Oh, Good Lord!

Simple instructions

With the first of two 60-foot rows of onions in the ground, I sent The Kid, who had just started with us a few weeks ago, into the greenhouse. The instructions: Bring me a bundle of onion sets for the next row. After a couple of minutes, he came back … with a turtle shell in his hand.

“Brian, do you think Cindy wants this?”

“No,” I replied, “you can have it.”


“By the way, did you get the onions?”

“Oh, good lord,” he said.

Sometime later, after running a string to guide our hand, we had the second row planted. Donning my best mentor hat, I said, “It’s nice to step back from good work and appreciate what you have accomplished.” He stepped back and agreed, it looked good.

Gesturing toward his feet, I pointed out, “You’re standing on the onions in the first row.”

“Oh, good lord,” he said.

We headed out to one of the pig paddocks. The occupants had just gone to the processor, and the space needed cleaning up. Our first task was to roll up the electric wire. To do the job, we used a giant spool, much like an oversize fishing reel. And just like with the spool of fishing line, it is very easy to make a mess in quick order if you aren’t paying close attention. The more failsafe task is to unhook the electric wire from the plastic insulated posts. So, I had The Kid start with that part of the project.

After a couple of minutes of watching him try to unhook the line from the first post, I got tired of tapping an impatient foot unnoticed.

“Here, you turn the crank, I’ll unhook the wire. But, be careful. Watch the spool and don’t make a mess.”

A few minutes later, I looked behind me. The Kid was merrily cranking away, a large bird’s nest of tangled wire ballooning out of the spool.

“Hey, look what you are doing!” I barked.

“Oh, good lord.”

Later, while we were putting away our tools, I lectured in my most teacherly voice:

“You know, Kid, there are times out here when I might yell at you. Don’t take it too hard. I just want us to get stuff done. And on those occasions when I get exasperated, you will know to either listen up or move faster. It is like with your parents — they yell at you because they care and want you to just pay attention. You know how that is….”

He looked puzzled.

“My folks have never yelled at me.”

“Oh, good lord,” I said.

Mother Goose, Revisited

She is now over seventeen years old. But, the old gray goose is still a fixture on our farm. Here is one from the archives.

She is quite the sight, a twelve-year-old and twenty-pound Pomeranian as Mother Goose to fifteen Saxony ducklings. She is in her element as guardian, head up searching for predators and effectively sending off all challengers.

She is the last of her breed on our farm. The last of what was once a large flock of forty of this impressive, handsome and tasty bird. Even in a large flock she stood out as a big girl. The first season we had her we assumed she was a gander from temperament and bearing. Even when she crowded onto a nest and pushed out other geese we assumed “he” was just helping out, a willing domestic partner, if you will.

When she stayed on the nest and hatched out a dozen or so goslings we realized our error. Her partner, they mate for life, was a beautiful gander and fierce protector of her, the goslings and the farm.

Nothing is more impressive than seeing twenty breeding pairs of geese turn in unison as an act of protecting their babies and charge the UPS man. Flapping wings, honking at decibels so loud it must be heard to be believed, they are an intimidating presence. The UPS man agreed. Agreed that he would remain in the truck and we would come to him if we wanted our package. He was only the latest in a long line of visitors so convinced.

As the years have progressed we gradually sold or ate our remaining flock of Pomeranians (an old German breed). For the last six years only the lone pair remained; the big girl and her man. They had become pets, lawn ornaments, a comfortable and expected presence around the barnyard.

Each January for the past twelve years she laid a clutch of eggs. And as the years progressed and fertility decreased the number of eggs and the viability of the hatch decreased.

Finally, two years ago, the gander disappeared after confronting coyotes invading the farm. I found his remains in the woods a month later. She spent the next few months forlornly honking for her mate. It is not an act of anthropomorphising to say that she was mourning her loss. It was heartbreaking to watch.

For the past two seasons she has continued to lay eggs, not fertile of course, in the barn. We let her set for as long as she will. Usually the dogs will steal the eggs from her so that the last couple of weeks she is sitting on nothing. But she doggedly persists in this act of maternity.

This year during what would have been her last week before a normal hatch we bought ducklings from a nearby farm. Cindy and our farm guest Hannah installed the ducklings in the brooder about twenty feet away from the goose on her nest. The next morning the goose had abandoned her nest and had taken residence in front of the brooder. What a miracle it must have seemed after several fruitless years to wake up and find all of her babies hatched and in a nearby pen!

She did not leave the side of the pen for three weeks. Hissing and flapping her wings at any who came near. Sitting inside one evening a month back we heard her unleashing some Holy Hell out at the brooder. Cindy went out to check and returned moments later to let me know a large black-rat snake was eating a duckling. The goose was frantically trying to get to the snake through the wire of the pen. I dispatched the snake with my 410 and the girl and the flock settled down, albeit a bit deafened.

Cindy turned the ducklings out after three weeks. Since that day the goose never leaves their side, maternally herding them together or away from danger. She is quite the sight with her big frame and all the smaller ducks clustered around her moving across the barnyard or pasture; a mother again, after all these years.

A Prayer to Ella

The gray days of February have long since settled in over our valley. An endless mist, drizzle, and downpour greets my every foray to the barn. High blue winter skies are but a fevered dream seen in quick glimpses before being chased away by the cloud lords of the lower realms.

The drip from the trees, buildings, machinery, and tools is as the sound of the crypt: it brings the promise of eternal dampness into these bones. The animals cry out for relief, a dry patch, a kind word from the grumpy caretaker. Yet their squeals and bleats strike no chord before my sodden heart. I wring it out, reducing its size by three, and feel nothing but an urge to get back inside.

There, I hang up my coat. It whispers, “I’ll clothe you again in dampness when you are ready.” Cup of tea in hand, I retreat to my study and listen as the drip outside my window holds a conversation with the power lines a quarter-mile distant. It’s an exchange of semaphore sizzles, dashes, and drops spoken in a rural dialect I don’t understand, except to know by the laughter that either I am the subject of much mockery and mirth or, worse, that they are ignorant of my existence.

Outside these walls the sheep have grown quiet in damp defeat, while the cocks shuffle on their roosts and squabble over sleeping partners. The sun has long since dropped below the western horizon, exhausted from a pointless daylong contest with the clouds.

The hour is late and I add a splash of Islay to my tea. Picking out a book from the stack, I lean back into my easy chair and resolve to wait out the gray overlords. I offer up a silent toast, then a prayer for their banishment to the scat goddess Ella:

Blue skies
Smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies
Do I see …

Never saw the sun shining so bright
Never saw things going so right
Noticing the days hurrying by
When you’re in love, my how they fly …

Blue skies …


Reading this weekend: Berg’s biography of Maxwell Perkins.

Mud Season

The front wheels are angled perfectly for the eight-foot gate opening between the barn and the corral. A round bale of hay dangles from the front spear. In spring, summer, and fall, the tractor turns smartly, with clearance on both sides. But this is not spring, summer, or fall. The tractor takes on a mind of its own and begins sliding off to the left, back tires pushing forward, front tires mired lug-nut deep in mud, until, rudderless in the late winter slurry, it skids to a halt against the gate post.

Mud season in East Tennessee is well underway. The weather is never quite warm enough to dry out the ground; the green grass is still a month away. Every surface stays in a stalled-out state between slop and frozen. Margery Fish, in her book “We Made a Garden,” says if you want to know what the world looked like after the great deluge, visit a barnyard in winter. We say, if you want to visit our farm, wait until spring. Sad sheep paths and nasty pig sties look to those unlearned in the ways of the farm to be the product of gross inattention. Hell, they look the same to me, and I know better.

Each slippery step I take leaves a rut in its wake, the dead grass sloughing off like a snakeskin with my passing boot. It’s as if the world has taken a giant gulp and held its breath until its skin has become soft and spongy.

The sow peers out of her shelter when I approach, her bulk blocking her piglets from the great outdoors: “Not today, kids, you’ll just track it all back inside.” The hens scouring the barnyard take great shuddering leaps to clear the mire and get to higher ground and fresh bugs. Eggs collected in the season of mud are all imprinted with spidery claw prints.

Every year ’tis the same complaint. Then, every year the mid-March miracle occurs. All in a matter of a week, two at the most, emerald hairs of grass explode from below. The sponge squeezes and even the ruts from the tractor fill in, seemingly overnight. The trees on the opposite ridge wear their first hint of green, and the rose-purple redbuds begin to work their understory magic in the deep woods. Demeter comes out of her funk as her daughter returns.

But for now, early spring growth is just a memory and a promise. The tractor tires still mutiny against my commands. They go left when I order right. The mud offers no purchase to my boots. The sheep reproach me with yellow eyes as they leave the barn single file on a high path out of the mire.

I back up and try for the gate again, and the rain begins to fall, merging sky with muck.

The Yearly Optimist

The 2018 master plan

Standing in the kitchen, each with a cup of coffee in hand, we stare at the plan. “I want tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes”, she says. And, you will have them, I reply, grandly.

But, you will also have beets, mustard, turnips, peas, kale, chard, onions, garlic, cabbage, lettuces (lettuce is good, she says), collards, black beans, October beans, cowpeas, lima beans, sweet corn, cucumbers, melon, okra, watermelon, eggplant (yes, eggplant, lots of eggplant, she adds), crookneck and winter squashes, and, certainly, sweet potatoes. There will be a small field of mangles and hickory corn for the pigs, as well. And, a sorghum trial plot. Oh, and the buckwheat for the bees, I finish. That covers spring, summer and brings us to fall.

“Enough”, she says. She does not want to hear about the fall garden. “As long as there are tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes”, she adds, again.

“Seems like an awful lot, who do you think will eat it?”

We will. And if our customers picking up pork or lamb need a mess of greens or beans, well, Bob’s your uncle.

“Who is Bob”?

What? Nobody.

“Then why do you say, … oh, never mind.”

Never mind indeed, I say… well, I think.

And, we can feed the excess to our pigs, I throw in for extra weight.

Besides, if we grow it they will come.

“Who said that? You got that from that movie.”

No, I didn’t. I made it up.

“No, you didn’t, he said, ‘if you build it, they will come’.”

Well, that is completely different, he said ‘build’ and I said ‘grow’.




Reading this weekend: Sheep Farming in America, by Joseph E. Wing (1908)

A Mid-Winter Scrapbook

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.

Chill Hours

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.