The Constant Gardener -Fall 2008

by: John Stanton

photography by: Bevin Bixby

This is a story about nourishment of a couple different varieties. It is about community, faith, life, death, work, preaching, personal history – and garlic.

Now retired, Rev. Anderson has traded a minister’s vestments for a pair of overalls.

The garlic in question hangs drying in the cool of a shed on a well-tended plot of land named Two Sheds Farm, although somewhere along the line the place picked up a third shed. The man who works this land is a retired minister, although there is really no such thing as a retired minister.

Ted Anderson has merely stepped down from the pulpit. After 30 years in a profession that is both a noun and a verb, he still ministers.

“Once ordained, always ordained,” he said. “That doesn’t stop just because you leave the pulpit. A lot of people have moved here to leave their identities behind. When a minister retires you’re still who you were to the community. I think the problem of retiring to someplace is that you lose your identity.”

Anderson, 74, has not lost his identity. Today he is standing in the main shed. He is holding a tool called a hand cultivator, made up of five curved tines at the end of a long wooden handle. It is a tool from an earlier time that looks as if it is still twice as effective as a tool from today. It is, in some way, part of what formed his identity. It is his grandfather’s tool.

“My grandparents worked on Folger’s farm, out where the lifesaving museum is now,” said Anderson. “My other grandfather had an apple orchard in Connecticut. I feel a very intimate connection to them, through some of the tools that are tools that my grandfather used.”

“One time I picked up a half-made arrowhead by a rock out in Monomoy. The rock was perfect to sit on and make an arrowhead. Obviously, the guy making the arrowhead was interrupted. So I pick it up and hold it and say to myself that some guy was making this 1,500 years ago. And I feel a connection to that person. It is much more intimate when I pick up, say a wheel hoe that was my grandfather’s, and then I remember him using it. It’s very personal.”

Anderson and his wife Gretchen have been working the soil on this little plot of land for 25 years. He arrived on-island in 1970, an ordained minister who delivered some sermons as a guest preacher at some island churches, and who worked as a carpenter until he could find his own pulpit at the Unitarian Church.

That Nantucket was a different place in those days is certainly by now a cliché, except that it also happens to be true.

“The first sermon I gave on the island was at the same time as when they put the new steeple on at the Congregational Church and (Reverend) Fred Bennett asked me to give a sermon,” said Anderson.

As for life as a carpenter and the lessons that might be transferable to the pulpit, he said it is all about seeing life from a different point of view.

“I have always worked physical labor. I like having certain skills that are very basic and important. I like knowing how to use some tools. What I have difficulty dealing with is the class distinctions that are made, based on what someone does for a living. When I was a carpenter I went to the back door and when I was a minister I went to the front door. It is as simple as that.”

Anderson started out wanting to be a school teacher. “The ministry was never where I was heading, but it has been a wonderful place to be,” he said. “A minister’s job is to try to make life better for people, to help people become better people. I think most people want to be better.”

“One of the great mistakes of ministers and clerics is to throw obstacles in the way to something better. It is the same mistake that some politicians make. The goal should be to make life better, but sometimes that gets caught up in petty things and ends up making life more difficult,” he continued.

Anderson stepped down from the pulpit Jan. 1, 2000. “I wanted a date I could remember,” he joked.

One of the reasons was to pursue his love of teaching, which he does by teaching Chaucer to advanced-placement high school English classes.

Faith and community

Anderson’s pulpit has always been at the corner of faith and community.

“That probably had to do with my feelings about small towns,” he said. “What excited me about getting a pulpit on Nantucket was that the people who lived here did not commute. It was a contained community. And for me it was a wonderful opportunity to be part of a community.”

“I don’t think you know more people in a small town than in a big city. I think the number of people we really call our friends is about the same. But you know a higher percentage of the people in town and that seems like more,” he said.

“That feeling changes as the community grows. I was afraid of that happening when the congregation began to grow maybe 30 years ago. I was afraid people would ask, ‘who are these people?’ But it never happened and I was always proud of our congregation for that.”

A visitor notices a firefighter’s turnout coat and helmet hanging on the open door of a small shed. Anderson is quick to say that he no longer climbs ladders and seems almost chagrined that the jacket and helmet were noticed.

The physical, immediate and communal nature of firefighting, especially of volunteer departments, lends itself to the feeling of being part of something. In fact, serving on a volunteer fire department might be the definition of what it means to become part of a small community.

“When I first came to the church, an older trustee said I should join a community-service organization,” said Anderson. “I went to see Irving Bartlett and he put me right on the ladder company.”

He has been a volunteer firefighter for 37 years, and still serves as chaplain.

“It was wonderful. When the old station was downtown the alarm would go off and you’d see George Hadden coming up from the A&P with his apron still on and Ricky Lewis coming in his black suit. We have a professional fire department now and it’s more versatile but something has been lost.”

Talk turns to defining that loss. Like many discussions on this island, it eventually gets around to money.

“There was a time on Nantucket when people made just enough money. Now there are two kinds of money, no money and not enough money,” he said. “People here spend so much time making a living that there is less and less time for living a life.”

The world writ small

Nantucket, Anderson likes to say, is simply the rest of the world writ small. But this is a place bouncing between a small town and a moneyed resort destination.

“Money is a particular weakness of Nantucket,” he said. “The good life that has been held out before us all the time is the life of vacationing people who are in the highest percentage of wealth. It’s very distorting for our kids. It is teaching them the very opposite of respecting frugality and work ethic.”

Work ethic and farming, even on this small scale, are inseparable. When Anderson moved to this place it was just an overgrown field that might have once been used to cultivate potatoes.

Now Gretchen’s flower garden is filled with phlox and black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s lace and butterfly weed. The first harvest of a French winter squash called potiron is next to the garden, the tendrils flowing out of the fenced-in space and onto the lawn.

“It’s very comforting to have the responsibility for each and every plant that grows here,” said Anderson. “It fits in with my sense of home, of belonging and also reminds me of what I can control and what I can’t control. It helps my sense of humility.”

Rows of onions grow beneath the surface, showing their green parts to the world. They will eventually share the cold cellar with potatoes. The carrots will wait, beneath a blanket of eelgrass, to be picked fresh in the fall and early winter.

“We do live off it a little bit. It is a significant supplement to our diet. If we had chickens, the eggs would add another part of that diet. But we have been traveling each year and it is hard to get someone to take care of chickens. With the price of traveling these days, we might be staying here. So maybe we’ll get some chickens now,” Anderson said.

Raspberries and beach plums wait to be turned into jams. Tomatoes, cabbages, beans and chard share another fenced-in garden.

Planting and harvest

A vegetable garden, large or small, provider of meals to get you through the winter or weekend salads, becomes a sort of object lesson for the cycles that have always guided our lives but most often go unseen. The seasons of planting and harvest play themselves out, as well as the bigger seasons of life and death.

“In the plaza in Mexico City they dug up some very interesting artifacts right in front of the church, the cathedral. And I remember they dug up a statue of a goddess and identified her as the goddess of agriculture,” Anderson said.

“Well, she was mean and nasty looking. And, obviously, not easy to get along with. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that’s really pretty accurate. Life itself would be impossible without death. Every day we live on the dying of other things, whether it be a carrot or a chicken.”

It is an occupational requirement that ministers sometimes face those things that most of us would rather not think about. Ministering to the sick and dying. Conducting ceremonies over the dead. There is a connection to community past as well as community present.

“There was a funeral this morning and I did the ceremony,” Anderson said. “I was there (at the cemetery) a few minutes early and so I wandered around and visited. I know all of these people. I know how they died. I did the services for many of them.

“I have been thinking about death and dying because I wind up doing a lot of memorial services and it’s hard for me not to think about the connectedness of life. Being in some sense a farmer, it is hard for me not to realize that the humus that produces our food is made up of decayed bodies of living things. Where does soil come from? It’s all related and life comes out of this. If you go to the tropics you see immediately how quickly the remains of a tree become the growth of a new tree.”

Anderson also keeps bees, three hives of them. They are wild, although he prefers the term feral. Bees sometimes outgrow their hives, he explained. When that happens a certain number will leave the hive, along with the queen, to find another place to call home.

A few weeks ago some bees decided their new home would be Rocky Fox’s mailbox. When The Chicken Box owner found bees congregating around his mailbox, he called Anderson to come and get them.

“These bees that escape survive in the island weather and that makes them stronger,” Anderson said. The bees in the second hive came to live at Two Sheds Farm after a phone call from a man in Nashaquisset.

Faith and fasting

“I guess that what I think and what I believe are pretty much the same thing,” said Anderson, asked to define his faith. “It is hard to describe faith in terms of doctrine or dogma or any specific religious identity. I would describe faith as a confidence in life and everything I do has to derive in part from the certainty of the future and the worth of life.”

It is a farmer’s faith, a confidence that the seeds planted in the spring will grow to the meals eaten all winter.

“I know that some day all of this, like my grandfather’s orchard, will some day be pulled up and turned into houses,” he said. “But for now it feels like home. In the meantime I just have to treat this place right.”


John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker living on Nantucket. He writes occasionally for Nantucket Today.

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