The old Morris chair celebrates Christmas

In the darkness, a couple of hours before sunrise, the wind has come up. I dress quietly, find my way downstairs. After making coffee, I take a seat in the old Adirondack chair on the front porch. The warm blast in advance of the cold front, roaring in like heavy surf at night, rolls over the wooded ridge and across the valley in waves. Becky, our aging stockdog, takes up point behind the chair, in easy reach of a comforting hand. Obstreperous bulls and boars are as nothing before her snarl, but a bit of rain, a rifle shot, or a clap of thunder sends her from the field in a cower.

Something has shaken loose out by the haybarn, prompting me to mutter a hope that it isn’t anything significant. As Christmas draws near, it is not visions of sugarplums, but rather vast sheets of plastic blowing off hoop-houses that dance in my head. Meanwhile, the yearling lambs bleat in protest at being woken up. I should tell them that with a month left on this earth, they’d best be up and enjoying the early morning. The butcher waits for no one.

Perhaps the great thread-spinners prompted me to do the same this morning — one never knows when death will arrive. On the eve of the winter solstice this year, we hosted the daughter of a best friend from college. Only 2 when her father unexpectedly passed away 22 years ago, she was now beginning a quest to visit his friends, to answer the unknowns of self and place.

It had been more than 33 years since I had shot pool and drunk Dixie beer in the Bayou with her father. I could hear him clearly in her voice and laugh, reminding me that we only think we are masters of our individual selves. A step back reveals context, threads connecting us as part of a larger and lovelier tapestry. Like the wind hurtling over the ridge, which began over the flat prairie, which began over the cold oceans, we have origins within origins rolling back, back, to the beginning and the before.

On the morning of the solstice we put my friend’s daughter in her car. She headed south to a Louisiana home she had never visited, a motherland that had nurtured generations of her father’s family. We wished her well and waved goodbye.

And now, this early morning, my coffee finished, the storm moving closer, I stand up and bring Becky into the house. She heads directly to hide behind the venerable Morris chair — a relic of a wedding suite belonging to my great-grandparents, bought in Boston on their honeymoon, brought home to Crowley, Louisiana, before journeying north to Tennessee, a century later, to this farm of their great-grandson.

I return to the wind and begin my morning chores, my first stop making sure the hoop-house is indeed intact. The pregnant ewes in the main barn let me know with familiar bleats that they wish to be fed and turned out into the fields. The ewes are only days from the start of lambing season, bellies hanging low, udders engorged, the struggles of birthing and raising last year’s offspring forgotten in this year’s discomfort of waiting for the new generation, fresh threads on life’s ancient tapestry.


Reading this weekend:  Small is Beautiful, by E. F. Schumacher. Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands: a book of the rural arts, by Allen H. Eaton. American Fantastic Tales, the two volume collection from the Library of America.

The Steen’s Syrup Republic

It pains me to speak of parental moral failings. Yet, an honest, clear-eyed assessment of the shortcomings of our role models is what makes us men and women, separates us from the mere beasts, even when the lessons on how to live are learned at the clay feet of those nearest and dearest. Indeed, out of rigorous self-examination does greatness rise.

Now, in order that others gain from such experience, let us draw back the curtain, stiffen our spines, and take instruction. My stepmother, limited by her birth in North Louisiana, had two principal failings, each of which was encouraged by not being instantly and roundly denounced by my father.

The first, she put a powdered creamer in her coffee. In those distant days, when the northern part of the state was still a foreign country, the natives of that blighted land were wont to using this unholy substance. And they did so without shame. When dining at the Pioneer Club, with all the family as witness, my stepmother would request it with her after-dinner coffee. A quick scurrying by waitstaff, huddled conversations, eventually a distraught chef issuing from the kitchen with apologies: “We are sorry, ma’am, but we do not have this ‘powdered creamer.’ Would you like some milk?” She soon took to carrying a jar of Coffeemate non-dairy coffee creamer, a scarlet sin hidden away in her purse, for emergencies, its mere presence an indication of membership in an outlier clan of which such an act would be construed as “normal.”

The second failing, and perhaps the more to be pitied, was her preference for Smucker’s fruit syrups over our native Steen’s cane syrup. No doubt, my siblings will be mortified at my airing of such dirty laundry, but, there it is, it cannot be unsaid. Sins of such magnitude (to be cataloged alongside the predisposition of norlanders to drown their breakfast with sweet tree sap) cannot be lightly dismissed with a “we must make allowances.” Lines must be drawn.

That my brothers and sisters have all managed, even with this egregious moral instruction, to still learn, one foot before the other, that a syrup created from the juices of sugar cane stalks cooked in an open kettle to burnt gold is the only correct choice to pour over pancakes must surely give hope to the citizens of our land. Children learn lessons from both good and bad example. They can and do transcend poor practices through acute observation, ultimately choosing the higher road and shunning the moral transgressions of those of weaker constitutions.

Fear of flavor is not a lost moral crusade; pilgrims still struggle on the rocky road. Although in these waning days of the Republic our options may be limited, the way obstructed, we still stand resolute with a courage that never wavers.

Steen’s syrup, now and forever.


Reading this weekend: Father and Son, by Larry Brown. S is for Southern, a guide to the South, from Absinthe to Zydeco.

Father’s Day: a Thanksgiving

This weekend I am in Oregon for the wedding of my niece, daughter of my eldest sister, Cynthia. Here is a “Thanksgiving” post from the archives about the importance a father plays in shaping who we are today. Happy Father’s Day, dad.

It always seemed cold out on the Louisiana marsh as a boy. On Thanksgiving eve my father and I would head out to the hunting camp, a ramshackle building under centuries-old live oaks. At dinner we’d sit down at a long communal table and enjoy hearty bowls of duck gumbo. The dozen or more men would talk, and we the sons would keep quiet, seen but not heard. The morning smell of bacon and eggs served as an early alarm. And by 4:30 we were climbing into mud-boats and heading off across the marsh. At regular intervals a father and son would disembark into a wooden pirogue and push off into the darkness, usually arriving at a duck blind an hour before sunrise. Our hunt would begin with my father calling the ducks, enticing them to circle and land.

 At the end of the hunt in late morning, we’d head home, pulling into the drive around noon. Thanksgiving preparations inside were well underway, pies lined up on the counter. I’d cast an anxious gaze to determine that a favored sweet potato pie was among them, then off for a shower and a change to clean clothes. The table was set and dinner typically eaten in mid-afternoon; afterward, the calls would begin from distant relatives.

Today, as a grown man, my rituals have changed. I’m now the relative calling across the distance of a time zone and seven hundred miles. Instead of a duck hunt early Thanksgiving, my morning is filled with chores: feeding pigs, sheep, cattle and chickens, stacking wood for the woodstove. Busy, but still time will be made later for a woodland walk on our farm. We eat late, so no need to rush dinner preparations. Some years we are graced by the company of friends, and other years we dine alone. This year, Cindy travels and I will dine by myself or with a couple of friends.

I’ll prepare a roast duck in memory of those boyhood hunts with my father. And I’ll regret the absence from the table of a sweet potato pie. But since it is Thanksgiving, I’ll be grateful for reasonable health, a loving partner, a satisfying life, a full library; that my father is still with us, as is a large abundance of siblings and other kin. I’ll also be thankful for what is absent in my life, namely, the darkness of war and the dislocation from hearth and home of the refugee.

As I step out on the porch before sunrise Thanksgiving morning, the air will smell of smoke from a dozen farmhouses in our valley. It will be cold on our farm here in the hills of East Tennessee. The cattle will begin to bawl. But over their din, if I listen well, I will hear the sound of my father calling the wild ducks out on the marsh.

Christmas Morning

It is the tiniest of sounds, yet it penetrates the collection of louder and deeper bleats that surround it. The nervous call of a newborn lamb, wandering, just out of my sight, among the mass of ewes. The flock is huddled out of the rain, inside the barn, but it takes only a shaken feed bucket to part the woolen sea and the ewes pour out into the corral for the proffered feast.

One indecisive ewe runs halfway out, then is brought up short, as if a cord around her neck has been yanked tight. The lamb bleats again, and another joins in, and Mom is instinctively pulled back to her newborn twins. She still trails afterbirth. The lambs, still wet with blood and mucous, are already standing and look sturdy.

I scoop them up, one in each arm, and flip them over quickly: one boy and one girl. I hold them close to the ground for the mother to see, then slowly “walk” them to an empty lambing pen. Mom follows with an attentive eye and motherly bleat. Once inside the pen, she inspects the babies and gives her chuckle to settle them down. Fresh hay, a little grain, and a bucket of water for Mama and I leave the babies to nurse.

Other ewes with lambs, in their own pens nearby, begin to vocalize their desire to be fed. I see to their needs and turn my attention to the larger flock, then the chickens, pigs, and cattle, finishing my morning chores by turning on the irrigation in the hoophouse.

Chores complete, I pause in the breezeway of the barn. I get down on one knee and place an arm around each dog. We stay like that for some minutes watching the day arrive, all three of us content for a little peace on this day. Becky breaks the truce with a growl, and I stand up and leave her and Grainger to sort out their own issues. My traditional Christmas plate of blueberry pancakes smothered with Steen’s syrup awaits.

An Act of Remembrance

With Vince Guaraldi in the background, we wrote and addressed our annual Christmas cards last night. An old-fashioned exercise that echoes in our warm kitchen with news of the past year. Our modest notes convey best wishes, some with hopes to see more of this friend or that family member in the coming year. Inevitably there are deletions due to death, divorce, or the odd friend who drifted away.

Sending Christmas cards is a practice in the naming of the past, a remembrance of the history of our friendships and family ties. For myself, the ritual is carried out with little eloquence and appalling handwriting. Yet, each year I look forward to the occasion.

We sit amicably at the table for a few hours before a late dinner, occasionally commenting but mostly in silence. We jot down a few words to convey knowledge of intimate details. There are those to whom wishing joy seems misplaced: the friend whose only sibling collapsed this season after shoveling snow, a nephew and niece still feeling the loss of their mother, the friend facing his second Christmas as a widow after the unexpected death of his wife, my cousin.

There are friends and family far away that we visit with seldom except through letters or phone calls. The friend I met in an Asheville pub one evening who has a longstanding invitation to visit our farm from her village in England. Another in London whose annual Christmas Day call is a tradition of over 26 years. The friends in town and in our valley that we see often and would see more of if our lives were not so busy.

The act of signing the card becomes a bridge. Though the words are too short and not particularly profound, the underlying message is that there is a bond. That there is a connection across distance and time and in some cases through death that each card represents. It gives us a moment to reflect with gratitude on those who are part of our lives.


Reading this weekend: The Curiosities of Food, by Peter Lund Simmonds (1859). On the subject of eating lizards alive (Guatemala), “The man who first ate a live oyster or clam, was certainly a venturous fellow, but the eccentric individual who allowed a live lizard to run down his throat, was infinitely more so.”

A Crow Perspective: revisited

I have been spending a few days in Louisiana visiting. First with family in Lake Charles and then enjoying a weekend with my brothers and a brother-in-law in a cabin. So, I’ll leave you with this post from the archives on family, mortality and being part of a community.

The wind has been up and blowing hard in the high crowns of the oaks since dawn. The crows seem to love these times, their caws to each other in the trees having only recently returned to the soundscape—a clear indication that fall is near. The crows radiate intelligence and even nobility, black shrouds of solemnity observing the change of the season.

The maple leaves are turning backwards, a prelude to dying in a burst of color in another month or two. The woods are dense with an undergrowth of seedlings and brush. Rabbits seem to occupy the corner of every glance, as does the telltale flag of the deer bounding just out of sight. The high today of 72 is welcome after the recent late-summer blast of 90 degrees.

Last Monday evening Cindy and I were both involved in the type of farming accident that is always lurking in the background. We emerged cut, bloodied, bruised, battered and clothes in tatters. Fortunately neither of us ended up in the hospital, or worse, but for a few minutes that evening, it certainly could have gone either way. The cawing of the crows to each other overhead as we made our way back into the house relayed the news the old-fashioned way.

I left the next morning and caught a flight to my homeland of south Louisiana. It’s a place where the honorific “Mr.” or “Miss” still precedes the first name of an elder when addressed by someone younger. Walking with my dad, now 87, I watched with admiration as he was greeted repeatedly with a friendly “Hello, Mr. Bill.” At a farmer’s market, children approached my sister Kathryn with a respectful “Miss Kat.” At a fast food chain, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the same salutation was used with customers: “Mr. Brian” and I was handed my breakfast.

No crows heralded my arrival or departure from my ancestral home. But none were needed to convey the shades of change coming in the not-too-distant future. Life is, as they say, terminal, and unlike the ancient Romans, we do not need to consult the entrails of a slaughtered bullock to recognize the inevitable change and cycle in life. With my family in the evening, in a house full of laughter, I watched my dad, surrounded by his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The next morning, he was still hale and hearty as we two stood in the graveyard. The tombstones of my mother, sister, and brother and my dad’s mother, aunt, and father stood in front of us. Without sadness, my dad pointed out where he and my stepmother would be buried when their time comes.

Farming, as we do, fine tunes an appreciation of the inevitable cycles of life: butchering a rooster and hearing the peep of newly emerging chicks, delivering a ewe to the slaughterhouse and assisting in the birth of a lamb; helping our old dog as she struggles to rise from stiff slumber and savoring the first tomato of the season, grieving the death of a sister and sharing a glass of wine with her daughter.

The seasons change, the wheel moves, and the crows always return.

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.


Reading this weekend: The Master of Hestviken by Sigrid Undset