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 …

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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.

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

The Yearly Optimist

The 2018 master plan

Standing in the kitchen, each with a cup of coffee in hand, we stare at the plan. “I want tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes”, she says. And, you will have them, I reply, grandly.

But, you will also have beets, mustard, turnips, peas, kale, chard, onions, garlic, cabbage, lettuces (lettuce is good, she says), collards, black beans, October beans, cowpeas, lima beans, sweet corn, cucumbers, melon, okra, watermelon, eggplant (yes, eggplant, lots of eggplant, she adds), crookneck and winter squashes, and, certainly, sweet potatoes. There will be a small field of mangles and hickory corn for the pigs, as well. And, a sorghum trial plot. Oh, and the buckwheat for the bees, I finish. That covers spring, summer and brings us to fall.

“Enough”, she says. She does not want to hear about the fall garden. “As long as there are tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes”, she adds, again.

“Seems like an awful lot, who do you think will eat it?”

We will. And if our customers picking up pork or lamb need a mess of greens or beans, well, Bob’s your uncle.

“Who is Bob”?

What? Nobody.

“Then why do you say, … oh, never mind.”

Never mind indeed, I say… well, I think.

And, we can feed the excess to our pigs, I throw in for extra weight.

Besides, if we grow it they will come.

“Who said that? You got that from that movie.”

No, I didn’t. I made it up.

“No, you didn’t, he said, ‘if you build it, they will come’.”

Well, that is completely different, he said ‘build’ and I said ‘grow’.

“Hmm.”

Hmm.

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Reading this weekend: Sheep Farming in America, by Joseph E. Wing (1908)

A Mid-Winter Scrapbook

The old Cook’s Mill, across from the farm, is clearly not much to look at. Until, that is, you begin examining how much skill went into the building and the old stone flume channel across the creek. Here was an appropriately scaled technology for a small self-sustaining valley.

 

 

 

 

 

File under: I know the feeling. The larger hogs in the woods are hard to rouse for breakfast, when the temperature is ten degrees.

A friend gifted us one of his few remaining North Georgia Candy Roasters (a winter squash) from the fall garden. Which we used as the foundation for a delicious sweet stew on a cold night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The year-old ram lambs on a sunny six-degree morning, always hungry.

The sun just peaking over the eastern ridge, reveals beauty in unexpected places (the chicken coop and a maple tree).

 

 

 

 

 

 

And, even in a drab winter landscape, the cardinal is easy to spot and always welcome. The first of the new crop of lambs, confident and healthy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And, finally, yesterday as the temps rose to 59 degrees, the girls took advantage of the warm weather to take a cleansing flight.

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Reading this weekend: Grey Seas Under, by Farley Mowat. An exceptional book about ordinary heroism. It is the history of a salvage and rescue tug on the North Atlantic.

The Butcher’s Bill

The obligatory cute lamb picture

This mid-winter morning, the mercury hovers around 10, the ground is lightly covered with brittle snow, and, as the prospect of another week in the deep freeze settles into my chilled bones, my thoughts are dark. I spent most of yesterday avoiding outdoor projects on the farm. Time that could have been employed constructively was devoted instead to a post comparing our cushy fossil-fueled lives to a 19th century slaveholder economy. Eventually I shelved it. “Too bleak,” Cindy said. “I want to hear about the lambs.”

Heck, I too would rather hear about lambs than read yet another rant about our fatal addiction to consumption. Which, I admit, is just one more pile of sand in which I bury my head. My competing impulses create a quandary. When a young person talks to me about his dreams for a good life, my first instinct is to interrupt, to tell him the planet has determined that our good life is no longer viable, dreams or not. Instead, I tell him about lambs. The promise of birth and death and birth again. I believe in both narratives, and I don’t want to burst his bubble, so I tell only the one story.

Which is why I love farming. It is a great place for a short-term optimist/long-term pessimist like myself. The old joke about the farmer who won a million bucks perfectly encapsulates my outlook: “So what are you going to do with that million dollars?” “I guess I’ll keep farming until it runs out.” Well, I too will keep on farming, enjoying and embracing it for however long it lasts, even as I remain convinced that the planet is preparing to reboot. If I could just find my pipe and supply of hope-ium seed, then just maybe I could help extend that optimistic vision out another generation.

My own inclination for a favorable construct, meanwhile, continues to be fed by lots of new pigs, a new pregnant sow, baby lambs hitting the ground daily, an ongoing diet of learning new skills, dreams of a better garden, and good friends in the community. Two of the latter stopped by last night with a gift one of them had worked on for the better part of a year. A beautiful rustic bench adorned with a seat back that spelled out “Winged Elm,” it was handmade of wood from both theirs and our farm. We invited them in to share some homemade chicken and dumplings. The chicken itself was a gift from two young farmers in exchange for the use of our chicken plucker. So, despair not, gentle reader, for your scribe. I’ll always enjoy a convivial evening and the miracles of everyday life.

Well, the sun isn’t up, but in this frigid dawn light I see the ram lambs. They are gathered at the hay barn, trying to magic their feed down onto their dining room table. I must leave you — thinking of cute lambs, not about the butcher’s bill that inevitably comes due.

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Reading this weekend: Lanterns On The Levee: recollections of a Planter’s son, by William Alexander Percy. A beautifully written memoir of the Mississippi Delta, that also manages to be both offensively racist and full of class snobbery.