The Doldrums of Summer

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Your dear farmer looking for the end of his tether

There is a moment that comes every year, usually about this time, when the heat and humidity kills all ambition on the farm. We stage a coward’s retreat to the inside, where the air conditioning wages war with the mighty forces beyond the walls.

The humid furnace outside is best experienced with quick forays and small bursts of committed energy. Our own response to the heat is mirrored by that of the pets and livestock. The cattle emerge from the woods just long enough to traverse the pasture for a much-needed drink in the pond. There, the catfish have given up emerging from the cool bottom muck until the seasons change.

Upon hearing the door to the house open, Becky, our farmdog, leaves the cool concrete in the workshop to stare out the door and assess. Do they need me? She clearly would rather stay put. But should I be an Englishman who ventures out into the midday sun, she will gladly be my mad dog and join in the folly.

The hogs, even the ones in the woods, spend their days lying on the cooler dirt under trees or in the wallows. Mud coated, they seldom arise even when we come bearing buckets of feed. A snort of acknowledgment, a shrug of massive shoulders, and they burrow deeper into the mud with a reasonable confidence that the feed will still be there when the sun goes down.

Confined at night, the sheep have little choice but to graze during daylight hours. But gone are their enthusiastic bursts from the barn in the mornings. Instead, they cluster in cliques at the door as I open gates to fresh grass. “After you, no, after you” they bleat before grudgingly crossing the corral to the pasture. Once there they feed in brief gorgings before falling back in a controlled withdrawal to the shaded sanctuary of the barn. Their pantings, like so many muffled drums: humph, humph, humph, humph, are steady and insistent and do not subside until long into the evening.

Heat-sapped hens, with parted beaks, panting, stand in the shade of the maple. They mirror most closely how we feel, their wings held out from their sides, much like we would flap a sweaty garment to stay cool. The rooster, his heart not really in his job, makes a few obligatory attempts at coupling. No doubt firing more blanks than bullets in the heat, he finds few partners willing to submit to his brief embrace.

Meanwhile, in a clever adaptation to this misery, the red fox in the nearby woods has taken the opportunity to pluck an unsuspecting young chicken from the pasture in broad daylight. Armed with the instinctual knowledge that all domestic life is locked in a listless stupor, the fox takes advantage of the situation and provides a nice meal for its kits. A minute later, my obligatory dash from the house with shotgun in hand ends with a random desultory blast into the undergrowth, the fox no doubt long gone.

Like the catfish retreating to the muck, I return to my cool study, where, with all ambition withered, I check the calendar, willing it to be any month later than July. I close the shades and lay my head on the desk, and resolve to hibernate until fall.

Farm Postcard: a sigh heard ’round the farm

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The first tomatoes of the season, scattered drops before the deluge

“When your first tomato is ripe, take salt and pepper to the garden. Pluck the fruit from the vine. Cut into quarters, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, and pop it, a quarter at a time into your mouth. I shall be listening to your sigh of contentment.” Angelo M. Pellegrini

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Reading this weekend: White Goats and Black Bees by Donald Grant, a classic farming memoir set in rural Ireland during the 1950’s and ’60’s.

Thank you, James, Siegfried, and Tristan, Part Two

Our meandering drives in Grainger and Union counties in search of land continued for a year or more before we branched out and ventured into the rural counties west and southwest of Knox County. The west part of Knoxville is an area of seemingly endless suburbs and strip malls that stretch their covetous grip over formerly pristine farmland. It’s a cityscape in which historical markers that record massacres of early Europeans and reprisal massacres of Native Americans hide in plain sight in front of Starbucks and gas stations, made effectively invisible by five lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Biblio throw-down 002Before our exodus, our home, community, and friends were in the north part of the old city. It was a district of neighborhoods with sidewalks, residents relaxing on front porches, and a short bicycle ride to Harold’s Kosher Deli on Saturday mornings. On summer evenings, we’d stroll a few blocks to the old Bill Meyer Stadium to catch a baseball game with friends. The Smokies’ stadium used the adjoining Standard Knitting Mill as the left-field wall. During smoke breaks, the workers would hang out the windows and catch an inning before heading back to the looms.

On our forays into Roane County, we discovered a landscape of small farms and modest homes. Where a hundred grand would buy five acres and a barn in parts of Grainger, the same amount in rural Roane would purchase 70 acres, with a barn, a well, and a garage.

Nonetheless, stumbling blocks abounded before we found just what we were looking for: We looked at and decided to pass on a small farm in North Roane County. There was a reason the lane it was on was called Seed Tick Road. Next, we put a deposit on 50 acres. Between the road and the rest of the property lay 10 acres of rich bottomland. Bottomland that lay in a hundred-year floodplain. Land that had, unfortunately, flooded from road to hill the next time we visited. The neighbors down the road said, “Hundred years? Nah, it happens every three.” We forfeited the deposit and continued our search.

A couple of months more and we stopped one day to look at a parcel on Paint Rock Road. Cindy insisted on knocking on a neighbor’s door to inquire about the price. (I must digress and point out a significant personality difference between Cindy and myself. Knocking uninvited on a door is, in my book, akin to staring at someone with a disability: an invasion of privacy. Cindy sees it through different eyes. She is practical, never met a stranger. If there is information to be gained, she goes to the source. Which is why one night she spent a pleasant while chatting with Wendell Berry on the phone about Red Poll cattle. But that is a story for another day.)

She went up to the door. I stayed in the truck and tried to look apologetic. Cindy stood at the door chatting with the owners; they laughed and invited her in. She disappeared inside, presumably for a Sunday lunch, before coming back out and climbing into the truck. She waved, they waved, and we drove off.

The acreage for sale next to their house was too expensive. But the neighbors steered us down the road, past the Paint Rock Fire Station and Galyon’s General Store, to a 70-acre farm that was in our price range. It had a long drive up a sloping hill to a level area of about five acres, beyond which was a large pasture rising up to the top of the ridge to the east. We got out of the truck and walked the property. It had a barn, a well, and a three-car garage. The former owner had never gotten around to building a house.

The next few weeks moved fast, and by the end of the month we owned a farm with broken-down perimeter fencing, a mortgage, and no farming tools or equipment, and we were living in a garage on concrete floors. And we owned one very pregnant horse for our troubles.

Now it has been close to 17 years, and Cindy still jumps out of the truck to knock on doors, gets invited inside, while I still urge restraint. But we’ve built a house, barns, and numerous other outbuildings. We’ve put up and repaired more fencing than any sensible person would in a lifetime, acquired enough equipment and tools to keep an estate auction hopping for days, and long since paid off the mortgage.

We still go for Sunday drives and still drive past the farm that might have been. And after heavy rains, it still floods road to ridge on that hundred-year floodplain.

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Reading this weekend: Landskipping: painters, ploughmen and places by Anna Pavord

Happy Fourth of July

photo (3) photo (2)photoOn October 7th, 1780, the American militia, led by 1100 Overmountain Men from what is today Tennessee, cornered the British at King’s Mountain, South Carolina. In the decisive battle that followed these men changed the course of the Southern campaign for American Independence. The Battle of King’s Mountain was led and fought by backwoodsmen, including the father of Davy Crockett and many of the earliest names in Tennessee history.

Sixty or so years later in a narrow valley, in 1840 and 1843, not far from where our farm is located, down a small gravel road, two of those heroes of the American Revolution were buried in a small church cemetery. The church is long gone. Only a hundred or so graves are found in this out of the way spot. This year, as we have done for a dozen years, Cindy and I place flowers on the graves of Big Jim Campbell and William Moore to honor their memory.photo (1)

Thank you, James, Siegfried, and Tristan

This week a young woman from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, volunteered to come and work on our farm. It was part of her summer course requirements, to gain some real world experience with various livestock. In addition to helping Cindy castrate pigs, she got hands-on involvement with worming a lamb, shoveling manure, setting up electric fencing, and assessing the health of one of the beehives.

Suggested readings

Suggested readings

Her presence here brought to my mind the only other vet I know who attended vet school in Scotland, James Herriot — the vet whose memory often prompts a joke that everything I know about veterinary skills I learned from him. Cindy and I both loved the Herriot books and British television series, a fond look at the Yorkshire Dales in the inter-war years of the 1930s.

The stories revolve around a bright-eyed new veterinarian, Herriot, who joins the village practice of the irascible and eccentric Siegfried Farnon. The practice is rounded out later by Sigfried’s mischievous younger brother, Tristan. One of the recurring threads of the series is Siegfried’s penchant for leaving tools behind on farm visits. In our own life, when either Cindy or I am about to leave, say, a pair of fence pliers on a fence post, we look at the other, point to our eyes and then to the tool and, channeling Siegfried as he lectures James Herriot, mouth the words, “I’m visualizing where they are. That is why I never lose anything.”

The vet student’s visit and the Herriot connection had me thinking back to our decision to move to the country, and wondering about the various influences that prompted our relocation 16 years ago. Each of us likes to think we are the agent of our own life, operating independently of cultural currents. But we also all know this to be untrue.

Cindy and I lived in and restored an early 20th century Victorian house in Knoxville before our exodus from the city. We really had not paid attention to the literature of farming, had no heightened awareness of the local food movement, had never heard of Joel Salatin and had only a passing knowledge of Wendell Berry, put in a poorly thought out and maintained summer garden each year. Still, one day, I said more or less out of the blue, “Hey, let’s find some land.” 

For many Sundays we simply got in the car and drove, usually up Washington Pike, into the wilder country of Grainger and Union counties, areas that have a fair amount in common with the topography of Herriot’s vet practice. We developed a penchant for abandoning friends at parties and making early departures from dinners to go to the library or bookstore to look at farming books.

One memorable night we left a party late and drove in a snowstorm to see a farm for sale in the north end of Grainger County, a full hour on winding two-lane roads, with only an occasional farmhouse or small town to give evidence of settlement. Around midnight the storm passed and the sky cleared. A full moon illuminated the scene as we walked the snow-covered pastures of the old farm.

Another drive, around a bend in the road near House Mountain, we stopped and helped a farmer get a bull calf back inside a pasture as the mother anxiously paced the fence line bawling.

Over these drives we discussed what type of farm we wanted, what kind of life we wanted. It didn’t take many midnight outings in the snow and stops to help a farmer before we determined that this life was the one we wanted to live each day. And although I may not always be able to find those misplaced pliers, the life I visualized 16 years ago is exactly the one I found and still live today.

Lazy, I want to be lazy

I pulled on my third shirt just after 9:30 yesterday morning. The drought continues here in East Tennessee with the high heat and humidity punishing all efforts at productivity. We had spent the morning moving cattle, clearing brush from electric fencing and cleaning manure out of the barn. All of which left me drenched and guzzling water as fast as it leaked out of me. Some days it just seems too brutal to keep up with the workload.

A three-shirt morning

A three-shirt morning

Finally Caleb (my farm helper) and I wrapped up our workday a little after noon. We went into Sweetwater to pick up some supplies at the farmer’s co-op and ran into Tim. After a quick bite to eat at a local Mexican joint we headed back to the farm.

In the evening Tim came over and joined me and Don Davis, a friend of long standing, for dinner. I fixed a pot roast along with carrots, potatoes and a cabbage salad, always a favorite dish of mine and one Cindy dislikes. But since she was visiting family in Florida I could indulge in whatever I wanted to eat (along with a cigar).

Although it had probably been ten years since I had seen Don, like all good friends we were able to reconnect easily. He has written a number of books on Appalachian culture over the years and he brought us up to speed on the history of the American chestnut book he has been writing. He hopes to have a publisher in the coming months and the book in print within the year.

Now, after the sweat of yesterday, I find myself dawdling this morning. There is a full list of projects commanding my attention. But I just can’t bring myself to go back into the heat. This unmanly procrastination is only making matters worse as the mercury climbs into the eighties before 10am.

Yet here I sit.

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Reading this weekend: The Breakdown of Nations by Leopold Kohr, a timely read after the Brexit vote.

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.

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Reading this weekend: The Master of Hestviken by Sigrid Undset