Summer Serenity: What I Found Out at Fern Hill Farm
After university, I went to visit Maddie, an American girl I'd met during my year studying abroad. She offered to host me for three weeks and even after I jetted off, my friends thought I was crackers to accept. With some spare time whilst Maddie was busy, I worked on the farm she used to work at before university. Many stories were connected to it and so I had to have a look for myself.
In the weeks that I prepared for my trip, Maddie told me that she would, in an unforeseen turn, be starting an internship during my visit. She laid out two options for me: I could laze around the house, doggishly waiting for her to come back or, I could work on the farm where she'd had a summer job and get a taste of backwood Connecticut. Never wanting to turn down an interesting opportunity, I gladly accepted the chance to work on the farm.
She told me it was run by a woman in her eighties called Priscilla, who continued to work outside but needed extra aid at busy periods - like when I would be available. Living with her on the Farm were her husband, and high school sweetheart, Gene and Roxy, a red labrador with a taste for rocks and enough energy to rival a hummingbird on cocaine. A constant source of help and an ever-present figure on the farm was also Priscilla's friend, Jane.
On my second day stateside, we took a trip to the Farm. This gave me some extra information to see what I would be doing. It also seemed that Maddie and Gabby, Maddie's friend and another former employee on the Farm, eagerly wanted the chance to say hello and catch up.
When we arrived it seemed smaller than I'd imagined. In my mind, an American farm would be American-sized. Big. Even if it didn't employ lots of people. that's not to say I thought less of the place. More than anything it made me feel much more valued as I gave my time.
I soon found that the size of Fern Hill Farm was really what made it appeal to customers. The fact it could attract people from across Connecticut and New York said so much about its produce. This included eggs, summer squashes, and beans, but tomatoes took the prime position. Tomatoes and tomato plants of many varieties with many different uses filled the Farm: eaten alone, in sauces, in salads, in pureés and anyway you could imagine. So many occupied the greenhouses that the distinct scent of tomato plants is now emblazoned onto my mind.
"The ethos that guided so many DIY solutions seemed to put waste as the cardinal sin."
On my first day of work at Fern Hill, my first task was to feed the chickens and Guinea Hens with Cori, another worker on the Farm and Pricilla's granddaughter. I quickly found that jobs involving these birds were, by far, the most intense. Jittery and easy to scare, they could take a brief flap to get away from me. Such sudden movement in the confined coops took some time getting used to but I'm glad I got a proper hold of it by the end.
The boulders and junk gave the impression of a rough-and-ready place. Most of the gates had been improvised from the side of a crate and some synthetic string. The ethos that guided so many DIY solutions seemed to put waste as the cardinal sin.
Around the Farm
Next to the way to drive in stood the house. Despite a worn appearance, it never felt any less homely. At the back of the house, a huge wisteria grew at the foot of the garden wall. Over 4m tall, it was a real shame I never saw it bloom. I was told the scent took over the entire farm and the fallen petals would cover the farm and house in a dusting of pink snow.
On the house, the screen door had its bottom portion half torn out. It seemed this was from Roxy excitedly leaping through it to bark cars or greet familiar faces. The eclectic nature of the kitchen made it difficult to concentrate on any one feature. Every shelf I saw was filled with spices or herbs, many grown on the farm.
"Quintessentially American, it seemed to be a perfect place to romanticise the simplicities of honest agrarian living."
Priscilla also owned another piece of land a few minute's drive away. Bright Side, as it was called, solely grew tomato plants in a central plot of a grassy field. I'll never forget planting row after row of tomato plants at the height of the Connecticut summer, left exposed to the sun in the unsheltered dirt. Tiring as it was, it made my lunch all the more rewarding.
A small cabin was also at the site. Quintessentially American, it seemed to be a perfect place to romanticise the simplicities of honest agrarian living. Sat on homely wicker armchairs on the porch, during my well-earned lunch break I felt the summer breeze whistle through the windchimes and I could easily imagine a life of simple bliss here.
A log burner as old as the cabin itself sat in the living room; I can barely imagine it being moved in the last 90 years... Examining it further, I pictured winter in the cabin. Warming myself by the burner as the snow thickened inch by inch, covering the porch in a perfect blanket. In a moment like that, I can't imagine being snowed in would be a bad situation to be in.
Bart, Bart Jr. & Mrs Bart
Many stories I heard about the Farm involved the animals living on and around it. One of the first I heard was of an old goose called Nairobi. Scarcely able to move to drink or eat let alone do anything else, it unfortunately died before I had the chance to see it.
My favourite story, and the one I most often tell people when talking about the Farm, involved a nearby Barred Owl, often perching in trees by the pond when the afternoon breeze cooled the branches. Priscilla would see the owl when she ventured near the pond and began visiting specifically to see this owl. Being the kind soul she is, she must've tried to think of ways to help this beautiful creature, making its home in her home. Aha! Well, feeding it would be the best way, surely?
Priscilla set about giving Bart, a name given by Priscilla after the original owner of Fern Hill Farm, a mouse from a trap by the chicken feed. Bart so gladly accepted the gift that Priscilla collected quite a few dead mice.
But then came the problem: with all these dead mice, where would they all go? They can't be left outside - they'd go bad. They can't be kept - that's just cruel. Well... humans eat frozen meals, so what's the difference for animals? Freezing the mice seemed to answer many questions. As long as they were bagged and separated from other food, this seemed natural. Bonkers; but then again, questions about whether an owl would eat a dead mouse in the first place don't pass through everyone's mind.
"But then came the problem: with all these dead mice, where would they all go?"
Thinking ahead, it's possible to envisage the next development. With the bagged and frozen mice, how could Priscilla feed Bart? We wouldn't eat our frozen chilli and rice solid? Why would Bart.
When I was first told this story, putting the frozen, captured mice into a microwave to defrost seemed like a big jump for the story. This makes it.
Defrosted in the bag, Priscilla would offer up the defrosted mouse to Bart for the first time. Would he take it? Would the freezer of mice prove to be worth it? Of course. Again, he swept down from his branch to take his meal. This master hunter was now equalled to the status of a university student - from fielding the forest floor for food to chowing down on frozen meals. Even with that comparison, the student defrosts it themself. I should know.
As Priscilla saw Bart more and more, she began to distinguish Bart from different owls who eventually came to the same area. Figuring these to be Bart's family, first came Bart Junior and then Mrs Bart. This really showed Priscilla's love of seeing them all in nature, making a home on her farm.
Caring For Gene
I was quite enamoured with the idea of Priscilla and Gene. It seemed quite movie-esque. A high school couple brought back together in the autumn of their lives to spend the most valuable time with their dearest friend. Gene is Priscilla's second husband but he never married. But before I started at Fern Hill, I was told how sick Gene was.
Beyond work on the farm, Jane also assisted Priscilla's role as Gene's primary caregiver; he had been confined to a wheelchair in an ongoing struggle with motor neuron disease. The severity of Gene's condition now rendered him unable to talk and in need of constant care. The tragedy of Gene's disease was the deterioration of his physical faculties without effects on his mental capabilities.
"But before I started at Fern Hill, I was told how sick Gene was."
He especially liked singing, Priscilla would say. I was unsure about it at first but he would react more to it than anything else. If he really could hear and understand it, he must have tried his absolute hardest to show appreciation and thanks as best he could.
Priscilla would often include him in conversations and talk to him because of how his brain was unaffected. Without ever any answer, this act of comfort to Gene became more powerful each day.
Recollections From The Farm
As I think back, it feels like I spent longer at the Farm than five days. I could have easily been there for longer. The days, although tiring, gave me a great sense of pride in what I had accomplished. The beauty of the place spurred me on at times and gave me more
My time on the Farm is now a treasured memory for which I thank Maddie, Priscilla and everyone I met there.
Beyond the satisfaction of work, more than anything, it was a wonderful place to be. Not just to see and admire, but to exist and think. I often had my lunch sat by the pond, watching the fish dance in the green water. This felt like a reward for many things: the farm labour, the stress of university, and the boldness to accept Maddie's invitation. My time on the Farm is now a treasured memory for which I thank Maddie, Priscilla and everyone I met there.
Being there also made me consider the importance of seeking out what makes us happy. It occurred to me later that although Priscilla had been dealt so much tragedy, it's these golden threads which make her so admirable. Her farm, her husband, her animals, her plants, her family, her friends and the whole natural world she surrounds herself with imbue her with such happiness.
It was a pleasure to witness the joy she received from seeing the newborn chicks waddle about and peck the wire of their homemade nursery. The simplest lessons can be the most powerful and it fills me with reassurance and happiness that I could take a glimpse of it all.