Painted slipperycaps, dotted-stalk suillia, lobsters, and black trumpets – the cool hemlock forests of New Hampshire are a profusion of blooming fungi. My guide is Mark Robie, a self-taught mycologist and hunter as well as professional dairy farmer and cheese-maker.1 He steers me quietly to a patch of apricot-scented chanterelles, which he assiduously guards from the general public. It is a sure sign of his trust. Later that evening we combine our harvest with onions, garlic, and an aged Toma straight from the cave. Alongside grilled venison steaks and a wild green salad, the risotto is culinary bliss.
The farm, Mark tells me over dinner, is rotting away before his eyes. For years, his parents sold their milk wholesale through Agramark, New England’s dairy cooperative. Competition from industrial mega-dairies, whose cartel determines the federally-mandated price of milk, meant that at times they were forced to sell their product for as little as half of what it cost them to produce it. They took on debt to stay in business and even more debt to expand, hoping to make up the loss in volume. But they never could seem to push their relative overhead low enough to become competitive. Similar dairies all around them got out while still they could.
The Robies need a miracle: they need resurrection from the dead.
As a last-ditch effort to save their livelihood, Mark and his parents converted the operation to specialty products for the regional restaurant market. They have had some success. Their brand has grown with the food movement, and now 100 percent of their milk is sold raw in their farm store, made into award-winning cheese, or fed to the calves and pigs. Still, the past weighs heavily on the homestead’s sagging porch and crumbling roof. Their dinosaur-like debt means that the farm must rely on volunteers to meet the labor shortfall as Mark’s parents grow older. Meanwhile, Mark can only watch as the winters eat away at the barn and the equipment without any real hope of making replacements or repairs. The latest solution to these troubles includes a plan to put the farm into easement. The debt would be alleviated, but Mark’s great-great-great grandparents’ land would no longer really be theirs. In hindsight, our afternoon quest for the forest’s fungi perfectly suited the agricultural decay from which it offered brief escape.
The Robies need a second chance, a restart, a “do-over.” They would rewind the clock if they could. They would go back and make different choices along the way, if only the system were designed to support small farmers rather than rob them of their livelihood. Now, however, they need a miracle: they need resurrection from the dead.
Like his parents, Mark is a believer in such things – in one resurrection in particular. He is banking his land and his livelihood on it in a literal, material sense. I ask Mark how he envisions the next ten years, as his parents grow more dependent on their children. How will the farm survive? How will it pay its bills? Who will clean the stalls? Who will make the cheese? “I don’t know,” he answers. “I can’t see the future. But we’ve given the farm to Jesus.”
Secular American society would likely understand Mark’s response in quite a different way than he intends. For those who see religion as a crutch in a universe known only through experimental observation, Mark is using faith in order to avoid psychological distress. By telling himself that the farm’s future belongs to the whim of his imaginary god, Mark can better function in a system of arbitrary particles, thus fulfilling his natural instincts to feed and procreate. After all, God – if he/she/it exists at all – is not accessible through direct observation. And Jesus of Nazareth is certainly not alive, but dead.
The resurrection, more than any other of the church’s claims, has had a way of distinguishing Christians from their cultural surroundings.
For Mark, however, God is indeed accessible through direct, tangible experience: every walk among the trees out back, every climb to the old pasture at the top of the rise, every effort to harvest the forest’s natural bounty, traces out the craftsmanship of the One who made all these. By releasing the farm’s future to his actual God – actual, regardless of Mark’s belief or psychological state – Mark entrusts his need to find shelter, put food on the table, and raise his children, to the care of a real Being who is personally invested in Mark as an individual soul. Mark knows this real Being to be alive and not “dead” (that is, absent or inert) precisely because he knows Jesus of Nazareth to be alive and not dead.
- Personal names are used with permission.
- See Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 9-10.
- Old Testament translations are based on the Masoretic Text and are the author’s own.