According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one half of the adult population worked on a farm in 1870. By 1900, it was a third, and then a fifth by 1950. In 2020, less than 2 percent of adults worked on a farm. As we moved from farms and small towns to cities and suburbs, we experienced phenomenal gains in productivity and creativity. We have also severed ourselves from understanding and knowing the land.
Poet Jessica Gigot originally trained as a biologist. When she was in her 20s, she experienced a kind of call for understanding the land. Inspired by the local food movement, she spent several years as a farm intern in the Pacific Northwest. She eventually earned an advanced degree in horticulture. As her 2021 memoir A Little Bit of Land makes clear, Gigot wanted to understand farming, but she also wanted to know why people farmed. What was it that kept so many generations of farmers on the land and attracted so many newcomers?
In the process of learning about the land and farming it, Gigot also discovers herself. Her journey into agriculture becomes a journey into self-discovery and understanding her own family. She learns about soil and animals, and she understands what happened to her parents’ marriage. She finds someone she falls in love with and discovers that he’s also involved with a married woman in his father’s church. She learns about sheep and the critical importance of water. She settles in and farms in the Skagit Valley of northwestern Washington State; the farm is called Harmony Fields. She makes a life for herself and, eventually, her own family.
A Little Bit of Land is beautifully written. It’s about farming and rural life, about neighbors and friends, about animals and the land. Gigot finds life in the land, and in the process, she finds herself.
And it was farming and the land that led her to poetry. Her first collection, Flood Patterns, was published in 2015. Her second collection is Feeding Hour. It’s about birth, digging, family, and mothering. And, of course, sheep. It’s also about wind, and water, and fences, and a hawthorn tree, and salmon, and recipes, and museum visits, and weasels, and all of the other facts and events of living and working on a farm.
And it’s about life and birth, and comparing pregnancy to the experience of the monarch butterfly.
These fluttering movements feel like monarchs
Trapped inside me. My stomach is a mason jar
Holding this black and orange verve.
I remember watching their wings cling
To oyamel fir trees, Abies religiosa, after two
Thousand miles of flight. Generations four
Times removed return to the same trees,
Guided by some nucleotide whispers or
A familiar smell in the wind.
You must trust the twisted route,
Over mountain tops, through canals
To find your own familiar.
Feeding Hour was a finalist for the 2021 Washington State Book Award. Gigot’s literary work has been published in such publications as Orion, The New York Times, The Seattle Times, Terrain.org, and many others. She’s also a poetry editor for The Hopper.
And, of course, she’s a sheep farmer, a wife, a mother, and a writer. Opening the door to her life, which she does in both A Little Bit of Land and Feeding Hour, shows a love of the land and what she’s learned from it.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
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