It always seemed cold out on the Louisiana marsh as a boy. On Thanksgiving eve my father and I would head out to the hunting camp, a ramshackle building under centuries-old live oaks. At dinner we’d sit down at a long communal table and enjoy hearty bowls of duck gumbo. The dozen or more men would talk, and we the sons would keep quiet, seen but not heard. The morning smell of bacon and eggs served as an early alarm. And by 4:30 we were climbing into mud-boats and heading off across the marsh. At regular intervals a father and son would disembark into a wooden pirogue and push off into the darkness, usually arriving at a duck blind an hour before sunrise. Our hunt would begin with my father calling the ducks, enticing them to circle and land.

At the end of the hunt in late morning, we’d head home, pulling into the drive around noon. Thanksgiving preparations inside were well underway, pies lined up on the counter. I’d cast an anxious gaze to determine that a favored sweet potato pie was among them, then off for a shower and a change to clean clothes. The table was set and dinner typically eaten in mid-afternoon; afterward, the calls would begin from distant relatives.

Today, as a grown man, my rituals have changed. I’m now the relative calling across the distance of a time zone and seven hundred miles. Instead of a duck hunt early Thanksgiving, my morning is filled with chores: feeding pigs, sheep, cattle and chickens, stacking wood for the woodstove. Busy, but still time will be made later for a woodland walk on our farm. We eat late, so no need to rush dinner preparations. Some years we are graced by the company of friends, and other years we dine alone. This year, Cindy travels and I will dine by myself or with a couple of friends.April Scrapbook 028

I’ll prepare a roast duck in memory of those boyhood hunts with my father. And I’ll regret the absence from the table of a sweet potato pie. But since it is Thanksgiving, I’ll be grateful for reasonable health, a loving partner, a satisfying life, a full library; that my father is still with us, as is a large abundance of siblings and other kin. I’ll also be thankful for what is absent in my life, namely, the darkness of war and the dislocation from hearth and home of the refugee.

As I step out on the porch before sunrise Thanksgiving morning, the air will smell of smoke from a dozen farmhouses in our valley. It will be cold on our farm here in the hills of East Tennessee. The cattle will begin to bawl. But over their din, if I listen well, I will hear the sound of my father calling the wild ducks out on the marsh.

The ‘self-sufficing’ farm

It was late afternoon when I stopped at a friend’s farm. An invitation to sample three new homebrews and some freshly sliced prosciutto from a 2-year-old ham had been issued. The short drive found me passing dozens of small homes and farms. None of them could be called financially “going concerns.” Most had vegetable gardens and chickens; some had fighting cocks staked to huts; many had a steer or two in a small pasture and a few pigs in sties near the barn; one had a gutted buck draped from a pickup truck. These are features of our landscape. It’s a traditional landscape of those getting by, doing for themselves. Not quite the “self-sufficing” farms of old, but closer than most in this modern world.

Lounging by the coop.

Tools of the trade

In the 1930 census, one-third of “self-sufficing” farms were located in Appalachia, accounting for the majority of farms in the region. These farms generated less than $100 a year, produced more than 50 percent of their needs on the land, and bartered and traded for the rest in an essentially cashless network. In a system hallowed by custom, kinship, shared work, and shared deprivation, these hill people still led a life rich in music, folkways, food, and craft.

Cashless networks create challenges within a capitalist economy. Communities operating outside the prevailing system must always be brought inside, to the sheltering embrace of improvement, progress, and markets. A people not in search of “the civilizing influence of a cash economy” will be given it anyway. And once it’s presented, they’ll often surrender to it, for after all, the sirens’ call of cheaper, plentiful goods is hard to ignore when there is money to spend.

The 1930s were really the midpoint in a long, complicated pursuit of bringing “progress” and wages to the mountain people. That pursuit ultimately resulted in the destruction of those self-sufficing farms, the cashless society and culture, and what remained was a shell, a dependent people, and the faintest ghostly echo of that world today.

Perhaps it is a romantic streak, but I see ghosts. Ghosts of what we have lost in our drive for progress and shiny baubles. One North Carolina woman, at the brink of the Civil War, anticipated the loss to come in that conflict: “How quietly we drift out into such an awful night, into the darkness, the lowering clouds, the howling winds, and the ghostly light of our former glory going with us to make the gloom visible with its pale glare.”

A friend of mine works with non-profits and universities establishing links between the peoples of Appalachia and the Maramures region of Romania. ‘Twas a link I thought a stretch until he sent me William Blacker’s chronicle Along the Enchanted Way. It is a haunting work, beautifully written, of a land isolated and untouched yet by the capitalist economy and unaffected by the communist government just fallen—a land like ours once was, of custom, barter, and kinship, of self-sufficing farms.

During the years Blacker lived among the Romanians, just after the fall of the Soviet Union, he witnessed the impact of cash and commercial goods on that society. How quickly a rural, traditional society unravels, one outside paycheck or charity at a time, leaving a pale glare to light the path behind.

We find it hard to step outside our immediate desires and see the long-term consequences. We bemoan the loss of kith and kin, praise the handmade, the local, yet undermine all by our gluttonous drive for new markets and consumption. Left behind is the debris of formerly stable societies, slathered now with the cheap, sugary pink frosting of hope and mountains of discarded plastic toys.

On our farm, we don’t lead a self-sufficing life. We try. But even with our table loaded each night with food sourced from just outside our door, with a pantry full of jars of preserves, pickles, and canned produce from the garden, with bacon, jowls, and hams under the stairs, we conjure only a pale outline of what was or could be. We try to barter and repair the literal and figurative fences in our community. But, we fail. Those links to a self-sufficing life are now severed. We are too plugged into this economy, too enamored to envision a way out.

The problem is not just our fossil-fueled lifestyle, our globally connected train of goods and services, or our commodification of all physical aspects of our modern existence. It is our mindset. We discard with ignorance and shortsightedness and embrace the new without question.

Perhaps we mistake the lowering clouds as security and the howling winds as the sound of contented voices. Yet … if the pale light guiding my path leads me to three homebrewed beers and some home-cured prosciutto, then I’ll gladly trudge on.


Reading this weekend: Book of Tripe: and gizzards, kidneys, feet, brains and all the rest. By Stephane Reynaud. 

The Life and Death of a White Oak

One hundred and eighty years ago, while Andrew Jackson was president, around the year the Cherokee signed the treaty to vacate these lands, a white oak seedling began to grow on our farm. Ignored by the tramping feet and perhaps nurtured by the blood, by the close of the Civil War this seedling would have grown to a modest thirty feet — one of many thousands in a vast troop competing for space in the canopy, biding its time, waiting for the weaknesses of other trees to become manifest before taking its rightful space.

At the turn of last century, this particular white oak would have approached sixty-five to seventy-five feet, closing in on its mature height of ninety feet. But it would have another full century and more to add to its girth. Nourished by a taproot plunging deep into the earth, undisturbed by the butchery of men in distant lands, the arrival of the car, the plane, the tractor, this tree methodically put on growth: skinny rings in the lean famine years and fat, upper-class belly rings of indulgence in the feast years.

A survivor of countless storms, the tree stayed put when others failed. Not some flighty understory sprout that rose, then fell back in mere decades. Not the grand, fast-growing tulip poplar. This white oak was the mighty burgher of the woodland village, stolid.

An active participant in staying put, it constantly moved. A casual glance down the drive found our gauge of the weather: with each breath of wind, the twitching and bending of its smaller branches in dance informed us of the tempo of the music.

When on that day an average thunderstorm rolled across the opposite ridge, when out of the thousands of lightning strikes one sought out this tree, our tree, was there any awareness of death, self, family, loss, and the endurance of nearly two centuries? Was there a sense of submission to a greater power, any hubris that this couldn’t happen to such a mighty oak?

In the end it was an honorable death, a long life that fell to a greater axe than mine, that random but predictable shaft of wild energy — an act foredestined those one hundred and eighty years ago, that the mighty and the low will fall.


Reading this weekend: The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson. The perfect book in case you get marooned on the Faroe islands and have to cure a joint of mutton.

Woodlot Management in the Anthropocene: Part Three

“A constructive and careful handling of the resources of the earth is impossible except on the basis of large co-operation and of association for mutual welfare.”

— Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Holy Earth


Winged Elm Farm has approximately 40 acres of hardwoods, and last year I posted a couple of pieces on our woodlot management plan, here and here. In them and here, I use the term “Anthropocene,” the period in Earth’s history when the impact of human existence shapes the natural world and climate. I chose that term to distinguish the plan we’ve embarked upon as being a more old-fashioned management approach.

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A large “wolf” tulip poplar in a new growth woods on our farm.

As we began the process of managing our woodlots, our biggest hurdles were knowledge and the preconceptions of being moderns. Our mindset was geared toward extraction, the basis of our current economy. Our innate resistance to extractive processes like clearcutting was primarily why we had avoided managing the woods at all.

But a Wendell Berry piece three years ago spurred our interest in sustainable management, and a casual review of the 19th century literature based on the knowledge of small farms past showed us a clear path for applying the same model. How markedly different was the approach of those manuals and handbooks — managing woodlands for the benefit of farm and watersheds for future generations — from the “modern” practices of that century and the 20th of the extractive industries.

Last week, as we prepared to take hogs to market and dreamed of the variety of dishes and cuts we were to enjoy, the phrase “nose to tail eating” came to mind. The term is used to describe the process that takes advantage of every bit of the animal. It’s a way to honor the animal’s life and sacrifice.

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One of our Haflinger drafts hauling a small log out of the woods.

The slightly modified term “nose to tail logging” aptly describes a good woodlot management program, the constructive use of every bit of the harvested tree: for our benefit, for the soil’s benefit, for the watershed, for the wildlife, and, most important, for the woodlands’ benefit.

There are innumerable old texts on managing a woodlot, books that describe how to select harvest, reseed, preserve soil, amend and improve the soil. So far, the approach as applied to our farm seems to be working — from selection to lumber, chipping to removal, sowing mushrooms and providing firewood, leaving wildlife habitat to conservation. Future generations will need to be the final judge.

A couple of newish books, too, have helped us flesh out the specific and the larger challenges to sustainable woodlot management.

Paul Stamets’ work, especially his book Mycelium Running, helped reshape the way I viewed the soil and its structure in the forests, a soil as in need of care and replenishment as that in our pastures. And, of course, it opened my eyes to the use of fungi to facilitate those ends.

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Poplar lumber newly cut on our Norwood mill.

But the mindset of extraction lingers as the world’s dominant invasive species. Azby Brown’s recent book, Just Enough: lessons in living green from traditional Japan, helped me correct some of that dominant outlook. A study of the Edo period (early 1600s to mid-1800s), his chapters on farming, and particularly the one titled “Guardians of the forest,” were revelatory. The care and thorough use of all woodland products, the steps to endlessly recycle natural products through multiple generations of use, the care of water sources, waterways, and riparian buffers — all were woven in that period into an overall societal commitment to what we would now call planetary care.

The practices of the traditional Japanese and of our own small-farm woodlot ultimately rely on a larger cultural awareness of the need for such intensive conservation of both the woodland and the products derived from it. The evidence of stress on our Eastern hardwoods from escalating climate change is before us. To be successful in both harvest and preservation will require some old-fashioned individual commitment and a multi-generational commitment by our culture.

Our farm can commit to the first. It remains to be seen if there is the will for the second. And that is the real challenge.

Meaningful Work

Bush-hogging the hill pasture in preparation for winter, I came across a large buck with an impressive antler spread. He leapt in front of the tractor, then bounded over a fence into a neighbor’s field, which, unbeknownst to him, was a no-kill farm, a safe zone where he could, if he only stayed put, live out his entire life without danger. I then watched him run across the field and jump another fence, and he was gone. Another circuit around the hill and I saw a couple of trucks pull up at the farm. I headed down and greeted the men arriving to cut down four massive trees alongside our drive.

The trees, one white and three red oaks, needed to be felled expertly to avoid nearby power lines and a neighbor’s house. The men had to climb 60 feet and, from an eagle’s perch, drop the limbs. Once the upper limbs were cut, they laid the trunks across the drive and cut them into 10-foot-long sawlogs. Ultimately, the largest logs will be milled into lumber, the crowns mulched, the limbs cut into firewood, the stumps drilled and plugged with oyster mushroom spawn. Logging 007

Dancing high above the ground with running chainsaws is dangerous work, but it was done with real purpose, joy, and competence, something that seems at odds with the lethargy of many young men I encounter. It’s a lethargy that seems endemic: man-boys extending their adolescence well into adulthood, living at home, gliding into their thirties without experiencing responsibility.

Not so long ago 80 percent of American high schools offered vocational training. But in just a 20-year span those totals were reversed, including at our own rural school. Now boys (and girls, too) enter biological adulthood without getting any practical schooling in crafts that formerly allowed them to earn a living and, more importantly, self-respect. The fallout from this lack of preparation for honorable and satisfying work: Young men like my neighbor who drive 40 miles to Knoxville to work in a call center, selling jewelry to elderly women.

For reasons not fully understood, we continue to entertain the idea that all youth are destined for college. Without any statistical evidence, I’d still hazard a guess that the average electrician, plumber, or surveyor out-earns a significant portion of college grads.

My gut feeling that self-worth comes from tangible outcomes, whether raising livestock, felling trees, or wiring a barn, is backed up by personal experience — my own father’s landscape, for example, where a lifetime as a construction engineer allows him daily to see the evidence of an industrious life.

Matthew Crawford echoes the same sentiment in his insightful book Shop Class as Soulcraft:  “The satisfaction of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence has been known to make a man quiet and easy. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect on the world.”

Should the young men fed into our current system, one that devalues particular competence and focused physical activity, descend into a lifetime of malaise and meaningless boasting, it will not come as a surprise. Nor will there be any surprise should those rural young men who find employment in crafts, trades, or farming have a stronger sense of purpose and self-worth.

As the day ended, the cutting crew got in their pickups. They grinned, waved, and drove away. Another job well done but without ceremony.


Reading this weekend: Marcus Terentius Varro’s, On Agriculture.


Where does the time go

The lambs can see the light on in my study. One does wonder what goes on in their not-too bright brains. But clearly the connection is made that the master or possibly their slave is up and should be attending to their needs. Those bleats in turn raise the hopes of the sheep in the barn. Which signal to the hens to clamber off perches and wait for the door to open. There are bugs to catch, my good man, get to it!

After tending to their endless needs we spent some time helping a neighbor dig twelve post-holes. They are in the process of installing a new solar array for their farm. Working the auger always takes a few practice holes to get in the swing. But we were in fine form after four were dug. It was on the fifth hole that our luck changed as we buried the auger in the ground. After squandering an hour trying to get it out of the ground we regrouped. Our neighbor hit upon an easy solution. We removed one of two bolts holding the auger onto the head assembly, ran a piece of rebar through the hole and spun it counter-clockwise. A miracle!

Green tomatoes

Green tomatoes ready to be pickled

Returning back home for a well-earned nap I awoke to find the season of salvage continuing with a session of making dilled green tomatoes. After harvesting about ten pounds of small green tomatoes, Cindy cleaned, halved and quartered them in preparation for canning. Adding a bit of garlic, dill, coriander seeds to the mix we quickly knocked out six pints and two quarts. I salted down the rest into a crock and put them in a corner of the study with a half-dozen demijohns of wine and perry. All were bubbling away merrily by morning.

We finished up our weekend with a two hour excursion up to Hancock County. A wild, beautiful and very isolated county of only 7000 souls. Cindy wanted to view and possibly purchase a new draft pony as companion to Caesar. After crossing the Clinch Mountain, with innumerable switchbacks up and down, we finally arrived at our destination. But only after a long drive down a one lane road, where an oncoming car backed a quarter mile to allow us to pass.

Cindy viewed and she purchased and we returned home. The whole of the weekend passing quickly. Leaving me with that feeling that somehow I haven’t measured up, was not productive. And to cap it off where I started, the lambs are now bleating for dinner.


Reading this weekend: Marcus Cato’s “On Agriculture”.