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.

Listening to Bees

A frame of capped honey

The smallest livestock on our farm are also the most fascinating to observe, from their daily diligence and complexity of social organization to the extraordinary “waggle dance” they use to communicate the location of nectar and new homes. Today, as we prepare to harvest the last of this year’s honey, I’m reminded that the bees have a lot to teach us. We only have to listen.

  • Work together today to provide for tomorrow. Winter is coming and those food stores don’t harvest themselves.
  • Expect your responsibilities to grow as you mature. Clean your room as a kid; be prepared to run the farm as an adult.
  • Be vigilant. A weak line of defense invites invasion, disease, and death.
  • Communicate. Use your best waggle dance to share critical information with those you care about.
  • Socialize. Nothing beats hanging out on the porch with your neighbors at the end of a busy summer’s day.
  • Don’t sting unless it’s absolutely necessary. Fight when the future depends on it, then fight with selfless fury.
  • Remember that you’re a member of the community. No matter how self-sufficient you imagine yourself, you can’t make all of the honey.
  • Don’t move into a mansion when a cottage will do. Live within your means, and learn to recognize, and heed, when enough is enough. A too-big house is harder to heat and cool, harder to clean, and much harder to protect.
  • Build a strong foundation. Be it bridges or buildings or banking systems, a shaky infrastructure puts the whole community at peril.
  • Render unto Caesar. Be prepared to yield an appropriate honey tax. And, be prepared for a revolution if the powers demand too much.

And one final lesson:

The canary in the coal mine. Tennessee bee losses last year were estimated to be as high as 80 percent, attributable only in part to the extreme drought. This catastrophic statistic is set against the background of increasing colony losses across the globe in recent decades. If we listen, the message these tiny, exquisite social creatures are sending us will be clear: the mine has become dangerous. And the fault — and the solution — lies at yours and my collective doorstep.

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.

Further Up, Further In

Years back I owned a bookstore in downtown Knoxville. The small selection of new titles and magazines was a fairly eccentric mix called, “alternative”. The remainder of the store was composed of used and out-of-print tomes on any number of conventional topics.

It was not uncommon for someone to sidle up to me once a week and say in a conspiratorial whisper, “I didn’t know you were a warlock?” Or, some such assumption, based on the simple fact that I carried a book or had a section devoted to one or more out-of-the-mainstream themes. Typically, these were just hopeful projections by the customer that they had found a kindred spirit.

Writing a weekly blog is a bit like the bookstore, where I stock the shelves and the visitor sifts through the jumble and vague pronouncements and makes a selection and determination. While I personally like that eclecticism of choice, what follows is a small attempt at a statement of intent and clarification on writing about the rural life.

Speaking for myself (not Cindy), my urge and motivation for moving to the farm 17 years back, and the desire to document it, had more to do with wishing to relearn what it was like to be a resident. Or, as Wes Jackson would phrase it, to be native to this place.

Living in a small valley south-west of Knoxville, TN, learning to garden, farm, and to eat more purposefully, has been a great joy. The great pleasure in this work (and, yes, that includes fencing) and the growing sense of being part of a community has been deeply satisfying.

Being part of a rural society is so much different than being part of the community that we left behind in the city. You choose your associations in a city. It provides a structure that mediates the interaction between you and your neighbors. In the country that neighbor is also your partner in a relationship where you repair fences figuratively and literally. You may not share the same faith, or political outlook. But you share the same property line and that makes a profound difference. In many ways a rural community is the more complex, interwoven and direct experience than that of the city. There is no bed to hide under in the country. You are known to all.

As part of this journey I have consciously self-identified as an agrarian, trying to uncover the rules and vocabulary of an ancient language. One that explains identity, brotherhood and sisterhood, the bonds of community, and a more intimate connection to the world in terms independent of contemporary political notions of right and left, liberal and conservative.

In these weekly writings I have strived to use that language to explain the rural life. Sometimes the posts are simply of the mundane tasks of working the land, other times they focus on cultural forces that shape the people in this area.

So, it should come as no surprise to any reader that a blog called The South Roane Agrarian would be somewhat biased towards that life. Which is not to say that I don’t recognize the values of the people, the varied cultures, or the opportunities of the city. After all, that is a call that has pulled on rural peoples for millennia. But, I do think that the rural life speaks more directly to the human experience and offers more hope in an uncertain future.

And, in my modest opinion, the dominant culture always speaks for the city. They need no further protection, justification, or explanation. It is the rural culture that has become the great “other” in our country. The flyover, the drive-by, the dump-on.

So, these posts are written in the hope of being part of a larger project. One whose roots link me with antiquity, our ancestors, and, living in balance with my neighbors and this planet. And, with an understanding that all societies ebb and flow, that climate change will limit our opportunities, that the future of growth will narrow the path, that a couple of centuries of efficient resource exploitation may leave us with millennia of picking through the leftovers; surviving all of that, I maintain, will be largely a rural project.

C.S. Lewis had a phrase in his book, The Last Battle, “further up, and further in”. Which pretty much sums up my approach to this little blog, that by focusing small, I will begin to see large.

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As my personal editor is off visiting her family this weekend all grammatical errors and sloppy sentences, regrettably, belong to me.

 

 

A Great Divide

In this country we have a long tradition of alternatively praising the work of the farmer and disparaging his lifestyle, the latter often accompanied by the epithet “hick” or “hillbilly.”

I was reminded of this these past few weeks with the ascension of the Tweeter in Chief, when a new broadside of vitriol was being fired at rural America. At a recent march, one speaker actually said, “We are tired of these people living out in the middle of nowhere telling us how to run our government.” On his Inauguration Day late-night show, Bill Maher referred to voters in the rural state of West Virginia as “pillbillies.” Closer to home, my own doctor condemned complaints by rural Tennesseans about lack of services by saying, “Who needs rural America anyway?” My answer: “Anyone who wants to eat.”

To say that basic respect has broken down between the cities and the interior seems at this juncture in the Republic an understatement at best. Any attempt to find a middle ground gets shot down by the left and the right as a defense of the other side. “Communication” is now a cracked landscape of carefully parsed conversations, tweets, and blog posts, all looking for hints of a wrongward tilt.

Example: An economist being interviewed recently on NPR suggested to his host that to better understand the anxiety in the country, the interviewer drive 45 minutes out of DC to see firsthand the economic dissolution of the rest of America. The interviewer glossed over what seemed a reasonable suggestion and, instead, asked the economist to explain why rural America has failed to endorse a laundry list of popular cultural agendas — a connection whose relevance I failed to comprehend.  

Our farm is located in Appalachia, an area that has long been the subject of scorn and mockery. The region’s people, although poor in ways that matter to a money economy, have traditionally been rich in independence, resilience, and self-sufficiency. It now seems that the language used to denigrate this area historically is to be applied across the land to anyone outside the belt of the bright lights.

And that is a mistake. First, because as the wealth of this country dwindles, as the climate becomes increasingly unstable, as the resources that provided this amazing historical interlude run out, we may very well be looking to the hicks and hillbillies to teach us the skills that have long sustained their culture.

Second, because history has shown that it’s imprudent to rile an armed and downtrodden population. Fully 86 percent of our military is drawn from rural and small-town America, and following policies that erode rural families and communities and ignore skyrocketing permanent unemployment, culturally mocking that same population as “pillbillies,” is a recipe for revolt.

As the economist on NPR said, it might be wise for the elitist policy and cultural trend makers to visit the hinterlands and have a non-condescending conversation with the inhabitants. But I don’t hold out much hope for that to happen. Instead, the hard work of dialog will be left to us — town and country, middle America and the coasts — to create anew a language of respect and understanding.

Weekend Observations and Scrapbook

The World

  • Politics: Sometimes I feel as if our choices are between a road to ruin and a more inclusive road to ruin.

    Our nearest neighbor

    The road less traveled.

    The little house at the entrance to our farm

    Blimey! It’s mutton.

  • The view from 20,000 feet is one of overreach. The view on the ground is more of the same.
  • Beware of old men in a hurry.
  • When people speak of the coastal elites, we may assume that they are not referring to the Gulf Coast, where I was born.
  • According to NYT, 60 percent of the species most closely related to humans, primates, will be extinct by 2050. I hope I’m not called to account for my actions in hastening that prospect.

The Farm

  • The buttered bread theory: When falling forward into the muck of a pig paddock, your knee will find the hidden stone.
  • Home-fermented kimchi makes the perfect alternative salad to a rich Butcher’s Wife’s Pork Chops
  • Beware of what you wish for…. Rain yesterday, rain today, and blimey, if it don’t look like rain again tomorrow.
  • Mutton pie, composed mainly of ingredients raised right outside our door, can’t be beat.
  • Owning the right gun is a bit like owning a truck. When a friend has need (dispatching a dying goat), you get the call.

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Reading this weekend: The Tribe: on homecoming and belonging, by Sebastian Junger.