Left in Andover: Getting in touch with the earth

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

For me, summer on Popplewood Farm in 1958 meant forced labor. I detested the endless hoeing of weeds in my family’s large vegetable garden. There were, however, several limited compensations.

When no one was watching, I dallied, catching grasshoppers to feed my kitty, who lolled in the grass, ready to snap the quivering green tidbits from my hand. If I accidentally chopped a worm in half with my hoe, I comforted myself with the knowledge that it would regenerate itself.

The Leader family hoeing vegetables in 1958 on Popplewood Farm in Andover. Woodchuck Lodge is in the background and the author is on the far left.

Witchgrass, my nemesis, similarly intrigued me. I knew that even a hair-like segment broken off its main root could grow back. Once I collected a ball of the roots and put them away in my dresser because Dad said I could leave them there for a whole year and they would still be viable.

My only hope of reprieve from long hours of labor in the garden was if one of us kids struck a rock too big to pick up and toss out of the garden. At first strike with the hoe, it would be impossible to predict its size. But if our luck held, it would prove titanic, like an iceberg with just its tip showing.

That was because my dad adored digging out rocks, both for the sheer love of the physical exertion and for the opportunity to demonstrate physics to us kids.

He would sound the call and everyone would stop working. Even my mother came out the back door from the kitchen to watch. With his favorite crow bar in hand — a massive length of iron — he would triumphantly poke a deep narrow trench around the target rock.

Herb Leader, triumphant at rock-moving.

We kids hustled to collect smaller stones to toss into the space that opened up under the crowbar as he jimmied it deeper and deeper into the earth and underneath the bottom side of the rock and watched as it miraculously rose closer and closer to ground level.

Eventually, after perhaps 15 minutes of joined effort, we could roll it away with ease, no matter how big it was.

Then for the best part — which never failed — Dad declared the rest of the day a holiday! Time to put away our tools in the Woodchuck Lodge and run to jump up onto the truck. My parents hopped inside the cab, as we three kids lined up behind it on the back, holding tight to the wooden slats.

My hair whipped furiously in the wind as we sailed around the Oxbow, through the village of Andover and down to West Chester to celebrate with 5-cent ice cream cones at Corliss’s Drive-Up, hoeing weeds but a distant memory in my 7-year-old life.

In the mid-1950s, the Leader children — author is in the middle — on the back of the family truck.

Perhaps the FBI had not been been so far off the mark when, years before I was born, it described my father’s agricultural pursuits as “Small Farm, Little Farming.” Certainly, his first priority was never mere production, but rather, creating a way of life, educating us and making an adventure of life.

My mother more than equaled him. In 1942, at the age of 21, before she ever dreamed she would land in Vermont, she wrote:

“I feel that by nature, I am suited for a life close to the soil, to the fundamental things of life, to hard work, to receiving great happiness from the basic elements in life – from the soil, the sunlight, the fresh air … and growing things, both plant and animal.”

Miriam Leader, the author’s mother, in the late 1970s, with pole beans and repurposed cookie jar head.

It turns out that becoming a potter was my own adult version of how to be, quite literally, in touch with the earth.

I even enjoy tending a modest vegetable garden. I receive a lot of pleasure putting my treasured collection of ancestral gardening implements, identifiable by the vestigial green paint on their handles, to regular use, then putting them down again, any time I like.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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