A Season of Salvage

Fall 2015 007

Muscadine and scuppernong grapes

There is a day each year. A day when you find yourself in the kitchen slicing the last of the season’s ripe tomatoes, a moment you have lived before, knew was in the cards. A day when the vines are still heavy with green tomatoes. A shortened day in which those green tomatoes will never fully ripen, destined instead for frying or making chowchow. How did that unstoppable summer deluge become a trickle and then a drought?

So begins fall, a chance to cherish what is passing before the weather turns to ice and snow — both too soon to dream of the fallow winter, when the cold months spoon next to the season of rebirth, that bare season, stark in its absence of greenery, when our native imagination colors in the palette of the riches to come, and too late to partake of the fresh bounty of the summer season just passed. The in-between season.

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A killing cone for chickens.

Fall is the season of salvage, of scouring the fields and paddocks for useful leftovers. In modern parlance, it is the sustainable season. A rush to harvest the last of the fruit to preserve in jams, jellies, chutneys, and wines. A time to take stock with some soul searching of Aesop’s Fables significance: Do we have enough firewood? Did we use our time well last winter, spring, summer in preparation for the next year? It is a time of movement, cattle to new pastures and forage to shelter. A time to glean the excess hens and roosters, butchering for hours to stock the larder for the gumbo and chicken and dumplings that will get us through the cold months to come.

Fall is a time of hog fattening. The cruel reward for an ability to gain 300 pounds in nine months comes with a knife wielded the week after Halloween. The bounty is delivered to us in sides of bacon, salted hams, corned shoulders, butcher’s wife pork chops, hand-seasoned breakfast sausages, headcheese, pates, and bowls of beans with ham hocks.

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Assorted lambs for winter customers.

Fall is also sheep-breeding time. As the days and nights cool, the ram has his pleasurable work cut out for him, making sure all ewes are bred. We, servant-like, make sure the ewes are conditioned for lambing, in good health, hooves trimmed, attending to their every need. Meanwhile, last winter’s lambs are grazing in their own pasture, fattening before they fall under the butcher’s sword in the remaining months of the year.

Fall is the season of coming face to face with imminent and unavoidable death. It is the fever of the dying year, the mumbled words from the patient in the bed trying to get his affairs in order, to make amends. So much to do and so little time.

It is a season of contrasts, when we eat a ripe tomato while composting the vine it grew on, feed a pregnant ewe while fattening for slaughter her year-old offspring, crush grapes and pears while sipping the wine made last year. Past, present, and future are jumbled in this most hopeful season, when we weigh the year to come to see what is left in the balance.

Like a culture that prepares for a future generation, this work is undertaken for a year not yet born.

Discussion Topic: should we get out of bed in the morning

In this life it now seems increasingly likely to me that the gods know and track our weaknesses. Perhaps to better exploit them for their own merciless sense of humor. 

The Dodge truck had been running a bit slow and the a.c. not at all for the past three years. So we dropped it off at our local (10 miles away) mechanic for a tune-up and evaluation. Leaving me to spend a few days without transportation. Which, in the country, with the nearest public transportation forty miles away, is a pain. Although there are plenty of days when we do not leave the farm, knowing we can makes the difference.April Scrapbook 007

During my truck-less days consider the following: It would take three hours and twenty-one minutes to walk to the nearest gas station. That number was important when I ran out of gas for the ailing lawn mower. A mower that burns through oil, spark plugs and doesn’t start more often than not. Seven hours walking just to get the damn grass mowed? Nah. So I turned to our trusty Stihl weed-eater. It too was running a bit slow, so I took out the air-filter and cleaned it as best I could, spark-plug removed and scraped off the carbon, blew out the fuel filter and still no joy.

At this point in that day I’m really missing that truck so I make a quick call to the mechanic: tune-up complete and a.c. checked out. Good news is that the tune-up cost $125. Bad news is that the a.c. system is truly shot with holes in the compressor. Repair bill if I wish to proceed, just under $1000. Apparently this model requires removing most of the engine and dash to access the damaged parts. Geeze, don’t know if it is worth fixing the a.c. for that much money? Let me think about it, I say.

OK, he says. But here is the really bad news. That slight miss in the engine is due to some valve chatter. A complete valve job will be needed. The problem will get worse. Maybe, he says, with a hopeful note in his voice and bank account, the truck has six months. JESUS, how much is that going to cost? Well…, he says again, this model Ram is a real pain to work on…$4000 plus.

Cindy drove me in to Sweetwater to pick up the patient that evening. She headed on home and I to the farmer’s co-op and picked up a new $3 air filter for the weed-eater. While I was there I talked with one of the staff about it. He suggested removing the EPA mandated screen on the carburetor. Doesn’t do anything except keep the emissions down, he says. Or keep climate changing gasses out of the air, I thought. Leaving with the filter and with this dubious advice, I got the gas for the mower and drove home.

I pulled into the farm in time to see our second tractor be delivered. Also ailing, it had been at the tractor mechanic for some much needed work. Getting out of the truck I headed over to the mower and filled it up with fresh gas. Still the damn think wouldn’t start.

We resolve to bite the bullet and purchase another push mower. These mowers do get used pretty hard on a small farm. And five years seems to be the average life span for them.  We also decide to get the old one fixed but hold it as a reserve.

Now for the weed-eater, looking around to see if anyone is watching, I remove the little EPA screen. Tugging the cord to start it purrs like a dream. Damn those little screens, screw the environment, I’ve got work to get done. (Is it just me? Or is it getting hot in here?)

Cindy meanwhile hitches the newly fixed small tractor to the ailing finish mower and begins mowing the orchards. She finds me on the other tractor, where I’m bush-hogging lamb paddocks, a short ten minutes later. The finish-mower just burned up and is gone. Our old Mennonite mechanic had warned (ten years ago) that it could die anytime. I took my hat off in memory… kicked the hat and shook my fist at those cruel laughing gods.

Thank goodness we sold another four chicks for $18 dollars and that half mutton for $100. We only need to have 65 more weekends like this to catch up. No problem.

A Canticle of the Sun

Being neither Catholic in the specific nor religious in the general, I’m surprised to find my farmer’s mind wandering along these paths while watching the sunrise:

It is early Saturday morning and the mists congregate in the holler near our farm. An ancestor might have thought them in quiet conversation before lifting slowly in the predawn light. Perhaps it was an act of praise as the sun approached: all rise and disperse.Sunday 9-13-15 008

Brother Sun … he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor.

Would our world be different, better, if we had stayed closer to our animist past? Not usually given to speculation on matters theological, I have wondered if Francis of Assisi was moved by that longing when he wrote Canticle of the Sun. The 13th century composition is one of the few pieces of that heritage that celebrates the natural world less for the resources to be exploited than for the connectedness of wind, air, moon, sun, earth, and fire.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them bright, precious, and beautiful.

One imagines that echoes of the old world were still present in the Italy of his time, relics and practices from before the advent of monotheism. Hints that much of human history had not been built on the concept of man as the pinnacle achievement. Instead, a world in which water or stone was as connected with life as child or hawk.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

The power of Assisi’s vision of interconnectedness provides an opportunity for reverence in the use of this world. That an incomprehensible vastness of the universe, springing from a single explosive act, gives us a bond with all that is animate and inanimate. We have traveled far from that sense of belonging.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten the night. He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

What would the world look like if that had been our path? Better, worse? I do know that there is a hint of vanished possibilities in these lines from the old saint. And perhaps a draft for future actions.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits and colored flowers and herbs.

An outlook of one connected to the land, to the rhythms of the world, one we disdain from the vantage point of our disconnected lives. We, who even in death, strive to be apart from the world that gave us birth.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape.

A knowledge that in spite of the destruction we wield and the damage inflicted to this world that the act of creation continues across a universe indifferent to our poor choices and sense of importance.

And that the next act for this farmer may be as a speck of dust, adrift

He closes his canticle: With great humility.



Staying Put

A couple of years ago, this week, my eldest sibling passed away. At the time of her passing and often since I’ve reflected on the power of staying put. Here is the piece I wrote at the time.

A few weeks ago I was home for the funeral of my oldest sister, aged fifty-six. The four days home saw a constant parade of neighbors and friends bringing platters of food each evening. It started a Monday evening after her death and continued through Friday on the day of her service. Each evening cars began to show up laden with casseroles, fried chicken, roast pork, boudin, banana puddings, salads and cakes of all descriptions. The parade of visitors stayed for only minutes, long enough to voice their condolences, a show of respect for a family that has stayed put for generations.Banana Pudding Republic 006

The groaning tables of food lightened the grief, made festive the gathering and allowed the extended family to have communion together over a shared meal. How often does it happen in our lives that the best memories are centered over a symbolic breaking of bread? An echo of our agrarian past, a statement that as long as we have food on the table we can weather any storm, that we can shelter in place until the danger is passed.

The average American moves 11.5 times in their life. My total was thirteen moves before settling on the farm at age thirty-seven. These past fourteen years of staying put have been an education in how to be part of a place. For me, anyway, the act of being a steward of this land has made me value those ties that bind us in life: community, neighbors, family and land. Hopefully that has made me a more thoughtful steward of those ties. I’ll leave that determination to those who know me best.

Each day when we plow through our long to-do lists each task binds us tighter to this place. Each task completed makes us more a part of this farm and value more our neighbors and distant family.  There are plenty of ways to fracture a community, neighbors, family.  But like the land they can be nourished back into productivity with a little water, manure, sunshine. Once again productive if lightly used they can be lightly harvested.

If nourished well they will thrive. If ignored and not cultivated they wither. We do give so that we can receive, that is part of the compact of a healthy society and healthy land.

And if we have done our part, our community will honor our survivors with food and honest sympathy. That the land we have worked will honor us by continuing to offer food to those who come after. And, hopefully, if the life has been lived well there will be a platter of banana pudding somewhere on the table.


Still reading through the new book PawPaws this weekend in preparation for a “pawpaw picking party” next week.

Porcine Love

Watching a boar on loan from our neighbor ignore Delores and a friend’s gilts reminded me of this post from the archives:Delores and beaux 005

Lord Emsworth and Lady Constance (Clarence and Connie to their friends) followed me this evening into their new paddock. They had been living in the spring garden paddock, snacking on cowpeas, tomatoes, pepper and eggplants. I opened the walk-through gate and they trundled after me, noses to the ground sniffing and snarfling, reaching out to nibble on volunteer turnips, pumpkin and squash vines and the other remains of the summer garden.

Clarence and Connie, our Berkshire boar and sow, were ushered into their private matrimonial quarters a few weeks ago after he began to show interest in consummating this arranged marriage. He’d sidle up to her and place both forelegs across her mid-section, standing at a right angle to her body. She’d continue eating, which we took to be a sign of at least mild interest, assuming that if she wasn’t interested she would bite him.

She would reciprocate by pushing her haunches against him as he walked by, he’d keep going. He’d stop an hour later, take a look at her, drool running down his jowls. She’d ignore him.

We figure some night soon the combination of emerging sexual maturity; hormones and timing will culminate in a mating. Meanwhile, I watch as Connie is body blocked by a snarling Clarence from nabbing a 7-top turnip. Porcine chivalry is still apparently in its Viking phase.


Reading this weekend: 200 Classic Chess Problems by Frank Healey. That explains the lack of new output on the blog. Fiendishly elegant ways to not get anything done this Sunday.

Small Town Resilience

Last week a colleague spent three hours advancing 15 miles in the cancerous landscape of Atlanta.

Around the same time, I was commuting in central Missouri down a two-lane highway through a largely depopulated land of corn and beef cattle ornamented with the occasional red-brick one-room schoolhouse sitting in a grove of trees. The schoolhouses, long empty, were universally well kept, no broken windows, grass mowed—buildings cared for symbolic of the hope or expectation that they might once again serve a purpose.

The housing stock was older, yet well cared for and solid. But it was a lonely landscape of older couples and few children. I drove past the occasional activity of men in distant fields loading hay onto trailers using tractors built to accomplish much, the work done with such little effort as would have stunned even their grandfathers. Little effort and fewer people, freeing up the children and grandchildren to follow the classic road to town and city, a well-worn path since the ancient world, but one accelerated by our fossil-fueled innovations.

I stopped for the night in Boonville, Missouri, on the banks of the Missouri River. Boonville is not a prosperous town. Its trail of empty strip mall architecture dribbles from the outer fringe of the town’s core to the interstate, signaling a raising of the drawbridge, a calculated retreat against a yet unacknowledged enemy. But the core is still vibrant with neighborhoods, small-town hardware and furniture stores, plumbing and electrical businesses, an elegant restored hotel, a diner, and a bar and grill.vfiles38877

That evening I walked from the old hotel to the bar and grill, a place called Maggie’s, for dinner. The Midwest small-town bar and grill is unique. It is the genuine third place Ray Oldenburg spoke about. Warm and friendly, with people of all ages and classes: farmers, workers and professionals, town and country, producer and consumer. These gathering spots are spread across the agricultural heartland. They are the glue to the community, providing face-to-face time between neighbors. Time not gained in a traffic jam.

I am not naively asserting a rural idyll, without strife, tension, unemployment, severed families and the ills of too much idle time. Yet the small town is fundamentally more resilient, resilient because of its smallness and its proximity to productive land. Rural communities, with their face-to-face interactions, have provided the template for human existence for the past thousands of years.

Communities within a megacity are a mere echo of that life. They can nourish and sustain in the ascendancy, but their larger host survives only as wealth is pumped in from the outside world. When the pump is turned off, the decline is inevitable and rapid. Consider Rome, from a city of a million to a village of thousands in the space of mere generations. Or the specter of Detroit, reduced by half in one generation.

Perhaps these Boonvilles, these freshly painted one-room schoolhouses, these Midwestern pubs are the starter-cultures for the wort, the yeast for the fermentation required to restart the small farm, small-town life, a way to redirect the human trajectory from the cancerous growth to the healthy organism, from the complex to the comprehensible?

The cities like Atlanta in our landscape offer nothing but a promise of continued sprawl, congestion, and three hours and 15 miles stalled in the present. And if history is the judge, they offer us nothing in their inevitable decline.

For all the problems in that rural Missouri landscape, it is still one of latent hope. The problems it faces are fundamentally local and scalable. And if the survival of our future allowed bets, mine would be on the Boonvilles and rural counties in this land.


The Kelly Pear

Kelly Pear: this is the most prolific fruit tree in our orchard. It reliably produces 4-5 bushels of fruit a year. I bought this tree from an old orchardist in Ball Camp, GA some sixteen years ago. He specialized in old Southern varieties of apples and pears. I’ve not found any other reference to this variety. It never achieves a softness that would be good for eating fresh. But it cooks well and makes a nice perry.

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Reading this weekend: Pawpaw: in search of America’s forgotten fruit, by Andrew Moore.