IAP 2011: Farm Work Reinvigorates Techie

by Amy Marcott on January 28, 2011 · 0 comments

in IAP, Student Life, Travel

This post is part of a series from MIT students currently involved in the Student/Alumni Externship Program, which connects current students to alumni in workplaces worldwide during MIT’s Independent Activities Period. Alumni, learn how to get involved.

Guest Blogger: Jessica Lin ’12, computer science major
Alumnus host: Bela Prasad PhD ’02

Jessica wielding a hoe

Jessica wielding a hoe.

Mr. Rosignol wields his red chainsaw like a toy. The whole day, he’s been cutting trees on this precarious fifty-degree slope, strewn with loose leaves and soil that give way beneath even his small frame. I’ve slipped just standing on the lower part of the incline. He’s wearing bright red coveralls and no ear or eye protection, which makes me nervous as his saw groans and revs and wood chips spray in a fifteen-foot radius around him.

This afternoon, I’m helping him pile logs from the trees he’s cut onto his tractor. The logs will go to the wood shed, where they’ll age for at least three years before they’re ready to be used as firewood.

Mr. Rosignol stops and says something. He speaks only French and has a thick accent local to this rural southwestern region of France–definitely not the crisp speech I heard in high school French class recordings. At first, I can’t figure out what he’s saying, so I have to ask him to repeat himself.

“I’m sixty-seven,” he’s saying. “You look like you’re twenty.” Yet I’ve been doing less work than him, and he’s probably less tired.

The four MIT students on the farming externship. From left: Alexandra de Rosa '13, Jessica Lin '12, Harrison Chen '11, and Patrick Gichuiri '13.

The four MIT students on the farming externship. From left: Alexandra de Rosa ’13, Jessica Lin ’12, Harrison Chen ’11, and Patrick Gichuiri ’13.

This was just one of the first days of my externship at a small farm on the outskirts of Najac. The farm—owned by Bela Prasad PhD ’02 and Vig Haraldsson SM ’00—is just starting up, soon to become a vineyard. For the past three weeks the three other MIT students here and I have been clearing land in preparation for planting. It’s physical work—turning soil and digging out tenacious weeds, chopping down small trees, laying down gravel paths, and so on.

Yes, I study computer science, and this externship has blissfully nothing to do with it. Instead of thinking about code, I’ve been thinking about how to best protect an area of soil from weeds long-term, how to best move mounds of heavy pebble to its needed location, and how to maintain the structural integrity of centuries-old dry stone walls. Instead of sitting at a keyboard tapping for hours at a time, I’ve cut down my computer usage to, on average, less than an hour a day. Computer science has removed me from physical work, but I’ve had a healthy dose of it here.

I’m gaining muscle and strength every day, but working here is also surprisingly good for the mind and spirit. I’ve improved my concentration simply by being removed from constant context-switching between different classes and p-sets and events. I’m always content, maybe due to the consistently beautiful and quiet surroundings. Mr. Rosignol, my fellow worker for a day, sets an example of the grittiness and self-reliance of the countryside, a place that through its austerity shows me there’s much I don’t need for happiness. The absence of traffic sounds and bright city lights at night is striking.

Life here seems to move more slowly; it takes longer to do some simple things. To throw out the trash, for example, we walk a quarter mile to a bin at the mouth of the small road that runs in front of the farm. But taking out the trash has also never been this scenic and pleasant a stroll.

The front of one of the two farmhouses, showing a fraction of the students' work. The slope on the left side was overgrown with brambles, bushes, and small trees before they arrived, and the path was not visible.

The front of one of the two farmhouses, showing a fraction of the students’ work. The slope on the left side was overgrown with brambles, bushes, and small trees before they arrived, and the path was not visible.

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