Decline and fall of the Romaine Empire

Visiting farmers Chantel & Emanuel

Visiting farmers Chantel & Emanuel

At Melleray Farmstead, cottage-industrial home to Piedmont Pine Coffins, there’s a big garden with a deer-proof fence. Go to market with lettuce? Yes, please, that’s the dream.

But that was before the decline and fall of my romaine empire.

For new readers just joining in, we operate on 32 pleasant acres of fields and woods in central North Carolina, USA. We make pine box coffins by hand (no power tools), and we take general inspiration from self-sufficient folks like monks and homesteaders down through the ages.

To speak fairly, my romaine empire never inclined, much less declined. We had the land, the seeds, the hoses, the paid consultants — but never the labor. I was busy making coffins. We have small children. My wife works. A feller can dream, though, right?

A little help from your friends

For dreams, community helps. Many hands make light work. Throughout history, monks have complained of being short on bodies to get done the daily chores, which often involved running a farm. Just this past spring, two nuns from an Orthodox monastery nearby stopped to inquire about simple coffins, and we got to talking.

“Oh,” said the mother superior, remarking on our washtub and laundry line, “we could never do laundry by hand. There’s only six of us.”

This summer and fall we are hosting farm visitors Emanuel and Chantel. They have market garden experience. Maybe incline of the romaine empire is just around the corner. Or maybe not. Community life can push and pull you in surprising directions.

Done right, under the scaffold of community life — i.e., group decisions and expectations, a schedule you agree on, and the support of brothers’ and sisters’ love — you construct your best self.

The weakness of Brother J

I’ll never forget my brief, deep conversation with “Brother J”. It was the summer of 1999 at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina. In those days I was sojourning with the Trappists for a six-week retreat of work and prayer. We kept vigils in the middle of the night, mornings tended their flocks of laying chickens, and ate meals in silence or listening to a lector read Cistercian founding documents from the 11th and 12th centuries. (The Trappists are a subgroup of the Cistercians, who in turn are a kind of Benedictine Roman Catholic monk. I was raised Roman Catholic.)

After about four weeks of washing eggs elbow to elbow, Brother J told me why he had come to the monastery at Mepkin. Why he had had to, he said.

“I was a mess,” said Brother J. “I couldn’t hold any discipline in my life. If you came to my apartment, it was a wreck. My spiritual life was the same.” In a word, he needed structure.

Confiding a weakness, Brother J? My younger self thought so. But now in mid-life I feel the same. Help me, community. Help to curb ego and appetites. Bring discipline and order. (Ah, how my on-time persnickety German side rises up the older I get!) Help us each create together our best selves. Let the community be a crutch towards metanoia.

For all of you readers, and for us here in this little community, may the dream of your best self incline and take off flying, and may it happen for you with the help of loving friends. For our part, we four here are planning fresh greens from the greenhouse all through the fall and all winter long.

Lettuce transform. 🙂