We stepped into a golden countryside dream of self-sufficiency when we moved to a 1920’s-era farmstead with no running water or electricity, rented by Sally and Jeff for $65 a month. Participants in the “back to nature” movement, they had migrated in 1970 from San Francisco to central Pennsylvania, home of Rodale and his center for organic gardening. The lush State promised plenty of open country, and a “laid-back,” leisurely, naturally healthy lifestyle for their growing family. The couple invited Tom, whom they had met through mutual friends at Susquehanna University, before we were married. We joined this sweetly primitive moment in 1971 and returned after the birth of our daughter inWe ‘72. It was a magical time of self-realization. There could be no other way for me, I thought. I was committed to living childlike and free on our planet, as the “Whole Earth Catalogue” suggested, and artists and writers, like Alicia Bay Laurel taught. The hopefulness of nature, my childhood dreams of trees, the scents of gardens and grass, the nurturing of plants: I had the o.k. now, the go-ahead from my peers, my husband and new friends, to “be” in the Earth. How it would turn out, from that moment, I couldn’t say.
Jeff and Tom built a tipi in a high field above the house with winter toppled saplings gathered from roadside woodlands. It was the guest house, where we occasionally sheltered with our baby girl. On cooler nights, we three slept in the front parlor in a Victorian bedstead, which kept company with a Franklin stove, a musty, antique burgundy, crushed velvet sofa, and a dusty pump organ; the children sometimes tempted its yellowed keys. Or, we used one of three upstairs bedrooms; the stovepipe through the ceiling warmed the room except on the coldest nights. With no central heating and plumbing, we used the farmhouse as it was intended. Even in by-gone days, the bed might have been carried down to the parlor during the worst of the winter, and the outhouse was still in active use.
Sally rose early to bake pies and bread in the wood stove, and the aroma of fruit, yeast, and browning crust woke us all. We shopped at Walnut Acres, the natural foods grocery at Penn’s Creek, for grains bagged in bulk, and peanut butter and flour in metal bins. Sally canned fruits, vegetables and beans for winter, and blue mason jars lined rustic shelves beside the spooky cellar stairs. Carrots and turnips were harvested until the ground froze solid. Up in the garden they were dug from under the snow and hay, long into the winter. Sliced fruits, spread out on drying racks in the south-facing upstairs bedroom never lasted long; the children ate them like candy.
Jeff’s passion was foraging wild plants, and we all made a study of Euell Gibbon’s, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Field Guide Edition.” Brian and Sunshine, 4 and 2, joined us in collecting prized morels in a derelict peach orchard, gently placing the wizened mushrooms in willow baskets. Sally’s baby, April Rain, had newly arrived by midwife, so mother and baby didn’t join us, as I recall. In from the damp, Sally threaded our brown, musky, wrinkled bounty over the wood burning kitchen stove to dry with the remaining red peppers from last summer’s harvest. Some mornings, she sautéed their savory goodness with field onions, and folded them into omelets.
We sloshed icy sweet water in galvanized buckets up the slope from the spring, to the back porch, to the kitchen. The elevated front porch, unsteady with decay, was merely a remnant of a time when walkers were waved to, and where visitors were welcomed. The rural road was now paved, and the home and road were well-hidden from each other by high weeds, Staghorn Sumac, and saplings. So, guests now entered the dirt lane at the mailbox, past the greying barn, the chicken coop, and garden, to the covered porch and kitchen.
Tom and I helped in the organic garden, mulching it high with hay. We picked snow peas and plump tomatoes in bare feet and baggy, faded Levis purchased at an Amish tag sale in town. Spicy violet leaves and winter cress from the field joined cultivated greens, peas, and tomatoes in the salad bowl. Meals were often enjoyed on the rustic porch, where we shared stories. At breakfast, we cozied up to fresh brown eggs, buckwheat pancakes slathered with “smashed,” (as little Brian said) elderberries, and Sally’s dense, brown bread, smeared with local honey. Lunch was always salad and bread, and maybe a fruit pie. Suppers were salad, rice or pasta, beans or soup. In the evening we’d linger on the porch or in the parlor, and read or chat. These were satisfying days.
Elmer was 85, charming and weathered. He drove his tractor across his fallow pastures, between the home where he had been living for many years, and the farmstead, to pay a friendly visit to his tenants, especially to Sally. Her tousled blonde hair, house dress, and homespun looks might have reminded him of his wife, and of the joys and hardships of living on that farm. Many years before, he had brought his young bride to this house, where they raised their children, and worked the farm. Sally hurriedly swept, hiding the crumbs behind the broom in the corner, when she heard the tractor approaching with her landlord.
Wild strawberries are plentiful in the field where the tipi stands. Fragraria vesca, baby-sized fruits, ripen quickly on the exposed creek bank, the tiny vines twisting and spreading delicate white rosettes. Our baby sits, her back against the blue sky, holds a single fruit to her lips with thumb and forefinger, and savors the wild delicacy. I’m crossed-legged in faded jeans. Tom lounges in the June sunshine. Such a moment of pure innocence might have lasted a lifetime.
Mary Ellen Gambutti has been writing since she got a handle on what words were for. She now writes about her life as an adopted Air Force daughter in the ’50’s and ’60’s, her search and reunion with her birth mother, her professional gardening career, a brain hemorrhage and long journey to recovery. Her non-fiction appears in the March issue of Gravel Magazine and Wildflower Muse. Mary Ellen and her husband and Bijon, Willis, have recently moved from PA to Sarasota, FL.