Leaving the Land

Leaving the Land
By Susan Hand Shetterly

Bill Thayer died last April, at age 82, working in his woodlot with his horses and logging arch. He and his wife, Cynthia, had named their place Darthia Farm, and their neighbors in Gouldsboro called him “Farmer Bill.” He was a man who loved his wife, his organic farm, his horses, and the deep and settled life he had built in this coastal town.

Thirty years ago, he and Cynthia sat down at their kitchen table with representatives from Frenchman Bay Conservancy and wrote up a conservation easement for the farm, guaranteeing, as much as anyone can guarantee anything, that it would be farmed into the future, passing from one farmer to another, cared for by each in turn. The barn, the two houses, the many outbuildings, the farm store, and the broad pastures, hayfields, and frontage on West Bay are now protected from all development.

Two decades later, Bill and Cynthia again sat down to plan for the future, this time with Maine Farmland Trust, and they finalized an agreement that would confer ownership of the farm to some young farmers looking for a place to start their dreams. Shepsi Eaton and Elizabeth Moran became those farmers, arriving from Long Island with their two small children to learn from Cynthia and Bill the innumerable bits and pieces of how this place, with its cows, chickens, turkeys, sheep and pigs, CSA gardens, and woodlot, works as a whole.

Each farm is a particular, complicated arrangement. Darthia Farm’s demands woke Bill every morning at 4 to begin his day with feeding chores, then, according to season, the plowing, the haying, the training of horses, the fixing of machinery, the patching of stalls and pens and pasture fences, the cutting and hauling of winter wood, the butchering, or the milling of new boards for the outbuildings.

Each farm is a particular, complicated arrangement.

Cynthia, a novelist, spun, dyed, and knitted wool from the sheep, put up jams and jellies, baked Christmas cakes from an old family recipe, and oversaw the gardens, their harvests, and sales. She made time to found Schoodic Arts for All, which brings classes, performances, and other activities to the area, and along with Bill, threw hayride parties for the local elementary-school children every winter.

Perhaps the most important thing they did was hire apprentices and teach them farming in exchange for labor. Many who worked on the farm have settled nearby, helping to build a community that has enriched the landscape as well as the character of this peninsula. I have known Cynthia and Bill from the days they arrived, when they were learning how to farm from others. I’d guess they never imagined how much they would come to mean to those around them.

The day Bill died, a former apprentice brought over the coffin he had built for Bill out of pine planks. Women bathed and dressed Bill’s body. A small group of family and neighbors set him into the coffin, lifted and carried it, and laid it in the wagon outside. Shepsi hitched up Andy and Star, the two beloved Haflinger horses that, until then, had been tended by Bill. There was something ceremonial about the way Shepsi handled them: a gentle, reassuring touch of a new partner. With him at the reins, the horses began the procession. Family and friends walked behind the wagon up a gradual rise to the place where the grave had been dug, and Bill, now leaving the land to the next farmer, settled into it forever.