There’s a symphony of sorts continuously playing at Sylvester Manor—the creak of trees in the wind, the quick splash of birds taking off from the Gardiner’s Creek waters running along the property, the bah-ing of sheep, the pop of falling black walnuts. Music has a natural home at the centuries-old Shelter Island estate.
“Nothing brings a community together like music,” says Bennett Konesni, founder of Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, standing between the manor house and the creek, envisioning the grounds filled with musicians and a cacophony of voices. The current serenity is cracked only by his palpable excitement at the impending Plant & Sing festival, where that scene will come to life this weekend.
“Dear Farmers, Eaters, Songsters, Families, Neighbors and Friends” the Plant & Sing invite reads, welcoming all to a fall tradition that goes back six years but also centuries. “It’s the harvest festival made new,” says Konesni, the nephew of Eben Fiske Ostby, whose family has passed Sylvester Manor down through generations since the mid-1600s. Ostby transferred it to the nonprofit educational farm over the past few years with the goal of keeping the history of the land and the manor alive, while also taking it into the future. Plant & Sing gives the public a chance to immerse itself in that vision.
A bluegrass and American-music festival headlined by Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roache, Plant & Sing expands the fun well beyond the live performances. The day starts with early morning yoga in Windmill Field, followed by planting garlic for next year’s crop and shucking dry beans (yes, the public is encouraged to join in for both activities), after which the music begins down by the waterside stage. There are talks on farming and food, poets standing alongside farmers and other revelers indulging in food and drink and the celebration of local on an intimate scale.
“County fairs and state fairs have gotten kind of overdone and away from their roots, which was you got farmers and neighbors together and celebrated with music and dance and simple fun, good fun, and that’s part of what we want to do with ours,” Konesni says. “I call it a harvest festival made new, but you could just as well call it a harvest festival made old—which is perfect for Sylvester Manor.”
It’s not every day that people from any and all walks of life get to put crops into a field of a working farm, particularly one with this lineage and forward-looking dedication to leading-edge organic practices. “It is so important to just get people out into the fields, dirt under their fingernails. There’s a couple things it does for people. One, it connects them with the food in a really direct way, and then when they eat it they remember the experience and it makes it a richer, better meal.
“There are also really good lessons that happen on farms, and I think that’s a really big change in our education in this country,” he continues. “A hundred years ago, 70 percent of the people were learning their lessons on farms—lessons about life, about how life worked, how to get projects done, the kinds of lessons we don’t really get in a classroom. So as an educational farm we give people the opportunity to come learn some of those lessons—the value of working together as a team and a community. That’s applicable no matter what you’re going to do in your life. So we give people that experience.”
The experience connected to the second part of the Plant & Sing name is unique among harvest festivals, as Konesni and his wife, Edith Gawler, lead everyone in singing while working, just as farmers and field hands have for centuries. Konesni grew up in a farming community in Maine and worked as a deckhand on tall ships, where sea shanties first exposed him to the work-song culture. He has now been researching the role of music—work songs in particular—in farming and food systems around the world for nearly 15 years, and has dedicated himself and Sylvester Manor to not only continuing the practice but celebrating its relevance today.
“When you get into this place when you’re working and it’s like, This is misery, this is just drudgery, we’ve got another 300 feet of crops to go, the music just helps you throw the switch in your head where, it’s not play, but somewhere between work and play,” he says. “And that’s the spot you want to be, wherever you work, whatever you do.”
Plant & Sing takes place Saturday, October 11, at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island. For more information, visit plantandsing.com.