Death of a Neighbor

When death arrives in the country, the signs go up at the roadside — “Slow: Death in Family” on the front, funeral home name on the back, in case passersby want to send flowers or attend the funeral, or have an ailing relative who might soon need services of his own.

Sometimes we know a neighbor has passed away because of the large number of cars and trucks gathered in the driveway and people congregated on the porch and in the yard, dressed in their Sunday best.

Or, the phone rings and a neighbor who seldom calls lets us know another neighbor is in the hospital or has died.

Or there is new mound of dirt at the Cedar Fork Baptist cemetery.

Or there’s an obituary in the local paper.

This culture likes to think it’s more connected, “wired” in to the world. The reality is that the technology of the day distances us from what matters. That separation has been coming for a century or more, as village life and the interconnectedness of communities have unraveled.

It’s a process accelerated by the arrival of the automobile. A highly impersonal mode of transportation, cheap, motorized travel allowed us to drive away from our community obligations and connections. And now, today’s digital world is putting an end to the daily arrival of the community newspaper, a place where people could peruse the high school football scores, learn who was arrested for drunk driving, read the tedious notes from the county commission, and find out who died.

Our subscription to the local paper lapsed many years ago. Of course, we could still go online to read. That ritual, however, is not the same as sitting down and digesting the local paper over coffee. And for many complex reasons, our new online rituals seldom inform as to the kith part of “kith and kin.” We instead are more current on what Kaitlyn Jenner is wearing or the latest cute cat picture on Facebook.

With the collapse of face-to-face community and the readership of the local paper, so too collapses our local knowledge of the people sharing our surroundings. Sometimes the “Slow: Death in Family” signs don’t go up and we discover the loss weeks or months later, leaving the deceased’s family to wonder why no one grieved with them or offered condolences.

A horrible accident a mile away from our home this week brought home that tragic point. Two cars collided. Three people were airlifted to a hospital and one to the morgue. While speaking with one neighbor about the tragedy, Cindy heard of the sudden passing of another neighbor’s daughter a month ago.

No signs, no gathering of cars, no call, and no dirt in the local cemetery alerted us — a neighbor who lives directly across from our farm allowed to grieve thinking his neighbor callous or indifferent. True, we were not close, but that would not preclude the courtesy of a condolence.

Odd that, as the world gets smaller, our neighbors get further away.

The South is a Neolithic Fort

It was in a Steak ‘n Shake in Georgia, standing in a swirl of moderns, with their faux tribal tattoos and piercings, that a small girl protectively held the weathered fingers of her grandfather. He stood erect in his worn overalls, both hands slightly curled, as if gripping the wooden handles of a plow, looking out of place.

The image struck me that all of the people, the building, and the parking lot were intruders and interlopers, a mirage. That the old man was standing in the same pose, in the same place in a tobacco plot, hands gripped just so around the plow handles, two mules out front and a granddaughter by his side.Plow handles 001

The South is like this. Sometimes it is a Neolithic fort in the landscape. A slight rise in the ground indicating the presence of a past for those who can read it. A place full of relics and behaviors that are deemed out of place in a culture easily bored and distracted. It is not a landscape easily read by the digital world or understood by soundbite.

It has a people, black and white, who are looked down on and discarded because they have not adapted quickly enough. Modest people who don’t know that a paved parking lot has more value than a small field of their own. It has an agrarian soul and a heart that still beats.

This South is a run-down home, chickens scratching around the yard. Its roosters crow at all hours, riling the neighbor from up north who built a McMansion next door, an outsider who did not know pigs can stink. It is a make-do world where fences get built out of scaffolding discarded by a now defunct warehouse, a world often stubbornly ignorant of the rewards of nine to five and cultures bought and traded on Netflix.

It is a world that doesn’t easily discard anything, even the burdens of the past. A world easily mocked with sitcom humor, by a world in which advanced degrees in identity politics measure a culture to the failed standard of a “New Man” emerging.

Drive down the backroads of our valley and find gatherings of men sitting on shaded porches in the midday heat. Surrounded by well-tended gardens, with chickens scratching and kids in the dirt, they talk sedition and plot the downfall of the moderns. An elaborate plan called Waiting Them Out. Meanwhile, they buy nothing new, grow their own food, slaughter their own chickens, hunt their own game, and grip the handles of the plow.

Join them if you wish … or not, they don’t care.

 

John Muir the full moon (and the wallow)

Farm in May 033I have family visiting this weekend. And with forecast highs of 97 degrees we may all take our cues from Delores and find a nice wallow. So, I leave you with this older post on John Muir and our full moon.

Talk with you next week,

Brian

 

In 1867 naturalist John Muir walked from Indianapolis, IN to Key West, FL. He crossed into Tennessee through the Cumberland Mountains, almost getting robbed by former soldiers as he walked towards Kingston, our county seat. The account of that trek is absorbing reading for both his natural observations and those of a walk through a defeated land. From Kingston to Philadelphia, TN his walk took him through narrow slanting valleys. There are only a couple of narrow slanting valleys that would get you from Kingston to Philadelphia. So it is a good bet that 145 years ago John Muir walked by our farm.

Muir popped into my head this morning, as once again, I watched the sun light up our land. On Thanksgiving morning I woke early and walked to the top of the hill. As the pilots say, “above the clouds the sun is always shining”. At the top of the hill the sun was indeed up and striking the tops of the trees. Over the next hour the light gradually filtered down into the valley. Not fully illuminating our farm until half-past eight, almost exactly one hour from sunrise. It was another thirty minutes before the sun struck the creek bottoms giving light to our nearest neighbors.

Watching that sunrise reminded me of the pleasure we get out of a full moon. On the night of a full moon we walk to the top of the hill, sit in our folding chairs and watch that spotlight come over the hill. You know that great illusion, the one where the size is magnified by its relation to the horizon. As soon as the size diminishes, about ten minutes after rising, we walk back to our home. Where we set the chairs up and watch the moon rise again. Once it diminishes in size we jump in the truck and drive to the bottom pasture where we get to watch it rise for a third time within an hour. Actually, we think, this is a pretty cool trick for our nearest satellite, as well as cheap entertainment for the rustics.

Hopefully Muir enjoyed the same show as he walked through our valley.

………………………………………………………………………………………….

Reading this weekend: Waking Up To The Dark: ancient wisdom for a sleepless age by Clark Strand (2015). A quick read, of some interest to me, about the impact of light on our nature. Ultimately it was more than a bit too new-agey for my tastes.

Apex of Evolution

Looking down at a long row of spiny pigweed intercropped with my crowder peas, a minor cousin of weltschmerz washes over me. Seemingly sprung to life overnight, the pigweed’s thorny presence towers above the peas planted six weeks ago. A clear challenge to my abilities, perhaps even to my character.

But what is this I’m feeling? What form of cowardice is this to shrink back from the world because a weed persists in an unwelcome spot? Did we rise up out of the dust of the Cretaceous for me now to recoil from this foe? Will I accept defeat?

I throw down my warrior’s implements, grab a beer, and retreat to the hammock. Perhaps after the next extinction event runs its course the spiny amaranth will develop consciousness and proceed to do better than we have with this poor planet.

Battling prickly foe hadn’t been the first challenge of the day. Earlier, I had tried to caponize a cockerel for the first time. The procedure entails cutting between the second and third rib of a young bird, extracting the male internal reproductive gland, then allowing the skin to snap back. A caponizing kit laid neatly on the table—rib spreaders, probe, scalpel, another instrument not listed in any inventory—I strapped the cockerel down with cord. Gripping the how-to pamphlet in my left hand, I picked the pin feathers away with my right.

Instructed by the pamphlet to follow the hip bone and find the ribs, I swabbed the designated section with rubbing alcohol and probed with my index finger, counting: one rib, two ribs. Rib spreaders standing by, I grabbed the scalpel and made ready to make the incision.

But where did the ribs go? They had seemed so clearly in evidence only a second before. The scalpel hung like Damocles’ sword over the little bird. “Make the cut anyway; you’ll figure it out,” I told myself. I hovered, the bird passively awaiting his fate.

Loosening the cord, I picked up the cockerel and released him back, unscathed, into the population of would-be gumbos and coq au vins blithely scratching about the farm. The capon of Christmas future will be created by a different surgeon, one of courage and surer anatomical knowledge.

I retreated to the garden, certain at least of my competence in that department. The eyes of 10,000 years of agriculture followed my movements with intimate nods of confidence.

Ah, for the simple joy of the hammock. This I can do.

………………………………………………………….

Reading this week: Lesser Beasts: a snout to tail history of the humble pig, by Mark Essig. Another nice addition to bookshelf on the rich history of the pig.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sanctuary

The mowers across the valley hum with honey bee intensity. Mid-morning heat and the grass has parted ways with the dew after their nightly tryst. Hay is down in dozens of fields, signs of industry from the stewards of those lands. Other pastures are newly shorn and baled, revealing lines both stark and sensual. Round and square bales dot the landscape like chess pieces randomly scattered after play.hay making 6-5-15 001

Gathering my own pieces—a stirrup and a Dutch hoe, a pitchfork and a rake, a 50-gallon tub—I head into the vegetable garden. As I work, the sounds of lawnmowers combine with the nearby shout of a mother to a son, “Pick the green beans while you’re at it.” The sounds of scraping the soil, grunts of my own exertion, a ping as metal strikes rock, the thud of a rock casually tossed to the edge of the garden, where dozens more have gathered over the years.

The tub gradually fills with a spring mix of weeds, a buffet of flavors I tip over the adjoining fence for the sow and gilt, Delores and Petunia, to enjoy. They have been pacing the fence since I arrived, coated in mud from their wallow, grunting and squealing their impatience to begin dining. Another hour of weeding and culling and another tub filled: cabbages and turnips past their prime, leaves of chard and collards, all to be fed to the hogs in the woods later in the evening.

A retreat to the house and a lunch of the previous night’s dinner of grilled ribeyes, creamed chard, and new potatoes, then we catch up on our respective tasks. I read and finish a book before leaving to ted the hay in an upper field.

The grass cut only yesterday is already dry and ready to be baled, no tedding needed, its conversion to winter’s feed complete. Leaving the tractor behind, I enter on foot the sanctuary of the woods. Meaningful word “sanctuary,” both a refuge and a sacred place. Under the canopy of large oaks, poplars, and maples, the woods are still cool and sheltering from the blazing afternoon heat, and the word is both to me. The dogs drink from secret stumps water collected in recent rains. How many other animals know the same? Do they find these watering dishes by scent or instinct?

I walk along the winding lane and exit back into the sunlight. In a heat not yet marred by the humidity of late day, there is an oven-like comfort, like a woodstove in a cool house. At pasture’s edge, a new mother guards her calf, fiercely eyeing the dogs. White Oak 003We move on, past the pond, past the white oak, through the equipment yard. The dogs find shelter from the heat under the chicken coop; I find shelter indoors.

Closing the blinds, we lie down under the ceiling fan and take a midday nap. Sleep is refuge against a hot Tennessee summer day, a sacred state of renewal before the workday reconvenes.

………………………………………………………………

Reading this weekend: Anatole France, “Revolt of the Angels”

That Nagging Feeling

“Think of all that might be accomplished in the time that you throw away.”–Marcus Aurelius

My standard workday begins with coffee and often a reading of Marcus Aurelius, the closest thing to the sacred texts that I imbibe, in these the days of my middle period. He seems to suit my aims and goals remarkably well, and he serves as a gentle scold for all my vices and weaknesses. It is not a conceit, for I am aware that I accomplish more than most as I navigate the work world and the farm life. Yet, I am constantly nagged by the fear of not doing enough, of wasting time. Bee hive 012

It is not for me to be one of those grim souls who plow through tasks simply to reach the point where sleep claims them until the next day, or for eternity. I leaven the days with plenty of pleasure: in the company of my partner, friends, and neighbors, with dinners and books and discussions.  For the tasks and the work, no one could accuse me of shirking my duties. Yet the margins of life where time is ill-spent nag me.

My father is a man who, at 88, still gets up early to exercise. Who still serves on the parish levee board as an engineering consultant. Who, as a teen, wrote to his mother from a warship in the Pacific to ask for his trigonometry text. He wanted to bone up on his math skills in preparation for college when he was mustered out of service after the war.

That familial model surely must inform my farm work: Yesterday morning I was weeding the potato patch before 7 a.m., and I had prepped the rooster even earlier for the dinner of coq au vin that evening.

I then let the sheep out into a paddock for a morning feed and headed in for a spot of the same before beginning the real work for the day. An electric fence for the cattle was running on half-charge. So a first task was to spot and correct the areas of power drain. A pair of loppers in hand, I walked the fenceline from the charger to the pasture, pruning back a dozen limbs that were touching the wire and pulling down the charge.

Back to the garden I returned for another hour of weeding and tying tomato vines. Then a round of short tasks–moving a round bale of hay into the barn and spreading it around for bedding, and finishing the morning in a lower pasture pulling downed trees to the edge of a pond.

As the heat and humidity drove the dogs back home and into the shade, I took their sensible lead and returned to the house for lunch. After a short nap and a bit of reading, I was back in the garden. I harvested some Swiss chard, which I drove into town and delivered to some friends. We spent a pleasant hour catching up before I turned the truck for home. There, I spent some time with Cindy getting into the hives, examining the supers for honey flow and the hive bodies for brood and documenting what we saw with my camera.Gertude's bull calf 010

 More chores in the evening, followed by a dinner of coq au vin, fresh pears, cheese and a salad, capped by walking up into the pasture to see a brand new calf.

It was a satisfying and productive day. Yet this account is not meant to brag, for the world is filled with hard-working people and there are many days when I am less productive. The desire and will to work well are both cultural and familial, but they are also influenced by having work that brings satisfaction and accomplishment. And the farm for me brings plenty of both.

But the legacy of our rich heritage, be it Roman emperors or World War II vets, looms large. Which is perhaps why I still have that nagging feeling of underachievement even after a good day.

Maybe I should write home for a trigonometry book?

………………………………………………………………………………

Reading this weekend: The Generous Earth, by Philip Oyler. And Much Ado About Mutton, by Bob Kennard

Fossil Fuels and Haymaking

“With tossing and raking, and setting on cocks, Grass lately in swathes, is hay for an ox: That done, go and cart it, and have it away, the battle if fought, ye have gotten the day.” Thomas Tusser

Haymaking is a battle, a war with time and nature, a struggle whose sole aim is to make “all flesh grass”. We no longer live a village life, an Amish life or a life with any real community where work is shared. Our farm workers now are the accumulated stores of long dead plant life burned as fossil fuels that power the equipment.

One man, with practice, can manually cut an acre of hay per day, rake an acre of hay per day, rick an acre of hay per day. That is steady physical labor, all day, for days on end, for the simple goal of having enough forage to feed his animals during the winter months.

Fortunately or unfortunately I do not have that type of stamina or time to devote to the manual cutting of hay. Instead we have a 45 horsepower Kubota tractor with all of the necessary implements.

45 horsepower: think about that for a minute, the power of 45 horses harnessed by one man for any number of tasks. Remarkable! We all use machines of such incredible power but so seldom reflect on what the power represents if absent from our lives. Absent and the center cannot hold, as Mr. Yeats wrote. Absent and we do not want to imagine the changes in store, cannot imagine.

This seasons first haymaking was fairly uneventful. On a fair Wednesday evening I hooked up the ancient disc mower to the aforementioned Kubota and began cutting hay. A soothing, methodical process of moving up and down the field cutting the fescue and clover at ground level, mowing is a great time to think. Six acres cut in three hours.

The following evening I tedded the field. Ted is an old English word meaning to spread hay out to dry. In the 19th century a machine was designed to spread hay out and was called a tedder. The tedder I use is my four wheel hay rake. An ingenious piece of equipment, ground driven (instead of “PTO”) I ted by changing the directions of the wheels. Instead of all four wheels pulling hay to a single windrow they work against each other and toss the hay around on the ground. This action speeds up the drying time. Time spent tedding six acres was two hours. Done by hand? Six days.

Friday afternoon I took off from work and raked the fields. Using the wheel rake it took two hours to rake six acres into windrows. It was easy work, with a real sense of accomplishment when completed.

Saturday: I woke early to find the sky heavy with clouds. The forecast had moved the incoming rain from late Saturday night to early afternoon. #%$&! A mad scramble to get the baler hooked up, tires inflated, chains greased, new twine installed and threaded through the machine. A quick trip to the co-op for some of that precious fossil fuel and I was ready to begin baling at 10. The first three hours were very slow. The dew still lay heavy on the dry hay causing the hay to jam the baling tines.

The round baler has revolving tines that pick up the hay and feed it into a chamber. Inside that chamber the hay begins to turn. As it turns it creates a round bale that measures four by four feet and weighs several hundred pounds. When the baler reaches capacity an alarm is triggered. I pull a rope that engages the twine which wraps around the bale securing the hay, a pretty nifty and simple action. A lever activated by hydraulic power raises the back of the baler depositing the bale on the ground. It looks like a large metal bird laying an egg.

Sometime between 12:30 and 1 the dew dried and the baler began cranking through the windrows. Loud, dirty and jarring, riding for hours on the tractor while baling the hay is not pleasant. Finally at 4 in the afternoon, the rain still holding off, the baler squeezed out the last bale and I turned to home. Six acres of hay baled in six hours.

Four inches of rain fell on the farm the next 24 hours. A lot of work to get the forage we need to feed the cattle this winter.

But, it could be worse without fossil fuel…indeed, much, much worse.

….From the archives

Reading this weekend: Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: how human values evolve by Ian Morris