Pictured Above: Scott Chaskey. |. Lindsey Morris photo for Milkweed Press

Pens are too light.
take a chisel to write.

This snippet of verse, winnowed by South Fork poet and farmer Scott Chaskey from the works of the poet Basil Bunting, helps to guide Chaskey’s sculptural new book of essays, “Soil and Spirit: Cultivation and Kinship in the Web of Life.”

Poems, like music, are “patterns of sound on the background of time,” as Bunting would say, and this book takes readers on a journey through Chaskey’s lived experience with words and with tools that till the earth, connecting ash wood handles to stands of trees to the mycorrhizal networks that hold forests together, to the mutual symbiosis between farmers and cultivars all over the world. 

It’s a lot to pack into just over 200 pages, but this book is well chiseled, and it makes a strong case for the growing philosophy that it is connections both within the natural world and between the natural world and humans (and between human networks as well) that will guide us through this period of global upheaval brought on by climate disruption. 

This term — climate disruption — is among the many carefully chosen pieces of language explored throughout this book. It’s a term that puts the earth’s current atmospheric woes in perspective. What is being disrupted can be reversed, but it’s up to us to find the will to do the work.

For those who have been on the East End a long while, the remembrances of watchful raptors perched on the wild verges of cultivated fields, the morning light casting shadows in a fresh plow’s harrow or the cognitive dissonance you experience when a salt breeze cools your brow as you work a parched field in the midday sun may be foundational memories.

But as the world’s dictionaries remove the words that mean much to farmers’ practices and replace them with words to describe broadband networks and computer code, the urgency of protecting these origins of language is palpable throughout this work, and it is also in step with the urgency of protecting rarified seeds, including those of a cranberry colored bean once planted by the Shinnecock Nation, saved by cultivators in Kentucky and brought back to Long Island by the author, who was intrigued by the singularity of origin encapsulated in the bean’s name: Shinnecock.

In America, we don’t often think of the word ‘peasant’ and if pressed to define it, we’d likely describe someone of low social status. But in Europe, Chaskey reminds us, peasant is a word that is synonymous with a person who works the land. It is a vocation, not a social status, and one of which many peasants are proud.

Agroecology “respects the social ecology of place,” says Chaskey, and it is a vital part of a farmer’s craft. You improve crop yields, over season upon season, by working with the natural systems already in place in and around the land you till.

This ethos, Chaskey reminds us, is also at the heart of Pope Francis’s 2015 letter “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.”

“We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental,” the Pope wrote. “Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

You don’t need to leave home to embark on this task, and its the rootedness of this book in the East End’s soil that really drives this point home for local readers. But it’s a point that can be made in any landscape, as the recently passed poet and novelist N. Scott Momaday reminded readers in his 1969 book “The Way to Rainy Mountain:”

“Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe,” he said. “He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it.”

One can reach these remembered places in thoughtful contemplation, in work out upon the land, and through conversations with others who know the land in their own places. This is ecology, and it is also culture, a culture that includes so much more than what mere humans bring to the table.

“The natural world and our participation within it are complex, interconnected , and, I will say, radiant,” Chaskey writes. “This persistent need of our species to conquer puts us at odds with the abundance of life that surrounds us, and in our refusal to act with reciprocity in mind and heart devolves to a planet in peril. After the era of exploration, we have entered an era of restoration, of the need to know and respect indigenous and diverse life-forms, and the choice to participate, rather than to dominate, is ours to make.”

“Soil and Spirit,” published by Milkweed Press last fall, is a wonderful reminder of this crucial and timely message. You can find it at East End libraries and bookshops, and anywhere books are sold. 


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Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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