Lessons from the Farm at Faller Road
Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash
It was sunny that afternoon, so I had to squint as I gazed upward toward the sky with the rest of my family, all of whom were also standing in the gravel driveway of the farm on Faller Road in East Canaan, Pennsylvania. We were scanning the skies for a hawk. My Uncle Murph’s farm was currently serving as the venue for his funeral service—the term “funeral service” being used in the loosest way possible, as it was a not-particularly-religious event held in honor of a not-particularly-religious man. Despite the Catholic beliefs held by the majority of my family members, we all agreed that a traditional Church service would not be befitting to celebrate the man we all knew as Murph. Just as the custom of sending a mourning family flowers was forgone in favor of donations made to the National Parks Service, so, too, were the hours spent in a funeral home and Church traded for an understated and simple period of reflection at my uncle’s very own farm.
The hawk for which we were currently waiting was part of a Native American funerary tradition that had been a component of the day’s proceedings. Through his ownership of a local pharmacy, my Uncle Murph had become friends with a patron of Native American descent, a man who apparently credited my uncle with helping him overcome a number of hardships in life. Upon hearing of Murph’s death, this man contacted Murph’s daughter, my cousin, and asked if he might be able to honor my uncle’s life through the practice of a ritual from his own culture. That was why, on that sunny day in late July, we gathered around as this friend of my uncle performed a traditional ceremony in honor of his death, one which included the low and mournful beating of a drum and singing in a language spoken by none of us gathered there. Despite the unfamiliarity of this ritual, I could tell that each and every family member was immediately immersed in the man’s performance, somehow understanding it on a level beyond spoken language. We had also been told that, according to the man’s system of faith, the spirit of my uncle lived on in spite of his death, and his presence that day would be signified by the flight of a hawk during the ceremony. Thus, we stood solemnly, eyes aimed at the heavens above, waiting to witness the soaring of a hawk over the fields and wilderness of the farm.
“Farm” was too technical a word, really, to describe the acres of land tucked in the northeastern corner of Pennsylvania that my uncle called home. Yes, there were many of the familiar features of the stereotypical American farm – a barn and silo, animal pens, rolling fields – but it lacked the structure and purpose associated with a farming lifestyle. Save for a handful of peach and apple trees and the few sparse rows of raspberry bushes on the back lawn, there was little agriculture involved in my uncle’s proceedings, and certainly no growth of true “crops” with the intention of surplus and sales. Animals, too, were generally only present on the farm sporadically. Pigs, chickens, and cows all came and went over the years; however, my uncle’s beloved dogs, trained for hunting and regularly allowed to race freely around the bountiful space, were a constant tenet of the farm.
A pharmacist by trade, Murph was perhaps not the most obvious candidate for a farm owner to someone who did not know him well. However, for those of us who did know the man, the reasons for his ownership of all that wide-opened country land was clear: he simply loved nature. In my younger years, I had no idea that my uncle was anything more than a farmer who was not particularly prolific in his cultivation of crops or keeping of livestock. Even upon learning that Uncle Murph was, in fact, a pharmacist, I steadfastly believed in his favorite joke that he only decided to study pharmaceutical science at Penn State because he heard the “pharm” part of the word and thought he was signing up to be a farmer. My uncle may have made his money by founding small pharmacies and selling them to corporations like Rite-Aid and then later running his own Blakeslee Pharmacy, but his true passion was nature. Owning the farm was what enabled him to pursue that passion, as it offered him a life immersed in the natural world and surrounded by the simple pleasures of fresh air, flora, and fauna.
This love of nature was passed along by my uncle to my cousins and me and fostered through the many hours we whiled away at that farm in Wayne County and in its surrounding woods. I have many fond memories of stomping around the creek in the woods while scouring the pebble-littered shores for crayfish and leading the goats – yes, there were, at one point, goats at the farm – on strolls around the broad and sprawling fields. In the process, I unexpectedly stumbled upon the knowledge that goats tend to behave very much like dogs, obediently following their human companions and always in search of affectionate attention. It was at my Uncle Murph’s farm that I first learned how to fish, admittedly falling into the pond by mistake once in the process, climbing out with immense embarrassment and sopping wet clothing suctioned to my skin.
As I grew to love nature through all of these experiences the way my uncle did, I came to respect it, as well. Uncle Murph did not want my cousins and me to romp around our environment uninformed, and so every weekend venture at the farm also served as a lesson in the natural world around us. The pond was not occupied simply by “fish,” but by “rainbow trout” and “yellow perch,” and the tree under which we sat to enjoy the shade was revealed to us as a weeping willow. Some lessons were learned the hard way, as was the case with my cousin’s and my first encounter with poison ivy. That experience, in which we learned to recognize the ivy, also doubled as a lesson in how to properly wash ourselves after coming into contact with the dreaded three-leafed plant in order to prevent an unwanted rash. My uncle further demonstrated by his own example how we as humans are responsible for cultivating a symbiotic relationship with the natural world; it is our privilege to make use of the bounties offered by the environment and our duty to care for its maintenance in return. Never did my Uncle Murph leave a natural area in a worse condition than that in which he found it, and those responsible for littering or any form of environmental disregard were truly lowly in his eyes.
He also seemed to avoid many of the everyday human tendencies that contributed to environmental harm. The damage caused by the fashion industry, for example, could in no way be attributed to his actions, as he dressed in the exact same flannels, wide-brimmed hats, and worn pair of boots for all eighteen years of my knowing him. Even when those boots began to fall apart at the seams, the solution was simply a healthy dose of duct tape. Perhaps this interdependent relationship my uncle maintained with nature could be best described by this story involving his own peach tree. I recall being at the farm one day when Uncle Murph retrieved a peach from the tree and immediately began to slice and eat it. I, being all of eight years old, was alarmed; in my house, to eat fruit purchased from the grocery store without washing it first was an unthinkable offense. As my uncle explained to me, though, this peach was different. He had grown it himself in a fully natural way, without attacking the fruit-giving tree with pesticides or other such human interference. As a result, the peaches it bore were admittedly less photogenic than their grocery store counterparts, but they need not be approached with soap and a fear of being poisoned. It was a firsthand example of how, if we take care of the Earth, we allow the Earth to take care of us right back.
From the perspective at the top floors of skyscrapers or behind the desks of busy downtown offices, I am sure that the current status of mankind’s relationship with nature seems like a battle of sorts which only the natural world or human advancement can win in the end. It is easy to seem distant, even opposed to nature when nature itself is out of sight and out of mind. In the mud puddles and occasionally occupied chicken coops at the farm, however, I learned the vital lesson of coexistence. While we as humans certainly value our independence, we can never be truly independent of nature; the human race and the environment we inhabit are intrinsically linked even more so than we may recognize. If we are hungry, we can turn to the life-giving natural presence of, say, a peach tree, and yet that tree can only offer us sustenance if we take proper care of it, letting it grow without our own excessive interference. When the environment is allowed to flourish, we are able to thrive.
This give-and-take relationship with nature was never more apparent to me than when romping around the greenery and inhaling that fresh countryside air at the farm, and it was in moments like these when I truly began to perceive myself and, indeed, all humans, as but one component of this vast natural world. My Uncle Murph understood this perhaps better than anyone. He truly treasured every minute spent in the great outdoors and every resource offered by the natural bounty of his land; inevitably, it was through this love of nature that he gained a sense of stewardship and the desire to protect it. Likewise, my own personal experiences in nature and especially at my uncle’s farm have given me the incessant need to care for the natural world through actions big and small. Every time I choose to thrift clothes rather than engage in the purchase of fast fashion or cast a vote for a candidate promising environmentalist action, my decisions are rooted in those days spent plucking raspberries from their bushes and running amok with the dogs at the farm. Thanks to my uncle, I know that each one of these decisions will ultimately impact the natural world in some way, and I must play my part in making sure that I generate the right kind of impact.
In the end, I never did end up seeing a hawk in the sky that day during my uncle’s service. Maybe I did in fact unwittingly lay eyes on a hawk and was unable to recognize it for what it was; despite the birdwatching excursion to New York state that my uncle had planned for my cousins and me in the middle of one particularly cold winter, I never did get too talented at identifying and differentiating the species. The best picture of a bird I had been able to take with my camera on that particular trip occurred when I snapped a shot of one of the framed pictures of an eagle that hung on a wall at the park’s visitors center. I found it didn’t really matter, though, whether or not I actually laid eyes on a hawk in the sky on that day standing in the sunshine on the gravel driveway of my uncle's farm. I didn’t need one singular bird to confirm what I already knew: that my uncle and, indeed, all of us gathered there, were one small component of an ecosystem far greater than the sum of its parts. Uncle Murph himself and the life he lived offered more than enough proof that, as humans, we are part of a vast and tightly interwoven natural world that connects all life on Earth. To live well, as he did, means that we both take the time to admire all that nature has to offer and make the time to protect those very resources we are fortunate enough to possess.