Story & Photographs by Mary Warner
There I was. Nose buried in a bush I had just learned was black raspberries. An elfin boy whose goldilocks were tucked under a caped, turquoise hat instructed me to smell. When I asked what they tasted like, the little sage spoke.
“They aren’t anything like blackberries.”
More than twenty-five years may have separated us in age, but suddenly I felt like the child.
Standard-issue R&R brought my partner and me to Many Hands Farm, an idyllic Maine refuge tucked into the foothills of the Acadia Mountains. But it was also curiosity. At a time when technology is being integrated into just about every aspect of our home – a Jetson household truly is not far off – why would people choose to live largely without it?
Actually, I had a lot of questions. And as it would turn out, a child would have the answers.
Follow the Crumbs
The sun had long ago kissed the sky goodnight as we pulled our car down a field, and stopped in the gravel driveway of farm lodgingsI’d booked for a few days. Before we turned the engine off, a ghost of a boy materialized from a thicket of trees. I recognized Jonah from his mother’s description, her eldest son, who she had had explained in an email would show us around the farm. But not tonight, the boy informed us almost immediately.
I was struck by Jonah’s plucky demeanor in the face of meeting strangers. Clearly, we were not wildlife.
We emerged from the trees at a sloping meadow. It was dark, but I could see the silhouettes of two small cabins perched on the hillside, and across from them a larger house, most certainly the pulse of the life on this land. There were a few other outbuildings: a small barn and shed, and farther down the slope, beyond the main house, a tiny dwelling, the kind Pinteresters call “She Caves,” though I suspect it is not one of those things.
Jonah’s father, John Palumbo, has taken over the tour, and brings us to the cabin closest to the trees. Named Sunrise, for the easterly facing windows that welcome the morning sun, the space is 180 sf, but efficient. There’s a wood stove we won’t need on the eve of July, a queen -size bed replete with an organic handmade mattress, and two stools tucked under a low table that’s set with a water-filled Mason jar and glasses.
To complete the table setting, there is a bouquet of flowers matching the ones outside our door, as well as a small white bowl that is filled with two of the tiniest, dark red strawberries I have ever seen, and a peculiar cobalt flower. Jonah tells us to eat all three.
John pushes aside a cheerful curtain that separates us from a composting toilet off the bedroom. Later on I tell my partner that I skimmed over this minor detail of the poetic AirBnB listing that contained the following words:
Surrounded by flower and herb gardens, song birds, butterflies, permaculture and biodynamic vegetable gardens, charming eye catching chickens, adorable ducks, calm inquisitive geese, little bunnies and dwarf dairy goats. Under a gorgeous starry night sky you will fall asleep to the sounds of tree frogs, crickets, great horned owls, gentle breezes carrying the hint of the ocean not far away.
These words were the crumbs that lead us to discover one family’s home.
A Family That Eats Together
The next morning inside the main house, the dining table is the hub of a bustling breakfast scene. John is at the stove around the corner, and his wife, Nyla Bravesnow, who we briefly met the night before, is tending to a cherubic boy on her hip. She ebbs and flows around the room with the purpose of a creek, quenching each child’s thirst for attention.
A third woman, Anna, an old friend of Nyla’s, minds the mayhem from a post at the table. Within a corral area, two towheaded boys converse in toddler code, and a doe-eyed baby girl totters across the floor with an occasional fist-pump that celebrates her recent ability to walk upright.
Screams and giggles provide the soundtrack to this rural version of a breakfast club. It’s loud, but unlike having a squawk box in the background, it more or less ceases when the children are organized at the table to eat. The absence of a television in the house is noteworthy.
From an impromptu poll of friends, I learn that about 80% of them report that their children’s Saturday mornings include some kind of screen time. The focus of a family or “primary meal” is in decline, notes celebrated food writer Michael Pollan in his book Cooked. How much of the inclusion of television in our lives has do with it?
The family table, Pollan explains, is the place where a few pivotal things happen: “It’s where we teach our children the manners they need to get along in society. We teach them how to share. To take turns. To argue without fighting and insulting other people. They learn the art of adult conversation. The family meal is the nursery of democracy.”
In this home, the incubator is plugged in and working.
Jonah arrives from his roost, unfazed with the organized chaos I’m still getting used to. He commences with what I learn over the next few days is his morning routine: bathroom (singing, optional), breakfast, hair pulled back into a ponytail by mom, and fifteen minutes of fiddle (if he has time).
The chipper boy I met the night before is rendered mute over breakfast. I’m a cup of black fuel into the morning, while he lethargically pushes bits of rhubarb pancake and scrambled duck and chicken eggs across his plate. This is the most I’ll find him to be like other American youths.
“So, you said you would give us a tour of the farm?” There’s a strained inflection in my voice. Evidence that it’s been a while since I had a conversation with an eight year old. He replies like an adult.
“I need about twenty-five more minutes to eat. And then I have to fiddle for fifteen minutes. Will you be ready by then?”
I glance across the 480 square foot house, and then at Jonah’s wrist. For someone so aware of time, he has no way (that I’m aware of) to measure it. This boy’s practical sense of time is notan artifice. It’s just not what those of us who sleep with our phones are used to. It comes from a different source.
One afternoon, after Jonah and I have collected some plants to make cyanotypes and had arranged them under the sun to be exposed, he asked how long we would have to wait for the result.
Two minutes, I told him, and I picked up my phone to tell Siri to set a timer. He was immediately enthralled by the countdown that appeared on the screen, but just as suddenly dismissed it with a scowl.
“Won’t we just know when it’s ready?”
He was right. And he hadn’t even read the instructions, which confirmed that when the paper turned pale blue the prints would be ready. He just understood. You have to wonder how many other times have we traded our precious senses for the security blanket Siri provides. In our homes, the list is long and advances in technology are making it longer but perhaps not necessarily better.
Many Hands Farm is a place where the senses are intact. They are rooted in a fertile soil that Nyla and John have cultivated for the benefit of their family, an ideal mixture of reverence and understanding of the world, and love, of course. The resulting bloom is wonder.
John and Nyla were once early childhood educators in the Waldorf tradition – a type of schooling that aims “to educate the whole child: head, heart, and hands.” Nowhere is this more apparent than when Jonah is giving me a second tour of the farm.
We revisit the Velveteen rabbits where Jonah explains how the cage was designed to catch rabbit droppings for a special type of compost, then we feed slugs we’ve caught to the ducks, and finally finish the tour with a pig, which I learn is not for eating, nor has it been given a name yet. (Eve and her offspring name the animals here.)
We settle on the edge of a vegetable bed. I reach for what I think is clover when Jonah starts laughing.
“That’s not clover. That’s wood sorrel.” Then he reaches over to where I planned to pluck one stem and grabs a bunch.
“Here,” and he pushes it to my face, just like I saw him feed the nameless pig moments ago.
I take a bite and wince as the bitterness lashes my tongue. It’s lemony, and I ask what else grows on the family’s biodynamic farm. Within moments, I’ve filled a page with more than twenty-five different types of plants, including ones I’d only read about like comfrey and arnica. I see this child’s mind working to remember each and every species on the land. I wonder how he retains them all.
More than offering their flavor profiles, Jonah tells me the purpose of each plant, or in the case of horse nettle, it’s utter uselessness.
“It’s not good for anything, not food for humans, nor animals.”
But it’s the last reason he offers that a kid from the suburbs would never understand: “It doesn’t even make pretty flowers.”
His actions speak louder than his list because later on, I’ll see him pull a borage bloom so gently that it barely disturbs the stem. He handles each plant with the particular care and concern a pediatrician does with a child. This precious eight-year-old.
The Heart of the Matter
It’s a request to swing that reminds me of Jonah’s earthly age. Swinging, I learn is one of his favorite past times. First, he swings me on a contraption his father built for standing. I rebel and sit on it, watching the canopy of leaves and blue-sky swirl above me. Jonah beams with delight. We swap. Then I do the honors of swinging him, but this is child’s play, and he says he wants to show me how high he can swing.
Competition has a place on the farm, too.
We make our way to a swing set consisting not of metal or plastic, but of a wood beam spanning across two trees. Beneath it two sets of hand-wrought wooden seats hang. Within seconds Jonah is soaring into the arms of trees, swooshing high above me, and pleading, “Take pictures!” He wants to document his feat.
Jonah is fearless and I immediately think of the woodblock print loudly spelled-out with the word “COURAGE” that hangs near the doorway of the family’s home.
I once read that the root of the word courage is cor, which is the Latin word for heart. As I watch Jonah, and later witness him orchestrate a ride home from theater camp in the nearby town of Belfast, I realize that his parents have taught their child probably one of the most important lessons of all—to act with a whole heart, or just plain courage.
All somehow without the aid of The Lion King or The Wizard of Oz.
A Hopeful Present
Before I had arrived in rural Maine, I had every intention of learning about the place this family calls home. I came prepared with questions and a deep desire to know what propelled a couple to trade 21st century conveniences, like flushing toilets and cell phone service, for making home among nature.
There was one problem though.
With a farm to run and family to raise, friends and neighbors stopping by throughout the day, I didn’t get to speak to the adults. It would have been nice, but I didn’t really have to.
I learned from the perspective of a little boy that their home is a place that fosters what James Howard Kunstler calls a “hopeful present” without the persistence of a boogeyman and war – a place without fear. Our best hope for home, in other words.
For this way of life to sink in and be shared with others, we need a storyteller – and based on my time with Jonah, I’d say he is an apt one. But he might be something else altogether.
In three religious traditions, Jonah is recognized as a prophet. If you consider the way this eight-year-old embraces his home, his eagerness to share it with strangers, to tell its story, then you might call this 21st-century Jonah a prophet, too.