Intervale Story Hour: Mandy Fischer
For 30 years, the Intervale Center has been a place of stories - stories of the land, stories of farmers and gardeners, stories of renewal, and stories of hope. To celebrate our 30th anniversary, we invited the community to participate in an evening of funny, quirky, sad, and inspiring storytelling with an Intervale theme. Below is a transcription of Mandy Fischer’s story.
I was born in a little hospital in Milford, Delaware, in the same delivery room where my father and his twin brother were born, at 6 in the evening. Dinner time.
Milford, straddling the line between Kent and Sussex County, is a chicken processing town. Milford’s the kind of town where instead of a traffic report in the morning, there’s a poultry report, by which I mean, a report of places where traffic is snarled by chickens crossing the road.
My father was a fertilizer and feed salesman. Our house was a long ranch with wide red siding set on an acre with a stream and swamp in the back. Above the television in our wood paneled den among the family photos hung a signed photograph of Richard Petty, you know, the NASCAR driver.
My childhood wasn’t kind. Bad things happened that I didn’t understand. I was chubby with bad teeth, I couldn’t read, and I had no friends, except for a few cousins, and Beth, who lived up the hill from me. After school, Beth and I play in the swamp. We basically did three things – fight, try to pick up snakes on sticks, and dare each other to smell things. In the summer, my family would go to the beach, and I’d play the same games with my cousins in the salt marsh. These places were my refuge.
Another refuge was All Souls Convent, where my great aunt Dady was Mother Superior. I’d wander the old orphanage dormitory before heading to chapel to hear the nuns sing. I fell in love with devotion and with big questions. You know, BIG QUESTIONS. Why am I here? What does this all mean?
In high school and college, I pursued these questions. I ended up at Harvard Divinity School at age 22, thinking I’d be a theologian. I studied theodicy. Basically, theodicy is the problem of evil. If God is all knowing, all powerful and everywhere, how can evil exist in the world? Or how can you justify the existence of God given that evil exists?
I continued my education at the University of Chicago, but I was becoming increasingly disillusioned by what it all meant. I also started reading Wendall Berry and the incredible landscape geographer, JB Jackson. My interests were turning away from evil and toward American vernacular architecture, everyday life, and agriculture.
One day, while my sourdough was ripening in the window, I first read about the Intervale Center in the book. I don’t know which one. I was immediately inspired. And over the next few months, the idea of this place kinda haunted me. I just had this feeling – go there. So after a lot of thought, I went to my dissertation committee and told them I wanted some time off to go to Vermont and check this place out. They were encouraging and told me, hey, we will hold your fellowship for a year.
Now some people would say this was divine intervention. But to me, it felt like the first real decision I’d ever made in my life. Maybe that’s just me falling prey to the classic American answer to just about everything, including theodicy – free will. Or maybe divine intervention is so slick it looks and feels like your own choice – who knows.
So I left. We packed up over Thanksgiving and landed in a tiny place on North Willard on December 1. A few days later, I walked down the hill and into that old farmhouse, then without heat and with areas still covered over with boards and plastic. Oh my, what had I done?
I met Aziza Malik, who was the coordinator of Healthy City, the youth farm. She put me to work writing grants and raising money. When the seasons changed, she welcomed me into the greenhouse and then the fields. There I was, uncovering the strawberries that had overwintered, with my new friend, Aziza.
Eventually I got a job that was a mix between agricultural development support, executive assistant and grants coordinator, at 15 hours a week and $11/hour. Basically, I did whatever somebody asked me to do. I had no office, no desk and no computer. Instead, I carried around a bundle of file folders and worked where I could. Eventually, I did get a desk – much to his chagrin, in Travis’s office – and a little Dell laptop - and in that office, we weathered the transition of compost, the departure of over half our colleagues, and with a handful of very talented people on staff and board, started building what today are our statewide, comprehensive agricultural service programs and our thriving local food social enterprise, the Intervale Food Hub.
Things were rough, but I held on. I held on because I was and continue to be inspired by the goodness of this place, and for it and what it represents, I’m willing to do whatever is asked of me. In some ways, it’s just a swamp like Milford. But it’s also so different. Milford is a town run by Perdue. And no offense to Perdue, but big corporations do not care about the humanity of farmers, workers or eaters, about animals or about the planet. If they did, we’d live in a much different world, wouldn’t we?
But at the Intervale Center, we do care, deeply, about all beings. We are building a food system in which you can look into the eyes of the person who grew your food and recognize their humanity. We aspire to engage in agriculture that doesn’t just extract wealth from communities and the earth, but adds to it and keeps that wealth local. It’s not perfect. It’s really challenging. But it’s good, and it’s the only way forward.
So obviously you guys, I haven’t become a professional theologian yet. But I am still working on the big questions. Who am I? What is this all about?
And there’s evil in the world. What about the problem of evil? Can you justify the existence of God, given evil?
I now kinda think this is the wrong question to ask – instead I ask, given that there is evil in the world, what good can I do? Maybe it is up to us to bring about goodness.
One thing I do not question is whether or not I am in the right place to do good because I know I am.