The Steen’s Syrup Republic

It pains me to speak of parental moral failings. Yet, an honest, clear-eyed assessment of the shortcomings of our role models is what makes us men and women, separates us from the mere beasts, even when the lessons on how to live are learned at the clay feet of those nearest and dearest. Indeed, out of rigorous self-examination does greatness rise.

Now, in order that others gain from such experience, let us draw back the curtain, stiffen our spines, and take instruction. My stepmother, limited by her birth in North Louisiana, had two principal failings, each of which was encouraged by not being instantly and roundly denounced by my father.

The first, she put a powdered creamer in her coffee. In those distant days, when the northern part of the state was still a foreign country, the natives of that blighted land were wont to using this unholy substance. And they did so without shame. When dining at the Pioneer Club, with all the family as witness, my stepmother would request it with her after-dinner coffee. A quick scurrying by waitstaff, huddled conversations, eventually a distraught chef issuing from the kitchen with apologies: “We are sorry, ma’am, but we do not have this ‘powdered creamer.’ Would you like some milk?” She soon took to carrying a jar of Coffeemate non-dairy coffee creamer, a scarlet sin hidden away in her purse, for emergencies, its mere presence an indication of membership in an outlier clan of which such an act would be construed as “normal.”

The second failing, and perhaps the more to be pitied, was her preference for Smucker’s fruit syrups over our native Steen’s cane syrup. No doubt, my siblings will be mortified at my airing of such dirty laundry, but, there it is, it cannot be unsaid. Sins of such magnitude (to be cataloged alongside the predisposition of norlanders to drown their breakfast with sweet tree sap) cannot be lightly dismissed with a “we must make allowances.” Lines must be drawn.

That my brothers and sisters have all managed, even with this egregious moral instruction, to still learn, one foot before the other, that a syrup created from the juices of sugar cane stalks cooked in an open kettle to burnt gold is the only correct choice to pour over pancakes must surely give hope to the citizens of our land. Children learn lessons from both good and bad example. They can and do transcend poor practices through acute observation, ultimately choosing the higher road and shunning the moral transgressions of those of weaker constitutions.

Fear of flavor is not a lost moral crusade; pilgrims still struggle on the rocky road. Although in these waning days of the Republic our options may be limited, the way obstructed, we still stand resolute with a courage that never wavers.

Steen’s syrup, now and forever.

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Reading this weekend: Father and Son, by Larry Brown. S is for Southern, a guide to the South, from Absinthe to Zydeco.

Engagement

Free Advice, Enjoy the Methodical       

One challenge I give myself each year, dutifully written down in my new year’s resolutions, is to enjoy the methodical; those tasks we hurry through or avoid altogether, simply to get to the free time that we then squander. Whether it is washing dishes, shoveling out a stall, splitting or stacking wood, there is a fulfillment to be found in a slow physical and repetitive work. But, the act of slowing down is at odds with the demands of our frenetic modern world. Which, in its turn, spawns a desperate populace of chasers after an elusive serenity, roaming our streets.

An afternoon spent with a manure pile might just provide the corrective spiritual focus. Hold that pitchfork and who knows where the thought currents might take one.

“Like” vs. Writing Letters

Here is a confession, I no longer write letters. For most of my adult life I typed out letters, put them in an envelope, and sent them off. Then, over the past fifteen years, I completely embraced the email format. Although I don’t get the satisfaction of finding the reply letter in the physical mailbox, the essential pleasures are still observed; me and a friend taking time to share thoughts and experiences.

But, by entering the world of social media three years ago, most of that fell away. I now have more interactions but less contact. It is analogous to walking down a busy street and saying hello to friends and nodding at acquaintances, hearing arguments and avoiding fights, without engaging in a proper discussion.

I’d like to get off that busy street. Perhaps turn off into that leafy park, sit on a bench and continue/begin that longer conversation with a friend.

Last One to Read, Turn Out the Lights

I’ve alluded to my off the farm job in the past. A job that occasions some flying. Over the past twenty years I’ve observed the gradual darkening of the planes. Years ago, most passengers, upon sitting down, pulled out newspapers, magazines and books. They kept the window shade up. Now, the first thing passengers do is close the shade. And, then the next two hours are spent sitting in the dark (except for a few lone lights marking the outposts of those who still read), playing video games and watching movies. This seems a sad surrender.

This Blog

This blog is an act of engagement, my effort to keep the lights on. You may “like it” and I will appreciate that acknowledgement. But, taking the time to sit on this bench and share a written reply is also welcome.

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Reading this weekend: the short stories of Ernie Hemingway.

Late In The Day

A lane in our woods.

The sun hovers on the western horizon, an hour left on its time clock, as I walk out the back door and up the wooded lane beyond the pasture gates. The walk is quiet, muffled by deep leaves of countless seasons on this land. My destination, as it often is, a pile of boulders at the base of a half-dozen oaks. I climb onto the largest and use a smaller, four-foot stone as a footrest.

A cairn of rocks six feet tall and 20 across lies at the edge of the pasture. Another stands illuminated across the field like a treasure hoard in the curious light of a low sun through a leafless deciduous forest in November. The rocky groupings are seated on the sidelines of all our pastures. They are hard evidence of generations of boys who spent their youth in farm chores, among them, picking up the endlessly erupting rocks and stacking them in mounds.

Behind me lie two oaks felled by storms decades past and decades apart, one now nearly buried in leaf litter, its long cycle of decay almost complete. Ten yards away a limb as big around as my waist dangles 40 feet up. Broken off from a parent white oak, it hangs like Damocles’ sword above we mortals who dare imagine the world as our throne.

The sound of Cedar Creek is barely audible as it channels under the bridge at Possum Trot. Another quarter-mile and it will narrow at the decaying Cook’s Mill, where elder neighbors recall as children hauling mule-driven wagonloads of corn for milling.

A leaf spirals into my view, released from a seasonal contract to land at the foot of a massive shagbark hickory. Nearby, a deep-rooted sourwood, contorted in the last ice storm, refuses to submit to gravity. At its base a large stone is covered with the debauched remains of a dinner by the resident squirrels: bits of hickory and acorns piled in the center of the table.

A small flock of wild turkeys, feeling safe a couple of days after Thanksgiving, ambles across a lower pasture and enters my wood. On the far side of the road beyond lies the expanse of pastures that marks our neighbor’s cattle farm. From there comes the nervous bawling of dozens of cows, as they discover their new home after an auction in a nearby town.

Their disquiet competes with the sound of distant chainsaws from all points of the compass, chewing on wood. And then, unexpectedly, another intrusion. A neighbor beyond the eastern ridge and half a mile away fires up his ATV to begin what is an early start to his habitual late-night motorized rambles.

Toward the house, I can just hear Cindy in the woods as she clangs the lid off the feed barrel. An overeager hog squeals as he hits the single strand of hot wire. I smile: I can check the task of determining if the current is pulsing off my to-do list for the next day.

I rise from my perch and head home. Not down the lane, but at an angle that leads me into the heart of the woods. I note a likely Charlie Brown Christmas tree along the way. I then pause, as is my wont, at the base of a sentinel white oak. Its circumference is all of 15 feet, its trunk reaches 40 straight feet before the first branches erupt, and the fissures in the bark are two inches deep. I lay hands on it, hoping to receive a blessing of sorts.

Now, on the edge of the main woods, I traverse a pig paddock not in use. In the middle is a tall pile of fallen limbs. It provides a sometime shelter for the hogs and, more often, a haven for the red fox that ventures out to make raids on errant hens.

By the time I exit the woods, Cindy is trudging up the drive in her bee suit, fresh from checking that her charges are well-fed and secured for the cool night to come.

The sun has set, the light fades, and I head into the house, pleased to call it another good day.

rock cairn

the dining table

The old oak.

 

2017: Ten Reasons I’m Thankful This Thanksgiving Day

A recent gathering of the men in our family

  1. A cured ham hangs in reserve under the stairs.
  2. A 32-pound home-grown turkey, fresh from the oven, with veggies from our hoop-house and sides from our guests, will provide dinner at 4 for family and friends.
  3. The view from the porch is of a wooded hill, rolling pastures, orchards, gardens, and beehives.
  4. The haybarn, unlike last year in the drought, is stacked to the rafters with our hay.
  5. The grass is still green in late November, and the ponds are full.
  6. On this cold morning, I smell wood smoke on the breeze.
  7. And, I’m reminded of other cold mornings, fishing for redfish in the coastal bayous with my dad, smoke drifting across the water from the fish camps.
  8. My dad is still with us at age 90, as is my mother’s sister at 97.
  9. All the men of the family had a chance to get together this fall for fellowship.
  10. My partner on this farm is my partner in life.

Farm- To-Do List: November 2017

Farm- To-Do List: November 2017 (11-19-17)

Always with the fossil fuels, eh?

Our to-do list on the farm (updated every weekend) is a constant moving target. It can be comprised of small personal items, like curing a jowl and making wine; the everyday, check electric fencing; the ongoing, building new infrastructure. But, it is always a snapshot of both the production and the homestead aspects of our life on this farm.

Short-term: now-14 days

  • Water greenhouse (today)
  • Drain field water lines (today)
  • Repair truck lighting harness (today)
  • Replace gutter (today)
  • Set-up plucker and scalder (today)
  • Start new wines
  • Check electric wire fencing
  • Move/replant figs
  • Get load of rock and spread in front of haybarn (Monday)
  • Setup winter pastures/Move ram lambs (today)
  • Retrieve and store electric posts (done)
  • Clean house/apartment/barn gutters (today)
  • Clean and paint black the old water heater/complete solar heater project
  • Take jowl out of cure and hang under stairs/order beef bung for lamb culatello

 

Winter veggies.

Mid-term: 15-90 days

  • Pick-up co-op hog minerals
  • Winterize apartment/workshop
  • Pot up vitex
  • Seal well house with screen
  • Call and get biomatter at Roane State/leaf mulch in Sweetwater
  • Use up composted manure from last winter
  • Retrieve hay tarp
  • Move hives
  • Use sawmill/retrieve cut firewood and logs from the woods
  • Rework web-site/focus on lamb/pork/volunteers/honey
  • Butcher two lambs/focus on production of charcuterie cuts
  • Install smoker for well-house
  • Work on drainage behind equipment shed/fill in dirt
  • Improve WWOOF presence/complete video
  • Begin work on new pig paddock/complete between Thanksgiving and Christmas
  • Remove and install new kitchen cabinets
  • Determine course for beef production
  • Bush-hog back pastures
  • Install new weanling hogs
  • Yearling lambs to processor (January-February)
  • Lamb season begins (January 1)

2018 spring garden manured and tarped.

Long-term: 3-12 months

  • Fence in pasture behind Mark’s house for rams in off season
  • Look for used commercial planer for sawmill
  • Prepare for spring capture of wild swarms
  • Improve pollinator options/buckwheat plantings for lower orchard/transplant vitex
  • Hogs to market (March)

In Defense of Somewhere

I remember walkin’ ‘round the court square sidewalk
Lookin’ in windows at things I couldn’t want
There’s Johnson’s hardware and Morgan’s jewelry
And the ol’ Lee King’s apothecary

Somewhere

Somewhere — the gravel road I grew up on, the wharf I fished from, the woods at the end of the road where we roamed, the edge of the bayou where we fought off pirates to keep them from landing — is no longer. It is now an anywhere of pavement, sidewalks, Walmarts, hotels, casinos, and housing developments. Anywhere is nowhere.

I go back now, and the stores are all empty
Except for an old coke sign from 1950
Boarded up like they never existed
Or renovated and called historic districts

Anywhere is a global assault weapon, firing bullets of convenience and terminal extraction. Even without a smarter-than-you phone, you can find, around each corner, the Starbucks, the McDonald’s, the everywhere of anywhere. All the signs, hovering over expanses of concrete, flashing the conquest-driven desires of the Empire to colonize the somewhere.

Now the court square’s just a set of streets
That the people go round but they seldom think
Bout the little man that built this town
Before the big money shut em down

It always begins, thus, with the paving of roads. (For we all secretly know, the road in is a road out.) The new road comes to town and the longtime general store closes down, its population drawn by a siren’s call to the dollar store that opened in the next small town. Then, that up-and-coming town gets a check cashing store, and a rent-to-own, and a doublewide mobile home dealer. In a few years, that small town is compacted and consumed, repackaged and reissued, newly minted as a bedroom community of the anywhere. And its growing population learns the limited joys of spending its days circling the streets of plenty, like water in a drain.

He pumped your gas and he cleaned your glass
And one cold rainy night he fixed your flat
The new stores came where you do it yourself
You buy a lotto ticket and food off the shelf

A genius of this empire is that it was built in bricks of self-loathing. The new construct is a place where the food of one’s people is scorned and a quarter-pounder Thai burger sounds like a possibility, where the inhabitants wander around in such dislocation that their limbs move like invertebrates of the sea, clutching at random unneeded objects in a painful effort to perambulate down the Costco shopping aisles.

Now the bank rents the station
To a man down the road
And sells velvet Elvis and
Second-hand clothes

Until ultimately, used up and useless as a boarded-up Kmart that becomes a rock band masquerading as a non-denominational church, the Big Show leaves us, pulls out of town. In its wake a cratered post-battle landscape, a lonely fortified outpost of colonization on the edge of town that pays low wages and serves up a ghost offering to Anywhere. Pale in its incarnation, the orbiting halogen sun flickers just brightly enough to illuminate our dreams. And inside this opium den of our own making, clutching our pipe, we eagerly inhale the fumes and forget, for a while, that we once lived somewhere. That we were Somewhere. 

Now the court square’s just a set of streets
That the people go round but they seldom think
Bout the little man that built this town
Before the big money shut em down.

 (Lyrics courtesy of “Little Man” by Alan Jackson)

 

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Reading this weekend: Where the Wild Winds Are, by Nick Hunt. Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening.

Robbie

During a recent cold snap, while out in the garden harvesting the last peppers and tomatoes, I spotted Robbie’s nametag on a fence post. I had placed it there exactly five years ago this weekend. Here is a post from the archives, remembering that sweet dog.

Robbie, our six-year old English Shepherd, was put to sleep yesterday. I picked him from the veterinarian’s office packed in a box and drove home. I started digging a grave in the middle of the garden. Cindy came out and got a spade and joined in the work. In very little time we dug down three feet a tidy rectangle.

Cindy went back to the house. I opened up the box and took Robbie out, such a beautiful dog even in death. For a working breed he had lovely quiet disposition, sometimes too quiet and easy going for his job as farm dog.

He was the classic “lover not a fighter.” The exception was with Becky or a strange dog; from time to time they would without warning tear into each other. Just last Sunday as we walked in the woods, Becky and Robbie sparred for a full ten minutes, leaving each other bruised, bloodied and ready for more.

On Tuesday morning well before dawn, we let Robbie and Tip out of the mud room; Becky stays out all night. By the time we had coffee and Cindy left for work, Robbie had traveled the quarter-mile to the road, been hit by a car, walked up the drive twenty yards and collapsed in shock.

Cindy spotted him curled up in the grass at the side of the driveway and rushed back to get me. Using a blanket, we wrapped him up and put him in my truck and took off to the vet. Not Robbie’s first rodeo: a fractured tibia from catching his leg between metal slats jumping off a hay wagon, a severed artery of unknown cause.

The x-rays showed a smashed pelvis and hemorrhaging in the chest cavity. Two nights and three days in the hospital and he came home. The internal bleeding had stopped, but they couldn’t do anything with the pelvis. Cindy took Robbie to a vet on Friday that specializes in surgery on dogs. They did more x-rays. This time they discovered that the pelvis was worse than originally thought, but they could fix it for around $3000. No guarantees, but a reasonable prognosis with a long recovery. Surgery was scheduled immediately. First, though, bloodwork in response to Cindy’s observation of urinary incontinence. The vet discovered that Robbie’s bladder had ruptured. Repairable, with more surgery. In the blink of an eye, we were now looking at vet bills totaling $5000. A decision had to be made immediately.

What is the value of a loving and loyal pet? Do we love our pets more or less when we make decisions based on cost? There is no easy or correct answer. Cindy, who was back at work, would probably have opted for the surgery. In a hurried, emotional phone discussion, I suggested it was time to let our much-loved Robbie go. We made the choice, and I called the vet and asked them to put him to sleep.

He was still warm when I pulled him out of the box. I held him for a few minutes before laying him on the dirt. Shoveling dirt, gently at first until covered and then faster, until the grave was filled and mounded over the top. Cindy went out later and spent time at the gravesite.

He now belongs to the future as much as the past.