October 2nd, 2017
The Peter Maurin Farm is easy to miss. We passed it by. Karin and I dutifully followed the GPS to Marlboro, New York, and we still got lost on the way to the farm. After we cruised past the correct exit, we finally turned around and drove to the end of Cemetery Road. The farm is tucked away behind the cemetery on the left and some houses on the right. There is no sign for the place. Even when we had parked the car in front of the white house, we weren’t sure if we were at the correct location.
I banged on the door at the White House (the farm has two houses: white and green). Heather came to the door. She is a woman from Virginia with big glasses, long hair, and a healthy sense of humor. She invited Karin and myself into the house. There wasn’t anything in there that struck me as being extraordinary. There was crucifix on the wall, but that is kind of standard for the Catholic Workers. A older man was shelling beans at the dining room table. In the back of the house was a large deck. A guy named Dan was sitting in one of the chairs on the deck, just soaking up the sun. He gave us a listless greeting.
Heather took us across the yard to the Green House. She led us into a tiny kitchen. It was crowded. An older woman, Monica, was there. So was her son, Tom. Tom’s father, also named Tom, painfully walked into the kitchen. Tom the elder is the pater familias of the farm. I had the impression that everyone else deferred to him.
Monica and the two Toms were deep into a serious discussion when we arrived. Apparently, Karin and I had stepped into the middle of a minor crisis. One of the residents of the white house was an elderly man who does not take good care of himself. Monica and Tom the Younger were waiting for a visiting nurse to make her visit. They didn’t have time right then to show Karin and myself the farm. Tom the Elder walked haltingly with a cane, and he obviously wasn’t going to lead a tour. Monica and Tom Jr. decided it would be a great idea if Karin and I sat in the drawing room, and conversed with the elder Tom until things settled down a bit. So, we did.
Tom Cornell Sr. is a man of eighty-three years. When we sat with him, it was obvious that he was in some pain. He mentioned that he had had shingles and that he was still hurting. Tom has had a full and active life. He has been in the Catholic Worker movement many years. He led the very first protest against the Vietnam War. He is a co-founder of Pax Christi, USA. Tom is a deacon of the Catholic Church. Tom has made working for peace and serving the poor his vocation.
Karin and I didn’t speak much. We spent most of our time listening to Tom. Tom had a continuous flow of stories. I occasionally had to interrupt him at times in order to ask him what he was meant. I think that Tom assumed that Karin and I knew all the legend and lore of the Catholic Worker movement. We don’t. So, when Tom would refer to people or events that were unfamiliar, I had to stop his monologue to get some clarification. I believe that Tom also assumed that we agreed with all of his opinions. I don’t. Our lives have been radically different, so there are a few points where we don’t connect. Overall, Tom’s stories were fascinating. He’s lived in an entirely different world from me.
Tom insisted on showing us his office. It’s a small room, crammed with books and papers and pictures. Socks were hanging up to dry in one corner of the room. There was barely enough room on Tom’s desk to work, and there was barely enough space for us in the room for us to move. Tom pointed out some of his mementos from the past. He showed us his presidential pardon from Jimmy Carter (I believe it was for burning draft cards). He also told us about a letter he had framed in red on his wall. The letter was from Archbishop Oscar Romero, sent to Tom just a couple months before Romero was assassinated while celebrating Mass in El Salvador. Tom’s office reminded me a lot of Dorothy Day’s office at Mary House in New York. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by that.
Monica came back later, after the visiting nurse had visited. Monica was not a happy woman. The visiting nurse had requested an ambulance to take the elderly man to the hospital. The nurse clearly did not think that this man was doing well at all.
We had lunch at the Green House. Tom the Elder warmed up some vegetable soup, once he got the reluctant gas stove to stay lit. I ate a couple tomato sandwiches (we eat what’s there). I think that Karin ate the same. Tom Sr. had some soup, which he ate with gusto and exclamations of “Delicious!”.
Heather ate with us too. She talked about her community in Virginia (the name of which I have unfortunately forgotten). She emphasized that it was an “intentional community”, a group of people that choose to live together.
Being a smartass, I asked Heather, “I was in the Army for ten years. Does that count as an ‘intentional community’?”
Heather was silent for a moment. Then she said, “We have some really good Army people with us.”
I took that as a “yes”.
Enter Tom the Younger.
Once the drama with the visiting nurse was over, Tom Jr. was available to show us around. He did.
We walked from the Green House to the gardens on the hill slope. The Peter Maurin Farm is primarily concerned with gardens. There are chicken coops there, but those are peripheral to the main activity, which is vegetable farming. They occasionally move the chicken coops around. Then they use the soil that has been permeated with chicken dung for future gardens. There is a slight time lag between moving the birds and using the guano-filled soil. Tom told us that it takes some time for the chemicals in the chicken guano to be diluted by rain and snow. It has to “mellow”. After that, it’s all good.
Tom the Younger gave us a long and detailed tour of the gardens. It was obvious early on that Tom was an expert in his field. He told us many things. He showed us the rows where they had planted carrots, daikan radishes, and dill all together, seeing as they were all from the same family. The radishes helped with tillage; they break up the soil with their roots.
The farm uses soybean meal for fertilizer. The ground needs it. The soil there is of glacial origin: silt. The best thing to grow in the Catskill Mountains of New York is rocks. God knows they have plenty of granite stones in their fields. As Tom said, “Silt has none of the advantages of clay soil, but all of the drawbacks.”
Tom showed us the rows of tomato plants, some of them damaged by a blight. They grow chard and cylinder beets together. Tom mentioned that they grow vegetables at the farm that the folks at Mary House can’t get easily. It is a goal of the farm to provide healthy food for the Catholic Worker soup kitchen in New York.
We looked at a section of the garden that was full of garlic and potatoes. Tom said that portion would later be used for turnips and carrots. The soil would be ready for those plants. It was fascinating to me that so much was planned in advance. Other parts of the garden were set aside for cantaloupes, collard greens, horseradish, zucchini, and asparagus.
Heather was with us in the garden. She is a seed expert. Heather and Tom conversed in a technical language that was foreign to me. Heather wanted to harvest some of the string beans. They grow rattlesnake beans at the farm. Tom told her which ones to take, and which ones to leave until later. Both Tom and Heather know how to farm. They understand the process. I felt very much left out. I just don’t know this stuff.
At the time of our arrival, there were seventeen people living at the farm. Some were just visitors, some were more long term. Some of the folks there were making great contributions. Some of them weren’t running on all four cylinders. It didn’t matter. They were all doing what they could. Somehow, they all contribute what they can. Honestly, I would have to live there for a while to get a feel for the group dynamics. A few hours isn’t long enough to understand how it all works. However, I could see that this was a family of sorts. It was a family as dysfunctional as my own, but a family nonetheless. The Peter Maurin Farm really is a community, in the best sense of the word.
The farm was full of people, maybe overfull. Karin and I had hoped to spend the night there, but that was not possible. Monica showed us some floor space in the basement of the Green House, but that didn’t look good to us. We didn’t know where to spend the night. Tom the Younger had a plan.
There is a home, twenty minutes north of the farm, called Boughton Place. There is a connection between Boughton Place and the Peter Maurin Farm. At one time, there was a Catholic Worker community at Boughton Place. That community collapsed after the woman who led the group died of cancer. Boughton Place also has a history as a home for psychotherapy. In the 1930’s, Jacob Moreno fled from the Nazis to start a psychotherapy facility in Beacon, New York. Later, his work moved to Boughton Place. Psychotherapy still goes on at this new site. There are rooms available at Boughton Place for patients to stay overnight. Tom found us a spare room at the house. He talked to the caretaker, and he got us a place for the night at Boughton Place.
It was kind of a weird feeling to sleep in an unknown house in an unknown town, based on the recommendation of a man who we had only known for maybe four hours. However, it was really nice. Boughton Place is an rural area. It was quiet and rather dark at night. Very peaceful. It was kind of cool. We gave the caretaker, Tom, a cash donation when we left in the morning. We said goodbye to his dog, Sasha. It felt strange, but somehow it all felt right.
Tom the Younger came to check on us before we went to bed that night. He brought us some information on other Catholic Worker farms, one of which is here in Wisconsin. That was good of him. He’s a good man. Everybody at Peter Maurin is good.
Thank God we met them.