Love unites in mysterious ways

By Erin Sullivan, Times staff writer
Published July 13, 2007

He fell in love before he met her. Daniel Bouvier, 23, had just graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in religious studies. Last fall, his mom dropped him off at the gate of Sweetwater Organic Community Farm, a 6-acre oasis in urban Tampa, to live and work as a farmer. Daniel heard about another new worker on her way - Michelle Huang, 31, a Harvard and Yale grad who had chucked her environmental policy job to follow her heart, which told her to be a farmer and to ride her bicycle from Connecticut to Tampa. Daniel called her Michelle Gump. He charted her trip on a map. A few months later, they were engaged. They planned their wedding for June 21, the summer solstice. They would grow the food and flowers themselves. No minister. No official documents. Their families would come - even if they didn't understand. This was not the wedding the parents had envisioned for their children. But, sometimes you have to let go, so you can hold on.

A wedding day dawns

The darkness seems to lift from the sky, black to gray to silvery white, no fantastic sunrise, just a quiet, sudden light coating the farm. Michelle wears a loose purple halter dress. Daniel wears a flowing white tunic. He blows on a conch shell. Michelle's mom snaps photos. Her dad, with a videocamera, looks out of place in his button-down shirt, khakis, belt and new tennis shoes.

"Happy summer solstice," Michelle says. "Let us preserve the silence so we can hear the sounds of our souls." She and Daniel lead them through the woods to a clearing. 

Prologue: Preparing for the big day 

Daniel and Michelle believe they have found the secret to a happy life. They farm barefoot. Their bodies are in the rhythm of nature. They dust off dirt and eat food straight from the earth. Michelle, a suburban girl, never knew you could eat corn raw. "I'll never cook it again," she says. "It's so good."

Daniel's dad, Paul Bouvier, owns a pest control company. He told his son the wedding would be a hoax, because it wouldn't be official. Daniel said the government can't dictate whether he's married or not. It's what his soul says that counts.

The day before the wedding, the couple invite their families to farm with them. They hand out wide-brimmed hats and teach them to dig for carrots. It is noon and hot, no clouds. "I think she's crazy. But I support her," says Michelle's mom, Gin Ebnesajjad, a chemist from Pennsylvania. Her Starbucks cup is nestled in the soft dirt. "People like her are our future."

Marrying as they live

With the wedding 11 days away, Daniel and Michelle bottle beer they brewed for the reception. They live in a small cabin built from salvaged wood. They have no television, but they do have a computer - though they feel guilty and might get rid of it. They have a small gas stove and a bedroom loft where they wake with a view of tree tops. "We are simple people," Daniel says. "We live a simple life." 

The first rituals

The first ceremony of the wedding day is to unite Michelle and Daniel's family and friends. In this photo are Michelle's aunts, uncle and college roommate. The air is sweet with incense. The beginning of rush hour traffic can be heard over the mockingbirds and warblers. The guests stand in a circle. The couple asks them to unravel a ball of yarn, saying, "May what binds us be light, life and love." Daniel's brother and father giggle. "We are wed," Michelle announces. She rings a bell and Daniel sounds the conch shell, and everyone walks to the main cabin for waffles. Daniel's dad says it has taken him a long time to accept his son's choices. "But it's not up to me," he says and sighs. As a kid, Daniel was into BMX bikes and inline skating. Now he wears his curly hair long, meditates and gets weepy reminiscing about his backpacking trip across India.

"Look at what he's become," his dad says.

As two become one

Michelle and Daniel are atop an Indian mound at Philippe Park in Safety Harbor. This is the second ceremony of the day. This ceremony is for the couple. Daniel shaves Michelle's head. When he is done, she will shave his. Their guests shift in the heat. Michelle's family is upset. The women are crying. "Does it hurt?" her aunt calls to Michelle. "No," Michelle says. "I'm fine." Her aunt, who is 65 and walks with a cane, sits on the grass and sings a prayer. She hugs her knees and rocks. Michelle's dad lowers his videocamera. 

Closing ceremonies 

Michelle's and Daniel's heads, slathered in turmeric, are orange and bald except for a patch at the back. They gather their cut hair and ask everyone to join them at the beach. Michelle's mother and aunts have left, to start making sushi for the night's reception. Daniel's father didn't come. He was busy. Michelle's father disappeared some time ago.

"We give our hair as an offering to the gods," Daniel says, his garment flapping in the breeze, silver nipple rings glinting, pale skin stretched tight over his ribs. He lifts the shorn hair over his head.

"First we will give our hair to the gods of the sky, and we will do that by burning our hair together."

They watch it sizzle, then offer more handfuls of themselves to the gods of the wind and the water.

They turn to each other, but the wind kicks up and their voices are drowned out by the rush.

Michelle's dad has reappeared, shirt tucked tight into his pressed khakis, videocamera glued to his face. He records his daughter and the man she loves as they speak words only they can hear.

Erin Sullivan can be reached at 813 909-4609 or esullivan@sptimes.com.