Perhaps the saddest accolade of our modern faith is this: “Our world is more interconnected than ever before.” It’s a statement as bold on the first read as it is meaningless on the second, and one that is not only sad but also somewhat horrifying upon further examination.
So, exactly what is “more” interconnected, and why are we celebrating?
Are we more connected to our natural world in the early 21st century than, say, the early 19th? Is the screen shot of a desert on Windows 10 a more authentic form of experiencing the world’s beauty? Does being jetted to an ecotourism rainforest holiday (with spa) connect us more deeply to the planet than the act of sitting alone under a tree in the local park for an afternoon? Are we truly more connected to each other, as we shuffle to our cars, to our work, to our homes, to our beds?
Is it social media that brings us to be interconnected with our thousands of “friends”? That brings us pictures of intimate dinners, cute cats, clever memes? Can we even begin to measure a hundred Facebook likes against the satisfaction of receiving one handwritten missive from a longtime friend, and years later, discovering her letter of reply, tucked into an old copy of Tartt’s The Secret History? No doubt, for many, racking up likes is a bridge from loneliness; certainly, signing on to social media makes it easier to “connect” than knocking on a neighbor’s door and chatting about the family and the weather.
Perhaps it is through the economy —whose institution has sacrificed the local web of livelihoods for the fragile gratitude of a global supply chain — that we’re more interconnected. Or maybe it is to our fellow species that we have become more connected, although not the 50 percent of them projected to be extinct by mid-century. (It must count for something that they are preserved for eternity on select Nova episodes.)
Oh, what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive!
I am ensnared now by threads of deception, many that I have spun myself. If I could but seize the axe and sever these cords, I’d return to a world that wasn’t interconnected. A hypothetical “disconnected” world in which I knew, really knew, my family, my neighbors, my community, this valley, this land. A world in which I experienced the view of my fields from under a favorite tree, and never on a glowing screen. Detached, cut loose and drifting, away from this horror show of a failed civic discourse. Into a world in which misunderstanding was solved with respectful discussion and a handshake; communications with family were handwritten instead of texted, in which relatives would come upon my friend’s letter, tucked away in a book, when going through my estate.
Where, standing in the barnyard, I would proclaim, “I didn’t retreat, I attacked,” to the listening crows and the steaming compost bin. And then sit on the porch, with you, in companionable silence, as together we tore apart these threads.
Reading this weekend: Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (Modern Library anthology). And, scaring myself silly with Victorian ghost stories.
Winter: It was 24 degrees the morning No. 28 was born. Sleet pellets bounced off my old Carhartt jacket and the sky was slate gray when I headed out on my early morning rounds. The two cups of hot coffee helped little in warding off the chill wind as I rushed through my outdoor chores before reaching the relative warmth of the barn.
Entering a barn during lambing season involves careful observation: Who is soon to lamb, and is anyone showing signs of a distressed labor? Who has lambed already, and are all lambs up and nursing? The experienced mother will keep close track of her offspring, protecting them from the scrum of other sheep, but a first-time mother is easily unnerved and will often rush outside without her newborns, trailing the afterbirth, oblivious to what is expected of her in this new role in life.
On this particular morning, January 6th, a handful of fresh faces greeted me — the most exciting, twins born to our favorite ewe, No. 1333. No. 1333 is a large, handsome ewe who is uncommonly friendly, always standing still to receive a good scratching. As in the previous lambing season, she had just given birth to a male and a female. Much to our disappointment, she had lost the last year’s ewe lamb in a freak accident. We were anxious that nothing go wrong this time.
Later in the day, we eartagged No. 28 and her twin, 29. Eventually, we’d finish the season with 44 lambs, but in this first week of the year, lambing was just getting started. Other than the identifying numbers, the twins were soon indistinguishable from the mass of other lambs, running in and out of the larger flock, occasionally pummeling the udders of their moms.
Spring: Unlike the long and devastating drought of the previous year, this winter and spring’s rains had created a lush growth by April. It became a daily occurrence for us to remark on the change in landscape, as the unnatural browns gave way to the deepest greens. The lambs and ewes were turned out on new grass and thrived. For hours on end we’d watch the youngsters, tumbling about in soft grass at play, interrupted only by a mother’s bleat or a long, sun-warmed nap. Throughout the season, the inevitable deaths occurred: the lamb born at night that managed to roll outside the barn and die from the elements; the one I had to dispatch mercifully after it was stepped on by the flock and broke its back.
Summer: Mild temperatures and steady rain, a record hay crop, and modest garden success provided the backdrop as our little No. 28 transformed into a hardy, large-framed weanling. In June we separated the babies from their mothers. For the next few days, the moms would crowd one gate, the lambs another, fifty yards between them, and bleat. Loudly. Day and night. Another couple of days and the moms turned their attention back to the grass; a couple more and the lambs finally followed suit. Weaning accomplished, quiet restored.
Fall: It was an October evening during the late Indian summer, as we headed out to a dinner with friends, that we spotted a lamb lying down in the tall grass of the bottom pasture, noticeable by its isolation from the flock. We stopped the car and walked out to the field. There she was, No. 28, head up, alert, but unmoving.
Sheep are prey animals. They don’t lie down and stay down until they’re physically unable to go anymore. A quick check of the lamb’s gums revealed an unhealthy lack of color. Seemingly overnight, she had lost all of her body fat. We grabbed a wheelbarrow, put her in for the ride, and I pushed her up the long hill to the barn. We secured her in a stall and went on to dinner.
Over the next several days, we treated her with two different types of wormers. For us, worming is an infrequent occurrence. All sheep have some internal parasites, but we select and cull based on an individual sheep’s ability to carry a small enough “worm load” that she thrives without repeated use of parasiticides.
Each morning, we’d bring a bucket of warm water and mild soap to the barn and sponge off the accumulated scouring (diarrhea) from No. 28’s rear legs. After the second wormer was administered, the feces became solid, well formed — not what you’d expect from a lamb with a heavy parasite load. At that point we began to suspect something else was at work, since No. 28 remained alert, yet still unable to stand.
The day before we found her lying in the lower field, our 200-pound ram had managed to breach a fence and spend the night with our ewe lambs. Our new working hypothesis was that the ram had attempted to breed the developing young ewe and caused some nerve damage.
Having ascertained that her back was not broken, we rigged up a makeshift sling of saddle girths in hopes of retraining No. 28 to stand. For the next three days, we placed her in the sling three times a day with her feet just touching the ground. We would exercise each leg, moving it forward and backward, side to side. Through all of this, the ewe lamb continued to have a healthy appetite. We were committed to nursing her as long as the possibility of recovery still existed. But recovery was not to be.
On the morning of the fourth day, when I entered the barn, No. 28 was lying upright, but her head was extended forward onto the hay. This is never a good sign, but we were both loathe to give up on her too soon. We were anxious to preserve both her genetics and her life. She remained a calm, affectionate lamb, seemingly glad to have you stroke her head even in her distress.
Leaving the barn, I headed out to finish bush-hogging an upper pasture. We had a cold front coming in around midday and were expecting rain. It was a few hours before I made my noonday hospital visit to the patient. This time, when I approached, her neck was stretched out in the hay, her body limp, like a balloon with a slow leak. Her eyes still followed me, but without the usual spark. This was an act in a play that we had seen too many times. She was going to die — it was now just a matter of when.
I walked slowly back to the house. I picked up my 30-30 and returned to the barn. The lamb’s labored breathing was audible when I opened the stall gate. I raised the rifle and shot her between and just above both watching eyes. She died instantly.
Outside, the cold rain began to fall on the valley. I went back to the house, gun in my hand, breathing in the smell of the rain, of this season, aware of this rhythm, this awful beauty in the dying of the year. But I continued to look ahead, on another cold day in early January, to when the next lambing season begins on our farm, always in hope and sometimes in death.
Reading this weekend: The Art of Loading Brush: new agrarian writings, by Wendell Berry. And, The Lean Farm: how to minimize waste, increase efficiency, and maximize value and profits with less work, by Ben Hartman. Both, seemingly at odds with each other upon first glance.
We speak today of food felons, for they walk anonymously among us. Their despicable, unimaginable, reprehensible crime against society: a lifelong disrespect and disregard for producing and indulging in good food.
Like the dying punk in “Repo Man,” I blame society. These villains are, by and large, the product of either overly indulgent parents or unimaginative cooks, the offspring of a wealthy society. Let us consider each in his own sordid light, described, so as to give you a thrill, as if they might even be you.
The Picky Eater. Perhaps as a parent you are an offender in this first category. You’ve allowed your offspring a childhood of lingering over the fat, tasteless burger and sugary drink at home and at the restaurant. The hissy fits and the social embarrassment are just not worth the effort of saying no. On family visits, you turn to your sibling and shrug: “He will only eat a hamburger, do you mind?” Then, as years go by, the picky ways that began as simply a pacifier become a way of life. Eventually, the errant child enters adulthood. He moves into your basement, bringing with him the smell of stale beef tallow and rancid fat that forever permeate your home and dreams. You took the easy way out and created a picky eater: a societal monster, a criminal now walking the streets recruiting fellow members of the undead palate.
The Because Mom Cooked It This Way Eater. Are you the sociopath who murders your veggies? Do you cook your cabbage into a translucent goo, having engaged in this heinous practice for so long you are insensitive to the pain and the carnage left behind? Sadist that you are, you force the kids to sit down and eat it. “Why should it go to waste?” you say. You had to eat it and like it as a child, so, by God, they have to eat it as well. Veggies aren’t supposed to taste good; that’s why they’re good for you! Once, many years ago, the thought occurred to you to vary the method of preparation — maybe a quick sauté with green onion and ginger or braised with a hearty beef roast — but, nah, you couldn’t be bothered. You just chop-chop-chop, drop it in water, and boil until it is dead-dead-dead. Your poor blighted offspring are destined to grow up to create new translucent generations of the criminally and puritanically unimaginative cook.
The If It’s Thursday, It’s Indian Eater. The worst culinary offender by far is the peripatetic cook, unique to a society of such vast wealth and narcissism that her palate is completely unmoored. She’s the person whose own cultural rootlets have withered and died from lack of nourishment during a sad lifetime of wandering the aisles of global indulgence. This criminal’s family endures the Thai phase, the Ethiopian year, the Latin dinners. A sad nomad of the exotic city and suburban steppes, she eventually inflicts a Thanksgiving dinner of such amazingly disparate tastes that the Jamaican jerked turkey is actually embraced.
Now, I’m sure, gentle reader that none of these horrific crimes apply to you. No, not you. Never would you drown and brutalize a veggie, indulge the tyrannical tantrum of the three-year-old, inflict in a Saveur-induced rage a lifetime of rootless eating. Not even guilty a little, right? Yep, me neither.
This blog began in 1999 as an emailed post sent to friends and family. The WordPress blog portion began in 2011. And, in 2012 I made the commitment to post something new each week, which I have, by and large, observed for over 300 posts. Although, on occasion, I have reposted pieces that seemed germane to the moment or that I particularly liked. While editing and reediting a piece this morning, that will in-all-likelihood never be used, I spent a little time looking at the stats for this blog.
Listed below are the five most viewed posts, representing 5000 or so clicks. I’m not sure why these five have had more currency than some of the others. But, there you are. And, here you are:
Then there are the posts that seemed to be the most unloved. But, none have been more scorned than this, weighing in with an unimpressive one view (although the post on rosemary-flavored pork fat came in a close second).