By EVELINE MacDOUGALL
For the Recorder
Published: 11/24/2020 1:38:16 PM
Les and Susie Patlove at home in Charlemont. Contributed photo/Gillis MacDougall
During our unprecedented era, in a season of giving thanks, a visit to the home of Les and Susie Patlove offers a chance to shift gears. On a dead-end Charlemont road, serenity and mindfulness blossom.
Past the garden sits a small building with clean lines, built years ago to accommodate a teen’s need for extra space, and later converted to a workshop for the resident furniture maker. Les has retired from woodworking but retains broad knowledge about the beauty and mechanics of his craft.
Behind the their cozy home, chickens cluck near a wood pile. Three solar panels boost hot showers, supplementing a 30-gallon copper tank connected to their woodstove.
Symmetry abounds without fanfare in the main living quarters, the front door leading to a 16-by-24-foot room with the kitchen on the left and living room to the right. Colorful houseplants tended by Susie and Shaker-style furniture made by Les sit beneath handsome hewn beams and mortise-and-tenon joinery, lending an air of solidity and grace.
The Patloves’ parlor contains plants tended by Susie and furniture made by Les. Contributed photo/Gillis MacDougal
A kettle hisses comfortingly atop the woodstove and the fragrance of freshly ground grain draws the eye to an impressive grinder, next to a tiny basket holding three fresh eggs. An adjoining hallway is decorated with herbs hanging upside-down, destined for mugs of steaming tea: nettles, bee balm, tulsi holy basil. Garlic braids, too, adorn the hallway.
George, the ink-black cat, enters daintily on snow-white feet. The kitchen faucet dispenses clear well water and homegrown vegetables garnish countertops.The window above the sink opens onto a greenhouse where geraniums, swiss chard and butternut squash provide a yummy palette of colors. The view out the greenhouse glass reveals a meadow, treeline and mountain.
Originally built to provide additional space for teens, this small post-and-beam building became a workshop for Les Patlove. Contributed photo/Gillis MacDougall
A custom-built bookcase reflects a wide variety of interests: apple trees, mushroom identification, ginseng, natural pest control, wildflowers. Titles like “Five Acres and Independence” share a shelf with “Feasting Free on Wild Edibles” and “Living More on Less,” as well as books about birds, bonsai, natural healing and the agricultural treasures of chicken manure. A massive red volume stands out: an encyclopedia of music.
A small bathroom contains a flush toilet, recently installed to replace a longtime composting toilet — one concession to advancing age. The last of autumn’s colorful fresh flowers, along with muted dried ones, brighten each room, including the loo.
One section of the Patlove’s compact cellar has a concrete floor, while the root cellar area has a stone floor, allowing for higher moisture levels. Root crops winter over, to be incorporated into soups and stews.
The Patloves grow food year round in their greenhouse. Contributed photo/Gillis MacDougall
Les, 77, and Susie, 73, have been together for over 50 years, most of them on what’s known as Windy Hill, an 80-acre enclave established as an intentional community. Of several households, five residents of the original group remain. Other founders moved on, replaced by folks who share their love of the land and cooperation.
“We designed our community so that our homes are close to each other, so most of our land can remain undeveloped,” Susie says. “I feel like the land is responsible for our success.”
“The land has shaped us more than we’ve shaped the land,” remarks Les. “Our first love here was the landscape, the wildlife, so much beauty. I don’t think I’ve taken it all in yet.”
Drawing a connection to their community’s longevity, Susie muses, “People ask why this community has lasted. I think it has something to do with the mountain, and streams coming down. It’s like living in a magnificent bowl. It’s humbling to live in such beauty.”
Les built their home in 1973 — originally as an ell to the community’s farmhouse — and moved it to its current spot in 1978. “I modeled it after one-room schoolhouses popular in this region,” he explains. “What’s now our parlor,” he says, gesturing through a doorway, “used to be my workshop, so I added our home onto that.”
A glimpse into the parlor reveals more gorgeous hand-built furniture, another riot of houseplants, an ancient sewing machine and a turntable for jazz, folk, and classical records. “Les hand-split the red oak shakes that cover this room’s roof,” Susie says admiringly. Nodding, Les adds, “I used a froe,” referring to a hand tool.
The Patloves’ home in Charlemont. Contributed photo/Gillis MacDougall
Born in Brooklyn, Les says, “It never crossed my mind as a child that I’d live like this.” Glancing fondly at his mate, he adds, “Susie was the motivator. She always wanted to grow all her own food. And she’s good at it. The closest I got to a garden in Brooklyn was the one belonging to our Italian landlord. He grew tomato plants and peach and plum trees. That seemed fine, but I never thought it would have anything to do with me.”
In addition to her horticulture prowess, Susie, who grew up in Hingham, is a published and prize-winning poet. She’s also worked as a librarian and pre-school teacher, among other forms of paid employment in order to support her homesteading urges.
Les is known as “the guy with the French horn,” referring to his years in local ensembles. The couple’s skills and talents seem endless, but perhaps it’s their shared practice of Zen Buddhism over five decades that provides the most significant unifying theme. “We got into Buddhism together after college,” Les explains. He had studied sciences, and she, Chinese history.
Reflecting on the experience of raising children in community, Susie says, “Of course there were struggles, but we all had lots of support. I’m grateful that the kids who grew up here had extra parents. I think it worked well.”
The Patloves’ three grown sons live geographically distant from their parents and each other, but remain close. Will, 43, is the nearest, living with his wife, Katie, in Burlington, where he works for a wine distributor and pursues his love of visual art. Several of his pieces hang on his parents’ walls.
When asked about growing up in a homesteading family, Will says, “I have a belief that I can do things myself, a sense of self-reliance that permeates my life. My parents rarely called in plumbers, electricians, or carpenters. It was taken for granted that we did those things ourselves. Self-reliance now extends to all aspects of my life, from relationships to artistic endeavors and spirituality. It’s an understanding that I’m responsible for my experience and that, yes, I can fix the fuel pump in my car.”
Younger brother Sam, 39, runs Bud’s Recording Services, a studio in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife, Gloria, and their 3-year-old son, Arlo. Photos of Arlo adorn his grandparents’ fridge and walls, his shining eyes and chubby cheeks imparting as much warmth as the woodstove during a time when the toddler is unable, due to pandemic risks, to visit Western Massachusetts.
“We took full advantage of all the fun that could be had on 80 acres,” Sam says of his early life. “It gave me a strong connection with nature, which I carry to this day, along with an appreciation for the taste and nutrition of high quality food and an understanding of hard work and chores, among many other things.”
Sam admits there were challenges. “I think our parents, in their rejection of society’s standard path of trying to accumulate monetary wealth, left me with some baggage. Maybe there was an assumption that we would live as they did. It’s a minor thing, though, and I’m grateful for the perspectives that led me to where I am. Even though I desire more financial stability than my parents did, I also understand the value of things that financial markets have traditionally struggled to put a price tag on, whether it’s music, art, or a 300-year-old tree.”
Eldest brother Silas, 46, is a physician’s assistant in emergency medicine living in Oakland, Calif., as well as a semi-professional clarinetist. His father beams in recalling, “Some of my fondest memories are of playing in musical ensembles with Silas.” The family also benefits from medical information shared by Silas during the pandemic.
The family looks forward to a time when they can reunite, but until then, they make do with other forms of contact, knowing they’re in the same boat with people the world over. In the meantime, Les and Susie bring in the firewood, share a new book about trees, and enjoy the view.
“We’re growing old together,” Susie says. “We’ve gone through intense things since our twenties. I don’t want to idealize it, because some things were hard. But living in community — having people who can help, and who we can also help — that’s a real gift.”
It’s a story of harmony: his music, her poetry, his creations from wood, her green thumb. In a lovely spot, peace is allowed to flourish.
Eveline MacDougall, who has lived in Franklin County since 1987, started Greenfield’s Pleasant Street Community Garden in 1999. She coordinated the community garden for about 15 years and is now a member of the current project, but no longer serves in a leadership position.