Don’t Come Back In Until Dinner

I grew up in a household with strict rules. Foremost among them: Get out of the house. When not in school we were expected to be outside. We spent our days doing chores and fishing, looking for pirate treasure along Contraband Bayou or building forts, swimming in ponds or going to the library. Whether on bikes or on the bayou, that landscape was full of kids. On days spent inside because of rain we would play board games or read, watching TV was off limits.

Today, where our farm is located, in East Tennessee, the countryside is mostly empty. You see the occasional activity outdoors, usually men on tractors. But only once in sixteen years have I seen a kid cross the seventy acres of our farm. Never have I had to yell at a kid for building a fort on our land. No kid has ever darkened the door to ask permission to hunt rabbit or squirrel, or fish in our ponds.

Our companions in this landscape

Our companions in this landscape

There are homes nearby where I have never observed a person outside. Cars appear and disappear in the driveways. But the owners are not once glimpsed. I’ve cut a hay field; long hours, three days in a row and never spotted a person outside a neighbor’s house. A house, I add, that often had four cars in the drive.

While baling that hay on the final day, I saw one of the cars start up and move down the driveway. It drove the 150 feet to the mailbox. A youthful arm extended out of the driver’s window and collected the mail. The car reversed back up to the house.

It would be tempting to ridicule the generation of kids who spend their lives in darkened rooms, zombied in screen-time with their gadgets. But their parents, who by example, are equally to blame. With all of the challenges we face to our civilization and planet, it seems somehow dishonorable to while away one’s life in such an unproductive manner.

That the rural landscape is empty in the very place where hands and eyes are needed is troubling. Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson refer to the benefit of “eyes to acres”. They mean that the understanding and the correction of problems in our landscape begin by an intimate daily familiarity.

In a way, it seems like a modern day Highland clearance; where blame rests partly with forces that have devalued the local in favor of the global, removing those eyes-to-acres. But it is a blame shared by us for our willing collusion in that withdrawal, as passive consumers of this life.

Understanding our land begins with engagement, even if it is just a kid rambling along on an idle afternoon across a pasture and a wooded hill.

Maybe our inner mom needs to say, “Get out of the house! Don’t come back in until dinner.”

……………………………………………………………….

Postscript: Hopefully the weather is finally breaking towards spring. Our final crop of lambs are being born, we have piglets to castrate and potatoes to plant. So the navel gazing tone to this blog should return to more mundane topics of the farm in the coming weeks…or not.

The Master Comes Home

The initial thrill that comes with an ice storm and a loss of power faded a bit the morning the temperature bottomed out at 3 degrees. Delores the sow had dragged the heater out of her water trough for the fifth time, the pond ice for the cattle and horse had to be broken every few hours, and a young ewe and her newborn had to be rescued after lambing in a far corner of the wind-blown sheep pasture and relocated to the shelter of a barn stall. Still, the domestic pleasure of coming into a cozy house heated by a woodstove to sip a hot cup of tea is not to be dismissed.

Ice Storm 4 014

A walk back to the house and barns.

Traditionally we built our houses to meet the demands of our climates, a grass hut if you lived on a tropical isle or a house with connected barn if you lived in New England. Older houses in Louisiana, when I was growing up, were typically built a couple of feet off the ground. It was a good model for a warm climate. The open space underneath kept the house cooler in the warmer months (most of the year), and the elevation protected against the occasional flooding. Freezes, like the big one in 1940 my dad recalled, were rare. And given that most plumbing was limited to the kitchen, freeze damage to the house was minimal.

Infrastructure was on my mind this past week here in East Tennessee. After a week of temperatures barely budging above freezing, we had an ice storm. The storm caused our farm to lose power. Then the temperatures plummeted to low single digits. Thankfully, we had a generator to run the refrigerator, well pump and a few essential electrical circuits. A Jotul woodstove helped keep the house a comfortable 60 degrees. Another generator at the barn kept a variety of water tanks heated for the sheep, chickens, goose, cattle and horse.

Today, our houses are designed to accommodate the additional “essentials” that just a generation ago were not needed nor even available. The electricity to keep the modern house functioning is a relatively new concept in human culture. The boundary line of what is essential has shifted. Shelter, heat, food and water now share demand with internet, smartphone, cable TV and microwave.

Older forms of infrastructure had built-in resilience: barns carefully constructed to hold heat, with hay mows above to ease the feeding of livestock in poor weather; deep in-ground cisterns to provide fresh water for the farm; houses designed to facilitate warmth in the winter or coolness in the summer—smart, low-tech designs that we have pushed aside with the assumption that the power grid will now take care of us.

Ice Storm 3 008

Muscadines coated in a half inch of ice.

Over the years Cindy and I have discussed converting our farm to an off-the-grid power system. Each time, though, we found the costs to be prohibitive. But this week, after a few days without power, as we scrambled to keep up with our needs, it occurred to me: off-the-grid is easy; it is our modern needs that are complicated, the prohibitive factor, the stumbling block, the real expense.

Those old houses in south Louisiana worked year in, year out because they had very little modern infrastructure to protect. Working under the house insulating each individual pipe before the ice storm, I was overwhelmed by how much plumbing is needed in our small house just to furnish us water on demand. Hot and cold pipes to the kitchen and the two bathrooms, the hot water heater and the washer/dryer—a complexity of plumbing requiring protection from the elements, so that it might protect us from the elements.

Driving into town late in the week, I saw dozens of downed trees, limbs still balancing on utility lines, brush pushed to the edges of the road. As I looked at the miles of power lines and telephone lines, our true vulnerability was evident. It was not the loss of electrical power that we feared but the loss of a certain status that comes with our modern life, a status of predictability.

Off-the-grid literature is typically geared towards finding ways around the commercial power source, yet retaining the modern conveniences. As we watered and fed our sheep, as lambs were born this week without regard to the temperature or the state of our utilities, I thought about the Amish. While many of us were without power, were they concerned with an inability to update their Facebook pages, charge their cell phones, keep their freezers going, stay warm with their electric furnaces? Did they feel powerless? Somehow I doubt it.

The complexity of this modern life, the infrastructure that maintains it, is hardwired for disruption. Our system and our expectations for what it must provide are such that losing power is a form of powerlessness. That in itself seems a form of slavery. Which is why there is, for me, always that bit of anarchic joy in an emergency, an unshackling from the system. Though that uncertain joy is accompanied by relief when the master comes home and power is restored.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Reading this weekend: Lost Country Life by Dorothy Hartley

At least our farm isn’t in Boston

“Winter is beginning to lose its grip.” What clueless chump wrote that bit of wisdom last Sunday? After penning those wishful words, I’ve watched our world here in East Tennessee fall into the deep freeze.

Our average high at this time of year is 53 degrees, with a low of 31. That comfortable range is one of the reasons living in Tennessee is such a joy. Each of the four seasons has a clear character, none too extreme, and about the time we tire of one, the next arrives. There are, of course, on occasional years, the extremely cold winter or the miserably hot summer. This is clearly one of the former.

Last Saturday we had a teaser of above average temps, which prompted the above bit of optimism. That was followed by a very cold week here on the farm. Yesterday, we had a brief respite, as the mercury climbed into the middle 40s. We spent Valentine’s Day thawing hoses and refilling stock tanks; we set posts in concrete and drove T-posts and stretched woven wire on the new horse paddock.

While we worked to complete this project, Bonnie, our newest work horse, eyed us from a neighboring corral. Pregnant ewes stuck their noses through the gate to conduct their smell test on her. Roosters chased hens under her feet, and Delores moseyed about her paddock next to the corral with piglets in tow—new experiences all for a horse that had spent her days working on a dairy in Minnesota.Bonnie 003

We completed the back fence on the new paddock around noon. Cindy began setting up the propane burner and chicken-plucker for our friend Sara. She had called earlier in the morning with a surfeit of male birds vying to be cock o’ the roost. Sumptuous dishes like coq au vin and dumplings lay ahead, but first the killing, plucking, and cleaning of eight bloodied and bruised roosters.

While Cindy helped with the butchering, I sneaked off to buy a late Valentine’s card to present during our evening dinner (Cindy having done the same earlier in the morning). By mid-afternoon we had settled down in the house, she for a nap and I to finish a mystery by Martin Walker. Coffee at four and then we headed out for a couple of hours of chores.

We fixed together a dinner of roast leg of lamb, mashed potatoes and “squishy greens,” and cheesecake for dessert and turned in early for a well-deserved rest.

This morning the low registered 13, with a projected high later of 29. Four to seven inches of snow are in the forecast for this evening and tomorrow and a low of minus 3 for Wednesday night. The cattle need to be moved to a late winter pasture, ice will be broken on troughs, and there is a bit of fencing I need to repair in the back forty. The sheep are bawling for hay—three ewes were due to lamb last night. I hear Delores snorting for feed. It is time to call the dogs and do the chores.

With the week ahead calling for another significantly cold week, I wonder if my ancestors had some ritual, besides sipping whisky, to bring on the warmth of an early spring. God knows I’m ready for it. At least our farm isn’t in Boston.

……………………………………………………………………………………

Reading this weekend: The Crowded Grave by Martin Walker, Our Only World by Wendell Berry and A Guide to the Good Life: the ancient art of stoic joy by William Irvine.

Waking Up

early-spring-website.jpg

The scene we expect in another six weeks.

Winter is beginning to lose its grip. The signs are there if you are not moving too fast to see or hear.

After a Friday morning low of 16 degrees, Saturday afternoon saw the temperature pass 60. The elderberry bushes have new leaves, while the hazelnut trees are sending up fresh suckers. Bird life of all sorts, both wild and domestic, has returned to the soundscape. At the nearby farm of friends, the sound of frogs fills the evening with throaty mating calls down by the creek.

The bins of seed potatoes have all sprouted and await the day when the gardener finds sufficient energy to plant. As the days lengthen, egg production of our 20 hens has grown from nil to an even half-dozen a day. Another couple of weeks and a dozen a day will be gathered. A bit more time and our Speckled Sussex will go broody. Another three weeks and the chicks will be tumbling out of every nook and cranny of the barn.

The pasture grass is still brown from a distance. But get in close and you’ll see the green shoots beginning to peek through. The trees are barren from afar, but approach them and a different story can be read: tight buds on the plums, peaches and maples. The land is waking back up. Having replenished its energy and reformulated its plans, it is ready to give it a go for another year.

Even the humans are venturing out in minor numbers. A drive into town yesterday and we spotted the elusive modern teenager tossing hoops with a friend. We passed on the temptation to slow and observe their behavior; such rare activity of the species should not be interfered with.

A bit farther down the road, we saw a man polishing his bass boat. Since when did fishing boats become toys? When did a simple jon boat become not good enough, with some sturdy tackle, ample lures and a trot-line to check at night? Since when have we needed depth finders and a boat that costs more than a modest home? When was the quiet joy of casting for bass or bream on a still pond replaced by the sounds of the Bristol Speedway on our waters?

Jon boat vs. bass boat—perhaps that is the tale of our age and our race: a slow pace propelled by paddles or a hurried dashing to and fro.

This spring I resolve: To walk, not run, through the season. To get down close, hands in the dirt, and feel the change. To sit more on the porch with family and friends and say nothing, listening instead to the frogs by the pond or for the sound of the moon rising. To walk among the sheep at night. Stand among the fruit trees and just look. Put a plump worm on a hook, toss it into a likely sheltered spot and just wait.

It’s time to wake back up and see if we are worthy to give it a go for another year.

……………………………………………………………..

Reading this weekend: The Pig: a British history by Julian Wiseman

To That End

We try. But I won’t declare that we do the best job of caring for our land. You see, I know where the bodies are buried: the troublesome bits of erosion, the areas of overuse, diseased trees, and neglected infrastructure. Yet, I won’t underestimate our hard work and successes at stewarding this small farm of seventy acres, a stewardship that, hopefully, leaves the land, upon our departure, in better shape than when we took up this way of life.

Nonetheless, we are both aware of the potential futility of these efforts in a world overburdened by population, climate change, resource depletion, and the general collapse of good behavior. Even as I type these words I can view the neighboring hills, a mile in distance, denuded of trees from a poorly executed clearcut, a process that is repeated up and down our small valley.

At times our farm seems an island in a sea of abuse. Small farms or small land ownership is no more immune to poor practice than large farms and tracts of land. Perhaps the small farm has a bit more flexibility; it is closer to the root of a problem and so can respond in real time. Like a small motor boat compared to an ocean liner, it is more maneuverable. But it is no nobler, for its small size.

Orwell, in his book, The Road to Wigan Pier, makes a reference to small landlords being worse than a large landlord, based on their limited resources to improve their investments. Similarly, the small farm is just as subject to those market forces, the same drive to wring every bit of profit from the resources at hand, as the large farm. A sad play that has us repeating our role in the original sin, where we short the future for a bite of an apple today.

That all leaves me, looking from my window on this Sunday, thinking that this island, which is our farm, is already being lapped by those rising waters of our future.

Yet, we make our small efforts to stake a claim to an imaginable future that has room for well cared for small farms, families, and community on a healthy planet. To that end we gathered last night with other area small farmers for an evening of fellowship, food, and conversation. To that end, today, we plant a new vineyard of wine grapes. And, to that end, our sow, Delores, farrowed last night.

To that end, that is the present and future as best as we can manage, for today.

Dignity in the Barnyard

“If you want to know what the world looked like after the deluge, visit a barton (barnyard) in the winter.” From the book, “We Make a Garden” by Margery Fish. At least that is the quote as I remember it, because some (former!) friend has purloined my copy (or I’ve possibly mislaid it).

A couple of nights ago, after securing the sheep, I stepped out the front door of the barn to survey our modest kingdom. A couple of cold weeks, with heavy rains, had left a slurry of frozen mud and muck at the entrance. The laying down of straw helped the situation in the short term but made it worse in the long term. The straw served as a deceptive floating island on the sea of mire.

This island, I was instantly aware, while beginning the survey of said kingdom, would not support my modest two-hundred pound frame. A frame launched, “slipping the surly bonds,” for brief moments before gravity pulled it back to earth in a long slide, only a hay bale intervening to slow its progress.

Funny how dignity attempts to reinstate itself in the most unlikely of situations. There I was with a solid streak of mud caked on one side of body from ear to calf and I bound up out of the muck as if nothing had happened, I’m sure, for the benefit of the watching sheep and pigs.

Well there is nothing dignified about a grown man stripping down to his birthday suit on the front porch, temperature thirty-four degrees, before being allowed entry. But thanks to a capacious hot-water tank, this farmer was able to reemerge minutes later with an acceptable standard of hygiene.

……………………………………………………………………………

Reading this weekend: Home Gardening in the South by H.C. Thompson, Farmers’ Bulletin 934, USDA, February, 1918.

Delores Visits the Country

It is both a joy and a curse to have a tin roof on the farmhouse. The slightest patter of rain, easily ignored on the now-conventional shingled roof, is instantly audible on the metal. There is usefulness in lying in bed and listening as the rain begins; you don’t need to tune in to the radio for the forecast, much less peer out the window, to know which way the wind blows.

The curse is that it serves as an unwanted alarm clock in the pre-dawn hours: a reminder that the barn jacket is still hanging on the fence post, that a favorite hand tool is in the back of the pickup, that you have a dozen things to complete, rain or shine, the next day. Once awake, you hear the dogs bark … and you start wondering if Delores has escaped her paddock, again. And so the day begins. The brain shifts into gear, and you roll out of bed, unwillingly, and get dressed. And as you make coffee and step out into the early morning, whatever rain you may have heard on that tin roof has moved on to other pastures. The day, when it dawns, will be with clear skies.

LambDelores 1-19-15 005

Twin sisters.

As I went about my chores this morning, I found that no new lambs had been born and the new hog, Delores, was still contained. The previous morning during feeding had revealed another ewe with brand-new healthy and active twins. The score for lambing season to date is 6 ewes:11 lambs; 9 ewe lambs:2 ram lambs; 14 more ewes to go. As with all new births, yesterday morning’s mom and babies were separated into a lambing pen, where they will stay for a day or two. The maternity ward gives us a chance to observe and a chance for the mother to adequately bond with her new offspring. Today or tomorrow, she will be turned out with the other new moms and their charges.

Delores considers dinner.

Delores considers dinner.

Yesterday, we spent the bulk of the morning reinforcing one of the pig paddocks near the gardens to receive an incoming pregnant gilt. We had not intended to get back into breeding stock, but a number of our local sources for feeder pigs have had troubles this winter and have nothing to show for their labors. That, rightfully, should be a warning to us as well. But we plunged ahead and made a bargain to purchase Delores instead. She should farrow for the first time around the beginning of March.

Delores, a yearling black pig of about 200 pounds, had heretofore been a pet. The woman selling her said she hadn’t realized how fast and large pigs grew. Cindy headed out late morning to pick up the hog. I, meanwhile, spent the time butchering and cleaning roosters. I was just finishing scrubbing down the equipment after packaging and freezing the birds when she returned, Delores in tow.

We had a quick late lunch and easily introduced Delores into her new, spacious digs. We secured her with the final bit of fencing, gave her fresh water and retired for our afternoon nap.

Awaking refreshed, we had our coffee before heading out to do our late-afternoon chores. Dinner guests would arrive within a couple of hours, and dinner would need to be prepared. We stopped by the pig paddock first. Spotting the hog panel thrown up at an odd angle, we knew immediately that “Houston, we have a problem.”

Delores, in the space of an hour and half, had escaped from her paddock through an unsecured hog panel, trundled down a ravine, been discovered in a neighbor’s front yard, enticed into a goat pen, escaped from that pen, and walked back up the hill into the ravine. And that is where we found her, 200 yards down a steep hill from where she had begun to explore the countryside. It should have ended in a catastrophe. But within five minutes she had followed Cindy, and a bucket of feed, back home. We spent the next 30 minutes reinforcing the fencing, then completing chores, before heading in to cook for our evening guests.

Which is undoubtedly why, this morning at 4 a.m., I awoke to the feather-light rain on the roof and wondered, “Where is Delores?”