Essay by Andrew Beasley. Photos by Anna Selle.
Sage Cook leans down to examine a potato plant growing outside his front door. He holds it with practiced precision, a firm but gentle grip.
He squints up at me in the sunlight, “My life is 300 percent cooler than it was before I started doing this.”
For a man who has played in cities across the nation, performed at Red Rocks and toured internationally, this statement carries some weight. A founding member of the Colorado-based folk band Elephant Revival, Sage shocked many in the community when he abruptly left the band to start a farm in the middle-of-nowhere with his partner Aera Fox.
Four and a half years on, the pair finally feel as though they have a grasp on the day to day life in Waldron, Kansas, and are getting close to putting out an album for their new project: We Dream Dawn. There’s a fenced off garden, a greenhouse they built by hand, a well for fresh water and a system to collect rainwater for the plants. Sage even rigged a rocket stove beneath a tub on cinder blocks to make a DIY hot tub. Their agricultural experiment is doing well, and that is in large part due to the fact that the couple believe the work they are doing out here is a form of advocacy.
“The land is gonna take care of you the way you take care of the land, and we’re really gonna be in trouble if we don’t start changing things,” Sage says. “Both of us just have such strong conviction in our ideals that I don’t think there’s any way, at least for me personally, there’s no way I couldn’t do this.”
While early on in their relationship Sage and Aera realized that living off the land was a dream they shared, the transition from the lifestyle of a touring musician to semi-sedentary farmer was anything but smooth.
“Once we were out there in the heat and exhausted, and thinking of the cush life I used to have on the bus and getting to see all the cool cities, yeah, definitely, regret set in. But it certainly wasn’t constant because our life unfolded out here. And so many beautiful things have come to pass that I hold so dearly and cherish and would never trade.”
Sage is wiry. He wears work boots, jeans and a heathered v-neck. His sandy blonde hair comes down to his shoulders, topped by a burlap hat. As he leads me out to his garden, his pride in his work emanates from him. There is about a quarter acre of land fenced off, with wooden posts marking the entrance. When the pair first moved out here, they were eager to get started and set to work getting the soil ready for planting. They ordered every variety of tree they wanted, all of which arrived at once. Forty to fifty saplings waiting to be planted.
“We were working twelve hour days for that first spring,” Sage says, taking off his hat and running his hand through his hair. “And by the time middle of May came and it was 90 degrees out, we kind of gave up. So weeds and everything overtook what we planted. Our trees survived pretty well though.”
It is incredible to me that Sage and I can look out at his garden and see two completely separate views. To me, it is a mess of trees, shrubs and indistinguishable plants. There are a few boxed in areas with markers noting the species within, but for the most part it appears unruly, disorganized. But as Sage begins to go around and point out the apple and peach trees, the hops, the buffalo berries, it is clear he is seeing an interconnected network of plants that he has cared for, each one contributing to the garden in their own unique way. He knows exactly where to step, what each green stem poking out of the ground is. I ask if he feels any correlation between the work he is doing here and the music he is creating inside his farmhouse.
“The most profound effect is a spiritual one that I can’t even begin to put into words,” he says. “But that’s why I write music. This project has allowed me to step more into my power as a human and as an individual. I’m feeling much more like my mind is my ally these days.”
Listening to We Dream Dawn’s first EP The Return of the Light, released in 2016, it’s clear the move, and the circumstances surrounding it, have played an immense role in shaping the band’s direction. Contrasted with the Celtic inspired, acoustic folk music of Elephant Revival, We Dream Dawn has a wholly new, dream-like quality. They use electric instruments. They play in a tuning that they feel has a more natural order to it. They have more freedom and time to experiment with arrangements.
What stands out to me though, is a view that focuses on elements of life itself that all too often go unrecognized. There is a sense that, no matter how trying life may get, we’re in this together. There is hope in their lyrics, an openness in their sound. Sage wrote the second song on the EP, “The Morning Sun,” during the illness and eventual passing of his aunt, and they finished the arrangements and recording two days after her death. From a moment of personal tragedy, a song of immense beauty and introspection emerged.
Oh you know it’s not a race, and if it were we all lost, and the competition it never really seems to pay off, Sage croons. It’s an ode to those who are looking for the hope that dawn brings and a reminder that we need strong relationships in our lives to get through dark times. The song ends with the refrain you’re not alone, you’re not alone.
That sense of banding together and always looking towards the new horizon has been essential to Sage and Aera’s success on their farm. There have been bumps along the way. Predators decimated two flocks of chickens. Crops failed. They lost access to their well for a time. A bee colony that once sat on their land is no more. This year their cat passed away.
But through it all they’ve persisted. Many of the bees that once were on their farm are now in the forest around Waldron and return to pollinate their crops. They learned from early mistakes and improved their methods. And in the garden, on the site where Sage and Aera buried their cat, a healthy persimmon tree is growing.
“Growing up, my dad always made me get back on the horse if it bucked me off,” Sage says. “I’m ok with it. I think it’s – I don’t know. I guess I don’t even look at it like failure. There are so many times when I’ve definitely aspired to do something and I always at least get partly there, so I’ve learned something. I’ve never had failure completely destroy me. It’s not that you’ve failed, you just haven’t learned the lesson yet.”
After our tour of the garden, we go inside the house where Aera makes a curry using beef from cows they raised themselves. Whether it’s a testament to living off the land or to Aera’s cooking, the food is delicious. We sit at their dining room table, from which there is a clear view of their recording studio. Instruments line the walls and sit on stands around the room. A picture of a green monster is in the back by Aera’s bass. The control center sits in the middle of it all, silent for the time being. While the room is not soundproofed, the acoustics are great and the sounds that do make it through the walls of the room, according to Sage, are simply elements from the farm. Bird song, rain, and the occasional truck driving by on the dirt road outside. Even with the studio front and center, however, recording is taking some time.
“I keep moving the deadline back,” Sage laughs. “There’s a good chance it won’t be until 2019 when we release it. Supposedly it took Leonard Cohen five years to get Hallelujah out there, so I guess other people have the same issues.”
He says he has a tendency to be self-critical, but that he believes it helps drive the art forward.
“I view it as a propulsion mechanism versus a trap. I don’t keep myself from saying ‘oh this sucks’ because I obviously feel like it sucks so there’s a reason. So that’s why it’s taken so long to release an album. I’m not gonna let it just be so-so. But it is possible for me to reach a point where I’m pretty ok with it.”
And of course, the farm is always calling them away from their art. The music takes time, but the plants need immediate attention. While this may seem to be an impediment, Aera points out that the cycle of the seasons gives an order to their creative process.
“In the winter there’s not a lot of growing that happens, so that time can be spent working on art,” she says. “That’s more of a natural cycle that started to happen out here that I hadn’t really experienced before, you know, living in a cultural center. There, even in the wintertime, it’s just normal life, but here everything quiets down.”
After we’ve eaten, Aera and Sage show me some new recordings they’ve been working on. We talk about their upcoming tour, their interactions with their neighbors, but soon it is time for me to make the drive back home. As I leave, Sage waves me towards a school bus, broken down and sitting in the middle of the yard by an old tree. Once the Elephant Revival tour bus, they converted the green behemoth into a living space complete with hardwood floors and a bunk bed. Covering the ceiling are paintings from the years on the road. Sage points out a beautiful, multi-colored tree in the middle of the bus. The band had picked up a hitchhiker who painted the outline of the tree during her time traveling with them. Months later, the band found the same hitchhiker and invited her aboard to finish her painting.
This emblem of the past sits in the center of the farm, and I can’t help but ask whether Sage is still close with the other members of Elephant Revival.
“I think [leaving] really helped the relationships if anything,” he says. “You need space in relationships and we had toured relentlessly for ten years together. And if anything I feel like I’m way better friends with all of them now than I was then.”
He pauses for a moment, and then adds, “Something you work so hard for, the thought of taking a break and possibly losing it is really scary. But on the flip side, the thought of eventually hating each other and losing it because of that was more scary. Space is good.”
And there is plenty of space here. On my way home, I stop not far from the farm and walk around the ruins of Waldron, Kansas. Once a town of several hundred, the town has dwindled down to a total population of 11. By visiting I have increased the town’s population by almost ten percent. Waldron is a faint shadow of what it once was. The road is sand. A bar and grill, the center of town activity in the past, has caved in, reclaimed by nature. An old church sits surrounded by trees and overgrowth, crumbling away.
And yet there is no sadness. A little ways down the road a farmer laughs as he feeds his horses. On their farm, Sage and Aera waved and smiled as I drove away. The sun is shining, the land is green. What more could one ask.
“I’m writing happier songs now,” Sage told me earlier in the day. “I feel way more full in my heart now than I ever have.”
Sage will play with Elephant Revival again at Red Rocks on May 20. It is perhaps the final time they will play together as a band. For a foundational group in the Colorado folk community, it is certainly the end of an era. And I am sure, as they play their last show, that there will be a bit of bittersweet melancholy. It will be like looking at the buildings in Waldron, KS. The structures may be run down, but the life that made the area special hasn’t gone away. It has moved into the land itself, making its presence known every time a plant sprouts from the soil. The band members may be moving on in their own directions, but seeing Sage Cook smiling in his garden shows that the essence of what made Elephant Revival so special is not going away, but instead is going to make itself known in new and beautiful ways.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Elephant Revival will be playing at Bluegrass in the Bottoms at Knuckleheads on May 18th in Kansas City, but Sage will not be joining the band for this performance.