"I came out to the country to get nurtured by the land itself."
Photos by Megan Monday
Kriss Marion | Blanchardville, WI
"I grew up in suburban Pennsylvania, in a little town called Bethlehem that actually looked a lot like Southwest Wisconsin. I was surrounded by dairy farms and rolling hills. My dad worked in steel and my mom stayed at home. My childhood was spent walking down my very thin country road to the rail tracks and following the tracks into the creek, climbing in trees and riding bikes, and in general just being out in nature most of the time, completely unsupervised. At the end of each day, I would come home to show off all of my scratches and bruises and tell my mom the story about where I’d been.
As I got older, when I got home from school or sports practice, I would take my journal and a book, walk for a half an hour, climb a tree, and be up there for the rest of the day writing. Writing out in nature became an escape and passion for me.
I loved where I grew up. But as a kid I always dreamed of being in a really big city. So as a teenager I started to spend my weekends in New York City. I would take the bus there from my small town and go exploring. The more time I spent in New York, the more I realized I was eager to live in a city someday. Mostly, I was drawn to the diversity of cultures in cities. It was exciting to me; I wanted to spend time in a ‘bigger pot’ of people.
Throughout my teen years I remained passionate about writing, and decided I wanted to write professionally, and not just in trees. When it came time to look at schools, Northwestern University had a really good journalism program and it was near a really big city, Chicago! I applied and got ready to leave Bethlehem to start my next chapter."
"In Chicago I was a journalism student, so I learned the ins and outs of reporting. I got a great opportunity to intern for a Chicago daily paper, the Daily Herald. It was ground floor daily news. After college they hired me as a beat reporter in the suburbs. School board, town board, union issues, and local government stuff. I found it pretty fascinating just because it was all new to me. I was young, learning, and moving up. I thought, ‘This is the beginning of everything!’
The Daily Herald was a very good newspaper, but it was in the suburbs and I had to commute a long way each day to cover the three towns on my beat. I ended up spending all this time trapped in the car, on the highway, eating fast food to stay awake on the way home. Not a good way to live.
Plus, I had gotten married in college, we were young, and were already thinking about starting a family. We were living in the city and I wanted to be closer to home. I eventually took a job with Learner Newspapers, which was a chain that did neighborhood papers in Chicago. I got to cover ‘Food, Features and Fashion,’ which was super fun. I won an award for an article I wrote on ‘fear of flying’, stuff like that. Finally I was living a full-time city life.
When my husband and I decided to start our family I left the paper, switching from reporting to freelance writing. At this point in my life, I was very busy. I was writing, but I also had a couple other gigs on the side--landscaping and portrait photography. I also played in a couple of bands. I was raising our four young kids and we were homeschooling them. I was even living in and running a rooming house! It was a very busy and physical life and I felt like I was thriving.
My husband, on the other hand, always felt kind of oppressed by the busyness and the noise and the crowds. He’s from a rural place, and just never got comfortable with city life. I was selfish; I didn't want to give it up, and I thought it was really good for my kids to live amid all the diversity and to experience the city.
Then, things with my health started to change. My body started to really hurt and I didn’t know why. It started with my hands, then my shoulders, then my hips. It was slowing me down. But I kept writing it off, as, ‘Oh I must be drumming too much’ or ‘It's the knitting and the gardening,’ but all it did was get worse and worse, and I had no idea what was really going on.”
“The soreness in my joints got worse and worse, and it got to where I was really in bed a lot. Every joint hurt, it hurt to sleep, it hurt to be awake. It was very acute. I started going to doctors, but basically I got prescribed horse pills of ibuprofen that just made me feel sick all the time. I didn't have a diagnosis.
One thing that really hurt was my feet. I had one doctor say, ‘Well you know, you're 30, you lose fat on the bottom of your feet, they're bound to hurt.’ I was like, ’What? 30 really sucks, then!’ A bunch of different doctors wrote it off as, ‘Oh you're 30, you should expect that.’
Without a diagnosis and living in a whole lot of pain, I was bedridden for about six months. In that time I was able to do a lot of reading and thinking. In bed one day I started to read a book by Wendell Berry, who is an American novelist, environmental activist, and farmer. Through his words I started to fall in love with the country.
Wendell Berry has a huge philosophy, and really I would say theology, of how country community and rural relationships are deeply spiritual and are a high calling in and of themselves. I began to be smitten by that. The idea of land stewardship as a spiritual calling was completely new to me when I read Wendell Berry. It's like his books said to me, ‘Look, city girl! You have this secret longing to get back to nature and take care of some rural land!’ It felt to me like a parallel--I was trying to rest and heal my body, and reading all about this healing and stewardship of rural places. I felt called.
At this time I was still running a rooming house in downtown Chicago, and one day one of my boarders asked me how I was. I just kind of burst into tears, telling her about how my life had changed so much. I must have been at a low point to dump it all on her. But she happened to be a doctor. She was like, ‘Well, that is not acceptable. It’s terrible that you can't get help for this. I'm going to send you to the top rheumatologist.’
She called a friend of hers, a doctor who basically snuck me in the back door of a hospital. I literally went to a service entrance, because she wanted to get me in in a hurry.
This doctor sits me down, and I tell her my story and I'm holding it together. She says, ‘Okay.’ She puts a notepad on her lap and draws me a picture of what's going on in my cells and says, ‘You have rheumatoid arthritis. I can help you get better.’ I just burst into tears. I just dissolved because she got it. After that, I basically got my life back. I got my energy back. I just had to give myself a shot twice a week.
After I got my diagnosis, I kept thinking back to that Wendell Berry book I read while I was struck in bed. I kept feeling called by rural places. I felt like God offered me an invitation to come out to the country and--in a time where I needed healing--to get nurtured by the land itself. I also felt that there was an invitation to participate in taking care of the land and healing the land. I just felt like there was something out there for me.”
"We decided to move to the country, and we looked north to Wisconsin because we already knew we loved it. Years ago my husband and I had honeymooned at B&Bs throughout the countryside of Wisconsin. We both thought Wisconsin was beautiful, relaxing, and green...we were drawn and decided we wanted to move here.
We made money on the sale of our Chicago house, so we were fortunate to have a little pile of cash to invest in a property we found right outside of Blanchardville, Wisconsin. We moved here as city people. Everyone knew us as folks who were moving from Chicago, so you can imagine what they thought about us moving to a tiny little farm on the outskirts of town.
Plus our farm was very brushy and overgrown. Someone had clearly invested and loved the house but ran out of resources. As we started to collect animals and to till up land, we were able to get advice from our neighbors in an extremely generous fashion. They were grateful that we were fixing up a property, and were really curious about what we were doing, and we would chat about this and that. It was our first wonderful experience of community.
I think anybody who begins farming, as a first generation farmer especially, imagines farming to be something really natural--something you could just do naked. That it will be just extremely relaxing and nurturing, and that it will feed your spirit and your soul. Part of that is true--and I think if you lose that, you can't continue farming--but the reality of farming is that it's extremely stressful. You are relying on the weather and on your own skill, but also terrible failures of equipment happen at just the wrong time, coolers explode when you have fragile things in them, things just have a way of going wrong sometimes. I’ve been through CSAs, raising animals, starting a bed and breakfast...now I think you need to craft your farming life with that kind of diversity, so that when emergencies happen you're not completely lost. And plan so that you get some time to enjoy that beautiful nurturing part of the farm.
Moving out here to rural life in Wisconsin was listening to my body, but also to the bigger picture. After being here for two years, I was completely symptomless. After 10, I still have no symptoms of my rheumatoid arthritis. It's a great privilege to work alongside creation and the creator to maintain beauty and life. Really, there’s an incredible abundance that farmland can provide if it's stewarded in a balanced way.
I think everything we do to and with land, we need to do it with such respect and awe, and also with a certain sense of weight. We shouldn't turn over a foot of soil unthinkingly because every foot of soil we turn over, we destroy millions of colonies of living fungi and microbes that are carrying out important work for our atmosphere and the air that we breathe. Everything about the way we live should be undertaken respectfully and with the knowledge that we're in community with a lot of stuff that we can see and we can't see. We should all be able to live and thrive, and where we bump up against each other, there are opportunities. We need to be aware, be respectful.
As my husband and I got a little more established, we could leave the farm more since things weren't always in such a state of emergency. As I left the farm, I started to connect with the wider community of farmers. In particular, the women farmers in and around Green County that are known as the Soil Sisters. That group of women, who all support each other as farmers, have been such an incredible source of help and inspiration. Actually, they were the ones who nudged me into my role as a leader in the community."
"I think one of the reasons I wanted to come out to the country was to get away. I was sick. My body was hurting. I was envisioning this retreat in the country where I would just grow things and be alone. But that's impossible, to farm alone, and I quickly realized I didn’t want to. I think investing in that community as much as you invest in your farm is something that's vital to do, so I started to get more involved.
I started the Farmer’s Union chapter in Blanchardville with some friends. Farmer’s Union provided me a lot of training. I even did lobby days in Madison and D.C. and got a fair amount of comfort with the system. Then, water issues in our area got me inspired to get more involved and I ran for county board.
I love serving on the county board. It's a blast. I've gotten to know so many people and gotten to know my county better. My goal is to make it cool to be on county board. I really believe that it is really awesome to participate in local government and all government. Self governance is something we get to do in America. We fought hard to have that right and yet very few people are doing it at this point. I think that makes us vulnerable to being controlled by the corporations that fund campaigns. That couldn't happen if more of us understood how the system worked and more of us interacted with the system.
I’m also particularly interested in supporting women's involvement. Soil Sisters is a way for women in this area to get involved. It’s an association of women farmers in this area, and an education and hands-on training for people who want to learn how to farm. The group meets monthly for potlucks. Sometimes there's 10 of us, sometimes there's 50 or 60. We meet at different farms and we eat and we share. In that group, we talk about how we'd like to add value to the farms, and how to be sustainable, and create new opportunities.
I really encourage everyone to get involved in their community and maybe even run for some local position at some point in their life and just do the time. Kind of like jury duty. I would love to start getting youth and other people to the courthouses and town board meetings, even if it's just to get people comfortable. One thing that's really cool to do is just going to a town hall meeting. They are amazing!
Have we lost faith in the system? It is difficult to have faith in a system that is largely run by corporate donations. But I would like to reinvigorate the idea of trust in our local elected officials and participation in our democracy. If we don't have hope, we’re not going to exert any influence. We have to have hope to get up and ‘do.’ I'm trying to bring back hope in the whole thing."
-Kriss Marion | Blanchardville, WI