My brief, inspiring career as a historical re-enactor on a "Colonial farm."

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
Dec. 11 2008 7:06 AM

A Colonial Dame

My brief, inspiring career as a historical re-enactor.

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During my time at Claude Moore I heard many interpreters say they were drawn to the 18th century because life was simpler then. I never bought that. It didn't seem so simple to watch your arm putrefy or lose your teeth in your 20s, or bury most of your children. But as I got up to get home in time for carpool, I did feel a deep longing to stay on my wooden horse and just scrape sticks. Once humans spent most of their days doing useful things with their hands, and I realized that we were designed to get a deep satisfaction from this. As Hughes put it, "You have the feeling people were supposed to do this kind of work, rather than data entry, which is amazingly horrible."

Almost as soon as the Industrial Revolution arrived, people began mourning its efficiency. As Thomas Carlyle wrote in Signs of the Times in 1829, "[T]he living artisan is driven from his workshop, to make room for a speedier, inanimate one. The shuttle drops from the fingers of the weaver, and falls into iron fingers that ply it faster … nothing is left to be accomplished by old natural methods." The children who came to visit Claude Moore understood this loss. Several interpreters warned me that when I set children to various tasks they could do on the farm, from hoeing, to carding wool, to dipping candles, I would have a hard time getting them to stop. At a farm-skills training day, we all took turns learning how to crack dried corn on the hominy block, smashing a 3-foot-long wooden pestle against a hollowed-out log. One mother could not pull her 10-year-old son away and finally pleaded, "You have done a great job. So please stop pounding!" I had a vision of a new approach to our modern psychological problems. Psychiatrists would throw away children's Ritalin and their parents' Lexapro and prescribe a few hours a day of tobacco stick making or hominy cracking.

It was also a great pleasure to watch the animals. I was particularly entertained by the turkeys. These were not the tasteless, denatured modern grotesques bred to be so short-legged and heavy-breasted that they can no longer mate, but a heritage breed, Black Spanish. The turkeys are working birds; their job is to walk the rows of tobacco plants eating the horn worms. They were glorious to look at. The male, Brutus, was covered with glistening, iridescent feathers of emerald and russet which he often shimmied like a peacock. Brutus paraded with a harem of three hens—the group liked to come by the farmhouse at lunchtime looking for scraps. One day while I was sitting on a bench outside mending rags, I watched him get in a quarrel with a hen. They began pecking and squabbling until he lifted a foot, caught her wing, and pinned her to the ground. She eventually quieted, but when he removed his foot she got up, turned her back to him, straightened her feathers, and, head high, walked away without a glance.

The lives of the poultry are so intimate with that of the farm family that Rolando said she often finds chicken eggs in her sewing basket. Working at Claude Moore also means having to have a kind of Sarah Palin nonchalance about the need to turn farm animals into meat. But a trip to the past made it clear that however life has improved for humans since 1771, for our livestock, progress has meant misery.

If there ever is a rip in the time-space continuum, my Claude Moore colleagues probably could convincingly slip into Colonial America. But as much as I loved my sojourn to the past, I never was fluent enough in the language and the behavior of the 18th century to feel I was anything more than an imposter. When visitors came by I tried to remember to say 'tis, 'twill, and 'twas, but I often just motioned that I was unable to speak and deferred to my more expert companions. I was about as Colonial as Harrison Ford in Witness was Amish.

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Still, I finished my time at Claude Moore feeling I had a glimpse of the satisfactions of life in 1771: the breadth of one's skills, the self-reliance, the flowing tasks, the working together for a common goal. I am happy my life in 2008 has medicine and modems—and that I don't have to sleep in a loft with my extended family. I do have occasional longings to set up a tobacco stick assembly at my house, but I realize it wouldn't be soothing, because there would be nothing useful about a tobacco stick in the anti-smoking county where I live. I need to find a substitute. As Elizabeth Rolando says, "There is a satisfaction in the accomplishment of the mundane."

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