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Sometimes in your life, you come across a kindred spirit. Usually, it’s at a time when you least expect it, and in the most unusual of characters. Fictional, for example, or in people who you have never met. Despite these peculiarities, you just know that they are of the same spirit and mind as you, even if they are miles away. Tara Jensen is one of these kindred spirits. When I picked up her book and sat it across my lap in a hidden, dusty corner of Barnes and Nobles, I was not expecting to meet anyone kindred that day. But after the first few words, I just knew. Her book, A Baker’s Year, “chronicles twelve months of baking and living the simple life at the Smoke Signals Bakery”, smattered with a few recipes and baking techniques, which is what roped me in in the first place, but it was her story that made me stay. Better yet, she was able to summarize a collection of very deep-rooted feelings that even I was not able to bring to the surface until her words dug them from their graves, feelings which all too entirely shape the view that I have of the world today, as well as drive the actions that I choose to take in my daily living. I think everyone could benefit from her words, even if they are not interested in baking bread for their communities. Below is an excerpt from the book that struck a chord with me so many times over the course of two pages (!!). Below is the story of Camille.
“Camille came to Madison County in 1972 with her husband, Dave. Dave’s father had grown up here, moving to Detroit at the age of nineteen for a better life. He couldn’t believe Camille and Dave wanted to return to what he remembered as a desolate region with nothing to offer. They were warned not to come, but their minds were set on it. Enraged by the Vietnam War, they wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible and learn directly from those who could still teach the way of the land. Less income meant minor tax payments, resulting in fewer dollars toward war machine. They took on cows, chickens, rabbits, sheep and a garden. “A farm is a big name for what we had,” she says.
What was big was their ambition. It had to be. It was up against a lot. War was a symptom of an entire broken social system fueled by overconsumption. Refusal of business as usual was crucial to Camille. “I know we have to live,” she pointed out, “but we don’t need to do it at this level – we don’t need to destroy.”
Camille had already experienced the horrors of war. In 1944, her childhood home in Normandy was bombed, and although everyone was safe, the devastation left only a corner of the original house. Her family first took refuge in a nearby graveyard, surviving only on milk. There her father decided they would take the two-day walk to his parent’s farm, where he was certain food could be found. In the summer, they returned home to rebuild.
Normal weekly rituals ensued, one of which was a trip into town for bread. One afternoon, her sister returned with more than a sack of loaves; she also bore toys she’d found scattered on the roadside. Thin metal rods, like long pens, with a coil wrapped around the middle. They played with them for days, knocking them on rocks like drumsticks. But they weren’t toys. They were cast-aside detonators, and while her mother was busy with the wash, one exploded in Camille’s hand, causing the loss of her right arm at the age of two.
A decade into their life of resistance, Dave was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The long list of daily chores became difficult to maneuver. The cow jumped the fence. The sheep ran away. The dog chased the chickens into the woods. They allowed their responsibilities to dwindle, eventually eating the cow. “It was part of the economy,” Camille explained, a firmness still in her tone. Despite changes in physical comfort and energy, they were as true to their original intentions as they possibly could be.
After Dave passed, Camille carried on the design of their home and land, every nook and cranny meticulously thought out and crafted. Stairwells fashioned after the golden spiral, massive mosaic projects, wood scraps and windows everywhere: ideals for a gentle society radiate from the walls. “I never had a course in building,” she said, “just an interest. I could look at an old building, I would see that it was still standing, and I would think, That is good.” Although Dave is gone, his presence remains, amidst a host of new and radical projects.
Never short on determination, Camille hired a carpenter to frame a door into a dirt wall so that she might dig herself a basement. Rigging up a bucket, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow, she chipped at the top of the wall, directing the dirt downward into the bucket. When the bucket was full, she’d take it to the wheelbarrow and empty it. When the wheelbarrow was full, she’d haul it outside and dump it in the gully. She kept at the work for days and months until rumors began to surface.
Her apprentice who frequented the local bar came to report back on the widespread speculation about what exactly Camille was up to. “You’ll never believe what they’re saying about you, Camille. They say you are digging out your basement single-handedly with a spoon!”
She chuckled. “Well then, let them think just that.”
I spoke with Camille recently. We wondered if it was even possible for future generations to go back to the land. There is increasingly less land to go back to, and the old-times who knew the plants and the ballads are passing each year. Besides, living the rural life isn’t for everyone. It seems that each spring, a new crop of young homesteaders arrive bursting with ideas, and only some of them make it to the next year for one reason of another. Many leave when they have children, and divorce is common under the stress of poverty. I like living here because it is so unchanged, and yet sometimes I forget there is a world past the blown-out streetlight. This landscape is a jungle that does not bend to human will easily. Some like the challenge. Some don’t.
Yet what we lack in finery we make up for in freedom. We have a choice. We can choose the detonator or the spoon. What will you leave behind? What will your legacy be? Free, gentle, and diverse is the culture I want for myself, my community, and my bread. Be an instrument for peace. Choose the spoon.”
To learn more about the nuances of simple living, or to learn about baking bread, please do go on and read A Baker’s Year. Our society can benefit from her words in more ways than one.