All winter, spring, summer, and early fall, Erik Jacobs will send occasional reports and photographs from his apprenticeship at The Farm School. To see his weekly photo updates, go to www.ploughandstarsproject.com.
ATHOL — The wall above my head tells a story. Days of the week are written in German, a generations-old milk tally in faded looping cursive: Donnerstag, Freitag, Samstag . . . . Which of the farmers who came before me wrote it is a mystery, but their ghostly white script remains stark against the dark siding of this 200-year-old barn, recalling a once-familiar way of living that I’m only recently getting acquainted with.
I’m crouched down, fumbling around between the legs of a 1,000-pound cow, a Jersey named Patience, trying to get the 2 gallons of milk from her bulging udder into a steel bucket at my feet. Until now, I’ve spent my days in Boston working as a freelance photographer. Compared with the cold mechanics of lens and camera, this exercise feels intimate and mildly inappropriate. I clumsily squeeze her left teat and then her right, but the milk mostly dribbles down my arm and disappears into my sleeve. Patience, who is living up to her name, stops chewing to glance back at me, eyebrows raised, hay poking from the corners of her mouth. As if to say “good luck,” she swipes her muck-crusted tail across the back of my neck and returns to her munching. I bury my head deeper into her flank, squeezing again and again hoping for a different result. Eventually, as the first light of morning begins to fill the stall, my bungling gives way to a rhythmic hiss, hiss as the bucket slowly fills with frothy milk. Maybe I won’t miss breakfast today, I muse.
The place I call home these days is The Farm School, a fertile 180-acre strip of ridge top in Athol, where 15 student-farmers are spending a year learning the ins and outs of growing food, managing forests, and raising animals for meat. I arrived at the farm in October, just as the leaves were reaching their peak brilliance. The Farm School — which offers three-day programs for schoolchildren, a summer camp, a full-time middle school, and the apprenticeship program I’m in — takes us through all seasons of farming, weaving together class work and on-farm training.
Throughout the year, we will manage the 150 acres of forest, grow food for a 175-member Community-Supported Agriculture group (CSA); and husband a variety of animals for the 50-member meat CSA. I, like many who have gone before me, have traded in my career, left family and friends behind, and delved into the inner workings of this farm to see if this is a life I can really live. I’m here because I want to be a farmer but don’t yet know whether I can handle both the physical and the economic realities, the simplicity and the ruralness of farm living.
In our city life, my wife, Dina Rudick (a Globe staff photographer), and I would spend as much time in the garden as possible. And although we were once flattered by a neighbor who asked if we sold our vegetables at Whole Foods, we’re otherwise hard to confuse with farmers. For years, we doted over our six backyard hens, all of whom we named Dorothy. When their supply of eggs slowed and then stopped, I have to admit I shed a few tears as we plucked them from their roost and headed for the “Live Poultry Fresh Killed” sign in Cambridge. I’m also keenly aware of our attachment to late-night sushi and walking to the movies, all of which leaves us with a conspicuous lack of dirt on our white-collar existence.
But farming is what happened when I woke up one morning and realized that the life I was living was no longer rooted in what I find most meaningful. I felt a growing sense of despair about the future of our natural world and frustration at the hurried, consumptive nature of our lives.
Add to that the simple pleasures Dina and I find digging in the dirt, turning compost, and cooking for friends, and what you get is a photographer trying to milk a cow.
On Day One, my Farm School classmates and I were put straight to work in the fields digging potatoes. We’re a nontraditional farm family in the broadest sense: a former lawyer, a handful of teachers, Ivy League graduates, and an artist, ranging in age from 18 to 53.
We quickly learned our scuffle from our collinear hoe, acquainted ourselves with our various knives, and for the next month we raced around in slow motion applying our untrained bodies to the task of harvesting spinach, carrots, and leeks to fill the farm’s final CSA shares of the year.
Since then, we’ve driven teams of draft horses, practiced the basics of timber framing, and are beginning to grasp the complex miracle that is dirt, the living substrate that makes all life on this planet possible.
But first we had to confront death – and lots of it.
On the farm we call it “graduation,” the euphemistic term for sending an animal to the butcher. And for a couple dozen turkeys, a deer, and a pig, that butcher was me.
In the time I’ve spent observing the rhythm of the farm, it’s now more plain than ever that life is a loop that begins and ends with some living creature’s death. Microorganisms break down the freshly dead into building blocks for new life, which sprouts heavenward from the soil. Plants give up their lives to hungry animals, who in turn give their lives to other hungry animals — often us humans. But in the end, we all go back to the microbes in the soil, “trading corporeal forms around the gaming table of existential matter,” as farmer-philosopher Gene Logsdon puts it.
When I zoom out to this hawk’s-eye view, death is a sacred, essential link that makes the renewal of life possible. And that realization has gotten me halfway through the process of killing our animals. But once I’ve put the turkey upside down in the blood-covered cone, I still pause, knife in hand, struggling with my role in this cycle.
At least, I’ve stopped crying over it. Instead, in my roles as animal husband and executioner I’m filled with both reverence and a vast sense that there is still much I don’t understand. This duality became more real during a recent visit to the kill floor of our local slaughterhouse. As we stood, awestruck, watching giant animals die and become tidy packages of meat, my phone rang. I ignored it. It rang again. On the third ring, I answered and heard the voice of my 16-weeks pregnant wife on the line.
“I felt the baby move!” she exclaimed breathlessly.
I tried to hold both realities in my brain: The hour I just spent watching life literally drain from vital animals and the fact that a child was summoning a similar force inside of Dina.
From that hillside overlooking Athol, I could touch both ends of the incredible continuum and feel grateful to be a part of the fleeting middle.