Engagement

Free Advice, Enjoy the Methodical       

One challenge I give myself each year, dutifully written down in my new year’s resolutions, is to enjoy the methodical; those tasks we hurry through or avoid altogether, simply to get to the free time that we then squander. Whether it is washing dishes, shoveling out a stall, splitting or stacking wood, there is a fulfillment to be found in a slow physical and repetitive work. But, the act of slowing down is at odds with the demands of our frenetic modern world. Which, in its turn, spawns a desperate populace of chasers after an elusive serenity, roaming our streets.

An afternoon spent with a manure pile might just provide the corrective spiritual focus. Hold that pitchfork and who knows where the thought currents might take one.

“Like” vs. Writing Letters

Here is a confession, I no longer write letters. For most of my adult life I typed out letters, put them in an envelope, and sent them off. Then, over the past fifteen years, I completely embraced the email format. Although I don’t get the satisfaction of finding the reply letter in the physical mailbox, the essential pleasures are still observed; me and a friend taking time to share thoughts and experiences.

But, by entering the world of social media three years ago, most of that fell away. I now have more interactions but less contact. It is analogous to walking down a busy street and saying hello to friends and nodding at acquaintances, hearing arguments and avoiding fights, without engaging in a proper discussion.

I’d like to get off that busy street. Perhaps turn off into that leafy park, sit on a bench and continue/begin that longer conversation with a friend.

Last One to Read, Turn Out the Lights

I’ve alluded to my off the farm job in the past. A job that occasions some flying. Over the past twenty years I’ve observed the gradual darkening of the planes. Years ago, most passengers, upon sitting down, pulled out newspapers, magazines and books. They kept the window shade up. Now, the first thing passengers do is close the shade. And, then the next two hours are spent sitting in the dark (except for a few lone lights marking the outposts of those who still read), playing video games and watching movies. This seems a sad surrender.

This Blog

This blog is an act of engagement, my effort to keep the lights on. You may “like it” and I will appreciate that acknowledgement. But, taking the time to sit on this bench and share a written reply is also welcome.

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Reading this weekend: the short stories of Ernie Hemingway.

The Loved and The Unloved

A nice shot of the waxing moon over the farm

This blog began in 1999 as an emailed post sent to friends and family. The WordPress blog portion began in 2011. And, in 2012 I made the commitment to post something new each week, which I have, by and large, observed for over 300 posts. Although, on occasion, I have reposted pieces that seemed germane to the moment or that I particularly liked. While editing and reediting a piece this morning, that will in-all-likelihood never be used, I spent a little time looking at the stats for this blog.

Listed below are the five most viewed posts, representing 5000 or so clicks. I’m not sure why these five have had more currency than some of the others. But, there you are. And, here you are:

  1. Small Town Resilience
  2. Speaking of Death Speaks of Us
  3. A Great Divide
  4. Life Before Dawn
  5. The Good Tenant

Then there are the posts that seemed to be the most unloved. But, none have been more scorned than this, weighing in with an unimpressive one view (although the post on rosemary-flavored pork fat came in a close second).

Pork Liver and Jowl Pudding

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Reading this weekend: Arctic Dreams, by Barry Lopez.

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.

 

 

“We Will Always Have Fencing”

In the Wodehouse novels, it is always fine hay-making weather and aunts are always to be feared. While aunts are scarce (though not unknown) in the pages of this modest blog, there are and always remain certain constants. Sixteen years of writing a mostly weekly account of farm life and I’m to be forgiven, I hope, if I repeat the odd theme once or twice, or three or 50 times.

There will always be fencing: The one and true constant for me (besides my partner) is the need to keep a few miles of fencing in good repair. It has become a back-weary joke with friends to offer up the answer before I can reply to their question, “What have you been doing today?”

The cattle catch sight: It would not be my blog if it were not recorded at least once a month that the cattle thundered down from the hill or their bellows reverberated off the ridges upon catching sight of me in the morning. For me, it is the trope most often used to convey the insistence of farm life to wait for no man’s breakfast.

There is weather: As Twain wrote in the foreword to one of his works, “There is a 100 percent chance of weather.” So is it true of this blog. On our farm it is always raining, snowing or freezing, too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry. Or, at the very least, it is threatening one or more of the above.

The seed corn has been eaten: The world is going to hell in a hand-crafted basket of our own design, and I’m going to tell you about it … again.

I go for a walk and ruminate: A cigar, the company of dogs, and a good log to perch on are all that I need on a fine spring day to right my position in the cosmos.

There will be books: Recording what I’m reading is a curious form of autobiography that will continue. The well-read life informs the well-rounded farming life.

There will be food, good food: Curing a ham, making kraut or pawpaw butter, cutting greens, eating a tomato fresh off the vine — it’s what we do, darlin’.

And shared dinners: The pork roast, seasoned with fresh minced herbs, will be cut into small medallions and fried, then served over stewed greens and a ladle of creamy grits. Dinner is at 8. Come out around 6 if you want to walk the farm and see the new piglets. And bring a dessert.

And, always, convivial evenings: At our secular celebrations, friends will gather from town and country. There will be feasting and moderate imbibing. The house and porch will be full, a Mariachi suit worn, pregnant ewes visited, and modestly exuberant activities engaged in by all.

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Reading this weekend: A Gracious Plenty: recipes and recollections from the American South

I’ve Done It Again

Time for a confession. Do not trust me with your pocket knife, for I have lost another one. It was a handy little French grafting knife from Opinel. Easily replaced and inexpensive. But it replaced a more expensive Le Theirs pocket knife, which replaced a German pocket knife, which replaced another in a long line of perfectly good knives….

Pocket knives

Pocket knives I have lost

Try an exciting thought experiment: Put yourself in the shoes of this farmer. Or make that a pair of rubber Wellingtons because it is raining or snowing or icing. You are driving the tractor. It is sliding this way and then that as you make your way up the hill pasture. Ahead the cattle are bawling, waiting for fresh hay.

In preparation for dropping off the hay, you first have to remove the baling string surrounding the round bale. You climb off the tractor, in the rain or whatever, and pull out your pocket knife, where it has been nestled securely in an overall pocket, under a barn jacket, under a raincoat. Reaching up, you cut the strings on the bale. And here is where it happens.

In the rain or whatever, as the cattle gather round impatiently, you do the following: Once you’ve pulled the various cut strings off the bale, you place the knife on the fender well of the tractor and you simply get back on the tractor and drive off. You will find this an extraordinarily effective means of losing a knife.

Then there’s a second option (my personal favorite). In this scenario, you fold up your knife and slide it into the raincoat pocket. And your knife vanishes immediately and forever. Because every farm raincoat has two fake pockets. These are the slits that allowed you to reach inside your raincoat, under your barn jacket, to access the overall pocket and remove the knife in the first place. By returning the knife to the raincoat pocket-slit, you have conveniently deposited it directly into the muck, snow, or whatever for eternal safekeeping.

You never notice its absence immediately. You assume it is in another coat, in a different pair of jeans, on the kitchen counter. But after days turn into weeks, the reality becomes clear: “I’ve done it again.”

Anyone want to loan me their knife?

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Reading this weekend: The Classical Tradition in Western European Farming by G. E. Fussell. A dry but interesting work on the impact of classical farming literature on actual Medieval farming practices. Books create innovation!

A Valentine’s Day Musing

Over the years I’ve frequently been asked for advice on this farming life. I’ve been pondering my thoughts since Chris Smaje wrote to his younger farming self on his blog, Small Farm Future, and an acquaintance asked me to be on his radio show to discuss my experiences.

As I sift through my farm memories — the tragedies and successes, the wasted resources and the careful stewardship — one constant stands out: a partner who shares in the work and joy of running a small farm.

Without her buy-in, none of this would be possible. I don’t say this as a romantic nod to Valentine’s Day. In my modest way, I hope that I also give good value. I say it because, to my mind, too many relationships have no element of true partnership.

Farm life, with its intense need for coordination, either enhances the cooperation essential to any successful relationship or brings stresses that will tear that relationship apart when the goals and the vision are not shared. Much of modern life involves “farming” out the labor to others. Life lived on a small farm is quite the reverse: we build the fences, we tend to the veterinary needs of the livestock, we preserve the food, we work the long hours for little monetary compensation.

Over time, I have had a few farming acquaintances in which only one shared the desire for a farming life, and it can be done. But for one person to take on all the work, the load becomes a drudgery instead of a shared pleasure in accomplishment. Without a partner, the family and the larger community never coalesce.

And what of the rewards — beef raised in the nearby pasture, produce from the gardens, fruit from the orchard? True and complete satisfaction is only achieved when the bounty is shared with someone who participated fully in the production.

When embarking on a life on the farm, by all means dream of an idyllic world of fresh veggies and just-laid eggs. We certainly did, and to a large part still do. But I also suggest a test to determine the compatibility of your partner for the farming life. In a race against the clock to provide shelter for a very pregnant sow, stand outside in a blowing snow for several long hours building a farrowing hut. You will quickly learn a few things about the work ethic and temperament of your beloved.

Here is my best farming advice to you: Share this life with someone who can handle with equanimity the occasional heartbreak at the inexplicable death of a newborn lamb, the endless abundance of your gardens, and the true joy of being a good steward to the land and your charges.

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Reading this weekend: Old Southern Apples by Creighton Lee Calhoun, Jr.

Jonas

Jonas visited and left us with a modest snowfall, cold weather and, for myself, a cold. So I leave you today with a poem by Robert Frost and a photo from our farm.

A Patch of Old Snow

There’s a patch of old snow in a corner

   That I should have guessed

Was a blow-away paper the rain

   Had brought to rest.

 

It is speckled with grime as if

   Small print overspread it,

The news of a day I’ve forgotten-

Raven and Water 004

The ornamental fishpond in winter.

   If I ever read it.