Farming over the Abyss

Summer 2016, Uncategorized

by Mark Frank

Breughel, 'Landscape With the Fall of Icarus'/The Granger Collection/Universal Images Group/Rights Managed

Breughel, ‘Landscape With the Fall of Icarus’/The Granger Collection/Universal Images Group/Rights Managed

In the December of my eighteenth year, my best friend and confidant, partner in poetry, art, and sometimes romance, committed suicide. I heard about it during Christmas vacation at my grandma’s house in eastern Kansas. Though the two of us had often talked of suicide, her action took me by surprise. The entire trajectory of my life was changed, the way an earthquake can change a river’s course. Nothing was the same —there were no remnants of “same” to return to. The strongest feeling was not sadness, it was nothingness; the feeling that I was nowhere, left stranded above an abyss.

Her kind and beautiful soul ignited the love of literature and poetry and music in my own. I have spent the intervening years searching, collecting the pieces that were broken and scattered when she left. I lost faith and interest in tangible life, and turned to the things that we had shared: I tried to find life and solace in books and music, though they are sometime fickle friends. These sounds and shapes came and went, and I learned to live in pages torn from borrowed volumes and words suspended in air. In every new book, every poem, every album I listened to, I tried to find a trace of her. Sometimes I did, and I cherished that. The Ninth Wave by Kate Bush. The poetry of Rimbaud and Allen Ginsberg. The 4AD record label. The Surrealists. There were two things I looked for: the honesty to confront and discuss the idea of suicide directly and the courage to break through the everyday, the anchors to this life, to pull them up and cut loose.

I learned to appreciate life through reverberations, still feeling her presence in a way that could not be verbalized, that resonated somewhere out beyond language. Colors became tones, and the change of seasons was always accompanied by an encompassing music that only I could hear. A few days after she died, she appeared to me clearly. I was lying in bed, and she came into the room. She was angry, asking why I did not keep my promise to join her. At first I did try to join her. I felt it was my obligation to end my own life, but I failed for various reasons. Finally, without really thinking about it, I quit trying and just let life be. But, there is always that voice that calls from over the edge. It is a familiar voice, nearly every day. Not usually 24 hours a day—if it were, it might be something that could be tuned out or ignored. No, it comes unexpectedly, at the most unlikely times. It always feels the same, like the floor has dropped out from under me, the constant sea of sound stripped away.

It is not a matter of being one step away from the abyss, nor of being on the edge, but of being suspended over it, with no visible means of support. I realized I needed to dedicate myself to something connected to life. I couldn’t express it like that at the time, but I think that is why I chose to go into education and teaching. I found that the classroom was a living organism, the chance to interact with and maybe even change other lives. I have always liked people but was too shy to really connect. Becoming a teacher helped me (forced me?) to overcome that. And then, becoming a farmer.

It started when I was teaching in Japan, we had a garden at my college. The students would collect food scraps from the cafeteria and make compost. Our first season, we had a meter high mound of compost. One day, we were turning it together. A student placed her hand on the top. “It’s warm, it’s hot,” she said, “like it’s alive!” We took turns touching it, picking up handfuls.  We all felt for the first time the power of composting, of fermentation, of life returning. Feeling the compost inspired us all, and galvanized our will to create the best garden possible. From these early experiences, my own love and respect for farming was born, and it became my inspiration to start a farm here in America. Much like the classroom before, I sensed that the garden was a place of life and learning and positivity.

There is a scientific basis for this feeling as well. The soil microbe mycobacterium vaccae has been shown to cause immune cells to release chemicals known as cytokines. These in turn stimulate nerves which cause neurons to release serotonin, high levels of which are connected to general feelings of well-being, while a deficiency is often connected to depression. I don’t mean to suggest that going out and getting your hands dirty can take the place of therapy or medication. I don’t want to trivialize anyone’s experience or reality. No, the kind of farming I am talking about is not a cure, but a recognition, a way forward, or at least sideways. Like everything in life, it is another scenic road to nowhere, but here, in the dirt, on the ground, under an enormous sky.  Seeing life pass through death and in that death provide for another life has given me some degree of solace and balance.

The simple process of growing a cabbage from tiny seed to giant head, taking it to market,and passing it on to a customer–that is a tremendous feat.

Suicidal thoughts reduce the imagination, limit choices, tie off the story in a knot. Farming is exactly the opposite: every day is an opening up, an unpredictable now, improvisational and wild. I have found companionship in the soil among the worms and microbes and roots and pillbugs. You may fail, but the dirt, the ants, the weeds, the critters, they all will be waiting for you again tomorrow, no matter how badly you mess up today.

I no longer see apparitions of my dead friend, but I hear her and feel her everywhere around the farm. At times when I go to sleep I hear her talking to me, whispering, a beautiful litany of poetry I could never write myself. The edges of the words leave me stranded, looking right and left, aware only that I will never have the ability to keep up. But there are also iridescent afternoons with muddy knees and hands elbow deep in mulch. Farming is not so much about the production of life as it is about life’s cycle. The farmer is not the creator of life, but the witness to its continual passing and returning. Time spent with soil and compost somehow can anchor us in this uncertain, floating world.

Mark Frank was born and raised in eastern Kansas. After completing an M.A. Arts degree in American Literature at Missouri State University, he moved to rural Japan, where he taught. There he also studied traditional agriculture, fermentation, and sake brewing.A few years ago, he moved back to Missouri, where he operates a no-till organic farm specializing in Japanese vegetables and fermented foods.


Photo creit: BRUEGEL: FALL OF ICARUS. – ‘Landscape With the Fall of Icarus.’ Oil on canvas, c1555, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.. Fine Art. Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 10 Jun 2016.