Giving the Finger to Modernity

I practice at being out of step with modernity.

The mercury is already pushing the mid-80s by afternoon, and clouds are beginning to build in the west. I sit in my car in a Pennsylvania parking lot next to a mattress store, watching. Across a field, a boy is perched on the bench seat of a hay wagon, holding the reins to a team of Belgians. Farther back stands an older boy. He is reaching down and catching square bales as they are tossed up to him from other boys on the ground. He already has stacked a layer three-high on the 16-foot wagon. The driver, maybe 8 to 10 years old, twitches the reins and moves the load forward every few minutes before again coming to a stop. Up ahead, the father is driving a second team that pulls a gasoline-powered baler, spitting bales onto the ground at regular intervals as it tracks the windrows of hay.

The scene I observe is a Hieronymus Bosch painting with a twist: In the background of the tableau, the family of man and boys gathers forage for the winter. At the forefront, a stoplight blinks commands on a four-lane highway, the center of a tortured world of strip mall architecture, where the obese and the tattooed pour onto the roads and the pavement groans under bumper-to-bumper traffic. A boy, the same age as the ones working the field, sits in a car, screen-staring his young years away. A man in the front passenger seat stares ahead, oblivious to any other way of living. A Chick-fil-A and an Olive Garden shoehorn the paved landscape and the fields of the family at work.

Farther down the road, back in the stream of modernity, I pass three different buggies of Amish women, all driving teams, their children aboard, moving down the highway at five to eight miles an hour. If the journey is indeed more important than the destination, then these women and their children have learned the lesson well. They are chatting and laughing, as their fellow travelers, mere feet away, are entombed and unsmiling.

Do they ever glance at the cars and wonder, May Swenson-like: “Those soft shapes, 
shadowy inside the hard bodies — are they their guts or their brains?”

I pull into my hotel parking lot, retrieve my luggage, check in, and go up to my room. I open the curtains to glimpse the last of the day. Across another parking lot, across a road, lies another field. In the dying evening light, another man and a team of Percherons pull a manure spreader across the pastures back to the barn. On the seat, on either side of him, are his two sons, sharing an unheard conversation.

Standing at the window of the third floor, in isolation and sadness and cowardice, I think, we chase our lives across the decades seeking a sense of purpose. Yet our gaze is averted from the possibilities and the wisdom gained from living slowly, at five to eight miles an hour.

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Reading this weekend: The Ends of the World: volcanic apocalypses, lethal oceans, and our quest to understand earth’s past mass extinctions, by Peter Brannen. An interesting read about all the ways life has been wiped out in the past on this planet. And, it gives you a nice perch from which to contemplate the same.

July, 2004

Assorted farm journals

One thing is clear, after spending a couple of hours perusing my old farm journals, I am apparently indifferent to modern notions of spelling and punctuation. I’ve kept these journals of farm happenings since the fall of 1999. Often just containing simple lists of things to do and things done, rain received and rain never fallen, or temperatures recorded, but occasionally, every few pages, observations of farm and community life are jotted down.

In the summer of 2004 we spent most of our July evenings sitting outside in the dark. It was the year the Great Eastern Brood of cicadas emerged. Those nights, after dinner, we would pull out folding chairs and retire to a spot below the house near the woods. About an hour after sunset the waves of sound from the leg fiddlers would cascade across the clearing, a magnificent pulsing of synchronized music that told a story in which we did not matter. We would just give ourselves over to the sonic surges, transfixed, staying out till near midnight when the nightly concert came to a close.

(Sleep well, dear Brood X, we have marked your return and will reserve our chairs for July 2021.)

Also recorded that month is that we hosted friends for dinner, who are now divorced. My journal contained a single entry the next day, that she wore her fading love openly, casting ill hidden scornful looks when her beloved opened his mouth to speak.

The following Saturday we had business in Kingston, the Roane county seat. A small town on the Tennessee river thirty minutes from our farm. Notable for being the site of Fort South-West, a large Federal garrison of troops on the Cherokee frontier in the late 1700’s. And, in a duplicitous move, capital of Tennessee for a day on September 21, 1807. A treaty promised the Cherokee that if they ceded land south of the river the state of Tennessee would put their capital in Kingston. They honored the treaty, that one Fall day.

Leaving our farm for that drive we passed Galyon’s market, located at a crossroads in the Paint Rock community. On this day in 2004 it was crowded with cars and trucks, our local county commissioners looking for votes, were pressing the flesh and handing out hotdogs to the hungry citizens. I observed in my farm journal: In years past our ancestors would have at least been treated to an all-day BBQ and liquor fest before they consented to vote. Now it seems an Oscar wiener and a Coke suffices, no wonder that the Republic teeters on a knifes edge.

We stopped, chatted, ate our free hotdogs, drank our cokes, shook the proffered hands. Inside the store the candidates had put their campaign literature out on a table. Affixed to the table, the owners of the market had taped a large sign that read: Liar’s Table.

As we continued our journey, a funeral procession drove by slowly headed to the Paint Rock Baptist cemetery. We pulled to the side, as all do, until it passed.

When we had completed out tasks in Kingston we headed back to the farm, passing Galyon’s once more. The candidates were still at work with the hands and the handing out of hotdogs. This time the crowd was noticeably different. The men, instead of wearing overalls, had suitcoats slung over their shoulders and loosened ties around their necks. The funeral was over and as a bit of spontaneous reception for the dearly departed, all had stopped for the free sustenance and a handshake.

Above all their heads, a vinyl sign on the porch roof of the market read, “Pizza, Hot Wings, Cow Feed”.

Our Edible Landscape

Elderflowers, soon to be elderberries, soon to be elderberry wine.

It must have been close to a hundred degrees in the hoop-house. After weeding down one row of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and melons, I paused to put my glasses, made useless by the sweat streaming down my face, in my overall pocket before continuing. The next row, a first planting back in April, was now laden with tomatoes of all stripes and types. I snacked on the ripe cherry tomatoes as I pruned and tied up the heavy branches.

Finishing the last row, I harvested a handful of bell and jalapeno peppers before heading to the house. In the breezeway of the barn, substantial piles of red onions and garlic lay curing. Security against winter want, they provided visions of future stews and gumbos. After a quick stop in the herb garden for a fistful of cilantro, I dropped off the produce with Cindy, who was busy making salsa, and returned to my next morning task.

I am an avid procrastinator when it comes to weeding and mulching perennials. There always seems to be something more important to do, whether it’s trimming sheep’s hooves or sitting on the deck with a cup of coffee. But yesterday the looming chore rose to the top of the list. I weeded and mulched the grapes, blackberries, pawpaw orchard, and blueberry bushes. As I worked I snacked, first on the blueberries and then on the blackberries, in a comfortable rhythm. Eat berries. Pull grass. Repeat.

There is a satisfaction in being able to walk the farm and snack or harvest in any season. Whether it is greens in deep January or wild chanterelles in late July, the real “movable feast” is there for the taking (with a little bit of sweat and labor). Even the sassafras trees make a contribution; I gather and grind their leaves to a fine powder in my annual production of gumbo filé.

Yesterday’s munching was just an appetizer for the summer months to come. Soon there will be ripe beefsteak tomatoes, juicy sweet melons, platters of figs, and salads of peppers, cucumbers, homemade yogurt, and dill — each month’s cooking informed by the season, each month with its own theme.

July already has me salivating in anticipation. I’m thinking grilled ribeye with a little salt and pepper, garlicky mashed potatoes, a salad of sliced tomatoes topped with fresh basil, homemade bread, and a few glasses of wine for a theme.

This work of farming sure goes down easier if you enjoy the pleasures and conviviality of the table, or just the taste of a warm, fat blackberry on a humid afternoon, plucked from the vine a moment before you pop it in your mouth.

 Yep, it is going to be a great summer.

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Reading light this weekend: John Grisham’s latest, Camino Island. And, Martin Walker’s latest “Bruno” novel, The Templars’ Last Secret.

Don’t Make a Meal of It

We had finished hauling a half-dozen pine logs to the lumber yard. There were still a lot of small branches to pick up. So I told the kid to pick them up and pile them in a ravine and “don’t make a meal of it, come find me when you are done.” He said, sure, and got to work.

Told off since we were kids that a job is not worth doing unless it is done right has mislead generations, left them dithering at the crossroads of inaction A dear friend of ours often abused her husband for cleaning up the house less than perfect. She, being a perfectionist, never cleaned. Knowing in her heart of hearts it would never measure up.

Now sometimes doing the job thoroughly is important, such as heart surgery. But, and perhaps this is my Southern sensibility, I’m a 90% guy: Take care of 90% and the other 10% typically doesn’t matter. In fact, that last 10% can take 90% of your time. Sometimes, actually pretty darned often, not making a meal of it, instead of spending too much time on minor projects, is the appropriate amount to get done.

Learning the balance in completing work or spiraling down an anal retentive vortex of making nail cozies can be a fine line. It is a process we actively engage in each day on the farm, where the list of items increases minute by minute, wind storm by wind storm. Sometimes, even a half-assed completion is the spot-on-amount needed to accomplish the task. The skill and the talent of a good worker is determining when good is good-enough.

We pride ourselves on work well-done. But, we need to know when to move on and that every task fits in a larger framework.

Yesterday we pruned our new wine grapes to a central leader, put up the trellis wire and tied the vines off. I left undone the thorough weeding that was needed and an application of manure and mulch. It was time to move on and rake the hay in preparation for baling today.

Sometimes it is best to snack and not make a meal of it.

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Reading this weekend: The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben. A fascinating look at the “intelligence” and social life of trees. The writing is a bit uninspiring, I was hoping for something both profound and beautiful.

It’s Not the Grapes

In the John Sayles play “At the Anarchist Convention,” one of the old anarchists makes it a point to say that he refuses to eat grapes at the annual dinner. In a beautiful bit of back and forth with his comrades, he conflates the grapes on the plate with the famous 1970s grape boycott in support of striking farmworkers.

As a small-farm farmer, I often think of this play and how we, as a society, are prone to confusing the thing (the grape) with the process (the strike). For example, we disparage any grain feeding of livestock, when what we’re really protesting are the practices of the industrial feedlots and the monocultural production of millions of acres of commodity corn. Now this is not to say, Mr. Pollan, that raising livestock exclusively on grain hasn’t got its own set of problems, whether on an industrial or a small farm. But addressing appropriate process, scale, and humane treatment can help us frame a better question that yields a better answer than simply blaming the thing.

Yesterday, we butchered a couple of dozen Cornish X White Rock chickens. The day-old chicks we purchased a mere 8.5 weeks ago had grown out to produce an astounding 4.5-pound carcass. (Think of a Rottweiler and a Chihuahua side by side, and you’ll have an idea of how fast the cross grows compared to the traditional farm variety.) As a super-fast-growing bird, the Cornish-Rock has several issues of concern from the small-producer standpoint — weak limbs and lack of hardiness, to name two. But the bird, in and of itself, is not the crux of the problem.

The real problem is its role in the agri-industrial system. This commercial cross was bred specifically and exclusively for industrial exploitation: The Cornish-Rock cross is an ideal partner for the vertical factory model — a model in which bird, agribusinessman, and illegal immigrant plant worker are tightly bound in the same machine that spits out soylent green parts for consumption by the masses. The model that provides cheap protein, provides cheap veggies, provides cheap clothing, provides a cheapened life….

The grapes ain’t the problem, folks. It’s the process by which the grapes got to your table.

Reading This Weekend

Our little farm is humming along as we enter spring. From the green grass and ample rains, to the large flock of sheep and expanding poultry yard, the farm looks more prosperous this year than last; when the onset of what was an extreme drought began to color the land brown. That the orchards and all of the new plantings survived and are now thriving, we remark on daily as a miracle (thank you, Mr. Dionysus, for keeping the new wine grape plantings alive).  

Between tending the animals and the gardens, I still try to find time to maintain an active reading life, a balance that is important to my mental health. And Mr. Cobbett is always a good tonic to put things in perspective. Reading (again) portions of his Rural Rides, volumes 1 &2. This work is now close to its bicentennial and still full of timely information. Example: beware of visiting clergy, particularly the Methodist variety, they keep a keen ear for hog butchering days and consequently time their visits for the dinner hour.

Also, reading the new work by Jeffrey Roberts, Salted & Cured: savoring the culture, heritage, and flavor of America’s preserved meats. It is equal parts travelogue and history, and an interesting account of cured meats as they exist today in our land. A bit awkwardly written with a confusing narrative but it still has me interested in continuing our own curing experiments.

The 2015 title, Collards: A Southern tradition from seed to table, published by the University of Alabama, and written by Davis and Morgan, is well worth seeking out by any lover of greens. Personally, I’m more of a turnip or mustard greens man, having grown up outside of the core collard-belt. But this book is a well-written and enthusiastic account of the cultural importance of greens, a food group I always will celebrate.

What are you reading?

A Farm Breviary: Compline

The final office, and I’m seated in the doorway of the hoop-house. Behind me the compline bell rings with each shake of the ram’s head. The flock is bedded in the barn for the night, but still restless. Through the far door of the greenhouse, in the dimming light, the pigs gather as hungry penitents, hoping to be favored by an overgrown turnip or some other toothsome gift. Mere feet away, a rabbit munches a cabbage leaf, unconcerned by my presence.

The hour of compline begins with the restless, the hungry, and the insolent, which seems to be a certain commentary on something, if I could but grasp it. Meanwhile, in the blue-black sky above, a late jet catches up to the sun’s light at 40,000 feet and reflects the granted glory of a temporary membership among the celestial.

That too seems to me a lesson: mistaking reflected light as a sign of glory or evidence of mastery. Our literature as a species, outside of this current epoch of assumed progressive godhead, is replete with warnings of a fall and our inevitable irrelevance. We forget the lesson of the Roman triumph, where the servant stood at the conquering general’s ear and whispered the message of mortality, or the caution of the young Shelley, that the Ozymandian stature of our achievements was petty compared to the cosmos, or even to a tree, a bee, or a rock.

Perhaps we seek too high for that reflected illumination. Once, I had resolved to be as the moon, steadfast in her journey. Now I’m thinking I should be a cabbage. It seems not to care whether rabbit or human eats its leaves; it thrives in that short arc before becoming fodder for whatever destiny.

I laugh out loud at my absurd ruminations, startling the ram out of his own observance. He nervously rings the bell on his collar to close off the hour. Still no closer to an understanding, with this final office now observed, I pick up my chair and turn to leave. The rabbit casts a wary eye, then resumes its predations on my garden.

A final gaze at the night sky before I enter the house finds the familiar winking semaphore still sending its eternal dispatch — which I suspect, if I could just hear, would be whispering in my ear: remember, you are only a man, nothing more.