Another Day on the Farm

the time before sunrise

Dawn: Sitting on the back deck with a first cup of coffee, I contemplate the rain-soaked windrows of hay on the hill in front of me. I had just finished baling half of what would have been a record harvest the previous evening, when the storm broke over the ridge with heavy winds, rain, and hail. Limping home on the tractor, I saw a glass that was half empty. Now, in the early dawn light of a new day, I see my work cut out for me: turning over windrows to let them dry out before attempting to bale the remainder of the hay. The dogs interrupt my thoughts to announce a coyote halfway up the hill. He stares down at his accusers, separated by a woven wire fence, and, with a distinctive limp, turns and abandons the hayfield. “Comrade,” I say into the morning air.

Mid-morning: I rustle a branch and a mourning dove explodes out of the crabapple tree. Leaning in on my orchard ladder, I part the curtain of twigs and leaves. There, hidden in the heart of the branches, is a single fledgling within days of its first flight. Fat and unlovely, like the son who won’t leave home, it takes up the whole nest. It stares at me with one anticipating eye before, in a “you aren’t my mother” moment, turning back to its inner world of waiting. I close the curtain and finish my harvest. I return to the house with two full buckets of fruit.

Noon: I toss down the last of the fresh bedding for the lambs, completing one of my more enjoyable tasks on the farm. I’m tempted to collapse into the soft hay, but instead grab a bag of minerals to fill up the flock’s saltbox. Before filling, I turn over the box to knock out the bits of poop and straw. And, in the doing, uncover a large nest of mice. Dozens of small rodents swarm over my boots and out the sides of the barn to safety. The dogs jump into action, fulfilling their designated role on the other side of the gate with loud abandon. Inside the barn, two dozen lambs stampede the saltbox, obliviously trampling the remaining mice. I quickly dump out the mineral and then leave the natural order to sort itself out.

Evening: I’m back on the deck, a pint of beer in hand, the same drying windrows in front of me. The dogs assume I need convincing of their utility and pick up their pattern of wild barking toward the hill. I rise from my chair and spot a large buck with impressive antlers. He stands in the evening light, the last rays of the setting sun as his company. Ignoring the peasant dogs, he turns and strolls with a dignified air over the hill and out of sight.

Raising my glass, I toast him and the close of another day on the farm.

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Reading this weekend: The Retro Future: looking to the past to reinvent the future. By J. M. Greer.

We Don’t Farm, We Do Farm…. Oh, Whatever

A recent phone call I had with the farmers co-op:

I’d like to schedule the lime spreader to come out.

Sure, how many acres?

We need 22 acres covered. That will be six different pastures. The amount of lime varies per pasture, but it adds up to 26 tons, total.

Well, we’re a bit backed up right now. It’ll be a few weeks.

No problem, we just wanted to get in the queue.

Ok. What is the name of your farm?

Winged Elm Farm.

(Laughs) Ok. We Don’t Farm. That’s a new one.

What? No, we do farm. Winged Elm Farm.

Oh, sorry. We Do Farm. Interesting name.

Yeah, it’s a tree around here. We were going to call it White Oak Farm, but we found out there were hundreds of those around the country. We are the only ones with our name.

I know that’s right. Ok. We will call you the day before we can come out. There might be rain next week. That’ll push us back even further before we can get into the fields.

Sounds good. Thanks.

The co-op driver came out two weeks later and spread the lime. Nice guy. When he was done he handed me the invoice. Printed at the top was our farm name, We Do Farm Farm.

Sigh.

A Farm Bestiary: Skunk Dog

A fine example of a Tennessee Skunk Dog

As a member of the canine branch of the animal kingdom, this creature is noteworthy for being impervious to the malodorous scent of the skunk. Many dogs, upon first encountering the spray of this animal, avoid all future such rendezvous by maintaining a respectful distance. Not so with Skunk Dog, aka Grainger, the Carolina dog. He positively revels in attacking and killing and rolling around on such sad creatures.

You might first be alerted to the demise of Pepe Le Pew’s cousin by the distinctive whiff drifting in through the open window on a Saturday night. Or, perhaps you hear the frenzied barking up near the muscadine vines, followed by a sudden silence, followed by… “the cloud”.

But, the most common way to gain such knowledge of said slaughter is to invite Skunk Dog to jump in the front seat of your truck for a ride on a hot summer’s day. Only as you close the door and he begins to wallow on you and the seat covers, only as your eyes tear up, do you realize your mistake. And, only then do you open the door and roll out onto the ground…gasping.

Beware of Skunk Dog, he is coming for you. And, he is wet.

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Reading this weekend: Following the Wild Bees: the craft and science of bee hunting. By, Thomas D. Seeley.

Landfall

Approaching storm

Growing up on the Gulf Coast, where life was measured by the big storms, your given name could serve as a handy marker of your age. Post-1957, Audrey disappeared from the lists of incoming elementary pupils almost entirely. After ’69, no one named their child Camille.

In the hallway of our home in Lake Charles, Louisiana, hung a map. On it we plotted the latitude and longitude of each new disturbance as it sprang to life off the African coast or in Mexico’s Gulf of Campeche. My older brother, always a bit of a weather nut, actively tracked the storms. He would often plot an apocalyptic path to our door, then erase the hoped-for trajectory with a “there is always next year” shrug when the storm petered out or went off to blight someone else’s life. It’s not that he ever wished harm on anyone. There’s just something seductive about the destructive power of a hurricane. It’s like watching a Powerball lottery grow, except that the payoff is something that no one really wishes to win.

This past week it was my extended family in Beaumont and Houston who won that lottery, and recipients of the winning tickets will still be dealing with the aftermath in years to come. Harvey is just one in a long list of tropical storms and hurricanes that have recently resulted in 500-to-1,000-year floods in the South: Houston (2010, 2015), Baton Rouge (2016), Columbia, South Carolina (2015), the Carolinas (2016). Sadly, epic floods account for only a handful of the extreme events now occurring with increasing frequency across the globe, and it looks as if this nasty-weather lottery will only keep building to a stronger payout with each daily contribution made to the fund of planetary climate change.

As the waves of Harvey hit the Texas shoreline, likewise a predictable wave of finger-pointing washed ashore. Seems that a certain segment of the population confused the larger community of devastated coastal residents with the lesser community that had voted for Donald Trump, and proceeded to say that they had gotten what they deserved —blaming the whole of Gomorrah on just its naughty residents.

This holier-than-thou attitude rankles me. Because, let’s face it, whether we fall into the camp of climate-change deniers, with their heads buried firmly in the sand, or climate-change acknowledgers, staring in awe as the storm approaches, virtually none of us is doing anything significant to change the planet’s trajectory of catastrophe or to prepare for its impact.

Both camps, by and large, are still active participants in the consumer-industrial machine. Unless we have gone Amish or medieval, we depend on the people of the Gulf Coast for our cushy life. Our great collective illusion of progress is that we can continue to enjoy our current lifestyle simply by making the correct purchasing choices or pulling a lever in the voting booth, that we can use magic or tweak our way out of this mess. We can’t. That life is no longer sustainable.

According to that map hanging in the world’s hallway, the potentially cataclysmic future — for earth and, consequently, for humanity — has now passed the Leeward Islands and is picking up speed and strength. No wiping the grease board when a fantasy destructive track changes its course.

We all have bought into this lottery, and we all are at risk of winning it. So, if there is to be finger-pointing, let’s do it facing the mirror. And in the meantime, fill your bathtub with water, stock your larder, and prepare for landfall.

Fig Nation

Figgy goodness

You just never know when good luck will turn on her high beams and hit you with some gifted produce or a home-brewed beer. We’ve been hard at what is best described as a homestead weekend on the farm. We’ve planted figs and blueberries, transitioned the summer to a fall garden, made mead and apple jelly, fed the bees…. Later today friends are coming over to donate an afternoon of converting logs to lumber.

Which makes me think of Fig Nation. A couple of years back, an elderly Slavic émigré visited the farm to buy a lamb for his freezer. A long conversation ensued (which seems to happen more often than not), during which he and I shared some of my homemade pear brandy (which also seems to happen more often than not). We walked about the fig orchard and got to talking about fig love and the joys and struggles of growing figs in the upper South. He mentioned a cold-hardy variety that he had had success growing in Blount County. The conversation and afternoon then drifted on to other topics.

A couple of weeks later, a mystery package arrived from an out-of-state nursery. It contained six small rootstocks of figs, a gift from the farm visitor. Since that time we’ve nurtured them along, first in pots in the house, then in the rich soil of the hoop-house. Finally, yesterday morning I dug them up and divided the rootstock of each into new plants. Two of each went into the orchard. The remaining figs were gifted to two more friends in the valley.

What took place here is an example of what I call “Fig Nation,” an informal farm economy and community based on producing, sharing, and enjoying. The concept of Fig Nation is simple: A few weeks back, my nephew and I harvested five pounds of elderberries. We cleaned, bagged, and tossed them in the freezer. Yesterday I pulled them out and combined them with water and honey to make an elderberry mead. Come winter, I’ll enjoy the mead with guests. Welcome to Fig Nation, where sharing brings pleasure and automatic membership.

Those friends coming over to help with the sawmill? While here, they also plan to use our cider mill for some perry from their pear crop. After milling lumber and pears, we will conclude the day with a glass or two of my newly bottled raspberry wine — members in good standing in Fig Nation must be prepared to produce, converse, work, and sip.

So you see, Fig Nation, in concept and in practice, isn’t difficult at all. Now, you may find the founding premise a bit too anarchistic, this making and giving and receiving. And, if you don’t comprehend, I’m not allowed to explain it in detail — except to say, it is not a bad way to spend your days and evenings and life.

The South is a Neolithic Fort: revisited

Paul Kingsnorth, in his latest collections of essays, references a Scottish poet who moved to a small isolated farm and never left. His friends visited and asked why he had withdrawn from the world. Standing there among his gardens, he answered, I didn’t withdraw, I attacked.

These past weeks as a residual collection of pond-scum Nazis and Klansmen fought against those swept up in an emotional new-Taliban-ish movement, it occurred to me both were hell-bent on purification, either of a people or a history. Both seemed an appropriate stand-in actor for our modern world, with its mania for either paving over an inconvenient past or an arable landscape.

The real rebel culture of the South has always been found in its gardens, chicken coops, and pigsties. So, today, I resolve upon leaving my study to go out to my gardens, where, in an act of rebellion, I will launch an attack against modernity, one tomato at a time. Let my monument be a well-stocked larder and a cured ham hanging under the stairs.

It was in a Steak ‘n Shake in Georgia, standing in a swirl of moderns, with their faux tribal tattoos and piercings, that a small girl protectively held the weathered fingers of her grandfather. He stood erect in his worn overalls, both hands slightly curled, as if gripping the wooden handles of a plow, looking out of place.

The image struck me that all of the people, the building, and the parking lot were intruders and interlopers, a mirage. That the old man was standing in the same pose, in the same place in a tobacco plot, hands gripped just so around the plow handles, two mules out front and a granddaughter by his side.

The South is like this. Sometimes it is a Neolithic fort in the landscape. A slight rise in the ground indicating the presence of a past for those who can read it. A place full of relics and behaviors that are deemed out of place in a culture easily bored and distracted. It is not a landscape easily read by the digital world or understood by soundbite.

It has a people, black and white, who are looked down on and discarded because they have not adapted quickly enough. Modest people who don’t know that a paved parking lot has more value than a small field of their own. It has an agrarian soul and a heart that still beats.

This South is a run-down home, chickens scratching around the yard. Its roosters crow at all hours, riling the neighbor from up north who built a McMansion next door, an outsider who did not know pigs can stink. It is a make-do world where fences get built out of scaffolding discarded by a now defunct warehouse, a world often stubbornly ignorant of the rewards of nine to five and cultures bought and traded on Netflix.

It is a world that doesn’t easily discard anything, even the burdens of the past. A world easily mocked with sitcom humor, by a world in which advanced degrees in identity politics measure a culture to the failed standard of a “New Man” emerging.

Drive down the backroads of our valley and find gatherings of men sitting on shaded porches in the midday heat. Surrounded by well-tended gardens, with chickens scratching and kids in the dirt, they talk sedition and plot the downfall of the moderns. An elaborate plan called Waiting Them Out. Meanwhile, they buy nothing new, grow their own food, slaughter their own chickens, hunt their own game, and grip the handles of the plow.

Join them if you wish … or not, they don’t care.

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Reading this weekend: Butter, a rich history, by Elaine Khosrova.

Listening to Bees

A frame of capped honey

The smallest livestock on our farm are also the most fascinating to observe, from their daily diligence and complexity of social organization to the extraordinary “waggle dance” they use to communicate the location of nectar and new homes. Today, as we prepare to harvest the last of this year’s honey, I’m reminded that the bees have a lot to teach us. We only have to listen.

  • Work together today to provide for tomorrow. Winter is coming and those food stores don’t harvest themselves.
  • Expect your responsibilities to grow as you mature. Clean your room as a kid; be prepared to run the farm as an adult.
  • Be vigilant. A weak line of defense invites invasion, disease, and death.
  • Communicate. Use your best waggle dance to share critical information with those you care about.
  • Socialize. Nothing beats hanging out on the porch with your neighbors at the end of a busy summer’s day.
  • Don’t sting unless it’s absolutely necessary. Fight when the future depends on it, then fight with selfless fury.
  • Remember that you’re a member of the community. No matter how self-sufficient you imagine yourself, you can’t make all of the honey.
  • Don’t move into a mansion when a cottage will do. Live within your means, and learn to recognize, and heed, when enough is enough. A too-big house is harder to heat and cool, harder to clean, and much harder to protect.
  • Build a strong foundation. Be it bridges or buildings or banking systems, a shaky infrastructure puts the whole community at peril.
  • Render unto Caesar. Be prepared to yield an appropriate honey tax. And, be prepared for a revolution if the powers demand too much.

And one final lesson:

The canary in the coal mine. Tennessee bee losses last year were estimated to be as high as 80 percent, attributable only in part to the extreme drought. This catastrophic statistic is set against the background of increasing colony losses across the globe in recent decades. If we listen, the message these tiny, exquisite social creatures are sending us will be clear: the mine has become dangerous. And the fault — and the solution — lies at yours and my collective doorstep.