As usual, mine is the first car in the lot. Although this field and several adjacent to it will be filled with hundreds of vehicles when I return to the car sometime this afternoon, for now I’m alone in the predawn silence. I turn off the paved driveway, bump over the field to the first row of parking, and lock up the car. From here it’s about a quarter mile down a hill and through a managed woodland to the fairground. My shift in the kitchen that will provide about 700 free meals today for all the volunteers, vendors and guest speakers starts at 6 a.m. Better get moving.
I’ve come here this morning, as I have done every September since I retired (except for last year, when the Epic Roof Job caused me to miss) to be one of the hundreds of volunteers at the three-day Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, Maine. This is the fortieth year the fair has been put on by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, or MOFGA, which is the largest organic organization in the country, with upwards of 7000 members. Considering that half of those are family memberships, the number of people involved is probably over 10,000 at this point. Yes, I’m a proud, card-carrying member.
Common Ground attracts over 60,000 fairgoers each year, which is pretty remarkable given that there are no midway rides and no cotton candy. Instead, what patrons get is exactly what’s promised on the Fair posters: a celebration of rural living. Well, make that a celebration of small farms and farmers, of craftspeople, artisans and musicians, of healthy lifestyles and communities, of a mindset that doesn’t treat the Earth like dirt, of the animals who are working partners on our farmsteads, of power to the people and taking care of the bees, of LOTS OF GREAT FOOD and you begin to get the picture. Add to this some 200 lectures, demonstrations, presentations, and workshops each day and you’ll quickly see what distinguishes this from any other agricultural fair. Over the years, I’ve learned about colony collapse disorder in bees, Monsanto’s latest outrages, hoophouses, small-scale cheese-making, artisanal bread, the effort to reestablish strains of wheat that once flourished in Maine’s short summers, home funerals and green burial, cider making, how to build a wood-fired pizza oven, heritage apple varieties, home-scaled wind power, and a host of other interesting and useful knowledge and skills.
And right after I finish my volunteer shift at 10 o’clock, I’ll explore all of that. Work before pleasure, however. The kitchen is calling.
If you’re reading this on Friday morning, September 23, I may be flipping blueberry pancakes or mixing up an apple coffeecake, peeling and dicing potatoes for the Common Kitchen’s renowned home-fries, or cracking dozens of eggs for scrambling. Most probably, however, I’m stationed at the commercial dishwasher, because once you’ve been trained on the beast, the kitchen coordinator swoops on you the moment you walk through the door. It doesn’t matter a bit to me exactly what I’m doing, though. The company is cheerful, the classic rock ‘n roll playing on the radio has us all singing or humming, and there’s a wonderful shared sense of purpose.
These are my people. This is where I want to be.