The Butcher’s Bill

The obligatory cute lamb picture

This mid-winter morning, the mercury hovers around 10, the ground is lightly covered with brittle snow, and, as the prospect of another week in the deep freeze settles into my chilled bones, my thoughts are dark. I spent most of yesterday avoiding outdoor projects on the farm. Time that could have been employed constructively was devoted instead to a post comparing our cushy fossil-fueled lives to a 19th century slaveholder economy. Eventually I shelved it. “Too bleak,” Cindy said. “I want to hear about the lambs.”

Heck, I too would rather hear about lambs than read yet another rant about our fatal addiction to consumption. Which, I admit, is just one more pile of sand in which I bury my head. My competing impulses create a quandary. When a young person talks to me about his dreams for a good life, my first instinct is to interrupt, to tell him the planet has determined that our good life is no longer viable, dreams or not. Instead, I tell him about lambs. The promise of birth and death and birth again. I believe in both narratives, and I don’t want to burst his bubble, so I tell only the one story.

Which is why I love farming. It is a great place for a short-term optimist/long-term pessimist like myself. The old joke about the farmer who won a million bucks perfectly encapsulates my outlook: “So what are you going to do with that million dollars?” “I guess I’ll keep farming until it runs out.” Well, I too will keep on farming, enjoying and embracing it for however long it lasts, even as I remain convinced that the planet is preparing to reboot. If I could just find my pipe and supply of hope-ium seed, then just maybe I could help extend that optimistic vision out another generation.

My own inclination for a favorable construct, meanwhile, continues to be fed by lots of new pigs, a new pregnant sow, baby lambs hitting the ground daily, an ongoing diet of learning new skills, dreams of a better garden, and good friends in the community. Two of the latter stopped by last night with a gift one of them had worked on for the better part of a year. A beautiful rustic bench adorned with a seat back that spelled out “Winged Elm,” it was handmade of wood from both theirs and our farm. We invited them in to share some homemade chicken and dumplings. The chicken itself was a gift from two young farmers in exchange for the use of our chicken plucker. So, despair not, gentle reader, for your scribe. I’ll always enjoy a convivial evening and the miracles of everyday life.

Well, the sun isn’t up, but in this frigid dawn light I see the ram lambs. They are gathered at the hay barn, trying to magic their feed down onto their dining room table. I must leave you — thinking of cute lambs, not about the butcher’s bill that inevitably comes due.

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Lanterns On The Levee: recollections of a Planter’s son, by William Alexander Percy. A beautifully written memoir of the Mississippi Delta, that also manages to be both offensively racist and full of class snobbery. 

Chill Hours

There is no pretending that this is anything but a misery, walloping a completely frozen cistern in the vain hope of finding water in the depths. Nothing for it now but to head up to the house 300 yards a way and start lugging buckets of water. Two three-gallons at a time, filled at the hydrant. Stoop, stand, walk, repeat. Three times a day.

This might be a good time to call upon my reserve of latent Scandinavian DNA, that inner vast, untapped, frozen reservoir of stoic resolve. Or, perhaps I could mitigate the effects of the cold by cursing like my great-great-uncle, a merchant marine captain legendary for his facility at swearing within a word. I try my hand. “Miser-damn-able weather!” I say. It is the best I can muster, and it does nothing to thaw the cistern or warm my toes. It does, however, bring a smile to my frozen cheeks.

It’s a smile that quickly fades as I peer into the hoop-house. The collards and mustard greens — at a balmy 69 degrees, they benefit from the radiant warmth of Old Sol as all outside struggles to hit 18 — need water. Stoop, stand, walk, repeat, repeat, repeat. Miser-damn-able weather.

I walk the quarter-mile to the mailbox, in and of itself a feat of Shackleton proportions. It’s the wind that does me in. Zero, sunny, and calm I can handle. But any wind at 18 degrees is “in-goddamn-sufferable.” (Eureka! esteemed mariner, I think I have it!)

What I don’t have are the seed catalogs. And what I want more than anything, having now accrued enough chill hours for this gardener to go dormant and prepare to bud, is to while away my evenings dreaming of a better garden. One that this year will be free of flea beetles, squash borers, and potato bugs; one that will sport well- and timely mulched rows and neatly trellised crops, receive just the right amount of rain at just the right moments, with temperatures not too hot, not too cold. Not too much to ask.

Even the inestimable SESE hippies have let me down. Still lost in 1969, they are late in delivering. I imagine the whole collective hard at work, turning the crank on the old mimeograph and hand-stapling the 2018 catalog, before all climb into their beflowered VW bus for the annual trip to the post office and the mailing of their excellent offerings.

Fat lot of good that does me right now. I could break dormancy at any moment.

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Reading this weekend: Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey. and, Southern Harvest, by Clare Leighton. 

A Convivial Life: revisited

Our home-cured ham before being thinly sliced into prosciutto.

Last night was the annual holiday gathering on the farm, with good friends from far and wide. As a result your faithful scribe is moving a bit slow this morning. So, I leave you with one from the archives on the same topic.  Cheers (But, quietly, please).

In what was a convivial happenstance, the weather turned cold last night for our annual Christmas/Solstice gathering, and we spent several very pleasant hours with good friends from town and country here on the farm. This morning damage was confined to a few bags of trash and a full slop bucket for the pigs. So different from the parties of our younger days, but maturity comes in time to us all.

Wandering through the house during the evening, I heard snippets of conversation: a fellow farmer on a sow’s first-time farrowing, a librarian on the decline of library patronage, a native of Chicago on where Emma Goldman is buried (Waldheim cemetery), Cindy with an explanation of our hoop-house to be built in the spring.

As the energy ebbed into the night, I walked with a few friends in the bright moonlight past the orchard to admire a new barn, a fresh stack of lumber, and a massive oak log — the standards of entertainment being quite high here in the rural hinterlands. Our guests extended appropriate gestures of appreciation, then we made our way back to the warmth of the farmhouse for more wassail.

With the last guests leaving by 11, we turned in after a little cleanup before midnight. We slumbered deeply until Teddy began barking savagely around 2 a.m. After a few ignored shouts from me to shut up and no move from Cindy to deal with the problem, I got up. Funny that, the domestic politics of pretending to be so deep in sleep that your partner is forced out into the cold house and even colder night.

The mercury hovering in the mid-20s, I stomped around in boxers and T-shirt on the frosty ground, as Teddy continued to respond as if slaughter awaited in the darkness. I played the flashlight among the trees, but saw nothing but a cold and beautiful star-filled night. Teddy’s coat still bristled when I finally put him on the back porch.

Imminent death by serial murderers be damned, I then headed back upstairs. Sliding back under the quilts, Cindy still feigning deep sleep, I drifted off again until the morning’s light.

Late In The Day

A lane in our woods.

The sun hovers on the western horizon, an hour left on its time clock, as I walk out the back door and up the wooded lane beyond the pasture gates. The walk is quiet, muffled by deep leaves of countless seasons on this land. My destination, as it often is, a pile of boulders at the base of a half-dozen oaks. I climb onto the largest and use a smaller, four-foot stone as a footrest.

A cairn of rocks six feet tall and 20 across lies at the edge of the pasture. Another stands illuminated across the field like a treasure hoard in the curious light of a low sun through a leafless deciduous forest in November. The rocky groupings are seated on the sidelines of all our pastures. They are hard evidence of generations of boys who spent their youth in farm chores, among them, picking up the endlessly erupting rocks and stacking them in mounds.

Behind me lie two oaks felled by storms decades past and decades apart, one now nearly buried in leaf litter, its long cycle of decay almost complete. Ten yards away a limb as big around as my waist dangles 40 feet up. Broken off from a parent white oak, it hangs like Damocles’ sword above we mortals who dare imagine the world as our throne.

The sound of Cedar Creek is barely audible as it channels under the bridge at Possum Trot. Another quarter-mile and it will narrow at the decaying Cook’s Mill, where elder neighbors recall as children hauling mule-driven wagonloads of corn for milling.

A leaf spirals into my view, released from a seasonal contract to land at the foot of a massive shagbark hickory. Nearby, a deep-rooted sourwood, contorted in the last ice storm, refuses to submit to gravity. At its base a large stone is covered with the debauched remains of a dinner by the resident squirrels: bits of hickory and acorns piled in the center of the table.

A small flock of wild turkeys, feeling safe a couple of days after Thanksgiving, ambles across a lower pasture and enters my wood. On the far side of the road beyond lies the expanse of pastures that marks our neighbor’s cattle farm. From there comes the nervous bawling of dozens of cows, as they discover their new home after an auction in a nearby town.

Their disquiet competes with the sound of distant chainsaws from all points of the compass, chewing on wood. And then, unexpectedly, another intrusion. A neighbor beyond the eastern ridge and half a mile away fires up his ATV to begin what is an early start to his habitual late-night motorized rambles.

Toward the house, I can just hear Cindy in the woods as she clangs the lid off the feed barrel. An overeager hog squeals as he hits the single strand of hot wire. I smile: I can check the task of determining if the current is pulsing off my to-do list for the next day.

I rise from my perch and head home. Not down the lane, but at an angle that leads me into the heart of the woods. I note a likely Charlie Brown Christmas tree along the way. I then pause, as is my wont, at the base of a sentinel white oak. Its circumference is all of 15 feet, its trunk reaches 40 straight feet before the first branches erupt, and the fissures in the bark are two inches deep. I lay hands on it, hoping to receive a blessing of sorts.

Now, on the edge of the main woods, I traverse a pig paddock not in use. In the middle is a tall pile of fallen limbs. It provides a sometime shelter for the hogs and, more often, a haven for the red fox that ventures out to make raids on errant hens.

By the time I exit the woods, Cindy is trudging up the drive in her bee suit, fresh from checking that her charges are well-fed and secured for the cool night to come.

The sun has set, the light fades, and I head into the house, pleased to call it another good day.

rock cairn

the dining table

The old oak.

 

In Defense of Somewhere

I remember walkin’ ‘round the court square sidewalk
Lookin’ in windows at things I couldn’t want
There’s Johnson’s hardware and Morgan’s jewelry
And the ol’ Lee King’s apothecary

Somewhere

Somewhere — the gravel road I grew up on, the wharf I fished from, the woods at the end of the road where we roamed, the edge of the bayou where we fought off pirates to keep them from landing — is no longer. It is now an anywhere of pavement, sidewalks, Walmarts, hotels, casinos, and housing developments. Anywhere is nowhere.

I go back now, and the stores are all empty
Except for an old coke sign from 1950
Boarded up like they never existed
Or renovated and called historic districts

Anywhere is a global assault weapon, firing bullets of convenience and terminal extraction. Even without a smarter-than-you phone, you can find, around each corner, the Starbucks, the McDonald’s, the everywhere of anywhere. All the signs, hovering over expanses of concrete, flashing the conquest-driven desires of the Empire to colonize the somewhere.

Now the court square’s just a set of streets
That the people go round but they seldom think
Bout the little man that built this town
Before the big money shut em down

It always begins, thus, with the paving of roads. (For we all secretly know, the road in is a road out.) The new road comes to town and the longtime general store closes down, its population drawn by a siren’s call to the dollar store that opened in the next small town. Then, that up-and-coming town gets a check cashing store, and a rent-to-own, and a doublewide mobile home dealer. In a few years, that small town is compacted and consumed, repackaged and reissued, newly minted as a bedroom community of the anywhere. And its growing population learns the limited joys of spending its days circling the streets of plenty, like water in a drain.

He pumped your gas and he cleaned your glass
And one cold rainy night he fixed your flat
The new stores came where you do it yourself
You buy a lotto ticket and food off the shelf

A genius of this empire is that it was built in bricks of self-loathing. The new construct is a place where the food of one’s people is scorned and a quarter-pounder Thai burger sounds like a possibility, where the inhabitants wander around in such dislocation that their limbs move like invertebrates of the sea, clutching at random unneeded objects in a painful effort to perambulate down the Costco shopping aisles.

Now the bank rents the station
To a man down the road
And sells velvet Elvis and
Second-hand clothes

Until ultimately, used up and useless as a boarded-up Kmart that becomes a rock band masquerading as a non-denominational church, the Big Show leaves us, pulls out of town. In its wake a cratered post-battle landscape, a lonely fortified outpost of colonization on the edge of town that pays low wages and serves up a ghost offering to Anywhere. Pale in its incarnation, the orbiting halogen sun flickers just brightly enough to illuminate our dreams. And inside this opium den of our own making, clutching our pipe, we eagerly inhale the fumes and forget, for a while, that we once lived somewhere. That we were Somewhere. 

Now the court square’s just a set of streets
That the people go round but they seldom think
Bout the little man that built this town
Before the big money shut em down.

 (Lyrics courtesy of “Little Man” by Alan Jackson)

 

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Reading this weekend: Where the Wild Winds Are, by Nick Hunt. Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening.

A Lamb’s Life

Winter: It was 24 degrees the morning No. 28 was born. Sleet pellets bounced off my old Carhartt jacket and the sky was slate gray when I headed out on my early morning rounds. The two cups of hot coffee helped little in warding off the chill wind as I rushed through my outdoor chores before reaching the relative warmth of the barn.

Entering a barn during lambing season involves careful observation: Who is soon to lamb, and is anyone showing signs of a distressed labor? Who has lambed already, and are all lambs up and nursing? The experienced mother will keep close track of her offspring, protecting them from the scrum of other sheep, but a first-time mother is easily unnerved and will often rush outside without her newborns, trailing the afterbirth, oblivious to what is expected of her in this new role in life.

On this particular morning, January 6th, a handful of fresh faces greeted me — the most exciting, twins born to our favorite ewe, No. 1333. No. 1333 is a large, handsome ewe who is uncommonly friendly, always standing still to receive a good scratching. As in the previous lambing season, she had just given birth to a male and a female. Much to our disappointment, she had lost the last year’s ewe lamb in a freak accident. We were anxious that nothing go wrong this time.

Later in the day, we eartagged No. 28 and her twin, 29. Eventually, we’d finish the season with 44 lambs, but in this first week of the year, lambing was just getting started. Other than the identifying numbers, the twins were soon indistinguishable from the mass of other lambs, running in and out of the larger flock, occasionally pummeling the udders of their moms.

Spring: Unlike the long and devastating drought of the previous year, this winter and spring’s rains had created a lush growth by April. It became a daily occurrence for us to remark on the change in landscape, as the unnatural browns gave way to the deepest greens. The lambs and ewes were turned out on new grass and thrived. For hours on end we’d watch the youngsters, tumbling about in soft grass at play, interrupted only by a mother’s bleat or a long, sun-warmed nap. Throughout the season, the inevitable deaths occurred: the lamb born at night that managed to roll outside the barn and die from the elements; the one I had to dispatch mercifully after it was stepped on by the flock and broke its back.

Summer: Mild temperatures and steady rain, a record hay crop, and modest garden success provided the backdrop as our little No. 28 transformed into a hardy, large-framed weanling. In June we separated the babies from their mothers. For the next few days, the moms would crowd one gate, the lambs another, fifty yards between them, and bleat. Loudly. Day and night. Another couple of days and the moms turned their attention back to the grass; a couple more and the lambs finally followed suit. Weaning accomplished, quiet restored.

Fall: It was an October evening during the late Indian summer, as we headed out to a dinner with friends, that we spotted a lamb lying down in the tall grass of the bottom pasture, noticeable by its isolation from the flock. We stopped the car and walked out to the field. There she was, No. 28, head up, alert, but unmoving.

Sheep are prey animals. They don’t lie down and stay down until they’re physically unable to go anymore. A quick check of the lamb’s gums revealed an unhealthy lack of color. Seemingly overnight, she had lost all of her body fat. We grabbed a wheelbarrow, put her in for the ride, and I pushed her up the long hill to the barn. We secured her in a stall and went on to dinner.

Over the next several days, we treated her with two different types of wormers. For us, worming is an infrequent occurrence. All sheep have some internal parasites, but we select and cull based on an individual sheep’s ability to carry a small enough “worm load” that she thrives without repeated use of parasiticides.

Each morning, we’d bring a bucket of warm water and mild soap to the barn and sponge off the accumulated scouring (diarrhea) from No. 28’s rear legs. After the second wormer was administered, the feces became solid, well formed — not what you’d expect from a lamb with a heavy parasite load. At that point we began to suspect something else was at work, since No. 28 remained alert, yet still unable to stand.

The day before we found her lying in the lower field, our 200-pound ram had managed to breach a fence and spend the night with our ewe lambs. Our new working hypothesis was that the ram had attempted to breed the developing young ewe and caused some nerve damage.

Having ascertained that her back was not broken, we rigged up a makeshift sling of saddle girths in hopes of retraining No. 28 to stand. For the next three days, we placed her in the sling three times a day with her feet just touching the ground. We would exercise each leg, moving it forward and backward, side to side. Through all of this, the ewe lamb continued to have a healthy appetite. We were committed to nursing her as long as the possibility of recovery still existed. But recovery was not to be.

On the morning of the fourth day, when I entered the barn, No. 28 was lying upright, but her head was extended forward onto the hay. This is never a good sign, but we were both loathe to give up on her too soon. We were anxious to preserve both her genetics and her life. She remained a calm, affectionate lamb, seemingly glad to have you stroke her head even in her distress.

Leaving the barn, I headed out to finish bush-hogging an upper pasture. We had a cold front coming in around midday and were expecting rain. It was a few hours before I made my noonday hospital visit to the patient. This time, when I approached, her neck was stretched out in the hay, her body limp, like a balloon with a slow leak. Her eyes still followed me, but without the usual spark. This was an act in a play that we had seen too many times. She was going to die — it was now just a matter of when.

I walked slowly back to the house. I picked up my 30-30 and returned to the barn. The lamb’s labored breathing was audible when I opened the stall gate. I raised the rifle and shot her between and just above both watching eyes. She died instantly.

Outside, the cold rain began to fall on the valley. I went back to the house, gun in my hand, breathing in the smell of the rain, of this season, aware of this rhythm, this awful beauty in the dying of the year. But I continued to look ahead, on another cold day in early January, to when the next lambing season begins on our farm, always in hope and sometimes in death.

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Reading this weekend: The Art of Loading Brush: new agrarian writings, by Wendell Berry. And, The Lean Farm: how to minimize waste, increase efficiency, and maximize value and profits with less work, by Ben Hartman. Both, seemingly at odds with each other upon first glance.

The South is a Neolithic Fort: revisited

Paul Kingsnorth, in his latest collections of essays, references a Scottish poet who moved to a small isolated farm and never left. His friends visited and asked why he had withdrawn from the world. Standing there among his gardens, he answered, I didn’t withdraw, I attacked.

These past weeks as a residual collection of pond-scum Nazis and Klansmen fought against those swept up in an emotional new-Taliban-ish movement, it occurred to me both were hell-bent on purification, either of a people or a history. Both seemed an appropriate stand-in actor for our modern world, with its mania for either paving over an inconvenient past or an arable landscape.

The real rebel culture of the South has always been found in its gardens, chicken coops, and pigsties. So, today, I resolve upon leaving my study to go out to my gardens, where, in an act of rebellion, I will launch an attack against modernity, one tomato at a time. Let my monument be a well-stocked larder and a cured ham hanging under the stairs.

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.

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.

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Reading this weekend: Butter, a rich history, by Elaine Khosrova.