Arrowhead brings back Melville's farm in Pittsfield


PITTSFIELD -- "This ‘all' feeling ... you must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer's day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the all feeling," Herman Melville wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne.

When Melville lived here on Holmes Road, Hawthorne lived a wagon-ride up the road in Lenox. And Melville wrote to him in summer, in the breaks from getting in his hay.

Kristen Laney of Pittsfield, the new farm manager at Arrowhead, has been reading about Herman Melville's life as she tills his fields.

She feels his attachment to the land in his writing, and she relates to it. He spent summers here in the Berkshires at his uncle's farm, she said, and he loved the place. He understood farming as a relationship to the land.

"It's a shame he had to leave when he did," she said. "It's something he would have enjoyed continuing."

As she stands on the lawn beside his house, building a wooden roof for a moveable shelter for 23 hens and a rooster, she is continuing it for him.

On Tuesday, June 24, Laney will hold an open house and welcome visitors to learn about her new CSA farm at Arrowhead and to meet her chickens -- six varieties of heritage breed birds: Plymouth Barred Rock, Silver Speckled Wyandotte, Speckled Sussex, Chantecler, Buckeye and Buff Orpington.

"I did a lot of research," she said, wanting birds to be cold-hardy, good foragers, good layers and friendly.

She had originally considered keeping a backyard flock, she said, but she met Will Garrison, curator of the Berkshire Historical Society at Arrowhead (at the library -- she and Garrison have daughters the same age), and they began to talk about farming Herman Melville's land.

"Will and I have stood here for years looking at the fields in winter and wanting a farmer, and here she came," said Betsy Sherman, executive director at Arrowhead.

They have offered a 10-share CSA for this first summer and sold out the shares by early spring, she said.

They wanted to start small, Laney said, and to build a community, a group of people committed to the endeavor, each for their own reasons -- for fresh vegetables, because they have gardened with her, because they care about the property.

She has come to farming through friendship, a love of the feel of the earth and a love of good food.

"I love to cook, I love community -- I'm a Whole Foods kind of gal," she said. "I was the only kindergartner who didn't like McDonald's."

But she did not grow up with close contact with farms or gardens. Her great grandparents had a garden, she said, and some of her family grew a tomato here and there. She has a background in environmental science and geology, but she first got to know life on a farm after college.

She and her then-fiancé were looking for a place to get married, she said, and Holiday Brook Farm in Dalton let her work for a summer to pay for the wedding there. She had a summer in the fields, and she and her husband were married there, at the farm, with a reception in the barn. She lighted at the memory.

That summer brought her close friendships with the farmers who taught her.

Now she has her own garden, and last year she worked at Woven Roots Farm in Tyringham, where Jennier and Peter Salinetti do alomsot all the fam work by hand. They grow a tremendous amount of food in a small space, she said, and they showed her the possibilities for growing food without mechanics.

At Arrowhead, she plans to follow their lead in a fusion of traditional farming and permaculture. She has tilled this summer's field in strips, she said, not ploughing the whole field but leaving grass between the rows, to hold water in the soil and prevent erosion.

"Our vision here is not as much expanding as diversitying," she said.

She wants to tend the forest, to clear out invasive plants and put in understory berries, nut and fruit trees and perennials.

In time, she wants to use the property as an educational facility, she said, and to develop classes, to teach people what they can do with their own backyards.

Looking ahead she can imagine a green house, a barn space beyond the barn that now houses the museum gallery and shop, a demo garden and places for kids to play.

Arrowhead already has a program for toddlers on Mondays with Head Start, she said. More than 30 people came to the first program, and the kids enjoyed seeing food as plants. Some of them, too, have not spent time in a garden or on a farm before. She remembered seeing, in a documentary, kids who did not know what a potato looked like, and she wants to show the kids around her.

Her own daughter, Nora, now 5, has been in the fields since she was two months old, carried in a sling or a backpack.

And she has learned farming by watching people and by getting muddy with them.

"Farming is such a tangible thing," she said.

She likes the feeling that she works hard all day and has something to show for it at the end -- turned earth, a row of plants. Her new CSA has started with radishes, turnips, greens, and she has broccoli and peas on the way. By August, she plans to have eggs from the hens.

She wanted to start with a manageable size and scale -- to have food to eat this summer and plans to grow over the next several years.

It takes time to grow a fruit tree, she said.

"We can do a lot," she said, "to slow down and think about what our intentions are for our lives and what we produce."

If you go ...

What: Country/Craft Fair

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 21

Artist Michel Melle offers a sculpture workshop at 11 a.m.

What: Farm Day -- spend time with the chicks and the young plants at Melville's Farm

When: Tuesday, June 24,
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: Free all day

Where: Arrowhead,
780 Holmes Road, Pittsfield



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