A local non-profit group asked me if I would photograph some farms in the country. They said they wanted them to be clean, spotless, pastoral, the kind you see in Vermont calendars. I declined. I love real farms, just as I love the lives of real animals in the real world. New York State is filled with real farms, and they are not pastoral. They are smelly, chaotic. Nothing speaks more to the state of the dairy farm than they astounding way in which cows are fed in the winter – with sileage grown in vast fields and stored in concrete bunkers, dug up and hauled around by giant, noisy tractors, then covered with tarps and tires to try and keep the wind, raccoons, deer and rats away.
It seems pre-medieval to me, yet dairy farmers have yet to come up with a better, less cumbersome, ugly or chaotic way, even in the digital age. There are some things even the Internet cannot disrupt. Real farms are beautiful to me. They are works of art and imagination and endurance, each in their own way. I cannot expressed my awe and admiration for the people who live on them and keep them going.
During my talk on photography Saturday, someone in the audience asked me what emotions I saw in the animals I photograph. Did I see them mourn? Grieve? Smile? I said I did not feel I could describe their emotions so clearly, as I believe we do not have a language to capture what they are feeling and thinking. Their minds are different, alien from ours. What, then, I was asked, are they thinking?
I said, of course, that I do not know, and I do not believe anybody who is not an animal knows. Those of us who live with them and watch them closely have their ideas, and I have mine. I came to realize early in our relationship that Maria has a special gift. She can communicate with animals in a way I have not ever seen up close, yet could see clearly in my photography. I believe we communicate with animals through emotions, not words. In this photograph, at this moment, I believe I know what Maria was saying to Simon, as I know her well. She was saying: I love you, I care about you. I will take care of you.
What was Simon saying back: I believe he was expressing these emotions to Maria. I am comfortable here. I am safe here. I feel your affection for me, our connection. When this happens, I feel an ancient and instinctive contentment that you can see in the position of my ears, my ears, my quivering lip, the stance of my legs and tail. I trust you. You bring sustenance to me, and sustenance is life. I am here in this moment with your, our emotions connected, fused for these seconds in this very old and very powerful dance.
My mother is not alive for Mother’s Day, but I will think of her tomorrow. I do have a Mother-in-law, Maria’s sweet mother, Maria Gangi. Big Maria, as we call her, is a sweet and simple woman. She loves nothing more than to be with her family, watch her grand-children work their way through their lives. She turned 83 recently, and I see that she is changing.
When she visits us, she often likes to sit on the porch and stare out at the valley. She is a voracious reader, but I think it is hard for her to read sometimes. It strikes me that this also what the animals on the farm – the dogs and donkeys especially – love to do. I often see them gazing out across the road, just like Big Maria was doing. I do not ask her what she is thinking. I think I know. And it is not my business. I never like it when somebody asks me what I am thinking. Too private, too personal. Big Maria came to her daughter’s art show, as she always does, and I could see it was difficult for her to stand up for long. Afterwards, I drove her home and she told me how happy she was to see Maria and I together, and how happy we both seemed together.
That meant a lot to me. Maria and her mother seemed especially close today, very connected. I wish my mother could have seen it, too, but I am grateful to have at least one mother who did. And I decided to get out my 85 mm portrait lens and capture this mother on Mother’s day.
The Mother’s Day Art Show in Greenwich was very successful, uplifting, fun and worthwhile. Maria was busy and happy all day, talking to artists, selling stuff, helping to run things. I love seeing her so fulfilled, it makes me want to cry. The artists sold a lot of their work, I had a full house for a talk on creativity and photography and it is always surprising and very poignant for Maria and I to see and hear what our lives, our blogs, our work and writing means out there. I forget that, all the time. My mind just can’t absorb it.
A number of very admirable people came up to me today and told me they wish to buy a farm, leave their urban and suburban lives, be with animals, with nature, back to land. I’m always surprised at how much I like people who say this, how energetic, idealistic and admirable they seem. And how nervous. It is hard, they said today, as they worry about health care, savings, retirement and all of the other things they are told they must have to be safe and secure and lead a meaningful life in America. I hear so many people talking about moving to the country, yet all around me, I see that people are going the other way. The biggest business in the country is getting to be people buying farms and properties as second homes. Jobs and schools, farms and businesses, post offices and main streets are closing, emptying out, and rural people are forced to move to urban areas for insecure and low-paying jobs that they often hate.
It seems topsy-turvy to me. I understand the people who say they fear disrupting their lives and trying a life with beauty, nature animals, farming, cheese or art. It was surely frightening to me, and noone in my life told me to do it or thought it was a good idea. I have to confess that I don’t have many of the things you are supposed to have to be safe – savings in the bank, IRA’s, pensions. I gave most of that up when I moved to the farm and the rest when I got divorced. I have no complaints. This was my choice, and I will live with it. I think people have to make up their own minds about how to live, but this is what I think whenever a young couple tells me they are dreaming of a different life, a life on a farm. I think there has never been a better time in modern history to do it.
There are farms on the market all over the place. They are inexpensive. Interest rates are at record lows. The demand for organic and specialized and gourmet foods and cheeses is high. Enterprises like Alpaca farms are doing well. The Internet makes it possible to sell things all over the world. And it is clear that the country is the future. It is, in conventional terms, more sustainable here.
It is not my place to tell other people what to do, or what risks they ought to take. We each have to make our own way and live with our choices. But the voice in my head is clear. Everyone I know who has done it has no regrets as frightening and difficult as it can sometimes be. Few go back, if any. We share a common secrete – it is not possible to go back. We can never go back. I think this: I do not live a small life, I think. Do not live in fear. Buy your farm and live your life.
That is what I think, what I wish I could shout. But should not.