Small Town Resilience

Last week a colleague spent three hours advancing 15 miles in the cancerous landscape of Atlanta.

Around the same time, I was commuting in central Missouri down a two-lane highway through a largely depopulated land of corn and beef cattle ornamented with the occasional red-brick one-room schoolhouse sitting in a grove of trees. The schoolhouses, long empty, were universally well kept, no broken windows, grass mowed—buildings cared for symbolic of the hope or expectation that they might once again serve a purpose.

The housing stock was older, yet well cared for and solid. But it was a lonely landscape of older couples and few children. I drove past the occasional activity of men in distant fields loading hay onto trailers using tractors built to accomplish much, the work done with such little effort as would have stunned even their grandfathers. Little effort and fewer people, freeing up the children and grandchildren to follow the classic road to town and city, a well-worn path since the ancient world, but one accelerated by our fossil-fueled innovations.

I stopped for the night in Boonville, Missouri, on the banks of the Missouri River. Boonville is not a prosperous town. Its trail of empty strip mall architecture dribbles from the outer fringe of the town’s core to the interstate, signaling a raising of the drawbridge, a calculated retreat against a yet unacknowledged enemy. But the core is still vibrant with neighborhoods, small-town hardware and furniture stores, plumbing and electrical businesses, an elegant restored hotel, a diner, and a bar and grill.vfiles38877

That evening I walked from the old hotel to the bar and grill, a place called Maggie’s, for dinner. The Midwest small-town bar and grill is unique. It is the genuine third place Ray Oldenburg spoke about. Warm and friendly, with people of all ages and classes: farmers, workers and professionals, town and country, producer and consumer. These gathering spots are spread across the agricultural heartland. They are the glue to the community, providing face-to-face time between neighbors. Time not gained in a traffic jam.

I am not naively asserting a rural idyll, without strife, tension, unemployment, severed families and the ills of too much idle time. Yet the small town is fundamentally more resilient, resilient because of its smallness and its proximity to productive land. Rural communities, with their face-to-face interactions, have provided the template for human existence for the past thousands of years.

Communities within a megacity are a mere echo of that life. They can nourish and sustain in the ascendancy, but their larger host survives only as wealth is pumped in from the outside world. When the pump is turned off, the decline is inevitable and rapid. Consider Rome, from a city of a million to a village of thousands in the space of mere generations. Or the specter of Detroit, reduced by half in one generation.

Perhaps these Boonvilles, these freshly painted one-room schoolhouses, these Midwestern pubs are the starter-cultures for the wort, the yeast for the fermentation required to restart the small farm, small-town life, a way to redirect the human trajectory from the cancerous growth to the healthy organism, from the complex to the comprehensible?

The cities like Atlanta in our landscape offer nothing but a promise of continued sprawl, congestion, and three hours and 15 miles stalled in the present. And if history is the judge, they offer us nothing in their inevitable decline.

For all the problems in that rural Missouri landscape, it is still one of latent hope. The problems it faces are fundamentally local and scalable. And if the survival of our future allowed bets, mine would be on the Boonvilles and rural counties in this land.

 

The Kelly Pear

Kelly Pear: this is the most prolific fruit tree in our orchard. It reliably produces 4-5 bushels of fruit a year. I bought this tree from an old orchardist in Ball Camp, GA some sixteen years ago. He specialized in old Southern varieties of apples and pears. I’ve not found any other reference to this variety. It never achieves a softness that would be good for eating fresh. But it cooks well and makes a nice perry.

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Reading this weekend: Pawpaw: in search of America’s forgotten fruit, by Andrew Moore.

The Blood on My Hands

I laid out my shotguns and deer rifle on a folding table outside the kitchen window. With fall around the corner, it was time to clean and oil the guns. It’s a methodical process that is satisfying to undertake on objects that are a beautiful marriage of design and utility. Using a kit made for the purpose, I rammed the cleaning rods through the barrels, oiled the working parts, and rubbed the wood stocks till they shone. I finished just as guests arrived for dinner, returning the guns to the cabinet as they walked up the drive.Guns 002

Growing up in Louisiana I, alongside my father and brother, hunted and fished year round. It was a rare week that did not find me crouching in a duck blind, running trot lines, crabbing, or catching crawfish. Game, fresh- and saltwater fish, shrimp, and oysters easily provided five dinner meals out of seven for our household. Staying up late at night cleaning and gutting fish, setting the alarm every two hours to run the trot-line, waking up at 3 a.m. to get to the duck blind or be on the open gulf by sunrise, all were part of the landscape of my childhood.

Mine was the hunting and fishing of providence, not of the trophy hunter. It was the experience of a profoundly masculine world. From the catching, shooting, and cleaning to, in many cases, the cooking, it was a culture of men putting food on the table for their families. It wasn’t needed in the middle class home of my father—he certainly could have provided all of our meat needs from the grocery store—but it was a lifestyle I shared with most of my friends growing up.

There was always an exhilaration in making a good shot or setting the hook on a large fish. It provided, and still does, a sense of accomplishment that is part evolutionary and large part tribal. The camaraderie of men in camp, the solitude of the hunt, being on the water by myself, or with my father, the rituals of killing and of eating, each shaped who I am as a person.

Perhaps it is counterintuitive, but killing another living creature can teach a person a lot about nature. Putting that act of killing in its “proper place” reminds us of where we came from and where we belong. And remembering our place in a natural order may be the best way to save this planet.

A detractor could argue against the killing, the male role in that culture, and I would listen and perhaps agree in part. But my defense is simple and straightforward: I prefer to be the one with blood on his hands. I believe it is a stance that makes me more, not less, sensitive to the value of life. It is the same reason I butcher poultry and livestock. It seems more honest.

Some may be shaking their heads right now. But as we collectively pile into our cars, while away our hours shopping, allow our kids to grow up without seeing the light of day as they game their way into perpetual adolescence, move from air-conditioned office to air-conditioned vehicle to air-conditioned home, with all that those actions entail to the planet, we might ask ourselves a hard question: who are we kidding?

Whether vegetarian or meat eater, just because we do not pull the trigger or set the hook, we are all culpable in the killing that our lifestyle requires.

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Reading this weekend: The Art of Stillness: adventures in going nowhere by Pico Iyer. And, Journey of  the Universe by Swimme and Tucker.

Harvest Season

If there is a single harvest season, this is it. Exceptionally heavy rains in July have rejuvenated the pastures and put the garden on a course of steroids. The corn in neighboring fields seems to double in height weekly. Harvest time adds just one more layer of work to a busy diverse small farm.

On Saturday we had a father-son drive from an hour away to buy Sussex chicks. Our Speckled Sussex hens are likely to go broody anytime of the year but winter. And although we really shouldn’t be surprised after all this time, we’re still stopped in our tracks to see a hen walk from an outbuilding, chicks tumbling around her feet. Many weeks we have an ad out to sell chicks, pullets or cockerels. Both the birth and the selling of the chicks is a type of harvest.

Wendell Berry remarked that his dad’s farm advice was, “Sell something every week.” It’s a reminder that the farm constantly needs to be generating some income. Balancing the outgoing with the incoming is always a struggle. Our farm has its conventional income—selling meat from our hogs, cattle and sheep—and its self-sufficiency “income”—gardening, orchards, small fruits, poultry, firewood and lumber, and foraging and hunting.

It is a point of pride that we haven’t bought meat at a grocery store in 16 years. Providing for ourselves adds joy and confidence in ways that are hard to measure. Providing for customers is a way to pay the bills and to feel valued for the life we live. Don’t under estimate that latter, for without the steady stream of people raving about our pork, beef or mutton, the soul of the farm would drift away into a purgatory.

Throughout July, we have been selling lambs as breeding stock and marketing mutton; foraging wild mushrooms; harvesting tomatoes, eggplant, garlic, onions, and peppers; canning produce and cutting hay for the winter; and selling the odd batch of chicks.

We spent part of yesterday, the second time this season, canning tomatoes. Forty pints is the minimum to get us through winter. We have 36 on the shelves now and can easily double that amount in the next couple of weeks.

That is if one wants to avoid the shame of purchasing at the grocery store what could have provided by one’s own efforts. There is a point each winter when the hens fail to provide. That’s when I find myself in the grocery, skulking around like a man buying pornography, with a dozen eggs clutched close at hand. That perceived shame is the special preserve of the small farm.

Harvest continued today with honey from the hives, a small amount for our own use, about 30 pounds. That may seem like a lot, but between making mead and using honey for most of our sugar needs, it seems to disappear fast.Honey 3 001

We still call these months the harvest season. But if I approached the term with the right mindset, I would say that “harvest season” is really 12 months long. Even in the deep of winter, the land and the farm provide. Cutting and storing firewood, hammering plugs of oyster mushrooms into stumps, bringing in armloads of turnip greens on a cold December day—all are acts as surely a part of harvest as the plucking and eating of a ripe tomato in July.

Regardless of the “when,” a careful harvest, with work and planning, is renewable, an object lesson in resource use we would all be wise to learn and relearn.

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Reading this weekend: Peter May’s The Blackhouse and Todd Openheimer’s The Flickering Mind.

Basic Farm Lessons: Part 3

  • Caring for tools: A couple of hours each year of rubbing linseed oil onto wooden handles will keep tools at the ready for years to come.
  • Obtaining tools: Take a few hours twice a year to attend a farm auction. It is an inexpensive way to pick up tools you did not know you needed—three dollars for a tool to remove bark from a log.
  • Your copy of the Rural Weekly Informer: Take the time to talk with the neighbors. Whether hearing of a death, of a birth or just plain old-fashioned gossip, this may well be your only chance to gain valuable knowledge of your community.
  • Never gossip … well, never call it gossip: Control the smirk on your face as you work the latest gossip into a conversation. It is more seemly and manly to assume a mature visage, as if imparting this bit of news for a valid reason.
  • Beating the heat: Wake when it is first light, go to the garden and pull weeds. Reentering the house, remove the annoyingly smug look on your face upon finding your partner sucking on her first cup of coffee.
  • Beating the heat #2: Starting mid-July, take a late afternoon walk in the woods with the dogs. It is a smart thing to do. The weather is too hot for work under the sun, and the chanterelles are beginning to carpet the ground under the mixed hardwoods.
  • Dog races: Let the dogs run unrestrained after the bolting deer. They won’t catch them, and the chase takes them far from the fawns hidden in the brush.
  • Sound show: Use an approaching thunderstorm as an excuse to sit and watch the horizon, listen to thunder and drink a cold beer.
  • Dinner plans: While sipping that beer, mentally review the larder. Dinner should be based on what you have provided.
  • Reaping what you sow: Perfectly marbled ribeyes from a steer raised out on your land, potatoes dug minutes before baking, juicy tomatoes still warm from the sun—a fine homegrown meal is well worth the time and sweat. It’s an essential farm lesson that needs learning only once.photo (5)
  • Farm flexibility: Company showing up unexpected requires only extra place settings and the ability to not fuss about quantities in a recipe. A handful of this and a dash to the garden are all that is needed when friends sit at the table.
  • The purpose: A missing lamb takes priority, dinner can wait. Because without first being a good husband to the animals in your charge, the table would be bare.
  • Light show: Before sleep, walk to the top of the hill. Admire the lightning strikes in the tops of thunderheads near the Kentucky border. Pat the heads of your dogs, and walk back home in the dark.

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Reading this weekend: God Against the Gods: the history of the war between monotheism and polytheism by Jonathan Kirsch. 

Methane Plumes Vs. Root Beer Floats!

I took an accidental overdose of climate science writings this week. After wallowing in descriptions of positive feedback loops of methane gas, ocean acidification and general ways in which we have screwed the planet I reached a level requiring a detoxification program. A twelve-step program to restore balance, sometimes described as sticking ones head in the sand, was required.Mushrooms July 2015 004

So after a hard day’s work on Saturday we retired to a neighboring farm for a nice potluck of lasagna, salad, homemade bread, plenty of wine and abundant laughter. We watched one of our hosts ride her horse before turning him out for the night, admired healthy cattle, sipped bourbon and shook our heads at the plight of their tomatoes.

The two native Southerners (out of seven) made conversation about the recent flag controversy. Their significant others wisely refrained from voicing opinions and the conversation moved onto other topics of personal interest. As the summer sun set the dinner dishes were removed and dessert, coffee and that nice bourbon finished off the evening.

We left late, for us country folk, drove down the valley to our farm. We said goodnight to a friend who had ridden along to the dinner with us. And then retired to bed.

This morning we had an early breakfast, loaded up the kayaks and spent a pleasant hour paddling about the still waters of the Tennessee River. Trying not to recall the warnings not to eat fish from the river we admired the herons fishing. And glided past largemouth bass laying up in the shadows.

I fixed us root beer floats in early afternoon. Then after a much needed nap, a productive afternoon hunting chanterelle mushrooms was on the agenda, netting about a pound. I also harvested a nice batch of hen-of-the-woods. So a nice cream and mushroom sauce over a choice bit of lamb or mutton is on the menu sometime in the next few days.

I may still have a bit of sand in the ears. But it wasn’t a bad place to keep my head this weekend.

Death of a Neighbor

When death arrives in the country, the signs go up at the roadside — “Slow: Death in Family” on the front, funeral home name on the back, in case passersby want to send flowers or attend the funeral, or have an ailing relative who might soon need services of his own.

Sometimes we know a neighbor has passed away because of the large number of cars and trucks gathered in the driveway and people congregated on the porch and in the yard, dressed in their Sunday best.

Or, the phone rings and a neighbor who seldom calls lets us know another neighbor is in the hospital or has died.

Or there is new mound of dirt at the Cedar Fork Baptist cemetery.

Or there’s an obituary in the local paper.

This culture likes to think it’s more connected, “wired” in to the world. The reality is that the technology of the day distances us from what matters. That separation has been coming for a century or more, as village life and the interconnectedness of communities have unraveled.

It’s a process accelerated by the arrival of the automobile. A highly impersonal mode of transportation, cheap, motorized travel allowed us to drive away from our community obligations and connections. And now, today’s digital world is putting an end to the daily arrival of the community newspaper, a place where people could peruse the high school football scores, learn who was arrested for drunk driving, read the tedious notes from the county commission, and find out who died.

Our subscription to the local paper lapsed many years ago. Of course, we could still go online to read. That ritual, however, is not the same as sitting down and digesting the local paper over coffee. And for many complex reasons, our new online rituals seldom inform as to the kith part of “kith and kin.” We instead are more current on what Kaitlyn Jenner is wearing or the latest cute cat picture on Facebook.

With the collapse of face-to-face community and the readership of the local paper, so too collapses our local knowledge of the people sharing our surroundings. Sometimes the “Slow: Death in Family” signs don’t go up and we discover the loss weeks or months later, leaving the deceased’s family to wonder why no one grieved with them or offered condolences.

A horrible accident a mile away from our home this week brought home that tragic point. Two cars collided. Three people were airlifted to a hospital and one to the morgue. While speaking with one neighbor about the tragedy, Cindy heard of the sudden passing of another neighbor’s daughter a month ago.

No signs, no gathering of cars, no call, and no dirt in the local cemetery alerted us — a neighbor who lives directly across from our farm allowed to grieve thinking his neighbor callous or indifferent. True, we were not close, but that would not preclude the courtesy of a condolence.

Odd that, as the world gets smaller, our neighbors get further away.