August 24th, 2018
“I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
Well, I wake up in the morning
Fold my hands and pray for rain
I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin’ me insane
It’s a shame
The way she makes me
Scrub the floor
I ain’t gonna work on, nah
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more…”
from Bob Dylan
St. Isidore Catholic Worker Farm is tucked into the rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin. St. Isidore is across the Mississippi River from Dubuque, Iowa. There are only a few other large towns in the vicinity.
Karin and I drove to the farm on Wednesday morning after having breakfast with the sisters at Sinsinawa. It wasn’t very far to drive. The farm is a mile or two up Clay Hollow Road, and it can be easy to miss if you aren’t specifically looking for it. St. Isidore looks a lot like other small farms in the area. There is a small sign at the entrance to the driveway, but that is also easy to miss.
The farm is built into the side of a steep hill. At the crest of the hill a person can see endless stalks of corn. Those do not belong to the Catholic Workers; they belong to their neighbors. The farmland of St. Isidore is a long, narrow stretch that follows both sides of Clay Hollow Road. There is actually a tunnel underneath the road that allows the cows to move from one pasture to another safely. That’s kind of cool.
Karin and I were initially greeted by farm’s dog, Dora. The dog is black and sleek. I don’t know the breed, but she is a beautiful animal. Dora’s barking brought a human out of the barn to meet us. That was Eric, who we met the day before. Eric lives on the farm, and he also works part time at Sinsinawa. He handles their ecological problems, whatever they may be. From my conversations with the people at Sinsinawa, it became obvious to me that Eric is liked and respected at the Sinsinawa Mound Center. Eric and I had corresponded for several months prior to our first actual meeting. It’s strange; in some ways Eric matched my expectations of him, and in other ways he seemed strange to me. I guess it just works like that.
Eric took us back to the barn, where the other members of St. Isidore had gathered for their morning prayer. They had just completed it when Karin and I had arrived. Eric introduced to the other residents. There was his wife Brenna, wearing a t-shirt that said, “Indigenous Iowa”. There was a couple, Mary Kay and Peter, who live on the farm with their two small children. There was another Peter, who is trying to set up a new Catholic worker community in Dubuque. Another man was in attendance, but I forget his name, because, at this point in my life, I forget names.
Eric and Brenna gave Karin and me a tour of the farm. The barn is small, but very well maintained. They use it for meetings and lectures and barn dances. Behind this barn, up the hill a bit, is a dilapidated pig shed. It is slowly falling into ruin. The roof is collapsing in upon itself, and the structure looks unsafe and unusable.
The folks at St. Isidore have cows and chickens. Brenna noted that some of the hens were too old to lay, and that they would soon be slaughtered. It was hard for me to follow, but it appears that the Catholic Workers have mutual understandings with their neighbors with regard to land use. Sometimes the neighbors use the St. Isidore property for grazing, and sometimes the folks at St. Isidore have the neighbors harvest their hay. There aren’t bodies enough on St. Isidore to do all the things that need to be done. So, other people from the community have to be involved.
Eric and Brenna showed us several gardens. They grow corn, beans, and squash together, just like the Native Americans did for centuries. They do it because it works well, and it keeps the soil fertile. They also have tomatoes and cabbages. They have other vegetables growing, and they have fruit trees. The Catholic Workers have been canning food already. It is only August, but they are preparing for winter. They are farmers, so they plan ahead, always.
The community lives in a house that is quite nice. It is clean and well-maintained. In a way, it doesn’t feel very Catholic Worker. Most other Catholic Worker houses are a bit well-used. This farm house looked immaculate. I’m not complaining. It felt odd.
Karin and I have been to three Catholic Worker farms. They are all different and they are all alike. Each farm has its own distinct personality, within a Catholic Worker framework. Each community has its own culture and mission. However, each farm is really a community. People live and work together. They are like family, almost. The members of these communities are always very idealistic, and they always have the usual human foibles. They are in the world, but not of the world. They all live out the Gospel in their own ways. They struggle to create a new society.
These farms are very attractive to me. However, I know that I don’t belong in a place like St. Isidore. That is not my place. That is not my purpose. I am never really certain what my purpose is, but I always know what it is not. I need to be in the world, and I need to be working with people in my own town. It is tempting for me to withdraw to an isolated place, but that wouldn’t be right…for me.
I am grateful that St. Isidore exists. I am grateful that we had a chance to visit the farm. But, as much as I love the place, it could never be my home. That much I know.