Amy Leavitt

Purgatorio, A Farm


Down a dead-end dirt road near the eastern edge of Vermont, lying beyond the bend that leads to the Luce family’s cheese-and-dairy operation, opposite what remains of the half-sunk stonewall lining old Sessions Meadow, you will find an 11-acre organic farm. Its name, Purgatorio, has been hand-carved on a scrap of pine board and nailed to the crosspiece on the front porch of the farmhouse. To steal a line from the city of Buffalo: It is a farm of no illusions. If you stop by seeking paradise, like good New Englanders we’ll shake our heads, lean on our hoes, and assure you, “You can’t get there from here.”

Fixing my eyes on my muddy boots and jabbing a toe in the mire, I confess that I can find no purchase on paradise. Like the pea in a con man’s shell game, it is never here and now. We are primed to pine for what is lost—for what might have been or what might be—for payday, for redemption, for deliverance, for the promised land, but Nietzsche dismisses paradise as a place “beyond the true world… invented in order to devalue the only world there is… our earthly reality.” A trick of light, foregrounding what is gone, darkens what remains.

The word paradise stems from an Old Iranian root that translates as “walled enclosure.” This architecture exists to wall out some, while others prance about within. Paradise necessitates exclusion. Which side of the wall you see yourself on tells me who you are. As James Baldwin has observed, the excluders depend on the excluded for their own identity. It is on exclusion that a rise of power can inexorably depend. This architecture of exclusion, its “grisly pattern” of “ruthless division,” impedes free movement and begets the power-gridded spaces of prisons, ghettos, and gated communities. To sin is to trespass. The inadmissible do not count. Baldwin writes in an essay, “How bitterly weary I was of wandering, how I hoped to find a resting place, a reconciliation... but everything that might have charmed me merely reminded me of how many were excluded, how many were suffering and groaning and dying.”

According to Paradise: The History of an Idea that Rules the World, the indigenous people encountered by the earliest Christian missionaries to the Congo did not have a comparable concept of an elite heaven. “We had no idea of wonderful gardens or of perfect places, not at least until the missionaries arrived. There was only the belief that the forest would always provide.” Also alien to the Abrahamic notion of an elect’s one-way passage to paradise is the Buddhist concept of nirvana, where, according to the Buddhist Faith Fellowship’s website, “Enlightened beings immediately return to this suffering world… as part of the ongoing working of Great Compassion to lead all sentient beings to liberation.” But perhaps these are merely tales we tell ourselves in Purgatorio to pass the time after dusk falls.

If paradise is heads and inferno tails—the eternal duality—then let purgatory be the coin spinning on its side, oscillating unsteadily, until finally it topples, the upside perpetually blank. In Purgatorio—unlike the theological purgatory—we are good for nothing. We have no avowed goal or saving grace. What we love most surely could not endure in paradise: those delicate differences that bespeak individuality. We take our no-account selves straight up: obstinate and stupid, deluded and broken-down, anguished and irresolute.

We want little to do with walls, especially those that trap women in cramped, unscalable domestic box-canyons. On our land the stonewalls are un-mended, and we traipse them on frosty mornings with neighbors, chatting. We refuse to make promises to each another, which renders us—since paradise is premised on a promise—unparadaisical (as well as unmarriageable). Here in Purgatorio, we hold with Shakespeare: “My mistress, when she walks, walks on the ground.” Here in Purgatorio, we bawl the blues, which Angela Davis calls “secular spirituals… music that blurs the sacred and the secular.” Here in Purgatorio, we won’t hum, “Someday my shit won’t smell” and we fend off the hard sell of paradise-hustling missionaries.1

We modeled Purgatorio on the set of Waiting for Godot, and, like Beckett’s tramps, we amuse ourselves with howlers as we attempt not to add to the sum of the world’s pain before the curtain falls. Beckett wrote, “What do I know of man’s destiny? I could tell you more about radishes.” His Molloy lives near to us: “Deep down is my dwelling, oh not deepest down, somewhere between the mud and the scum.” He once counseled a friend, “Don’t lose heart. Plug yourself into despair and sing it for us.”

Purgatorio is where we suffer ourselves.

Ito Noe, the Japanese anarchist, wrote, “If one gains the ability to look directly at one’s authentic self, one cannot help but become serious. Here human weakness is in evidence. It is extremely painful to stare intensely at one’s real self, full as it is of vacuities and defects. It is indescribably agonizing. For human beings it is truly excruciating to be completely honest and acknowledge one’s responsibility.”

This is why we did not name our farm Happy Valley. We tossed Plato’s forms on the compost pile, and we trash-talk our winter nights away around the wood stove. We dig holes in hard ground. We plow under last year’s crop of melancholy, but never unearth all the roots. We set snares to trap our blind spots. Fenceposts sink and we prop them up. Early frost nips tenderness, and secret slugs eat our magic beans. Our doubts don’t die back, and sloth and envy get to the grapes. Easily moved by beauty and drink, we let the time slip by. Here we face the truth about our lives. Purgatorio is where our shit does stink, we flaunt more folly than wisdom, we teeter between hope and despair. Here is where we mulch our misplaced certainties and perfect our stoical resignation. (Wittgenstein, when asked derisively whether he wanted to be perfect, responded, “Of course I want to be perfect!”) Here we do our best to console ourselves, swap stories, be kind. We turn to solidarity rather than redemption for comfort. We replace prayer with laughter, whatever its intent, whatever its source. We chop wood, spill water. Purgatorio is where we cavort in our communal briar patch. We have only one another, and the half-light.

I ask my partner in Purgatorio, a man of the soil, a man who sees through walls, what he thinks of paradise. He doesn’t hesitate. “It’s a scam. In the Garden of Eden there’s always a snake and we’ll always make rotten choices.”

1Moralists! Attend to your own motes and beams. Only a fool worries about someone else’s guilt. If we must have preaching, give me the Promethean defiance of the comedian Richard Pryor: “How long? How long? (Pause) How long must this bullshit go on?

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