A Homegrown Woman

On a little farm squeezed between hills off State Road in Tisbury, Lynne Irons has created a world that feeds both body and soul.

The land Lynne Irons farms was once the site of both a dump and a sand pit. Next to the salvaged white-picket fence along the side of the chicken yard is an old cement pedestal that once held a stone crusher for making gravel. When Lynne moved in thirty years ago, she trucked in the dirt to start her
gardens; ever since, she’s been creating her own dirt, as well as all the things that grow in it. In fact, she’s added more than ten feet to her land by tossing brush, excavation spoils, and leaves over the bank next to her house. Lynne tells us her son says, “Mom is great; she makes real estate.”

Rose Abrahamson, an Island artist, and I are here to look at Lynne’s house and gardens for our “nest project,” a book about Island people who create homes that are like nests for themselves. Lynne’s place on State Road in Vineyard Haven is perched on a flat area above the bank that drops seventy feet
to a gully below. On the other side of the property, a woodsy hillside rises sharply. Her main garden is nestled into a hollow in the hill where the old sand pit was dug out.

This garden land belongs to her neighbors, who have allowed her to work it all these years. Here, surrounded by ten-foot deer fencing, she grows the flowers for the gardens and flower boxes she tends around the Island, as well as the vegetables she eats all year long. Apple, pear, and peach trees, blueberry bushes, strawberries, and gooseberries grow in cozy relationship to each other and the little greenhouse where the warm-weather flowers, such as cosmos and zinnia, get a head start.

The pigs Lynne used to raise on this spot tilled the soil for the garden. They dug up the ground with their sharp hooves and shovel-like snouts. Now Lynne raises pigs on a farm a few miles away, where there is lots of room for a pen. She feeds them with the food scraps she collects every day from three restaurants in town.
Lynne, who is fifty-nine, has a utilitarian view of animals. Aside from the ones she raises for meat, she says, “My dogs are here to serve and protect, the cats because of the mice and rats.” She only eats meat from the animals she raises and slaughters herself or with the help of her sons. She has two freezers full of meat. “I kill fifty chickens a year,” she says. “That’s one a week.” She buys the chicks (Cornish game hens), twenty-five at a time, and raises them in a cage, because, as she says regretfully, “They’re kind of dumb” – unlike the egg-laying chickens that run about the fenced yard under the trees. These chickens know how to escape from marauding animals, such as dogs and hawks.    

Two hundred years ago, people had examples to know how to go about all this,” says Rose, who grew up in New York City. “It was what everyone was doing.” She asks Lynne, “How did you know how to do all this when you started?”
“My grandmother had a farm, but I didn’t learn much from her. My parents weren’t interested in farming. I did a lot of reading in the ’70s and learned from doing, making horrible mistakes along the way. I’d read a book and it would say, ‘Shoot the pig.’ So I’d take the  gun and shoot the pig. Okay. Then I’d look back to the book to see what to do next.”
Rose asks what she does with all this food, finding it hard to believe Lynne can eat it all. Lynne says, “It takes a lot of food to live for a year. I give some away, but if I have leftovers, I feed it to the animals and then I eat them.”
The way the house continues on, with plastic-covered greenhouses, one attached to another, and the way the sheds and garden beds ramble down the gentle slope behind the house, past chicken and rabbit cages and an old horse barn, reminds us of Appalachia. Lynne tells us she grew up there. She says, “Something reminds me of it here. It really makes me happy.”
Lynne has that tough self-sufficiency that you imagine would hold up well in frontier times. She says of herself, “I’m like a little pit bull when I get on to something,” and tells us a story about a friend who came over for dinner – a hairdresser. He was looking through some pictures of Lynne slaughtering a pig, and said if he were heading west 100 years ago, he would have chosen to go with her in a Conestoga wagon. She asked him, “But would I have chosen to go with you?” He said, “No, but if you did, your hair would look great!”   
The garden beds along the side of the house are full of purple, red, and white flowers that look bright against the gray plywood siding of the boxy house, built around an old trailer. Lynne bought the land and house for $22,000 back in 1974. The view out the front looks over fields and trees to Lake Tashmoo and Vineyard Sound. When friends tell her that she has a million-dollar view and she should sell her house, she says, “Why would I want to do that?”
Lynne lives her days outside except in the middle of winter; her life revolves around her gardens and animals. After our tour of the land, Lynne takes us to the house, saying that the kitchen is the only room she spends time in. It’s as if this room is just an extension of the outdoors, where life really happens. As we wipe our feet on the doormat, she says with a laugh, “Oh, don’t bother. We only wipe our feet leaving the house.”
Stepping into the room, Rose says, “This is a house with character.” Each flat surface is painted a different color. A wall and the ceiling are dark pink, the floor is blue, a door is purple, and there are four or five other colors on the trim and walls. Filling the center of the room, a square wooden table covered with a flowered cloth is surrounded by old wooden chairs. This table feels as if it has been home to many conversations over cups of tea. It’s also a worktable for the canning projects that abound during harvest time. Against one of the kitchen walls, a huge old trunk, its jaws wide open, is filled with firewood for the cookstove. Along the wall below the staircase, an ancient upright piano is covered with family pictures.
Lynne says, “I never leave this room. It has everything I need: my wood cookstove, the piano, the rotary phone, and the photographs.” Rose says, “It reminds me of a farm kitchen. And farming seems like from the past.” She adds, “You’re from another time.”
Lynne agrees, telling us that when friends ask her, “Are you on-line?” She replies, “Well, I don’t have a drier.” Besides hanging up her clothes to dry, she bakes her own bread, makes goat cheese from a friend’s goat’s milk, and cans or freezes all the food she needs for the winter. She spends about $20 a week on groceries for things like coffee, tea, oil, and “fun stuff, like candy bars.”
Lynne shows us into her pantry, which holds the finished products of her long hours outside; it’s the last resting place of the fruits of her labor before they are consumed. A wall of shelves is filled with jars of beets, beans, corn, Hubbard squash, juice, and pieces of chicken. On the floor is a basket of potatoes that have started to sprout – the end of last year’s crop and the beginning of next year’s. Huge metal pressure-canning pots sit nearby. Other shelves hold empty jars ready to be filled with the summer’s harvest. On a cloth on the wall, there’s a picture of a chicken with a saying under it: “The rooster may crow, but the hen delivers the goods.”
On the top shelf are half-gallon jars filled with water. Lynne says that after the accident at the nuclear generator in Chernobyl, she was afraid the world’s water supply would become contaminated, so she started canning water. She wrote “Chernobyl” on the lid and kept the water until she was sure she wouldn’t need it. If she opened a bottle to serve with dinner, her kids would joke, “She’s breaking out the Chernobyl water!”
Lynne serves us her homemade goat cheese, dried figs, and tea sweetened with her own honey while we sit around the kitchen table telling stories. There are probably a hundred other things Lynne needs to be doing right now, but she enjoys herself, entertaining us with stories, such as the one about the time she was filmed for a talk show titled, Whatever Happened to All the Hippies? She tells us the woman interviewer confirmed Lynne was the right person for the feature when Lynne answered “No” to the question, “Do you shave your legs?”
Lynne is a home-grown type of woman; she’s created her own little farm right here on the outskirts of town. She has three grown children whom she raised by herself, supporting her family while waitressing at the Black Dog Tavern “for 100 years” before she started her gardening business. Lynne is glad that all her children still live on the Island, but she likes living alone. She is bursting with energy and enthusiasm for life – particularly for her life, because it seems to suit her so well.
Lynne has created a nest for herself from the raw materials of the land and has populated it with the animals that share the nest as well as feed her. There’s a sense of well-being and contentment in the orderly way she raises each living thing from seed to sprout to plant, or each tiny animal from birth to maturity, nurturing it to bring out its potential as egg layer or mouse catcher or meat for the table, depending on its destiny. On this little farm squeezed between the hill and the steep embankment, she has created a world that feeds both body and soul.