We Miss Thee Everywhere
Todd is working when we walk in. He’s lone. Moving fast. Suggesting a pot of coffee. Green onions on a fold-up table with a slender knife. He’s hurrying to beat the mid-day heat storm. White t-shirt, washed yet wearing memories of hard-worn days (he mentions dirt as being “pure”.) Blue, rubbery half-boot crocs that appear ideal for his operation. Round, wire-rimmed antique glasses. Skin like the leather of a trusty belt. Straw hat. It’s barely dawn.
He takes us on a tour of the land, discussing every bed in the entire farm in great detail. Nuances of each vegetable. Like a painter commenting on pictures in a museum or a preacher standing over a dead body. Thousand-count bags of ladybugs prepare to work through the strawberry beds like soldiers. Worms and the great worm-master. Tales of the legendary black urban farmer and former NBA basketballer, also from Wisconsin, Will Allen. Handmade miniature fences to carry flowers toward the sky. At every bed, Todd submerges one of his hands into something. Dry leaves. Moist hay. Ground cover. A bushel of plant, shrouded with small buds. Hands that have toiled for 35 years. Restoring antiques. Building houses in a gothic holding of American pastoral. Cracked, muscular, rounded, and intimidating.
The day is still blessed with low cloud cover. We walk before an unknown thunderstorm. The kind of weather that you talk about. Todd says he has to be the eternal optimist of the good weather. His life is emerged into nature as is his financial sustenance. He needs the Saturday market to justify the endless amount of time and energy he gives into the cultivation of this food. He believes that even in a moment of rain, hail, and lightening bolts from an angry God: our people will come.
He has faith. A ragged scarecrow nailed to a simple cross watches over his fields.
He believes in the patrons of the farmers market. The people he has looked squarely in the eye. People he cares deeply about. He goes on for a minute or two here about his theory of abundance, how he always wants his customers at the market to feel like they are getting more. He really cares about people leaving the market feeling like they won. No bushels of carrots weighted heavy because of greens on top. Always an extra green onion if the gathering feels on the side of light.
I once heard young worker at the Farmer’s Market refer to him as the “angry farmer.” Though he admits to having penned a few disgruntled letters to the Olgethorpe Dispatch in his day regarding things of war and such (opinions for which receive spit-filled rebuttals from his neighbors) this, if anything, is an exhibition into the new generation of peoples coming up in America. Namely, how passion is ingested by folk often regulated behind computer screen communities. I believe that Todd Lister is a passionate man in a world too quickly losing its understanding of real life communal passion.
His voice is soft, crowded, and moves in parrallatic tonalities on various subjects like symphonies in hallowed music halls. As he walks us around the land, he tells of history as someone who has cared to understand a sense of place as though it had purpose. Purpose to drive a hoe into fleshy soil, purpose to restore abandoned gatherings of old wood, purpose to remain silent for moments above peoples who had come before where stones hold memory.
In 2001, he bought five acres of land from the Burt family. Burt of Burt Methodist and Burt of Burt Road. Mr. F. Burt is buried in the back yard. Buried next to his wife and son A. P. Burt who was born in 1875. Three bodies buried on the land. Three tombstones. The miniature cemetery is set off in a shaded area far from where food is cultivated. A peaceful area of repose. These days it is illegal to be buried upon your land. I mention to Todd that I feel a sense of peace in being in the presence of people whom had once lived and now are resting. He comments that he too enjoyed the sense that the cycle of life was held in completion through this act and that he was sharing the land with another family another era. All three tombstones are engraved: “We Miss Thee Everywhere.”
I ask Todd if he has children. He feels as though he is still a child. A child of the spirit and that he will not give this spirit passing until he is moved from this land. Furthermore, this child-spirit embodied in a man of great strength and experience is fraught with the feeling that their remains not yet enough hope to cast another of his kind into this world and with this I do not feel sadness but a statement of refined thought and character that has come to embody Todd. At one point he looks to the house and remarks, “The Cyprus still shows where the sun hasn’t got it.”
I have sat with Todd for countless board of directors meetings over the past three years for the Athens Farmers Market. He brings to the meetings a constant force of energy that is impossible to not let soak in. There are many nights in which I am led to the outer banks of laughter, frustration, and a long lost sense of envy for the possibilities buried amidst the land that Todd Lister tends. It is something I believe that society is lonely for that it doesn’t even understand it’s lonely for. A key line inscribed on a series of gravestones read over and over by one man. A key mantra, trope, and allegory we forget to express enough while alive, the shared actions between one another that express during the time of living that: you are loved.
It’s gonna take guts to make changes in America. Guts, passion, and Montana sized balls. I want to believe it’s out there. For, to believe that if one is missed everywhere, then one is never missed and if the longing and struggle and heartache and stories still exist. Then something very important is remembered. And henceforth and evermore, we’ve got something to continue fighting for.
Text: Ben Myers
Photo: Charles Ryan Barber