Robbie

During a recent cold snap, while out in the garden harvesting the last peppers and tomatoes, I spotted Robbie’s nametag on a fence post. I had placed it there exactly five years ago this weekend. Here is a post from the archives, remembering that sweet dog.

Robbie, our six-year old English Shepherd, was put to sleep yesterday. I picked him from the veterinarian’s office packed in a box and drove home. I started digging a grave in the middle of the garden. Cindy came out and got a spade and joined in the work. In very little time we dug down three feet a tidy rectangle.

Cindy went back to the house. I opened up the box and took Robbie out, such a beautiful dog even in death. For a working breed he had lovely quiet disposition, sometimes too quiet and easy going for his job as farm dog.

He was the classic “lover not a fighter.” The exception was with Becky or a strange dog; from time to time they would without warning tear into each other. Just last Sunday as we walked in the woods, Becky and Robbie sparred for a full ten minutes, leaving each other bruised, bloodied and ready for more.

On Tuesday morning well before dawn, we let Robbie and Tip out of the mud room; Becky stays out all night. By the time we had coffee and Cindy left for work, Robbie had traveled the quarter-mile to the road, been hit by a car, walked up the drive twenty yards and collapsed in shock.

Cindy spotted him curled up in the grass at the side of the driveway and rushed back to get me. Using a blanket, we wrapped him up and put him in my truck and took off to the vet. Not Robbie’s first rodeo: a fractured tibia from catching his leg between metal slats jumping off a hay wagon, a severed artery of unknown cause.

The x-rays showed a smashed pelvis and hemorrhaging in the chest cavity. Two nights and three days in the hospital and he came home. The internal bleeding had stopped, but they couldn’t do anything with the pelvis. Cindy took Robbie to a vet on Friday that specializes in surgery on dogs. They did more x-rays. This time they discovered that the pelvis was worse than originally thought, but they could fix it for around $3000. No guarantees, but a reasonable prognosis with a long recovery. Surgery was scheduled immediately. First, though, bloodwork in response to Cindy’s observation of urinary incontinence. The vet discovered that Robbie’s bladder had ruptured. Repairable, with more surgery. In the blink of an eye, we were now looking at vet bills totaling $5000. A decision had to be made immediately.

What is the value of a loving and loyal pet? Do we love our pets more or less when we make decisions based on cost? There is no easy or correct answer. Cindy, who was back at work, would probably have opted for the surgery. In a hurried, emotional phone discussion, I suggested it was time to let our much-loved Robbie go. We made the choice, and I called the vet and asked them to put him to sleep.

He was still warm when I pulled him out of the box. I held him for a few minutes before laying him on the dirt. Shoveling dirt, gently at first until covered and then faster, until the grave was filled and mounded over the top. Cindy went out later and spent time at the gravesite.

He now belongs to the future as much as the past.

A Lamb’s Life

Winter: It was 24 degrees the morning No. 28 was born. Sleet pellets bounced off my old Carhartt jacket and the sky was slate gray when I headed out on my early morning rounds. The two cups of hot coffee helped little in warding off the chill wind as I rushed through my outdoor chores before reaching the relative warmth of the barn.

Entering a barn during lambing season involves careful observation: Who is soon to lamb, and is anyone showing signs of a distressed labor? Who has lambed already, and are all lambs up and nursing? The experienced mother will keep close track of her offspring, protecting them from the scrum of other sheep, but a first-time mother is easily unnerved and will often rush outside without her newborns, trailing the afterbirth, oblivious to what is expected of her in this new role in life.

On this particular morning, January 6th, a handful of fresh faces greeted me — the most exciting, twins born to our favorite ewe, No. 1333. No. 1333 is a large, handsome ewe who is uncommonly friendly, always standing still to receive a good scratching. As in the previous lambing season, she had just given birth to a male and a female. Much to our disappointment, she had lost the last year’s ewe lamb in a freak accident. We were anxious that nothing go wrong this time.

Later in the day, we eartagged No. 28 and her twin, 29. Eventually, we’d finish the season with 44 lambs, but in this first week of the year, lambing was just getting started. Other than the identifying numbers, the twins were soon indistinguishable from the mass of other lambs, running in and out of the larger flock, occasionally pummeling the udders of their moms.

Spring: Unlike the long and devastating drought of the previous year, this winter and spring’s rains had created a lush growth by April. It became a daily occurrence for us to remark on the change in landscape, as the unnatural browns gave way to the deepest greens. The lambs and ewes were turned out on new grass and thrived. For hours on end we’d watch the youngsters, tumbling about in soft grass at play, interrupted only by a mother’s bleat or a long, sun-warmed nap. Throughout the season, the inevitable deaths occurred: the lamb born at night that managed to roll outside the barn and die from the elements; the one I had to dispatch mercifully after it was stepped on by the flock and broke its back.

Summer: Mild temperatures and steady rain, a record hay crop, and modest garden success provided the backdrop as our little No. 28 transformed into a hardy, large-framed weanling. In June we separated the babies from their mothers. For the next few days, the moms would crowd one gate, the lambs another, fifty yards between them, and bleat. Loudly. Day and night. Another couple of days and the moms turned their attention back to the grass; a couple more and the lambs finally followed suit. Weaning accomplished, quiet restored.

Fall: It was an October evening during the late Indian summer, as we headed out to a dinner with friends, that we spotted a lamb lying down in the tall grass of the bottom pasture, noticeable by its isolation from the flock. We stopped the car and walked out to the field. There she was, No. 28, head up, alert, but unmoving.

Sheep are prey animals. They don’t lie down and stay down until they’re physically unable to go anymore. A quick check of the lamb’s gums revealed an unhealthy lack of color. Seemingly overnight, she had lost all of her body fat. We grabbed a wheelbarrow, put her in for the ride, and I pushed her up the long hill to the barn. We secured her in a stall and went on to dinner.

Over the next several days, we treated her with two different types of wormers. For us, worming is an infrequent occurrence. All sheep have some internal parasites, but we select and cull based on an individual sheep’s ability to carry a small enough “worm load” that she thrives without repeated use of parasiticides.

Each morning, we’d bring a bucket of warm water and mild soap to the barn and sponge off the accumulated scouring (diarrhea) from No. 28’s rear legs. After the second wormer was administered, the feces became solid, well formed — not what you’d expect from a lamb with a heavy parasite load. At that point we began to suspect something else was at work, since No. 28 remained alert, yet still unable to stand.

The day before we found her lying in the lower field, our 200-pound ram had managed to breach a fence and spend the night with our ewe lambs. Our new working hypothesis was that the ram had attempted to breed the developing young ewe and caused some nerve damage.

Having ascertained that her back was not broken, we rigged up a makeshift sling of saddle girths in hopes of retraining No. 28 to stand. For the next three days, we placed her in the sling three times a day with her feet just touching the ground. We would exercise each leg, moving it forward and backward, side to side. Through all of this, the ewe lamb continued to have a healthy appetite. We were committed to nursing her as long as the possibility of recovery still existed. But recovery was not to be.

On the morning of the fourth day, when I entered the barn, No. 28 was lying upright, but her head was extended forward onto the hay. This is never a good sign, but we were both loathe to give up on her too soon. We were anxious to preserve both her genetics and her life. She remained a calm, affectionate lamb, seemingly glad to have you stroke her head even in her distress.

Leaving the barn, I headed out to finish bush-hogging an upper pasture. We had a cold front coming in around midday and were expecting rain. It was a few hours before I made my noonday hospital visit to the patient. This time, when I approached, her neck was stretched out in the hay, her body limp, like a balloon with a slow leak. Her eyes still followed me, but without the usual spark. This was an act in a play that we had seen too many times. She was going to die — it was now just a matter of when.

I walked slowly back to the house. I picked up my 30-30 and returned to the barn. The lamb’s labored breathing was audible when I opened the stall gate. I raised the rifle and shot her between and just above both watching eyes. She died instantly.

Outside, the cold rain began to fall on the valley. I went back to the house, gun in my hand, breathing in the smell of the rain, of this season, aware of this rhythm, this awful beauty in the dying of the year. But I continued to look ahead, on another cold day in early January, to when the next lambing season begins on our farm, always in hope and sometimes in death.

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Reading this weekend: The Art of Loading Brush: new agrarian writings, by Wendell Berry. And, The Lean Farm: how to minimize waste, increase efficiency, and maximize value and profits with less work, by Ben Hartman. Both, seemingly at odds with each other upon first glance.

The Path We Take

Turn left in 300 feet … turn left … turn left…. Rerouting … rerouting … rerouting.

Recently, a young relative of mine set out on a 600-mile road trip to attend his cousin’s wedding — and got lost halfway there when his phone went dead. Hearing of his misadventure I was confused. How could someone go so far and then get lost? And how did a dead phone terminate his travels? Did he not consult a map? Own one? Pick up the free one at the state line? No, apparently a map wasn’t needed because he had a smart phone. Until it wasn’t. The would-be wedding guest set off on an eight-hour-plus journey, armed with no more than an address to guide him in where and how he was going. So, what did he do, when the phone, and consequently the GPS, died? He turned around and drove home.

As kids, my older brother and I would sit down with the National Geographic and, starting in June, begin to dream about August vacation destinations. The back pages of the magazine were chock-full of advertisements from state tourism boards. We’d send off for packets from exciting places like Montana, New Mexico, and Idaho, all locations with elevations higher than the six-feet-above-sea-level spot that we called home. Soon, fat packages of maps and “things to do” would arrive in the mail.

The maps would be unfolded on the kitchen table, where we would trace out routes we might take on the most narrow and obscure road possible. “Let’s drive down this little road in this valley south of Missoula,” I’d say. We’d pull out the encyclopedia and read about places we were going to visit. There were shoeboxes jammed with maps in the closet, a big globe and stacks of atlases in the den.

Today, in my own library, there resides a broad assortment of state and international maps and world and historical atlases. Because, maps give us more than a hopeful path to a distant destination. They inform. Why is there a Northwest Angle exclave in Minnesota, and just what is an exclave anyway? Where were the original colonial boundaries of North Carolina? How did the frontier of the late Roman Empire contract? Maps inform, and they also feed our curiosity: Is Puerto Rico surrounded by water? (Why, indeed it is, Mr. President.) They serve as a springboard into the past, present, and future. And, yes, even answer the mundane: What are my options for getting to a wedding in Oregon?

Of course, GPS is a remarkable technological feature. It gets us to a destination without getting lost, without having to wonder where we are. Yet, cocooning ourselves in a cushion of geographical illiteracy also breeds a listless lack of awareness, demanding nothing more from us than an abiding self-interest. And, in the absence of an alternative mode of mapping — whether it’s orienting to the sun or grabbing the gazetteer — when the GPS goes dark, it leaves us with no option but to turn around and go home, wherever that might be.

Another Day on the Farm

the time before sunrise

Dawn: Sitting on the back deck with a first cup of coffee, I contemplate the rain-soaked windrows of hay on the hill in front of me. I had just finished baling half of what would have been a record harvest the previous evening, when the storm broke over the ridge with heavy winds, rain, and hail. Limping home on the tractor, I saw a glass that was half empty. Now, in the early dawn light of a new day, I see my work cut out for me: turning over windrows to let them dry out before attempting to bale the remainder of the hay. The dogs interrupt my thoughts to announce a coyote halfway up the hill. He stares down at his accusers, separated by a woven wire fence, and, with a distinctive limp, turns and abandons the hayfield. “Comrade,” I say into the morning air.

Mid-morning: I rustle a branch and a mourning dove explodes out of the crabapple tree. Leaning in on my orchard ladder, I part the curtain of twigs and leaves. There, hidden in the heart of the branches, is a single fledgling within days of its first flight. Fat and unlovely, like the son who won’t leave home, it takes up the whole nest. It stares at me with one anticipating eye before, in a “you aren’t my mother” moment, turning back to its inner world of waiting. I close the curtain and finish my harvest. I return to the house with two full buckets of fruit.

Noon: I toss down the last of the fresh bedding for the lambs, completing one of my more enjoyable tasks on the farm. I’m tempted to collapse into the soft hay, but instead grab a bag of minerals to fill up the flock’s saltbox. Before filling, I turn over the box to knock out the bits of poop and straw. And, in the doing, uncover a large nest of mice. Dozens of small rodents swarm over my boots and out the sides of the barn to safety. The dogs jump into action, fulfilling their designated role on the other side of the gate with loud abandon. Inside the barn, two dozen lambs stampede the saltbox, obliviously trampling the remaining mice. I quickly dump out the mineral and then leave the natural order to sort itself out.

Evening: I’m back on the deck, a pint of beer in hand, the same drying windrows in front of me. The dogs assume I need convincing of their utility and pick up their pattern of wild barking toward the hill. I rise from my chair and spot a large buck with impressive antlers. He stands in the evening light, the last rays of the setting sun as his company. Ignoring the peasant dogs, he turns and strolls with a dignified air over the hill and out of sight.

Raising my glass, I toast him and the close of another day on the farm.

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Reading this weekend: The Retro Future: looking to the past to reinvent the future. By J. M. Greer.

We Don’t Farm, We Do Farm…. Oh, Whatever

A recent phone call I had with the farmers co-op:

I’d like to schedule the lime spreader to come out.

Sure, how many acres?

We need 22 acres covered. That will be six different pastures. The amount of lime varies per pasture, but it adds up to 26 tons, total.

Well, we’re a bit backed up right now. It’ll be a few weeks.

No problem, we just wanted to get in the queue.

Ok. What is the name of your farm?

Winged Elm Farm.

(Laughs) Ok. We Don’t Farm. That’s a new one.

What? No, we do farm. Winged Elm Farm.

Oh, sorry. We Do Farm. Interesting name.

Yeah, it’s a tree around here. We were going to call it White Oak Farm, but we found out there were hundreds of those around the country. We are the only ones with our name.

I know that’s right. Ok. We will call you the day before we can come out. There might be rain next week. That’ll push us back even further before we can get into the fields.

Sounds good. Thanks.

The co-op driver came out two weeks later and spread the lime. Nice guy. When he was done he handed me the invoice. Printed at the top was our farm name, We Do Farm Farm.

Sigh.

Fig Nation

Figgy goodness

You just never know when good luck will turn on her high beams and hit you with some gifted produce or a home-brewed beer. We’ve been hard at what is best described as a homestead weekend on the farm. We’ve planted figs and blueberries, transitioned the summer to a fall garden, made mead and apple jelly, fed the bees…. Later today friends are coming over to donate an afternoon of converting logs to lumber.

Which makes me think of Fig Nation. A couple of years back, an elderly Slavic émigré visited the farm to buy a lamb for his freezer. A long conversation ensued (which seems to happen more often than not), during which he and I shared some of my homemade pear brandy (which also seems to happen more often than not). We walked about the fig orchard and got to talking about fig love and the joys and struggles of growing figs in the upper South. He mentioned a cold-hardy variety that he had had success growing in Blount County. The conversation and afternoon then drifted on to other topics.

A couple of weeks later, a mystery package arrived from an out-of-state nursery. It contained six small rootstocks of figs, a gift from the farm visitor. Since that time we’ve nurtured them along, first in pots in the house, then in the rich soil of the hoop-house. Finally, yesterday morning I dug them up and divided the rootstock of each into new plants. Two of each went into the orchard. The remaining figs were gifted to two more friends in the valley.

What took place here is an example of what I call “Fig Nation,” an informal farm economy and community based on producing, sharing, and enjoying. The concept of Fig Nation is simple: A few weeks back, my nephew and I harvested five pounds of elderberries. We cleaned, bagged, and tossed them in the freezer. Yesterday I pulled them out and combined them with water and honey to make an elderberry mead. Come winter, I’ll enjoy the mead with guests. Welcome to Fig Nation, where sharing brings pleasure and automatic membership.

Those friends coming over to help with the sawmill? While here, they also plan to use our cider mill for some perry from their pear crop. After milling lumber and pears, we will conclude the day with a glass or two of my newly bottled raspberry wine — members in good standing in Fig Nation must be prepared to produce, converse, work, and sip.

So you see, Fig Nation, in concept and in practice, isn’t difficult at all. Now, you may find the founding premise a bit too anarchistic, this making and giving and receiving. And, if you don’t comprehend, I’m not allowed to explain it in detail — except to say, it is not a bad way to spend your days and evenings and life.

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”.