Sisters of St. Joseph of CarondeletJune 17, 2019

Earth Concerns News

Family, Community Heritage Leads to Reverence and Affection for Land by Sister Elizabeth Varley, CSJ

For this segment on Home/Land history, I draw upon two significant life settings that are sources of my vision of and sense of kinship with the land and all living things. The first regards my personal history to the age of five on my parents’ farm in Old Saratoga near Schuylerville. The second involves my present home at St. Joseph’s Provincial House, built on farmland that was known as Mulberry Hill. Here a farmhouse stood that was, from 1794-1796, the home of Comptesse (later the Marquise) Henriette-Lucy De La Tour du Pin, her husband and children, refugees from France. This family lived not a great distance from the first Shaker settlement in Watervliet and had traded with and visited Shakers, in whose history I have long been interested. The Shaker reverence and care for the land and its preservation were rooted in their religious beliefs and way of life.

            My parents, Richard and Sarah Varley, owned a farm in historic Old Saratoga, not a great distance from the Saratoga Battlefield. I was born in our farmhouse, which is fairly near Burgoyne Station and Gates Station of the Boston and Maine Railroad. The day after I was born, the United States entered the first World War. I, of course, had nothing to do with that. One might indeed say that I lived in an historic region and in an historic time.

            For most of my life I have been an urban person, but I have never lost my initial love for the land: for the aroma of the upturned earth; for the cold, clear water of the pond; for the wooded areas and orchard; and especially for the barns, the horses, cows, lambs, pigs and poultry that received such care and humorous affection. The seasons were part of all this, especially when our visiting young cousins from Brooklyn came. Sometimes, we were awakened from sleep by a wild thunderstorm that could strike in the night. The winters with below-zero readings and a dazzling night sky and the rides in a horse-drawn cutter, in which I was warmed by a buffalo robe drawn up to my eyes, are among my earliest memories.

            It was only in later years that I realized how arduous my father’s farm work was. He toiled at it long hours. He was, however, a man who sang, who played music on a pipe of some sort for his lambs. One of my most vivid memories is that of my father’s bringing a very young lamb into our kitchen and feeding it some milk from a baby’s bottle. In memory, I can almost smell the milk and see that helpless little creature so comforted by my father. From the very ways in which my father walked on his land, cultivated and cared for it, I know now what reverence he had for the land, what patience and what love. My Irish born grandfather had bought that land and had built his homestead. He lived until the age of 96 and continued to go out to work in the fields. My father told us that my grandfather said that he used to speak with the angels there.

            One day, as I recall this happening, my sister Marion, probably between two and three at the time, had trudged by herself a little distance from the house. When we found her, she was comfortably seated, eating berries that she had carefully picked. Nearby a small snake was enjoying the sunshine and, to the best of my memory, minding its own business. When I recall the scene now, I think of the Peaceable Kingdom and of what it has to say about relationships between humans and the living and growing things of nature and with the earth itself.

            My sister and I have gone back to the farm a few times in recent years. A middle-aged couple who are teachers are the owners. A considerable part of the land has been sold. The barns are gone, and there is a swimming pool beyond the house. The owners do not farm the land. As we walked toward the house, it was the land under my feel that welcomed me like an old friend. What had seemed like a bill hill nearby when I was a child was a small, gentle slope. The kitchen and my parents’ bedroom at the head of the stairway still spoke to me of the warmth and joy and the life we had shared with our father and mother on our farm so many decades ago.

            The bioregion in which I now live here in Latham has a number of historic connections which include that of the pioneer Shaker community of Watervliet, no longer in existence, and of the continuing place of the Shakers in the history of American culture. The historic house near the entrance to our property was built in the early nineteenth century upon the remains of a farmhouse in which the De La Tour du Pin family lived as refugees from the Reign of Terror. Henriette-Lucy De La Tour became manager of their farm on what was known as Mulberry Hill.

            Madame De La Tour wrote in her Recollections about having met the Shakers and having attended one of their religious services. Ann Lee, their foundress, had arrived from New York City in 1774 with a small group of followers. Within a couple of years or so, the Shakers purchased land in what was then known as Niskayuna in Watervliet. They called themselves the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. They required celibacy for full membership in the society and shared their goods in common; their religious beliefs greatly influenced their life-style, worship, dance, architecture, music, furniture making, farming and seed raising. They exercised a hardy stewardship of the land.

            Madame De La Tour also noted in her book that frequently a Shaker would drive his wagon full of vegetables past the De La Tour farmhouse. He invariably stopped by and answered questions about the Shaker customs, beliefs and way of life. He invited the De La Tours to visit the Shaker settlement, and they accepted his invitation. The simplicity of the life and the outlook of the Shakers struck Madame De La Tour. Their agriculture, their attitudes toward the land and living and growing things reflected their reverence for the world of nature. Elder Henry Blinn, a nineteenth century Shaker, worked at several occupations, including beekeeping. I find it endearing that he devised his own system of air conditioning for the bees, so that they would not get overheated as they toiled diligently at their production of honey. The famous Round Barn at Hancock, restored in 1968, is an architectural gem that reveals the Shaker concern for the land and environment, for labor-saving measures, for humane care of farm animals and for the essentials.

            I learned, therefore, an abiding reverence and affection for the land and for all living and growing things from my parents on our farm and later from the Shakers, from my visits to Shaker settlements at Hancock, Canterbury, New Lebanon, Sabbathday Lake and Watervliet (near the Airport and Ann Lee Home). Also, I enjoyed the privilege of meeting and speaking with some of the Shakers of Sabbathday Lake and Canterbury. At present only the Sabbathday Lake community survives under the leadership of Sister Frances Carr. All of these experiences are part of my Home/Land heritage of stewardship of the land.


            (I have consulted Marquise De La Tour Du Pin’s Recollections of the Revolution and the Empire, edited and translated by Walter Geer. Stephen J. Stein’s The Shaker Experience in America and Priscilla J. Brewer’s Shaker Community, Shaker Lives, for this Home/Land segment.)


(June 1995)