My many mistakes as an impetuous gardener — planting 800 tulip bulbs in one season, for instance, or using kitchen scissors to behead a meadow’s worth of dandelions — seem dinky compared to an impulsive decision my husband, Lee, and I made in the early 1970s.
We lived in Vancouver, Wash., where I taught English and journalism at the local college and Lee was a reporter for the city newspaper. One day on campus, a fellow instructor, whom I barely knew, said he and his family were going on a yearlong sabbatical to England. He wondered if Lee and I would be interested in taking care of their 20-acre farm while they were away. Lee and I visited the farm on a blue-sky summer day and felt as if we’d stepped into a pastoral painting: a weathered barn, thriving vegetable garden, plum and peach trees. Two goats ruling the barnyard. Sheep and cows grazing in fields dotted with wildflowers. When we told our families that we had a chance to live on a real farm — and pay only 800 dollars a month in rent — they rolled their eyes or spun a finger in little cuckoo-circles in the air. Apparently they’d forgotten that we were mature adults in our 20s, and certainly not greenhorns. When Lee was in grade school, his dad raised chickens, and I had sometimes helped my grandma plant pansies.
The next week, we signed the rental contract, but we didn’t see the farm again until two days before the family left for England. On that visit, my colleague took us on a different tour, with fewer scenic points and a lot more narration. The wood furnace was the farmhouse’s only heat source, he said, so be sure to keep the woodpile stocked. The water supply was a spring-fed system running by gravity to the house, so Lee should clean the mud out of the spring at least once a month. The power lines fell down in any heavy snowfall, and an ice storm would be really bad. The electric fence was kind of touchy and shorted out easily. Unfortunately, there was no way to pinpoint where a short-out started, so we’d have to walk the 20-acre fence line until we found a blade of grass touching a live wire. Our new landlord said he also had some good news: The cows were beef cattle so we wouldn’t have to milk them. Neighbors had agreed to board the belligerent goats and the sheep, so we wouldn’t have to deliver newborn lambs next spring. He seemed surprised that Lee and I still weren’t smiling. When we moved into the farmhouse two days later, we found a note on the kitchen table: “All garden vegetables, plums and peaches are ready for harvest. Mason jars and 20-quart canner are in the cellar.”
That winter, Lee started living in Olympia, 90 miles away, five days a week to report news on the Washington state legislature. He drove back to the farm on Friday nights for weekends of hard labor. Sometimes a letter with an English postmark awaited: “We forgot to fix the leak in the barn roof before we left. If the hay gets wet, a bale might combust and start a fire. So you need to move all the hay out of the barn, check the roof and patch the hole. Then move all the hay back into the barn.” That barn was stacked with enough hay to feed four cows through the winter. Lee poked around among the bales, found no hot spots, and decided we’d call the volunteer fire department if we ever smelled smoke. Meanwhile, while Lee was in Olympia, I was teaching at the college, freelancing for the newspaper, shooing escaped cows back to the barn, and using a two-by-four to crack the layer of ice on the cows’ water trough every morning. Lee returned from Olympia in April, ill and worn out, just as another letter arrived from England. My colleague and his wife had received a tax bill, forwarded from our local county assessor, stating that property taxes on the farm had risen significantly. Therefore, our landlords wrote, they were raising our rent, significantly. They hadn’t realized how expensive living in England would be. Also – had we finished the spring planting?
In early May, a man and woman knocked on the door and asked if our magical farm was for sale or rent. Lee and I felt honor-bound to be straight with these impetuous souls, so we walked them around the property and pointed out the muddy spring water, temperamental electric fence, rickety barn roof, ravenous furnace — and the cows. When the couple called the next day, still eager for country life, Lee and I consulted an attorney, who offered to sue on our behalf. Instead, he drafted a sublease contract for the new renters, spelling out their responsibilities, including paying the new, higher monthly rent to the farm’s owners. We sent the signed contract and explanatory letter by registered mail to England — and, as we expected, my colleague and his wife were furious. If they hadn’t hiked our already exorbitant rent, Lee and I would have kept our commitment and stayed on the farm through the summer. But we had hit a barn wall of resentment and exhaustion. Trying to live someone else’s magical dream seldom ends well.
As she remembered these all-too-true events, Sydney Craft Rozen started spinning her finger in little cuckoo-circles. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org