Where ideologies end

Thursday December 13, 2012

Author and artist Tom Fels released his book "Farm People" in 2009, and three years later has written a follow-up book at the behest of UMass Amherst. With the publication of "Buying the Farm" this year, Fels delved deeper into the history of Montague Farm in Western Massachusetts, a "commune" active from 1968 to 2003. As a historian, Fels takes accuracy of his account very seriously.

"[Previous accounts of the farm] created this mythos about the place I felt that the myth was very rose-colored," Fels said. "I felt that the truth needed to come out."

When working on the book, his commitment to the truth occasionally put him at odds with some of the subjects of his book.

"They prefer the mythology, but I prefer the facts," he said.

Fels is hosting two readings and discussions from his book this week. The first is at Water Street Books in Williamstown, Mass. on Dec. 13 at 6 p.m. and the second is at Northshire Books in Manchester on Dec. 14 at 7 p.m.

Following the release of "Farm People," UMass requested that Fels work on a book that was less of a look at the people of the farm and more of a general history that could be used in courses about Montague Farm, which Fels lived on for four years.

"I was going to write a simpler book, but when I got into the research materials, this is the story that came out," he said.

"Buying the Farm" is broken up into three main parts. The first of which is a description of what daily life was like on the farm, this is more of a factual look at the history of the farm. The second portion is a look at how it felt to live on the farm, and the final section is Fels' analysis of the farm and its history as a whole.

One aspect of Fels' books about the farm is the use of the people he knew there as characters.

"In both these books I felt I was interested in these characters," he said.

In one example of his character analysis, he describes a particular person as a hardworking individual, but who was difficult to get to know. Fels postulated that it was part of his personality that he used as a defense.

"It was part of a pattern of obfuscation that was really useful to him," Fels said.

Fels questioned the motivations and practices of some of the chiefs on the commune.

"I find myself fighting with ideologies," he added. "If you're not going to discuss it, nothing happens."

He also wanted to bring light to the individuals on the farm and the good work they did there.

"The 60s is an era that gets sold down the river a little too much," he said.

He described the farm as a place where anybody could be whoever they wanted to be.

Another theme in his analysis of the history of the farm is the idea of sustainability, but not as much crop rotation as emotional sustainability. In the book he asks the question: "How do you go from exuberance to sustainability?"

"These endeavors start out with lots of idealism and despite that it's difficult for that stick," Fels said.


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