Summer Reading at the Farm

By Hannah Eisler Burnett
yalies june16 summergarden post.jpg

Photo by Judy Sirota Rosenthal


Here in New Haven, asparagus and rhubarb are now scarce finds. Peas are flowering, tomato plants are nestling into warm soil, and at the Yale Farm, we have six new pairs of hands. Summer's here.

Since its inception, the Yale Sustainable Food Project has hosted a summer internship. Some parts of the internship stay constant: our summer crew always consists of six undergraduates--always current Yale students--and we always plant a particular pepper called the "pimiento de padron." Some things change. In our first year, students spent their time clearing a lot covered in poison ivy and hemlock trees (they made it into farmers' market that same season). In the second, the interns shaped the farm's downward slope into terraces.

By the time I became a summer intern in 2005, most of these major structural projects had been completed. Once the farm was a farm, we were onto projects like building a brick pizza oven, helping masons craft stone steps, and seeing the arrival of a brand-new, bright red "barn." (It's actually a converted shipping container that's been fitted with windows and ventilation.)

I, too, have seen working on the Yale Farm increase my capacity for wonder in academic pursuits. I read with more attention; I lived with more attention.

Now, I'm the Program Coordinator for the YSFP. In my new role, I'm able to watch our new crop of summer interns discover the same sense of agricultural wonder I found four years ago.

When I try to describe my experience at the farm that summer, my story is full of intangibles. I felt the connection between the earth and my body. I learned to appreciate work that wasn't just executed internally and intellectually. Working at the farm used all of my senses and forced me to engage with the space around me, and I brought that engagement and attention to everything else I did that summer. I was reminded of all this by a story one of this summer's interns shared about his own experience.

Joe went to the library after work last week still wearing his farm clothes. I can relate to this; I've worked as a librarian after days spent on the farm, and I always felt silly still wearing jeans covered in grass stains and compost.

A security guard stopped him to ask what was in the clear plastic bag he was carrying. "Arugula," Joe replied. "And some spinach." The guard, taken aback, peeked cautiously into Joe's bag and advised him to put his salad into a more opaque container. "The phones'll be ringing off the hook if you carry that through the library!" he exclaimed. Joe complied, intent on locating Walter Pater's writings on Renaissance art and literature. That search was inspired by a conversation he had here at the farm; his mind had wandered with a friend's while they weeded radishes.

I, too, have seen working on the Yale Farm increase my capacity for wonder in academic pursuits. When I was a summer intern, I went on a quest to find language that described the importance of an agricultural act. I read Nathaniel Hawthorne, Leo Tolstoy, and, more predictably, Wendell Berry. I read with more attention; I lived with more attention, and Joe corroborates this memory of summer on the Farm.

He went back to the library yesterday afternoon, he told us this morning. "I was walking through the courtyard, and I saw a Hydrangea. Have you ever seen one? Up close, they're not as plush as you'd expect. They're papery and delicate, almost like origami. I don't think I would have taken the trouble to look at them that closely if I hadn't been working here."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/06/summer-reading-at-the-farm/19404/