Better Storytelling

Better Farm's religious dining experience.
In honor of her impending visit tomorrow to enjoy a North Country weekend filled with pirate invasions and a music festival, I'm reposting a story my older sister, Kristen, wrote as an exercise in writing from someone else's point of view while merging fiction, memoir, non-fiction, and stories from other people. It's an Alice's Restaurant-esque piece taking place at Better Farm:

Better Grub Supper Club
The view from Better Farm's kitchen window is of a wide-open field stretching out toward a hilltop. Trees create mountainous shadows, and the tops of bushes peek out over frost-filled grasses and a large manmade pond Nicole's father once gleefully referred to as the "mosquito breeding ground". The sun at this particular moment was beginning its dip over the backs of the silhouetted trees as a dozen people—roommates, artists-in-residence, and locals—made their own dips down Cottage Hill Road and into Better Farm's driveway.

Better Farm is an artists' retreat and sustainability education center started in 1970 as a hippie commune. My Uncle Steve bought the property—a small 19th-century farmhouse, milkhouse, and falling-down barn seated on 150 acres—with insurance money paid out to him from a car accident in 1963 that left him paralyzed from the chest-down. His parents had been taking care of him in their suburban New Jersey home, and buying the acreage upstate was his way to be out on his own. He got his friends, cousins, and brothers on board with heading north for a summer, doubling the size of the house, and moving in to care for Steve's daily needs. It would be 30 years before the last of them would leave.

 The name for the place came from the “Better Theory”, a concept Steve and his friends came up with that basically says every moment presents us with a chance to grow as human beings. Instead of seeing something as negative, then, it's “better”: an opportunity to become more.

After a great deal of shopping, bartering, and cultivating, Nicole was welcoming a cast of characters to the farm to commence Better Farm's First Better Grub Supper Club Thanksgiving Dinner, in much the spirit of Arlo Guthrie's beloved “Alice's Restaurant”. Nicole leaned into the oven to check on the main courses, taking care to baste the turkey and Tofurky in equal measure, a puff of steam rising out of the oven and enveloping her face in the scent of roasted bird, faux meat, stuffing, and onions.

As she stood up, she couldn't help but think "world harmony begins when Tofurkeys and turkeys can roast side by side." 

I started spending a lot more time at the farm after Dad died, doing the 700-mile-round-trip Dad and I used to take, taking it now by myself or with friends. It was sort of like a pilgrimage for me; a way to get out of my head, reconnect with memories of my dad, and occupy the same space as Steve, who was this human being who was so much larger than life. Steve and I would have hours-long conversations about books, politics, birding, the environment; or sit around at the kitchen table all afternoon and do crossword puzzles. The farm became a place where I could relax and kind of reconnect to what was important. 

The summer before Uncle Steve died, my sister Kristen and I were up visiting for a weekend, and we all got on the topic of what would become of the farm should anything happen to Steve. There was some discussion of it being left to the group of us: Kris, our cousins Dan and Mike, and me. Kris squashed this, reminding Steve of Mike's nomadic lifestyle and Dan's penchant for the same; and her own love of the farm, but lack of time.  "Leave it to Nicole,” she told him. “We'll help her with what we can, but she's the one who will love it for you, and make it into something special."

Nicole brushed a wavy lock of brown hair out of her eyes and thought back to her apartment in Brooklyn, the one she broke the lease on to move out to the country. It had a view of the gravel-covered flat roof below, and beyond that, a brick building with windows that gazed into neighboring apartments. The sounds of the traffic, the Kenyan restaurant below, police sirens, and barking dogs were loud there; while here in Redwood, population 584, there is the vague brush of the wind and the occasional ATV hum in the distance. Strains of The Grateful Dead's “Friend of the Devil” meandered out of the iPod on the counter and Jerry Garcia sang: "Didn't get to sleep last night 'til the morning came around/Set out runnin' but I take my time/A friend of the devil is a friend of mine"

Steve's funeral was attended by men who openly wept through their beards, running their hands over shiny heads that once housed long, thick locks; and tribes of women who'd loved and worshiped Steve. Kristen read a poem comparing Steve to Woton, the god in the Wagnerian "Ring of the Nibelung" cycle who gives up his eye for wisdom. Ex-girlfriends and cousins read poems and told stories. I muscled through a eulogy of my own, which felt totally empty without the man himself there to hear it.

Two months later I packed my bags, adopted a puppy, and headed north to begin cleaning out, renovating, and turning the dilapidated home into a green-living center, youth hostel, bed & breakfast, and artists' retreat. I rented one of the rooms out and took a couple odd jobs to make ends meet as I filed Better Farm's LLC status, while Kristen create a website. Planning commenced for summer programming, like workshops, internships, and artist residencies. I read books about gardening and staked out a plot of ground in the yard for our organic farm, learned to fire a gun, took up horseback riding, and became impervious to black flies and mosquitoes.

In two days, Nicole would be leaving for a brief respite to New Jersey. She'd visit with her family in her mother's Victorian house in the affluent Northern New Jersey suburbs; a family gathering around a formal dining table covered in an antique tablecloth, china her mom has had for 40 years, and sterling silverware polished for special occasions.

Behind her at the moment, though, sat a giant wooden table and two 12-foot church pews packed with the people living at Better Farm and a number of guests from town. There were mismatched glass plates, all in different shades of white, and silver eating utensils with different handles, collected over the years from the various miscreants who invaded the farm. The cups were a mixture of mason jars, and coffee mugs with dirty sayings and odd cartoons. A family friend, in talking about Steve at his funeral, said Steve became "an island around which humans float." Nicole was beginning to feel like the Better Farm house was fast-becoming that island in his absence.

We started with the library, a 1600-square-foot room with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on each wall. Every book had been read by Steve before being placed, in alphabetized order, by the hands of one of his caretakers. We removed them, rebuilt some of the shelves, dusted behind all the old volumes, and revealed decades' worth of fuzz, dog fur, and long-abandoned mice nests. You should have seen the books—everything from the Bible to Harry Potter, the Quaran to Dr. Zhivago, Dostoevsky, Oates, Rand, and Hawkings. It was unbelievable.
Mike, Nicole's cousin, sported a beard reminiscent of Rip Van Winkle and sat at the table chatting with Chris, an Iowa transplant who'd fallen in love with farm living, and Bob, a truck driver from town. They were discussing the merits of eating a turkey while planning out a designer chicken coop for Henrietta, the chicken Nicole saved from becoming soup a few months earlier and the two chicks taken in to keep her company.

"She's family, so she should have a nicer area to live in," Mike said, his stringy blond hair nodding as he moved his head in an affirmative motion.

"Organically, she's the same as the bird in the oven. I don't see why we should be spending more than the turkey cost to house next year's dinner," Bob jumped in, his belly rumbling beneath his black Harley Davidson T-shirt at the thought.

"She should at least be comfortable while she's fattening up," Chris stated, his own form bumping the edge of the table as he moved to rise off the pew.

Nicole turned, her calloused hands covered by tropical fish-shaped potholders, and picked up the pot of potatoes rolling in the bubbling water. She began to pour the frothy white liquid through the strainer balanced in the sink. "We are not eating Henrietta," she said, blue eyes focused on the task at hand. "She's like a pet."

"But by next year, she would be a rather delicious pet." Bob nodded, his eyes narrowing at Nicole's dog, a large mongrel she'd rescued the year before. "Koby would eat her." Kobayashi Maru slapped her tail against the floor in agreement.

"No. Koby, you are not eating Henrietta," Nicole said, as the potatoes slid down the sides of the pot and into the colander, landing with squishy thwaps. Koby opened her long snout and yawned, rolling onto her side. "And neither are you," she said, pointing the wooden spoon at Bob.

"Man is the only animal that can remain on friendly terms with the victims he intends to eat until he eats them.' Samuel Butler," Mike said to Bob, crossing his arms over his white T-shirt, stained yellow from sweat at the armpits.

"If God didn't want us to eat meat, He wouldn't have made it so tasty,” Bob retorted. “A T-shirt in Alex Bay." Chris and Mike laughed. 

There were notes stuffed in some of the books, quotes from different philosophers, Emerson, Thoreau, even some Ginsberg and Bob Dylan. When I moved on to Steve's desk, it was like an explosion of paper. There were folders of notes he'd sent and received, an entire box of letters from my parents' travels in the 70's, and pieces of writing of Steve's, things he probably started and forgot about. In one drawer, I actually found a slip of paper on which Steve had scribbled his Philosophy.

"Crisis teaches you cool; pain teaches you pleasure; love teaches you loss. Every large and small and good and bad thing that comes at you has the potential to propel you forward into something better. All we have is now, and nothing else exists except that, so anything right now is always better than even one second before now. And now. And now. All you’ve got to do is climb aboard, hang on tight, and push yourself forward into the abyss. It’s a tricky theory to keep up with—try having “better” be the first thing out of your mouth next time you stub your toe or hear terrible news. But the truth is, Better works."

"The dinner smells delicious Nicole," Chris said, his feet shuffling towards the smells wafting from the stove. He turned on the oven light, and salivated as he eyed the turkey. "Can I help with anything?"

"How good of you to ask,” she answered sarcastically. “You can mash the potatoes. Use soy milk and margarine in half of it for the vegans.” She pulled out the masher and ingredients, her thin, toned arms miming as she spoke. Chris grabbed the overflowing colander and set to work.

I always personally took the Better Theory to mean out of the bad, comes the good. What you do with your biggest hardships makes the most difference—ask anyone who's ever overcome in some way. Instilling that idea into the people at the farm, who come from all over the world to study green living and organic farming, or to work on their art, or to live more simply and communally, is one of the most exciting things I've ever been a part of. It's amazing what people are capable of when they really see everything as an opportunity; they just start to thrive when they get that concept.

Mike got up and walked over to the pot of boiling string beans, legumes picked in September and frozen. He dipped in a ladle and liberated a couple, dropping them onto a plate, and checked them for doneness with his fingers. Finding them reasonably cooked, he popped one in his mouth and tossed the other to Kobi, who chomped down with a grateful crunch.

"I have to say, I'm impressed with the harvest,” Mike said, still chewing. “When dad talked about the farming in the 70's, all he would say was that they couldn't grow potatoes bigger than golf balls because of the clay soil, and that nothing would really grow." He turned his attention to the cans of cranberry (the only thing not grown in or around Better Farm), and set about creating cylindrical art sculptures on the serving platter before bringing it over to the table.

"Nicole started us on mulch gardening,” Chris declared proudly. “We make layers of compost, cardboard, dead leaves, and hay in the fall, and by spring there are inches and inches of healthy, black soil.” He got up and pulled a cast iron skilled down from an overhead hook. He turned on a burner, threw a pad of margarine into the pan, and melted it along with a few cloves of garlic. He threw the concoction into his lumpy mashed potatoes. 

Since we redid the kitchen, we try to do a big family dinner every night. We put in a wood-burning stove to generate heat, put tin ceiling tiles in the dining alcove, and replaced the rusted old stove with a stainless-steel restaurant quality one.. The biggest thing, though, was getting enough seating for any and all residents and guests. I remember driving 30 minutes to pick up the church pews after we found them on Craigslist for $40 a piece, and joking the whole drive back that if they didn't fit in the breakfast nook, we'd just have to set them up in the library and create our own religion.

An hour later, they sat down to the feast. Grace was a hearty "Thanks to Steve and the good Lord above for the grub on the table, and the friends around it," and the clinking of plastic on glass. The poster-sized photo of Steve at age 13, standing a foot taller than his mother (Nicole's Granny) next to him, beamed down from the far wall, as if granting approval over the festivities.

Most nights, the head of the table is empty, a result of a lack of chairs and everyone's preference to the pews. But there was a day not too long ago when the realization hit that its vacancy also serves as a tangible reminder of Steve's absence. That was his spot because of the wheelchair. I can still picture him, leaning on his bony elbow and sipping his water out of a straw stuck in a pitcher. He had these bright blue eyes, a wide smile, and this hoarse voice, gravely and lilting with joy.


I think it's Passover when the religious set a place for Elijah, and leave a seat vacant in anticipation of his arrival. Elijah's visit is said to precede the Messiah, who will transform our world from its broken state to one where injustice is unknown, compassion is everywhere, and happiness fills our hearts. I can't help but think of Steve as our own personal version of the prophet: the one who guided us to this table, guided us to pick up where he left off, and create a better celebration of life and friendship. He would have enjoyed this version of now.

And now. And now.

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.