I found a lot of common ground in two books I read recently, both by local authors.
The first is “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife,” by Connie Scovill Small. The author spent her retirement years in the Portsmouth-Kittery area, after she and her husband, Elson, finished their 28-year career with the Light House Service in 1948 as the last lighthouse keepers to live at the New Castle Light.
Her story begins with growing up in a seafaring family in South Lubec, Maine, and her marriage to a young merchant mariner. Weary of the constant separations, her husband applied for the Lighthouse Service and moved with his young wife into the lighthouse on isolated Avery Rock in Machias Bay.
What’s this tale got to do with farming? It is about living where you work, total dedication to a job, and a deep sense of duty to the ships and lives that depended on the faithful and exacting execution of those responsibilities — despite weather, sickness or equipment breakdowns.
As soon as Connie and Elson were transferred to a new post with a patch of grassy ground that could be coaxed into a small garden, and enough space to keep a few laying hens, Connie turned to homesteading. She was thrilled to be able to produce some of their own fresh food. Eventually, they landed at a more hospitable station where she could even keep a family cow.
With a husband dedicated to serving his lighthouse duties flawlessly, Connie writes with candor about her efforts to keep any complaints or longings to herself. She found creative ways to forge connections with people in distant places, forge friendships, learn and develop her interest in writing.
Which brings me to the second book, “For Better or for Work,” by Meg Cadoux Hirshberg.
Marriage to Stonyfield co-founder and CE-Yo Gary Hirshberg is not so different, perhaps, from being married to a dedicated and work-focused lighthouse keeper.
Meg Hirshberg writes of the trials of being married to a driven entrepreneur — from their early, struggling years in a rambling, drafty farmhouse at the original Stonyfield Farm, to the more recent period of rapid growth and success.
Like Small, Hirshberg writes with honesty, modesty and good-natured humor about her own risk-adversity during harrowing years on the financial edge — only to find when Stonyfield’s success brought financial security, that she was competing with her globetrotting executive husband’s enthrallment to his Blackberry, which she dubs his “Bond Girl.”
After Meg Hirshberg wrote an article for Inc. Magazine about the stresses and strains of entrepreneurial family life, the magazine’s editors invited her to write a regular column. This book grew out of the many contacts and stories she gathered from writing the column, as well as through her own life experience and friendships formed over the years with other entrepreneurs and their spouses.
Many farmers are entrepreneurs, Hirshberg notes in her book, and their families are subject to the same forces. She includes stories of several farm families to illustrate the joys, fears, sacrifices and rewards of families that start and nurture their own businesses.
Both of these authors bring hard-won insight and wisdom to their stories, along with humor and perspective.
Farming, starting any kind of business, tending a lighthouse, or other mission-driven or service-focused calling, can absorb nearly total attention and dedication. These two authors describe the personal and family stresses, strains and sacrifices, but also the immeasurable rewards of shared lives integrated with meaningful work.
Lorraine Merrill is New Hampshire’s Commissioner of Agriculture, Markets & Food.