Oh, Good Lord!

Simple instructions

With the first of two 60-foot rows of onions in the ground, I sent The Kid, who had just started with us a few weeks ago, into the greenhouse. The instructions: Bring me a bundle of onion sets for the next row. After a couple of minutes, he came back … with a turtle shell in his hand.

“Brian, do you think Cindy wants this?”

“No,” I replied, “you can have it.”


“By the way, did you get the onions?”

“Oh, good lord,” he said.

Sometime later, after running a string to guide our hand, we had the second row planted. Donning my best mentor hat, I said, “It’s nice to step back from good work and appreciate what you have accomplished.” He stepped back and agreed, it looked good.

Gesturing toward his feet, I pointed out, “You’re standing on the onions in the first row.”

“Oh, good lord,” he said.

We headed out to one of the pig paddocks. The occupants had just gone to the processor, and the space needed cleaning up. Our first task was to roll up the electric wire. To do the job, we used a giant spool, much like an oversize fishing reel. And just like with the spool of fishing line, it is very easy to make a mess in quick order if you aren’t paying close attention. The more failsafe task is to unhook the electric wire from the plastic insulated posts. So, I had The Kid start with that part of the project.

After a couple of minutes of watching him try to unhook the line from the first post, I got tired of tapping an impatient foot unnoticed.

“Here, you turn the crank, I’ll unhook the wire. But, be careful. Watch the spool and don’t make a mess.”

A few minutes later, I looked behind me. The Kid was merrily cranking away, a large bird’s nest of tangled wire ballooning out of the spool.

“Hey, look what you are doing!” I barked.

“Oh, good lord.”

Later, while we were putting away our tools, I lectured in my most teacherly voice:

“You know, Kid, there are times out here when I might yell at you. Don’t take it too hard. I just want us to get stuff done. And on those occasions when I get exasperated, you will know to either listen up or move faster. It is like with your parents — they yell at you because they care and want you to just pay attention. You know how that is….”

He looked puzzled.

“My folks have never yelled at me.”

“Oh, good lord,” I said.

A Late Winter Scrapbook

Late-winter is the precarious season on a farm, all on balance between hope and disaster. A race for fresh growth against dwindling stores of forage. Early blooming peaches and plums gamble against a late hard-freeze. Bees venture out in search of pollen sources, fighting against the clock in the starvation time of the year. Cabbages and greens go in the ground, while I scan the fields for early dandelion shoots for our salad. Chicks peep loudly in the brooder. The post office calls at seven, one morning, to say more have arrived. A hen sets on a dozen eggs in the sheep hay manger. Every week we load up and cart off hogs and lambs to the butcher for customers, making room for more on this land. Precarious, a roll of the dice, a preamble to the really busy time that comes with Spring.

the bee listener

an ever changing road sign

vantage points

access points

a well house that doubles as a smokehouse









Reading this weekend: Craeft: An inquiry into the origins and true meaning of traditional crafts.

Thoughts of a Modern-day Slaveholder   

For all intents and purposes, we are the beneficiaries of a slave economy. We may have exchanged human chattel for the energy slaves contained in a barrel of oil and the machines that consume it, but the economics work out the same and we can’t walk away without giving up status and wealth.

Thomas Jefferson well understood the conflict between the words “all men are created equal” and the reality of being part of a slaveholding economy. He called slavery a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot” on our country. He asserted that all had the right to personal freedom. And yet, he did not free his slaves.

This life we all live, powered by fossil fuel slaves, is certainly not a system based on the indentured misery of human slavery. It does, however, produce the same relationship between we the slaveholders and our property, a destruction of life, a high moral cost, and dependency on an unsustainable system. In this system, our slaves labor tirelessly to provide us with a level of grand living that would not be attainable if we relied on our own two hands. These units of stored sunlight, the busy hands of eons past, they slave away, providing comforts, doing the hard work, making clothes, shipping wine to the table, toiling in the fields, building us roads to leave by and planes to fly —at a resource cost that dooms ours, as all such slave empires, to the dusty midden of history.

Some think that in this established order there is no need to change: We are the rightful masters. God declared our right to make all subordinate to our needs. There is no moral depravity in looting this world. Our modern slaves exist to make our lives ones of comfort and ease, of mint juleps taken on the veranda. This is the “natural” world, the natural order.

Others (and I am one of them) sip on juleps and read, discuss, and try to understand the horrifying consequences of using up a limited resource. We are the self-styled enlightened. The knowledge that our privileged place is built on the lashed back of a ruined planet does not escape the grip of our soft thinking and our softer hands. We know the machines can’t keep working for us without being fed. We see the warning signs that the land is being worn out, the animals disappearing in a great new extinction, the endless offspring of our own species displacing the native flora and fauna, the waterways and the oceans soiled and empty of life.

And so we act as the planters of old acted. We make deals with our moral depravity. We use our blood money to buy “green” machinery that we hope exempts us from exploitation of the slave economy. We pledge not to buy more slaves. We put the old slaves on the block to be sold for new ones that, we tell ourselves, don’t need to be fed: sustainable slavery. All the while we conveniently ignore the huge numbers of the old order that will always be needed to build and maintain the new.

We think that if we use the profits of this hideous trade wisely, it will be for the betterment of the planet. But blood money is always blood money, and the game comes to the same end: a ruined planet. Meanwhile, wed to our Faustian bargain, we defer abolition for another generation, for our comfort is our birthright on this poor enslaved planet.

Someday, perhaps in our lifetime, the starving slaves will disappear in the middle of the night — the planet in revolt. Weeping, we will step out on the veranda of our mighty homes, calling out in vain for another julep, a sumptuous plate of food. Weak and alone, we will stumble into the fields and take unfamiliar tools into our hands, only to find the land bled dry, exhausted by our profligacy, refusing and unable to extend a hand of help.

We will then walk out the gates and begin a life of wandering through a shattered landscape. We will gather around a fire at night and tell stories to skinny offspring of the grand days when we lived in the big house.


Reading this weekend:The Forgiveness of Nature, the story of grass by Graham Harvey.

Mother Goose, Revisited

She is now over seventeen years old. But, the old gray goose is still a fixture on our farm. Here is one from the archives.

She is quite the sight, a twelve-year-old and twenty-pound Pomeranian as Mother Goose to fifteen Saxony ducklings. She is in her element as guardian, head up searching for predators and effectively sending off all challengers.

She is the last of her breed on our farm. The last of what was once a large flock of forty of this impressive, handsome and tasty bird. Even in a large flock she stood out as a big girl. The first season we had her we assumed she was a gander from temperament and bearing. Even when she crowded onto a nest and pushed out other geese we assumed “he” was just helping out, a willing domestic partner, if you will.

When she stayed on the nest and hatched out a dozen or so goslings we realized our error. Her partner, they mate for life, was a beautiful gander and fierce protector of her, the goslings and the farm.

Nothing is more impressive than seeing twenty breeding pairs of geese turn in unison as an act of protecting their babies and charge the UPS man. Flapping wings, honking at decibels so loud it must be heard to be believed, they are an intimidating presence. The UPS man agreed. Agreed that he would remain in the truck and we would come to him if we wanted our package. He was only the latest in a long line of visitors so convinced.

As the years have progressed we gradually sold or ate our remaining flock of Pomeranians (an old German breed). For the last six years only the lone pair remained; the big girl and her man. They had become pets, lawn ornaments, a comfortable and expected presence around the barnyard.

Each January for the past twelve years she laid a clutch of eggs. And as the years progressed and fertility decreased the number of eggs and the viability of the hatch decreased.

Finally, two years ago, the gander disappeared after confronting coyotes invading the farm. I found his remains in the woods a month later. She spent the next few months forlornly honking for her mate. It is not an act of anthropomorphising to say that she was mourning her loss. It was heartbreaking to watch.

For the past two seasons she has continued to lay eggs, not fertile of course, in the barn. We let her set for as long as she will. Usually the dogs will steal the eggs from her so that the last couple of weeks she is sitting on nothing. But she doggedly persists in this act of maternity.

This year during what would have been her last week before a normal hatch we bought ducklings from a nearby farm. Cindy and our farm guest Hannah installed the ducklings in the brooder about twenty feet away from the goose on her nest. The next morning the goose had abandoned her nest and had taken residence in front of the brooder. What a miracle it must have seemed after several fruitless years to wake up and find all of her babies hatched and in a nearby pen!

She did not leave the side of the pen for three weeks. Hissing and flapping her wings at any who came near. Sitting inside one evening a month back we heard her unleashing some Holy Hell out at the brooder. Cindy went out to check and returned moments later to let me know a large black-rat snake was eating a duckling. The goose was frantically trying to get to the snake through the wire of the pen. I dispatched the snake with my 410 and the girl and the flock settled down, albeit a bit deafened.

Cindy turned the ducklings out after three weeks. Since that day the goose never leaves their side, maternally herding them together or away from danger. She is quite the sight with her big frame and all the smaller ducks clustered around her moving across the barnyard or pasture; a mother again, after all these years.

A Prayer to Ella

The gray days of February have long since settled in over our valley. An endless mist, drizzle, and downpour greets my every foray to the barn. High blue winter skies are but a fevered dream seen in quick glimpses before being chased away by the cloud lords of the lower realms.

The drip from the trees, buildings, machinery, and tools is as the sound of the crypt: it brings the promise of eternal dampness into these bones. The animals cry out for relief, a dry patch, a kind word from the grumpy caretaker. Yet their squeals and bleats strike no chord before my sodden heart. I wring it out, reducing its size by three, and feel nothing but an urge to get back inside.

There, I hang up my coat. It whispers, “I’ll clothe you again in dampness when you are ready.” Cup of tea in hand, I retreat to my study and listen as the drip outside my window holds a conversation with the power lines a quarter-mile distant. It’s an exchange of semaphore sizzles, dashes, and drops spoken in a rural dialect I don’t understand, except to know by the laughter that either I am the subject of much mockery and mirth or, worse, that they are ignorant of my existence.

Outside these walls the sheep have grown quiet in damp defeat, while the cocks shuffle on their roosts and squabble over sleeping partners. The sun has long since dropped below the western horizon, exhausted from a pointless daylong contest with the clouds.

The hour is late and I add a splash of Islay to my tea. Picking out a book from the stack, I lean back into my easy chair and resolve to wait out the gray overlords. I offer up a silent toast, then a prayer for their banishment to the scat goddess Ella:

Blue skies
Smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies
Do I see …

Never saw the sun shining so bright
Never saw things going so right
Noticing the days hurrying by
When you’re in love, my how they fly …

Blue skies …


Reading this weekend: Berg’s biography of Maxwell Perkins.

Mud Season

The front wheels are angled perfectly for the eight-foot gate opening between the barn and the corral. A round bale of hay dangles from the front spear. In spring, summer, and fall, the tractor turns smartly, with clearance on both sides. But this is not spring, summer, or fall. The tractor takes on a mind of its own and begins sliding off to the left, back tires pushing forward, front tires mired lug-nut deep in mud, until, rudderless in the late winter slurry, it skids to a halt against the gate post.

Mud season in East Tennessee is well underway. The weather is never quite warm enough to dry out the ground; the green grass is still a month away. Every surface stays in a stalled-out state between slop and frozen. Margery Fish, in her book “We Made a Garden,” says if you want to know what the world looked like after the great deluge, visit a barnyard in winter. We say, if you want to visit our farm, wait until spring. Sad sheep paths and nasty pig sties look to those unlearned in the ways of the farm to be the product of gross inattention. Hell, they look the same to me, and I know better.

Each slippery step I take leaves a rut in its wake, the dead grass sloughing off like a snakeskin with my passing boot. It’s as if the world has taken a giant gulp and held its breath until its skin has become soft and spongy.

The sow peers out of her shelter when I approach, her bulk blocking her piglets from the great outdoors: “Not today, kids, you’ll just track it all back inside.” The hens scouring the barnyard take great shuddering leaps to clear the mire and get to higher ground and fresh bugs. Eggs collected in the season of mud are all imprinted with spidery claw prints.

Every year ’tis the same complaint. Then, every year the mid-March miracle occurs. All in a matter of a week, two at the most, emerald hairs of grass explode from below. The sponge squeezes and even the ruts from the tractor fill in, seemingly overnight. The trees on the opposite ridge wear their first hint of green, and the rose-purple redbuds begin to work their understory magic in the deep woods. Demeter comes out of her funk as her daughter returns.

But for now, early spring growth is just a memory and a promise. The tractor tires still mutiny against my commands. They go left when I order right. The mud offers no purchase to my boots. The sheep reproach me with yellow eyes as they leave the barn single file on a high path out of the mire.

I back up and try for the gate again, and the rain begins to fall, merging sky with muck.

The Seasonal Beekeeper

A friend of mine recently described his beekeeping status like this: “I’m a seasonal beekeeper. I buy bees every year, keep them for the summer season, until they leave or die in the fall and winter. Then I start again the next spring.” One of our area hive inspectors, who knows a thing or two about beekeeping, has already lost all of his colonies this winter. A natural beekeeper I know who adheres to all the latest trends in chemical-free beekeeping lost 40 of his 48 hives in 2017. And according to the state apiarist, up to 80 percent of Tennessee’s honeybee colonies died in the 2016-2017 period.

As Mr. Salatin would say, “Folks, this ain’t normal.”

East Tennessee has a temperate climate and is not home to vast commodity crop fields and their corresponding high pesticide loads. It has a diverse, pollinator-friendly range of flowering flora. Yet, the best we are offering is just not enough. Bees are, well, dropping like flies. 

The new reality is that what has worked for hundreds and thousands of years is now in free fall. Blame it on neonicotinoids and our polluting ways, blame it on climate change, blame it on Trump — but a fundamental of human agriculture is in collapse. How far down will things spiral? That is impossible to say.

Bees, native and managed, pollinate about 75 percent of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables we Americans rely on to sustain our population. Cross-pollination supports at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of wild plants. Yet in rural China, abuse of pesticides has decimated bee populations to the point that humans now have to pollinate by hand the enormous pear crop. No, it is not normal, and it is not sustainable.

Here at Winged Elm Farm, we love keeping bees. We love working with and for them, harvesting their honey, and hearing their reassuring hum everywhere in our soundscape. We look forward, when the temperature on a sunny day hits 50 degrees, to homing in on the distinctive buzzing of one of our girls. When we lose a colony of bees, it is almost as painful as losing a favored ewe. Losing all of the hives is akin to losing our whole flock. Devastating.

Yes, there are plenty of things all of us can do to help the bees.

  • Plant rich and varied sources of nectar and pollen.
  • Ditch the pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.
  • Create and preserve habitats for non–honeybee pollinators.

But I’m still not sanguine about turning things around. The technophiles blather blandly about a 10 billion–strong human population and bee drones to feed it, and the talking heads at the UN say we need to double our housing stock to accommodate the growth. Our species has already put the climate at risk, likely fueling a sixth mass extinction, so excuse me, my friends, if I don’t believe more of the same is the answer.

Recently I stumbled across someone who offered up this advice to save the bees: Everyone should put sugar water out on their porch to feed them. Which is akin to a plan to fight world hunger by putting a Dunkin’ Donuts on every corner of every village and town. It misses both the point and the scope of the problem. Meanwhile, the political realm offers the usual partisan solution of either redoubling our faith in the god of market forces or bolstering our inventory of band-aids to mask the problem.

That neither is adequate to tackling the crisis at hand is an understatement. Yet the last major political leader to warn us of the costs of our profligate ways was sent packing back to his peanut farm.


Reading this weekend: Assault in Norway, Thomas Gallagher. And We Die Alone, David Howarth. Two fantastic and inspiring books of true-life heroes.