BONFIRE IN THE LITCH:
Poetry celebration at a New Hampshire organic farm
by George WALLACE
He who eats the fruit, should at least plant the seed; aye, if possible, a better seed than that whose fruit he has enjoyed," wrote the great American 19th century philosopher Henry David Thoreau in his journal "Two Weeks on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," in 1839.
To which I might add this: anyone who has forgotten that a carrot is a work of art or that a radish is a gift from God needs to go back to the farm.
A farm like Nesenkeag, that is, where Eero Ruuttila and his family celebrated their organic farm operation, with an afternoon of poetry and song on the banks of the Merrimack River where Thoreau camped, outside of Litchfield, New Hampshire.
For the third year running, and in the winesap and brilliant hue of New England's autumn skies, Eero and family hosted an afternoon of poetry and song as friends gathered from locations as near as Nashua NH and Lowell Ma, and from as far away as Portland Maine and Cherry Valley NY, Staten Island and Long Island.
I had the good fortune to be lead performer in this year's activitiesfollowing in the footsteps of Janine Pomy Vega and James Kolleralong with Simon Pettet, a Manhattan-based writer with origins in the UK, established literary connections to writers like James Schuyler, and close association with such artists as Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Hunke and Rudy Burckhardt.
In our turn, Simon and I stood before a group assembled around a fine old 'Bonfire in the Litch' (Litch, Eero explains, is an Old English word for corn stubble) and spun our tales as flame licked log and gray smoke rose to join with the 'glow'ring gray' skies of southern New Hampshire.
Back at the farmhouse afterwards, the festivities continued well into the eveningfrom barnloft to country kitchen, as much a friendly gathering of like-minded individuals as the day's program of activitywith visits from people like Mark Hanlon of Cherry Valley; Cafe Review editor Wayne Atherton; Nashua NH poetry organizer Doc Cote; Lowell Celebrates Kerouac organizers Meg Smith and Larry Carradini; and Beat videographer Laki Vazakas.
It was a fitting day for Eeroa man feted by both the local Chamber of Commerce and by the nation's continually-evolving network of Bohemian aestheteshis wife Liana, 12 year old son Eric and the rest of the Ruuttila family. After all, in his work as an organic farmer and a participant in the world of alternative and Beat literature in America, he is following the dictum of Thoreauwho camped on the very land Ruuttila farmsthat "he who eats the fruit should at least plant the seed."
A VIABLE ORGANIC FARM
In over fifteen years as manager of Nesenkeag Farm, Ruuttila has done just that, by establishing a viable and well respected organic farm operation on the Merrimack River. And beyond that, sharing the fruits of that operation with food banks while helping leading figures in the world of alternative American literature to revisit the meaning of the great American family farm.
Poets Simon Pettet and George Wallace at Farm Day
All Saturday, small groups of visitors accompanied Eero on walks along the Merrimack with his black lab Lydiawhere native bamboo grass leans riverward in the breeze, where gnawed trunks betray the effects of recent "beaver action," and where Thoreau and his crew of travelers stopped one Monday night to write these words: "Then, when supper was done and we had written the journal of our voyage, we wrapped our buffaloes about us and lay down with our heads pillowed on our arms listening awhile to the distant baying of a dog, or the murmurs of the river, or to the wind, which had not gone to restor half awake and half asleep, dreaming of a star which glimmered through our cotton roofto tours through the rich fields."
Some of those fields were planted with late kale, arugala, or other fine mesclune greens and salad crops bound for Boston markets; others with finger crescent potatoes, miniature white beets, bright red and yellow miniature carrots, long lines of miniature burgundy sunflowers.
A few of the fields were already set for the winter with cover crops like winter rye, field pea, or hairy vetch, a methodology for which Ruutilla has drawn the considered attention of regional farmersand the interest of oriental markets in Boston, where in particular he has learned the market value of repeatedly harvesting pea-shoots from his field cover through the growing season.
"I don't mind a morning frost, it brings out the sweetness," said Ruuttila, looking out over a crop of raddicchio in the chill of a New England sunset. "I just have to watch out for a freeze." Later, touring the lower fields which were last flooded after Hurricane Bob created havoc in New England a decade or so ago, he contemplates irrigation and water control methodologies, and looks out over the Merrimack. "We should take the kayaks out on the river in the morning," he says, and tosses a stick into the river for a grateful Lydia. "That's the best way to get the full feel of what Thoreau experienced."
All in a day's work for Ruutilla, who as the Farm Manager for Nesenkeag Cooperative Farm, Eero oversees operations for 40 acres of farmland, all of which is certified organic.
Nesenkeag Farm's Eero Ruuttila, with Mark Hanlon, George Wallace and carrot
FARM ROOTS BACK TO FINLAND
Eero got his start in farming at the age of 16, when visited relatives in Finland for a year (1966-67), and helped them with their farming after having grown up in central Illinois. It was a typical northern European working farm, he recalls: dairy cows, fruits, hay. He likes to say that his grandfather was an old-school organic gardener in New Hampshire-back before any non-organic farming ever existed.
He is a man who has been influenced greatly by his reading: mainly Thoreau and Gary Snyder, he says, putting aside his involvement in the creative writing influences of Colorado's Naropa Institutewhere he associated with Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Anne Waldmanand his continuing association with the naturalistic and environment oriented strains of American Bohemian culture.
Before going into farming full-time himself, Eero spent seven years as the wholesale buyer for NorthEast Co-operatives, a large association of organic New England farmers. During that time, he organized a direct-buying program with smaller local farmers and also solicited federal grant money to help pay for the continued expansion of the Co-op's network of farmers throughout New England, Then came a stint as the first Massachusetts inspector for NOFA (NorthEast Organic Farm Association) in 1985.
Finally after working part-time at Hutchins Farm, an organic farm in Concord, Massachusetts, he came to Nesenkeag.
Nesenkeag Co-operative Farm was incorporated in 1982, by Bill McElwain, as a charitable, non-profit, educational farm, in the spirit of preserving greenspace and providing healthy food to low-income residents in the area. It is located along the sandy banks of the Merrimack River, just north of Nashua and Hudson NH, on the eastern side of the river where rural agriculture still prevails over the more developed commercial and industrial corridor of Route 3 on the western banks. A protected farm whose development rights were purchased by the state a number of years ago, it is situated on an incredibly rich and productive bank of black soil, several feet deep, left behind by glacial action.
Nesenkeag was operated in the early years by what Ruuttila describes genially as "political/hippie-type volunteers." In 1987, he was hired as farm manager, and took on the challenge of organizing the farm as a self-sustaining, viable business. A transition that would take 5 years to complete, he developed his connections with distributors, became a member of a number of Co-ops, and started to develop some restaurant accounts. Later on, relationships with different Food Bank and other distributions services, including one to an extensive Southeast Asian community in Lowell, developed.
THE CAMBODIAN CONNECTION
It was through this network that Ruuttila began working with Cambodian refugees as farm handsa stable group of families with plenty of experience in their native country to bring to bear to the workand set about working his several fields to produce some of the finest exotic greens one might find in the best restaurants in America. A tour of the farm reveals an odd melding of aesthetics and technologiesin one barn, combines and tractors are co-located with traditional Cambodian threshing baskets, and the fields in the morning are an uncanny vista as Cambodian women in their woven straw hats work the rows. Behind the refrigeration truck Ruuttila uses as a storage room the workers have built a small Buddhist shrine; in Eero's office are pinned a kaleidoscopic collage of technical manual notes, quotes from Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac, and Sanskrit inscriptions.
Lunch break for the workerswhich I had the good fortune to shareis a festive and broadly smiling Southeast Asian micro-moment, consisting of curried vegetables, lightly pickled greens, white rice, small dishes of chicken and pork, and soft-spoken conversation.
Somehow, it all comes together under the umbrella of Eero Ruuttila's vision. Despite some rocky moments with less ecologically aware farmer neighbors, he has earned high praise for his work from business and agricultural interestsnot to mention from America's alternative writers, many of whom Eero has hosted at his farm or collaborated with on writing projects in locations as diverse as New York and Boston to Colorado and San Francisco.
All told, the festival was an opportune moment to stop and take stock of that workand the gathering afterwards in the kitchen and dining area of Ruuttila's farmhouse an opportune moment to reflect on the comradeship alluded to by Thoreau in "Two Weeks On The Concord and Merrimack."
Here are Thoreau's words, written on the banks of that river, as the great American philosopher stopped to camp with his brother John for the evening: "We had found a safe harbor for our boat, and as the sun was setting carried up our furniture, and soon arranged our house upon the bank, and while the kettle steamed at the tent door, we chatted of distant friends and of the sights which we were to behold, and wondered which way the towns lay from us. Our cocoa was soon boiled, and supper set upon our chest, and we lengthened out this meal, like old voyageurs, with our talk."
Standing with Eero Ruuttila on spongy black soil looking out over a river rolling southward on the eastern edge of his farm; past the old Nesenkeag Creek Henry David Thoreau himself camped on 175 or more years ago, it was evident that the farmer and his familywith the help of Cambodian workershad ample reason to feel he had successfully turned an extraordinary series of open fields of southern New Hampshire into a rich rare shelf of fertility.
Into, in fact, a historic intersection of responsible farming and high aesthetic thought on the banks of the Merrimack River.