Wedded to the Land: Stories from a Simple Life on an Organic Fruit Farm
By Joan Donaldson
West Bow Press, 2013
$13.95, 170 pages
If reading takes us places, I spent much of late 2014 and early 2015 in western Michigan, a place I’ve never been and know little about. Emily St. John Mandel’s acclaimed post-plague novel, Station Eleven, features a roving band of Shakespearean actors traveling along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Lisa Lenzo’s short story collection, Strange Love, is set in the arty resort town of Saugatuck and nearby Grand Rapids. Some of the stories in Monica McFawn’s Bright Shards of Someplace Else (the 2013 Flannery O’Connor Award winner) are set in the same area.
Last week I “spent” a few enjoyable days at Pleasant Hill, the organic blueberry farm owned by John Van Voorhees and Joan Donaldson and located southeast of Saugatuck about five miles inland from Lake Michigan. (For all I know, John and Joan may know Lisa and Monica, who teaches at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids. It’s a small world, perhaps even more so in literature.)
Wedded to the Land is a series of essays about the hard life – and many rewards – of living close to the land, in which the rhythm of one’s life is controlled by weather and the change of seasons, rather than, say, the five-day workweek and a nine-to-five routine. Donaldson has been writing in her limited free time for many years, and this collection captures events that took place over a nearly 20-year period.
The pleasures of this book are much like the lives lived within its pages: simple, full of natural beauty, and often gratifying. Donaldson’s writing is a blend of traditional memoir and nature writing, in the tradition of Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, and Barry Lopez, with less science and no particular agenda other than to depict their attempts to live and grow blueberries as organically as possible.
We experience the rhythm of planting, tending, pruning, and harvesting blueberries and other crops. There is much drama in the farm’s life cycle, with threats posed by weather, pests, equipment breakdowns, and work-related injuries.
“Different rhythms punctuate farming: the ping of a maple sap into a metal bucket, the chug of a baler scooping up and spitting out bales, the crunch of a goat’s teeth on corn. The time signature varies with the seasons; the mode influences the mood. Harvest accelerates the pace into dozens of sixteenth notes. But sometimes the beat dissolves in the struggle to survive.”
Donaldson describes their emotionally fraught trip to a Colombian orphanage to adopt two brothers, four-year-old Matthew and not quite two-year-old Carlos. One of my only complaints about Wedded to the Land is that Donaldson never describes the boys’ transition to America and farm life following their early years living on the streets of a barrio after their mother abandoned them. She jumps forward in time to tell us about Carlos’s efforts to grow a huge pumpkin for a local contest, but Matthew has seemingly disappeared. Not surprisingly, Donaldson recounts some unfortunate developments involving Matthew much later in the book, when he turns 18.
Wedded to the Land would possess more narrative power had Donaldson focused on a year or two in the life of the farm, rather than opting for a series of disconnected vignettes that feel like they were originally written as individual columns.
Although Joan narrates the book, we get a clearer and more vivid picture of John. He is a true workhorse, who loves the land, the crops it produces (with his cultivation and constant vigilance), and the work itself. He is laconic and even-tempered, and often speaks in sentences that dispense with pronouns. “Too early. Better wait a week.” “Chain saw got me.” “Too much other work.” At least as depicted in his wife’s book, he is all business and a jack-of-all-trades who is totally devoted to their farm and almost single-handedly keeps the place running.
Friends are crucial to those who live on a farm, both personally and economically. Neighbors and folks from within a two-hour radius converge on their farm to help them raise a barn, a grueling team effort that Donaldson depicts vividly. When John ends up in the hospital in Grand Rapids following a farm accident, Joan races home at night ahead of a snowstorm to warm up the house (which lacks central heating) and make sure there is enough water in the tank.
“The car’s tires whirred through the slush as it crested the driveway and slid around t he curve before halting. My wet boots trudged toward the dark house. A tangle of footprints spun through the front yard. Vandals? I followed the trails to the woodshed. A few golden chips littered the churned snow, but the logs had vanished. Split wood filled the shed. I ran up the porch steps. Warmth gushed through the front door. The black needle on the water gauge peaked a forty pounds of pressure. I collapsed in the rocker near the stove and cried, holding my fingers near the fire and thanking God for my friends.”
Perhaps the highlight of Wedded to the Land is the lovely descriptive writing about both people and place. Early in their marriage, Donaldson describes her first winter on John’s family farm. “That winter, the winds off Lake Michigan whipped snow into wraiths that swirled across the open fields; the drifts rose to our windowsills and buried our Datsun.”
She describes some of the seasonal migrant workers who help them pick the blueberry crop. “Emma, her husband Bud, and three-year-old daughter had rattled north from Florida in their blue Fairlane and unpacked their bundles in a migrant cabin. Dressed in jeans with a gray t-shirt bulging over his beer belly, Bud sat on a bucket, coughing. Nine months pregnant, with a scraggly pony tail, Emma wore stretch pants and maternity top bleached so often that its flowers were gray… I admired Emma’s tenacity. She reminded me of the women I had met while volunteering in eastern Tennessee, a breed of women as gritty as cornbread and as sweet as sorghum.”
Many years later, western Michigan is hit by a record-setting drought that threatens the Pleasant Hill crops. “In June, the dragon laughed, and hot winds sucked the remaining moisture from the soil, leaves, and plant stems. Sand sifted across the surface of my garden as if the carrots grew on a desert dune. Quartz and feldspar crystals tumbled between the plants as I weeded and mulched them. Grit coated my lips. The lack of rain sliced farmers’ hearts; the winds drove salt into the wounds.”
Donaldson and her husband appear to have lived a simple but satisfying life on their farm for over 40 years. If you need a respite from your hectic life, you might enjoy a visit to Pleasant Hill Farm. While Wedded to the Land is not quite a full meal in itself, think of it as a serving of fresh blueberries between courses, an ideal palate-cleanser following a heavy meal of literary fiction.