Our Past Holds Key for a Greener Future
Photos courtesy of The Sheffield Historical Society
There was a time in our past when we needed each other.
From the first settlement in Plymouth until the introduction of the telegraph and railroads, there was an interdependent economic glue that bound communities together. People, no matter where they settled, had to grow their own food. Agriculture was the primary economic activity of the self-contained and self-reliant villages and towns of New England.
Every stich that made up the everyday fabric of existence was woven by these industrious people with their own hands. People built their homes from trees locally logged. They made their own clothing and shoes from wool, flax and leather derived from their animals. They worked their land with primitive hand tools, growing all their own vegetables, fruits, grains and hay for the animals they raised.
Those animals—sheep, cows, goats and chickens—were pastured on acreage utilized by everyone, called the Commons. At night, the various animals were returned to safe shelters adjacent to the individual owners’ homes. Wool was sheared and spun by hand and then sewn into clothing.
Cows were milked, and butter was made. Goats were used to browse and clear shrubby land, to make way for pasture. Later in their lives, cows and goats would be slaughtered for meat and leather. Chickens were free-range, and provided eggs and meat. Pigs were allowed to roam the forest where they rooted, grubbed and ate acorns, and were eventually consumed for meat.
Women worked very hard keeping the household together: tending vegetable and fruit gardens, cooking and preserving the harvest, making and mending clothing, raising the children, and countless other daily tasks. Men cleared the land, built the houses and outbuildings, established pastures, cultivated grain and hay fields. They hunted for squirrels, turkey, bear and deer, and fished. Later on they built mills on the rivers and streams to grind the barley, wheat, corn and rye that they grew.
These were very busy people. They needed each other and they survived and thrived. There was a tribal quality in these villages made up of the relationships within and between farm families—individuals were part of a larger community, whose needs were fulfilled by all members working for the greater good.
The early colonists performed these tasks so well that by the mid-17th century they were exporting many of these products in the form of surpluses back to England, where so many of them had come from.
Slowly but surely, life changed for those early Americans. The technological innovations of the 19th century began to profoundly impact village life. The steam engine and industrialized factory work opened up, or broke down, the bonds of self-contained communities—with trains came connections to other towns and villages and perceived work opportunities. The arrival of the telegraph brought the whole country into simultaneous communication. These changes radically altered the psychological and physical realities of village life. Farmers, like those in my hometown of Sheffield, Massachusetts, changed from general production entities who grew a little bit of everything, bartering and selling their surpluses, and instead began to specialize in milk production.
With the emphasis shifting from barter to paper money—which one now needed to pay taxes, for example— direct linkages between people and what they immediately needed from their neighbors were broken. Here comes modernity and the consumer culture values that it brings. We went from being the primary producers of all that we needed to becoming all-around consumers. Rather than producing what we needed for survival, we became money-making jobbers, rapidly losing connections to the land and to our neighbors, whom we no longer depended upon.
Supermarkets, malls, movie theaters and out-of-town work replace the everyday connections and interactions that were intrinsic to New England village life. Although these connections have completely unraveled, good things are starting to come around again, with the recent resurgence of local organic farming, infused with ecological and community-minded values.
There is no turning back the clock, but the craving to re-establish our connections with the food that we eat and how we make our living is fundamental to a healthy, vibrant community.
Part 2: The Way Forward, coming soon After graduating in 1981 from the University of California, Santa Cruz, Ted and his then-wife, Anne Banks, began organic market farming in Hillsdale, New York, growing baby vegetables and baby greens, they blazing a trail to Boston and Manhattan. Dobson introduced mesclun and arugula to some of the region’s most innovative chefs, with whom he continues to work today, growing on his 15-acre Equinox Farm, in Sheffield, Massachusetts.