The Silent Farm for Developmental Disabilities

Photo by Jesús Hellín/ Europa Press via Getty Images

This gentle essay by Mark Mann for Beside takes us into the understated world of David and Peter, who share a friendship spanning four decades, yet no words. Peter’s form of down syndrome means he is non-verbal, so ever since David first became his support worker they have been finding other ways to communicate — beginning with artmaking, to gardening, and ultimately, to farming. When David bought a 25-acre farm in 1998 he realized it was a place where he could “break the limitations imposed on people with developmental disabilities.” Abhorring the condescension he sometimes saw Peter face, on the farm David lets Peter take the lead in the quiet routines of  “preparing and sharing meals, tending to a few animals, and passing the time.”

This essay radiates with the peace that David has created for Peter in their silent sanctuary. It may not be a productive farm, but “rather than crops or yields, David and Peter’s harvest is each little detail noticed and celebrated: a trusting moment that passes between Peter and one of the horses, or the bright red sumac buds that David hangs above the kitchen table.”

Inspired by what David and Peter were doing at the Farm, others began joining them. David and Peter were connected to a larger network of families with members who were on the autism spectrum and used no spoken language, and some of these men became regulars. Neighbours started dropping in regularly, and friends and acquaintances from around Ontario began making the trip, to lend a hand and savour the atmosphere. (I was one of those, for several years.) The numbers have ebbed and flowed, but a small community has always coalesced around the Farm: loose, evolving, and delightfully unlikely. Today, it’s mainly just Peter and his close friend Kevin. Kevin doesn’t use spoken language either, but he, Peter, and David have found a rich and subtle terrain of conversation that goes beyond words: gestures, body language, touch, and eye contact.

… if everyone is feeling well, they make a trip to the barn. The 300-foot journey is as slow and deliberate as a religious procession, especially across the winter snow and ice. Once arrived, the atmosphere inside the barn is precisely like a cathedral, with its sombre light and air of stillness. One feels an instinct to whisper, and, like Peter and Kevin, to take careful, quiet steps.

The first order of business is to feed and water the sheep. On this particular day, we discover that one of the ewes has given birth. The little newborn is already skittering around on four legs while keeping close to its mother. Seeing the lamb, the quietness among the men intensifies. For several long minutes, they hover in the corner, taking in the scene. Kevin reaches out and removes some straw from Peter’s hat.

Read the essay