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Yale 62

A Sense of Place

Charles Eisendrath left a dream job as foreign correspondent, packed up his family and reinvented himself as a cherry farmer in Northern Michigan. Here, he reflects on the life-changing powers of a 160-year-old farmstead. This piece was first published in Traverse magazine last fall.

intro by Allison Jarrell
photos by Ben Eisendrath, @GrillworksBen

FOR CHARLES EISENDRATH, the road back to Overlook Farm began in Anatolia in 1972. The 32-year-old foreign correspondent and acting Paris bureau chief for Time Magazine was assigned a cover story on the international drug trade. After reporting that France’s DGSE (the French version of the CIA) had quietly engaged French smugglers to move arms to a number of Middle East countries, his life changed dramatically.

Phone lines were tapped. He received a call from “the political reporting section” of the U.S. Embassy (which didn’t exist) telling him to leave the bureau immediately because of a letter-bomb threat.

Then came the week of Sept. 11, 1973—the biggest story of his career, and the most dangerous time of his life. Eisendrath was told by the American Embassy that he and his wife and two young sons should flee Buenos Aires (where they were based) and take an impromptu “vacation” out of the country, in order to avoid potential reprisals (home bombings and kidnapping were common) due to his reporting on Argentinian dictator Juan Perón.

While in Uruguay, Eisendrath learned that Chilean President Salvador Allende had agreed to an interview with Time. His interview was scheduled in Chile for September 11—and unbeknownst to him, a coup was scheduled for that same day. Allende was assassinated not long before they were to meet, and Eisendrath found himself covering his third war—locked down in Chile, but more important, his competition was locked out of the country. He secured an international scoop: the first interview with Augusto Pinochet, four days after his coup.

It was on the plane out of Chile that Eisendrath pondered the life he was leading, and how it might compare to the alternatives. “Why exactly, had I gotten myself into something that required practicing the art of survival while describing other peoples’ wars?” he wrote. Eisendrath decided his career wouldn’t stand in the way of growing roots and building a life. He wrapped up the week’s coverage, asked for R&R leave, was denied, and left anyway—moving his family to Overlook Farm in East Jordan, Michigan.

Eisendrath’s book, “Downstream from Here: A Big Life in a Small Place,” is a series of essays spanning four decades of his time spent in Charlevoix County, examining “the loves of a place inhabited temporarily, but which shape a person permanently.” Within these pages, he describes a special kind of love—the love of where you live—and how much a place can mean in one’s life.

In this excerpted chapter, “A Sense of Place,” written in August 1987, Charles finds himself stepping away from his career, exploring his parents’ homesteading past, and following in their footsteps.

If you expected a piece about a cherry orchard in northern Michigan to start with cherries, orchards or Michigan, I have already disappointed you. This one begins at la Chapelle de Bragny, a small, as these things go, Burgundian chateau owned, as it has been for centuries, by the de Carmoy family. The count’s name is Hervé, and he has many commendable qualities—earned as well as inherited. Hervé and his effervescent wife, Roseline de Rohan (part of the Chandon family, as in Moet & Chandon), were relatively new at the grand seigneur role, having taken over the place only a few years previously from Papa. The little theatrics played by these aristocrats in their thirties were for the benefit of the town. In de Carmoy eyes, their every move was watched. This couple, who literally owned the town, felt themselves checked for shortcomings daily. Were they elegant enough, kind enough, generous enough to be permitted to lord it over the rest? Hervé and Roseline spent their vacations making sure they looked and comported themselves accordingly, de rigueur. Their house guests, ditto.

EXCERPT BY Charles Eisendrath

August 1987

I asked Hervé why he went to the trouble of maintaining a chateau. Beside the enormous expense, it was clear that even a decision about what the children should wear on a tennis court required deliberation. “With us, this has been going on for 500 years and it will keep going on for another 500,” he said. “The town expects certain things from us. A certain standard. We play our roles. We do our best. But it does seem that every 200 years or so, they cut off our heads.”

Leave la Chapelle for, say, Provence? Might as well ask the steeple to separate itself from the chapel of Bragny. To the likes of us, who owned no home base in our own country and, during six years of married life, had moved five times, this dedication to place was a new way of going at the business of life. Or, to be exact, an extremely old one new to us. Nevermind religion—even in terms of geography, we had neither church nor steeple to mark home from a distance.

I found this baselessness deeply unsatisfactory. I did not want to tour around the rest of my life as an observer, the way I was cruising the Vietnamese peace talks, European politics and the drug trade as a professional outsider. Against the model of the de Carmoys and la Chapelle, with its commitments and its finality, the butterfly nature of what we were doing struck me as flighty to the point of embarrassment.

At thirty-two, I had witnessed, analyzed and communicated U.S. presidential elections, the Prince of Wales’ investiture, de Gaulle’s funeral and the Biafran War for a magazine with the biggest audience in the world. But where was my story? La Chapelle got me thinking in a new way. I had no la Chapelle. My little family was a tree without roots. I would grow some.

Like many a country house, Overlook Farm began as a marital evasion. My mother adored spending summers where she had as a girl, in a white-frame “cottage” with paint always so new you could see your reflection in the green  shutters as well as the windows. Four-fifteen Michigan Avenue had cedar strip sleeping porches with nothing but a  few yards of darkness separating you from the sounds of Lake Michigan made at night. My father thought Charlevoix was beautiful—how could he not? Facing the big lake from high sand bluffs, a gem called Lake Charlevoix to the east and the perfect natural harbor of Round Lake between, the place dazzles. In truth, he appreciated how it looked, but hated what it was. An esthete, he found resorts intellectually sterile and liked their socializing even less. He grew to positively loathe his in-laws, May and Charlie Rice, people given to closing off the street when even the nine- bedroom “cottage” could not accommodate the mob of 200 invited guests. But he conceded defeat, admitting that he must buy something in or near my mother’s family and the site of her childhood nostalgia. His instructions to the realtor became a legend*: “Find me something with a body of water between me and May Rice, and I’ll take it.” His two-week vacation ended, he departed for Chicago. (*As did the realtor himself, Earl Young, originator of  Charlevoix’s “mushroom houses.”)

The plan of exclusion worked. Somehow, the one-toot ferry ride across the South Arm of Lake Charlevoix (the world’s shortest, according to an old Ripley’s Believe It or Not column mounted on board under glass) cut the number of in-law visits satisfyingly. Or maybe, it just seemed that way to my father. To the amazement of everyone, he pronounced the dilapidated place “perfect” and committed to buying it sight unseen.

It is not at all clear that my mother knew it was a done deal before the dutiful young wife wrote this letter about things (acreage, soil and well water quality, price, taxes) that to her husband were not nearly as important as seeing less of her mother.

Sept 7, 1944 Thursday night
415 Michigan Avenue
Charlevoix, Michigan

Bill Darling. This has been a day! Starting at 6:30 this morning when Charles awakened me, until this moment at 8:45 pm, when I have tucked in the last young’un, and can finally tell all that has occurred. Everything reached a climax today, and all that I shall report is the result of many conversations in the course of several days, so I can’t give you a play-by-play account. When the deed was finally consummated this afternoon I tried to send you a ‘My God, I am shot’ telegram, but (Western Union) wouldn’t take it.* (*Because of the word “shot.” It was wartime, after all.)

The name of the place is Overlook Farm; the address is Route 2, East Jordan, Mich. The tax bill is assessed $2600, approximately half the value—but what the hell! It’s a divine place, and I’m thrilled.

Freud was right about Oedipus. I read those letters in 1985, a few days after my mother’s death. As she had revealed herself at thirty-five, I fell in love with her on the spot. At forty-four, I was experiencing her youth while being about as much senior to her as my father had been when they met at a picnic on the point of an island visible from the farm they bought a decade later. Time added yet another coincidence: In her letter, my mother was doing all her bubbling at precisely the same age I would be when I came to know Overlook Farm for the first time as the owner. That was, of course, long before the farm showed me what la Chapelle taught Hervé de Carmoy—that attachment to land goes beyond family history and remains unexplained. Can’t be explained. That’s probably the most important thing the place taught me. Without using an analogy, can anyone describe the color blue? Or middle “C?” Or love?

Within a very few minutes of meeting Julia on a blind date, I’d said to myself, “Wrap it up, I’ll take it.” As the song goes, “Fools give you reasons, wise men never try.”

The year after buying Overlook, on the day World War II ended, my mother wrote again, this time to express the joy and relief of a young Jewish mother who had bought a Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver to deal with the maraudering Nazis she envisaged storming the beaches of Lake Michigan. I still have it, along with a photo of her at the wheel of a Red Cross army truck, both of them tucked away on a bookshelf at the farm.

The record of that first trip to Overlook was written in trees. Experience imprints most indelibly because, like an image, there is no first screening by reason, logic or even intuition. That is why political cartoons are the first target of censorship. It also explains why I learned so much in the decade between inheriting the farm and reading my mother’s letter. The education began in 1972, after a flight from Paris to Traverse City, the nearest airport. Our eldest was the age I had been when my screaming awakened my mother rudely enough for her to put it in a letter. Ben’s younger brother was an infant, and their mother had seen the place only once before.

I had never before planted a tree and knew nothing about them. If you had asked me about the root structures of various species, I would have resented it. Like all confirmed urbanites, I knew that roots went down, and that was all anyone needed to know. Complementing this total lack of competence was the utter lack of need for more trees.  Trees were mostly what the place was. One hundred of 146 acres was woods. In the five acres around the house, you couldn’t walk more than fifty feet without encountering a birch, beech, white pine, honey locust, cedar, ash or one of the thirty ancient apple trees from its days as a commercial orchard. And the huge, lyre-branch willow with its big toe tap-root in the septic line? It swayed at the slightest provocation, with the smug good fortune of those with inherited nourishment.

The farm’s cherry trees bearing fruit in 2019

My new compulsion for Landscaping 101 had nothing to do with Overlook Farm or its management requirements. The size of the place—rather the size of the care-taking—overwhelmed any sense of scale I had managed to develop as a perennial apartment renter in Baltimore, Washington, London and Paris. The trees I planted—or I should say transplanted, because they were all seedlings sprouted here and there around the place—served more as markers of my local known world. The tiny bit of terrain I thought I might be able to deal with. They are still there. I look at each of them every morning. They remind me that roots determine range, that innovation starts with what’s available, that the gap between us and our parents recedes and that recycling includes the thought process. Not bad for two little cedars and three white pines.

Our 1972 inspection trip lasted ten days. By the end, I had acquired enough sense to buy a 1965 International Harvester Scout, red and white, complete with the snowplow that said “this is home.” It cost $1,200. We then returned to “the big world” of international journalism, where there were premiers to be interviewed and power dinner parties to attend and an elegant apartment in the 16th arrondissement. In our absence—and several dimensions removed—the tiny cedars disappeared in the seven-foot luxuriance of big bluestem grass.

The Eisendrath family enjoys an all-day pig roast in the sand.

And so things remained until the economics of northern Michigan transformed life and property. In 1975 I took a two-thirds pay cut, leaving Time to start over as an assistant professor at University of Michigan. Up until then, lake frontage hadn’t been particularly valuable. Suddenly, it was everything, lifting property values along with ruinous taxes. Time for a new strategy: from now on, luxuries needed to support themselves.

I consulted the Sherman brothers. Their home farm, a cherry orchard, was just down the road, and I had known them since their father bought the property and a small cannery in East Jordan. It was a good relationship, strong enough for me to march into their offices, kick filthy gardening boots up on a desk and say how much I had come to dislike the local sociology. I was supposed to be the rich outsider with the hobby farm, I told them. They were the hardscrabble locals. Things had gone wrong because while I’d been running around the world, they’d built lakefront homes—homes I could not come close to affording. “Fix the sociology, please,” I said. They laughed and opened their ledgers to where it showed the rent on our fields: They were paying $400 to us and $10,000 to Mrs. McDonald up the road for similar acreage.

“Two generations of you have asked the wrong question,” announced Bill Sherman, who had forsaken a career in diplomacy to run the family business. “Ask us about cherries.”

The next morning, I walked off an orchard with Bob Sherman, and the following April, Ted Sherman planted 1,100 trees. An additional 800 were added the next year. Three springs later they turned the hillside light pink. Another three, and the fruit came in—and with it, money to support the place.

Ours was a savior orchard and my favored path to salvation led straight east from the kitchen door, between a pair of lilacs and another of crabapples, out between the cedars I had once carried on the blade of a shovel, sometimes wearing a son in a backpack. Twenty years later the cedars were fifty feet high, with lower branches that made a wall. I cut an arch through the wall and a swath through a transept of grass.

Yes, sometimes it did seem like walking into a country church, but a change in the weather, mood, or both could make it more like a sea that parts on cue. The path leads east towards sunrise and is only half as wide as the grass is tall. In a good wind from the north or south, with the bluestem whiskers sweeping your face like spray, you are Moses delivering the Israelites. Follow on and there seems a promised land beyond a River Jordan called Mountain Road.

In the right conditions, young white pines grow eighteen inches a year, a pace that slows as they reach maximum height. Last year, I noticed that the three I had planted to define the known world were slowing down. The spaces between groups of branches, which indicate how much a conifer has grown in a year, had decreased to five or six inches at the top. My little trees were catching up to a pine my parents had planted not long after my mother wrote her letters. Time to write some of this down.

Charles Eisendrath is a journalist, professor and inventor. He was the director of the Knight-Wallace Fellowships at University of Michigan, and is credited with turning it into one of the country’s most prestigious university journalism programs. “Downstream from Here: A Big Life in a Small Place” is available at bookstores and on Amazon.

We welcome your comments below.

7 comments to A Sense of Place

  • Breaux Castleman

    Charlie – been wondering what happen to you since you took on the health care system in America back in, say, 2005? I was honored to be recruited into your legion of the good to modernize health care at UMich, one of the world’s premier medical schools. We got a good start, and you will recall the head of the health system asked me to stay on an advisory ‘task force’ for a few years. It was an inside look into a storied institution transitioning to the 21st century. You were moving them with logic, compliments, and threats. Very impressive. And all the time running a cherry tree farm. Who knew. (I get it about trees, having read Overstory by Richard Powers, to which I will add yours) I spent a couple of summers with my family from Louisville in Wequetonsing/Harbor Springs near you. Lovely part of the world where I have another old friend in Elk Rapids. Trust you and Julia are well and enjoying the place you have made for yourselves – and sticking with the roles you’ve settled into :- ). I notice the same hat in the photo above from 20 years ago. And I hope the great University is prospering. If you find yourself in DC or Austin/Houston, come see us. Our sense of place is a bit fragmented even today. Breaux

    • charles eisendrath

      Many thanks, Breaux. We certainly gave fixing UM’s medical system our best shot and you were a big help. But even more, I appreciated the chance to renew an old Yale friendship. I do, indeed, blow in and out of Washington regularly and will be sure
      to shout in advance about your whereabouts. I write from the farm, having just harvested the cherries and are on the midst of shipping
      world’s greatest maple syrup ( Hope your summer brings maximum delight & albest.

  • Neal Freeman

    Marvelous piece, Charlie. Thank you. Neal

    • charles eisendrath

      Glad you approve, Neal. Summer projects include two new chapters and better graphics for “Downstream from Here.” Best regards
      for August and way, way beyond. Albest.

  • Tim Adams

    Oh my! What a wonderful story of a guy I knew freshman year who played a banjo and came from St Louis. I always thought he had gone on to a life, Mary and I can only read about. We too settled down on a 70 acre dairy farm on the west end of Long Lake in the Minnesota, we have grown up to love. In 1962 my friends had me pegged for “the farm ”. Wonderful to learn of another classmate’s journey.

    • charles eisendrath

      Tim! Great hearing from you. From 21 E Vanderbilt Hall I recall a fellow frosh who was part of “The Wyzata bunch” in that entryway,
      one who wore impressively powerful glasses but managed to see a puck well enough to star in games we watched in a masterpiece hockey stadium. Delighted to learn that you and Mary share an appreciation of farmy things with Julia and me. Maybe we should schedule
      exchange visits Long Lake/Lake Charlevoix. Albest.

  • Lee Bolman

    Thanks for another evocative contribution to classmate reflections about constructing a life. It nudged me to revisit my story about how I’ve built my own, and what it says about who I am and what I care about. After reading your piece, I wondered if you see cherries and Overlook Farm as a destination or a waypoint? (Not so many years ago, I might also have wondered why you’d actually choose to live in a place with the legendary winters of Northern Michigan, but with things going the way they are, it seems you might have been prescient.)