For Father’s Day: Who We Are

I grew up in an older time, a time when family members still shared stories about the family’s past. As a kid I latched onto the simple narratives. As I got older I learned to listen between the lines for the more complicated chronicle, the one that linked me with past generations of heroes, rascals, and ordinary men and women. It still amazes me at the amount of family history and stories my parents’ and grandparents’ generation amassed and cherished.12244031_10153787139892990_726768728_n

The paths of knowledge of that family culture for most moderns are overgrown and ill-used. But it’s not too much of a stretch to say that lack of knowledge of our own families’ past leaves us at the mercy of others to complete the narrative for their own ends. Knowing the stories and the paths help us as a people and culture navigate the present and the future.

A primary thread of my paternal ancestors was Huguenot. Kicked out of France at the revocation of Nantes, they landed in New Jersey in the early 1700s after spending a generation first in Amsterdam, then in the Lesser Antilles. My 3x great-grandfather and six brothers fought in the American Revolution. They got land grants in Lycoming, Pennsylvania, after the war. My great-grandfather was born there in 1860. His family joined a wagon train to Cedar County, Iowa, the same year.

A maternal line of Scotch settlers from Vermont fought for the Loyalists and removed themselves to Canada for the next 100 years. One of them finally connected with the Louisiana branch on a hunting trip that also resulted in his marriage.

My 4x great-grandfather owned a plantation in Lyons, Louisiana. The pirate Jean Lafitte’s men sneaked up the bayou one night, robbing the family and stealing all the slaves. The U.S. Navy sent a warship after the pirates. They were caught in Galveston Bay. Lafitte disavowed any knowledge of his men’s indiscretions and washed his hands of their fate. The Navy hung them on the deck of the warship and returned the slaves to captivity.

A maternal great-grandfather had a Confederate pension for carrying the mail during the war. He was the youngest of six brothers. The five older brothers fought in Gray’s 28th Louisiana Infantry in the Battle of Mansfield. One out of five men on the Confederate side died, and many more were injured in the fight. The Southern troops fought with buckshot-loaded hunting shotguns against the rifle-armed North. They walked across the field of battle as their ranks were decimated by rifle fire. They walked up to the Yankee line and fired their buckshot from mere yards away, and they won the day. Only one of the five brothers lived to surrender in 1865. This line of the family owned no slaves; another that did own slaves did not fight.

My aunt, who turns 95 next month, recalls her father giving food to a hungry black man who was asking for work one evening at the back door of the family’s farmhouse near Crowley. A few days later the man was found hanged by the Klan in a tree some miles from the farm, having eventually knocked on the wrong door.

She also remembers the day, while working at Barksdale airbase in Shreveport during WW2, when two black bomber pilots walked into the cafeteria. Both of the men were officers. The white ladies at the lunch line, she says, walked out in mass and were replaced by the black cooks from the back.

A great-uncle was port master in Baton Rouge. He had the excellent facility of being able to swear within a word. “I won’t be under any obli-god-damn-gation to any man!” was a favorite collected by my uncle, a professor of speech and rhetoric.

My father recalls buying live chickens at the A&P in Lake Charles. Back in the meat department, customers would pick out the live chicken they wanted to buy. It would then be butchered and packaged for the walk home. There was no refrigeration either in the grocery store or at home.

One early December day, my dad and a friend, who had been camping near Alexandria, Louisiana, stepped out of the woods and flagged a truck down to catch a ride. When they climbed in the truck, the driver informed them that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor the day before.

When Dad, after serving in the Navy in WW2, disembarked for the final time in San Diego and was discharged, he and his friends headed to their favorite ice cream malt shop. It’s an image that confounds the standard script of the hardened vet. He was 19.

I recall Dad stopping the car on Ryan Street, greeting a man by name and giving him a ride. The man had no legs, and a burlap bag around the stumps. He pulled himself up off the curb and onto the seat next to me.

These and many more stories ground me, place me on the path that goes in front and stretches out behind. Each of us has our own trailhead. That we forget the way and step off the path seems somehow dishonorable and unutterably sad, not only for our immediate families but for the larger human one.


Reading this weekend: The Master of Hestviken by Sigrid Undset

Eating Cake

Empire rots and grows dark at the edges even as the lights seem brightest in its heart where the leaders feverishly tweak and prime the flow of the wealth-pump and would-be leaders make promises to restore the Republic to its former glory. And both sets struggle mightily to keep the haves content and the have-nots hopeful.

We live an hour from Knoxville to our north-east and Chattanooga to our south-west in a narrow valley with low ridges. Our county just ten years ago had twelve repairmen servicing phone lines. Today it has one individual who now services two counties with the same amount of landline.

Phone companies have always been required, as a semi-public utility, to maintain that access in rural areas. But the cell phone revolution has allowed them a way out of that obligation. In a historical slight-of-hand, as the number of cell phones proliferated, phone companies began dismantling the service infrastructure. Today a disruption to the landline entails many calls and a week or more response time; a process that is guaranteed to gin up the numbers who get fed up and opt out. The more who opt out, the quainter the requirement to provide the costly landline infrastructure seems until eventually the service is removed and replaced with….?

Meanwhile, currently 7 out of 10 teachers in the US assign homework to students that require a broadband connection to complete the work (according to a recent FCC report). And one out of three households do not subscribe to broadband. The report is primarily urban-centric. Very little data about how rural-households cope. But one could reasonably surmise that for lack of digital infrastructure or for affordability, large sections of this land are left out of the techno-fantasies of our education elites.

Indeed one does not need to read that report. Read an article in a newspaper or watch a segment on a newscast and witness that disconnect between the fantasy imaginings of a connected world and the realities of everyday life. It has only been three years since we began to get a cell phone signal at our house. Before that date I’d have to drive ten miles and park at the Fender’s Methodist Church to take calls. The teenage boy in a neighboring family walked up to our back field (north-east corner) and found a forty-foot patch where he could reach his girlfriend.

Today we enjoy a ghost echo of the digital revolution here in the valley. We now receive cellphone calls in the front two rooms of the house. Outside we can take calls from the house to almost half-way down the drive. At that point you’d still need to drive out to the church to complete your call. And our connection speeds have increased. We get a pretty consistent 1G in those two front rooms with the occasional 3G pulse. And some of the time we get nothing.

I’m not whinging, I have a good job, a good farm and a full belly. But one does wonder who speaks for or is concerned about the rural lives of this country, the kids held back by both finances and access to the digital promised-land. A technological revolution that I suspect the elites are no longer capable of either funding or even conceptualizing a need for outside the core hubs where the lights still burn bright.

There you have it, as a society we are busy rolling up the carpets of communication infrastructure while requiring kids to use a technology which is only sporadically available or on terms they can’t afford. And failing that, they are effectively being asked to kindly turn out the lights when they leave.

Our rural population along with the abandoned urban core are being asked to “eat cake”. And we all know where that ends. And in case you are having trouble imagining, it doesn’t end with a “digital” revolution.

There’s a 100 Percent Chance of Weather

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My garden…just not this year.

4:45 this morning and a neighbor maybe a half-mile away is shooting a rifle. Sounds like a .22, so he is probably potting raccoons or rats raiding his cattle feed. Or perhaps he is a man who likes to annoy the world. Regardless, I roll out of bed and make a pot of coffee.

We promise you rain, tomorrow: For a man who gets up so early, it is amazing how late I am in getting to haying this year. It is the perennial struggle to find just the right week between cooperative weather and work schedule. Driving back from Sweetwater yesterday, I observed that almost all the fields were either cut, raked, baled, or a combination. I have been holding off for one more good rain, but apparently all the moisture continues to dump on Texas. Meanwhile, our Roane County forecast is an ever-shifting horizon, the moisture always promised in another three days.

Beware the nine-banded armadillo: On yesterday’s drive back from town, just past the big hog roast in progress at the Luttrell community center, I spotted the distinctive and familiar remains of an animal ­on the road. The sighting was commonplace to me on the backroads of Louisiana growing up. Later that night at dinner with friends, we discussed what I’d seen. Our friend remarked that, coincidentally, she could’ve sworn she’d seen the same kind of animal a few days before, but she decided against it, since the critters are not known to live in these parts. But, sure enough, a quick bit of research and we found that the nine-banded armadillo has arrived in East Tennessee.

Busy little bees: In the immortal words of Margot Channing, “You are in a beehive, pal. Didn’t you know? We are all busy little bees, full of stings, making honey day and night. Aren’t we, honey?” Frantically painting more supers and putting together more frames, Cindy has struggled to keep pace with this spring’s exponential colony growth. The number of our hives has doubled to four, and the girls (all worker bees are female) seem unusually productive. Cindy keeps slapping on supers, and they keep filling them up. We look for a bountiful honey harvest come end of summer: I see horns of mead aplenty and a rereading of Beowulf in my future.

Let’s not go there: I fixed some chicken sausage gumbo last night. “Cindy, when you go out to feed, grab me an onion from the garden. There are three rows of weeds before you get to Petunia. Buried in the last row are the onions.” Typically, the dry years like this are the years the garden looks the best. So I really have no excuse … except the fencing. That massive project of closing in the ravine for the pigs was a time-suck this spring. Sigh.

Who cares why you crossed the road. Where are my damn eggs? After raising speckled Sussex almost exclusively for 16 years, we are going to make a change. We ordered 20 brown leghorn chicks, which arrived this week. They are the foundation bird for the modern leghorns and an egg-laying machine, purportedly. Our dual-purpose meat-and-eggs Sussex are too irregular in the latter department. So, unless the governor calls (and why would he?), the flock will go in the pot. We look forward to endless bowls of coq au vin, chicken paprikash, and gumbo.

Well, with coffee and the blog now done and the eastern sky alight with the approaching dawn, it is time for me to go dig holes and plant grapevines. One must take advantage of the coolness of the morning and reserve the afternoon for a siesta.


Reading this weekend: The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a southern girl, a small town, and the secret of a good life by Rod Dreher. A tribute to a sister who stayed put while her brother pursued a career and moved away from home. She died young at forty. A fascinating, albeit overly emotional, look at family and small town culture.

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.


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.