Late-winter is the precarious season on a farm, all on balance between hope and disaster. A race for fresh growth against dwindling stores of forage. Early blooming peaches and plums gamble against a late hard-freeze. Bees venture out in search of pollen sources, fighting against the clock in the starvation time of the year. Cabbages and greens go in the ground, while I scan the fields for early dandelion shoots for our salad. Chicks peep loudly in the brooder. The post office calls at seven, one morning, to say more have arrived. A hen sets on a dozen eggs in the sheep hay manger. Every week we load up and cart off hogs and lambs to the butcher for customers, making room for more on this land. Precarious, a roll of the dice, a preamble to the really busy time that comes with Spring.
the bee listener
an ever changing road sign
a well house that doubles as a smokehouse
Reading this weekend: Craeft: An inquiry into the origins and true meaning of traditional crafts.
For all intents and purposes, we are the beneficiaries of a slave economy. We may have exchanged human chattel for the energy slaves contained in a barrel of oil and the machines that consume it, but the economics work out the same and we can’t walk away without giving up status and wealth.
Thomas Jefferson well understood the conflict between the words “all men are created equal” and the reality of being part of a slaveholding economy. He called slavery a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot” on our country. He asserted that all had the right to personal freedom. And yet, he did not free his slaves.
This life we all live, powered by fossil fuel slaves, is certainly not a system based on the indentured misery of human slavery. It does, however, produce the same relationship between we the slaveholders and our property, a destruction of life, a high moral cost, and dependency on an unsustainable system. In this system, our slaves labor tirelessly to provide us with a level of grand living that would not be attainable if we relied on our own two hands. These units of stored sunlight, the busy hands of eons past, they slave away, providing comforts, doing the hard work, making clothes, shipping wine to the table, toiling in the fields, building us roads to leave by and planes to fly —at a resource cost that dooms ours, as all such slave empires, to the dusty midden of history.
Some think that in this established order there is no need to change: We are the rightful masters. God declared our right to make all subordinate to our needs. There is no moral depravity in looting this world. Our modern slaves exist to make our lives ones of comfort and ease, of mint juleps taken on the veranda. This is the “natural” world, the natural order.
Others (and I am one of them) sip on juleps and read, discuss, and try to understand the horrifying consequences of using up a limited resource. We are the self-styled enlightened. The knowledge that our privileged place is built on the lashed back of a ruined planet does not escape the grip of our soft thinking and our softer hands. We know the machines can’t keep working for us without being fed. We see the warning signs that the land is being worn out, the animals disappearing in a great new extinction, the endless offspring of our own species displacing the native flora and fauna, the waterways and the oceans soiled and empty of life.
And so we act as the planters of old acted. We make deals with our moral depravity. We use our blood money to buy “green” machinery that we hope exempts us from exploitation of the slave economy. We pledge not to buy more slaves. We put the old slaves on the block to be sold for new ones that, we tell ourselves, don’t need to be fed: sustainable slavery. All the while we conveniently ignore the huge numbers of the old order that will always be needed to build and maintain the new.
We think that if we use the profits of this hideous trade wisely, it will be for the betterment of the planet. But blood money is always blood money, and the game comes to the same end: a ruined planet. Meanwhile, wed to our Faustian bargain, we defer abolition for another generation, for our comfort is our birthright on this poor enslaved planet.
Someday, perhaps in our lifetime, the starving slaves will disappear in the middle of the night — the planet in revolt. Weeping, we will step out on the veranda of our mighty homes, calling out in vain for another julep, a sumptuous plate of food. Weak and alone, we will stumble into the fields and take unfamiliar tools into our hands, only to find the land bled dry, exhausted by our profligacy, refusing and unable to extend a hand of help.
We will then walk out the gates and begin a life of wandering through a shattered landscape. We will gather around a fire at night and tell stories to skinny offspring of the grand days when we lived in the big house.
Reading this weekend:The Forgiveness of Nature, the story of grass by Graham Harvey.
A friend of mine recently described his beekeeping status like this: “I’m a seasonal beekeeper. I buy bees every year, keep them for the summer season, until they leave or die in the fall and winter. Then I start again the next spring.” One of our area hive inspectors, who knows a thing or two about beekeeping, has already lost all of his colonies this winter. A natural beekeeper I know who adheres to all the latest trends in chemical-free beekeeping lost 40 of his 48 hives in 2017. And according to the state apiarist, up to 80 percent of Tennessee’s honeybee colonies died in the 2016-2017 period.
As Mr. Salatin would say, “Folks, this ain’t normal.”
East Tennessee has a temperate climate and is not home to vast commodity crop fields and their corresponding high pesticide loads. It has a diverse, pollinator-friendly range of flowering flora. Yet, the best we are offering is just not enough. Bees are, well, dropping like flies.
The new reality is that what has worked for hundreds and thousands of years is now in free fall. Blame it on neonicotinoids and our polluting ways, blame it on climate change, blame it on Trump — but a fundamental of human agriculture is in collapse. How far down will things spiral? That is impossible to say.
Bees, native and managed, pollinate about 75 percent of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables we Americans rely on to sustain our population. Cross-pollination supports at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of wild plants. Yet in rural China, abuse of pesticides has decimated bee populations to the point that humans now have to pollinate by hand the enormous pear crop. No, it is not normal, and it is not sustainable.
Here at Winged Elm Farm, we love keeping bees. We love working with and for them, harvesting their honey, and hearing their reassuring hum everywhere in our soundscape. We look forward, when the temperature on a sunny day hits 50 degrees, to homing in on the distinctive buzzing of one of our girls. When we lose a colony of bees, it is almost as painful as losing a favored ewe. Losing all of the hives is akin to losing our whole flock. Devastating.
Yes, there are plenty of things all of us can do to help the bees.
Plant rich and varied sources of nectar and pollen.
Ditch the pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.
Create and preserve habitats for non–honeybee pollinators.
But I’m still not sanguine about turning things around. The technophiles blather blandly about a 10 billion–strong human population and bee drones to feed it, and the talking heads at the UN say we need to double our housing stock to accommodate the growth. Our species has already put the climate at risk, likely fueling a sixth mass extinction, so excuse me, my friends, if I don’t believe more of the same is the answer.
Recently I stumbled across someone who offered up this advice to save the bees: Everyone should put sugar water out on their porch to feed them. Which is akin to a plan to fight world hunger by putting a Dunkin’ Donuts on every corner of every village and town. It misses both the point and the scope of the problem. Meanwhile, the political realm offers the usual partisan solution of either redoubling our faith in the god of market forces or bolstering our inventory of band-aids to mask the problem.
That neither is adequate to tackling the crisis at hand is an understatement. Yet the last major political leader to warn us of the costs of our profligate ways was sent packing back to his peanut farm.
Reading this weekend: Assault in Norway, Thomas Gallagher. And We Die Alone, David Howarth. Two fantastic and inspiring books of true-life heroes.
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.
Reading this weekend: 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.
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.
Reading this weekend: Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey. and, Southern Harvest, by Clare Leighton.
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.
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.