A Farmer’s Guide to the Senses

Hearing: When the fog comes into the valley, the cattle bawl a fearful alarm at the loss of any horizon. It’s a sound that raises an ancient fear of the husbandman worried for his stock. You cock your head, desperate to locate the sound. Is this the bawl of your own cattle, now escaped and on the highway? An experience lived once stays forever.

Red Poll Cattle

Red Poll Cattle

Smell: Walking out at midnight among the cattle on a hot night, you take in the sweet rich aroma of sweat and foraged dung rising from the earth. Not unlike the smell of yeast and dough working together in a bowl under a heavy cloth. Both are promises in the dark, a womb-like gift of fertility for those capable of interpreting and understanding their uses.

Touch: While the ewe is still expelling the afterbirth, you cradle her newborn lamb. That gaze, that softness, delivers in an instant the totality of life, what the world offers. This, a mere moment between birth and death, for the joy and the living, for all of us.

Sight: The blood will come quickly, more than you expect. With a merciful cut across the jugular, the yearling ram-lamb will bleed bright on the winter grass. You carry his dead weight across the barnyard and hoist him up by the gambrel tendons to a singletree dangling from the front end loader. You execute the evisceration quickly, then place the carcass in the cooler.

Taste: You place a bit of smoked pork in your mouth. The fruit of your land, it is simply seasoned with salt and pepper, stuffed with garlic from the garden. The fat is rendered out during a long summer day spent in the smoker, then the meat is pulled, chopped, and doused with a vinegar sauce. You serve it on a plate alongside crowder pea salad. You wash it down with homemade mead and wine, sitting around the long table with friends as the day becomes evening. This is farming.


Re-reading this weekend: The Localization Reader: adapting to the coming downshift. A collection of essays, this is the designated reading over the next six months for our farmer’s reading group.

South of the River

Our farm is located south of the Tennessee River, in an area composed largely of Roane County, but with portions of Loudon, Monroe, Meigs, and McMinn. It is bordered by the river on the north and west, Interstate 75 to the east, and State Highway 68 to the south. It is called South of the River, or simply by its initials, SOR.Roane County

John Muir walked these valleys on his way to points farther south in the 1860s. Eventually, he ended his journey in a still-wild Florida, many lifetimes before modern souls touched down in the Orlando airport for their annual blowout at Magic Kingdom.

At approximately 150 square miles, South of the River is crossed by a few broad and fertile valleys that run northeast to southwest. The valley of Ten Mile, cut down the middle by SR 58, which carries travelers from Oak Ridge to downtown Chattanooga, is the largest and most developed. But Paint Rock Valley, much of its large landholding concentrated historically in a few families, is the more pastoral and picturesque.

The western border of South of the River is inhabited by a small population of exiles of the upper middle class, now living large in retirement on the river in grandish houses with speedboats out back. Pushing in on them from the surrounding ridges and small valleys and hollers is the majority of the population, much of it brought together by the 2.5 churches per square mile that call SOR home.

That area is where we live, a vast community of smaller farms like our own, family-operated dairies, and one-to-two-acre hardscrabble homesteads. There is very little commercial life, aside from the occasional general store, in South of the River, and no incorporated towns. There are lots of gardens, pigs, cattle, chickens, and multipurpose workshops.

The designation “South of the River” is often used derogatorily by residents north of the river. It’s a wrong-side-of-the-tracks designation. But to those who live South of the River, it’s a place where boys still learn to stick-weld and girls still put up produce with their grandmothers, a hinterland of self-reliance, affordable enough for working people to own a modest piece of land, though never to grow rich from the same.

Twenty-first century South of the River is still, much of it, a tight-knit land of multigenerational families living next to each other. Like Roane County at large, SOR until 10 years ago had no building codes, leaving the architecture and site location eccentrically random. This area always has been, and probably always will be, a make-do landscape — a mix of modest homes with well-tended gardens and pieced-together trailers that repurpose abandoned schoolbuses to house goats.

My guess is that South of the River, which has never enjoyed wealth, will maintain a resilience long after more prosperous and less resourceful communities fall into crisis. That you can’t miss what you never had might just be the proud motto of the ridges and valleys of SOR. That reality might also be the area’s greatest strength.

Evidence of Our Passing

Here is one from the archives this week:

The past two weekends Caleb and I have been engaged in a massive fencing project, rebuilding three hundred yards of woodland fence. Some of the fence line dates back twenty years and some perhaps as old as forty. Condition of the barbed wire, size of trees that have grown up in the old fence line, type of wood used for posts all give some indication of the age of the fence. Pulling out the old fence and putting in the new has had me thinking about the visual clues of human settlement. A more knowledgeable observer of the natural world could point out botanical interlopers on our farm. I have to rely on more modest powers of observation.

It is hard to say how long our particular valley has been settled. European settlers, before finally pushing out the Cherokee in the early 1800’s, have now been in the area for 250 years. The Cherokee in turn had pushed out the previous inhabitants a few hundred years before that date. And I’m sure wave after wave of earlier inhabitants engaged in the same activity. But any visual evidence of long inhabitance in this particular valley is slight. Our soil is poor and the land is hilly. Neither are virtues that encouraged settlement until the growth of our current population.

We have no grand antebellum homes in our valley or even prosperous 19thcentury farm houses. The housing stock dates back at the oldest to the 1920’s with most from around the 1950’s. My guess is that the older families moved in as improved roads and vehicle transportation made settling more marginal land viable.

Over these fourteen years I have found one flint scraper used to clean hides, an indication of at least the passing through of older Americans on this land. And we find the occasional mule shoe in a pasture indicating that the hills have been worked before the use of tractors. But in our locale that could be as recent as 1960, though that could once again become the preferred or only method. Other mechanical debris turns up from time to time: spring tines, cultivating harrows and other twentieth century products of an agricultural bent. In the back forty on the edge of one field is a pile of mattress springs now covered in leaves and dirt, hardly an item to stir ones imagination.

Walking through the woods we see numerous trees that have two or four main trunks shooting from the base. I am sure you have noticed that when you cut down a small tree it often sends up shoots from the stump. Same thing in our woods, they were logged thirty years ago. The remaining stumps that sent up shoots are now mature trees.

Across one of our fields is a long swale that cuts diagonally across four acres. This is evidence of a previous fence that existed long enough to leave a tangible mark on the land. All of which brings me to the reminder that our presence is somewhat tenuous on whatever land we inhabit. We can abuse the land under our stewardship or take care of it. But the reality is that sooner or later someone else will be faced with that same task and deciphering evidence of our own passing.


Jonas visited and left us with a modest snowfall, cold weather and, for myself, a cold. So I leave you today with a poem by Robert Frost and a photo from our farm.

A Patch of Old Snow

There’s a patch of old snow in a corner

   That I should have guessed

Was a blow-away paper the rain

   Had brought to rest.


It is speckled with grime as if

   Small print overspread it,

The news of a day I’ve forgotten-

Raven and Water 004

The ornamental fishpond in winter.

   If I ever read it.


Farm Mornings: The tasks before the tasks

January, in theory, should be a slower month on the farm. So forgive my pique this Saturday morning when the rooster — who should be sleeping in on these post-solstice, light-deprived days —begins crowing before dawn. Opening my eyes for a squint, I read the red glow of the clock at 5:58. I close my eyes and try to drift back off to sleep. After what seems many more minutes, I chance another glance: 6:02.

Resigned, I drag myself from under the covers, gather up my overalls, and feel my way downstairs in the darkness to start the morning coffee. The 6 o’clock hour is my natural wakeup time without an alarm clock, regardless, so nothing lost.

Over coffee I contemplate the to-do list of the day, then dress and head out into the cold. Of late, our morning chores seem to have expanded. Currently we have pigs in three different paddocks. Water needs to be checked, feed delivered, bedding inspected, back scratches administered. Caesar, the draft horse, needs hay, his fresh manure shoveled and added to a growing compost pile, and the gate opened to his pasture, which in mid-January has little grass, yet still manages to absorb him all day in the search.

The hens take the least time in the morning: simply open the gate of the chicken run to the outside world, scatter a bit of grain, and let them do what they do best — chase cold-hardy bugs and get chased in return by the amorous rooster. We collect eggs in the evening, what little there are in these short winter days, saving that extra step in the morning.

In the sequence of chores, I usually check on the sheep, but this morning I decide to first feed the cattle, who get fed every other day. That requires fueling, then warming up the tractor, scooping out a bucket of grain, and putting hay spears on the front and back of the tractor. The bucket of grain is just an enticement, a path to the bovine heart, as it is for all God’s creatures.

The cattle are in the back forty, a half-mile’s journey through the woods. They meet me at the gate leading to the upper pastures. After a bit of jockeying so the tractor can get through (a nod of thanks to Becky, our English shepherd), I continue up the hill to the feed trough. I toss the grain in, count heads, and drive to another field, where I roll back a tarp to uncover a stack of round bales, then pick up a bale with the front spear, turn the tractor around, and lance another on the back hay spear.

Bales fore and aft, I head back across the fields to the cattle. While they are busy licking the trough, I roll out a hay bale across 50 yards of pasture. This allows them to eat as if grazing, and fertilizes along the path in the process.

Cattle counted, fed, and content, I climb back on the tractor and head back through the woods to the lower portion of the farm.  I arrive to find our weekend helper, armed with a to-do list from Cindy, busy loading hay in the barn to carry to the pigs in the woods. An arctic blast is coming, and we need to make sure they have plenty of hay in which to burrow down.

lambs 007

Two ewe-lambs born the next morning.

Our helper greets me by asking if I have seen the new twin lambs. I had not. Two beautiful ram lambs, the first of, we hope, 20 or more, are busy nursing their mom — a wondrous sight, no matter how often witnessed.

Although it is now just 9 a.m. and we have plenty to do the rest of the morning, I feel as if the day is done on our small farm. I turn back from the barn and walk up to the house to catch up with Cindy. She had been busy separating and attending to the new mom and lambs, but I find her inside, just hanging up the phone. She is off to another farm to collect a gilt (a young female pig) who’s been with a neighbor’s boar the past few days. I grab another cup of coffee and go back outside, to begin anew a slow January farm day.


Reading this weekend: rereading selections from In Your Stride by A.B. Austin, a guide to walking England written in 1931

Your Basic Essentials

“Dish-washing is my balm and poultice.”—Robert Mifflin in The Haunted Bookshop

The wind is up outside the windows of my cozy study this morning. I hear tin tumbling across the ground near the wood yard. Something has come loose during the night, hopefully not a roof.Hauling Firewood with Ginger 019

A well-attached roof is an essential for living comfortably. But other than competent shelter, what else is really essential to a good life? The New York Times recently ran a lengthy article on a young couple’s travails in finding an apartment within their budget ($3000 a month) that had a dishwasher. The unchallenged assumption was that a dishwasher in an apartment was one of those essentials. Anything less, the writer implied, and the couple might as well return to medieval times.

One landlord told the couple that they didn’t need a dishwasher because New Yorkers liked to eat out. That a couple would choose to eat at home and hand-wash their dishes was a non-starter, perhaps even inconceivable, for this spoiled and entitled young couple.

More than a hundred years of consumer capitalism and the free labor of fossil fuels have left most of us ill-equipped to contemplate the essentials of life and the value of work. We as a society have used the largesse of cheap fuel to devalue community and extol the individual, warping in the process our relationship to the daily rhythms of work, to the degree that simple hygiene gets farmed out to an appliance.

Is the struggle to wash dishes really such an onerous chore? In the days when we owned a dishwasher, we put almost the same amount of energy into loading and unloading the machine as into hand-washing the dirty dishes ourselves. Doing dishes together, we have found 15 years into living sans dishwasher, is a great way to catch up on the day, to reconnect over a shared task.

As moderns, our definition of what is truly essential includes computers and smartphones and dishwashers. What is truly essential is now defined as anything that helps us avoid what we perceive as work. And adhering to that definition clouds our understanding of what we need, unsettles fundamentally our ability to truly know what we can do ourselves, promotes our abdication of control and authentic participation in exchange for accessories to purchase, whether labor or goods.

Our journey, living on a small farm, is not unusual; it is one on a well-worn path of reasserting some measure of control over production and community. During these past 16 years, we have learned to do more for ourselves and to more fully embrace the life that as a friend who grew up on a farm described as “Do it yourself or do without.”

This life on the farm has taught us to be more thoughtful on what is essential, to value more dearly the help of a neighbor and recognize the need to cultivate those relationships. We’ve discovered that physically building fences enhances the metaphorical sense of the same: it indeed makes good neighbors.

I dare say that the generations to come, in dealing with the decline of fossil fuels and the ravages of climate change, will not find the struggle to wash dishes nightly a mighty inconvenience. Indeed, they may find that the essentials of a satisfying life come from shared toil, the fulfillment of building something with their hands, or the freedom of doing without.


Reading this weekend: Resilient Agriculture: cultivating food systems for a changing climate by Laura Lengnick

A Drive on New Year’s Day

A few raised beds

Raised beds in winter

Whitehorse is singing about “busting unions in Wisconsin, drinking mojitos by the pool” out of my truck speaker as I pass the second ugliest house south of the river in Roane County, Tennessee (random brick color and nary a scrap of landscaping). I’m driving over to some good friends’ house to pick up two more large wooden boxes to use as raised beds for our gardens.

Beyond their small farm is a pseudo-Blackberry Farm resort for the religiously devout. To get there, count either four Rebel flags down on the right or five farms with fighting cocks, depending upon how you measure distance. One of those houses belongs to our former farrier. On the 10-acre plot sit a hundred or more huts, roosters staked to each one. Staked to keep them from killing each other before their designated time.

In Harriman, on the far end of Roane, is a store where you can buy the razors to attach to the cocks’ spurs. They’re either a quaint rural item or something to horrify your inner Peter Singer, all depending on what century your sensibilities respond to. The store is also the best source for anything needed in a homestead household, so we tend to overlook any failure to adapt to the kinder, gentler modern mores — a moral failing on our part, no doubt.

After picking up the boxes and a short visit, I take a long looping pass back through our end of the county and the cost of the recent rains adds up. The toll is modest damage compared to other parts of the country, but no less dear to the person whose home access across a creek has been washed away in the floods. Get used to it, I think, because climate change is gonna bite you where it hurts, and often.

Turning down Salem Valley I smile as I pass the remains of an old satellite dish. One fine Sunday I watched as a grown man blasted it beyond repair with buckshot. Shell after shell pumped into the dish as I drove cautiously past, making me wonder what the TV had done to piss him off so royally.

That same Sunday, ‘round the bend, I spied a woman in leather miniskirt and pink fluffy sweater outside her church. She had a bible bigger than her head in one hand and a phone planted against her ear in the other. She stood out for many reasons on that cold morning.  But the Whitehorse in me wanted to imagine the man shot his satellite dish over her lost love: “Annie Lu, Annie Lu, won’t you save me from you.”

A couple of ridge loops later and the ugliest house south of the river, Roane County, Tennessee, comes into view (black and white brick, no landscaping and a blue mansard roof, which sounds way better in print than in reality). I get a giddy pleasure out of contemplating the sheer awfulness of that structure each time I pass it. I would go out of my way, and do often, just to gaze upon it. Who built it and who lives there? And if architecture shapes the soul, then what Dorian Gray-esque artwork lurks in the attic?

I pull back onto our gravel drive and arrive home to discover a friend has gifted me four pounds of elderberries, enough to make six bottles of wine. A good start to 2016.


Reading this weekend: An Unlikely Vineyard: the education of a farmer and her quest for terroir by Deirdre Heekin