Little by Little: Farming in Le Mans, France

Wedged between my 40-pound bag and the window, I force my hand to hold a pen instead of my drooping head, heavy from three well-lived nights in Paris. As I write, our train speeds away not a minute soon or late, and the city of love disappears in a hurry, without saying goodbye. I prop my feet up and try to find a place for them in the puzzle of limbs on the seat across from me. Lauren and Colin are dozing, intertwined. I envy them only slightly, as they start to slip away into the best kind of slumber–lulled to sleep by the rumbling of wheels against tracks. Exhausted and happy, we are off to our next adventure.

Destination: Le Mans. Objective: To grow and help grow.

For the next week, we will work at a community garden co-op called Petit à Petit, which will be my third WWOOF adventure. We will trade time and work for food and shelter, and in that special way that WWOOFing brings people together, we will become a community, and temporarily forget the rest of the world. We’ll talk. We’ll drink. We’ll relate and empathize. We’ll become full with our creations. We won’t use technology or touch money or check our to-do lists or busy ourselves with stupid things the whole time we’re here. We will live and feel every moment, and we will remember, yet again, how little life demands, and how simple joy can be. A catharsis.

My body aches, my mind creates, my spirit soars at the end of these days.

17 juillet 2015:

When we arrive a man with a cardboard sign is waiting at the train station. He speaks little English, so I try to sound confident in French, pestering my new friend Micah with petty interviews and genuine interest. Then, as we pass through a medieval village, Micah slows down and pulls over to a little shop. He wants to buy a few bottles of wine before we reach the countryside, and I know that language barriers won’t separate us.

At Petit à Petit, we meet Anne-Charlotte–one of the co-managers of the farm–a light presence that listens intently, loves deeply, studies faces and small details.  She shows us the fields, so we get our hands dirty, picking weeds, familiarizing ourselves with the crops. Not long after we start, we stop, drop our tools, look up, speechless, transfixed by the scintillating double rainbow that’s appeared from nowhere, stretching, unbroken, across the vast, inky sky. We take it as a welcome symbol and drink sangria for the rest of the night.


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Welcome to Petit à Petit Community Garden

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The garden. That’s garlic growing in the front.

Taken by Colin Hartley.

Our welcome rainbow. Taken by Colin Hartley.

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House on the garden property, where we’d often fetch water.

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Leek field.

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Carrot Field.

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The path that connects the garden to our camping area.


18 & 19 juillet 2015:

Today I awake at 6am to do sun salutations with Anne-Charlotte. I slept in a tent last night, alone and for a short time, but it was peaceful–listening to the cicadas at night, the bees in the morning. After yoga, we have breakfast the way most French people do–thick slices of bread slathered with cheese, marmalade, and honey–while the others start stirring in their hammocks. Early morning and into the afternoon, we are in the greenhouse surrounded by tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, zucchini, squash, basil, and carrots. We slash weeds, harvest a healthy bounty, and tie green vines to wooden sticks, giving organization to nature with our human touch.

The afternoon allows for a big lunch with tastes of beer, sangria, wine, and coffee–always a plethora of drinks–and food that sates the soul as much as our stomaches–potatoes, beans, rice, and omelettes, tomatoes and cucumbers, all from the garden.

I surprise myself with how much French I understand and I listen in on the other gardeners’ conversations. Petit à Petit is a co-op, so all of the workers are part owners and they spend the lazy bit after lunch plotting parties, discussing plans. They are excited and laid-back and full of life–a unique life that they made for themselves with their own two hands.

While Colin and Lauren retreat to hammocks to snooze between trees, Anne-Charlotte and I rotate the irrigation system from Plot 0 to Plot 1. It takes time and the sun is beating down its strongest rays of the day, but the work feels good and the finished product is worth it: the quenched thirst of beloved crops. One more task that we do to aid nature in its cycle. The goal is always to grow, grow, grow.

Out of all the western luxuries in the world, a hot shower is by far my favorite. We have one at Anne-Charlotte’s the next day. After having lived five years at the farm, she now lives in a little village nearby. We wash off the sweat and dirt from the day and prepare ourselves for a fête. We are invited to the neighbor Robin’s farm to party with the people from the countryside.


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Lauren, Tereza, and Colin lazing after lunch.

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Fresh vegetables from the garden. The yellow flowers on the right are zucchini flowers, which we fried and served with a delectable cream sauce.

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Homemade zucchini flowers. Kasia’s brilliant creation.

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Beautiful Tereza.

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Claire, a co-op member and farm volunteer. 🙂

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Our backwoods living room.

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Fresh to death, everyday.

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Our makeshift den.

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The glorious garden fields.

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Tools, beginnings, progress.

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The office.

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Our weekly calendar and garden duties.

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Leek fields.

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Lauren and Colin being cute.


20 juillet 2015:

I wake up the next morning Chez Robin with flies on my face, but beaming. Today we are all a bit somnolent. Still floating from the fullness of dinner, wine, and good times from last night. This morning is for massages and discussions about linguistics, differing cultures, distant dreams. We gather at the picnic table outside, hours before we start eating. The French, I’ve noticed, never miss an opportunity to dine in fresh air.

There’s a new WWOOFer arriving today. We are to pick her up from the train station after lunch. She’s Czech, Laurent says. And, I feel all of my worlds intersecting. On the car ride, I practice what I will say to her in my head and fight inner battles of self-doubt. I don’t know much Czech. Should I just stick to English instead? After meeting Tereza, my doubts are squashed, and we continue in Czenglish, effortlessly, vulnerably, concentrating, helping each other to understand. When we arrive at the farm, she pitches a tent next to mine.

At night the farm cat paws at my tent and I welcome him into my private abode. He walks around my body for a few minutes and, while I read a book, he tries to read the map of my body. He settles for my stomach, making himself into a little ball of warmth and, eventually, slides down into the crevice between my thighs, refusing to budge until he’s gotten a few hours of solid sleep. He is too cute and I’m in too tender of a mood to move him. So, I read and write and watch his chest rise and fall. Later, he finds a warm spot next to my face and cuddles with me while I lie awake, alert, listening.

The rustling of the leaves when the wind blows. At first I think it’s Tereza rolling over in her sleeping bag, but the swishing sounds are too long and too powerful to have been made by humans. Little trickles of light rain splatter the top of my tent and remind me that nature is generous and constant. This is the first time I’ve ever had a tent to myself and I’m loving it. Right then and there, I swear to start taking solo camping trips. But, first I’ll need a tent, a sleeping bag, a headlamp, a hammock (later manifested), a sense of direction, wilderness smarts, an untenable fortress of inner peace and some courage, etc.


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My and Tereza’s tents.

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Lauren and Colin by the campfire.

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Me in my element.

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Lauren looking lovely.

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IMG_4621 Lauren.

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21 juillet 2015:

I wake up early again today to teach a yoga class for my fellow WWOOFers. It’s my first time leading a class and it gives me an unexpected sense of purpose. I’ve changed a lot in regard to my self-confidence. Only now, do I truly believe that I have the knowledge and ability to teach something meaningful to others. It feels good to shake my passive shell.

I’m realizing how important it is to believe in yourself. The rest–the skills, the practice, the perfection–will fall into place afterwards. Teaching English has taught me this. Believe in yourself, improvise, guess and check, fail, be better, be patient, give fully of yourself, listen to others, stay passionately curious and optimistic, for no good reason.

Today we weed for hours–tedious and time-consuming, contemplative and relaxing. We are preparing the soil to plant new seeds–carrots–and to protect old seeds that are beginning to sprout–cabbage. We are doing a job that only humans can do because it requires both manual labor and discernment. Both hands and head. No machines will ever be able to replace this work and there is something profound in this realization. It’s good, honest work.

Laurent is the best and I believe in him–his tenets, his way. He invites us to his parents’ house to pull weeds and indulge in dinner–a French feast of brie en croute, salad, quail, veggies, couscous, rosé. His mom is an American from Michigan, his father is French, and Laurent is adopted. Together, they tell us stories and pamper us with comfort and formalities. Kasia closes our long day of weeding with a proper yoga class. Hers was a bit different than my class. Her voice was slower, more confident, more calming. She didn’t mix up her lefts and her rights. I’ll get there.

I’m taking note of how relaxed I feel without the internet. Being good at being on the computer accounts for half my livelihood, so I’m grateful, but sometimes it takes a toll without my realizing it. There are always deadlines and distractions. It’s good to disconnect. Later, Tereza tells me that my speaking Czech makes her comfortable, that she will be sad when I leave. Teaching English has also sharpened my ability to communicate. Words are just tools. I’m always searching for meaning.


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Laurent and his accordion, serenading us.

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Lauren and Colin listening to Laurent’s sweet rhapsody.

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The best WWOOF crew: me, Tereza, Lauren, and Colin.

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So much love for these people.

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Peace.


22 juillet 2015:

Washing hands to extract dirt,
Not just going through the motions.
We are Farmers, Country Folk,
Drinking with old people.
Nursing potato plants back to health,
Saving brown leaves from spreading disease,
We are Doctors and Scientists.
Planting ancient carrot seeds,
Giving life back what it has given.
We are Alchemists, except that I’m
Aware of the weight of my whole body in my hips and knees.
We are Yogis at dusk, enlightened by
The wind, enveloping us in a swirl of magic.
Feeling connected with the Earth beneath my feet.
Feeling free to talk about everything.
Throat Chakra on Fire, we are Students, we are Speakers,
Learning Czech, Learning French, Teaching English.
We are Chefs and Caterers, chopping, boiling, seasoning
Lunches that last well into the evening.
We are
We have
Time to live.


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Kasia meditating while playing the gogona.

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Tereza and Lauren collaborating on their doodles.

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Colin looking quite content.

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Just a typical day.

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23 juillet 2015:

Today is the day I leave for Paris again, but before I leave, Laurent has one final task for us. We are to walk 3 donkeys, 3 kilometers, from his friend’s farm back to his. The donkeys will clean up some of the overgrown, grassy areas in the garden, replacing lawnmowers with living, breathing, sustainability. And, actually, the donkeys aren’t stubborn at all and make for great company.


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Leading the donkeys back to Petit à Petit.

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Enjoying every minute of it.

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IMG_4659 Some friends we passed along the way.

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IMG_4695 Not bad scenery: sunflower fields as far as we could see.

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Three peas in a pod: donkey, Tereza, and Kasia.

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