Farmer’s Tale

I woke up this morning thinking perhaps the wife in this little allegory from Fragment’s ancient history was right.

When we expose our greatest hopes and precious things to strangers, we may be thought a fool. But the ordinary treasures we share may touch lives in ways we cannot imagine. This is the tale of one hopeful fool.

He prepared them lovingly, his precious mementos and carefully pressed flowers. He arranged them prominently on simple benches near the road. Just beyond, by the barn, a rough oak plank set across two tree stumps formed a crude table to display all manner of clippings and cards that flapped in the breeze-some brittle and yellow with age, others crisp and white from yesterday’s journal.

Someone might care to turn the thin pages and read the forgotten stories, said the farmer to himself. Up around the bend near the low-water bridge, photographs were pinned haphazardly on the dark trunks of the maple trees-dog-eared, roughly framed or not at all; some new, most sepia toned from the passage of time, worn with a patina of love and memory. Trinkets and curios, found things and very private bric-a-brac lined the dirt road along a quarter mile of this seldom traveled path in a remote part of a sparsely peopled region of the rural land of Erehwon.

“Who will come?” she asked derisively. “You are a foolish old man” said the farmer’s wife, “and if anyone comes, they will think you mad”.

“Friends I have never met will come”, said the farmer. Strangers will come who do not know that they wanted to know about these things I show them here until they have seen them. In seeing them, they will see into me and trust me, and we will share the deep things of our souls with each other, me and my visitors.”

The farmer was careful to set out chalk boards nailed to roadside trees. He put pads of paper on the display tables so that his guests could tell him about themselves and direct him to their places. With these wonderful leavings, he would be able to visit them all around the world and see their treasures and know their found things, sepia memories, and golden dreams.

And so, the days and weeks passed. Visitors did come down his road, but more often than not, they drove by without stopping. Yet the farmer thought in their passing they might have acknowledged in some small way his racks and tables and adornments. Many came down his road quite by mistake, looking for the shopping mall or in order to read some strange and terrible story not contained in the farmer’s collection. Some surely thought him mad.

But lo, wonder of wonders, some of the wanderers who came tarried, even occasionally handling one or two of the treasures on the rickety tables. They turned them over curiously in their hands. Once, a visitor exclaimed “This is the most wonderful thing I have ever seen” upon discovering some small caged creature that was so commonplace in the farmer’s life that it was barely worthy of note.

This delighted him, and he was eager to tell his wife that indeed, his treasures were becoming treasures to one in a hundred of his guests, and that this was enough. But in truth, he was always disappointed when they remained strangers as they drove away. He soon learned to take joy in the fact that they had come at all.

His chalk boards and scratch pads and his green rusty mailbox near the stone walk to his door remained sadly empty. From time to time, a visitor would pen “hello I came by”, or “my name is Mary. Nice tables and stuff”. The farmer was always thrilled to see that the page was not empty, but dejected when he had given so much of himself and learned so little of his visitors. He began to feel foolish and doubted himself and the public display of his silly yard-sale memories and special things that were sacred only to him.

And yet, in his more hopeful moments, he thought “There is a point to this that I cannot see yet. If I am faithful to my dream, they will come and stop. They will share and invite me to their roads. And when those strangers are able to put their precious things on all the roadsides of Erehwon and the larger world beyond, we will grow to know and trust and care for each other. We will learn from and about those of us that seem strange and unfamiliar, as I must seem now to my visitors.”

And so, the strange farmer of Erehwon still searches in his garden and woods, and in his memories and hopes and golden dreams, to find things each day to display before his visitors. If he is mad, he is harmless; and if his strange ways become the way of the lands beyond Erehwon, his madness will have become his joy.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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