Another Woman's Field
Dreaming of farms on borrowed land.
by LEXI KRUPP
Suzanne Lupien is a baker. She’s a poet, a potter, a sculptor, a puppeteer, but most of all, she says, a farmer. She wants to grow enough potatoes to feed two hundred families. She wants to cultivate a crop of five hundred farmers before she dies.
She’s idealistic and resentful, in love with people and deeply dissatisfied with the world they’ve made, “the epoch of materialism that has affected our brains and our souls so that we don’t even know what we’re deficient in.” She wants to scream. She wants more beauty and gentleness. She wants people to mow their own lawns. She’s a Luddite. She hates combustion engines, drivers who speed on dirt roads, and the dust they stir up over the houses they rush past. She is prone to lecturing.
She’s an opportunist, a schemer, and a troublemaker. She is exuberant and chastising. She pays attention. To the squirming inchworm on the ground that she rescues from a swarm of black ants, to the cello abandoned behind a dumpster that she takes home. She’s a historian, a naturalist, an engineer. Once she saved a young pig’s life with gorilla tape, stoppering its erupted colon. Her father went to Harvard. She didn’t go to college. She talks about how she would run a school, a farm, a home for grandmothers. “They’re all integrated,” she says. She sees and imagines.
Her features are prominent, as if carved out of wood. She has a large nose, big ears and big eyes above folds of latticed crinkles. Her hair is tied back in a small bun, revealing layers of white and gray and yellow. Her skin is browned and textured from the sun.
Suzanne lives in a wooden box. She goes to bed early, she remembers her dreams. She has no money. She is profoundly lonely.
* * *
Every Friday she bakes a hundred or so loaves of bread in an open-air, wood-fired oven in Norwich, Vermont. She wakes up at 4 a.m. to start preparing the dough and firing the oven. She makes raisin and French, sometimes whole-wheat and olive. She’s famous for her rosemary. Loaves are six dollars. On a tight week she makes more French bread, when there’s more money, olive. “I have a lemonade stand theory on economics,” she says. “When the pot runs dry, I sell more.”
She heats the oven with bundles of brambles she’s cut down and brought over in the old Honda her family bought her so she could visit her mother. The smoke smells sweet. It gathers over the oven and lingers beneath the slanted wooden roof that extends to the ground. She adds crumpled paper and larger logs. Once the oven is hot enough, she opens the small metal doors and scrapes out the flaming embers into a metal can. She dips the end of the long wooden stick wrapped with blackened cloth into a bucket of dark water to wipe the oven’s interior. The water bubbles on the burning surface.
Each variety of dough sits in a big bowl, expanding throughout the morning, overflowing if she doesn’t punch it down. She spreads the dough onto a long shelf covered in a layer of flour. She cuts the portions with a metal rib and squeezes them into an oblong form. Flour and dough cover her clothes and stick to her hands. She’s stately in her disarray. She sets two loaves at a time atop the wooden peel with a six-foot handle that she made. She slashes the top of the loaf in practiced patterns. She scatters salt on the rosemary bread before she slides it into the oven.
The oven sits along the side of the road, beside a grass field in front of a parking lot of torn up asphalt. Suzanne is rarely alone, frequented by a stream of neighbors, visitors from far away towns, cyclists, and mothers pushing baby strollers. Lots of dogs. Old friends stop and chat, curious new faces follow the white makeshift sign displaying “Suzanne’s Wood Fired Bread” in blue block letters filled in with marker. Suzanne asks Patti, an old woman with bright blue eyes and red blotches on her face, if she’s seen a doctor about her skin. “No,” Patti says. “I got a new doctor, but I haven’t seen her yet.” Patti helps out each week, overseeing the red tin can that serves as a cash register.
One week Suzanne has run out of bags by the time I arrive, so I stick an unprotected whole-wheat loaf in my backpack. It leaves brown patches of flour on my notebook and a warm smell that lasts for days.
Another time I come early, when the oven is still warming up. Suzanne instructs customers to write their orders with charcoal on the brown paper bags sitting on the table. “Then you can come back whenever you want to pick it up,” she tells the first man who stops by. “You’ll just have to fight the crows.” The week before she had come back from an afternoon errand to find a bird with its beak drilled into the soft inside of a loaf left out.
The man writes on the bag, drawing a scraggly black moose next to his name.
“Are the crows violent?” he asks.
“I can’t answer that,” she replies.
* * *
Two women bike into the lot. They want a photo with the wooden board advertising the day’s varieties, and then another in front of the oven as Suzanne puts the first batch of raisin bread inside.
I volunteer o be their photographer. As they pose in front of the oven, Suzanne pops her head up behind them: wild eyes, outstretched hands, and white hair sticking out in all directions. “If you want bread,” Suzanne tells them, “you should write your name down.” She gestures to the charcoal. “There are writing implements over there, if that appeals to you. Otherwise if you come back later you might not get any.” Later, she tells me she knows where one of the women lives. “You know that sexy little woman with no underwear on, sticking her butt up in the air being a little bitch?” Her land used to be a farm.
By 9 a.m. there are already seven bags stacked up. Big orders are often left on sticky notes on the picnic table overnight. The bread usually sells out by 4 or 5pm.
A white work van pulls up with two men in white jumpsuits. “What do you have ready?” one of them asks.
“Oven is going slow today. I misjudged the heat. We’ve only got raisin. And a couple of jokes.”
A little boy and his younger brother walk up in front of their mother. Suzanne jumps towards them in small hops. Bending down she says, “I hear you had a birthday recently. How old are you now? Sixteen?”
“No!” the boy yells back with a grin.
“Fifteen? Fourteen? Thirteen?” She keeps going, counting down.
“Six! Yes, Six!” he screams with delight.
Another boy waddles forward, hiding behind his dad’s legs. “Can you introduce yourself?” Suzanne asks him. He ignores her, staying behind the protection of limbs. She gives his father one of the miniature-sized loaves she sets aside for kids. “They just want to feel like someone’s looking out for them.”
* * *
I visited her home for the first time with Jill, my friend who had introduced me to Suzanne. We needed horsehair for a raku firing, used to burnish ceramic pieces as soon as they are taken out of the kiln, burning hot enough to melt the thick hair, leaving black carbon trails behind. We followed a map Suzanne had drawn on one of the brown bread bags. The road wound up past streams cutting through open fields and old farmhouses overlooking hills. It was lined with wild flowers, prehistoric ferns and brightly colored mailboxes. We ended on a dirt road where we could see a long hill, separated from the road by a line of trees and a broken stone wall enclosing a low field. A tree stood along the hillside shadowing a tall wood stack. We climbed up a steep driveway to meet Suzanne. From the top we could see the entire valley, splayed out over a field that extended over the hill along a stretch of woods leading to a creek.
“A good farm has many different ecosystems, like this one,” Suzanne said. High, dry land is good in a wet year, and low boggy land in a dry year. This property had energy, she told us. You could see it from the road, but it wasn’t on display. She loved it.
She walked us through the muddy grass to see her horses, Dick and Annie. They were grand, chestnut brown draft horses with black manes and long tufts of dark hair around their hooves. They were old but strong. She makes sure of it, working them every day to bring up wood in the sled or to help spread manure over the ground. They are her closest friends.
“I love sleeping out in the field close to them,” she said. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and hear Dick farting. His are high-pitched and continuous, a totally different style than Annie’s.”
She sleeps in a small wooden structure built around the metal frame of an old hay wagon, with the chimney of a wood-fired stove erupting from its center. She bought it for $125. It had taken another $3,000 and 3 1/2 weeks to build. She rattled off the numbers with precision.
Inside there were wide, worn floorboards and wooden paneling along the walls. Suzanne’s bed lay against the back wall, twenty feet from the door, covered by a big, dark blue quilt. A lattice of shelves jutted over the bed, carrying stacks of books— early American history, essays by Annie Dillard, practical guides like The New Horse-Powered Farm. Woodblock prints of animals leaned against the wall on top of the books. A goose, two horses, a brood of chickens. One shelf held a fiddle and the cello, for which she still had not found strings. She likes having the instruments around.
The window over her bed was open, the windowsill lined with sunflower seeds, spilled over her quilt and sprinkled on the grass outside. Squirrels had visited. “I like feeling like I’m outside when I’m inside,” she said. That way she gets to know the chickadee with a white spot on his head who visits each day.
The other side of her house has two windows above a sink. A canister of water sat in place of a faucet. Beside it was a smattering of bowls and plates in blue and green glazes she’d made when a friend let her use his studio. Suzanne had worked in clay, printmaking and metal. She'd learned bronze casting when she moved to Holland in her twenties, and built her own foundry on a farm in Cornish, New Hampshire when she came back to the States. “But I realized I didn’t want to be a sculptor. People didn’t need more of that. Not ornamenting so much as the basic foundation.” She wanted to be a farmer.
But her house and her horses are not on her land. The land belongs to Sue, who came by the bread oven in the fall and offered Suzanne a place to stay when she had nowhere else to go.
Suzanne once had her own farm in Norwich, until four years ago. She’d leased a property that she had passed every day as a girl, on her school bus route. She'd called it the Root District Creamery, and she'd sold cheeses, yogurt, butter, maple syrup, apple cider, raspberries and vegetables at her farm stand. She had six jersey cows that she milked every morning and her own wood-fired oven, from which one of her cows loved to steal fresh bread. The farm was a family. Alexander, a student from California, showed up on her doorstep one day. “He never wanted to go into town and get pizza for dinner. He always wanted to eat the food we grew,” Suzanne told me. “You would have loved him.”
She couldn't keep it. After giving up the farm, she sold bread at the oven in Norwich until last year when she left New England to join a farming community in Oregon. She was following her girlfriend; they planned to settle down for good. But when she got there it wasn’t what she expected. She didn’t feel welcome. She only lasted six months. She came back to Norwich last spring, selling bread again and staying with friends until she moved onto Sue’s land.
In the winter Suzanne tapped maple trees around the property and took kids on horse-drawn sleigh rides. She huddled under blankets on the side of the road to keep warm until parents, who’d seen her advertisement in the paper, stopped by. “That was the most honest way to make a dollar I know of,” she said. No gas, no electronic devices. Just kids, the horses, and a sleigh.
And a pen. She wrote. Suzanne let me borrow a book of her poetry to read. Inside the brown cardboard moleskin cover, the poems are handwritten in neat, black ink:
Slowly, slowly the bits of good
Collecting like cream
Gathering to butter
In the sloshing churn
In spring she built a hoop house. I helped; I picked out nails in various states of rust, avoiding ones bent beyond use, and handed them to Suzanne, who had stood on a stepladder hammering in metal supports above the doorframe. She started preparing the earth for planting. “I don’t want any combustion on the land. When I hear the sound of a tractor across the valley it makes me cringe.” But the horses were too old for the work of turning the first layer of soil. She bought a tractor and plow, connected with a hitch and two makeshift blue ropes operating the plow’s blades, tied to either side of the tractor’s driver seat. The synthetic blue looked unearthly bright against the rust the plow had been accumulating since the 1890s. Suzanne bought it at an auction for fifty dollars.
* * *
Suzanne grew up ten minutes from Sue’s property. She’d known the man who used to own the land. “He was so dumb, God. But I loved him. He was my school bus driver. He taught me how to smoke a cigarette when I was about six.” Sue had bought the land from him, originally over forty acres. She’d sold off the lower field many years ago. Soon, she thought, maybe next year, she’d have to sell the rest.
Suzanne’s father was a baseball and basketball coach at Dartmouth College for twenty years. He’d played in the major leagues, a first baseman for the Red Sox and the Phillies and the White Sox. “There’s some hideous bronze plaque in the gym named after him,” she said.
Her mother still lives in Norwich, in an assisted living center off the highway. Suzanne visits her there almost every day. She visits the whole center. She has a ritual. At 7 a.m. she makes her rounds in the main dining room of the center, eating breakfast with Doris, an old friend of hers, and checking in with the residents she knows. She visits her mom in the Clover Wing, keeping her company through breakfast, then at 8:30 she goes into the living room to read history books to a man named Farney, and anyone else who might want to listen.
I sat with Suzanne and Doris when Suzanne brought her own steel cut oats, maple syrup and cream to share for breakfast. She doesn’t like the food the served at the center. Suzanne told Doris about a real estate listing she’d seen for a five-bedroom house in Windsor, a historic town half an hour away. Each room had a private bath. “It’s all ready to go,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
We walked over to the Clover Wing, the memory care hallway. You have to press a red button to open the door and type in a passcode on a black keypad to leave. There was a sour smell in hallway.
Suzanne introduced me to her mother, Millie, a thin white-haired woman standing in the hallway, waiting. “She can’t see very well,” Suzanne said. The other day, Millie mistook a coat hanger for a stranger. “She said if they came any closer she was going to kick them in the shin.”
“Would you like breakfast, Mom?” Suzanne asked.
“Didn’t I already eat?”
“No, I don’t think so. Come on, come eat with us.”
The first table was already full once Suzanne and Millie sat down, so I sat at my own table. Soon a woman named Louise joined me. She asked what I knew of the weather forecast and the schedule for the day, where I was from and how long I had lived here. Then she asked what the weather was supposed to be again, and what was going on the rest of the day. And where I was from, and how long I’d lived here. She spoke in stately rhymes, repeating herself like a character poured out of Alice in Wonderland. “We shall see what will be, will be. We shall see.”
A nurse came around with eggs, bacon, and French toast cut up in small squares. Everyone avoided the eggs. Louise kept putting them in her mouth then spitting them out. “That tastes terrible,” she said. I intervened when she raised her fork again.
“You don’t like those,” I reminded her. “Eat the brown French toast instead.”
“Yes, yes, good idea.”
Across from us Miriam, a grey haired woman clutching a large doll, sat down. She was humming to herself. A nurse gave her a fork full of toast.
Suzanne visited our table. Miriam doesn’t usually speak in coherent sentences, but last week she’d murmured to Suzanne, “Darling, I’m going home with you.”
“I wish you could Miriam.” Suzanne had replied. “I wish you could.”
Suzanne went back to her table and gave the old man sitting across from her a back massage, large hands over a crooked back.
As we walked down the hall, back to the main building, Suzanne told me Louise had once been the wife of a high-powered executive in Manhattan. She knew some very famous people. “I think there should be a wall in this place, with a picture of everyone’s favorite time in their life,” Suzanne said. “So there could be a picture of Louise on Madison Avenue.”
In the main living room Suzanne introduced me to Estee, another friend. Estee whispered to me, “If you stick around, you’ll learn a lot from her.”
An old man was already sitting on the couch, waiting for Suzanne to begin. But Farney was not there yet. He was having his hearing aids put in. He’d been the impetus that began the morning tradition of reading. “He’s just about as smart as they come,” Suzanne told me, “and nearly blind, so he can’t read by himself. He was a New York Times reporter during World War II. I hope he stays alive so I can read ten thousand pages with him.”
When Farney came over he sat in the high-backed chair next to Suzanne. He was small with big eyes and a bald head covered in a large birth-mark. We sat in a circle, canes leaned against upholstery, as Suzanne began. She was reading David McCullough’s John Adams, a scene of a Congressional meeting in August 1776. Farney closed his eyes to listen.
I paid attention to Suzanne. She held the book with wide hands that had protruding veins and finger joints like tree rings. There was a shallow line of dirt beneath her fingernails. Her shoulders were broader than those of the old men. She was the only one who sat straight up. Her voice was high, a slight nasal inflection projecting clearly into the room, a pitch well suited for elderly ears.
“It’s so important to have grandmothers living with us,” Suzanne told me later. “That’s how we learn how to project. If I had a school, I would require at least two hours of reading aloud each week.”
After we left I reread her poem called “Home”:
…I yearn to stay and
Yearn to bring them home
Or accompany them home
I don’t know which
I no longer know
Even where home is
If it’s even a place anymore
…We take our love
Wherever we can get it
* * *
Suzanne and I had been planning on working in the field, to use the plow she had just got working that morning, but it was raining. I didn’t see her car in the driveway, so I waited under the plastic covering of the hoop house. The week before it was only a skeleton of metal tubes bent over a wooden frame, jutting into the sky like ribs of a whale. I sat between two careful dirt mounds. One had patchy rows of green leaves that had just sprouted. The other was peppered with a clean grid of buds interrupted by a wild patch where Suzanne had spilled lettuce seeds. I had helped dig up the grass that once covered the ground, extricating it in square bricks that left a fresh layer of dirt. We had needed to find her spade, buried among her belongings scattered throughout sheds and barns of friends all over town. They didn’t fit in her house. So I had accompanied her on a drive down winding dirt roads to search.
On the way she waved to the goose in the pond at the corner of her road. “I’m worried about her, with the water level dropping. But I don’t think the fox can reach her.” She pointed out patches of rhubarb along the roadside. She had introduced herself to the old couple that lived next to Sue, and made a deal with them: She took the rhubarb that grew unused from their lawn in return for a homemade pie.
We entered into the town of Thetford, Vermont, and parked beside a shed next to an old brick house. Inside sat a wide wooden slab that had been the top of her kitchen table. There was a large pitchfork and other rusting gardening tools, but no spade. We drove to another property to look inside a tall wooden barn. Its planks had come from an old Baptist church. They looked black against the sunlight that shown in beams and pinpricks through slats and holes. There were two-dozen cardboard boxes, a pumpkin maple cabinet, and the kitchen table’s base. Suzanne rummaged around for a minute before unearthing the spade. Clutching it in her hand, she looked around at the boxes. “Life teaches you a lot of lessons,” she said. “Sometimes I just don’t know what they are.”
Before we left, we visited the pen of baby pigs that sat at the bottom of a wide, sloping field beneath the barn. “Wouldn’t a big line of working horses on the hill be nice?” Suzanne said. As we drove back through Norwich we passed a bright wooden frame. “Oh, good,” she said. “There will be another big ugly, house.”
* * *
Suzanne pulled into the driveway and joined me in the hoop house, suggesting we buy plants instead of waiting out the rain. We drove past “Miracle Mile,” in West Lebanon, watching the Home Depot, the Friendly’s, and the Walmart go by. “I never come here,” she told me. “You know, this piece of land is the best farmland in Grafton County?”
We drove to Edgewater Farm, past neat rows of plants and greenhouses. “I’d like a field like that,” Suzanne said. We picked out two-dozen tomato plants, a dozen pepper plants, and a rosemary plant—the last a gift for Sue, who lets her borrow a field in which to plant vegetables and potatoes, to keep her horses, and to park her wooden box, as close to a farm as she can manage for now. “$112 well spent,” Suzanne said.
Lexi Krupp is currently working with mountain goats in Washington. "Another Woman's Fields" is her first publication.