Updated: Nov 7
Asst. A&E Editor
Being the son of a professor of biology and botany, I couldn't help but court the idea of studying the sciences. After graduating from the URI Master Gardener program in 2017, followed by completing the Tree Stewardship program offered by the Rhode Island Tree Council, I thought a logical next step in my education should be to work on a farm and get my hands dirty, literally.
For those unfamiliar with what WWOOFing is, here’s a description of the practice from the organization’s website: "Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a worldwide movement to link visitors (WWOOFers) with organic farmers, promote a cultural and educational exchange, and build a global community conscious of ecological farming and sustainability practices.” Once an aspiring WWOOFer chooses a farm of their liking and gets connected to its host, said WWOOFer will work out the logistics and, after arriving via car or plane, will: "participate in the daily life of your host, help on the farm, learn about sustainability, experience a new culture and meet new people, and receive free room and board during your stay." Sounds like fun, right?
As a former WWOOFer, my experience was a bit different. I will provide not a linear narrative, but an anecdotal account of my two-week stay at an undisclosed farm in New Haven, Vermont back in September of 2017.
According to my AAA trip planner, the drive from North Scituate, Rhode Island to New Haven, Vermont would take almost five hours. After corresponding with the owner of the farm, Jennifer (a pseudonym) and packing more than I needed, I was ready to go. It's worth noting that I had initially planned on staying for a couple of months, but it would soon be made abundantly clear that it was just not in cards for me.
I didn't want to show up empty handed, so I made a stop at the New Hampshire State liquor store. After securing a bottle of Banfi Classico and a little something for myself, I was back on the road. I'll spare the reader a long-winded description of how beautiful and scenic the drive through Vermont was. But in case you're wondering, it was indeed pleasant and picturesque.
The town of New Haven reminded me a bit of when I lived in Farmington, Maine while attending the Maine School of Masonry and thereafter UMF (University of Maine at Farmington) as a one semester English major. It was larger than Farmington but still small enough to not get lost while driving through. It was also, I think, more cultured and not as heavy on the gun-racks in the back of the truck type town. I pulled into the farm's parking lot around 3 p.m. and, after stretching my legs from the long voyage, I took in my surroundings. The property was extensive, housing: your quintessential red barn, a smaller barn vertical to it, a greenhouse, a wellness-center for yoga and martial arts classes, an indoor farm stand, a stage for events, an apiary and finally the family's main house. After exchanging pleasantries with Jennifer, she gave me the grand tour and showed me to my lodgings. But before this, I presented her with my carefully procured thank-you gift. Jennifer seemed noticeably taken aback by this. I knew she drank from the bottles lying about the kitchen, but maybe Chianti just didn't agree with her. Either way, it was the thought that mattered and I didn't read any further into it.
My lodgings turned out to be a room within the aforesaid quintessential red barn that had been converted into a bedroom - sort of. The room, such as it was, consisted of a twin sized bed, a desk lamp, a black wooden chest and a night stand. There was, however, no heat source or plumbing, which meant I had to use the family's bathroom inside the main house for toilet access and showering (I brushed my teeth in my car). Using the bathroom in their home meant that I would sporadically be required to walk into their home unannounced and, being a night owl, made this even more awkward. I dreaded doing this, mostly at night, so I did it as infrequently as possible, often taking advantage of their vast property to carry out my business. I think I was more uncomfortable by this arrangement than they were. I knew I wasn’t their first WWOOFer, and Jennifer was a former WWOOFer herself. Maybe I'm just distrustful of my fellow man, but being at ease with a stranger waltzing into your home - day or night - especially with a child asleep upstairs, troubled me. My arrival coincided with the return of a couple who had just made their first pilgrimage to Mecca. It turns out they lived in a trailer that was situated behind the barn. I was beginning to feel like I was going to live my next few months in a neo-hippy commune.
Work on the farm was what I expected it would be: picking vegetables, weeding, helping out at the farm stand, cutting edible mushrooms (not the magical kind), various odd jobs, etc. I also took care of the chickens, and so my experience growing up with flocks of them at my father's home finally came in handy. Having chickens roosting in the barn also meant hearing chickens cluck at night; add this to the miscellaneous noises one hears while sleeping in a barn during the frigid temperatures of a Fall Vermont night, and you get the very opposite of a good night's sleep. I would dress for bed like I would dress while shoveling snow during a blizzard in Rhode Island. It was that cold.
I kept my perishable items in a refrigerator located in the smaller barn across from the one I slept in. My cheese and milk fit snuggly up against a severed pig’s head that had been stored there previously. I assumed they harvested the body for meat, and for some reason or another, decided to keep its head. There wasn’t much that could have phased me at that point, so something as innocuous as a pig's head had little to no effect on me.
Dinner would be held in their living room and sometimes visitors, who seemed to appear out of nowhere, would join us. Eventually I would bump into these people while working on the farm. I'm not sure if they were paid help, friends of the family or both. In time, I became friendly with the couple who lived in the trailer. This friendship proved to be vital in regards to learning about my host and the ins and outs of the farm.
One night, while sampling Vermont's fine craft beer selection at a popular restaurant in town, I was approached by a pair of French Canadians from Montreal (New Haven is only a few hours away). They asked me if I would like to join them at their outside table. I obliged and, along with their other companions, engaged in hours of conversation that I've long forgotten. The couple and their companions were - if memory serves - loud, snobbish and ready to insult anyone who wasn't French Canadian. After consuming an inordinate amount of beer and with the liquor getting the better of my comrades, the couple asked if I would like to return to their hotel room for three-way sex. As flattered as I was by their generous and bohemian offer, I declined. I would have expected an offer like this if I was dining with a young Parisian couple, but French Canadian?
I spent the following morning weeding. This turned out to be a natural remedy for my then heavy head. One day, while cleaning out the smaller barn, I saw the family's outdoor cat clawing away at a baby mouse. I knew cats liked to play with their kill, but that didn’t mean I was going to stand by and do nothing. I shooed the cat away and rescued the mouse. I tried to find his family in the barn but to no avail. So, I did the next best thing and decided to adopt him. I christened him Charlie and made a home for him in the enormous black wooden chest in my bedroom. I researched online about nursing baby mice and tried to get him to eat and drink but he was having difficulty. I called the local Veterinarian one day out of concern for Charlie, who appeared gravely injured from his encounter with the cat. The receptionist on the line asked what animal I wanted to bring in and I responded that it was a mouse who was injured and refusing sustenance. I heard her laugh on the other end and she said they did not treat mice. I grew enraged over her indifference to this poor suffering creature. It pained me further to think that maybe I should have just let nature take its course instead of prolonging his suffering.
Two days later, I became embroiled in a dispute with a couple locals on the street and, without going into detail, ended with my being placed in the back of a police cruiser. It's strange how locals seem to love the money tourists sink into their town but harbor no love for the tourists themselves.
About two-weeks in, Jennifer approached me while I was weeding (I did a lot of this) and to the best of memory, said "You're too introverted. I think you may be better off working at a farm owned by some old guy who lives alone." I couldn't help but laugh at this. I never considered myself an introvert, at least not then. But I read between the lines and the following morning, after politely thanking the family for hosting me, I packed my bags and hit the road. I spent my final night in a hotel in Burlington. I snuck Charlie passed the front-desk receptionist and ordered take-out. The following morning, I awoke to find that Charlie had succumbed to his injuries. I took him back home and gave him a respectful burial in my backyard.
Fast-forward to present day. I am now the proud pet parent of a blind cat, Luna, and three happy and healthy mice: Pluto, Jupiter and Mars. I still can't help but wonder if Jennifer ever drank my bottle of wine....