Becoming Bluegill

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Becky at rest

The bluegill were popping the surface of the pond, loudly glopping up insects knocked off the tall grass at water’s edge by the rain. Becky, our English shepherd, was nudging a box turtle crossing in front of the log where I sat. I called her off, and she settled into the wet grass to wait me out.

After a long week away from the farm, I was exercising my favorite spiritual practice, staying put. I had just come off spending time in one of my least favorite cities, Seattle. Apart from a dramatic setting, good beer, and good food, it is much like most cities in this country: too many people, too much concrete, too many drivers — too much of everything — and too little civility. But, lest you think I’m picking on Seattle, let me confess that I just don’t like cities. Give me the chance of spending time in New York or London and I’d turn it down for the same time in a small rural city or town.

I appreciate and understand appropriate scale. I spent a night on this trip in McMinnville, Oregon, visiting with my niece. A small city of 20,000, McMinnville is relatively compact and accessible, surrounded by rich agricultural land. The vineyards, nurseries, and orchards that surround it keep the land prices high enough to fend off the encroaching growth of Portland … for now.

My niece and her fiancé are both employed in the wine business. They are definitely my kind of folks. They are hands on about all aspects of their lives, from the crawfish aquaponics to the raised garden beds, from the handmade staircase banister made from recycled oak staves to the sweat equity invested in renovating their modest home. They get the importance of community, family, food, and work. And after a few peripatetic years, they are now staying put.

Staying put fosters both conservation and conversation with place. It spares resources and allows us to become invested in protecting and being a part of the land, the community, and the people.

Moving about, on the other hand, translates into waste and disconnection. It’s a form of consumer capitalism that encourages a callous disregard for our planet’s resources and cohabitants. It removes the connections of kith and kin from our experience. It’s turns us all into emigrants and immigrants of the world, both spiritual and physical nomads from heart and hearth.

As someone who travels frequently for a job, I know the occasional enjoyments of travel. But I’m also all too aware of the impacts and demands I place on the earth in doing so. Like footprints on a fragile landscape, each trip we take, whether across the country or to the corner store, leaves an indelible mark.

Remaining in place certainly doesn’t solve all problems. But, as I got up from the log, I resolved to be more like the bluegill, the soil, and the fruit trees on our farm, staying put as if I didn’t have a choice.

 

Valley Photo Album: Chickens

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A stylish coop that would make any hen proud.

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Our friend Sara playing the pied piper to her flock of chickens.

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A typical variety of home-flock chickens.

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Watering systems vary from home to home.

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You are correct. There is a goat in the picture.

Guess that every third home in the valley keeps a flock of chickens and you would be close. If you were to take a casual drive around they might seem even more common, darting across the road for reasons of their own or scratching in front yards.

 

 

 

In addition to chickens you will see guinea fowl, ducks, turkeys (wild and domestic), geese, and the occasional peafowl.

 

 

 

 

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A typical set-up for those who still fight cocks for sport.

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A neat and well organized chicken run.

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Our Speckled Sussex rooster.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some flocks are composed, as ours is, of only one breed. But most are varied collections, freely allowed to breed and mix at will. The vast majority raise the birds to supply household eggs. A few have signs on the road indicating eggs for sale, with a standard price of $2-3 on average.

 

 

Many raise chickens for the table and the pot. A few, like Heidi over the hill, offer sanctuary to the birds for their natural lives or until a fox intervenes.

 

 

 

 

And there are some dozens of homes South of the River with the tell-tale pitched roof housing fighting cocks in the front yard or out back.

 

 

 

 

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One of our hens setting on a clutch of eggs.

 

 

 

 

But there are no commercial egg or broiler operations in this region of self-sufficiency.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The birds are housed in traditional coops, makeshift pens or no enclosure at all. But most are let out for the day to peck and live as their ancestors have done for thousands of years. A true partner in the lives of our species.

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Reading this weekend: a fascinating work on sustainable agriculture, dealing with depleted soils and combating poor farming practices that threaten the stability of the country and the government. Of course I’m speaking of the 2000 year-old, 12 volume study of Roman agriculture by Columella.

Three Hopeful Steps to Feeding the Planet by Feeding Yourself

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Our front porch where we spend a lot of our down time.

Raise and grow what you like to eat. This may seem obvious. Perhaps it is the lazy Southerner in me, but too often would-be farmers are focused on the business and not the pleasures gained from working the land. They visit our farm and I hear the schemes with numbers and data. Slow down, I tell them. What do you like to eat each night, I ask? For special occasions? Focus on that. Give yourself the goal of feeding yourself and your family. Then see if you can turn a profit. But make the profit the byproduct.

And, you don’t have to live in the country to produce a significant part of your diet or at least add to your table. We all know someone in the city who has a magnificent garden, even keeps hens or bees. I have a niece in Oregon who, with her fiancé, raises crawfish in a mini-aquaculture system next to the garage. If you have even a small parcel and are willing to work, Mother Nature can be a wonderful partner.

Eat what you grow and raise. The rural French, God love ‘em, have an elevated peasant cuisine. All cultures have a cuisine of want, born of the land, hard work, and frugality. But country French cuisine makes a special art of not only not wasting but also turning the cast-off into something special and memorable. Take your inner French peasant out for a stroll, and use what you have raised and grown and use it all. Learn to make stocks out of bones, pâtés out of organ meat, delicious terrines out of a hog’s head. Save the tough stems of asparagus for soups, the zucchini as big as a bat for savory pancakes. And learn to compost. It is not hard; nature knows how to rot.

Celebrate what you grow and raise with friends and family at the table. Use what you have raised to rekindle family ties and build community. Put the phone away, log out of Instagram and Facebook, and prepare a meal that is as much from your land as is possible. Experience real joy in that act of preparation. Make that your goal for every meal. When dining alone or with your loved one, be mindful of the food. Make each meal a Thanksgiving. And as often as you can, invite others to share in that act.

Yesterday we had a full day of work on the farm. But we found time last night to have four guests join us for a dinner on the front porch. The night before, I had braised one of our pork shoulders, then minced and rolled it with various herbs from the garden. The ultimate dish began with a potful of grits cooked with raw milk from a nearby farm; next came a large mess of freshly picked turnip greens, cooked in homemade chicken stock and homegrown garlic. The minced pork was fried in medallions and served atop the greens and grits.

It was a mindful celebration of eating and drinking wine with good friends that paid homage to the work we do. A sharing of that bounty that rewards us for the sore backs and the stress of maintaining the farm. No scheme, no data, just a simple conviction that producing, eating with love, and sharing with neighbors just might help feed the world.

Waiting On Rain

Waiting on rain. In my humble estimation, it’s all about reciprocity. After all, I’ve done the hard work of getting the gardens ready, dozens of new trees planted, the manure spread, and the grass seed scattered. Now it is up to the old man to simply cut loose and let it pour. But nothing falls from the sky this dry spring — we are already down 75 percent for the year — leaving me to wonder if it is time to channel our inner Assyrian and slaughter a goat.Sunday  4-10-16 005

Instead of tackling the endless to-do list and fretting about no rain, yesterday we headed to town in the truck. The master gardeners of Roane County had their annual plant sale, and we went as much for the fellowship as for the plants.

Several hours later, good conversations with friends (Tim, Russ, Summer, and Maureen) under our belts and a handful of ornamentals in the truck bed, we headed for home. When we crossed over the Tennessee River, we reentered our side of the county, South of the River. Winding down Highway 72, we pulled off on a gravel drive in Paint Rock at Aaron and Michelle’s small farm, a tidy place with goats, pigs, chickens, and gardens. Aaron broke from hoeing his garden long enough to give me a flat of heirloom pipe and cigar tobacco plants he had successfully started. I’m anxious to try my hand at curing my own blend this fall.

As we said our goodbyes, a few hopeful raindrops fell onto the pollen-coated truck windows. Here it comes, I pronounced as the skies darkened. We drove toward the farm, winding down and around the curves of Sweetwater Road as fast as the old truck would safely carry us. We arrived just as a steady drizzle began to fall … and then stopped.

A few hours later, after a few more fits and starts, we had accumulated a tenth of an inch of rain. Now, I’m a man to appreciate the small things in life as well as the big. But, come on….

So it was, that as late-afternoon guests pulled up the drive, I was in the midst of dragging the goat toward the sacrificial altar. Considering this a sign from a higher power for a temporary pardon, I postponed my attempt to appease the gods for a little while longer. We greeted and conducted our visitors on a tour of the farm for a couple of hours, a fairly common experience for us and, we hope, enjoyable and educational for them.

After their departure it was time for chores and dinner. Cindy fed the livestock, and I prepared a chicken paprikash with an old rooster, accompanied by a simple tomato tart and a cucumber salad. We read until bedtime, when the rains finally began to fall.

A little more than an inch fell overnight. And this morning the smell of burnt offerings is scarcely noticeable in our valley.

Farm Postcard: Earth Day

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A pin oak fronts two silver maples, all planted twelve years ago.

Plant trees: It is our constant and perhaps best advice to would-be-farmers. The old Chinese adage is true. “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” Our farm was evenly split between large woods and open pastures when we moved here in 1999. In order to provide shade for the house, barns and outbuildings that we built, fruit and native trees were planted in abundance. Dozens of fast growing maples and tulip poplars and slower growing oaks dot what was an open landscape. Several winged elms, transplanted from the woods, are set apart giving a living shape to the name of the farm. Two orchards, one now sixteen years old and a newer orchard still being planted are located in front and to the side of the house. The sawmill is located between the two, next to a hay barn sided with oak from our older trees. Additionally we have a couple of dozen pecan and pawpaw trees potted and ready to go into the ground. On this Earth Day we suggest that every day should be Arbor Day.

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Reading this weekend: Miraculous Abundance: one quarter acre, two French farmers and enough food to feed the world, by Herve’-Gruyer.

Habitat Loss

Here is another post from the archives. A topic that continues to preoccupy me each spring. And this loss of cultural habitat continues…100_0954 (2)

What happens to us as a people when the sources of knowledge are only to be found outside of our communities? When we ask the internet for gardening advice on a plot of land between Paint Rock Valley and Big Sandy instead of the farmer who has lived those conditions for eighty years? When our education is served up by the likes of the University of Phoenix instead of the slightly eccentric teacher living down the street? When childhood summers consist of structured play and digital devices instead of pirates and adventures?

Is the human spirit so easily channeled and contained? Is the knowledge needed to live so easily reduced and boxed up for our consuming pleasure and sold to us at Wal-Mart? Where does the “person” exist in that world?

I’ve been experiencing loss this last week for something only known to me for fifteen years and no doubt making a bit more of it than needed. But I have an old fashioned conservative streak running through my bones that hates change. So when the Sweetwater Fruit Market closed their doors a couple of weeks ago after thirty years I began to tally what was lost not just to me but to our community.

We lost a great source for fruit and vegetables sourced locally and regionally long before that became trendy. They were carrying heirlooms when they were still just the old-fashioned varieties everyone always grew. I grieve over the loss of their seed selection. The store carried twenty varieties of cowpeas alone, not to mention a couple of dozen varieties of sweet corn. They knew the best variety of potato for our clay soils (Kennebec’s) and when to plant. Do you think the Lowes garden department will match that knowledge or localized selection?

Theirs was a typical small town business that carried too many items with too small margins of profit. A place that dispensed advice built on their local knowledge and from local farmers. It was a business that any small town community supported easily before the era of big-box stores. The ripple effect of this closing will extend beyond the owners and the customers. It extends from the small farm providing collards and beets to the pig farmer who weekly collected the spoiled produce. And it extends to who we are as a people and what we expect from our community.

It is another in a long line of essential businesses rendered not essential by those who can’t be bothered to shop anywhere but Wal-Mart or its ilk. How many times do you hear someone bemoan the lack of civility, the loss of community? Yet their weekly shopping habits adds to that misery and increases that loss of community and civility from not knowing or being responsible to ones neighbors, supporting them so that they may in turn support you.

Our communities are suffering from what I see as a habitat loss as real as the loss in the natural environment. We collectively strip those habitats, both natural and social, of resources we cherish. And then express our disgust and amazement at their loss. No doubt I’m making too much of this small loss to our community. But it seems a symptom of something larger that does make one wonder what we truly value.

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Reading this weekend: Greens by Thomas Head (a new entry in the Savor the South series by UNC press). And Afoot in England by the excellent W. H. Hudson.

Time To Get To It

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Spring lambs, spring grass

It is still a couple of hours before sunrise, the birds are chattering in the crape myrtle as the sky begins to lighten over the eastern ridge. Our rooster has been offering up his dawn greeting for at least two hours. And Becky just killed a large raccoon at the garbage can. In other words it is another morning on our farm in east Tennessee.

We have a full couple of days ahead planting grapevines, a new nut orchard, adding to the pawpaw grove, finishing the new raised beds for the strawberries and stretching a hundred yards of new fence. There will be a hard freeze tonight and preparations will be needed to protect the figs which are fruiting. And I am smoking a whole lamb today for a few friends who will dine with us this evening.

The work load on the farm at this time of year is over the top. In addition to all of the usual chores and ongoing infrastructure projects the seasonal tasks of mowing, gardening, mulching, pasture renovations and the annual barn cleaning just keep stacking up. Just the prospect of getting off the farm for an hour sends us in to a tail spin, feeling that we just got that much further behind.

But for all that work and the carping about it, we love this life. Mostly, the sheer loveliness of spring in Tennessee, the excitement of waiting for Petunia to farrow and being able to share with friends the bounty of the farm are ample compensations.

Time to get to it.

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Reading this weekend: The Dream of the Earth, by Thomas Berry