AgriCulture: Taking Refuge

If you’re like me, you’ve been glued to the news of Ukraine for the last 10 days. We all know wars are great for news station ratings. And undoubtedly each of us reads or listens to that news through the prism of our own fixed ideas of how the world is ordered.

Of course I’m inspired by stories of valiant resistance by the Ukrainians, horrified by the disingenuous and reckless cruelty of Vladimir Putin, and betting on the results — that yet another dictator with too much power and insulated from perspective has set into motion his own destruction. These are tried and true themes when we tell the story of our society. But the stories I give priority to, the ones I find most intensely engaging, are the ones that recount the beginnings of yet another saga of human migration, of refugees seeking refuge. The idea that it’s intrinsic to the human condition to have one’s life upended, and to have to seek safe places to go in an intrinsically unstable and unsafe world, is a bedrock theme in my life.

That I’d have such a preoccupation is hardly surprising. Whether it’s an artifact of intergenerational trauma (in which the experiences of one generation are postulated to affect their DNA and become embedded in the mindset of later generations), or the result of childhood lessons pounded into me by my mother, I have always taken for granted that we’re all always at risk and likely to have our lives upended. My mother’s parents (my grandmother from Dnipro in Eastern Ukraine, my grandfather from a Polish shtetl, Izbica, near Lviv, Western Ukraine) came to the U.S. in the aftermath of World War I, to escape from a dangerously antisemitic society that threatened their well-being and limited their economic possibilities. My father, born in Vienna (to parents born in western Ukraine near Lviv as well) took refuge in France in 1938 along with 60 other Jewish kids sent by their families to the supposed safety of a Rothschild chateau. Then, when the Germans invaded, he crossed Vichy France largely on foot before being transported across Spain and Portugal by train and to New York by boat, thanks to a child rescue organization. I grew up with the idea carved into the Statue of Liberty that America’s purpose was to serve as the refuge for the world.

If that history were not enough, I myself underwent a version of the refugee experience. On the morning of September 11, 2001, my late partner, Peter, and I found ourselves suddenly cast out from our New York City home, a few hundred feet from the World Trade Center’s South Tower, unable to return for more than a year. Thankfully, we had the farm as a refuge. It was indeed that event, and Peter’s inability to pursue his old business (his rug inventory, in the apartment, being covered in ash) that led to the development of the farm as a going concern, a focus of Peter’s otherwise unchanneled energy.

Perhaps it was that history that protected me from being traumatized two years ago this week, when I, like several hundred thousand other more fortunate New Yorkers, made the overnight decision to take refuge from the COVID-19 pandemic in our weekend homes. I already understood the farm to be my safe haven, one I was by now well established in, and had already once before been through an overnight dislocation from “home”.

But events always unfold in ways that challenge our expectations. Reading with the mindset that “farm equals refuge,” I was brought up short when I read, in a Washington Post story about Ukrainian refugees transiting through Lviv last week, an interview with an exiting Ukrainian farmer:

“Nobody wants to leave their home,” said 55-year-old Anatoly, who wept as he told the story of their escape, leaving behind what he described as an idyllic, self-sufficient life on their farm with 150 cherry trees, two cows, two bulls and 100 chickens. But getting his family to safety was more important. 

I started filling in the missing elements of the story in my mind. What about the welfare of the animals? Surely he cares about his cows, I thought. I imagine, or at least hope, he left them in the care of a neighbor. I move heaven and earth to make sure I have someone feeding the animals on something approximating their regular schedule whenever I need to go the City to avoid them going hungry for a few hours (thank you, friend Steve, my stalwart volunteer). I view myself as part of their ecology. I couldn’t imagine how painful it would be to contemplate just leaving them to their own fates.

I wondered what made this Ukrainian farmer feel he had to leave. Doesn’t agriculture always have to go on? Don’t armies, which realize that they too have to eat, generally try to leave farmers alone? I recall television footage of our Special Military Peacekeeping Mission in Vietnam (I call it that, rather than War, so this bulletin can be read in Russia). It seemed to me that Vietnamese peasants continued to cultivate rice while armies fought around them. Doesn’t that apply here?

But most of all, I mourned the undermining of my deeply held conviction that “farm,” being so much more part of the landscape than any human-built structure, is the equivalent of “refuge”. Might I ever have to leave my farm for yet a different refuge? Is the very idea of refuge an illusion? Are we humans, who seem to have an instinct to war, far more intrinsically at risk than even I have assumed?

These terrorized Ukrainian civilians join millions of Afghans, Syrians and others on the move, seeking safe haven. To help ensure that their refuge is a reality, not an illusion, consider supporting USA for UNHCR or other organizations sharing that mission.


EGGS: $5/doz Plentiful, spring light has arrived, if not spring.

LAMB COMING: Finally a date at the slaughterhouse. They go to market March 8. If you’ve expressed an interest in lamb, it will be ready frozen the second to third week in March, and I’ll be sending you a cut sheet. For you others, there will be cuts of lamb available then.


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