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‘Farmer shapes the land, and the land shapes the farmer’

Timeless lifestyle a timely topic at ‘Root Hog’ screenings

Submitted photo
‘Root Hog or Die’
Made nearly four decades ago, this documentary introduces you to Franklin County farmers who worked the land with horses. Created by filmmaker Rawn Fulton, who lives in Bernardston, it is beautifully filmed and leaves it up to the farmers themselves to introduce you to their lives. Recently remastered and back in circulation, the film has a showing in Warwick on Friday and will also be screened Friday and Saturday by Pothole Pictures at Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls. Fulton will be present at Memorial Hall Saturday night to participate in a panel discussion with area farmers. See Friday’s “Films” listing.

Submitted photo ‘Root Hog or Die’ Made nearly four decades ago, this documentary introduces you to Franklin County farmers who worked the land with horses. Created by filmmaker Rawn Fulton, who lives in Bernardston, it is beautifully filmed and leaves it up to the farmers themselves to introduce you to their lives. Recently remastered and back in circulation, the film has a showing in Warwick on Friday and will also be screened Friday and Saturday by Pothole Pictures at Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls. Fulton will be present at Memorial Hall Saturday night to participate in a panel discussion with area farmers. See Friday’s “Films” listing.

At just 26 years old, living in Franklin County for one year, filmmaker Rawn Fulton set out in 1973 to explore the agricultural lifestyle that had endured for generations in this region. His hour-long documentary, “Root Hog or Die” is one he still marvels at, 40 years later.

“There are some moments in this film that are archetypal,” says the Bernardston filmmaker, who has more than 35 productions to his credit and considers this among his best. “I can’t believe we did it.”

As much a film about a sense of place as it is a timeless story about how people lived in the hills, simply, ruggedly and sustainably, “Root Hog or Die” will be screened three times next week — May 14 at 7 p.m. at the Greenfield Historical Society on Church Street, May 17 at 7 p.m., Warwick Historical Society and Arts Council showing in Town Hall as part of Warwick’s 250th anniversary, and May 17 and 18 at 7:30 p.m., at Pothole Pictures in Shelburne Falls.

Fulton’s documentary, which he has recently released on a DVD enhanced for high-definition TVs, follows several Franklin County and Windham County, Vt. farmers through a year’s cycle of logging, haying, dairying, sugaring and living a lifestyle that is often romanticized but was in fact too grueling for many to maintain as they provided nearly all their own food and many of their daily needs.

“The farmer shapes the land, and the land shapes the farmer,” the 66-year-old filmmaker Fulton said recently. “It’s how they work together. Which is why this film has such relevance. This is a way for us to re-access people who are long gone and how they saw the world. What’s special about this is we’re now trying to reinvent our sense of what this way of life can be. But however poetic and beautiful we might try to make this seem — with black and white and the good old feeling, the fact is, most of the kids left. Where did they go — and why? And what’s coming in its place?”

Those questions will be explored in a planned sequel, Fulton told students after a recent Greenfield Community College showing. But they will also be explored by a panel of farmers, young and old at the May 18 Pothole Pictures showing. Fulton will be present, as he will at the Greenfield and Warwick screenings.

Fulton, who discovered the original film stored in boxes in Turners Falls less than two years ago and had them re-mastered, vastly improving audio and visual quality, said that by viewing this film as people are looking at ways to revitalize agriculture, “We get to look at this (lifestyle) and tease apart what was awesome about it from what was onerous, and try to find a middle ground where we have a wonderful way of life without it being a form of enslavement. We get to look at what they had, look at what they loved, look what they left and look what got left behind.”

The title is spoken near the outset of the film by Louis Black of Leyden: “We raised our own pork, beef, potatoes. ... It was either ‘Root, hog, or die.’ You had to work for a living. You couldn’t ask the town for any help. You wouldn’t get it.”

But the sad irony, Fulton explained to the GCC students, was that the self-reliant way of life implied a freedom to labor in your own way without interference in a community-oriented barter system of neighbor helping neighbor, yet “What these people got caught in was the gradual collapse of that other way of life that wasn’t based on money. … These people felt deeply betrayed by the fact that just having a few cows and chickens and your own piece of land wasn’t enough anymore.”

For Fulton, the documentary shows our connection with the past as well as our connection to the future, especially given the recent financial collapse and popular concern with living in a way that’s sustainable.

“This is how we experience history,” he said. “We’re tied to patterns of time, fate and history on a daily basis.”

In the “poetry and persistence” of the now-gone generation depicted in Root Hog, the words spoken in their quintessentially Yankee cadence are touchstones, like crystal resonators” of truths that Fulton believes we need to hear today.

“We’re a timeless people. We don’t try to do things by 8-to-5,” says farmer Charlie Culver of Ashfield, as a team of workhorses plow their way uphill for what seems like forever. “We do it as we go along. We pay no attention to the time, the clock. We just do what’s got to be done when it’s got to be done. And our work’s not that objectionable to us. We don’t ever stop.”

(Copies of the high-definition version of the film are being sold at Greenfield Farmers Cooperative Exchange, where Fulton said people may trade up their older versions of the documentary by paying a nominal charge.)

Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder more than 30 years. He can be reached at rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.

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