reed magazine logoautumn2006

My essay

Tom Fenollosa

There is something indescribable about cutting the fields, some intangible sensation of peace that comes after hours upon hours atop the tractor. It doesn’t hit you until you run out of gas, or you stop for a honey ham and Swiss sandwich beneath that scrawny, pock-marked apple tree, or you close the barn door on the long, splotchy shadows cast from an aging sun. When you step down from the rear axle—jellied legs shaking from side to side, neither comfortable on firm ground—that’s when the silence engulfs you whole, deadening even your pounding eardrums and smothering the last turning-overs of the engine and shhhes of the sweating radiator.

 

During summers and school breaks, Tom Fenollosa ’10 escaped his hometown of Lexington, Massachusetts, to work on his family’s 150-acre noncommercial farm in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. Fenollosa attended a small private school in the Boston suburbs. “As much as I write about pastoral life,” he says, “I’m a city kid at heart, growing up in suburbia and trying to get as far away from it—into the city or out to the country—as I can.”

The quiet is surreal, as if it were waiting for some noisy crow or pickup truck to shatter the stillness. For the first time all day, you can hear the soft buzzing of summer, the restless grasshoppers and deerflies coasting on the muggy updrafts. You wince at the crunching of ground juniper beneath your sneakers, scruffy New Balances once white but now green from years of shuffling down the same path in the same field. And it is this very moment of quiet that you realize that it’s the most beautiful and inspiring music in the world, far bettering an Ellington improvisation or a Bach concerto. That blessed air of nothingness, of just the heaving and sighing of a living and vibrant earth, seems more vivid and sharp than the “TOM!”s, the slams of screen doors, and the last sputterings of a dying tractor engine.

Crescendoing every minute it is sustained longer, the music howls in our ears, inundating us with its foreign tongue. So much of everything is full of screeches, conversations, and thuds. We feel uncomfortable in the stillness of waiting rooms, fidgeting and fixing our collars, asking would you please turn up the air conditioning, anything to eliminate that endgame of waiting.

Just experiencing a world that is far too often unnoticed, I have discovered a lost paradise. I have taught myself to gaze not at my feet but all about me, to listen instead of speak, to reflect upon the world rather than affect it, merely to live without leaving a footprint, and I have found a place so interconnected and full of vitality. The clamor of lies, violence, hatred, and selfishness has created a place so polluted with superficiality and disconnection that we hardly know who lives next door anymore. It is in the silence of screaming talk show hosts, rush hour traffic, and the endless buzz of a television that we discover an astonishing beauty, a soft harmony of the spheres. I read an article last year about an elderly couple seated side by side in an airport terminal, the husband’s glazed expression fixed upon the overhead television, ignoring his wife who had been trying to spark conversation for several minutes. Suddenly the television screen blacked—someone flipped a switch, maybe. Walking by the couple several minutes later, the author noticed two smiling faces, their eyes locked as they would’ve been years before in young romance. If we could just listen, bask, even meditate in the silent nothingness of a plasticine airport terminal or a rural farm for just that, nothingness, we would find something so real that we might never close our ears again.

The walk uphill back to the house is just long enough to understand that the calm is an extraordinary rarity, that it is something that can only be found after a sticky day of haying the fields. And then the sounds return, rather unexpectedly. She needs to know whether you want salmon or lamb tonight, and is rice okay we haven’t had it in a long time.

fennolosa image
A woodcut of the Fenollosa farm in Gilmanton, New Hampshire