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By John Piotti | Jan 11, 2018

Editor’s Note: With this column, we welcome back John Piotti to the pages of our newspaper. After several years writing a column, John took a self-described “sabbatical” in late 2016, necessitated by the demands of a new job in Washington, D.C.

I hadn’t been home to Maine since late August. In the last few months, I’ve traveled to California, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, New York, Virginia and Washington State — talking with farmers and policy-makers and foodies and business leaders. I’ve now made so many presentations about the work of American Farmland Trust that I no longer need notes — which is best, since I seldom have any time to prepare. On some trips, I flew from one presentation to the next like a twig caught in a spring torrent.

I’m on the road so much that my tiny apartment in Washington, D.C. — the one that costs more than twice what I’ve ever spent on a Maine mortgage — is empty more than it’s occupied. But still, I’m in D.C. enough to a get a feel for the place. I lived here briefly 35 years ago, and although the parts of the city that most tourists see look about the same, I’ve been struck by the new vibrancy within many of the residential neighborhoods — and by the quantity of residents in their 20s and 30s who work not in government, but in tech. It’s a young city full of gyms and softball teams and nail salons and the broadest variety of restaurants imaginable.

Friends from Maine ask me what it’s like to live in our nation’s capital during such interesting times — as if inside information comes with the apartment lease. My unsatisfying response is that I get my news from National Public Radio, just like most of them. Given my work, I do at times come across a tidbit about USDA or congressional action on the Farm Bill; but that’s about it. No one is feeding me salacious details about Congress or the administration. Perhaps I’m not attending the right dinner parties.

I’m now home, writing from the kitchen table at our Unity farmhouse. Susan and I keep two households. We spent a good chunk of last summer in Maine, and have been here since mid-December. Our daughter Anna flew back from Europe, where most recently she was working as a farm hand in Italy. And a few days before Christmas, our exhausted son John stepped off a bus in Augusta, another college semester behind him.

We’ve had fun over the last few weeks, reconnecting to each other and this life we’ve made.

We cut two trees at Andy and Gayle Reed’s farm, as we’ve been doing for over 20 years, from when Anna began at the preschool Gayle then ran from her home in Unity Village. With fir boughs we tipped that day, Susan made garlands to drape above the windows at my mother’s in Belfast, where more family would soon gather for several days. There were 20 of us for Christmas dinner, pushing the dining room to its limit.

Sadly, we didn’t play hockey on Christmas Day, a yearly tradition that never fails to produce legendary stories — and bruises — for those foolish enough to partake. With a blizzard ragging, we were unwilling to face the howling winds or the prospect of shoveling ‘The Muck’ before we could skate. Next year!

At home, we hauled a lot of wood, as needed, to keep a drafty old house habitable during the coldest early winter in years. And on the less frigid days, when the wind softened and the temperature rose above zero, we took to the woods behind our house on snowshoes and skis.

We played cards and board games by the fire. We huddled under blankets four abreast on the sofa to revisit the Harry Potter movies. And we had to watch the last Star Wars to get ready for our big outing to the Colonial to see the new release.

We ate and ate — and then ate some more. Big dinners were followed by amazing desserts, some made from new recipes and with special ingredients Anna brought back from Europe. (We need to find a domestic source of chestnut flour!) Between meals, we indulged in a dozen varieties of Christmas cookies, not yet all gone.

Yet our time together soon ends. Tomorrow morning, John returns to college, while Susan and I begin our return to Washington by way of Boston and New York City, where I have meetings. Anna alone remains in Maine — eagerly awaiting spring, when she will hear if she is accepted to graduate school.

Tonight, the kids perform in the Mount View Chamber Singers’ Reunion Concert. From our seats in the audience, Susan and I will undoubtedly remark on the visible changes in the performers, both those from our children’s era, and those from other eras — as we know almost all of them. (Indeed, many have been Susan’s patients.) On top of this, the audience will be full of old friends from throughout Waldo County whom we haven’t seen or spoken to in ages. The concert will be another homecoming of sorts.

Some people may wonder how I can be away from my office for so long. One answer is that, even though I’ve spent a lot of time with my family over the last few weeks, I’ve also done a lot of work, because technology now makes it possible to do so much work remotely.

But there is also another answer. I’m in the business of trying to advance sustainable agriculture, of working to protect farmland and support farm families. And to do that effectively, I need two things.

First, I need grounding. Washington isn’t farm country. As president of American Farmland Trust, I get around to farms all across the nation. (In future columns, I’ll convey some of the fascinating lessons I’m learning.) But there’s critical information that I can only glean from farmers in Maine, because they know me well enough to be completely frank, and because I know them well enough to put their comments into context.

Second, I need to be where I can think deeply. AFT is a unique and impressive organization, which has been able to have an outsized impact (protecting over 5 million acres of farmland and advancing environmentally sound farming practices on millions more) because it was for years the thought leader in conservation agriculture. But with the challenges that face our planet, AFT needs to do so much more.

I need to move AFT in a highly strategic and creative direction. That means that I need time to think and then write, as I generally don’t know what I’m thinking until I organize it on paper. And for me, there is no better place to write than home, where I’m away from the office bustle. Sure, the family at times distracts me; but on most winter days that I sit at the kitchen table to write, the only distraction is the need to feed the woodstove.

It’s become cliché that Washington, D.C., is a horrible place, a vile swamp, both literally and figuratively. But the truth is that Washington is not and has never been any more swampy than much of Maine, and that, except during the height of summer, it’s a wonderful place to live. And I for one don’t find government grotesque.

No, the reason I sometimes need to escape our nation’s capital is simply because the nature of my work and the leanings of my soul are so intertwined with being part of this community, where I can often skate on a pond at Christmastime, enjoy sparkling snow through much of the winter, and share good wishes with old friends at a choral concert — and where my biggest frustration when I’m writing at home is usually just the chill in the air.

John Piotti is president of American Farmland Trust, the pioneering national organization founded in 1980 that catalyzed the conservation agricultural movement. He splits his time between Unity and Washington, D.C.

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