Before traveling to France, I had read about this years-long labor of love by a couple who gave up their careers as international lawyer (hers) and documentary-creating sailor (his) to raise their children in a healthy environment. In 2006 Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer set out to create an organic farm (La ferme biologique du Bec Hellouin) in a small Norman village, knowing zero about farming. At first they floundered (“We made many mistakes”), but doggedly researched and experimented, discovering and embracing permaculture* as their underlying farming philosophy.
Today, from gardens totalling around 1500 square meters, they produce an abundance of vegetables, fruits, and herbs—over 800 varieties—without chemicals or fossil-fuel-powered tools, in an incredibly beautiful 20-hectare (49-acre) jewel of a farm that includes water features and tiny bridges, orchards, a greenhouse, flower-edged footpaths, and free-ranging animals. Their tremendous success has brought a stream of international visitors seeking to follow their model or just inform themselves and maybe buy some peas. This month Jim and I were among them, and my sketches fail to capture the magic of this place. Miraculous Abundance is the title of their book, now available in English.
The admirable larger goal of the Hervé-Gruyers: “To nourish humanity while healing the planet.”
*FYI: Definitions of permaculture, from the practical to the poetic.
Today I celebrate the birthday of Dylan Thomas, who lived way too short a life (1914-1953), with the first verse of one of my favorites, “Fern Hill,” and a painting of the wonderful farm in Virginia that used to host our organic CSA. Not exactly Wales, but in the right spirit.
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light…
Fall is the time for farm field trips, to see the bounty of the season and learn how it was achieved. These sketches are from a trip to National Colonial Farm, an 18th century living history farm in Accokeek, Maryland, which sponsors a number of school programs for children in kindergarten through 6th grade, including homeschool groups. Our homeschoolers were a pretty savvy bunch, already intimately familiar with carding combs, rollaghs, hollowed gourd containers, dried herbs and the like, but they enjoyed the informative walking tour through the farm buildings, the wagon ride, and the opportunity to milk the cow (THAT we don’t have at home).
Years ago we belonged to an organic CSA in rural Maryland. It made deliveries in town, but welcomed visitors to the farm to help with harvesting vegetables and pulling the never-ending weeds. (Which is a much more festive activity when undertaken as a group.) There were also CSA potluck picnics, impromptu soccer games, and memorable fund-raising dessert raffles. I particularly remember a chocolate truffle cake…
On a few occasions I packed not only a sketchbook but paints and canvases. This painting emerged one hot late summer day, and it was a challenge. Cows may look immobile but, let me tell you, they don’t stay in one position for more than a few seconds. My hat goes off to Rosa Bonheur.
Three times a year Claude Moore Colonial Farm (a small corner of McLean, Virginia that is frozen permanently in the year 1771) holds a Farm Skills Day to teach 21st century children about what life was like for colonial Virginia families way back when. The content varies somewhat with the season. This was an April visit, and the children carded wool and dipped candles.
Each spring at this time, the children of our homeschooling coop spend a week on a working farm. They feed the animals, gather eggs, milk cows, spread manure, plant seeds, work on meal preparation and cleanup, and generally help out with whatever needs to be done. This year they also participated in gathering and boiling sap for maple syrup, which they then ate with their pancakes the next morning. When we parents go to fetch them at the end of the week, they are muddy, tired, and already looking forward to returning next year. We always hope the children will come home begging for a few more chores to be added to their lists. Maybe if we kept a cow…