Nothing To Get All Fussed About

I wipe the afterbirth and muck off my hands onto my coat, then grab the proffered sandwich and take a big bite. After a few bites, I put the sandwich on a post and go back to the lambing at hand. Such is the farmer’s hygiene, practical and not the least bit fussy.

If we are going out for a social call or dinner, an unthinking assessment takes place in my wardrobe and cleaning rituals. Going to town? I’ll have a good shower, put on fresh clothes and clean shoes. Farming friends? I might have a quick wash and head out with what I had been wearing in the barn. Eau de barnyard at a get-together with farmer friends is common and unremarked, indeed, unnoticed.

Sometimes the farm follows us to other venues. I’m sure I’ve related the story of the pig perfume and the plane. On one particular morning, I got up ungodly early, fed the animals, and dashed off to the airport. I spent most of the day in the close confines of planes before finally touching down. After a long drive to my ultimate destination, I arrived at my hotel and dropped on the bed, exhausted.

It was only then that I smelled the distinctive odor of pig manure. My brain was foggy from a full day of travel, but I was nevertheless able to recognize that there were no pigs in my room. Following the odor, I quickly tracked it down to a large clump of Exhibit A on my left boot. I cleaned it off and chuckled, thinking about the poor bastards stuck next to me on a four-hour flight.

A doctor friend of mine says that the farm kids he’s had as patients seem to be less susceptible to infections or allergies. Just an observation, not a clinical study, he hastens to point out. His assumption is that daily playing amidst the muck, cleaning out chicken coops and horse stalls, eating fruits and veggies straight from the garden — all serve to build up a healthy immune system.

Compare that to the kid who grows up in the city or suburbs. The one who uses antimicrobial spray or wipes twenty times a day. Never goes outside except to be shuttled from home to car to special event and back. Only snacks on foods that have been properly processed, packaged, and labeled. Is it a surprise that kids today seem to have an epidemic of allergies and immunity-related diseases?

Now, I’m not advocating that you adopt the practice of not washing your hands. What I am suggesting is that you consider a little bit of dirt, well, natural. For those of us who live in the country, the smell of the barnyard is simply the smell of life. Nothing to get too fussed about.

Just remind me to wipe my boots when I enter your house.

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Reading this weekend: Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane. A newish and beautiful tome on the descriptive genius of our ancestors for the natural world.

Snow Day

Wethers dining in the snow

The wind is gusting in a low whistle outside my study, blowing snow on the front porch. The mercury reads 15 and it’s still a couple of hours until sunrise. Today’s to-do list has been written: Deliver hay and carry out the usual farm chores. Set up heaters in the livestock watering tanks. Castrate and vaccinate calves, then move cattle to their winter pasture up in the back forty. Dig postholes for the new hog enclosure and set posts in concrete. And, of course, attend to any newborn lambs that may have been born overnight.

As a boy I loved the idea of winter. The beauty of deep snow, the struggle for survival, the sleigh rides down empty back roads; marching along snow-covered trails, trapping rabbits with carefully made snares…. In short, a knowledge about winter gained from Jack London and his ilk by a youth who grew up south of Interstate 10 in Louisiana.

Books of my childhood filled my head with the romance of knee-deep snow, temperatures so cold that lakes froze, the struggle to build a fire and the penalty of failure. So when this Louisiana boy moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, and a few weeks later — January 21, 1985 — the temperature plunged to minus 24 degrees, with about 12 inches of snow to add to the joy, I thought I was living my dream. The city seemed liberated from the demands of the day-to-day. Of course, there was no real struggle. We could always retreat into our drafty old apartments in Fort Sanders to escape the worst of weather. But there was plenty of room to let the inner kid out to play.

That joy and wonder has been tempered since we moved to the farm in 1999. We have had plenty of gorgeous snows and any number of brutal cold snaps. We have had ice storms and been unable to leave the property for a week. But now, when I look at the forecast and see that it will not be above freezing for 4-7 days, that there might be an inch or a dozen of snow, I clap a hand over my inner child’s mouth. Because I know what the data mean now. And I know that no boss is going to call me and say “we are closed today.” The farm doesn’t get a snow day.

Winter on the farm means breaking ice, hauling hay in slick mud and snow, loading hogs in finger-numbing cold, fixing the burst pipe in the workshop because I forgot to turn off the water. It means carrying the rock bar up to the back forty to bust the ice on the pond so the cattle can drink. It means that instead of sitting in my chair reading about Shackleton, I have to get out in the goddamned weather and be Shackleton … even if only for a few hours.

Yet, still this morning, as I wait for the predawn light, the kid who loved Jack London is awake and waiting to see the beauty of a snow-covered world. Possibly, when the temperature rises above 20, there will be a walk across the farm. I’ll go down a wooded path with the trees frosted in white blankets, listening to the muted world of the snowy valley.

But for now, I think I’ll postpone the walk and the non-essentials of the to-do list, and instead sit wrapped in a blanket and read about Shackleton on the Endurance.

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Reading this weekend: A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

The Stuff Of The New Year

I woke up this first day of the New Year thinking about over-consumption. No, not of overindulgence from the drink or food variety. But, instead, of the just sheer wasteful consumption of our species. I got dressed for chores in my new union suit, wrapped my new scarf around my neck, put on my new barn jacket and slid my new wallet into the pocket of my old overalls; all the new items were Christmas gifts that I appreciated and needed.

But just the sheer mountain of stuff and garbage that we accumulate is embarrassing. The blogger at Spiral Staircase has written about the impacts of our species in his latest post Killing From a Distance. The concept of our species killing the future resonated with me. I’m not sure what to do about it, being too firmly embedded in the project of building our terminal midden. I guess I’ll do my part and carry the trash out.

Now, so as not too leave you thinking this old farmer has lost his spark and appreciation for this world, I leave you with an awkward segue. Here are some pictures of our winter greens.

Christmas Morning

It is the tiniest of sounds, yet it penetrates the collection of louder and deeper bleats that surround it. The nervous call of a newborn lamb, wandering, just out of my sight, among the mass of ewes. The flock is huddled out of the rain, inside the barn, but it takes only a shaken feed bucket to part the woolen sea and the ewes pour out into the corral for the proffered feast.

One indecisive ewe runs halfway out, then is brought up short, as if a cord around her neck has been yanked tight. The lamb bleats again, and another joins in, and Mom is instinctively pulled back to her newborn twins. She still trails afterbirth. The lambs, still wet with blood and mucous, are already standing and look sturdy.

I scoop them up, one in each arm, and flip them over quickly: one boy and one girl. I hold them close to the ground for the mother to see, then slowly “walk” them to an empty lambing pen. Mom follows with an attentive eye and motherly bleat. Once inside the pen, she inspects the babies and gives her chuckle to settle them down. Fresh hay, a little grain, and a bucket of water for Mama and I leave the babies to nurse.

Other ewes with lambs, in their own pens nearby, begin to vocalize their desire to be fed. I see to their needs and turn my attention to the larger flock, then the chickens, pigs, and cattle, finishing my morning chores by turning on the irrigation in the hoophouse.

Chores complete, I pause in the breezeway of the barn. I get down on one knee and place an arm around each dog. We stay like that for some minutes watching the day arrive, all three of us content for a little peace on this day. Becky breaks the truce with a growl, and I stand up and leave her and Grainger to sort out their own issues. My traditional Christmas plate of blueberry pancakes smothered with Steen’s syrup awaits.

“We Will Always Have Fencing”

In the Wodehouse novels, it is always fine hay-making weather and aunts are always to be feared. While aunts are scarce (though not unknown) in the pages of this modest blog, there are and always remain certain constants. Sixteen years of writing a mostly weekly account of farm life and I’m to be forgiven, I hope, if I repeat the odd theme once or twice, or three or 50 times.

There will always be fencing: The one and true constant for me (besides my partner) is the need to keep a few miles of fencing in good repair. It has become a back-weary joke with friends to offer up the answer before I can reply to their question, “What have you been doing today?”

The cattle catch sight: It would not be my blog if it were not recorded at least once a month that the cattle thundered down from the hill or their bellows reverberated off the ridges upon catching sight of me in the morning. For me, it is the trope most often used to convey the insistence of farm life to wait for no man’s breakfast.

There is weather: As Twain wrote in the foreword to one of his works, “There is a 100 percent chance of weather.” So is it true of this blog. On our farm it is always raining, snowing or freezing, too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry. Or, at the very least, it is threatening one or more of the above.

The seed corn has been eaten: The world is going to hell in a hand-crafted basket of our own design, and I’m going to tell you about it … again.

I go for a walk and ruminate: A cigar, the company of dogs, and a good log to perch on are all that I need on a fine spring day to right my position in the cosmos.

There will be books: Recording what I’m reading is a curious form of autobiography that will continue. The well-read life informs the well-rounded farming life.

There will be food, good food: Curing a ham, making kraut or pawpaw butter, cutting greens, eating a tomato fresh off the vine — it’s what we do, darlin’.

And shared dinners: The pork roast, seasoned with fresh minced herbs, will be cut into small medallions and fried, then served over stewed greens and a ladle of creamy grits. Dinner is at 8. Come out around 6 if you want to walk the farm and see the new piglets. And bring a dessert.

And, always, convivial evenings: At our secular celebrations, friends will gather from town and country. There will be feasting and moderate imbibing. The house and porch will be full, a Mariachi suit worn, pregnant ewes visited, and modestly exuberant activities engaged in by all.

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Reading this weekend: A Gracious Plenty: recipes and recollections from the American South

An Act of Remembrance

With Vince Guaraldi in the background, we wrote and addressed our annual Christmas cards last night. An old-fashioned exercise that echoes in our warm kitchen with news of the past year. Our modest notes convey best wishes, some with hopes to see more of this friend or that family member in the coming year. Inevitably there are deletions due to death, divorce, or the odd friend who drifted away.

Sending Christmas cards is a practice in the naming of the past, a remembrance of the history of our friendships and family ties. For myself, the ritual is carried out with little eloquence and appalling handwriting. Yet, each year I look forward to the occasion.

We sit amicably at the table for a few hours before a late dinner, occasionally commenting but mostly in silence. We jot down a few words to convey knowledge of intimate details. There are those to whom wishing joy seems misplaced: the friend whose only sibling collapsed this season after shoveling snow, a nephew and niece still feeling the loss of their mother, the friend facing his second Christmas as a widow after the unexpected death of his wife, my cousin.

There are friends and family far away that we visit with seldom except through letters or phone calls. The friend I met in an Asheville pub one evening who has a longstanding invitation to visit our farm from her village in England. Another in London whose annual Christmas Day call is a tradition of over 26 years. The friends in town and in our valley that we see often and would see more of if our lives were not so busy.

The act of signing the card becomes a bridge. Though the words are too short and not particularly profound, the underlying message is that there is a bond. That there is a connection across distance and time and in some cases through death that each card represents. It gives us a moment to reflect with gratitude on those who are part of our lives.

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Reading this weekend: The Curiosities of Food, by Peter Lund Simmonds (1859). On the subject of eating lizards alive (Guatemala), “The man who first ate a live oyster or clam, was certainly a venturous fellow, but the eccentric individual who allowed a live lizard to run down his throat, was infinitely more so.”

Rain, Music and Old Jackets

It has been a good week. A solid five inches of rain fell on our farm early in the week and we received another inch last night. Maybe not enough to break the drought. But it is enough to give us hope.barn-jacket

It was a week that also ended with an impromptu jam session, after dinner last night, at a neighboring farm. Our epic version of Ring of Fire was definitely one for the record books: with Cindy on the trap-set, Russ on the recorder and bongo, Tim leading on the guitar and harmonica, our northern Alberta volunteer, Stephanie, on banjo, and yours truly, anchoring it all with a steady beat on the wash-tub bass.

That night had capped a day of hard work hauling logs and repairing fencing. It was a cold day with all of us bundled up to stay warm. I wore my old barn jacket. A jacket that is now a veteran of 17 winters on this farm, witness to chicken and hog butcherings, the birth of calves and lambs, occasional falls in muck, and work in the worst weather.

It is not yet ready for retirement.

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Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: the secret history and redemptive future of fig trees, by Mike Shanahan.