A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
At the beginning of the summer, in the middle of the country, dawn breaks over the heartland. The village of Waunakee is minced with lonesome county roads, a place where men sport Carhartt and chew Skoal, where women don teased bouffants, where the little ones play football even though everyone knows it will ruin their brains. To the north sits the Holy Wisdom monastery, where a circle of Benedictine women nurture a community garden and recite the Liturgy of Hours every weekday at noon, and to the south is Wisconsin Scaryland, a haunted house that used to be a Stop & Go fueling station but now frightens carloads of Wisconsinites on frigid October evenings. Between these cosmic polarities, the land of Waunakee is dominated by endless rows of corporate corn, which are as tall as a man and so meticulously arranged they resemble a military formation. But after a couple of miles something goes wrong. There is a break in the pattern, a mutiny in the landscape. In the center of these steroidal, chemically treated cornfields are eleven acres of plush organic farmland, the perimeter of which has been buffered with a wall of sunflowers.
“I planted them,” Steve Acheson tells me, “because that sharecropper next door drenches his corn with Roundup, and the last thing I wanted was my produce getting soaked with the same shit they sprayed on my buddies in Vietnam.” While Steve is only thirty and fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom, many of the workers on his veteran-led farm served in the Tet Offensive and were exposed to Agent Orange. Whenever curtains of pesticide drift into Steve’s fields, their skin undergoes a scabrous allergic reaction called chloracne, a nasty crimson rash of blisters and boils. As we walk the borders of his farm, Steve’s eyes are lowered under a faded brigadier cap and tendrils of black hair sprout from its brim. He wears an Iraq Veterans Against the War t-shirt and his skin is dark as syrup. He points at the sunflowers, whose broad golden-rayed blossoms seem to have absorbed the worst of the sharecropper’s toxins. They hang limp and withered, the posture of a dejected person. “Within a couple weeks, they died,” Steve says, “which kind of sucked, since they’re pretty, but that’s what they’re supposed to do.”
I first heard about Steve Acheson and his farm while playing pickup basketball with some colleagues from work. I teach English at a small Dominican college in Madison, Wisconsin, serving as an adjunct instructor, which is essentially the academy’s version of a fry cook. As we dribbled under yolky sunlight, my friend Josh gushed about his weekly CSA parcel, a topic of conversation that is, I confess, totally unremarkable in a granola-crunching town like Madison. An incorrigible foodie, Josh raved about the vegetables, praising their bold colors and intricate mouthfeel. The farm was called Peacefully Organic Produce, “and the guy who runs the place,” Josh said, “is absolutely incredible.” He proceeded to describe Steve, a young Iraq War vet who had been something of an eminence in the contemporary anti-war movement and had apparently thrown away his service medals at a 2012 NATO summit in Chicago. A few years ago, Steve withdrew from activist circles and moved to Waunakee to start the veteran farm, trading the rancor of dissidence for the tranquility of the plains. “Sometimes in the furrows, out of nowhere, he’ll blurt things like ‘Fuck the Koch brothers!’” Josh said. “And I’m like, what? And then he explains that the twine we’re using to trellis the tomatoes is actually manufactured by Koch Industries.”
Over the previous couple of years, I had developed an abiding interest in veterans’ issues, mostly because so many of my students were veterans of the Iraq War. These men and women would sit stoically in the back of my classroom, unamused by my standard dog-and-pony show, my wretched attempts to be the “cool professor.” They’d joggle their knees at insane speeds and stare out the window with faraway expressions, recalling the “thick-eyed musing” that Lady Percy accuses Hotspur of in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Still, their prose often stood head and shoulders above the standard freshman drivel, exhibiting a certain rigor of thought and depth of feeling that perhaps comes from having witnessed whole anthologies of trauma—entire villages razed by fire, wide-eyed children draped in gore, wives screaming beside mutilated husbands.
Many of these vets were as old as I was— if not older—and seemed like uncanny incarnations of the kids I had known in high school. I had been a baby-faced junior when the Twin Towers fell—during Algebra 2, the principal came over the PA, delivering the news in a soft, grief-cracked contralto—and many of my classmates would eventually enlist out of a desire for revenge, economic necessity, or a marrow-level sense of civic obligation. (“Ask not what your country can do for you . . . ,” and so on.) Over a decade later, face-to-face with these students, who had been halfway around the world and back, who often stared at me with spooked eyes and a squirrelly intensity, I was forced to confront certain aspects of myself I’m reluctant to admit. The fact of the matter is that while I went off to college and attended keggers, these men and women were devoting their lives to certain fleecy abstractions that would make most of the civilians I know roll their eyes: duty, honor, and country.
In the US, it’s customary to honor our veterans with the following shibboleth: “Thank you for your service.” If you see uniformed individuals in airports or checkout lines, it’s proper decorum to sidle up and offer this brusque hosanna. But for some reason, whenever my students would talk about their service, I could never bring myself to utter the phrase. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel some measure of gratitude toward them, nor was my silence some kind of artful partisan complaint. Rather, “Thank you for your service” struck me as sterile, a neutered term, the type of grandiose abstraction that implies everything but doesn’t actually mean anything. After all, what exactly was I thankful for? That it wasn’t me who had withered in the deserts of a foreign country and risked head and hide for a cluster of eighteenth-century ideas? That, adjusted for inflation, gas prices have remained relatively constant over the last forty years?
Throughout the early days of summer, my friend Josh kept mentioning Steve, and one evening in early June, I found myself Googling the farm. Peacefully Organic Produce, it turned out, had a slick, well-curated website, teeming with photos of vegetables that were so lurid and engorged they verged on being pornographic. One photo showed Steve—a tan, darkly featured guy with jam-band hair and a rakish smile. In the photo, he’s backdropped by sunflowers, his arms outstretched beatifically, as if to say, can you believe this?
The packing shed at Peacefully Organic Produce is a temple of anti-war sentiment. Its walls are papered with dissident posters, most of which resemble the homespun covers of pamphlets and zines, with grayscale illustrations drafted in black sharpie marker. WAR IS TRAUMA, one reads. SUPPORT GI RESISTANCE, says another. Right now, Steve is rummaging through the storage cooler while bragging about the time he met Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine.
“He was up front marching with us at a protest in DC. At some point, he turns to me and is like, ‘Hey man, can you get my guitar?’” Steve beams at the memory. “So I haul ass backstage and fetch his acoustic.”
Ever since I arrived at the farm, Steve has been zooming over hill and dale through his morning chores: harvesting salad greens for a wholesale order, delegating jobs to his combat veteran staff, and tilling the cabbage beds for new seedlings. I keep offering to help, but he consistently begs off in a distinctly Midwestern fashion, saying, “Aw, thanks, man,” but then never actually assigning me any tasks. Throughout these errands, he offers an unbroken stream of autobiography—about his deployment, about his activism, about his high school wrestling career. One of my best friends from childhood had been to All-State, and when I mention this, Steve pokes his head out of the storage cooler and asks, with mortal seriousness, “What was his name?”
I tell him, and he says, “Oh, yeah. I remember that kid. I beat the shit out of him.”
At the rear of the packing shed, the doorway glows with torrid sunshine, and I follow Steve through it, swiftly entering a nirvana of color. Rambling out to the distant wood line, the farm is lush and mesmerically green, bearing a whole nomenclature of organic vegetables—from chard to arugula, beets to patty pans, basil to summer squash. Flocks of volunteers pluck thistle in the furrows, their brows stitched with concentration. Smedley, the farm’s jovial yellow lab, appears beside us, dragging a tree branch that is the size of a dinosaur bone, the jagged broken end of which digs a rivet in the grass, prompting Steve to say, “Show-off.”
As we meander toward the potato beds, he tells me about growing up at his stepdad’s dairy farm in the boondocks of Wisconsin. “It was like a Tim McGraw video,” he says. “Friends would park their cars in the pasture and sleep in tents. We’d pull dead trees out of the forest and build forty-foot fires and drink tons of beer. And I didn’t discriminate. Everyone came out. The jocks, the stoners, the smart kids. Everyone was invited.”
It’s easy to identify Steve in this lineup of John Hughes archetypes—the affable, razor-witted kid who belonged to no clique but slid easily between lunchroom hierarchies, liked by everyone. After high school, though, Steve felt cramped and restive in his small Midwestern town. His postgraduation prospects weren’t exactly lambent either. For a while he worked as a deejay, mixing playlists for school dances, followed by a landscaping gig and an engineering internship, but nothing seemed like it would extract him from this Podunk setting. “When the recruiter finally called me,” he says, “it seemed like the right thing to do.”
Upon his arrival at Fort Stewart, he was trained as a forward observer. So formidable was his performance during basic training that he was named the Distinguished Honor Graduate in his class and was eventually chosen to be the lead driver for a threetruck convoy tasked with protecting a US brigade commander in Iraq. He accompanied the colonel wherever he went—meetings with ayatollahs, talks with the interim government. At one point, he even had Petreaus in his truck; General Casey, too. During his eleven-month deployment, he completed over four hundred missions, piloting his convoy through Sadr City, the Green Zone, and the insurgent stronghold of Salman Pak. Those roads, some of the most heavily bombed in the country, were edged with drifts of rubble—perfect hiding grounds for Improvised Explosive Devices—and though he attended more than sixty funerals for fellow soldiers, he and his platoon somehow managed to emerge physically unscathed.
Psychologically, though, Steve was shaken. Something had been sundered, his receiver was on the fritz. “We saw everything,” he says. “Everything.” Though we are ensconced in bucolic splendor, his expression turns pensive and haunted looking for a second, a pall moving across his face. What follows is a long, carbonated silence, with insects humming in the furrows with electric stridulations and a mobile of barn swallows wheeling across the pasture. You can see it gather in him, the weight of some unutterable burden.
He came up with the idea for Peacefully Organic Produce with his partner, Steph, whom he met while finishing a civil engineering degree at the University of Wisconsin–Platteville. Dreamily they spoke of starting a farm—one where vets with disabilities could find a place to work and recuperate after their tours of duty. Operating as a training facility, Peacefully Organic Produce would serve as an incubator program for other veterans’ farms and would forge partnerships with nutritional specialists at the VA; eligible veterans—such as those with diabetes or heart disease—would receive vouchers for Steve’s produce. And at a time when many civilian employers were wary of hiring veterans with mental illness, they’d hire individuals suffering from drug addiction, schizophrenia, and PTSD.
Their timing couldn’t have been better. With a majority of American farmers nearing the retirement age, the USDA was looking to recruit a million new growers over the next decade to keep the industry viable. And since nearly half of the soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq had grown up in rural areas, the USDA pegged them as prime candidates for the job. Which thus explains the 2014 Farm Bill. Three years ago, Congress appropriated roughly $450 million in grants and lowinterest loans for new veteran farmers, which could be used to buy animals, tractors, and other start-up equipment.
It was one of those atavistic news stories that somehow managed to hit America’s patriotic sweet spot—the heartland in trouble, the ever-gallant war vets who were up to the task—to say nothing of the fact that it was a rare instance of Congress actually doing something. Unsurprisingly, the media had a field day. The dailies were in hysterics, and NPR aired a few stories that were the rhetorical equivalent of a wet dream. Regardless of the venue, the articles invariably focused on the serenity that life on the farm would offer the one in five vets coming home with post-traumatic stress. At times, these pieces took on the lallating tones of a resort brochure, describing agriculture as if it were a kind of vocational spa treatment. “Feeling a bit ravaged from all that serving of your country? Why not come on down to the farm, where you’ll harvest arugula under mimosa-colored sunshine and get reacquainted with the earth.”
In the end, much of the Farm Bill was a deft bit of scapegoating, a two-birds-with-one-stone approach to veterans’ issues, whereby we furnished vets with new job prospects while claiming that the nature of the work would also redress their psychological turmoil. Perhaps it was yet another way of downplaying the epidemic levels of post-traumatic stress among our armed forces. Few of these pieces mentioned the fact that twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day, a statistic next to which even the most cheerful article about veteran agriculture would dim. It seemed, in short, that civilians were all too eager to wash their hands of veterans and the moral challenge these returning soldiers present to American culture at large.
Steve himself seems to see farming as a more complicated venture. For him, it isn’t just a pastoral antidote to the traumas of war, nor is it simply a suitable profession for veterans raised in the hinterlands of the nation. Instead, the farm itself is a form of activism, a cunning method of protest. By its very existence, Peacefully Organic Produce points out the deprivations of civilian society and the failures of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and in this way, these veterans share a bloodline with latter-day Black Panthers, those who eschewed radicalism and saw themselves as community organizers, furnishing their neighborhoods with medical clinics, bus systems, and meal programs for kids. In this light, the farm could be seen as creating a parallel world—one in which veterans are actually provided with the social services that were promised to them: a stable job, a recuperative environment, a safe place to stay. Instead of railing against the system with placards and chants, it is attempting, however gradually, to midwife a new one.
All of these aims are admirable, and yet as I leave the farm that day I can’t help but wonder how Steve’s political idealism works in practice, particularly in a social climate that seems so intent on whitewashing—or ignoring completely—the stories of veterans who have served in our nation’s most controversial wars. In the coming months, it will occur to me that the success of the farm still depends, in large part, on the wider community—that its fate is bound up with the willingness of civilians to contend with the legacy of violence that has been enacted in their name.
As we stroll back to the farmhouse, where I parked my car, Steve tells me most of his CSA customers live on the east side of Madison. I remark casually that East-Siders, with their love of fair-trade coffee and free-range poultry, must make for loyal customers. People on that side of town are paragons of conscious capitalism—they like knowing that their economic choices have an ethical bent.
“Seems like they’d be sympathetic to your cause,” I say.
“Because that’s exactly what I want,” Steve snorts. “Their sympathy.”
The reproach unnerves me, but before I can respond, he’s reaching in for a guileless handshake and smiling broadly. He says he’s looking forward to my visits this summer and, without another word, turns and marches back into the brume of the fields.
Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) essentially started as a book club. Fueled by six-packs of beer, a cadre of marines at Camp Lejeune would stay up until dawn discussing the finer points of capitalism and US hegemony, using Chomsky for Beginners as their vade mecum. Soon their syllabus included Manufacturing Consent, A People’s History of the United States, and the work of Daniel Ellsberg. After falling under the tutelage of some Vietnam vets in Philadelphia, this ragtag cluster of young veterans announced the formation of IVAW in 2003. Nervous, indignant, and clad in street clothes, they sought to erode consent for the war primarily by sharing their stories, since they saw no better way of subverting the Bush administration’s platitudes about liberating the Iraqi people than to enumerate the atrocities they had carried out in-country. While these narratives would comprise the bulk of their protest tactics, they also tried to sow dissent within the military itself. One strategy for doing so was “befriending a recruiter.” This involved an IVAW member feigning interest in combat service and hogging a recruiter’s time so he couldn’t pitch to actual prospects. Other efforts included IVAW barbecues on active-duty bases, where they plied soldiers with free food and beer while outlining the perils of reenlistment.
It was at one such barbecue that Steve first learned about IVAW. One day at Fort Stewart, after returning from his deployment, he found himself strolling over to a cookout under a spell of curiosity. He insists there was no road-to-Damascus moment, no parting of the heavens and shock of white light. Instead the process of becoming anti-war happened gradually. He was haunted by scenes of Iraqi children tiptoeing barefoot through rivers of sewage, all because the US military had decimated their public infrastructure. And he couldn’t understand why he risked his life every day when civilian contractors, who loitered behind the gates of the cozily appointed military base, were paid three times as much as he was. Increasingly, he began to feel that he’d been duped into a senseless war, a safari of gratuitous violence.
Upon his honorable discharge, he left Fort Stewart wearing an Iraq Veterans Against the War t-shirt, and when he returned home to the Midwest, he spent four years crusading for peace with a cabal of like-minded vets, joining demonstrations that went some way toward airing his grievances and reconciling himself with the Iraqi people. In 2012, he helped organize the anti-war protest in Chicago, during which he and dozens of other vets threw away their service medals, echoing a gesture made some forty years earlier by VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against War) during the Operation Dewey Canyon protests in DC. The Chicago event culminated in Steve holding hands with Jesse Jackson and belting “We Shall Overcome” while marching down Michigan Avenue.
Of course, when a soldier renounces his service, he refuses to settle down into the Jacuzzi of civilian appreciation. Instead, doomed to a sort of ideological purgatory, the anti-war vet is called a traitor by red-state conservatives and is made a protest stage prop for Beltway liberals. More fundamentally, though, the anti-war vet disrupts the feel-good narrative of the American war hero, a myth so pervasive in this country that even those who decry our hawkish interventionist policies still subscribe to it, still stand up at the Super Bowl tributes, still consume those Seal Team Six memoirs by the hundreds of thousands. But soldiers like Steve are staunchly opposed to using the term. “So many vets fall prey to the idea of the war hero,” he says. “So they never talk about the things they witnessed. They never let themselves weigh the moral costs of their actions, even if some part of them is bothered by what they’ve done.” So vehement is his conviction that he eschews the term even when it could help his business. Recently, the Farmer Veteran Coalition—a nonprofit organization of which Peacefully Organic Produce is a member— discovered that their farmers can label their produce with Homegrown by Heroes stickers. But Steve won’t do it, believing the term a misnomer. “It’s unfortunate because it would probably help me out with the bigger grocery stores, but there’s no way I’m putting that shit on my produce.”
While the ferocity of his convictions is undoubtedly stirring, the decision to forgo the stickers seems risky, pitting the farm’s financial success against his own unswerving principles. The extent of the risk becomes clear to me one morning in midJune, when I come for another visit. The farm is desolate and eerily quiet. Gravel crunches underfoot as I roam the lot, looking for signs of life. I walk up to the farmhouse, past the runty wooden sign that reads TRESPASSERS WILL BE COMPOSTED, and rap gently on the front door. After several minutes, Steve appears, rubbing his eyes with his fists, looking haggard, barely there. He mutters something about having forgotten that I was coming out today, and invites me inside where he needs to finish washing dishes before heading to the fields. Steve variously calls the house “Humpty Dumpty” or “Frankenstein,” since he’s in the process of renovating and doing add-ons. Opaque plastic sheets have been taped over an unfinished patio door, which inflate like lungs as we hustle into the kitchen. Speaking in ballistic cadences, he tells me he’s been up all night scouring the internet for grants, and, veering from one complaint to another, he rattles off an inventory of this week’s misfortunes: a defunct mower, a broken spindle, and a tractor that won’t start. “What’s depressing is that the repairs will probably cost more than the damn thing’s worth.”
Over the past few weeks, it’s become clear to me that the farm is teetering on the edge of solvency. Capital-heavy investments in equipment have forced them into debt, and, in the meantime, Steve is shelling out thousands of dollars to keep the farm operational. The faulty tractor will mean renting one for $2,000 a week, and Steve recently maxed out his Menards card, which he’ll have to pay off with the profits of his slaughtered chickens.
To cover the shortfall Steve has been applying for nonprofit grants and government loans, a maddeningly tedious process that has been made all the more cumbersome due to the farm’s anti-war associations. After Steve received a recommendation for full funding for a grant through the Department of Vocational Rehab, some bigwig at the organization—who Steve suspects is “probably a Heritage Foundation member and a Governor Walker appointee”—put the kibosh on his application.
“Why?” I ask.
Steve shrugs. “Maybe someone Googled me.” With the faucet going at full bore, he pumices a frying pan with steel wool. “They claimed that we were a ‘hobby farm,’ saying that we only made $9,000 a year, but that was just our farmers’ market earnings. That didn’t include wholesale yields nor what we make in CSA shares. So I told the guy that if he thinks our place is a hobby, he can climb out of his cubicle and come shadow me for a day, if he can keep up.”
Steve has decided to appeal the decision, but with all these applications in limbo, the farm is just barely breaking even.
Outside, rafts of mackerel-colored clouds have amassed in the distant sky, and the farm is veiled with rain. As we head to the fields, Steve tells me I’m going to “link up” with Crystal, an Iraq War veteran who lives on the farm and whom Steve is helping with an application for Mission Continues, a nonprofit organization that provides grants for vets who participate in community programs. We grab gloves from the barn and meet Crystal in the onion beds, which are clotted with ravels of unkempt thistle.
Though she seems somewhat guarded around me, leery of my questions, she literally wears her politics on her sleeve. A tattoo on her right forearm reads MAKE PEACE in chunky black letters. And the left arm says NOT WAR. “And then, on my pinkie,” she says, “I have a paper clip.” I noticed this when we first shook hands, figuring it was some sort of hipstery aesthetic statement à la Magritte: “C’est un paper clip.” Turns out I’m wrong. She tells me the symbol dates back to World War II when Norwegians affixed paper clips to their lapels as an emblem of resistance to the Nazi occupation, evincing solidarity with the plight of the Jews. During Vietnam, draftees against the war similarly sported paper clips on their uniform collars to alert other soldiers that they were anti-war. Some of Crystal’s fellow soldiers in Iraq did this too.
“Then I heard about this one soldier in Vietnam who’d tattooed Fuck You to his right hand, his saluting hand, so every time a superior went past, he’d be basically announcing his protest,” she says. “I thought that was pretty cool, so when some other soldiers and I went to get the paper clip tattoo, I decided to get mine on my right hand.”
Apparently, there’s an acronym for it: People Against People Ever Reenlisting. Civilian Life Is Preferred. Eventually, she wants her whole body to serve as a gallery for tattoos, culminating in a huge mural depicting the tree of life on her back. Her next tat will be a giraffe stretching its long neck across her deltoid, where it will snack from the tree’s fruit-laden boughs.
Since her honorable discharge in 2010, Crystal has agitated for peace with organizations such as Under the Hood Cafe, Ft. Hood Disobeys, March Forward!, and IVAW, but the apogee of her activism occurred in 2011, when she joined five other vets in barricading Highway 190 in Killeen, Texas—an interstate used by Fort Hood for mass deployments. Garbed in black Disobey t-shirts, she and the other demonstrators arranged themselves across the road and unfurled a homemade banner that read: “Tell the Brass to Kiss My Ass, Your Families Need You More.” Their barricade stalled six busloads of soldiers deploying to Iraq, and even though it was a crime punishable by up to six months in federal prison, she felt the cause of peace was worth it.
When I ask Crystal why she left IVAW for organic farming, she speaks of activism much in the way Steve did, noting wearily that performative protest seemed increasingly impotent, little more than mass catharsis. “It doesn’t do much good to hang around a street corner with a sign,” she says. “Now I’m feeding people nutritious food. There’s nothing more fundamental than that.”
Later that day, we tramp down to the hoop house where Steve is watering the sweet-corn seedlings. Crystal’s phone buzzes in her pocket, its screen glowing through the fabric. “It’s probably Mission Continues,” she says.
“Right, because who else would be calling you?” Steve jokes.
He and I walk toward the packing shed to give her some privacy.
“She’s gonna get it,” he says. “This will be great.” When I ask what the grant entails, he says it’ll provide her with a $900 monthly stipend, a nice complement to the $300 a week he can afford to pay her now, a pittance considering she works twelve- to sixteen-hour days.
She comes out of the hoop house. Even though the phone is still pressed to her ear, she’s shaking her head, mouthing, “It’s no.”
“Fuck,” Steve says, kicking at the dirt. “Fucking bullshit.” He stalks off toward the edge of the tomato plants, his eyes roving across the fields, panning quickly, assessing everything he sees. The spirit of some dark contemplation gathers in his expression as he considers all the fronts on which he seems to be waging a losing battle.
Crystal finally hangs up and walks over. “They said my situation was too unconventional. She said that three times, ‘unconventional.’”
Steve snorts. “It’s probably because you didn’t say guns and freedom enough in your application.” He storms toward the onion beds and fetches a crate glutted with tools. When I offer to lend a hand, he says, “No, that’s okay. When I’m pissed, I need to lift things.”
Halfway to the onions, he halts abruptly and drops everything, falling to his knees beside a row of summer squash, whose broad, frondlike leaves are spattered with pale spots. “Is that blight?” I ask.
“Yeah. Shit,” he says, running a hand over his face. “I knew it was coming, but not this soon.”
Smedley emerges from the cornfields, his fur strewn with leaves and burrs, and he weaves around Steve’s legs, sensing distress. With a jeweler’s scrutiny, Steve inverts the leaves of the squash plant to inspect their veiny underbellies, which insects have munched into doilies. When he finally speaks, his voice is just shy of a whisper. “You know, sometimes I consider getting out of veterans’ advocacy.”
I ask him what else he would do.
“I don’t know. I have other passions. Environmental sustainability. Civil Engineering. Politics. I could do other things. Maybe run for mayor?” he says, smirking.
In a futile attempt to leaven his mood, I offer a blizzard of look-on-the-bright-side comments. Maybe the Department of Voc-Rehab will approve his appeal and the grant for new equipment will come through. Maybe the farm will get approved by the Fair Share Coalition, which has a program that would allow his customers to buy produce through their health insurance, which would undoubtedly increase his business.
“Something better work out,” he says. “Because if one of these grants doesn’t go our way, there might not be a year three.”
Despite these significant financial woes, Steve continues to set up a farm stand every Wednesday at the local VA. One morning I wait for him in the humming florescence of the hospital gift shop, amid a garish accumulation of candy and snacks. There’s also aisle upon aisle of patriotic clothes—collared shirts silk-screened with bald eagles, windbreakers emblazoned with undulant flags. If you’ve ever wondered where veterans get those legion caps stitched with phrases like Vietnam Vet and Proud to Serve, the answer is the VA gift shop. Near the back of the store, a wall of TVs plays Will Smith’s I, Robot, and for a few minutes I watch the Fresh Prince unload rounds of artillery into a grove of approaching zombies.
Steve shows up in a tense mood. At the hospital portico, he storms out of his truck and races to set up the vendor tent. As we begin removing crates of produce, a dyspeptic man in a blue Honda comes barreling down the driveway and screeches to an abrupt stop right behind Steve’s bumper, shouting through an open window, “This is supposed to be a cleared entrance!” Steve replies, “I know. Sorry, I’ll be out of here in a second. I’m just unloading for the market.” The guy snarls, “I don’t care! I don’t care! Clear the fucking driveway!”
As the car peels out of the parking lot, Steve mutters, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m a fucking veteran too, buddy.”
It takes fifteen minutes to set up the farm stand, and by the time the first customer approaches, the tables offer a horn of plenty: there’s Swiss chard and russet potatoes, kale and broccoli, carrots, beets, kohlrabies, garlic scapes and turnips, cauliflower and patty pans, strawberries and sweet corn. Soon, the market does brisk business. Manning the farm stand, Steve is garrulous and chipper, complimenting folks on their attire, dispensing suggestions for possible recipes, and razzing younger vets with coded military jokes (apparently, marines and naval officers are famously antagonistic). It is a vaudeville of customer service. After completing his first sale, Steve quips, “We’re here every Wednesday. We hope you’re not, but if you are, we’ll be here,” after which he turns to me with twinkly eyes and a conspiratorial grin, whispering, “I’ve got tons of these one-liners.” He seems truly happy to be here, and the first hour of the market proves to be an exercise in consummate retail service.
After an hour, a yeti of a man ambles over to the tent, apologizing for his truancy. This is Ron, one of the Vietnam vets who works at the farm. (Later, Steve will tell me that Ron is “pretty much [his] best friend.”) Ron is enormous, with kind, mirthful eyes, and wears a puckered ball cap with a frizzy white ponytail sticking out the back. His wispy beard is the indeterminate color of old snow and his customer-service approach is that of a carnival barker. The man can shill with alacrity. “Welcome, welcome!” he shouts. “We are Peacefully Organic Produce. Everything you see here is USDA-certified organic. Our farm is owned and operated by veterans, and if there’s anything we can get you, just let us know.”
Later, I will learn that Ron served in the Special Forces during Vietnam. When he returned home, he was so wracked with anxiety he couldn’t be around other people, which prompted him to retreat into the northwoods of Wisconsin for fifteen years, buying a tract of land so deep in the forest that the township had to build a road to his property so the school bus could fetch his daughter in the morning. The waggish city planners named the street “Middle Earth.” When Ron finally emerged in the early 1980s, he joined a local chapter of VVAW that carried out a series of performative protests, even at one point occupying the roof of the VA medical center, from which they dropped hand-painted banners across its facade to raise awareness about the dangers of Agent Orange. (Ever since, the hospital has maintained a strict proviso about any roof-related activities.)
One hospital patient hobbles past the farm stand on crutches, and Ron empathizes. “Hey, man, I can identify. I’ve got two stents here,” he says, pointing to his heart. “And a fake knee here, and a fake hip there.” And with a finger at his temple, he says, “And PTSD here.” He chuckles brightly, then claims that veterans, by their very nature, are professional gripers. “Yeah,” Steve jokes, “all we do is bitch and moan.” Then he winces and slaps his forehead.
“What?” I ask. “What is it?”
“I’ve been trying not to do that.”
“Say,” he pauses for a second, then lowers his voice and spells “B-i-t-c-h.”
He tells me that his partner, Steph, who is completing a graduate degree in education, has recently started interrogating the misogyny of his language. “It’s an interesting time for us,” he says. “She’s being exposed to all this new stuff through her program. Feminist theory. And sometimes it’s hard for me to acknowledge my privilege as a cis male with white skin. For whatever reason, I used to think that there was a difference between calling someone a ‘bitch’ and saying something like ‘Stop bitching at me.’ But it turns out there isn’t, you know, a difference.”
As we start to pack up, an elderly veteran leans on a metal walker and inches his way down the sidewalk with his wife at his side. Both of them have parchment skin, pendent jowls, and the smiles of old people still in love. As they enter the parking lot, Steve turns to me and says, “I really hope I’m like that one day. Kicking around with my wife.”
There is a difference, Lawrence Leshan writes in The Psychology of War, between “mythic” and “sensory war.” “Sensory war” is the carnal experience of combat, the psychological whirlwind that a person endures when he or she is steeped in violence. “Mythic war,” on the other hand, is the fable we construct to justify the depravities of battle—the gauzy-edged daydream where freshly buzzed recruits defend our Constitution from shadowy foes, soundtracked by proud trumpets. But what happens to the soldier who sacrificed his life for the myth? What happens when the horrors of combat do not jibe with the redemptive saga he was promised? How should he interpret the charred bodies, the ruined streets, the children aproned with blood? These are the leitmotifs of a story he’s not familiar with, one in which he is the protagonist and the pages seem to go on forever.
One cloudless Sunday, I receive a harried email from Steve titled, “EMERGENCY TOMATO SITUATION—HIGH WINDS, POSSIBLE TORNADOES TOMORROW.” The message reads: “I know it’s a gorgeous Sunday, and I really hate to ask, BUT tomorrow is supposed to be a significant weather day, with high winds, possible tornadoes, large hail, and torrential downpours. I could really use a hand from anyone that is available with trellising the rest of tomatoes to provide extra support for tomorrow’s storms. I’ll be starting around 11, and going until I drop, or the mosquitoes carry me away.”
I check the weather, which hardly seems to warrant this level of concern: a few thunderstorms on the horizon, but nothing out of the ordinary for midsummer Wisconsin. Still, I decide to lend a hand. The crew and I spend the afternoon kneeling in the tomato plants, but when morning comes, the storms are temperate, emitting soft burps of thunder, posing little threat to the farm.
It’s easy to chalk it up to a simple mistake. But over time I begin to sense in Steve’s vigilance a kind of disproportional concern, a preoccupying desire to avert any and all disaster. Farming was supposed to resuscitate him, its rigors and burdens serving as a reliable detergent for the mind. During the farm’s first year, Steve posted a note to Facebook, testifying to the farm’s exonerative potential, effusing with all the ardor of a true believer: “You should all try it out sometime. Get back in touch with your roots, get some soil on those hands. If I had a soul, it would be healed.” But lately the work seems spiritually corrosive, dissolving the last flecks of an identity not already given over to being a veteran.
One afternoon, while sitting at a local market, I ask Steph whether she thinks farming has had a palliative effect on him. “Uhhh,” she says hesitantly, turning to look at Steve on the other side of the market, where he leans against his truck and extracts a splinter with a pocketknife. “Well, it’s the height of the summer season, so things are pretty stressful.” Never a great sleeper, she tells me, he’s been logging only three or four hours a night. And sometimes he doesn’t even come to bed, but camps out in the Stygian darkness of the packing shed, scribbling notes to himself about chores to complete the next morning. They hardly ever go out anymore, and when they do, Steve insists on sitting at a booth in the back of the restaurant so he can monitor the exits—“like a mob boss,” Steph says. Usually, he becomes so agitated that they have to leave before the food arrives.
In current medical parlance, veterans haunted by their deployments are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. But Steve, like a lot of anti-war vets, argues that the term is Orwellian, insinuating that afflicted veterans are responding “abnormally” to the degradations of battle. In the packing shed, Steve has tacked up an IVAW poster that reads: “What part of being emotionally and spiritually affected by gross violence is a ‘disorder?’ How about going to war and coming home with a clear conscience disorder? I think that would be far more appropriate.” It is now common among anti-war soldiers to refer to the condition as “post-traumatic stress,” a term they feel describes a normal response to war. All of the veterans at Peacefully Organic Produce emphasize this subtle linguistic distinction, and, in a certain sense, you can see how there are clear political ramifications for this term. By understanding post-traumatic stress as a suitable response to combat, the term not only treats soldiers as competent moral agents capable of feeling remorse, frustration, and shame—which flies in the face of our pieties about soldiers being stouthearted heroes—but also impels civilians to recognize the egregious combat orders that soldiers are often forced to execute under our flag.
What’s clear is that farm life hasn’t “cured” Steve of these mental harassments. If anything, the farm has become a proxy for battle, an outlet for his hypervigilance. What keeps him going, though, is the dread of letting someone down. And the roster of people who are counting on him is long: Steph, his stepson Alex, Crystal, and Ron, to say nothing of the whole community of veterans and volunteers who rely on him for fresh produce. One afternoon, I arrive to find Steve stomping around the farmhouse in a frenzy, folding a pile of laundry. A hummock of clean clothes had been sitting on the family-room couch for the better part of a week, and while he’s been trying to help Steph with housework, it’s hard to stay on top of domestic chores with so much to do on the farm. “It’s usually because of where my priorities are,” he tells me. “You know, Sergeant Steve steps forward and wants to do it his way. And I was trained to think ‘mission first.’ And now, here, it’s always ‘farm first.’ And so she gets on me about that.”
I wonder whether, after a few years of being out of the military, he’s figured out his postdeployment identity, or if he still finds himself straddling that murky border between civilian and soldier.
Placing a dun-colored bath towel on the arm of the couch, he looks up at me appraisingly, and there’s this second where it seems as though some sort of neural gate has unlatched, and all of his defenses have been lowered. His eyes are glittering and fervent, full of petition. “Honestly, man,” he says. “I’m still trying to figure that out. I’m trying so fucking hard to become the person I want to be.”
Over the Fourth of July weekend, my wife and I visit her parents in a small lakeside town where Independence Day means nothing more than apple pie, ubiquitous flags, and bikes festooned with patriotic streamers. At a family barbecue that afternoon, I tell some of my relatives about the farm, and upon hearing that Steve and the other veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress, several family members utter slogans of obligatory dismay—“That’s so sad,” one says. “It is really sad,” says another, her voice swollen with ersatz concern. But the conversation pretty much ends here. No one uses this as an opportunity to discuss US foreign policy, nor does anyone issue an anti-war complaint.
Ever since Nixon ended the draft in the early 1970s—which he hoped would neuter the country’s anti-war movement—the military has been composed of volunteers. And to a large extent, their deployment only affects the small, localized communities of their families and friends, remaining luxated from the fates of other Americans. This has triggered a seismic shift in public opinion. Whereas in the 1960s the Selective Service program made it pretty much impossible to remain neutral on the question of Vietnam, it’s now much easier for civilians to regard foreign policy as another matter of soapbox fervor and partisan bias. And as our veterans return home, it is similarly easy to dismiss the debts we may owe them, since, after all, they signed up for this. They knew what they were getting into. Perhaps out of a latent sense of guilt, we civilians cuddle the myth of the American war hero, labeling anyone who’s seen combat with this valiant designation.
I’m weighing all of this while my family and I watch fireworks detonate over Lake Michigan on the night of the Fourth. Splinters of blue incinerate the sky, accompanied by yawps of disgruntled thunder. I try to imagine how Steve might react to this sound and fury, try to trace the associative logic that would cause a person to clutch his ears at these celebratory reports. My initial impulse is to feel bad for him, to regard his suffering as unfortunate, terrible, sad. Perhaps I’m drawn to Steve because he reminds me of the guys I knew in high school, back when our best idea of a good time was to get drunk in our parents’ basements and make each other laugh. Perhaps such pastimes were stamped with provincialism, a kind of prairie-land idiocy, a flyover state of mind. But the pastures of Wisconsin are long, seeming to go on forever, and we boys had to find some way to pass the time. If I had grabbed a different branch as I climbed my way through childhood then maybe right now I, too, would be carrying a cache of dark memory, my heart racing at the lurid sky, my hands twitching at loud noises.
Of course, I know this is false projection, that Steve would bristle at my sympathy. He doesn’t want my attempts at identification. He doesn’t want my pity. And the last thing he wants is for me to thank him for his service. Perhaps the greater favor I can offer him is to simply listen, to try to understand what causes a man to become an anti-war veteran. There have been times at the farm when Steve harangues US foreign policy and his words remind me of sentiments expressed by Ernest Hemingway after the Second World War: “We have come out of the time when obedience, intelligent courage, resolution and the acceptance of discipline were most important, into that more difficult time when it is a man’s duty to understand his world rather than to simply fight for it.”
Perhaps in understanding this world, we owe veterans the duty of listening, of not placing on them the terrible burden of heroism, of allowing them to be more complex and conflicted, of granting the possibility that they’re currently grieving for what they’ve done. If anti-war veterans unsettle us, it’s because they force us to encounter a version of war far from the star-spangled gallantry promulgated in textbooks and Hollywood blockbusters. Think of how much nerve it takes to admit your complicity in immoral actions. Witness that kind of valor. If in the end a man decides to renounce his service, if he finds that the story he’d been telling himself was a lie, if he chooses to live out his days in enduring protest, might we find in such a man no small measure of courage? Might this be heroic?
August arrives with a bolt of clear blue skies. On my last day at the farm, Steve greets me with some good news: they recently heard back from the Department of Voc-Rehab and were awarded full funding for their grant, which means Steve will soon obtain a flotilla of new equipment, including riding mowers and a waterwheel tractor, all of which will help mechanize the farm and expedite its operations. This update couldn’t have come at a better time, since the team has had trouble keeping up with chores. Earlier that week, I noticed that the thistles in the potato beds were positively colossal, with stems as thick as baseball bats. One worker was hacking them down with a machete, swirling the implement like a samurai.
“You guys are really doing it,” I say.
“That’s why I started the farm,” Steve says, positively glowing with optimism, falling into raptures of self-congratulation. “I was so sick of other activists talking about what they wanted to do. But veterans like us—we’re doers. It’s a cliché but it’s true. I always say, don’t talk about something, be about something. And that’s what we do.”
As the fall semester kicks into gear, my days are overrun with lesson planning and student emails. Most mornings, I camp out on the couch, retooling my syllabus or clipping articles for my course reader. Yet despite the change in scenery, my mind remains rooted in the furrows. I’d been hoping the end of the harvest would temper Steve’s anxiety, but if his web presence is any indication, he seems just as bothered and preoccupied as when I left him. In a Facebook post, he writes:
I’ve found a healthy way to vent my pent up aggression . . . There’s a group of radical catholics that are constantly protesting outside of the planned parenthood in Madison. I happen to drive by there to pick up coffee chaff for our poultry bedding from the Just Coffee roaster right next door. I’ve began protesting the protestors every time I drive by, it’s healing, tongue-whipping the shit out of them for about five or ten minutes . . . I don’t usually get lunch breaks throughout the day, so this is how I spend my ‘five minutes alone’ (my Pantera reference for the day). So far, better than any group therapy I’ve tried. I figure, most of the rest of society is either too afraid and too unaware to confront these lunatics, so, I’ll be your huckleberry.
There is venom here. That seems difficult to deny. But beneath the cheeky bluster of the prose, there is something else, a desperation, a certain questing spirit, a call for an intermission, a few minutes to extinguish the agitation in his head. Later that day, as I prepare for a lecture on the philosophy of Thoreau, I find myself distracted and preoccupied, sitting at a desk strewn with lesson plans and an open volume of Stanley Cavell, where I have underlined a passage from the Book of Ezekiel: “The summer is over, the harvest has ended, and we are not saved.”
In late September, I return to the farm for Veggies for Vets, a fundraiser that Steve hosts in conjunction with Warrior Songs, a Madison-based nonprofit that aims to heal veterans through arts and music. Last year, the event raised enough money to provide fifteen veteran families with a weekly share of produce, and this year, Steve hopes to double it.
All afternoon, the farm thrums with activity under chlorinated skies. Near the tomato beds, clans of joyful suburbanites partake in “family yoga,” giggling at their contortions. Toddlers queue up in the barn to get their faces painted, and moments later, they transform into scrawny cheetahs and diminutive kittens who harass Smedley with their hands locked into menacing claws. A few visitors go for a spin on something called the “salsa bike,” where a food processor has been rigged to a Huffy. At the center of the commotion is Steve, leading clumps of visitors around the farm, wearing his standard uniform of boots, jeans, t-shirt, and ball cap.
My wife and I wander through the labyrinth of tomatoes, trying to catch up. Steve hasn’t noticed us yet and is spewing invective about the sharecropper next door, doing little to tailor his statements to the temperament of his audience, which includes a bevy of seven-year-old girls. When Steve plucks a habanero pepper from its plant and claims that it could “melt your face off,” one of these girls tugs on his shirt, looks up at him and says, with unblinking earnestness, “I bet my dad could eat that.”
“No he could not,” Steve retorts gruffly, claiming that most restaurants use a single pepper for a vat of chili sauce.
The tour ends in the packing shed. In the corner, there’s a commemorative shrine to a man named Jacob George, one of Steve’s close friends, an IVAW member and a veteran of the Afghanistan war who, as Steve tells us, committed suicide almost a year ago today. He was thirty-two years old. Tonight’s concert is dedicated to him. On a small sideboard table, there’s a spray of Jacob’s photos, grainy print-offs from Facebook. One shows a handsome, shaggy-haired guy playing banjo. Another depicts the same guy, except now he’s a scrawny dude in a swimsuit, sporting a buzz cut, and he’s screwing up his face into a loony scowl, an attempt to make his photographer laugh.
Someone claps me on the shoulder, and I turn to find Steve grinning broadly. “What’s up, man?” he says, his breath perfumed with booze. Exiting the shed, I introduce him to my wife, and we make idle, wandering chitchat. While we try to catch up, an endless parade of people come up to greet him. A bearded guy in a fedora and sunglasses slaps him on the back with affectionate gusto. Another woman—a doctor from the VA—introduces Steve to her family. I get an eerie premonition of Steve on the campaign trail, pressing palms with prospective voters. Perhaps a mayoral run isn’t so far-fetched. But he looks tired. His eyes are raccooned from little sleep, and he seems wound up and agitated. At a certain point, he apologizes for the bedlam and says, “I’m fucking exhausted and need a beer. Let’s catch up later, after the concert.” But we never do. After pulling a foamer from the keg, he retreats to a beige RV parked near the farmhouse, where a close friend is spending the night. Even though there are dozens of people by the barn and loitering in the fields, Steve spends much of the afternoon hunkered in the lee side of this camper, lounging in the shade of an opulent tree.
Soon, dusk settles over the farm and the fields look hazy and distilled, as if frozen in amber. I decide to walk the grounds one last time before we leave, and the furrows are a vast chromatic spectacle: rubicund tomatoes, emerald peppers, burgundy eggplant. To my surprise, even the sunflowers—wizened and wilted all summer—have bloomed again. The perimeter of the farm is ablaze with them, their bright yellow blossoms meant to serve as a bulwark against dangers both tertiary and atmospheric. As I stand there in the spectral quiet, amid the hum of crickets, I’m reminded of the fact that even the land out here had to heal. Organic certification requires that farmers must let their fields go dormant for three years, allowing the soil to cleanse itself of pesticides and toxins. In that time, the loam grows rich and piquant, abounding in minerals that amplify its fecundity. Standing at the edge of his pasture, I’m wishing Steve a similar recuperation, that these days of hard labor and psychedelic sunsets might afford him a respite, a reprieve, because I know how far he’s come and how tired he’s getting.
Barrett Swanson was the 2016–2017 Halls Emerging Artist Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.
Copyright 2017 Barrett Swanson. First published in Orion Magazine. Included in Vox Populi with permission.