By Emily J. Weitz
In the five years since Sylvester Manor’s Plant & Sing was first conceived, it has evolved from a harvest festival to an all-inclusive celebration of food on the East End.
“The culture of food is really the big thing at Sylvester Manor,” says Bennett Konesni, executive director of the Shelter Island farm and 15th generation descendent of Sylvester Manor’s original family. “We’re looking at what a food system really looks like – the music, the poetry, the plays, the dishes and restaurants, the farm work and the yoga. We are saying that food doesn’t have to be just a thing on your plate.”
And it’s through celebrating the many facets of food that Konesni believes people can get back in touch with their environment.
“We’ve lost something really major – that deep connection to the land and the things that live on the land,” he says. “It used to be that people knew what things were blooming at which time and which trees had good wood for different uses. That has been lost with industrialization.”
Plant & Sing started out as a way to bring people back into that realm of knowledge. By inviting their neighbors onto the farm and teaching them how to plant garlic or pick a banjo, the Sylvester Manor crew found that they could help people develop that connection, not just to the land, but to life itself.
“People are starting to come to taste our tomatoes and sweet peppers,” says Konesni, “to embrace this place in its new form… It’s really gratifying. To have this place where people can come and nourish themselves with food and fun, and start living the life they want to live by taking music lessons or having a fresh pie. This is a place where it is not unusual to have a positive attitude and enjoy life and music and the fruits of human culture.”
One person for whom this message resonated deeply was Béla Fleck, the Grammy Award-winning banjo player who will be headlining Plant & Sing this year. Fleck has been nominated in more categories than any other musician in Grammy history, and has taken home 13 Grammy Awards.
“He thinks what we’re doing is a great idea,” says Konesni, “so he is donating this performance. The festival will be held on the lawn by the water, looking out over Gardiner’s Creek behind the manor house.”
Because of the historical significance of this setting, Konesni believes Fleck’s performance will be especially powerful.
“In the 1600s, ships used to sail in here to empty their cargo of sugar and molasses and rum, and also slaves. This was a slave plantation. And slaves brought the banjo to this country,” he adds. “So to have Béla playing the banjo, in this place where Europeans and Africans and Native Americans were exchanging culture and technology in a real way… The banjo is symbolic.”
He believes the music is also a way to put the realities of perhaps the most difficult chapter of this country’s history into perspective.
“How do you begin to understand what slavery has meant for American history and what it’s meant to this site?” he asks. “You call attention to it and start to think about what the Africans brought here, and the ways our cultures are intertwined just by having this music around.”
In addition to the profundity of having a master banjo player on these grounds, Konesni is excited because, as a musician himself, Fleck is a personal hero.
“He’s driven a lot of my own musical direction,” says Konesni. “He’s been to Africa and traveled all over hunting down the origins of the banjo. He’s a musical polymath, and so humble and kind and fun. We are really lucky.”
And it’s the connections that ultimately form the essence of Plant & Sing — connections to the land, connections to the music and connections to the history.
“It’s about those cultural things that come straight from the soil and the land itself,” says Konesni. “Our pigs are heritage pigs. The music is heritage music. The furniture is heritage furniture, and the ideas are heritage ideas. They need to be updated, of course, but they are old ideas that resonate. I feel so lucky to be living on an island with neighbors that support that alignment and these ideas.”
What’s Happening at Plant & Sing
Saturday will be jam-packed at Sylvester Manor with a Literary Lounge running from noon to 6 p.m. Featured writers, poets and playwrights include Quail Hill farm’s director and poet Scott Chaskey reading from his new book “Seedtime” at 1:30 p.m., Megan Chaskey and the Green Theater Collective at 3 p.m., Kathy Lynch and Christian McLean reading at 4:30 p.m., and Tom Leopold and Bill Persky sharing Food Stories and Songs at 5:15 p.m.
There will be a film screening of “Greenhorns: 50 Dispatches from the New Farmers’ Movement,” at 7 p.m.
Music will start at 1 p.m. Saturday with the Who Dat Loungers, followed by 10 other acts ranging from bluegrass to Gothic Americana. Headliners Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn take the stage at 6 p.m.
Farm events will also take place throughout the day, including sunrise yoga with Heidi Folkine at 6 a.m., the sweet potato harvest from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., a nature hike at 10 a.m. and a tour of the historic grounds at 2 p.m. A traditional contra barn dance will start at 9 p.m., followed by late night garlic shucking from 10 p.m. to midnight.
Sunday will be a simple day of yoga at 6 a.m., followed by garlic planting from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.