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.
The old Cook’s Mill, across from the farm, is clearly not much to look at. Until, that is, you begin examining how much skill went into the building and the old stone flume channel across the creek. Here was an appropriately scaled technology for a small self-sustaining valley.
File under: I know the feeling. The larger hogs in the woods are hard to rouse for breakfast, when the temperature is ten degrees.
A friend gifted us one of his few remaining North Georgia Candy Roasters (a winter squash) from the fall garden. Which we used as the foundation for a delicious sweet stew on a cold night.
The year-old ram lambs on a sunny six-degree morning, always hungry.
The sun just peaking over the eastern ridge, reveals beauty in unexpected places (the chicken coop and a maple tree).
And, even in a drab winter landscape, the cardinal is easy to spot and always welcome. The first of the new crop of lambs, confident and healthy.
And, finally, yesterday as the temps rose to 59 degrees, the girls took advantage of the warm weather to take a cleansing flight.
Reading this weekend: Grey Seas Under, by Farley Mowat. An exceptional book about ordinary heroism. It is the history of a salvage and rescue tug on the North Atlantic.
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.
The dawn office, taken at 5 a.m. in the orchard on a cool morning. An ending of the night and a start to the new day, the work ahead still unformed, drifting through my mind like the mists in the creek bottoms below me. The waning half moon presides over the Southern late winter sky, one eye on the job in front and one eye on the job completed. The Big Dipper holds court to the north, its cup turned in welcome to the colder climes. The deep mysteries of the night office now wane with the promise of the sun.
This is the time of dogs and roosters. The night creatures are returning to their dens, ready to report back to hungry children the success or failure of their labors. The dogs in the valley, invigorated after a night’s rest, track the movements of each skunk, opossum, or fox as it crosses their domain. Agitated barking from all points of the compass signals a last hurdle for the weary parents.
I sit in my chair and let the sounds of this ending enter. The past few days I have hosted a cousin and his family. They were paying a visit to the last surviving sister of mine and my cousin’s mothers. As our aunt closes in on 97, she is still healthy and sharp; yet her long day must inevitably near its close. Her offices observed with intelligence and faithfulness, she has achieved what our old dependable scribe Berry would term “a complete life.”
One step in front of another and a life of daily cycles becomes a decade, a century, a millennium, a billion years. It’s not for my intelligence to know the duration. And only for others to judge the completeness of my projects, to wonder what tasks I left unfinished, to know whether my footsteps traveled on a purposeful path or toward a dead-end. I resolve to be like the moon: Does she wonder if she should alter her footpath? No, she sets her course and stays true, knowing her place, her duties, a life faithful and complete.
I gather my chair and return to the house, the rooster crows now being answered from over the ridge. The light of the sun, still a few hours below the eastern hill, respectfully waits for night to complete its work. My dogs disappear into the brush; the cool air moves, bringing the scent of a skunk disturbed by their explorations.
I leave them to patrol the farm and I enter the house, first one foot and then the other.
We had a late night. Five friends from Knoxville came out and dined with us on lamb, greens and grits. So, when I came downstairs to write the weekly blog at 5:30, nothing was stirring the little gray cells. Except, back in the dusty shelves of my brain, I recognized something familiar. Clifford Harper, an old anarchist illustrator, had done a wonderful drawing of a militant’s desk, chock-full of representations of that life. As I stared at my keyboard and my desk I made the comparison.
So, with considerably less artistry, I give you the “Farmer’s Desk”.
Everyone have a great week.
Reading this weekend: A Peter Lovesey mystery. And, I’m trying to read John Clare’s Shepherd’s Calendar. But, true confession time, long poems are a bit like opera and ballet. While I may appreciate the skill and artistry, the native understanding eludes me.
Magic Wild Turkey Tricks: I have a magic flock of wild turkeys on the farm. Each evening, between the hours of 4 and 6, they reliably cross the lane and graze on our hill pasture. Yet if I stand quiet in the shadows with my shotgun at the appointed time, they magically never appear. How do they do that?
Learning to Panic: Living on a farm provides plenty of opportunities in learning to panic. Owning Grainger, a 70-pound adolescent Carolina Dog who still considers chickens chew toys, gives me multiple moments of anxiety each day. Yesterday, I walked around a corner of the barn to find the door to the brooder left open and all 25 4-week-old Barred Rocks scattering to the wind.
Water Conservation, Part 1: (A timely lesson as our county slips into extreme drought.) Question: If I turn on the water for the hogs in the woods at 8 a.m., at what time will Cindy come in the house to inquire after the length of time the water has been filling the hog trough? Answer: 5 p.m.
Water Conservation, Part 2: In an effort to redeem myself, I hustle outside and fill up the sheep’s water trough. When it is full, I leave the hose in the trough and carefully disconnect the hose from its source. Doing so allows the hose to act as a siphon … slowly pulling all of the water back out of the trough and onto the parched ground. Later, over dinner, Cindy asks, “I thought you were going to fill up the sheep’s watering trough?” I feign deafness.
The Longer Lesson
Timing Is Everything: One of our nearer neighbors owns six or so dogs, an unruly mix of mutts big and small. The largest are kept penned, bored and alone, and bark morning and evening. Although a good third of a mile from our house, they can still be heard clearly through the windows and walls of my study. Not quite loud enough to disrupt my slumber, they nevertheless disturb my early morning reading and correspondence.
I’d been looking for a way to gently approach the neighbors with the question, “How in the hell can you live with such racket?!” Since their son works on our farm on Saturdays, I decided that would give me a perfect opportunity for a conversation. And, more important, a demonstration of how we manage to be good, quiet neighbors by keeping our animals firmly in check.
Yesterday, after he’d arrived and we’d exchanged a few minutes of pleasantries, the time had come to diplomatically broach the barking dogs.
Having first made a point of disciplining Grainger as he repeatedly lunged at a chicken on the other side of a fence, I began, “Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask …”
Alas, it was at that very moment that the sheep chose to begin their morning cacophony, drowning out my words, “… about your barking dogs.” Their bleating was immediately overwhelmed by the cattle in the lower pasture as they began bawling lustily for fresh hay. The sounds echoed off the ridges and continued for the next 15 minutes, disturbing the peace of everyone within a mile.
Half an hour later, our farm helper reminded me politely that I had wanted to ask him something. “Never mind,” I said. “We can talk about it another time.”
Reading this weekend: The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman. A re-reading of this modern classic to prepare us to use our new hoop house.