Unusually Clever People

Living the Dirty Dream

Sisters
Bevy of Bavarian beauties, Marl second from left

Last weekend was my Aunt Marl’s 80th birthday, and it was a very happy moment in the town of Lowville, NY, which sits between the cities of Utica and Watertown, if you care about these corners of upstate New York that haven’t seen much action since the Erie Canal went out of fashion. All my aunts and my mother are German, and lots of Bavarian relatives arrived for the occasion. These people are specialists in the fields of eating all day long and animated conversation at the dining table for sixteen hours straight, so it’s impossible not to have fun when they’re around.

At some point, I mentioned that I am 48 and my Aunt Marl reminded me that she was 47 when she did a very bold thing. She’d grown up in a benighted time that not only included the elevation of all the stupidest and meanest people in her village under Hitler–but also a general feeling that even an eldest child who loved farming wouldn’t inherit the farm if she happened to be a girl.

So her younger brother got the farm, and she started a heating and plumbing business with her husband and was very successful. Then in middle age, as often happens in middle age, she suddenly no longer had any patience for anything that kept her from the life she’d always wanted. She couldn’t stay where she was.  Land in Germany is so expensive, there was no way to assemble a farm if you didn’t inherit one.  So Marl sold everything and got ready to drag her two small children and her husband out of their home, their country, and their culture and head for Canada to become a dairy farmer. 

She bought a nice farm there, but eventually figured out that she could have an even bigger operation in the freer market of New York State, which is how she wound up in Lowville.

She told me, "I was about to leave Germany when I ran into someone I went to grade school with. I told him I was going to Canada to farm, and he said,  ‘Oh, that’s the kind of thing young people do, not people our age.’

"’No,’ I said, ‘I am going to Canada.’  So he said jokingly, ‘Maybe I’ll move to Canada, too.’

"’No,’ I said, ‘you’re too old.  You’ve been an old man since kindergarten.’"

My God, it is important in middle age to behave as if your whole life is ahead of you. If you admit defeat just because you’re getting a little wrinkled and wurstlike in figure, you may well spend forty years in that state of defeat.

I suspect that a lot of our professional readers have a similar story–a decision at some point just to chuck it all and be outdoors, where they want to be–even though, Lord knows, there is not a lot in this culture that rewards farming, landscaping, or running a nursery.  And people look at you strangely when you’re dirty.

But there really isn’t any substitute for a life spent out in the sunshine and soil, is there?

Posted by on November 21, 2008 at 4:43 am, in the category Unusually Clever People.
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17 responses to “Living the Dirty Dream”

  1. linda says:

    I can so relate!

  2. vicki says:

    Absolutely!…Thanks for this wonderful post.

  3. Barry Prince says:

    I am glad this determined German lady came to the US. I hope she raises whatever they raise in NY state that pays the bills and makes her happy.

    In Texas we have a long history of German immigrants that have had a substantial impact on Texas garden history – Gaura lindheimeri is named after a famous Teutonic botantist-type who worked here, so we have been (in our amazingly insular manner) been given exposure to the relentless energy of German settlement.

    As far as all that middle-aged chuck-it-all, never-age, dig holes and prosper thing, I think the currnet state of the economy pretty much renders this a normal life strategy looking ahead (for a middle age bald guy like me).

  4. Thanks for a wonderful story at the age when I need the inspiration. As a transplanted Buffalonian, I love hearing news about the old home state. And as a Wisconsinite, I know exactly what you are talking about when it comes to food!

  5. This is a great story – and it sounds like you have a whole family of great ladies. We have many opportunities to make choices in this life; they don’t stop at 21 or 31 or 41 or ever. I was divorced at 31, took my five children into a whole new life. I met and married a wonderful man and we moved from country to city and back. At 49 I got a job in Beijing and he followed. We came back and continue to make a few unimportant people shake their head at our decisions.

  6. Yes, yes, yes, I can relate to this post! In my late 30’s after 10 years in food marketing, I found myself spending more and more time messing with those on-line calculators that help you figure out if you can afford to retire at 55. It finally dawned on me, rather than a 15 year countdown to freedom, didn’t it make more sense to find a profession that I never wanted to retire from?

    So here I am today, a garden designer, with a fabulous job that’s endlessly stimulating and lets me make a difference in people’s lives in a very personal way. While at times I miss the days of using my Nordstrom’s credit card with abandon (J.C. Penny’s sees more of my business these days), I wouldn’t go back to my old life for anything.

    Another inspiration for the gardening crowd: Ruth Bancroft, a leading authority on succulents whose Walnut Creek, California garden is now a part of the garden conservatory, did not begin collecting succulents until her 60’s, and stil works in the garden today in her 90’s. So does that mean the 40’s are the new teens?

  7. Genevieve says:

    Beautiful story, Michelle. I love it – “you’ve been old since kindergarten!”.

    I’d beg to differ on society not rewarding gardeners, though. There’s an element of snobbishness about working with one’s hands, but it’s WAY overbalanced by the number of people sighing enviously and wishing they had my life.

    I think the distance our culture sometimes feels from nature causes a lot of people to idealize people who work outside.

    People are often shocked to hear I play dance dance revolution, for example (a video game which is awesome for exercise). They think I should be frolicking through the forest in every spare moment, singing to the birdies and skipping merrily as I pick wild herbs.

  8. naomi says:

    My friend Dan Franklin, at age 40, quit his job to go back to college for his degree in Landscape Architecture at UGA. He moved into his old frat house to save money – an old men to the rest of the guys there. He graduated, and went on to become one of the top in his field, a Fellow in the American Society of Landscape Architects, and a scholarship in his name at UGA before he died. When I sat beside him in the hospice with several others, he began ranting a bit (as Dan would). He said, “Blue and white, blue and white, wouldn’t that be beautiful?” We all agreed, humoring him, then he glared at us, and said, “Well, get off your butts and start digging! We need to start this garden. Get working!” Those are some of his last words. I’m trying, Dan, I’m working on my garden.

  9. In 2003, for many reasons impossible to list here, I sold my home of 32 years in San Diego CA and at the age of 46, I moved to a small rural town in Oregon, population 2600. I bought an 8 acre piece of property which had been seriously neglected, which had 500 apple trees, and so much potential the air fairly sighed with it. I am currently trying to rehabilitate it, organically. It cost me alot to leave everyone I knew to move here. It cost me my husband as well.

    But it has been a dream of mine to farm the land since I was just a wee bairn. If not now, never, I said to myself. So GO AUNT MARL! Carpe Diem! Live your life with heart wide open. It’s never too late to start living your dreams.

    >^,,^<

  10. Lisa Albert says:

    Great post, Michelle. I love your Aunt Marl’s attitude. She’s a fabulous role model.

    I can easily imagine the food served around the table (I have a sudden craving for cherry kolaches). My mom was 100% German (2nd and 3rd generation American) and she grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin.

  11. sarahammocks says:

    Same as what everyone else said–and for me, a very welcome post. At 49 I am just getting immersed in the gardening world, and have been feeling like I’ve come late to the party as I meet all sorts of gardeners with decades of experience. Aunt Marl’s story inspires me, along with Barry Prince’s comment that in this economy, living the dirty life is an altogether sane and rational choice!

  12. susan harris says:

    Ditto relating to Aunt Marl’s career change in mid-life, and to me 47 looks plenty young to be doing it. When my last employer went belly-up I started what I’ve been calling My So-Called Second Career in gardening in my late 50s, but guess what – it looks like it won’t be “so-called” much longer.

  13. Well, I did just chuck everything last June of 2007 at the ripe old age of plf mpf, not so that I could have a life in the dirt and sunshine, so that I could own some of the dirt I was in.

    My second career has not panned out so well and is currently leaning in the direction of rural poverty. Granted a second career has not been a main focus since I landed in such a comfy pile of dirt and have other things that need doing.

    I’m just glad I have the same kind of gumption as Aunt Marl.

  14. Greg Draiss says:

    I love Lowville! Great corner of NY. Travelled thorugh there on a jaunt leaving the NW corner of the Adirondacks.

    HAppy B’Day

    The (jumping over the candlestick) TROLL

  15. Michele Owens says:

    Thank you all for those great stories. And Christopher C, some day soon those mountain people will discover your talents and you’ll be too busy to plant your potatoes!

  16. Greg Draiss says:

    But wait Chris/NC is an antagonizer……………….

    The TROLL

  17. Ann says:

    Well, it wasn’t about being outdoors, but I was 44 when I left Buffalo to attend seminary in Connecticut, and then embarked on life as a priest. Then when I was 52 I left snowy Buffalo, where veggie gardening, at least, was nigh on impossible, for the wilds of Tennessee, where I have parsley, rosemary, a bit of lettuce, and a single volunteer brussels sprout growing on this very day.

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