Monday, August 30, 2021

Hildebrand Elegy

Stan Hildebrand died this morning at a Kansas City hospital. He was 75. He had been in pain for a while, battling a peptic ulcer, and his body just gave out.

Stan and I journeyed through life together as fellow members of Sandhill Farm for 35 years, and I'm taking time today to recall this special person, who was forever curious and adventurous.

Stan first visited Sandhill in the summer of 1979. He had hitched to the community one summer afternoon, arriving unannounced. From that inauspicious beginning (dropping in at communities is considered poor etiquette) things improved greatly. I was the only one home when he walked up the gravel road, and it wasn't long before he was helping me dig postholes and install fence posts for pasturing our milk cow. It was the start of a relationship centered around farming and building community that endured for half my life.

We were an unlikely pair in that we came to our confluence from completely different paths. He grew up as the eldest son of Jake & Alma, a Mennonite farming family in the Red River Valley of southern Manitoba, near Halbstadt. I grew up the son of Val and Bob, in the Republican suburbs of Chicago. We both were acorns who walked away from the conservative trees from which we fell, to explore the world with fresh eyes, nurturing a root interest in trying to make a positive difference in a world that was largely going to hell in an adversarial, competitive handcart.

Stan quickly established himself as Sandhill's farmer, and taught himself to become an expert in the homestead manufacture of sorghum syrup—the community's main agricultural cash crop. After a number of years struggling to make ends meet solely through food production, he and I stabilized the community's income through value-based outside work. While I was an administrator for the Fellowship for Intentional Community and offered my services as a facilitator and trainer in cooperative group process, Stan became an independent organic inspector.

I have deep memories of working the fields before dawn on summer days to hoe out in-the-row weeds from our fields of sorghum, corn, and beans. As organic farmers our herbicides were attached at our wrists. While a field cultivator would do a decent job of removing weeds between rows, we had no mechanical advantage for removing weeds in the row (excepting what we could effect with a rotary hoe if conditions were right). 

That meant early morning trips to the fields in July and August (to beat the heat) and walking the rows to remove foxtail, purslane, bindweed, velvetleaf, and cocklebur, one plant at a time. While progress could be excruciatingly slow working alone, it was a social occasion when you did it as a team. Stan was most often the one who organized the weeding parties.

Trial by Fire

Sandhill first made sorghum in 1977—two years before Stan arrived on the scene—and it was the community's signature crop until a couple years ago. Over the course of more than three decades we overhauled our cooking process twice, always guided by Stan's insatiable hunger for making a better product.

Each fall, harvest would begin somewhere around the autumnal equinox and extend two or three weeks into October—until we either ran out of cane, or ran out of weather, as the syrup would be ruined by a hard freeze. In the early years, we cooked sorghum by the batch method, where one body of raw juice would be boiled down to a finished state in one go. In a typical 36-hour period we might cook 500 gallons of juice nonstop—in several batches, one after the other—to yield 6o gallons of salable syrup.

When we were in full tilt production, cooks had to stay up through the night every other day to stay ahead of the field work. During those intensive stretches, Stan and I would often take turns being the person who covered the graveyard shifts from midnight to dawn—mesmerized by the flames of the wood fires, and the sweet smell of the softly popping syrup as it gradually thickened. Even though we weren't awake at the same time, we were bonded by the work—generating a quarter of the community's income in three weeks.

I cherished partnering with Stan as a long-term member of Sandhill—as someone who joined with me to create and sustain an open attitude toward new members. Often there would be pressure from newer members to be more selective about additional people joining the group (the pattern, which I've encountered repeatedly in my work with intentional communities, is that the last ones to arrive have a tendency to want to close the door) and Stan was my steadfast ally in resisting the urge to pull up the welcome mat for the newest immigrants.

Stan and I had different personalities, and different sensibilities, but the dream of community and a strong belief in the basic goodness of people burned brightly in us both. I will be eternally grateful to have had him as a partner in building an open-hearted community.

Extended Family

In addition to being community members together, my life with Stan was more closely woven together by his becoming a second father to my son, Ceilee.

Ceilee, was born to Ann and me in 1981. Shortly after the birth, Ann and I broke up as an intimate couple and Stan got together with Ann. For the next 18 years, all of us—Stan, Ann, Ceilee, and me—lived together at Sandhill and Ceilee effectively had three parents. While that wasn't something I was particularly looking for, it worked well. I never felt threatened by Stan (he didn't try to replace me as Ceilee's father), and it was a bonus for Ceilee.

It's All in a Name

Stan had many nicknames at Sandhill, but the one that stuck the most was "Pooch," which had a convoluted etymology. Before coming to Sandhill, Stan was in a relationship with Sandy and the two of them experimented with community homesteading in Guatemala for three years in the early '70s (Tierra del Ensueño). During that time Sandy took to calling him Poophead—later altered to Poopsie—lampooning his grumpier side when the two of them were struggling in the highlands of Central America. Sandy shared this history with us (she tried living at Sandhill also but didn't stayed long), and Poopsie became his moniker.

When Shining arrived as the second child born at Sandhill, half a year after Ceilee, she had trouble saying Poopsie. It came out more like "Pooshie" which later got shortened to "Pooch." For reasons that will forever be obscure to me, that corruption of a small child's temporary mispronunciation stuck, and it's still the name I use to evoke Stan today. (Another thing that Stan and I shared was an appreciation for whimsy and life's oddities.)

All of that said, by any name Pooch, I'll miss you.


Christine Hildebrand said...

Thank you Laird for sharing these wonderful memories of your relationship with my brother Stan at Sandhill. I so appreciated your warm welcome and heart-felt conversations the times I visited Sandhill. Chris

Anonymous said...

As I noted on Facebook in reply to an announcement of Stan's death, I think that it was my somewhat impromptu attendance at your wedding in Albuquerque in 2007(?) that led to my getting to have one last, enjoyable, connection with Stan years after living together at Twin Oaks. Thank you for providing that occasion and for these reminiscences.

Richard Feldman aka Rico (a nickname derived from bureaucratic abbreviation as opposed to juvenile mispronunciation)

Jake Kawatski said...

Thank you, Laird!
In the year before Stan died, I was on his email list for his memoires he was sharing monthly.Sandhill has a special place in my heart and Stan was a wonderful part of my working visits there. Jake Kawatski aka "Busy Izzy"