Carving Out a Living on the Land

Conway author’s book about farming transcends its agricultural subject matter to something more profound

By ANDY CASTILLO, Staff Writer, The Recorder, September 19, 2019

Emmet Van Driesche of Conway, author of “Carving Out a Living on the Land: Lessons in Resourcefulness and Craft from an Unusual Christmas Tree Farm,” never intended to be a farmer. Instead, he thought he’d be a sailor and travel the high seas.

To that end, Van Driesche, 36, who grew up in Westhampton just off Route 66, majored in writing and ocean studies at Bard College in New York and sailed during breaks up and down the east coast. Once, he even embarked on a semester at sea offered by Woods Hole in Cape Cod, sailing all the way from Mexico to Hawaii.

But life held different plans.

While working on a schooner in Maine, he met and married Cecilia Van Driesche, who grew up on a farm in Leverett. They moved back to Western Massachusetts, began working together at Sidehill Farm in Hawley and rented an apartment owned by Al Pieropan, who started The Pieropan Christmas Tree Farm in Ashfield in 1955. Pieropan, who has since died, was looking to retire and the Van Driesches took over the farm about a decade ago, during the height of the recession.

Unlike most cut-your-own Christmas tree farms, the Van Driesches grow sustainable balsam trees from stumps. Instead of cutting the trees down and replanting them year after year, cuts are made above a few whorls of branches. The technique, known as coppicing, keeps the stumps alive to produce more sprouts the next year. It’s a sustainable approach to farming that makes it possible for Emmet Van Driesche and his family to live within their means.

This is a theme that is at the heart of Van Driesche’s book, which was released earlier this year by Chelsea Green Publishing based in White River Junction, V T.

For much of the year, Van Driesche splits his time between maintaining the farm and running a spoon carving business, which he began managing a few years ago. In farming and in life, Van Driesche seems to take every opportunity that comes his way, forging a living out of his 10 acres of land through any means possible. He uses all of his land, even the rocky sections.

From his grove just off Pfersick Road in Shelburne Falls, pine trees grow at a furious pace. New sprouts grow from the stumps, each fighting for light.

His is a world that is wild and unpredictable. In it, Van Driesche seems to view himself as a steward, maximizing the land’s productivity without destroying it. He culls and thins and pushes the forest back from the edge of wild, just barely. On its own, the land would soon become overgrown. Under his gentle direction, it becomes a productive

farm. This philosophy extends beyond farming, even making its way into his writing style.

“Carving Out a Living on the Land” is structured like the forest — layered and evolving. It could be described as a modern version of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” although it’s uncertain whether or not the author intended it to be as such.

Throughout the book’s 288 pages, the text of which is broken up by color photographs, Van Driesche gives advice on making wreaths, scaling a business, pricing for growth (with the land as “a fixed variable”), marketing a brand and developing new skills. At times it’sram bling and poetic — giving homage to a previous book of poetry by Van Drieshce, his first, “The Land Before Us, Poems of The Sea,” published in 2004. In “Carving a Living Out of the Land,” the Conway author sometimes dives into the underbrush, describing the finer details of his business in extended detail. For example, he dedicates pages to the process of hand painting signs, honing a scythe and ways to implement social media strategies to promote business growth.

Through it all, the book follows a distinct literary flow toward productivity and sustainability.

In the introduction, Van Driesche describes his book as a series of “guideposts” (as opposed to a blueprint or map), which are intended to direct city dwellers and rural farmers alike toward a more sustainable way of living — “One customer at a time. One sale at a time. One day at a time.”

He uses this same guidepost imagery when talking about his forest.

“I navigate my way down the slope by a hundred tiny landmarks that I know intimately after eight years of doing this. When I first started working this grove I got lost all the time. Even though I knew that if I headed downhill I would eventually come out on the dirt road, I was continually surprised at where a given path led me. Now I know these paths better than the lines on my palm,” Van Driesche writes.

In writing, Van Driesche is an author who is grounded in the physical realm. Pine needles can be felt digging into the skin, scratchy and cool in autumn’s brisk chill. Through the pages, one can almost smell the sap, taste the changing seasons and feel the freshly cut boughs as Van Driesche fights their tension, winding them together with twine. His hands are firm yet gentle.

“It is not unlike how a shearer manipulates a sheep, with pressure from the knees and legs and an implacable suppleness. It is also a decent metaphor for how to make a successful business: knowing where to squeeze and how to gather up the slack,” he writes.

For those who don’t know anything about farming, don’t be scared off by the book’s agricultural roots. Beneath the whorls of Van Driesche’s writing is a truth that transcends his farming lifestyle: That is, living within one’s means and being content. It’s about cultivating fields (both literal and figurative) for maximum yield in a way that’s sustainable, productive and fulfilling.

Van Driesche says it best: “My hope is that this book will inspire you to look at your land (or land you hope to purchase) in a different light. Instead of dividing land into ‘good’ field or pasture and all the rest, I want you to think about what might be done with that rocky section, or ditch, or patch of trees too small to log. What could you grow there?” Andy Castillo is features editor at the Greenfield Recorder and holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University. He can be reached at acastillo@ recorder.c o m .

How to connect

“Carving Out a Living on the Land: Lessons in Resourcefulness and Craft from an Unusual Christmas Tree Farm” can be purchased digitally, as an audiobook or in hardcover for around $20 at Emmet Van Driesche’s website is emmetvandriesche. com.Cut-your -own Christmas trees are available at The Pieropan Christmas Tree Farm (119 Pfersick Road, Ashfield) seasonally for a flat rate of $30 for any size. Van Driesche’s hand-carved spoons and other products can also be found at the farm. Wreathes are available for $20 to $30. For more information, visit