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Elegy for a Family Farm

Photos and Essay by Richard Quinney
Richard Quinney at his family farm near Elkhorn, 2017. Photo by TJ Lambert/Stages Photography
Richard Quinney at his family farm near Elkhorn, 2017. Photo by TJ Lambert/Stages Photography

For some people, there is only one story that carries them through an entire lifetime.

A long time ago, in a far-away place, John Quinney and Bridget O’Keefe sailed to the New World. Fleeing the potato famine in Ireland, they settled in Yonkers, New York, and married in 1850. They moved to Walworth County, Wisconsin, in 1859. 

After renting an acre or two of land south of Millard, in Sugar Creek Township, they bought the land a few miles south that would be the beginning of the 160-acre family farm. John and Bridget Quinney built a sturdy frame house on a hill overlooking the marsh. On the hillside, an orchard; at the bottom of the hill, a pond. They had five children: Katherine, Thomas, John, William, and Mary. My father, Floyd, was born to John and my grandmother Hattie Reynolds. He married Alice Holloway, and two sons were born, myself—Earl Richard—in 1934 and Ralph in 1936.

The family farm, my ancestral home, has been the center of my imagination, my consciousness, from the earliest time I can remember. I clearly recall my grandfather John, the aging son of John and Bridget, walking across the field from the old house. My father and I were standing east of the barn and watching as John slowly made his way toward us. I was startled into consciousness by my father’s exclamation, “Here comes the old man,” and I knew immediately that I was part of some special purpose in this world. I realized that I would remember this moment all of my life and tell others about it. I became, at that moment, the one who would be like the ancient mariner, the teller of tales to anyone who will listen.

My story is of the family farm, a place that has held all of the meaning and mystery I have needed for an entire lifetime.

This is the farm that was started in 1868 by my great-grandparents and farmed by the generations that followed. My father died in 1969, and my brother Ralph and I inherited the farm when our mother passed away in 1999. We tried to keep it going as a working farm, even as we moved to other places and pursued other ways of living.

Ralph once told me that, in the 1960s, he and my father talked about his staying on the farm and concluded that a small farm could not support a growing family. Ralph continued his education, eventually becoming a banker in a town two hours to the north. I cannot remember ever entertaining the idea of being a farmer; in fact, my father discouraged such a thing. I became a professor of sociology in universities far away from the farm.

As our father and mother neared what would be regarded as retirement age in most other occupations, they began to reduce the number of milking cows and other livestock on the farm. New requirements for milk production were being administered, and they avoided the changes that would be needed to upgrade the farm by selling off the herd.

My parents still continued their involvement in farm organizations and farm-related activities in the county. But, without the dairy herd to care for, they had time to travel more often and took a few trips to places beyond Wisconsin. They flew in airplanes for the first time, visiting my family and me in upstate New York, Kentucky, and New York City. I still recall the tears that came to my father’s eyes when he saw men sleeping in doorways as we walked the streets in the Bowery.

My father died at the farm on a November day, while walking between the machine shed and the tractor. My mother lived by herself in the farmhouse for the next thirty years. I moved back to the Midwest to be near the farm and my mother. My family and I drove regularly between our home in DeKalb, Illinois, and the farm. At the farmhouse, I held my mother’s hand during the last moments of her life.

After our mother died, Ralph said that we should sell the farm, perhaps subdivide it into parcels for the building of houses. My desire was to keep the farm intact and to improve the land through organic farming. Until we could come to a decision, we agreed to rent out the land, first to the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute and then to agronomist John Hall, who pastured some of the acres and grew organic crops on others. A portion of the farm eventually became home to a successful community-supported agriculture project even as the wetland and woodland became wilder with the passing years. 

Yet Ralph and I kept returning to a question for which there was no answer: What is a family farm if there is no family on the land to farm it?

Floyd Quinney, 1969

As my brother lay for days in a hospital bed, I whispered to him several times to be consoled by the memory of our farm, to remember how fortunate we had been to grow up there and to have the loving parents that we had. Looking back, I hope that these were comforting thoughts. He was losing his life and the farm that had formed him from the beginning of life.

For several years, I had been on the verge of asking Ralph, “How can we prepare for the future of the farm—or how can we prepare for its ending?” But to pose the questions to Ralph as his health declined was to confront impending death. We were avoiding the end of things. 

Certainly wills and trusts could provide for the inheritance of the farm, but decisions about its future were being passed to the next generation without any guidance. We who remain hope that decisions about the farm will be grounded in compassion for the land, for the legacy of our family. I am certain that Ralph wished, and prayed, for the best.

I do still. 

It’s long been my dream that the farm could be a demonstration of sustainable agriculture, that it could support a family. I had a vision of an oasis in a landscape that is becoming less natural, less agricultural, and more residential. Perhaps the acres of the farm, including the agricultural land and woodland and wetland, might become an open space, a natural area, for the public to enjoy. This land, our land, could be a place where children explore and have grand adventures, as I once did.

The physician’s assistant displays the x-ray image on the computer screen. My right hip joint presses against the socket; all the cartilage is gone. This leg has served me well. It has taken its share of stress and wear through the years, from kicking the pedal of the Oliver tractor when I was young to forcing a shovel deep into the ground while planting trees in my retirement years. When I was in first grade, my leg was broken in two places when I slipped on a frozen pond during recess. Several years ago, the leg was further weakened when I had a brain hemorrhage while cutting wild grape vines from the oak tree at the bend of the road at the farm. With advancing arthritis, a hip replacement became necessary. I hoped to be able to again walk the land. 

A sense of mortality is part of the wisdom of aging. You hope that as you grow older, you will come to terms with your own mortality and develop a greater perspective on the nature of all things, animate and inanimate. All things are made of atoms and particles and energies that have existed since the beginning of the universe, and perhaps before. Nothing is lost, and all things are in the process of becoming something else. The human body is a temporary entity that someday will become matter and energy, returning to the universe from which it came.

Where were you before you were born? Perhaps the human mind is not capable of knowing the true nature of existence. 

I recall one winter day, after a weekend at home from college, when I was ready to return to school. A huge storm had filled the driveway with snow during the night, and, the next morning, my car got stuck before reaching the road. My father maneuvered the tractor into place and used the log chain to pull the car free.

I shouted into the morning-cold air, “I’m leaving this God-forsaken place and I’m never coming back!”

I still regret saying those words to my father. I wish I could thank him for clearing the snow, for helping me leave home yet another time.

My brother might have become the farmer. He had the natural inclination for the work. I knew from an early age that I would become something other than a farmer. After each of us pursued different careers, after the farm became ours through inheritance, it was I who argued most strongly for the farm to be continued in some way. My desire was based on nostalgia for the farm, certainly, but I wanted also to prove how sustainable agriculture and organic farming could enrich the land, make it better. Yet, it was Ralph who had the expertise needed for managing the farm. I was left with the farm. But, without my brother to help, I am left with my dreams.

On Sunday afternoons, my brother and I would take our ice skates and walk through the fields to one of the frozen ponds on our farm or another farm. Neighbor kids often accompanied us. Sometimes we took our hockey sticks and a puck for playing a game or just knocking it across the ice. One afternoon, Ralph fell through the ice and vanished in the water below. We located his hand and pulled him back through the hole and onto the surface of the ice. His clothing froze to his body as we made our way home. The thought of losing sight of him under the snow-covered ice frightens me to this day.

We recognize the possibility of loss, even when we are young.

As we sat in the hospital room on the last night of his life, Ralph motioned to the nurse for paper to write on. With a black marker, he wrote, “I want to terminate life. I love everyone.”

He had been through several years of increasingly poor health. The operation for an aortic valve had been successful, but for years he suffered bouts of pneumonia that left him weak and debilitated. His family had cared for him over the several years of his various illnesses. Ralph knew that nothing more could be done to save his life. Still, what courage it took for him to write that note to us. I uttered my last words to him—that he was brave, that we were fortunate for our life together. Surrounded by family, Ralph had his life support removed by the doctor. His breathing became quiet, then ceased. 

My brother was right. The farm that we once knew is gone. Nothing in this world could bring it back as we knew and experienced it. The family farm essentially ended with the deaths of our father and mother. Only the memories can remain, Ralph would tell me. Keep the memories … and sell the farm.

The notion of possibility, of mystery, gives me a certain remove that would otherwise make the demise of the family farm a prospect too tragic to contemplate. I welcome the mystery, the uncertainty, of the land’s future and the place of the farm on the land. There is much that is beyond my vision and my control.

The farm is a lesson, and a practice, in letting go.

The winter was a time to think about the future, a time to plan for spring, when another year of farming would begin. The land was slumbering under the cover of snow, icicles grew longer each day along the eaves of the barn, and the cows went outside in the warmth of a sunny day. Early each morning, we dressed warmly and made our way to the barn to milk the cows. The radio on the shelf in the barn brought the daily news. We went to town most days, ordering baby chickens at the hatchery, purchasing seed corn at the mill, and watching and waiting as the blacksmith sharpened plowshares. I listened as my father and mother sat at the kitchen table making decisions about farming the land for another season. All these years later, I sit at the same table, now in my dining room in town, and contemplate what the next season might bring.

I could have gone back to the farm to live. Maybe I would have built an efficient little house overlooking the marsh. But I am in my eighties now, and I don’t think that I have the energy—or the advantage of years—to begin a new project and a new life on the farm. If I were to move from my home in the city, it would be to downsize, to move into an apartment, or a small house, perhaps in a town near the farm. These are uncertain times, mysterious and magnificent times.

On my thirteenth birthday, I wondered about the meaning of life and of death. In my imagination, I walked out of the driveway at the farm and went down the road to the Old Place of my ancestors, the original house of John and Bridget Quinney that overlooked the marsh. After a night of resting in the foundation where the house once stood, I entered a passageway that led into the marsh. For a year, through the seasons, I had several adventures with the creatures and spirits of the marsh. A voice in the marsh asked questions and spoke words of wisdom. For the rest of my life, the mystery of the marsh was my inspiration and the center of my spiritual life.

I write to think about how I am living. The writing becomes part of the living. This form of life I learned growing up on the farm. Born any other place, any other time, I would have become a different person. My life is that of a farmer who plows and tills with pen and ink rather than with horse and tractor. My hours are of solitude, looking to the far horizon as I go back and forth in the field. The words that come to me are more easily committed to paper than spoken. I am very much myself when I am by myself. I am free of expectation, and my thoughts and feelings are rendered without judgment. Oh, how I would like to explore the marsh and the woodlands again on a Sunday afternoon.

The glaciers, and the weathering after the glaciers with drift and outwash, made these few acres that comprise the agricultural land as well as the wooded highlands and lowland ponds and marshes. Others, the native peoples, were on this land before we settlers from the old country claimed it. We imprinted the land with the artifacts of our livelihoods. The millions and billions of years before human habitation, before our human existence, are beyond our daily comprehension. Still, we attempt to hold on to what we think of as ours through a series of deeds and mortgages over a mere 150 years.

Someday all of this will return to what it was in the beginning. Planet Earth will fly away. We humans will return to matter and energy in the things and forces that our science calls protons, neutrons, quarks, dark matter. Our lives in human form, as individuals, are very brief. Rather than death, let us think of our individual ending as being a return to origination. We are of the universe, or what we conceive to be a universe. In truth, we don’t have a clue, for a clue must come from the mind’s ability to know ultimate reality. We are much more than we conventionally conceive; we are everything. There is nothing to lose. And maybe there is a memory of us on the edges of the universe.

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. This dear little family folds itself into bed and whispers a few words into the night. In the morning, they will rise to do the chores and then gather around the kitchen table for breakfast. Work and play will follow the seasons. Each day will end with another night. I pray the Lord my soul to take

Alice Quinney, 1999

I never felt as close to the farm or as removed from it as I did on a wintry morning at LaGuardia Airport. My parents had been visiting us in New York, and as we were bidding farewell, my father took my hand in his—I cannot recall this gesture with my father before that morning—and said goodbye. I was wearing my smooth yellowish-brown leather jacket, which I realized separated me even further from my father, as he and my mother were waiting for the flight that would take them back to the farm. That was the last time I saw my father alive. He must have known that he had only a few more days to live. At the funeral, I would not look into the casket, wanting instead to imagine him still holding my hand.

We sold the family farm to a neighbor during the spring of 2017. I was not, however, able to completely let it go. Not after a lifetime of knowing that the farm and I are one. My dream had been to keep the family farm as a monument to the generations that made it. Not being able to keep the farm in the family, to preserve it, I had a surveyor mark and secure a five-acre portion of the farm that includes the Old Place, the pond and the grove of trees at the bottom of the hill, and the hill with prairie flowers and grasses. This parcel of land will be a nature preserve and wayside park at the side of Quinney Road in Sugar Creek Township.

This Old Place where my great-grandparents settled in 1868, a few years after fleeing the famine in Ireland, now remains for future generations to cherish, to honor the lives of our ancestors, and for anyone who passes by to appreciate and to explore. And family descendants, those of the future generations, will know this place as the source of their beginning in the new world. May they find spiritual sustenance and happiness in these few acres of land made sacred by their attention and meditation. And may the Old Place be for the sustenance of all people who seek repose, reflection, and renewal. Let this be our country churchyard.

When you have been born on a farm—and have lived in the shadow of the Old Place—your life has been uniquely shaped. For a lifetime you have walked the fields and explored the woods and wetlands. You have ridden the tractor back and forth in the fields, looking to the far horizon. At night, after all the chores have been done, you have listened to the soft voices of your mother and father and brother as the day ends and the night of sleep is about to begin. You have known neighbors and seen the lights in their windows across the fields. You have heard the wind blowing through the trees that surround the farmhouse. In winter, a blanket of snow has covered the land and the trees have dotted the landscape. All of this has stayed in your mind—in your imagination and your soul—the whole of your life. You will tell the story of this farm and the generations that made it. This will be your elegy written for a family farm. 

A version of this essay appears in the online journal Qualitative Inquiry.
 
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Richard Quinney is author of several books of autobiographical writing and photography, including A Lifetime Burning, Where Yet the Sweet Birds Sing, Of Time and Place, Things Once Seen, Sketches: Childhood Remembered.

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