Two white-haired women farmers in Lac Qui Parle County challenged and changed me by their example. I met them by lucky chance.
Six years ago, as an artist, I was searching for river stories to paint into a giant map of a river that twists through people’s lives. I’d heard tales, west of Montevideo, of the Glacial River Warren, the Coteau, mapmakers and voyageurs, otters, beaver, buffalo, and kayaking on the river. Then someone said, “But if you want to hear the cosmic story of the river, you’ve got to meet the Fernholz sisters of Earthrise Farm.”
A winter storm was blowing in as I headed towards the Lac Qui Parle River. I turned off Highway 40, at a sign that said “Earthrise Farm, Eggs.” I followed the unpaved road to the farmhouse door. Wind slashed my face as I stepped out of my car and into the snow. I tried the front door and back, to no avail. I climbed an icy set of steps and rapped on an upstairs door.
There was a surge of barking, growls, and yaps as the door creaked open. Midmorning sun shimmered through the crack that widened to reveal two whitehaired sisters in their 70s: dark-eyed Annette and her blue-eyed sister Kay.
Inside, I could see windows sparkled with cut crystals and colored glass. Green plants grew. The entryway glowed, an oasis in the gray.
”Come on in,” beamed Kay, pulling her sweater close and shushing the three dogs beside her.
“Look what the wind blew in,” laughed Annette, as I dripped ice melt across the floor.
I was afraid of the developing storm, so I could stay only 15 minutes. In those moments, I could easily see the deep bond these sisters had to the earth and the nearby river.
As girls they had played by its creek. Their father had fought to save its cottonwoods. Now they tended Earthrise Farm as part of a larger story.
I returned that spring, and many times more, to stay in their small round structure at the edge of the woods. I fell in love with the sisters, Earthrise Farm, and their enormous vision.
Their view is flamboyantly simple: Earth is a cosmic gift, and every particle is alive with energy from the Big Bang. The heirloom tomatoes, the lowly slug, the golden willow, the Lac qui Parle River, and the farthest galaxy — all pulse with life and seek to commune with us. A farmer has only to listen. “Farming is an art,” says Annette, “You have to live as close to the natural laws of the planet as possible.” “She means,” adds Kay, “even the grass is another part of the family.”
The sisters also are nuns —members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. When they were 55 and 57, they left years of institutional teaching to return to the land, to their roots on the farm where they grew up.
Kay was nearly 60 when they planted the first long rows of potatoes. Next came organic broccoli, green beans, beets, lettuce, summer squash, cucumbers, and later, chickens. The name Earthrise was inspired by the astronauts who went to the moon and looked back to see our planet rising like a jewel in the enormous dark.
Earthrise Farm has thrived over many seasons, produced dozens of shares of food, and mentored nearly 40 interns, including one young woman who went back to China to start a Community Supported Agriculture movement of her own.
Now that I’ve turned 60, I feel the enormous gift of the sisters. Thanks to Kay and Annette, I see my own future not as a time of turning in, but as a time for growth. For me, this means a return to my roots in writing, and the years I lived in Japan. Last year I published a story of a trip to Fukushima.
With Annette and Kay, who recently celebrated her 80th birthday, I’m working on a book that will bring Earthrise to life in words and images. We are imagining recipes and stories and memories and dreams, not just of a cosmic river, but of the whole cosmic Earth, whose green and growing hope springs to life through the mindful tending of the soil.
Back at my home, I’m starting something else of my own: a mini-farm on my city lot. No chickens for now, but who knows? The future is open.
Susan Armington is a Minneapolis-based artist and writer who leads community art and story projects throughout Minnesota. Learn more at susanarmington.com