A Farm Breviary: Prime

Dawn is an active office, a time for movement and chores, a time when reflection and observation are often drunk on the go, when dark gives way to light and to shadows. Dawn begins the dutiful time of day, when the role of husbanding demands an attentive service. It is a time of rivers.

The back door shuts, a noise, carried to the barnyard as a signal to the ram. He rises and the bell around his neck wakens the flock. They stand and gather together with expectant murmuring, awaiting my arrival. An open gate, a shaken bucket of feed, and the river runs forward, eddies around my legs, erodes my stability, before flooding into the fresh grass: a flock experiencing the full pleasure of an early spring morning. The chickens mirror in lesser volume the actions of their sheep sisters. They stream out of the coop and into the sunlight, bugs and scratch high on their list of priorities.

Below the farm, down the hill at the road, the world of man has begun to reassert a misshapen dominance. A rising water at flood stage, threatening to overwhelm, the road is quickly engorged by the tributaries of commuters in cars and trucks flowing into its main channel. Among them, a school bus moves in and out of the road current, accumulating children, eventually depositing them like a debris field after a storm, to be trained in the finer points of boredom and disengagement.

After an hour or two, the morning flood will subside to a trickle before the mystery reverses itself in late afternoon. In the meantime, my path is a well-trodden one of scheduled rituals, starting with the giving of first food then water to all who need it. I end the dawn office leaning over the paddock fence, watching with pleasure as the pigs enjoy — as only pigs do — their early morning breakfast. A pause in my activities, a quiet few minutes to review the day to come.

I turn from those in my care now fed, the initial flow of morning chores observed, and return to the house for my own breakfast. Overhead, the fine blue sky is now streaked with half a dozen contrails, sad evidence of our misplaced search for wonderment.

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Reading this weekend: Wendell Berry and the Given Life, by Ragan Sutterfield

This is another in an eight-part series entitled a Farm Breviary. A breviary is a printed liturgy of prayers. Although not a particularly religious man, I am drawn to the idea of a meditative life. So I purloined the breviary idea to put some order on a series of observant posts. For me, I do like the idea of stopping work for periods of reflection; a beneficial idea regardless of one’s religious or philosophical inclinations.

A Farm Breviary: Lauds

The dawn office, taken at 5 a.m. in the orchard on a cool morning. An ending of the night and a start to the new day, the work ahead still unformed, drifting through my mind like the mists in the creek bottoms below me. The waning half moon presides over the Southern late winter sky, one eye on the job in front and one eye on the job completed. The Big Dipper holds court to the north, its cup turned in welcome to the colder climes. The deep mysteries of the night office now wane with the promise of the sun.

This is the time of dogs and roosters. The night creatures are returning to their dens, ready to report back to hungry children the success or failure of their labors. The dogs in the valley, invigorated after a night’s rest, track the movements of each skunk, opossum, or fox as it crosses their domain. Agitated barking from all points of the compass signals a last hurdle for the weary parents.

I sit in my chair and let the sounds of this ending enter. The past few days I have hosted a cousin and his family. They were paying a visit to the last surviving sister of mine and my cousin’s mothers. As our aunt closes in on 97, she is still healthy and sharp; yet her long day must inevitably near its close. Her offices observed with intelligence and faithfulness, she has achieved what our old dependable scribe Berry would term “a complete life.”

One step in front of another and a life of daily cycles becomes a decade, a century, a millennium, a billion years. It’s not for my intelligence to know the duration. And only for others to judge the completeness of my projects, to wonder what tasks I left unfinished, to know whether my footsteps traveled on a purposeful path or toward a dead-end. I resolve to be like the moon: Does she wonder if she should alter her footpath? No, she sets her course and stays true, knowing her place, her duties, a life faithful and complete.

I gather my chair and return to the house, the rooster crows now being answered from over the ridge. The light of the sun, still a few hours below the eastern hill, respectfully waits for night to complete its work. My dogs disappear into the brush; the cool air moves, bringing the scent of a skunk disturbed by their explorations.

I leave them to patrol the farm and I enter the house, first one foot and then the other.

This is another in an eight-part series entitled a Farm Breviary. A breviary is a printed liturgy of prayers. Although not a particularly religious man, I am drawn to the idea of a meditative life. So I purloined the breviary idea to put some order on a series of observant posts. For me, I do like the idea of stopping work for periods of reflection; a beneficial idea regardless of one’s religious or philosophical inclinations.

A Farm Breviary: Matins

The Full Moon setting

This is the first in an eight-part series entitled a Farm Breviary. A breviary is a printed liturgy of prayers. Although not a particularly religious man, I am drawn to the idea of a meditative life. So I purloined the breviary idea to put some order on a series of observant posts. For me, I do like the idea of stopping work for periods of reflection; a beneficial idea regardless of one’s religious or philosophical inclinations.

The night office, midnight at the top of the hill on a cold March night. The hour opens on the long silence of deepest night with the taste of snow in the steady wind. The few lights from our kith down in the valley seem more intimate for their distance. Signaling the presence of a modern life alone, they are connected and affirmed by the grid of powerlines humming a feeble supremacy on the far edge of the pasture.

Overhead, in gaps in the cloud curtain, the sharp clarity of winter stars is visible in the night sky. Remote intelligences communicating in a winking semaphore the unwelcome message of humility and insignificance. From my chair, my feet firm on the pasture, I hear behind me what must be a rabbit breaking cover, pursued by my dogs, conveying in their own language a place and hierarchy.

The owls hoot from the 20-acre wood beyond me a song of plausible deniability as the rabbit escapes under a fence and back to ground. On a nearby ridge, coyotes yip a prayer for sustenance. The hens squawk a nervous call and response, moving around on their roost, a sound of apprehension carried up the hill to my ears. The world in acts, some played and some still being written, surrounds in this hour. The challenge comes in a quiet listening beyond my own thoughts.

I break the hour and pick up my chair and return down the hill. My boots make small crackling sounds on the frozen ground, and a few swirling snowflakes accompany me with a delicate dance. Each step brings me closer to home and further away from my reverie.

A last glance skyward, before I enter the house, finds the semaphore code broken as the clouds shutter the sky. The world is once again close in and yet remote, both knowable and unknown. The link now only a thread, I open the door.

The Experiential Life

Recently, a young woman I met was explaining her job to me. “I provide an ‘experiential approach’ to shopping malls,” she said. The “experiential approach” is one of the current hot terms in business. From what I’ve read, it works like this: “… experiential retail turns the boring experience of browsing, trying, and buying into something fun and exciting.” Many millennials, I’m told, do not wish to simply purchase pants; they want an immersive activity that makes the purchasing experience more authentic and engaging.

Last week On Point’s Tom Ashbrook interviewed a millennial who spoke about the transcendent benefits of adults’ spending all of their free time playing video games. Callers phoned in eager to justify their electronically engaged evenings. They talked of the many “friends” they had made, and they said that gaming had allowed them to have victories, providing a framework to “experience” life as a winner.

So, what does it mean when a culture needs to spend time and wealth conjuring the means to experience life, when our viewfinder on this world consists mainly of ways to see it as a consumer and a spectator?

I think it’s safe to say that my 89-year-old father hasn’t spent much time immersed in a technology-generated experiential life. No instant status updates or sharing of memes from the deck of a WWII destroyer in the Pacific. No existential worry on how to connect his existence with life: he worked hard every day, raised a large family (seven kids), spent several nights each week volunteering with service organizations, served as a trustee for his church, and regularly visited shut-ins. And, for all of that, was a strong presence in our lives. No need for him to purchase an experience to be a winner.

The Stoic Epictetus warned us to avoid giving over our minds to others, but instead to experience life on our own terms. Quaint advice these days, as many now live the totality of their lives merely as consumers and commodities, careening across the fluorescent-lighted landscape in a desperate search for the authentic experience to purchase, never realizing that they are the purchased. Our species has gone through billions of years of evolutionary struggle to reach this experiential moment … blasting alien invaders from a computer screen or hanging on a rock wall at the local mall.

Yesterday my day was spent planting strawberries, tilling potato beds, making kraut, feeding bottle lambs, and preparing a venison roast. It was not a planned gaming experience to evoke a sense of activity and purpose; it was genuinely experienced, unmediated by apps and digital connectivity. My days and nights engaging in this life may not offer the thrilling victories of a well-played Warcraft game. Yet I’d still maintain that a full day’s farm work, capped by a fine dinner with friends and a good book at evening’s end, is sufficient.

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Reading this weekend: The Agricultural Fair, by Wayne Caldwell Neely (1935). Letter to a Young Farmer: how to live richly without wealth on the new garden farm, by Gene Logsdon

The Farmer’s Desk

We had a late night. Five friends from Knoxville came out and dined with us on lamb, greens and grits. So, when I came downstairs to write the weekly blog at 5:30, nothing was stirring the little gray cells. Except, back in the dusty shelves of my brain, I recognized something familiar. Clifford Harper, an old anarchist illustrator, had done a wonderful drawing of a militant’s desk, chock-full of representations of that life. As I stared at my keyboard and my desk I made the comparison.

So, with considerably less artistry, I give you the “Farmer’s Desk”.

Everyone have a great week.

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Reading this weekend: A Peter Lovesey mystery. And, I’m trying to read John Clare’s Shepherd’s Calendar. But, true confession time, long poems are a bit like opera and ballet. While I may appreciate the skill and artistry, the native understanding eludes me.

The Good Tenant

I look on as the last of our Red Poll herd clambers aboard the trailer, bound for a farm in Southern Illinois. One lone steer remains behind, with nothing but ewes and lambs for company. Around the corner, the Barred Rocks and Brown Leghorns scratch for bugs, totally indifferent to the leaving. The pigs in their paddocks, still sleeping off their dinner repast, are oblivious to all but dreams of breakfast.

To run a small diversified farm is to live within the wheel. It turns for the seasons, for the markets, for the climate. We have spent these many years planning, building, and repairing the infrastructure to support multiple endeavors, to make the farm resilient, to create and sustain a place where the absence of one species simply indicates another cycle, unremarked in the larger scheme.

Livestock live their lives out here, with their offspring raised, fattened, and slaughtered. Crops are planted, watered, and harvested. Dinners are planned, cooked, and enjoyed. The refuse is gathered, emptied, and composted. Wheels within wheels, seasons within seasons, years within years. Everything is done within a scale that is appropriate to our abilities, our infrastructure, our needs.

Some wondered, with the sale of the cattle, if we were scaling back, down, in retreat. They deconstructed the act, examined the entrails, to discover more than was presented. But if they had taken a closer look and a broader view, they would have seen a panorama painted over seventeen years, and one that continues to unfurl.

In that big picture, the beautiful snow in winter becomes a distant dream come the dry, hot summer and chicks in the spring lead to a convivial table in the fall. A herd of cattle is followed by a flock of sheep; a harvest of potatoes is replaced by manure and then a crop of beans. The one true constant in all is the turning wheel that brings the careful observer into active participation.

The small farm is itself a participant workshop of opportunities and dreams. It’s a place that, if we will read the cycles, does not scale up or down, but in a circle. A place where the new becomes the old becomes the new again, all within a framework of what is reusable, possible, and desirable.

Yet, as well as we live within the wheel, we are but fleeting stewards. The farm belongs not to us but to a much more demanding landlady, one who insists on her share of the successes and who is unforgiving of our failures. The panorama she paints is of billions of years, not a mere seventeen. And while capricious in her communications — railing one minute and calm the next — she is nonetheless predictable to a degree. Our challenge is to watch out for her moods and scale appropriate to what she will allow, knowing that when we are done the tenancy of our land reverts back to her.

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Reading this weekend: The Running Hare: the secret life of farmland, by John Lewis-Stempel.

 

The Life Before Dawn

It is 5:30 as I head out to the barn, the light of dawn still a couple of hours away. A few hens, alert to my footstep, jump from their roost in anticipation of an early handful of scratch. Floating above the tree line, in the western sky, the moon is a slender crescent. The sheep are quiet in the barn, the roads empty. Perfect.

Life is at its best when I go to bed on time and wake in the early hours. The world seems both smaller and infinite. Like a fresh-fallen snow, these hours hush the bustle of the world of our making. The curtain is pulled back for a while to reveal something less demanding and much more impressive.

As a child, in a house full of siblings, I’d arise way before the sun to check my trotlines for catfish. That time was mine. Slipping silently out of the house, I’d walk through the dark yard to the dock and climb quietly into the jon boat. A push away with the paddle, no light in hand, and I’d coast into the peaceful winter’s morning. I’d hold off using the paddle for long moments, gliding on the smooth surface, enjoying the solitude. Then, after a minute or two, with a few swift strokes, I’d head to the cypress tree along the edge of the pond.

There was always an excitement in that first moment, when, still not using a light, I would reach into the cold, black water for the line and feel it twitch hard in my hands, telegraphing the number of catfish dangling along the hundred yards of its course.

Hand over hand I would pull the boat along the trotline across the pond, a hook hanging every foot. As each catfish came boiling into view, I’d pull up the line so the fish hung on the inside of the boat. The smaller ones would be released, and the big fat-bellied ones I’d drop into the bottom of the boat, where they’d thump about in the slosh at my feet.

It usually took an hour to run the lines and rebait each hook. A quiet paddle back across the pond, then I’d take the catfish up to the house and clean them in the light of the kitchen window. Dad would usually be up with a cup of coffee and the paper when I came inside. I’d put the catfish, two each, in clean empty Guth milk cartons. They’d then be filled with water, labeled, and put in the freezer. There, like ice bricks, stacked igloo-style, they awaited a spring thaw and fish fry.

These many years later, a good predawn ramble or spot of work done in quiet reflection still sets me on the right side when the sun comes up. The workload later in the day always seems lessened if I’m outside in the dark just before dawn — my time when the curtain is pulled back a little, letting in the soft glow of possibilities.