On Becoming an Evolutionary Cul-de-sac

I was 16 when I put brand new brakes on my car. It took most of an afternoon, and it was a task that finally completed gave me a real sense of accomplishment. True, I had a couple of small parts left over. But I was young and I operated under the assumption that the auto parts store had given me either spares or parts that didn’t go with my model.

Once finished, I climbed in the driver’s seat, turned the ignition, and took off down the road. Wow! It was a smooth ride and I felt great. That is, until I came up fast to my first stop sign and applied the brakes. Odd feeling, pushing down on the brake pedal at 50 miles an hour and encountering no resistance. It’s a memory I can still summon readily to this day. Fortunate for me, the auto engineers had built in a backup breaking mechanism called the emergency brake, a handy invention that I deduced might be best to deploy … quickly.

I give you this preamble as evidence that even though a person comes from solid civil engineering stock, basic mechanical skill is not an inherited gene. We all have the friend, often on speed dial, who is great at teasing out the workings of ‘most any thingamajig. But my solutions to mechanical failures are victories hard won. The puzzles that five-year-olds routinely solve on Facebook in a cute two minutes elude me — sometimes for hours, and sometimes for many years.

The Neanderthals who lurk in my ancestry were a smartish but conservative group of bipeds. They developed a reliable tool kit over the millennia to make their lives run smoother. But then they apparently had a community meeting and said, Enough is enough, and they settled in for the next 100,000 years and made no new improvements. I kind of admire that about them; perhaps we could learn a thing or two from that approach to technology.

But then there is my H. sapiens DNA. It allows me, eventually, to not only see a solution but also want to implement it. Yesterday, for instance, we were unloading feed barrels. Cindy backed up the tractor and boom pole to the bed of the truck. Dangling from the boom pole was a nifty contraption called a barrel lifter. This simple invention is the best $40 we ever spent. It has two metal “hands” at the end of a chain that grab the edge of the barrel. Once the boom pole is raised, the barrel lifter and barrel in tow swing up and out of the truck bed. No muscling required.

The first barrel was a breeze. The second barrel presented a slight problem. It didn’t completely clear the bed of the truck. Taking on my finest Thinker pose, I struggled for a solution. After some minutes, the little gray cells began to sing: It’s the weight, I deduced triumphantly! Each 300-pound feed barrel removed took more weight off the truck suspension, thereby raising the bed of the truck a couple of inches and causing each subsequent barrel to drag along the tailgate when hoisted. But voilà! A few adjustments to the tractor’s three-point hitch, which in turn shortened the top link’s angle after each barrel, gave the boom pole a higher lift. Problem solved.

This Eureka moment may not mean much to you engineering types. But small successes like this one are huge to my sapiens self. Victories for H. sapiens, yet disappointments to my inner Neanderthal, who, wrinkling his jutting brow, mutters, What’s next? Will he be wanting to invent block and tackle?

Perhaps. But I must leave that astonishing accomplishment for later. I’ve just had a brain flash that there just might be a better way to knap flint! Stay tuned.

Giving the Finger to Modernity

I practice at being out of step with modernity.

The mercury is already pushing the mid-80s by afternoon, and clouds are beginning to build in the west. I sit in my car in a Pennsylvania parking lot next to a mattress store, watching. Across a field, a boy is perched on the bench seat of a hay wagon, holding the reins to a team of Belgians. Farther back stands an older boy. He is reaching down and catching square bales as they are tossed up to him from other boys on the ground. He already has stacked a layer three-high on the 16-foot wagon. The driver, maybe 8 to 10 years old, twitches the reins and moves the load forward every few minutes before again coming to a stop. Up ahead, the father is driving a second team that pulls a gasoline-powered baler, spitting bales onto the ground at regular intervals as it tracks the windrows of hay.

The scene I observe is a Hieronymus Bosch painting with a twist: In the background of the tableau, the family of man and boys gathers forage for the winter. At the forefront, a stoplight blinks commands on a four-lane highway, the center of a tortured world of strip mall architecture, where the obese and the tattooed pour onto the roads and the pavement groans under bumper-to-bumper traffic. A boy, the same age as the ones working the field, sits in a car, screen-staring his young years away. A man in the front passenger seat stares ahead, oblivious to any other way of living. A Chick-fil-A and an Olive Garden shoehorn the paved landscape and the fields of the family at work.

Farther down the road, back in the stream of modernity, I pass three different buggies of Amish women, all driving teams, their children aboard, moving down the highway at five to eight miles an hour. If the journey is indeed more important than the destination, then these women and their children have learned the lesson well. They are chatting and laughing, as their fellow travelers, mere feet away, are entombed and unsmiling.

Do they ever glance at the cars and wonder, May Swenson-like: “Those soft shapes, 
shadowy inside the hard bodies — are they their guts or their brains?”

I pull into my hotel parking lot, retrieve my luggage, check in, and go up to my room. I open the curtains to glimpse the last of the day. Across another parking lot, across a road, lies another field. In the dying evening light, another man and a team of Percherons pull a manure spreader across the pastures back to the barn. On the seat, on either side of him, are his two sons, sharing an unheard conversation.

Standing at the window of the third floor, in isolation and sadness and cowardice, I think, we chase our lives across the decades seeking a sense of purpose. Yet our gaze is averted from the possibilities and the wisdom gained from living slowly, at five to eight miles an hour.


Reading this weekend: The Ends of the World: volcanic apocalypses, lethal oceans, and our quest to understand earth’s past mass extinctions, by Peter Brannen. An interesting read about all the ways life has been wiped out in the past on this planet. And, it gives you a nice perch from which to contemplate the same.

Sweat and Domestic Politics

The tall grass stings my legs like dozens of small, angry, invisible bees. I am reclaiming a 200-yard stretch of two-line electric fence that temporarily subdivides our eight-acre bottom field into two-acre parcels. Overhead, the large transmission lines that cut across our farm release enough ambient electricity to create a mild, stinging current between the grass and my bare legs.

Each week our sheep graze the new grass of one of the smaller parcels before we rotate them to the next. Each previous parcel lies in distinct states of regrowth, like snapshots between haircuts taken over a period of time. On this hot, humid afternoon, the sheep have retired to the barn panting as I, their obliging servant, walk the line with a large reel, cranking the handle slowly as I rewind the braided wire.

This job is necessary but tedious. I turn the crank and turn the crank and turn the crank and then, stooping, unhook the wire from each of the 50 plastic posts aligned across the pasture. The first strand collected, I turn back and begin reeling in the second strand, eventually returning to the starting point. Where, the task completed, so is my day. Lathered in sweat, I trudge back up the hill to the barn and put the wire away.

Earlier in the day had found me spending a couple of hours in the hoop-house. Swigging water from a large jug every 15 minutes, the greenhouse temperature at 100-plus degrees, I prepared three new beds for the next rotation of vegetables.

We use a micro-irrigation system to water the hoop-house gardens. The drip lines are connected to a four-cistern setup that harvests rainwater from our hay-barn roof. A one-hour pumping into the vegetables depletes the water in the cisterns by a third. We water every five days, giving us a 15-day supply of water. That gives us pretty decent odds that a good rain will replenish the coffers. But, in the event of a drought, we also have an underground line fed by our well from which we can water the livestock and the plants.

Returning to the house after reeling in the wire, I settle in on the front porch with a well-deserved end-of-the-day beer to watch the late evening moving in. Out in the bee yard, Cindy has been adding a super to one of the hives. As I watch her walk back up the drive, her face red and her bee suit drenched, I imagine that in this heat, working in the bee yard is much like working in the hot hoop-house.

I sit in my Adirondack chair, beer in hand, and I eye her warily as she approaches. She lingers with purpose at the top of the steps, clearly preparing to alter the course of my idyll. Because, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a cold beer must be in want of a task.

Sure enough, on queue, she channels her inner Jane Austen and says, “if you have a minute…”


Reading this weekend: The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees, by Robert Penn

Happy Fourth of July


Each year on July 4th, we visit a small cemetery located over the next ridge. Here is the annual holiday post from the archives.

On October 7th, 1780, the American militia, led by 1100 Overmountain Men from what is today Tennessee, cornered the British at King’s Mountain, South Carolina. In the decisive battle that followed these men changed the course of the Southern campaign for American Independence. The Battle of King’s Mountain was led and fought by backwoodsmen, including the father of Davy Crockett and many of the earliest names in Tennessee history.

Sixty or so years later in a narrow valley, in 1840 and 1843, not far from where our farm is located, down a small gravel road, two of those heroes of the American Revolution were buried in a small church cemetery. The church is long gone. Only a hundred or so graves are found in this out of the way spot. This year, as we have done for a dozen years, Cindy and I place flowers on the graves of Big Jim Campbell and William Moore to honor their memory.

July, 2004

Assorted farm journals

One thing is clear, after spending a couple of hours perusing my old farm journals, I am apparently indifferent to modern notions of spelling and punctuation. I’ve kept these journals of farm happenings since the fall of 1999. Often just containing simple lists of things to do and things done, rain received and rain never fallen, or temperatures recorded, but occasionally, every few pages, observations of farm and community life are jotted down.

In the summer of 2004 we spent most of our July evenings sitting outside in the dark. It was the year the Great Eastern Brood of cicadas emerged. Those nights, after dinner, we would pull out folding chairs and retire to a spot below the house near the woods. About an hour after sunset the waves of sound from the leg fiddlers would cascade across the clearing, a magnificent pulsing of synchronized music that told a story in which we did not matter. We would just give ourselves over to the sonic surges, transfixed, staying out till near midnight when the nightly concert came to a close.

(Sleep well, dear Brood X, we have marked your return and will reserve our chairs for July 2021.)

Also recorded that month is that we hosted friends for dinner, who are now divorced. My journal contained a single entry the next day, that she wore her fading love openly, casting ill hidden scornful looks when her beloved opened his mouth to speak.

The following Saturday we had business in Kingston, the Roane county seat. A small town on the Tennessee river thirty minutes from our farm. Notable for being the site of Fort South-West, a large Federal garrison of troops on the Cherokee frontier in the late 1700’s. And, in a duplicitous move, capital of Tennessee for a day on September 21, 1807. A treaty promised the Cherokee that if they ceded land south of the river the state of Tennessee would put their capital in Kingston. They honored the treaty, that one Fall day.

Leaving our farm for that drive we passed Galyon’s market, located at a crossroads in the Paint Rock community. On this day in 2004 it was crowded with cars and trucks, our local county commissioners looking for votes, were pressing the flesh and handing out hotdogs to the hungry citizens. I observed in my farm journal: In years past our ancestors would have at least been treated to an all-day BBQ and liquor fest before they consented to vote. Now it seems an Oscar wiener and a Coke suffices, no wonder that the Republic teeters on a knifes edge.

We stopped, chatted, ate our free hotdogs, drank our cokes, shook the proffered hands. Inside the store the candidates had put their campaign literature out on a table. Affixed to the table, the owners of the market had taped a large sign that read: Liar’s Table.

As we continued our journey, a funeral procession drove by slowly headed to the Paint Rock Baptist cemetery. We pulled to the side, as all do, until it passed.

When we had completed out tasks in Kingston we headed back to the farm, passing Galyon’s once more. The candidates were still at work with the hands and the handing out of hotdogs. This time the crowd was noticeably different. The men, instead of wearing overalls, had suitcoats slung over their shoulders and loosened ties around their necks. The funeral was over and as a bit of spontaneous reception for the dearly departed, all had stopped for the free sustenance and a handshake.

Above all their heads, a vinyl sign on the porch roof of the market read, “Pizza, Hot Wings, Cow Feed”.

Our Edible Landscape

Elderflowers, soon to be elderberries, soon to be elderberry wine.

It must have been close to a hundred degrees in the hoop-house. After weeding down one row of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and melons, I paused to put my glasses, made useless by the sweat streaming down my face, in my overall pocket before continuing. The next row, a first planting back in April, was now laden with tomatoes of all stripes and types. I snacked on the ripe cherry tomatoes as I pruned and tied up the heavy branches.

Finishing the last row, I harvested a handful of bell and jalapeno peppers before heading to the house. In the breezeway of the barn, substantial piles of red onions and garlic lay curing. Security against winter want, they provided visions of future stews and gumbos. After a quick stop in the herb garden for a fistful of cilantro, I dropped off the produce with Cindy, who was busy making salsa, and returned to my next morning task.

I am an avid procrastinator when it comes to weeding and mulching perennials. There always seems to be something more important to do, whether it’s trimming sheep’s hooves or sitting on the deck with a cup of coffee. But yesterday the looming chore rose to the top of the list. I weeded and mulched the grapes, blackberries, pawpaw orchard, and blueberry bushes. As I worked I snacked, first on the blueberries and then on the blackberries, in a comfortable rhythm. Eat berries. Pull grass. Repeat.

There is a satisfaction in being able to walk the farm and snack or harvest in any season. Whether it is greens in deep January or wild chanterelles in late July, the real “movable feast” is there for the taking (with a little bit of sweat and labor). Even the sassafras trees make a contribution; I gather and grind their leaves to a fine powder in my annual production of gumbo filé.

Yesterday’s munching was just an appetizer for the summer months to come. Soon there will be ripe beefsteak tomatoes, juicy sweet melons, platters of figs, and salads of peppers, cucumbers, homemade yogurt, and dill — each month’s cooking informed by the season, each month with its own theme.

July already has me salivating in anticipation. I’m thinking grilled ribeye with a little salt and pepper, garlicky mashed potatoes, a salad of sliced tomatoes topped with fresh basil, homemade bread, and a few glasses of wine for a theme.

This work of farming sure goes down easier if you enjoy the pleasures and conviviality of the table, or just the taste of a warm, fat blackberry on a humid afternoon, plucked from the vine a moment before you pop it in your mouth.

 Yep, it is going to be a great summer.


Reading light this weekend: John Grisham’s latest, Camino Island. And, Martin Walker’s latest “Bruno” novel, The Templars’ Last Secret.

Father’s Day: a Thanksgiving

This weekend I am in Oregon for the wedding of my niece, daughter of my eldest sister, Cynthia. Here is a “Thanksgiving” post from the archives about the importance a father plays in shaping who we are today. Happy Father’s Day, dad.

It always seemed cold out on the Louisiana marsh as a boy. On Thanksgiving eve my father and I would head out to the hunting camp, a ramshackle building under centuries-old live oaks. At dinner we’d sit down at a long communal table and enjoy hearty bowls of duck gumbo. The dozen or more men would talk, and we the sons would keep quiet, seen but not heard. The morning smell of bacon and eggs served as an early alarm. And by 4:30 we were climbing into mud-boats and heading off across the marsh. At regular intervals a father and son would disembark into a wooden pirogue and push off into the darkness, usually arriving at a duck blind an hour before sunrise. Our hunt would begin with my father calling the ducks, enticing them to circle and land.

 At the end of the hunt in late morning, we’d head home, pulling into the drive around noon. Thanksgiving preparations inside were well underway, pies lined up on the counter. I’d cast an anxious gaze to determine that a favored sweet potato pie was among them, then off for a shower and a change to clean clothes. The table was set and dinner typically eaten in mid-afternoon; afterward, the calls would begin from distant relatives.

Today, as a grown man, my rituals have changed. I’m now the relative calling across the distance of a time zone and seven hundred miles. Instead of a duck hunt early Thanksgiving, my morning is filled with chores: feeding pigs, sheep, cattle and chickens, stacking wood for the woodstove. Busy, but still time will be made later for a woodland walk on our farm. We eat late, so no need to rush dinner preparations. Some years we are graced by the company of friends, and other years we dine alone. This year, Cindy travels and I will dine by myself or with a couple of friends.

I’ll prepare a roast duck in memory of those boyhood hunts with my father. And I’ll regret the absence from the table of a sweet potato pie. But since it is Thanksgiving, I’ll be grateful for reasonable health, a loving partner, a satisfying life, a full library; that my father is still with us, as is a large abundance of siblings and other kin. I’ll also be thankful for what is absent in my life, namely, the darkness of war and the dislocation from hearth and home of the refugee.

As I step out on the porch before sunrise Thanksgiving morning, the air will smell of smoke from a dozen farmhouses in our valley. It will be cold on our farm here in the hills of East Tennessee. The cattle will begin to bawl. But over their din, if I listen well, I will hear the sound of my father calling the wild ducks out on the marsh.