Gimme the Dirt On New York Country Life
On my first night at college in Indiana, I was asked if I wanted to go cow tipping. The (now lifelong) friend heard I was from New York and, and like most people from the midwest, he made the mistake of thinking the City was my home. He, along with many of the Midwestern people I met, imagined me to be a hardened city girl, transplanted to the flat land of corn and cows, confused by the rural landscape surrounding my college town. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I took him up on his offer, and headed out to a pasture not far outside of town with a group of other college kids. Once there, I called his bluff, and watched as his face fell in disappointment when he realized I knew that cow tipping was a myth. The joke was on him! We still laugh about it to this day.
The Hudson River flows south from Lake Tear of the Clouds in the Adirondacks and then empties its freshness into the salinity of the Atlantic Ocean. The Hudson is a tidal river, with the tides of the ocean pushing saltwater sometimes 100 miles north against its southerly current. As the river flows south to New York City, people from the city flow north into the Hudson Valley, the inroad to the great agricultural and scenic expanse that comprises the rest of New York State. When Chuck Schumer was a newly-elected senator he, by his own admission, had little thought that the largest industry in New York outside of the Big Apple was agriculture. His view of his home state was from the Empire State Building, not from the edge of a pasture filled with cows.
The country life that starts just north of the city began for me in High Falls, a hamlet known by locals as “The Center of the Universe.” It’s known to more urban folks as the town in which director Elia Kazan had a summer house, and where he filmed Splendor in the Grass. High Falls is the place early Modernist painter Marc Chagall lived for a few years in the 1940s. I also feel the need to mention one of my favorite High Fallonians, the naturalist John Burroughs, who taught school in the brick schoolhouse at the top of School Hill Road. In his book The Summit of the Years Burroughs wrote of his country life:
“I have loved the feel of the grass under my feet, and the sound of the running streams by my side. The hum of the wind in the tree-tops has always been good music to me, and the face of the fields has often comforted me…”
This is why I love Burroughs: because his writing evokes the spirit that still whispers through these mountains.
Growing up at the foot of the Catskill Mountains seems now like I almost imagined it. The road where the rambling, historic stone house of my childhood sits was winding, unpaved dirt back then. I learned to ride my bike taking jaunts to our little general store, The Town Pantry, where the owner, Dutch, sold penny candies from large bins, and where a real pickle barrel stood next to the counter. With a nickel in my pocket, I felt rich: that nickel meant five pieces of candy, and I could choose between Bazooka bubble gum, wax lips, juice-filled wax straws, Pixie Stix, sour or hot balls, Mary Janes, or a paper of candy dots. On the way there and back I knew which houses I needed to pass quickly because there were biting dogs who chased little kids on bicycles. My older siblings pedaled so much faster, and I learned pretty young that they weren’t going to wait. The other place we rode our bikes was to the swimming hole in Alligerville where, on a beastly hot day, we had the place all to ourselves.
My parents were both country folk at heart. They grew up in different Orange County towns where they knew the farmers who provided their meat, vegetables, eggs and milk. Their respect for farming and food was passed on to me and my three siblings over supper when their professional obligations were done for the day. We learned about things like the Black Dirt of Pine Island and the Polish-speaking families who grew those famous onions there. We had a large vegetable garden filled with everything we’d need to freeze or can to get us through the winter. We had a grape arbor, a gigantic raspberry patch, and apple and pear trees. We collected hickory and black walnuts, and snipped spring onions to season supper. We found fraise de bois, those tiny strawberries, growing in our field, and made pies with them. The trendy term for it now is “foraging”, but back then we just went out hunting for edible treasures. It sounds as if I grew up in the 1860s, but it was the good old 1970s. Food was hardly scarce, but my parents were passionate about growing their own. I learned to eat seasonally from my youth and to preserve the rest. These are habits that have followed me to adulthood.
As the saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Now, I live and work on a farm that’s just around the corner from where I grew up. In many ways, my adult life isn’t all that different from my childhood. I don’t climb trees to read a good book anymore or hide under the grape arbor to escape chores – tempting though it may be – but this country life has a rhythm that’s familiar and comfortable; it’s a life I know. The traditions and connections to rural life are sometimes overlooked by some who transplant themselves here, and I acknowledge that life in the country has some drawbacks. As one newcomer once told me, “There just aren’t amenities like we’ve got in the city!” No, there aren’t. We can’t call for take-out in the wee hours after a calf has been born or catch a cab to the office. But to Barton and me, the trade-offs are worth it. The food we eat when we are famished after a long evening of farm work is often a handful of homemade cheese curds made from milk fresh from our cows, and the tractor rides to the “office” – our hay fields – provide better views than a boutique hotel. The hard work we put in every day takes a toll on our bodies, but we’ve found that the best cure for aching muscles is a comfy chair on the front porch, overlooking the pasture where our cows keep very good company. Truth be told, we don’t care much for going out, because we’ve got the most delicious food, the best entertainment, and the greatest peace right here on this farm.
Some might say our life is overly simple, unsophisticated or unworldly. Those assumptions matter little to us, and we don’t even try to argue because we know the truth: that our lives here on this farm, surrounded by all the splendor of its natural beauty, make us wealthier than any amount of money in the bank. We are overflowing with an abundance of all the things that matter. I think I’ll leave it to Burroughs since his way with words captures exactly how we feel each day (Burroughs, Leaf and Tendril, 1908):
“To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter…to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life.”
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Rebecca Collins Brooks is a writer and farmstead cheesemaker on Hilltop Farm in Accord, NY. She is the creator and founder of The Meeting of the Milkmaids, a gathering of women working in the cheese and dairy industry. In addition to a small herd of dairy cows, she and her husband Barton raise Wagyu beef, selling meat to customers directly off the farm. Her best friends are two terriers, Winston and Molly; and Sylvie, a truly brilliant barn cat. You can visit the farm by appointment to see where truly good food is grown.