Ever contemplated “chucking it all” and moving to a farm? Shrugging off the heavy mantle of living and working in the corporate world in order to get back to the earth sounds wonderfully noble and romantic, allowing you to glory in the knowledge that you’re providing healthy food for yourself and your neighbors. I know people who have done this. They knew they were in for a work schedule unlike anything they’d known in the nine-to-five world. They just didn’t anticipate how punishing it would be.
Ellyn Gaydos chronicles three years of active farm work in Pig Years (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY 2022), a poetic, insightful memoir that skillfully balances her personal growth with an honest account of the toil and turmoil of farm life. By the time the book begins, in the spring of 2017, she was no stranger to the challenges: At 18 she worked on a beef and dairy farm; the following year, on a berry farm. From there she went to another dairy farm, then to a vegetable farm. But, as Pig Years begins, “I had just turned twenty-four and fallen deeply in love, I had little money, was a transient worker, and was increasingly afflicted with the desire to have a child. All of this became like a conversation with the fields, animals, and various towns that surrounded me.”
I’m no fan of the type of memoir in which an eager diarist with little self-awareness chronicles an egocentric journey through what usually turns out to be the scorn of an unsympathetic world. This is emphatically not that kind of book. There’s no hand-wringing; likewise, there’s no feel-good cliché-mongering or strident preaching. But it is a story of growth and revelation. Gaydos tells it in a deceptively simple, matter-of-fact manner, her first-person perspective giving a sense of immediacy to the story.
Or stories, really, as the three years chronicled here offer a succession of discoveries and challenges. She lives and works in and around New Lebanon, NY, home of the Lebanon Valley Speedway, a half-mile oval track that’s been in its noisy business for 70 years. “Seasonally, at the summer town board meetings,” she writes, “weekenders and second-home owners, mixed amongst the trailer park residents, farmers, hippies, and senior citizens, make an appeal to reduce operations at the track and make it quieter in town, but they never win. Local sympathy remains overwhelmingly with the speedway.” Otherwise, the town, once home to the Shakers, is now a rural community of just over 2,200 people.
It’s the summer of 2017 as the story proper opens, and Gaydos is splitting her work time between a pig farm and a vegetable farm, the latter run by two friends, Ethan and Sarah, who live with Gaydos at a Sufi commune (since closed) on the grounds of what had been the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village. Although she describes meals there and glances at other commune residents, such proximity doesn’t inspire her to share their beliefs. “I overheard some of them talking about a willow tree as if it were a person,” she writes. “Most of the commune members never remember me, due to either old age or more pressing spiritual concerns.” And she concludes, simply, “As on the other farms, what I feel on Mount Lebanon is the blunt power of nature, nothing more or less.”
That’s a key to her story, because it’s nature in its rawest form, ungarbed in metaphor, that informs her processes and decisions. She is in service to the seasons, and seems to mirror the phenomena of growth and retreat. And even then it’s not so simple. She’s newly in love at the start of that summer, with a painter who lives in New York City. She loves him, she admits, “but I am promised to farming, I choose it over him every time. It is not like choosing between two people. How could you trade the sky, the water, or the mountains for a single heart? Instead I imagine the earth opening to take me into its fold. It is beyond personhood.”
The view of courtship can get jaded when working with livestock. Sows at the pig farm need breeding, and it’s not a romantic affair. Neither is caring for small children who aren’t your own, another job that Gaydos takes on in order to finance a new windshield. The images of birth and growth – both vegetative and mammalian – thus presented aren’t meant to dismay but rather to present a broader perspective than our sheltered urban lives allow.
Accessories to growth also are contrasted. A spring that once defined New Lebanon as a place of healing water has lost much of its luster, although “blessed water, wine of the gods is carved on the rock that once provided a statelier fountain. The abandonment of pretense at the spring echoes through the rest of New Lebanon,” and quickly is compared to the Gallup Inn, a different kind of watering hole. Here the locals gather for refreshment and gossip. Here you meet, among other lively characters, a building manager who seems to have been romanced by a crow.
It’s not enough that Gaydos spends part of her work time at a pig farm: she’s also raising two of her own, named Brother Sun and Sister Moon, in homage to the Zeffirelli film that looks at the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. Given the state of near-poverty in which Gaydos and associates live, it’s an inspired bit of nomenclature. And it’s a clue to the literate undercurrents of this book. Her classical education peeks through the seemingly casual prose. None of the pigs we meet are meant to be purely pets, which expectation you’d better allow at the outset, as the descriptions throughout are detailed and honest.
Gaydos’s second summer is spent in Barre, Vermont, her growing-up state, a move made out of homesickness. Here she settles into a woodside cabin but, again, is witness to small-town life. “Everyone who makes their home in the now depressed town itself (once rich off the granite quarries), instead of on the network of dirt roads and farms, lives in peeling Victorian houses or Victorian houses cut into apartments. One has a Confederate flag in front of it. On Main Street, there are empty storefronts and a vape shop, bagel store, sub shop, movie theater, and Bada Bing, one of the state’s only strip clubs.”
She’s back in New Lebanon for the third and final year of this saga. By now, we’re anticipating the seasonal cycles and the growth they bring, but there are more surprises – which is a certainty in the farming life. There is nature writing galore to enjoy in this superbly crafted book, on a par with Aldo Leopold and Annie Dillard. And there are lively portraits of humans, too: Graham, her boyfriend, who becomes something of a surrogate for us as he’s drawn deeper into farm life; Steve and Genevieve, Vermont neighbors who offer a literate sanctuary; the crowd at the Columbia County Fair and New Lebanon’s Gallup Inn; and, especially, an itinerant farmhand named Luke, whose compelling story reminds us how easily the farming life can go wrong. The story ends at the beginning of another spring, but with the certainty that those essential cycles will go on.
* * *
I meet Ellyn Gaydos at a diner in New Lebanon. She has returned to live in this town and still does farm work, although since she finished the book she has married (Graham, of course) and given birth to their daughter, so her time is divided. “I’m looking at daycares around here,” she says, “but they have a two-year waiting list.” She and her nine-month-old, Bruna, sit across from me at Jimmy D’s. The diner has been here for thirty years. Our light late-afternoon lunch is accompanied by a soundtrack of classic pop.
Gaydos had been recently living in nearby Brainard, “renting a place on 40 acres, and I had pigs and chickens at my house, but I’ve just moved to town, and now I’m on a two-acre plot. But I think I’d like to get a few chickens.” Ongoing farm work makes her less inclined to grow vegetables on her own property, “but maybe I’ll plant some lilacs and call it a day.”
She is from Essex Junction, Vermont, “which is near Burlington, and I worked on farms around northern and central parts of the state. But my first real job was working for a state park. We had a big garden there and I was completely broke, so I was eating lots of the vegetables we grew. And then I got my first farm job when I was 18. I wanted to work outside, so I got a job with a nice family that had a beef farm and grew vegetables. I came to New Lebanon in 2015, thinking I was going to work for one season and then go back, but I got sucked in and just stayed.”
Pig Years grew out of the diaries she kept while working every day, “and people always ask, ‘How were you able to write while you were working so much?’ I tell them it wasn’t hard – I would write the diary in the mornings, or after dinner, or before I went to bed. But I didn’t start writing it with the purpose of making it into a book.”
Her ambition was to be a journalist. “I originally wanted a staff job at a newspaper, but I graduated from college during the recession, so that was the worst time to be looking. But if I had gotten a job like that, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do so much creative writing. And I had already been farming and really loved it, so I just kept on doing that. Then I got approached by an agent who asked if I’d ever want to write a book. I’d already been writing little stories about pigs and stuff, so I thought it might work.”
By the end of the time-span covered in Pig Years, “I realized that I was writing a book. But for most of it, I had to look back at the diaries.
“Someone said the other day that it reminded her of the book Holy the Firm, by Annie Dillard.” That 1977 book was written while the author lived on Lummi Island, off the coast of Washington State, and its aim was to capture life on the island over a three-day period – although it took Dillard 14 months to complete the 66-page manuscript. “It’s based on thousands of pages of her diary, but she whittled it down to a book that’s less than a hundred pages. It’s really good.”
Gaydos has a quiet, almost self-effacing charm, which explains how she’s able to get people to open up to her. But she’s also fiercely literate. “I went to Hampshire College in Massachusetts for my undergrad degree, and I studied literary journalism there. For my thesis – during your last year at the school, you hardly take any classes and just work on your thesis – I rode around with long-haul truck drivers. I worked with professor Michael Lesy, who’s best known for his book Wisconsin Death Trip.” (That’s a singular piece of journalism that describes strange and often unpleasant events that occurred around Jackson County, Wisconsin between 1885 and 1910, accompanied by contemporaneous newspaper articles and historic photographs by Charles Van Schaick.) “Then I ended up getting an MFA from Columbia.”
Her taste in reading runs to “flowery and pretty writing,” as she puts it. “I love Annie Dillard – she and James Agee both have this spiritual nature thing going on that I like. And I went through an extreme Thomas Pynchon phase. I like conspiratorial, complex novels like his. One of my other big projects was writing about microchip manufacturing at this factory in Essex, which seemed to resonate with Pynchon’s corporate-evil themes.”
Who else does she like? “There are about a million. My sister got me into A.S. Byatt recently, and I will join the ranks of the many people who love George Eliot. I like Joan Didion. And I read a really good novel by Pierre Michon recently.”
Even with a successful book to her credit, Gaydos finds the prospect of writing a little daunting. “When you’re used to having a job with hourly pay,” she reasons, “then becoming a writer is scary. I mean, in farming, the pay is terrible, but at least you have some idea what you’re going to get. But it’s hard to plan year-to-year with writing. I got paid for this book – but I’m not going to get money for another book for years. Many of my classmates already have moved on to other stuff because it’s so hard to be a writer.
“I’m working on an article for Harper’s right now, but I don’t think I’m supposed to talk about it yet. I do have a few ideas for other books I might want to write. I don’t think any of them will have me in them as a central character so much – I would love to write less about myself. But it definitely has to have living people in it, because I love meeting people and getting to know their characters. But it’ll probably take a while for the next book.”
(B. A. Nilsson, 12/1/2022)