The Archaic Arts & Skills

Beyond the brilliant red on the maple outside my study, the shots of hunters at both daybreak and sundown indicate fall has well and truly arrived.

Saturday morning was spent in the usual pursuit of running both errands and clearing the slate of farm chores and tasks. Success was not fully achieved in either category. Afternoon found me bushhogging a large pasture of 12 acres. A soothing act as the cut grass reveals the sensual curve of the landscape, it is also a meditative activity, one that allows time for the mind to float along unexpected paths. As I finished in the early evening, the crack of firearms in the distance pulled me back from any reverie. The cattle looked up, muttered something to the equivalent of “humans,” and went back to grazing.cropped-red-horned-steer.jpg

I entered the house for our evening coffee to find that Cindy had baked a platter of freshly made shortbread cookies. For some reason this had me thinking about the pursuit of what in our global consumer culture have been dismissed as the archaic arts. These are arts not clearly connected with the culture of global commerce—which is not to say that they are not connected with commerce, of course.

I have spent my adult life in the mines of the book industry, an art-form-turned-business-model locked in classic overshoot, where the issuance of new works has not yet registered the collapse of readership, where the vein we have followed of new readers has petered and faltered and is near to playing out, where a kid of a nearby farm, 18 years of age, told me recently, without embarrassment, that he had never read a book by choice.

During a short visit with a sister in Arkansas this week, I found her pursuing a similar arc, teaching classical European ballet. She has run a vibrant and popular dance academy for many years, yet she faces the difficulty of capturing an audience for an art form that doesn’t come with tweets and likes. She has the dedicated dancers of the discipline. But in our 24/7 world of digital and visual distractions, where is the audience that can discern an aplomb from an arabesque?

Global culture is a consumer culture. Its goal is growth on a finite planet: a car for everyone in China and India, farmed shrimp from Indonesia on every Iowa farmer’s plate. It is fundamentally a disposable culture: disposable products, people and planet. It has little use for the arts of an enduring culture. The dance that requires long study, the book written a hundred years ago, the technique of preserving soil fertility organically—all are archaic: they don’t require a container ship to deliver them to our door.

There are still niches for the archaic arts. And it is our job to help preserve them, to help them endure through the cacophony and clutter of the modern world. While the era of mass literacy and the literature it spawned may be coming to an end, it doesn’t mean that literacy and the written word are also going to be lost. Audiences for disciplined and focused dance may be in retreat, but the participants are still queuing up to learn.

We on a small farm are learning the archaic arts—harvesting manure to build soil fertility, constructing secure fences that do indeed make good neighbors, planting vegetables that, when they mature, will feed us for a month, creating a plate of shortbread cookies that nourishes the soul—and all connect us with long past practitioners of these arts in ways that Facebook and Walmart never can and never will.

These are the arts that make us more fully a community, a culture, a people.

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Reading this weekend: Summer Doorways by W.S. Merwin. And, Simple Living In History: pioneers of the deep future, edited by Alexander and McLeod. 

Ends and Beginnings: a scrapbook

Pickled green tomatoes with garlic and dill.

Pickled green tomatoes with garlic and dill.

Fall wines: perry and crabapple.

Fall wines: perry and crabapple.

Final peppers of the season

Final peppers of the season

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The last of the dill in the herb garden

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Winter squash is done

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Winter squash curing

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The season of the greens begins

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Young cockerels, soon to be coq au vin

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Steers on winter pasture

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The fig survived, barely, the polar vortex and has thrived this season

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The sheep graze

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The sheep expect

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Small hay barn is packed

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Fresh composted manure for all of the fruit and nut trees. Here is a load for a two year old hazelenut

This time of year is filled with completing chores from the last season and beginning the ones for the new season. Whether pickling the last of the green tomatoes or fattening the lambs for December holiday plates we are busy. Hope you are all taking time to enjoy this beautiful fall.

Small house, small farm

 ED fallen timber

Small house and quiet roof tree, shadowing elm,
Grapes on the vine and cherries ripening.
Red apples in the orchard, Pallas’ tree
Breaking with olives, and well-watered earth,
And fields of kale and heavy creeping mallows
And poppies that will surely bring me sleep.
And if I go a-snaring for birds
Or timid deer, or angling the shy trout,
‘Tis all the guile that my poor fields will know.
Go now, yea, go, and sell your life, swift life,
For golden feasts. If the end waits me too,
I pray it find me here, and here shall ask
The reckoning from me of the vanished hours.

–Petronius Arbiter

A Farm Toolbox: T-Post Jack

Fencing, that constant companion of all that we do on our farm, is made easier with the metal T-post—which itself is made easier to put in with a T-post driver and easier still to remove with the post driver’s first cousin, the T-post jack.

All fences that go up will someday come down. After some years of using brute strength to pull old T-posts from the ground, often finding them bent and unusable, I spotted this beauty at a local farm supply store.

Proper jack position for removing a t-post.

Proper jack position for removing a t-post.

Brilliant: a jack, one of the oldest of man’s tools, designed to tackle one of his oldest chores, fence building. Among the simplest mechanical devices invented for applying force to an object, the T-post jack makes lifting and removing T-posts remarkably effective and easy. A simple downward popping action on the handle and posts emerge from the ground a few inches at a time, straight and reusable.

And my back, likewise, remains straight and reusable.

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Reading this weekend: Xenophon’s March: into the lair of the Persian lion by John Prevas. Terrific story that makes me feel shame about complaining about the daily walk to the mailbox.

A Nice Fall Day

I awoke yesterday morning at my usual time. Everyone has his internal clock, and an hour before sunrise mine goes off. Always has. Checking the temperature, I saw that we had dropped for the first time this fall into the low 40s. The wind was up, blowing the wind chimes as I made coffee. The cold front continued to move into our valley and blew hard all day.

I compulsively checked email and wrote a few letters before waking Cindy up. A lot of small to medium tasks on our to-do list: working on hog fencing, washing clothes, baking bread, checking the bees, doing the usual chores, putting up siding on the new hay barn, laying down fresh bedding for the sheep.Early October on the farm 021

By 8:30 Caleb had shown up from his home down the hill. He and I gathered our tools and headed to the hog paddock. The paddock is a wooded area of about two acres. It runs at a 25 degree slope from east to west. Over the years, the hogs have rooted away the eastern edge along the fenceline, leaving gaps in some places of as much as 12 inches at the bottom of the fence. Our task was to lower each hog panel to ground level and reset the electric wire to about six inches above the ground. It was a straightforward task that Caleb and I were able to complete by noon.

The whole time we were working, with the cold wind seeping into the valley, I kept thinking about catfish. As a kid I lived for those moments to run my trotlines, getting up every two hours throughout the night, checking the lines, removing the fish and rebaiting hooks. ‘Long about sunup, I’d spend an hour or two cleaning the catfish hung on the old oak tree in the backyard. Having dumped the heads and entrails back into the pond, I’d head into the house to breakfast. With those thoughts in mind, I headed in for lunch of a couple of lamb chops and winter squash soup from the night before, leaving Caleb to put away the tools.

Cindy, meanwhile, had been busy through the morning with washing and hanging clothes out to dry, baking bread, prepping winter squash for freezing and checking the bees. After lunch, our friend Susan showed up bearing homemade preserves: pear butter, fresh cider vinegar and candied jalapenos. She was also picking up a quarter-beef. After she departed, I went for a nice walk and smoked a cigar. A cool fall afternoon is the perfect time for a smoke and reflective walk. An hour later, I was back at the house, where Cindy and I enjoyed coffee and fresh baked bread with some of Susan’s pear butter.

After coffee, we headed back outside and spent a couple of hours putting siding up on the barn, milled from our new sawmill. Cindy has been doing most of the work putting it up, but now I have done my bit and can rightfully claim that it was a mutual project. Right?

Back inside for a rare co-produced dinner, a rooster simmered with herbs and onions from the garden for a few hours by me, then further seasoned by Cindy and the stock topped with her homemade dumplings. Chicken and dumplings as the mercury dips to 35 degrees—now that is the way to complete a great day.

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Reading this weekend: Galahad at Blandings by P.G. Wodehouse. Hard to be disgruntled with the state of the world when Wodehouse is at hand.

Farewell, Tip

With a dog you can move a herd of cattle. Or as a boy you can lose an afternoon along Contraband Bayou looking for pirate treasure with only the company of your dog. As companions and helpmates in our lives dogs are so intertwined as to often seem yet another appendage. Or, as is often said, they seem a member of the family; albeit a member who sleeps rough outside in most weather.tip

That appendage was severed this week when we had Tip put down. She was fifteen, a loyal companion and friend. Her life span covered the purchase of the farm in 1999 to this past week. She was my loyal companion by her choice and insistence, sharing every walk I’ve ever taken on this farm. If you enter her name in the search box on this blog she showed up frequently in these pages. A few of my favorite entries:  Dog Days of Summer, Tip: an aging stockdog, Two Dog Tales. But her name showed up casually in dozens of entries as befits a dog so central to our lives.

produce 002I doubt I’ll leave the porch again without pausing and waiting for her to rise up and join me.

A Crow Perspective

The wind has been up and blowing hard in the high crowns of the oaks since dawn. The crows seem to love these times, their caws to each other in the trees having only recently returned to the soundscape—a clear indication that fall is near. The crows radiate intelligence and even nobility, black shrouds of solemnity observing the change of the season.

The maple leaves are turning backwards, a prelude to dying in a burst of color in another month or two. The woods are dense with an undergrowth of seedlings and brush. Rabbits seem to occupy the corner of every glance, as does the telltale flag of the deer bounding just out of sight. The high today of 72 is welcome after the recent late-summer blast of 90 degrees.

Last Monday evening Cindy and I were both involved in the type of farming accident that is always lurking in the background. We emerged cut, bloodied, bruised, battered and clothes in tatters. Fortunately neither of us ended up in the hospital, or worse, but for a few minutes that evening, it certainly could have gone either way. The cawing of the crows to each other overhead as we made our way back into the house relayed the news the old-fashioned way.

I left the next morning and caught a flight to my homeland of south Louisiana. It’s a place where the honorific “Mr.” or “Miss” still precedes the first name of an elder when addressed by someone younger. Walking with my dad, now 87, I watched with admiration as he was greeted repeatedly with a friendly “Hello, Mr. Bill.” At a farmer’s market, children approached my sister Kathryn with a respectful “Miss Kat.” At a fast food chain, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the same salutation was used with customers: “Mr. Brian” and I was handed my breakfast.

No crows heralded my arrival or departure from my ancestral home. But none were needed to convey the shades of change coming in the not-too-distant future. Life is, as they say, terminal, and unlike the ancient Romans, we do not need to consult the entrails of a slaughtered bullock to recognize the inevitable change and cycle in life. With my family in the evening, in a house full of laughter, I watched my dad, surrounded by his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The next morning, he was still hale and hearty as we two stood in the graveyard. The tombstones of my mother, sister, and brother and my dad’s mother, aunt, and father stood in front of us. Without sadness, my dad pointed out where he and my stepmother would be buried when their time comes.

Farming, as we do, fine tunes an appreciation of the inevitable cycles of life: butchering a rooster and hearing the peep of newly emerging chicks, delivering a ewe to the slaughterhouse and assisting in the birth of a lamb; helping our old dog as she struggles to rise from stiff slumber and savoring the first tomato of the season, grieving the death of a sister and sharing a glass of wine with her daughter.

The seasons change, the wheel moves, and the crows always return.

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Reading this weekend: Distant Neighbors: the selected letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. And, Larding The Lean Earth: soil and society in nineteenth-century America by Steven Stoll