The Farmer’s Desk

We had a late night. Five friends from Knoxville came out and dined with us on lamb, greens and grits. So, when I came downstairs to write the weekly blog at 5:30, nothing was stirring the little gray cells. Except, back in the dusty shelves of my brain, I recognized something familiar. Clifford Harper, an old anarchist illustrator, had done a wonderful drawing of a militant’s desk, chock-full of representations of that life. As I stared at my keyboard and my desk I made the comparison.

So, with considerably less artistry, I give you the “Farmer’s Desk”.

Everyone have a great week.


Reading this weekend: A Peter Lovesey mystery. And, I’m trying to read John Clare’s Shepherd’s Calendar. But, true confession time, long poems are a bit like opera and ballet. While I may appreciate the skill and artistry, the native understanding eludes me.

The Good Tenant

I look on as the last of our Red Poll herd clambers aboard the trailer, bound for a farm in Southern Illinois. One lone steer remains behind, with nothing but ewes and lambs for company. Around the corner, the Barred Rocks and Brown Leghorns scratch for bugs, totally indifferent to the leaving. The pigs in their paddocks, still sleeping off their dinner repast, are oblivious to all but dreams of breakfast.

To run a small diversified farm is to live within the wheel. It turns for the seasons, for the markets, for the climate. We have spent these many years planning, building, and repairing the infrastructure to support multiple endeavors, to make the farm resilient, to create and sustain a place where the absence of one species simply indicates another cycle, unremarked in the larger scheme.

Livestock live their lives out here, with their offspring raised, fattened, and slaughtered. Crops are planted, watered, and harvested. Dinners are planned, cooked, and enjoyed. The refuse is gathered, emptied, and composted. Wheels within wheels, seasons within seasons, years within years. Everything is done within a scale that is appropriate to our abilities, our infrastructure, our needs.

Some wondered, with the sale of the cattle, if we were scaling back, down, in retreat. They deconstructed the act, examined the entrails, to discover more than was presented. But if they had taken a closer look and a broader view, they would have seen a panorama painted over seventeen years, and one that continues to unfurl.

In that big picture, the beautiful snow in winter becomes a distant dream come the dry, hot summer and chicks in the spring lead to a convivial table in the fall. A herd of cattle is followed by a flock of sheep; a harvest of potatoes is replaced by manure and then a crop of beans. The one true constant in all is the turning wheel that brings the careful observer into active participation.

The small farm is itself a participant workshop of opportunities and dreams. It’s a place that, if we will read the cycles, does not scale up or down, but in a circle. A place where the new becomes the old becomes the new again, all within a framework of what is reusable, possible, and desirable.

Yet, as well as we live within the wheel, we are but fleeting stewards. The farm belongs not to us but to a much more demanding landlady, one who insists on her share of the successes and who is unforgiving of our failures. The panorama she paints is of billions of years, not a mere seventeen. And while capricious in her communications — railing one minute and calm the next — she is nonetheless predictable to a degree. Our challenge is to watch out for her moods and scale appropriate to what she will allow, knowing that when we are done the tenancy of our land reverts back to her.


Reading this weekend: The Running Hare: the secret life of farmland, by John Lewis-Stempel.


The Life Before Dawn

It is 5:30 as I head out to the barn, the light of dawn still a couple of hours away. A few hens, alert to my footstep, jump from their roost in anticipation of an early handful of scratch. Floating above the tree line, in the western sky, the moon is a slender crescent. The sheep are quiet in the barn, the roads empty. Perfect.

Life is at its best when I go to bed on time and wake in the early hours. The world seems both smaller and infinite. Like a fresh-fallen snow, these hours hush the bustle of the world of our making. The curtain is pulled back for a while to reveal something less demanding and much more impressive.

As a child, in a house full of siblings, I’d arise way before the sun to check my trotlines for catfish. That time was mine. Slipping silently out of the house, I’d walk through the dark yard to the dock and climb quietly into the jon boat. A push away with the paddle, no light in hand, and I’d coast into the peaceful winter’s morning. I’d hold off using the paddle for long moments, gliding on the smooth surface, enjoying the solitude. Then, after a minute or two, with a few swift strokes, I’d head to the cypress tree along the edge of the pond.

There was always an excitement in that first moment, when, still not using a light, I would reach into the cold, black water for the line and feel it twitch hard in my hands, telegraphing the number of catfish dangling along the hundred yards of its course.

Hand over hand I would pull the boat along the trotline across the pond, a hook hanging every foot. As each catfish came boiling into view, I’d pull up the line so the fish hung on the inside of the boat. The smaller ones would be released, and the big fat-bellied ones I’d drop into the bottom of the boat, where they’d thump about in the slosh at my feet.

It usually took an hour to run the lines and rebait each hook. A quiet paddle back across the pond, then I’d take the catfish up to the house and clean them in the light of the kitchen window. Dad would usually be up with a cup of coffee and the paper when I came inside. I’d put the catfish, two each, in clean empty Guth milk cartons. They’d then be filled with water, labeled, and put in the freezer. There, like ice bricks, stacked igloo-style, they awaited a spring thaw and fish fry.

These many years later, a good predawn ramble or spot of work done in quiet reflection still sets me on the right side when the sun comes up. The workload later in the day always seems lessened if I’m outside in the dark just before dawn — my time when the curtain is pulled back a little, letting in the soft glow of possibilities.

Further Up, Further In

Years back I owned a bookstore in downtown Knoxville. The small selection of new titles and magazines was a fairly eccentric mix called, “alternative”. The remainder of the store was composed of used and out-of-print tomes on any number of conventional topics.

It was not uncommon for someone to sidle up to me once a week and say in a conspiratorial whisper, “I didn’t know you were a warlock?” Or, some such assumption, based on the simple fact that I carried a book or had a section devoted to one or more out-of-the-mainstream themes. Typically, these were just hopeful projections by the customer that they had found a kindred spirit.

Writing a weekly blog is a bit like the bookstore, where I stock the shelves and the visitor sifts through the jumble and vague pronouncements and makes a selection and determination. While I personally like that eclecticism of choice, what follows is a small attempt at a statement of intent and clarification on writing about the rural life.

Speaking for myself (not Cindy), my urge and motivation for moving to the farm 17 years back, and the desire to document it, had more to do with wishing to relearn what it was like to be a resident. Or, as Wes Jackson would phrase it, to be native to this place.

Living in a small valley south-west of Knoxville, TN, learning to garden, farm, and to eat more purposefully, has been a great joy. The great pleasure in this work (and, yes, that includes fencing) and the growing sense of being part of a community has been deeply satisfying.

Being part of a rural society is so much different than being part of the community that we left behind in the city. You choose your associations in a city. It provides a structure that mediates the interaction between you and your neighbors. In the country that neighbor is also your partner in a relationship where you repair fences figuratively and literally. You may not share the same faith, or political outlook. But you share the same property line and that makes a profound difference. In many ways a rural community is the more complex, interwoven and direct experience than that of the city. There is no bed to hide under in the country. You are known to all.

As part of this journey I have consciously self-identified as an agrarian, trying to uncover the rules and vocabulary of an ancient language. One that explains identity, brotherhood and sisterhood, the bonds of community, and a more intimate connection to the world in terms independent of contemporary political notions of right and left, liberal and conservative.

In these weekly writings I have strived to use that language to explain the rural life. Sometimes the posts are simply of the mundane tasks of working the land, other times they focus on cultural forces that shape the people in this area.

So, it should come as no surprise to any reader that a blog called The South Roane Agrarian would be somewhat biased towards that life. Which is not to say that I don’t recognize the values of the people, the varied cultures, or the opportunities of the city. After all, that is a call that has pulled on rural peoples for millennia. But, I do think that the rural life speaks more directly to the human experience and offers more hope in an uncertain future.

And, in my modest opinion, the dominant culture always speaks for the city. They need no further protection, justification, or explanation. It is the rural culture that has become the great “other” in our country. The flyover, the drive-by, the dump-on.

So, these posts are written in the hope of being part of a larger project. One whose roots link me with antiquity, our ancestors, and, living in balance with my neighbors and this planet. And, with an understanding that all societies ebb and flow, that climate change will limit our opportunities, that the future of growth will narrow the path, that a couple of centuries of efficient resource exploitation may leave us with millennia of picking through the leftovers; surviving all of that, I maintain, will be largely a rural project.

C.S. Lewis had a phrase in his book, The Last Battle, “further up, and further in”. Which pretty much sums up my approach to this little blog, that by focusing small, I will begin to see large.


As my personal editor is off visiting her family this weekend all grammatical errors and sloppy sentences, regrettably, belong to me.



A Great Divide

In this country we have a long tradition of alternatively praising the work of the farmer and disparaging his lifestyle, the latter often accompanied by the epithet “hick” or “hillbilly.”

I was reminded of this these past few weeks with the ascension of the Tweeter in Chief, when a new broadside of vitriol was being fired at rural America. At a recent march, one speaker actually said, “We are tired of these people living out in the middle of nowhere telling us how to run our government.” On his Inauguration Day late-night show, Bill Maher referred to voters in the rural state of West Virginia as “pillbillies.” Closer to home, my own doctor condemned complaints by rural Tennesseans about lack of services by saying, “Who needs rural America anyway?” My answer: “Anyone who wants to eat.”

To say that basic respect has broken down between the cities and the interior seems at this juncture in the Republic an understatement at best. Any attempt to find a middle ground gets shot down by the left and the right as a defense of the other side. “Communication” is now a cracked landscape of carefully parsed conversations, tweets, and blog posts, all looking for hints of a wrongward tilt.

Example: An economist being interviewed recently on NPR suggested to his host that to better understand the anxiety in the country, the interviewer drive 45 minutes out of DC to see firsthand the economic dissolution of the rest of America. The interviewer glossed over what seemed a reasonable suggestion and, instead, asked the economist to explain why rural America has failed to endorse a laundry list of popular cultural agendas — a connection whose relevance I failed to comprehend.  

Our farm is located in Appalachia, an area that has long been the subject of scorn and mockery. The region’s people, although poor in ways that matter to a money economy, have traditionally been rich in independence, resilience, and self-sufficiency. It now seems that the language used to denigrate this area historically is to be applied across the land to anyone outside the belt of the bright lights.

And that is a mistake. First, because as the wealth of this country dwindles, as the climate becomes increasingly unstable, as the resources that provided this amazing historical interlude run out, we may very well be looking to the hicks and hillbillies to teach us the skills that have long sustained their culture.

Second, because history has shown that it’s imprudent to rile an armed and downtrodden population. Fully 86 percent of our military is drawn from rural and small-town America, and following policies that erode rural families and communities and ignore skyrocketing permanent unemployment, culturally mocking that same population as “pillbillies,” is a recipe for revolt.

As the economist on NPR said, it might be wise for the elitist policy and cultural trend makers to visit the hinterlands and have a non-condescending conversation with the inhabitants. But I don’t hold out much hope for that to happen. Instead, the hard work of dialog will be left to us — town and country, middle America and the coasts — to create anew a language of respect and understanding.

Weekend Observations and Scrapbook

The World

  • Politics: Sometimes I feel as if our choices are between a road to ruin and a more inclusive road to ruin.

    Our nearest neighbor

    The road less traveled.

    The little house at the entrance to our farm

    Blimey! It’s mutton.

  • The view from 20,000 feet is one of overreach. The view on the ground is more of the same.
  • Beware of old men in a hurry.
  • When people speak of the coastal elites, we may assume that they are not referring to the Gulf Coast, where I was born.
  • According to NYT, 60 percent of the species most closely related to humans, primates, will be extinct by 2050. I hope I’m not called to account for my actions in hastening that prospect.

The Farm

  • The buttered bread theory: When falling forward into the muck of a pig paddock, your knee will find the hidden stone.
  • Home-fermented kimchi makes the perfect alternative salad to a rich Butcher’s Wife’s Pork Chops
  • Beware of what you wish for…. Rain yesterday, rain today, and blimey, if it don’t look like rain again tomorrow.
  • Mutton pie, composed mainly of ingredients raised right outside our door, can’t be beat.
  • Owning the right gun is a bit like owning a truck. When a friend has need (dispatching a dying goat), you get the call.


Reading this weekend: The Tribe: on homecoming and belonging, by Sebastian Junger.

Nothing To Get All Fussed About

I wipe the afterbirth and muck off my hands onto my coat, then grab the proffered sandwich and take a big bite. After a few bites, I put the sandwich on a post and go back to the lambing at hand. Such is the farmer’s hygiene, practical and not the least bit fussy.

If we are going out for a social call or dinner, an unthinking assessment takes place in my wardrobe and cleaning rituals. Going to town? I’ll have a good shower, put on fresh clothes and clean shoes. Farming friends? I might have a quick wash and head out with what I had been wearing in the barn. Eau de barnyard at a get-together with farmer friends is common and unremarked, indeed, unnoticed.

Sometimes the farm follows us to other venues. I’m sure I’ve related the story of the pig perfume and the plane. On one particular morning, I got up ungodly early, fed the animals, and dashed off to the airport. I spent most of the day in the close confines of planes before finally touching down. After a long drive to my ultimate destination, I arrived at my hotel and dropped on the bed, exhausted.

It was only then that I smelled the distinctive odor of pig manure. My brain was foggy from a full day of travel, but I was nevertheless able to recognize that there were no pigs in my room. Following the odor, I quickly tracked it down to a large clump of Exhibit A on my left boot. I cleaned it off and chuckled, thinking about the poor bastards stuck next to me on a four-hour flight.

A doctor friend of mine says that the farm kids he’s had as patients seem to be less susceptible to infections or allergies. Just an observation, not a clinical study, he hastens to point out. His assumption is that daily playing amidst the muck, cleaning out chicken coops and horse stalls, eating fruits and veggies straight from the garden — all serve to build up a healthy immune system.

Compare that to the kid who grows up in the city or suburbs. The one who uses antimicrobial spray or wipes twenty times a day. Never goes outside except to be shuttled from home to car to special event and back. Only snacks on foods that have been properly processed, packaged, and labeled. Is it a surprise that kids today seem to have an epidemic of allergies and immunity-related diseases?

Now, I’m not advocating that you adopt the practice of not washing your hands. What I am suggesting is that you consider a little bit of dirt, well, natural. For those of us who live in the country, the smell of the barnyard is simply the smell of life. Nothing to get too fussed about.

Just remind me to wipe my boots when I enter your house.


Reading this weekend: Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane. A newish and beautiful tome on the descriptive genius of our ancestors for the natural world.