Her life of whimsy, art and resilienceMay 19, 2021 11:07AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
On the morning of the day that began to change Trebs Thompson’s life more than 20 years ago, she was in a massive hurry.
Her son Wayne had been late in preparing for Marshall Elementary School and ended up missing his bus, and as Thompson drove her son through Newark, everything in her life flew through her mind – the slow dissolution of her marriage, her job as a grant writer and fundraiser, and her absorption into a neat and tidy suburban soccer mom life that had all of the texture of plastic.
As she pulled into the school’s entrance, she narrowly missed a car that had veered in front of her.
“I just didn’t see the woman,” Thompson said from Whimsical Farms, her 15-acre farm devoted to heirloom animals and produce, just north of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, where she has lived since 2001. “She laid on the horn and shook her fist at me. I told her repeatedly that I was sorry, but she didn’t stop. She rolled down her window and told me that I could have killed somebody. I told her again that I was sorry.”
The woman then got out of her car, and soon, Thompson found herself doing the same thing, and there it ensued, the purest form of rage that seemed to have surfaced from a deep well inside of her that had simmered for too long and suddenly overflowed.
“I just exploded, and later I realized that this person I had become was not what I wanted to be,” Thompson said. “I never imagined that I would arrive at a point where I would just lose control, but that’s when the larger truth came, when I also realized that I was not living the life that I was meant to live.”
Within weeks, Thompson had pulled Wayne out of school, quit her job, and embarked on a four-month camping trip across the United States with her son. The purpose of the trip was entirely meant as a deconstruction of her life with Wayne in tow, wrapped in the protective gauze of a temporary disappearance. Together, they slept beneath the stars. They visited an Indian reservation, where she enjoyed the clean taste of buffalo meat for the first time. She attended a talk given by a ranger at a national park, who spoke about soil as a living entity, filled with the microscopic essentials that allow plants to grow.
“So many things exploded in my mind when I left on that journey,” Thompson said. “Before I left, I was at best an Agnostic, but I came back home thoroughly convinced that the tiny interdependencies – the perfect imperfectness of it all – was no accident.”
Within a year, she purchased land off of Denny Road and called it Whimsical Farms. She had never been a farmer a day in her life.
* * * *
When Thompson first looked at what became her farm, it was a gnarly tangle of overgrown brush and shrubbery. The fencing that she inherited was not keeping order of the livestock she had brought to the farm – sheep then chickens then pigs then cows -- and her first attempt at a vegetable garden was an abysmal failure.
Although the comforts of her former life were only a few minutes’ drive away, Thompson quickly found that the decision to embark on a new journey had left her on a rural patch of ground completely alone, with no resources, no income and no working utilities. Worse still, she had no running water for her many animals on site, which forced her to gather water from a Maryland stream and connecting it to her farm by way of an 800-foot-long hose. When that failed, she would gather up water directly from the stream with five-gallon pails.
On the advice of a neighboring farmer, Thompson reached out to USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to seek assistance with her young farm. Help soon arrived, in the person of NRCS soil conservationist Laurie Gandy, who connected Thompson to the NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program that fund the installation of a well and pipeline to provide her livestock with access to clean water.
“I thought no one would help me, because that’s not what government programs are for. I’m just a small farmer,” said Thompson. “With help from Laurie to address some of my resource concerns, I slowly began to stabilize, year after passing year.”
At the time of this writing, two decades removed from the time Thompson first stepped foot on what became her farm, there are 11 sheep, 17 hogs, seven cows, 50 hens, five roosters, a donkey, a mule and six dogs roaming about the acreage, as well as a flowing cadre of regular customers who stop by the farm to pick up their phone and e-mail orders for freshly-grown heirloom produce, farm-fresh eggs, and USDA-certified meat products like ham, beef, pork, sausage and lamb.
To walk through the garden at the Whimsical Farm is to see it in all of its experimental glory. It is an ever-changing palette of colors, shapes and tastes, and this year, Thompson is growing 30 varieties of tomatoes, including “fuzzy tomatoes,” as well as King Tut peas, various types of onions and about a half dozen kinds of lettuces – all of which will end up on tables from Middletown to Newark to Wilmington.
While she receives assistance from farm manager Nick Needles about five days a week, the bulk of the work on the farm is done by Thompson, who said she is part of a new breed of farmer who is cracking the ceiling of an industry that had for centuries been reserved for men.
“When I started this farm, I was part of the fastest growing segment of farmers – women,” said Thompson, who is a frequent guest lecturer on sustainable farming at the University of Delaware. “The movement was driven by those who wanted better sustainable practices and a connection with the earth, and I found myself stumbling onto a trend.
“Farms are still unfortunately concentrating into larger and larger plots, and in the past three or four years, we’ve lost 96 percent of the small dairies across New York, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, all shoved out by big agri-business and two dollar-a-gallon milk. Despite these trends, we are continuing to see a rise in the popularity of the small farms, and it’s because consumers still value the quality and variety of produce and meats that can never be found in a grocery store.”
* * * *
Six years ago, Thompson was diagnosed Parafoveal Macular Telangiectasia, an eye disease that affects the macula and an area at its center where eyesight is most concentrated. The condition is complex and very rare, affecting less than 3,000 people worldwide.
Consequently, Thompson has poor depth perception, has virtually no central vision in her right eye and cannot read for long periods. When she first heard her diagnosis, she thought it was a conversation one has with one’s self in his or her seventies, not forties, but just as a divorce and a cancer diagnosis and the responsibility of caring for elderly parents have not been able to pull her down, neither has her degenerating eyesight.
If anything, it has magnified her life’s definition as a restless doer of things, an opener of boxes and a facilitator of ideas. Several years ago, she set out to satisfy the unharnessed regions of her creative mind by exploring the idea of becoming a visual artist, creating magic from found objects, stained glass and wool.
“For years, I was a frustrated artist,” she said. “While I loved creating things, I would become frustrated by my inability to replicate what I was seeing in my creative mind. I knew, however, that I wanted more from art than just making few sun catchers, so I wanted to set off to learn.”
Thompson did not start small. Instead, she made contact with some of the world’s premiere stained glass artists, and even apprenticed in Italy for a six-week period, where she learned the basics of the medium.
When she returned, she met and was influenced by Washington state glass artist Peter McGrain.
“Peter saw my work and told me, ‘Stop trying to make everything realistic. You have a story to tell, and with stained glass, you have one panel to tell that story, and let everyone fill he rest in,’” Thompson said. “He set me free to really begin creating. I began to tell my story with the pieces I had, and the more I just let the pieces speak, the better my art became.”
Much of her work is on exhibit at her home studio at Whimsical Farm, and over the past few years, it has been showcased at area galleries. More recently, one of her found object pieces was featured in an exhibit of abstract work at The Art Trust Gallery at Meridian Bank in West Chester.
The artwork, entitled “Broken Dreams,” sold in less than ten minutes.
* * * *
We mark our lives most especially when the largeness of certain moments seems so vivid and strong that they bend time, when the normal course of our destiny is twisted in the way that roads suddenly swerve.
From the time Trebs Thompson left her childhood home near San Juan, Puerto Rico to attend the University of Delaware when she was 16 to now – some 35 years later -- she has not left the twisting and the manipulation of her destiny to mere circumstance, but taken the steel rods of her life’s journey and changed their shape on her own.
“The things that I set out on turned out to not to be what I originally expected,” she said. “My life has always been a process of being dealt a hand, and determining how to play it. How do you save a life? How to you make it whole? How do you grow it into something?”
Whimsical Farms is located on 3315 Steele Road, Newark, Del. 19702.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].