Verlyn Klinkenborg savors the season


SPENCERTOWN, N.Y. -- A mist hung over the fields for the first time that morning. He saw a shift in the light, heard an abundance of crickets -- felt an anticipation that the swallows will vanish in a week or two.

He has never felt so aware of that before.

Verlyn Klinkenborg notices fine shifts in the rhythm of the year. For many years, he has written them into columns in the New York Times and into books chronicling his upstate New York farm, including "Making Hay" and "The Rural Life" and this year's "More Scenes from the Rural Life."

But for him, the fine shifts in late August in New England also mean the feeling on the edge of the new school year (he is a lecturer in English now at Yale and a visiting professor at Bard College in Annandale, N.Y.), preparing for the stimulating company of students and professors, looking forward to the sea and salt marsh and spider crabs of the Connecticut coast.

After a semester of teaching, he comes back to his farm to ride his horses on old wood roads and weed his garden. And a new semester will take him away from the farm, he said, until it becomes a relief to come back.

But he will come back to speak at the Spencertown Fest ival of Books on Sunday morning, sharing the three-day festival with Peter Biskind, Charles Dubow, Hugh Howard and Taylor Mali.

It makes sense that a farmer and New York Times editor lives in a region that will host its eighth annual festival of books in a hamlet in a town of 1,600 people -- and that he can turn lying on his back in a hayfield into an exploration of galaxies.

"That's what writing is," he said: "being open to your own thinking."

But that's not how it's often taught.

"Students are afraid of their own thinking," he said. "They are afraid they have no thoughts worth recording."

"The hardest thing to teach is the most fundamental. Every thing you notice is important, and it's important because you noticed it."

He tries to get people to think back to a time when they felt playful with language.

He asks them to speak in simpler sentences,with confidence.

But simple means more clear thought, not less. It means they understand what they are saying. They feel comfortable paying attention to what they see and hear and touch.

Writing is "the immediate awareness of how you're thinking, how your thoughts work," he said.

"It's an amazing world," filled with "objects, vocations, words" -- and people write to make sense of it.

The idea of vocation, of a calling, comes with a warning in an editorial he wrote this summer on "The Decline and Fall of the English Major" -- a major that has rested in the top five for years, and he sees dwindling.

He finds students in his classes today approaching college from a vocational perspective. They come to get a job.

That view saddens a man who came to college to find a sense of himself and the world.

"The idea that you can come out of college with a clear career path -- I didn't," he said.

Most people he knows didn't, either. And, tellingly, many older students he has talked with seem to feel that walking through college that way left them feeling that they had missed something crucial.

"Older students come back wanting to plug a hole. They have a sense that they didn't really get the value of college the first time," he said, however zealously they went about it then.

Students now know that college is a unique time -- and they know how much it is costing them.

But some trends reverse.

When he moved to the Hud son Valley in 1990, not many people young people lived there -- people between college and late middle age. Writing in "The Rural Life" in 2003, he said "we've learned to locate the meaning of rural life in the past, thereby dismissing it."

"Country life is immediate," he said now, "but it is not news. There is no commerce in it."

Or the commerce that is there is hard-won and doesn't always advertise. Now, younger people are beginning to move back to the country, and some are working on the land, as he does.

Younger generations are getting involved in organic agriculture, people raising pigs and chickens, and most have had to go back to things written in the early 1900s, he said, because as farming grew in size, the knowledge of farming on a smaller scale began to vanish.

In his classes and in his hometown, he has become aware of a growing number of young people who want to become farmers, who have worked on organic farms and know what they're talking about.

Their ideas are different from the "hippie consciousness" he knew in the 1960s, he said, which was a kind of dropping out -- these young farmers and farmers-to-be have integrated themselves deeply with everything they want to do.

They also keep close connections to other places. Living in the country is losing its sense of isolation. Many survive by finding urban and suburban markets, he said, and may keep close ties to a city which, often, they came from.

So he returns to a city to tell his students why he is a writer and a farmer at the same time.

"We live in a universe filled with the possibility or perception," he said -- "so don't turn it off."


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions