sense of the word, its own place. That is the word to which this book has been devoted: place as the roomiest of containers for human meaning; place as the medium in which natural and cultural, inherited and invented, individual and communal can all fuse and fertilize. I don’t remember anything in my own life that has made me look at the world with such a surge of optimism and hope.
Just as Jane Eyre ends ambiguously with the word “Jesus,” ending a book about a started but deeply unfinished agrarian work, in an era that resists agrarianism and is largely hostile to it, in a place that depends on tourism and the oil that enables it, just as oil becomes scarce cannot but be at least a little ambiguous in its invocation of hope. And yet, it is a sincere and meaningful invocation – not a shallow one. My own take on hope is that I am interested only in forms of hope that cause one to break a sweat – that hope is empty unless it comes with hard work. Nicolson has broken both a physical and intellectual sweat, and he’s still hopeful, and that alone is inspiring.
I hear something deeply familiar in that invocation of hope and optimism, the same hope that millions of us, knowing our world cannot be made to remain the same, gather up when we deeply invest ourselves in the project, whether in our homes or in our communities, of mending what we can, of acting on a scale where we can have power. Sissinghurst won’t save the world – but it can matter, and it can model, and it can extend outwards beyond the self and hold something worth keeping – make the case for restoration in a world entering a vast decline. The very fact that restoring a lost agriculture to its place is a site of hope and power is itself an invocation of the future.
I picked _Sissinghurst_ up eagerly, because I knew and loved Nicolson’s prose from his other writings. It was the precise opposite of eagerness that led me to _The Bucolic Plage: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentleman Farmers_ – I read it because I had to, rather like a cranky pre-teen facing a copy of _A Separate Peace_.
I had to read it because the author, Josh Kilmer-Purcell and his partner, Brent Ridge are neighbors of mine – of a sort. I live on the edge of the Schoharie Valley of New York, in a place not called “The Hilltowns” for nothing. There are only about 35,000 people in the rural edges of the county (we’re technically in another county, but right on the cusp, and people in my area tend to identify themselves with the surrounding rural counties, rather than the cities to the east) and over the whole area, and the “Beekman Boys” thus count roughly as neighbors in the broad, rural sense, even though they live on the other side of the valley. I’ve never met them in person, but we have a few mutual friends, and one cannot but know about them.
They live in Sharon Springs, an old resort town that’s roughly the equivalent of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree before anyone loves it – falling apart mansions and decaying splendor, with attempts to revitalize the place that only sort of work. It is the kind of place that could be so much – but isn’t quite. Now I love Sharon Springs, and once upon a time tried to get my sister, who has deep inner fabulousness, to purchase one of the decaying hotels (250Kish for 72 rooms, a ballroom, etc…) and restore it. My attempt to get my sister to love the place failed, because she fell in love with someone firmly rooted on the coast. Fortunately, others took up the flag.
The Beekman mansion is just one of many houses (albeit one of the most lavish) that were built on the proceeds of the agriculture of my area. They tend to be largish farmhouses with the occasional actual mansion, and they were built with the proceeds of agriculture in my area. There are even quite a few of them up by me, in the hills above the fertile valley, built on dairy for the most part – and more down on the rich river bottomland below.
It wasn’t only agriculture that built the Beekman Mansion, but it is worth noting that once upon a time, an agricultural landscape around here could support a thriving economy, enough to dot the land with prosperous small farms. It is worth asking the question – if agriculture could build a local economy once, could it do it again? If so, how?
Kilmer-Purcell and Ridge think they have an answer. They want to leverage their connections to New York City and Ridge’s celebrity connection to Martha Stewart to support the local economy here. They have a professional goat farmer running the Beekman farm, and they are making gorgeous goat’s milk soap (very nice stuff, really). They are going to tie their economy to the wealth of the city.
And, in fact, that’s what made Sharon Springs prosperous in the pre-fossil fuels era. People leaving New York and Philadelphia would travel here to a place that was rural but grand, cooler and fresher than the urban scape, and this supported multiple summer houses, mansions, hotels, baths (the big draw for Sharon Springs was its mineral springs that one bathed in to restore good health – the same minerals make my well water smell like sulfur – they are endemic to the region). Its economy was built on local tourism – and so Kilmer-Purcell’s goals aren’t totally crazy. Indeed, they may be more sane than he recognizes in a post-peak era, where fossil fuels limit travel more than they do now. The same people who go to Cancun for long weekends may end up back in Sharon Springs.
It is impossible to live in my area and not know about the gents at the Beekman Mansion. First of all, of course, they own a mansion. Then, there’s the fact that one of them was on the Martha Stewart show regularly. They have money, which is rare enough around here that one knows about that (although probably not enough, as we learn in the book), and celebrity connections. There was a Vanity Fair profile, a New York Times magazine article, there’s the book, and a movie about their lives. Then there are awesomely gorgeous black-and-white photos of their goats “the goats of the Beekman Mansion.”
A friend of mine, who knows them fairly well tried to get me to read the book when it first came out, because he was outraged by it. He was frustrated by the fact that with the exception of their circle of ultra-cool friends, the residents of Schoharie County turn up in the book only as rubes. The locals turn out at least not to be gay-bashers, to the comic relief of Kilmer-Purcell after they arrive in “Brigadoon”, but they are morons – or at least that was my friend’s take. At one point Kilmer-Purcell observes that the economic crisis had penetrated *even* to the Cobleskill Ag-Way.
“So are people worried?” I ask.
“About what?” John says.
“You know…jobs, the market…” I nearly say “trade deficit” but even I realize how ludicrous the words sound in Sharon Springs. The closest thing to a trade deficit Sharon Springs has ever seen is when someone opened a rival roadside ice cream in nearby Cherry Valley two summers ago.
Of course these people are celebrating Christmas like they always do. There’s really no measurable difference between this Christmas in Sharon Springs and any other. There’s really no measurable difference between any two given days in Sharon Springs.
Before I’d read the book, my friend forwarded me this passage and a couple of others (mostly having to do with the stupidity of people who think that Martha Stewart is always-already coming to Sharon Springs and who can contemplate nothing else) in a rage and suggested I should write a nasty review of the book and/or movie. And I admit, I was tempted for a moment – in order to see the area around us through the lens that Kilmer-Purcell does, you really have to be totally unconnected to reality. The 2008 economic crash came through here just like it did everywhere else – venerable stores in Cobleskill and Schoharie closed, and the high oil prices of 2008 meant a deep fear that people wouldn’t be able to afford to heat their homes. People’s children quit college, or moved back home. Houses were lost. Jobs were lost. How could you miss this? It is true that the Schoharie Valley is not Manhattan, but the idea that the ignorami are unaware of trade deficits or the faltering economy requires a blind spot as big as the sun.
At the same time that this kind of assumption makes me crazy, I’m also grateful that Purcell-Kilmer and Ridge have taken up the Beekman Mansion, Sharon Springs and Schoharie – for their goats and their goat’s milk soap, and the fact that they bring Vanity Fair down on the decaying glamour. Because my neighbors do need the money, Sharon Springs does need the attention, and what they are doing is bringing an economically sustainable agriculture to our economically fragile place. And it is in the area of money that the sustainability of any restoration becomes the central subject of _The Bucolic Plague_.
Kilmer-Purcell and Ridge overbought – they bought a vast mansion with high operating expenses, outside what their lavish incomes could support – at least without maintaining them. Unlike Nicolson at Sissinghurst, they are not the natural inheritors of a place, but simply affluent guys from New York City who fell in love with a spot. They have no ties to the past, and they are awkward at establishing them – and know it, and in some ways are grateful for that awkwardness, because they see themselves as outsiders, with no real right to the place beyond their economic claim. At one point Kilmer-Purcell observes:
Slaves, freed slaves, senators, judges, novelists and hobos had all passed through the room I’d just woken up in. Though Brent and I had doubts about whether it made sense for us to buy the Beekman, at least its history proved that we didnt’ make any *less* sense than someone else.
Kilmer-Purcell never overstates his attempts to place their project in context – indeed, he doesn’t even go so far as to state a permanent commitment. I wonder if the offensive lines in the book aren’t so much an expression of how dumb the locals are so much as a way of articulating his sense that he doesn’t really belong – in his own home, in the economy they are building. Neither does he seem to feel he belongs in his old life – the more immersed he is in the farm, the harder it is to go back to the city. The book is an expression of unbelonging, of the hope of someday belonging.
That belonging, for Kilmer-Purcell is economic, rather than social – yes, they go to the parties, but his way of mattering here is to restore the economy. In this way he asserts the necessity of an unsustainable economy to sustain a place worth holding onto. At the end of the book he says that what he does best is make things “sparkle” – which is rather an astonishing claim, since it seems as through Brent is the sparkly celebrity one. Kilmer-Purcell is the more concrete, less perfect guy, the one who doesn’t care as much that everything be right. But he sees his primary gift as the ability to make a picture shine and sell that shine – and in that way enable the unshiny, grubby details of agriculture and domestic labor to have a place in the economy.
They set about using their connections to create a viable local economy – making soap that Martha loved and selling it online, selling their landscape and their place and the fantasy of a sustainable life. Kilmer-Purcell is laudably honest about this – and about the fact that the more they sell their beautiful, sustainable life, the less they are able to actually sustain it, the more destructive it is to the two of them. It would be obvious and unkind to observe that if they really cared about Sharon Springs, they could have chosen a nice farmhouse, rather than a mansion, and learned to farm themselves, rather than paying a full salary. Because it was the mansion that drew them in – and the sparkle. It is made clear in the book that the place is part of it, but the sparkle is all – their commitment extends just to the point they can keep the sparkle going. And that’s limiting, and limited, and tough on the town if they fall – but Kilmer-Purcell is at least honest – they are what they are, and in many ways, are perfectly appropriate to the decayed grandeur of the place they’ve adopted. That grandeur requires sparkle.
They are and become, to paraphrase the old “Sylvia” cartoon “The people who do everything more beautifully than you do.” They document every scrap of their lives on their blog. They sell themselves hard, trying to create a way to make a living in the country. But, of course, mansion living with a farmer-in-residence who cares for the 80 goats, and a mansion that has to be perfect, beautiful and photographable at all times is way more expensive than living in my “Better Homesteads and Ratholes” farmstead, and it is a losing battle. And yet they are committed – they want this place, this beautiful life, this sustainable agricultural economy. They want it bad enough to run themselves raw.
Reading the book, and seeing its context, I was less outraged by the passage my friend sent me – because Kilmer-Purcell’s great virtue is that he does see himself clearly in some measure. The offensive lines do assume too much – but they come in the context of Kilmer-Purcell’s wallowing in his own despair at his own failure to create a Martha-Oprah kind of life. They are an expression of contrast – with some measure of ignorance thrown in, certainly, but it isn’t an accident that they make Kilmer-Purcell look a lot worse than they make my neighbors look. And again, they are an articulation of alienation – he’s not part of the place, and he’d like to be.
This is not a book explicitly informed by the realities of ecological limitations – to the extent that Kilmer-Purcell thinks about these things at all, they aren’t his primary interest. But both men are drawn to the agrarian life – they do have a professional farmer on site, and I suspect some housecleaning help, but the two of them throw themselves into their gardens, their canning, preserving and food production passionately, and Kilmer-Purcell is most appealing when he talks about the inexplicable way these things draw him to the house, the place, the land.
Kilmer-Purcell makes much of his own weirdness – he keeps reminding us he used to be a drag queen, he goes out of the way to make himself seem prissy, to make his partner’s anal-Marthaness a cartoon of the gay man with the perfect house. But what’s funny is that the book is mostly a domestic story of people who find that they really like growing food, raising animals and making stuff much better than they liked their shiny lives in New York City. Even the mansion becomes really a prop to maintain the agricultural domestic life they both enjoy – they flitter through it swathed in blankets because they can’t actually afford to heat it. What’s real is the kitchen and the garden and the food they eat and produce. Kilmer-Purcell goes out of his way to demonstrate the more they made their life something they could sell, the less they enjoyed it, the more strain on their marriage. But the marriage thrived when they were actually in the dirt and doing. It is an ordinary and domestic story, and one that Kilmer is trying too hard to make exotic – even Martha and the goldfish brassiere (no, you have to read it, I’m not telling) don’t quite take away the centrality of the cheerfully dull domestic details. The fun in the book is that they are both really very boring, despite rigorous attempts to make them seem odd.
In the end, it isn’t clear whether they can make this economically viable. Like Sissinghurst, the Beekman Mansion project, and the local economy they strive to support is a work in progress, and one that may well fail. Unlike the Sissinghurst project, the Beekman Mansion project doesn’t have the capacity to shift easily away from its dependence on wealthy urbanites with incomes to support luxury goods and the money for tourism. Sissinghurst could feed the surrounding community if the tourists stop coming – and in the meantime can feed the tourists. By laying their foundation in cities far away and through the internet, the Beekman boys are more vulnerable.
And so am I. My agricultural enterprises too are supported by things further away than are truly sustainable. I don’t farm at the edge of the SUNY campus, but 17 miles away. My husband’s job depends on state and private ability to fund college educations. My own work depends on the internet and my plans for expanding the farm depend heavily on the interest I can excite through my writings. Certainly writing on the internet is in no sense sustainable in the very long term.
What Kilmer-Purcell and Ridge have accomplished is the beginnings of an integration that in the end, for all the book’s limitations, I cannot help but admire. They are, within the limits of their attempts at sustainability, enabling the Beekman mansion to support an agriculture again, as it had not for decades. The tourists they attract, unsustainable as they are in the long term in many cases, are the precursers of what may eventually be a sustainable system. There is no point in watching all my neighbor farmers go slowly out of business, in the general decline of the economy, only to hope that someday the kind of economy that would support mansions and farmhouses emerges from the area. Preserving what we have now as we enter into a decline, building what we can has a great deal of merit. The project of restorating the agricultural landscape is the project of balancing hard realities, of the insertion of new unsustainabilities that are simply less bad, and that can bridge gaps as the world changes.
I found that I liked _The Bucolic Plague_ rather better than I expected – maybe not for the reasons that Kilmer-Purcell wrote the book, though. What I liked about it was the face that like Nicolson’s project at Sissinghurst, Kilmer-Purcell doesn’t know the future. What he does know, however, is that he found something worth doing in the dirt and the vegetables and the goats. It is the same hope and optimism that drive Nicolson – the idea that you can reach out into the past and forward to the future, draw them together with the present, and make and remake something worthwhile. It isn’t separate from the economic realities, or from the harsh realities of energy and resources – it isn’t a lie that pretends that things will be ok. It is merely that the place and the earth and the soil bring to the surface and the center not just the life of seeds but the life of humans who dig in them. That the restoration, and the reinvention of an agrarian landscape is worth something. It is worth something in ancient place, drawing on a past we understand, and in a place where the past is at least partly closed to us. It is worth it because of memory and because of desire and anticipation. It is worth it because this is what people do – they find a place and make it bloom.