Last year, on a whim, I signed up for a week of farm camp at Quillisascut, a 36-acre farm in northeastern Washington. I expected to spend my time cooking fresh food from the farm and partaking in good old-fashioned chores. I didn’t expect it to change me, but it did.
The farm was built from the ground up by Rick and Lora Lea Misterly, who moved to the hills of northeastern Washington in 1981 with four goats. Together, they started a life and raised a family, animals, and then soon, a burgeoning cheese business. Now they are also a farm school, where they teach sustainable farming to anyone eager enough to listen and spend the time.
We depend on the Earth and its inherent magic and biology to survive.
I cried when I left. I pulled out of the pebbled road, past the herb garden, past the honeybees, until the farm school, with its wooden sign and tire swing disappeared out of sight. Back on the narrow road, endless and winding, with only a bold yellow line leading the way and the steady sound of my rental car’s sputtering engine — the tears came, and then a full-on, deep, cathartic cry. The week was gone and I missed it, deeply, already.
Quillisascut Farm is a haven — an extraordinary place in ordinary circumstances.
Things made sense there: “Oh this is how potatoes grow.” “This is how chickens are killed.” “We can produce so much of our food ourselves.” “There are so many wild edible plants around us.” “We depend on the Earth and its inherent magic and biology to survive.”
When I left, everyday life felt off: “Why are there so many chemicals in this piece of bread? In this cut of meat?” “We waste so much in urban living.” “Why are our cities so sterile, so devoid of any real life and connection and nature?” “Why do we depend on supermarkets for food?”
I tell people I went to farm school for a week and how it changed the way I buy and eat food. Folks will raise their eyebrows and nod in skeptical affirmation. “That’s lovely,” they’ll say. I don’t think they get it.
You needed to be there. You needed to be there, when Rick killed the young goat and we stood around its bloody carcass, hung upside down, as morning raindrops fell to the ground and mixed with its blood. It felt like a funeral. As we watched Rick tactfully skin the carcass, we all stood there, silently respecting the process and the life that was taken to feed us. But more importantly — to teach us.
You needed to be there at the dining table, to really experience how wonderful eating and drinking together with strangers can be without the interruption of technology.
You needed to be there, when the neighboring farmer talked about his vegetable garden as his pride and joy. You needed to be there to feel how excited he was to show us the deep hue of green on the kale leaves. And how the baby spinach shoots were more to him than just spinach. They represented vitality and hope and a future for him, his wife, and his newborn son Theodore. You needed to be there to witness the peach farmer and how he knew the name and personality of every single tree in his orchard, when he planted them, and their individual history. You needed to be there to bite into the fruit — fresh off the branches, completely pesticide-free. You needed to be there to feel the love Lora Lea had for her goats and see how she tenderly washed their udders and milked them, calling them by name and retreating into her workshop to create beautiful rinds of cheese to sustain her and her family.
You needed to be there to hear how giddy the beekeeper got when he handled the backyard hive. And when he saw a baby bee, trying to push herself out of a cell for the very first time, you needed to be there to see him cheer him on, nudging nearby worker bees to give the baby space to breathe and emerge into life in the colony.
You needed to be there to watch the chefs fashion jams, stews, breads, pasta, sauces, and infusions from the abundance of the land. You needed to be there to taste the feast and realize, “Wow, how rich life can be with just land, water, and seed.”
You needed to be there to feel the power of community as we all sat on the front porch, shelling walnuts, or picking grapes, staring at stars, or that one day we tediously separated a wagonload of spiny arugula leaves from their branches. You needed to be there at the dining table, to really experience how wonderful eating and drinking together with strangers can be without the interruption of technology.
And finally, you needed to be there to learn.
To learn how simple and beautiful living off the land can be. To learn how little we actually know about our food and how dependent we are on gigantic agricultural corporations and generic brands. To learn how small we are in the grand scheme of things and how much we need to take care of and nourish our land. To learn how out of touch we are in our daily lives with nature and people and how we need to build more communities and connect with other human beings in genuine, heartfelt ways.
And to learn — the true meaning of sustainability.