By Tom Ehrich
You’d have the know a life history to understand what Sunday’s “Unsung Heroes” concert in Accord, NY, meant to me.
You’d have to know what I felt growing up middle-class in Indiana – and wanting to be anywhere but there, in the middle and in Indiana. You’d have to know how I pushed myself relentlessly to study hard, to calibrate my life to the opinions of others, and to reach for one brass ring after another, sometimes catching it, sometimes falling short.
You’d have to know the exultation of making it and the frustration of not making it – and the ongoing arithmetic to measure the balance between winning and losing. You’d have to know the constant financial anxiety of living on a clergy salary and of always reaching for more.
You’d have to know the excitement of harnessing my God-given skill of writing to the amazing possibilities of technology and realizing I could stand on my own. And the recent discovery that the simple life – farmhouse, country road, rural backwater, no one singing my praises – is just fine. Better than fine, in fact.
If you knew all that, you would understand why it moved me so deeply to hear local artists singing the stories of family farmers. After interviewing elderly farmers, talented singers told of their “making do,” respecting the land, loving the life they chose, feeling the joy of family life on a farm and the sadness of seeing family die and move away. Not a one had had an easy life, not a one had prospered materially, and yet all felt a sense of purpose and fulfillment that eludes many people and certainly eluded me in my brass-ring-reaching days.
The Rondout Valley of Ulster County was made for farming. The soil in the surrounding Hudson River Valley is said to be among the most fertile in the world. From growing wheat to feed American soldiers in the Revolution to more recent focus on dairy, apples, pears and vegetables for farm markets, this area feeds people.
Like everything within 100 miles of New York City, the Rondout Valley shows all the signs of wealth made in pursuits such as finance, entertainment, and real estate. A striver like myself could feel right at home here. And yet as I looked around the farmers and neighbors attending Sunday’s concert and as I listened to the songs and heard the farmers themselves speak, I realized that “these are my people.” Not because I know a thing about farming, but because I want a life centered in family, the land, and my own creativity. Whether that life yields great wealth has become immaterial to me.
I have sensed this truth for many years, but never yielded to it. I remember spending a week with the Sioux in South Dakota and receiving from them far more than I could give. I remember stopping for lunch east of the reservation at a diner filled with farmers wearing caps labeled “Dekalb” and “John Deere,” and wanting to know this town. I remember visiting my wife’s English-as-a-second-language class in Manhattan and dancing with joy-filled Mexicans, Colombians and Ecuadorians, and thinking, This is New York’s hopeful side.
So I have glimpsed the deeper truth. On Sunday I saw it on full display. This is a good time to be alive.