Snow Bird

by Ilana Silver

Aaron and I wake up within our cocoon of mosquito netting inside the glorified chicken coop we call a home. It’s been weeks now that we’ve shared this hut at the end of “Toad Road,” affectionately named for the toads that come out at night and freeze like deer in headlights as we weave our way around their static selves. As soon as the flashlight beam passes over they regain mobility and it’s with an occasional squeal that they launch their bodies against our feet and ankles.

Our nights are further punctuated by the crowing of roosters and feet scuttling upon our roof. Aaron, half asleep, settles me with a, “shhh, it’s just the rats.” A treaty was struck with the cockroach, first in my head but then aloud, that we could coexist if it would be so kind to remain off of the bed. I heroically tell the tale of its eviction following the broken agreement and am gently reminded that more will come. And yet, fauna included, this farm is a haven. 

There’s a certain guilt I feel as a Mainer having abandoned my frigid post for the winter, fleeing to tropical days on Maui. The invitation from a dear friend to come and farm came not without hesitation, but ultimately I found myself on a supremely long flight to a very small dot in the middle of the Pacific. It was just over eight years ago when Joey and I met on a farm in Oregon and spent a summer working in the garden, harvesting and processing firewood, and learning what it meant to live in community without electricity, phone reception, or an indoor bathroom. Of the five interns, Joey was the person I thought I’d stay in touch with the least, but in the years since, he has gradually become one of my best friends. Though we’ve crossed paths many times since Oregon, taking turns driving or flying across state lines and time zones, we’ve never lived in the same place since that summer. I eventually went on to study social work in graduate school, and Joey pursued his education in fields and greenhouses around the western United States before taking on the role as farm manager on Maui.

While his hands were working the earth, mine furiously forged essays until all the words had been leeched out of me. The ever-devoted student, I am no stranger to prioritizing school to the detriment of my well-being. Growing up, I quickly learned how to satisfy the external demands of academia, steadily cutting off parts of myself in order to take a shape that wasn’t my own in pursuit of “success.” This continued through college, and by the time grad school came to an end, I could feel how disconnected I’d become from my body; a head floating along untethered to anything inside of myself. I watched frantically as those around me started posting about jobs and licensure, swirling in uncertainty as to whether this was the right career path for me. I pulled back from peers and colleagues, turned away from social media, and hoped that by turning down the volume of those around me, I might begin to hear my own voice a little more clearly. 

There’s an old agricultural practice in Judaism known as “Shmita,” the sabbatical year, a word that translates most accurately to “release.” Every seven years the land is left untended, allowed to rest, and that which was harvested privately becomes communal. As it were, the Jewish year 5782 that began in the fall happens to be a Shmita year. Shmita was not on my mind as I mentally limped out of grad school in late August, but I knew I needed a chance to reset and come back into relationship with myself. It felt like fleeing though, until a friend sent the words I needed to hear. Like the north star, Rabbi Adina Allen’s words guided me in the direction I had perhaps already known I needed to follow:

“This year, on this Shmita Yom Kippur, we imagine. We imagine moving out of time, letting ourselves go fallow, releasing our preconceived ideas about how things work and who we are and, then, like a field left untended, waking up to the symphony of life that we’re a part of. We imagine letting go of our orderly ideas and well-manicured identities and seeing what untamed beauty might bloom, what might proliferate on its own, in its own natural time. We imagine stopping tilling the soil of our souls — constantly keeping ourselves in a state of activation — and seeing what happens when we let the sediment settle for a while; when we allow the work that happens below the surface of our mind to occur.” 

The irony of farming during a Shmita year is not lost on me, but while I pull stubborn weeds and plant rows of crops my mind is allowed to rest for the first time in years. The anxiousness of academic deadlines slowly seeps away much like the water drains out of over-saturated garden beds in our winter rainy season. All the while we are tending to this green, lush land and I wonder what else is being cultivated. It seems as though the sediment has indeed begun to settle in response to the rhythmic aspects of farming, and I am once again reminded of the many different ways that life can look.

I see it in the span of farm interns who come from all different backgrounds, who both challenge and support me daily. It’s in the work, too, and the creativity and collaboration represented in each aspect of a farm; a living tapestry of those that came before in conversation with the land. The trees that tower over us and give shade on the sunny days, refuge from rain on the damp, were planted by individuals who knew to invest in a future they might not witness. If there were ever an act of hope to be seen, it’s in farming.

So much is written on hope, but perhaps most simply we know it as the thing with feathers. It is then only too fitting that this snowbird indulges in hope and farming alongside self-proclaimed odd bird, Aaron. It may not be clear yet how long we call this farm or this hut our home, but there is permission for it to unfold as it does and in its own time. For now, we will re-route the spider webs woven dutifully across the walkway and look under the couch for “gifts” from the cat. For now, we will allow that which grows wild and without tending. 

photo credits: header image and first image, Ilana Silver; second image, Aaron Cormier