Today I'm pleased to welcome author Susan Oleksiw. She's well-known for her mystery novels and reference works, but today she talks about another book topic that has been hovering in the background of her life for years. Will she write this book or not?
For the last few years I have been grappling with my identity—not the one that shows up at work and efficiently gets things done, or the one that goes out to lunch with friends and always finds something to laugh about, not even the one that has learned to admit to strangers that, yes, I’m a writer. No, this is the one that I don’t quite know what to do with.
During one of those late night conversations in college, a psychology major talked about the many kinds of personalities we each have, how we are different with different social sets—family, friends, professional groups. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but his words have come back to haunt me because now I’m grappling with a forgotten self that won’t stay forgotten. So, I’ve been doing what any writer would do about this problem—I’m planning to write a book.
The book I’ve been thinking about writing is in lieu, I think, of actually taking on or reviving a part of my old personality.
I was born on a dairy farm. We left when I was four, but I learned to milk a cow when I was three. The farm was a lifelong dream of my parents, and even though they gave it up after a number of years, it never stopped being part of our consciousness; my brothers and I grew up talking about “our” farm and my mother chimed in with memories of her extended family’s farm, where she spent many treasured summers. On “our farm,” my mother drove the tractor, my father herded cows and ran the dairy, and everyone weeded the vegetable garden. When it came time to retire, my parents did the expected—they bought a farm. And when they died, my one surviving brother and I inherited it. We sold the house, and I kept the land.
I’m not the only one grappling with a longing to run a farm. According to Farmland Information Center, there were 7,307 farms in Massachusetts in 1997; that declined to 6,075 in 2002, but rose to 7,691 in 2007. Apparently, I’m not the only one working out a lifetime fantasy.
Before I let anyone think owning a farm is as romantic as it sounds, let me clarify. This is really a hay field and forest, a mostly wild place with deer paths to follow, a beautiful pond to glimpse through the trees, a swamp that moose particularly like, and old stone walls marking the boundaries. This may sound idyllic but it actually requires a certain amount of work. The land is under both a conservation restriction (nothing to do there but watch the trees grow) and Chapter 61 (this is where the work comes in), a reference to the state law that is designed to encourage good forest management and sustainability.
I like these ideas but keeping up with the management plan requires some attention and effort. The boundaries need to be marked every few years with weather resistant paint (plan on sacrificing at least one pair of pants for this), the hay field managed and properly recorded on your taxes, trees harvested on a schedule, and, if you have included this in your state approved management plan as I have, walking trails laid out so I can look for birds instead of watching every step I take to avoid tripping over roots and rocks or falling into holes.
The tension between the person who writes and thinks for a living and the one who marks trails and boundaries, worries about beetles, fisher cats, and other infestations, hangs over me until I escape into again thinking about writing a book. This is where I can resolve my ambivalence about farming, lay to rest the memories of a child’s favorite cow, a dearly beloved aunt who always had time for a precocious and lonely child, and appreciate how this kind of beginning for me and other members of my family informed our later years.
This book is a great idea, a delicious, intriguing, and absorbing idea. I love playing with it, working out chapter headings, topics for research, information on relevant laws. It’s so much fun thinking about that I’m not sure I’ll ever write it. And perhaps that’s the point. The farm is not a fantasy—it’s very real (I pay the taxes on it)—the book is the fantasy. It allows me to think about what land has meant to my family over the years and what it means to me now, to examine legacies, and in one small way thank the fates and the ancestors for putting me on the path I travel now.
Susan Oleksiw writes the Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva and the Anita Ray series, set in South India. The first in the series, UNDER THE EYE OF KALI, is available now from Five Star/Gale Cengage Learning. Find out more about Susan’s experiences in India at www.susanoleksiw.com