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home : columns : columns June 20, 2018

5/29/2018 1:49:00 PM
'Peter and the Farm'
By Craig Rullman

The Montana writer Richard Hugo, spoofing T.S. Eliot, wrote in the opening line of his mystery novel "Death and the Good Life," that "April is the cruelest month, my ass."

He meant that after a hard Montana winter any sign of spring, however tenuous, could only bring psychic and spiritual relief to the seasonally aggrieved.

Come April and May we often feel that same way here on the Figure 8. We laugh at weather forecasts because we all know that it might be - as it was just the other day - 80 degrees inside the greenhouse, raining on the south side of the barn, and snowing sideways on the north side all at the same time.

And anyway, we love it.

And, whatever the weather, I've been taking advantage of breaks in the annual spring toss-up to build a new turkey run (we are raising eight Thanksgiving birds this year for friends and family) re-rigging irrigation in the garden, planting seeds in the greenhouse, and prepping a small new orchard of apple and pear trees.

In the meantime I wanted to share a discovery I made last evening. "Peter and the Farm" is an extraordinarily gritty and honest documentary film about Peter Dunning, a 68-year-old organic farmer living on the Mile Hill Farm in Vermont.

Dunning, a former Marine who lost a large portion of one hand in a sawmill accident, is a hard-drinking, hard-swearing Yankee wild man who strikes me as a fabulous cross between John the Baptist eating locusts, Walt Whitman reading to wounded Union soldiers, and R. Lee Ermey manning a water-cooled machine gun.

I like that because there is a combination of agrarian imperturbability and manic spirituality at work in Dunning that, combined with an impeccably honest appreciation for the music of the farming spheres, reveals an intelligent, passionate, and complicated man.

That grand mix of energies shows up when he quotes from Wendell Berry's thoughts on the importance of affection while climbing a barn ladder, or speaks one of his own really good poems while drunk on cider and arguing with the filmmaker, or points out the place he will likely die: at the foot of the basement stairs, he tells us, after tripping and smashing his head against a stone wall - which as a side-note will probably also ruin the potatoes stored there.

Dunning waxes to anyone who might be listening while butchering a ewe, fixing his bailer, running his sawmill, reading, writing, drinking, and launching a non-stop delivery of f-bombs aimed at the madding world.

The film was directed by Tony Stone, and was originally proposed by Dunning as a film to document his own suicide. They declined that offer, but Dunning's original idea is in keeping with the question he asks during a particularly engaging rant against the incorporated and enforced fragmentation of modern life: "How many organic farmers go insane?"

Dunning is Everyman with a foul mouth. He is capable, caustic, and funny, with a real talent for painting, a severe problem with alcohol, and a tempestuous, uncompromising love for his farm.

He believes, and when he says it the viewer also intensely believes him: "I am becoming my farm."

Dunning reminds us that once "everything had a meaning and everything had a purpose, and that's what is getting lost now." What he's talking about is, I think, related to what Wendell Berry calls "the stewardship of humans."

In "It All Turns on Affection," Berry wrote: "...there must be a cultural cycle, in harmony with the fertility cycle, also continuously turning in place. The cultural cycle is an unending conversation between old people and young people, assuring the survival of local memory, which has, as long as it remains local, the greatest practical urgency and value. This is what is meant, and is all that can be meant, by 'sustainability.' The fertility cycle turns by the law of nature. The cultural cycle turns on affection."

I would argue that remaining local isn't necessarily a requirement for sustainability - because notions of code, responsibility, and honor in both the Iliad and the Odyssey remain practical and urgent in their value - thousands of years and thousands of miles from their origin.

The film meets Dunning at a time when Mile Hill Farm is hanging over a precipice. The farm has given him three wives and four children and taken them all away. He is mostly alone with his memories, his paintings, his orchards and his animals. And always the work.

And despite Dunning's impressive energy, intelligence, and passions; and despite his ravenous hunger for life in the midst of a suicidal pique, it is quite clear that the existence of Mile Hill Farm - 134 acres of almost mythical New England - is hanging on by a mere thread in the intense winds of a physical, cultural, and spiritual tempest.

What I found so engaging about this film is how accurately and precisely a lone man on his Vermont farm serves as a metaphor for the similar turmoil of an entire nation, and I urge you to check it out.

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