Walter Lester and Rex Dobson never met one another. Walter lived and died in the house he was born in. Rex, pretty much the same, in a simple farmhouse that nearly replicated Walters. Walter Lester's family farm was carved out of raw land in the Santa Clara Valley of California by his great-grand father in 1864. Rex's was carved out of the virgin timber of Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula by his great-grand father in 1865. Both were bachelor farmers throughout their lives and and after four generations on the same farmsteads, both had no immediate blood heirs. Their commonalities extended even further: Rex Dobson and Walter Lester shared the same vision of preserving what they knew was important, beyond their time.
Walter Cottle Lester died this past February in California at the age of 88. Rex Eugene Dobson died in 2011 in northern Michigan at the age of 87. Both men traversed the evolution of farming from oxen, to horses, to tractors. Both men knew how to hitch a team, how to lay out a field with a pole and chains, when to cut hay and when not to. They knew how to gauge the incoming weather, 36 hours out, by the type of clouds wafting overhead and how to set an orchard out on a hillside according to the sun's path come June, July and August.
Over time, as is often the case with pristine countryside, the value of their land rose exponentially. The temptation to sell was too much for many of their peers who cashed out and let slip their own heritage into the hands of developers, their acreage inevitably producing its final crop: stick-built homes. But both Walter and Rex were different. They dug in and plowed on, both men chasing so many developers and their checkbooks off the land that they lost count. They refused to sell, instead continuing the work they have always done, season after season.
In the fertile Santa Clara Valley and the rolling hills of Leelanau, unknown to one another, Walter and Rex made the same decision in the end, and in so doing, have left us with a lesson anyone who eats food, walks on soil, drinks water and breathes air needs to know: Our connection to, and knowledge of, the food we eat, the land upon which we grow it and the people who plow, plant and pick it is more important to our future than all the money in the world. Somewhere in the minds of these two men was one common understanding about life, family, land and the responsibility they had to hold firm to what they believed was important and timeless to us all.
In the early part of the last decade, in preparation for future educational endeavors, Rex Dobson spent many an afternoon over nearly four years quietly sharing his reflections of life at Ruby Ellen with a trained folklorist guiding him. He spoke of being a boy hearing the very first plane to cross the Leelanau sky as it flew over the farm one early evening and how the new sound sent the songbirds scattering in fright; stories of long winters harvesting ice off the lake and hot summers putting up hay with a team and a hay sling; pruning the young orchards at the cusp of spring and swimming the work horses in the cool waters of the lake at the backside of the farm after a long day of plowing.
This past winter, as a friend and founding member of Rex's Foundation, I had the honor of listening to those interviews for the first time since they were recorded over ten years ago, 130 tapes resulting in over 600 pages of a life and history some might, by today's standards, find rather dull. Indeed, the narrative does flow in a slow, methodical way, revealing the simple daily rotation of ritual common to all subsistence farmers. About midway through these tapes, I began to pick up the rhythm, the cadence of a life, a profoundly ordinary life, as it moved through the seasons, one rolling relentlessly into the next, year after year, decade after decade.
In his words, spoken in his own voice, I found the elements of simplicity, frugality, community, and continuity, anchors in a life subservient to weather and natures commands. Rex's life worked within natures systems, conforming to some basic governing rules of stewardship for land and beast coupled with an abiding respect for the earthly elements which man was never meant to control. I realized he represents a time when men respected nature, studied and learned her rhythms in order to work within them. The thought of altering her rules in the pursuit of profit simply did not exist. Rex farmed for family, both immediate and extended. It was a cycle of food production that began and ended on the same plot of land, precisely the goals so many of todays participants in the small farm movement strive to achieve. What was old is now new again, the wisdom of the Rexs and Walters of the world informing and teaching us everything we ever needed to know to grow our food in sustainable, and as it turns out, historically proven ways.
In listening to this remarkable man, this gentle, smiling farmer, tell the story of his life, I came to realize how disconnected we truly have become from the things that bind us to one another, the respect for one another that comes as a natural continuation of that interdependency. The reverence required for the land, the plants, ones neighbor, ones animals and ones own daily ritual in order to survive was omnipotent and staggering in the lives of Rex and Walter. It is this message that I believe both of them wanted us to never forget, to tie ourselves back to such a reverence, an understanding of the cyclical nature and interdependence of our actions toward our land, our food, our friends and our animals. Growing our food should be a simple process, done within community, for community.
Both Rex and Walter knew that these were the very elements that their farmsteads might just have the power to convey to those who would come after them, if they could just hang on and never sell out. Thankfully, neither one ever did.
Walters Lester's 300 acre farm is now The Martial Cottle Park and will see the preservation of the historic structures as well as the surrounding agricultural landscapes. Rex Dobson's 190 acre Ruby Ellen Farm is now under the care of the Rex Dobson Ruby Ellen Farm Foundation whose mandate is to continue to operate a functioning farm, preserve and perpetuate the historic structures as well as the surrounding agricultural landscape for educational purposes in addition to maintaining the extensive archive of documentation spanning nearly 150 years of life at Ruby Ellen Farm.
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