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”.

A Small Storm of No Consequence

Massive Old Man of the Woods

Perhaps, when compared to all the dancers on the world’s stage on that particular day, it was of little import. But­ on our farm, last week’s mini-blast nonetheless cut a deadly rug through the woods.

This has been the spring of many odd and intense storms: The recent eruption that dropped an inch of rain here and seven inches less than a dozen miles away. The storm whose gusts knocked out power in 800 residences in nearby Kingston, yet hardly sent a breeze down Paint Rock way.

The storm last week was a whirling dervish that came through with such force that the windows and walls shuddered, the trees swayed, and at least one neighbor was left looking for the roof of his barn. It arrived as an unexpected guest, late last Saturday night. Rain blowing at the horizontal wetted the front porch wall to the five-foot mark. Our lights flickered and went out for a few hours.

The storm, spending its energy in a fury, moved through the valley in less than an hour and then petered out over the eastern ridge. The following morning’s blue skies revealed no damage but a few small branches down around the house and a porch swept clean of chairs and rug. Only did my walk through the back forty to forage for mushrooms later that day tell the true tale.

Up the lane, in the heart of the wood, four modest oaks, each approaching their century celebration, lay in a tangle across the roadbed. Two reds and two whites, branches intertwined as if clutching at each other for support in their last moments.

Further into the wood, on a west-sloping ridge, lay a giant white oak. Assessing age by diameter is difficult, since trees can stay small for many decades before exploding in growth when the opportunity arises, often at the death of a parent weakened by age or illness. But this oak was twice the diameter of the other trees, fully mature, now laid low by this localized event, this small storm of no consequence.

Giant old Red Oak

Across a fence into the upper pasture, on opposite sides of a field, two of the most ancient oaks on the farm lay toppled, majestic sentinels of the wood now sprawled like drunks on a bar floor. One red and one white, both already anchoring their communities at the nation’s founding, they somehow looked out of place, prone instead of upright, in their slow death.

These old ones now await, in a condition of helpless indignity, men who will scramble up their sides, hack off limbs, and saw up their trunks, before carting the bits off for the beneficiaries’ own purposes — the oaks’ final will and testament ignored, that they may lay in the ground they lived on and with for so long, their utility reduced into so many cords of firewood and saw logs and days of labor.

No one will miss them but I and the other residents of the backwoods. I, for their solid, reassuring presence as I pull up my tractor into their shade for a midday lunch. The squirrels, for the mast harvest of massive proportions, a feast epic in tales to be told through the generations.

They were only seven oaks of varied age on a small farm in a small valley, located in the lower end of one of the 95 counties of one of the 50 states of one country on this planet. And now they are gone.

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Reading this weekend: Meditations on Hunting, by Jose Ortega y Gasset

 

A Farm Breviary: Compline

The final office, and I’m seated in the doorway of the hoop-house. Behind me the compline bell rings with each shake of the ram’s head. The flock is bedded in the barn for the night, but still restless. Through the far door of the greenhouse, in the dimming light, the pigs gather as hungry penitents, hoping to be favored by an overgrown turnip or some other toothsome gift. Mere feet away, a rabbit munches a cabbage leaf, unconcerned by my presence.

The hour of compline begins with the restless, the hungry, and the insolent, which seems to be a certain commentary on something, if I could but grasp it. Meanwhile, in the blue-black sky above, a late jet catches up to the sun’s light at 40,000 feet and reflects the granted glory of a temporary membership among the celestial.

That too seems to me a lesson: mistaking reflected light as a sign of glory or evidence of mastery. Our literature as a species, outside of this current epoch of assumed progressive godhead, is replete with warnings of a fall and our inevitable irrelevance. We forget the lesson of the Roman triumph, where the servant stood at the conquering general’s ear and whispered the message of mortality, or the caution of the young Shelley, that the Ozymandian stature of our achievements was petty compared to the cosmos, or even to a tree, a bee, or a rock.

Perhaps we seek too high for that reflected illumination. Once, I had resolved to be as the moon, steadfast in her journey. Now I’m thinking I should be a cabbage. It seems not to care whether rabbit or human eats its leaves; it thrives in that short arc before becoming fodder for whatever destiny.

I laugh out loud at my absurd ruminations, startling the ram out of his own observance. He nervously rings the bell on his collar to close off the hour. Still no closer to an understanding, with this final office now observed, I pick up my chair and turn to leave. The rabbit casts a wary eye, then resumes its predations on my garden.

A final gaze at the night sky before I enter the house finds the familiar winking semaphore still sending its eternal dispatch — which I suspect, if I could just hear, would be whispering in my ear: remember, you are only a man, nothing more.

 

A Farm Breviary: Vespers

Evensong, I pull up my chair into the bee-loud glade and sit down in the shade of a young oak. It is a mere child of 15 years, with near two centuries of growth ahead. Yet, already sturdy and full, it provides a cooling shelter for myself and our small bee yard.

Storms build in the west, as the sun, already hidden, prepares for departure, his work done. This is the office for the ending of the day, sung as a work chantey by humming bees finishing up their own day’s labor. Laden like the stevedores of old, they return to their community one last time, legs loaded with pollen. Soon the daybridge will be pulled up in readiness for the night and her watchmen.

In the poultry yard nearby, the chickens join in chorus with the bees and begin the return to roost. They flutter up into the coop, where their elder aunts have already gone to bed. The roosters, giving a last challenge to the fading light, crow once more, then declare victory and retire from battle. In the lower fields the sheep still graze. Soon though, the dominant ewe will signal an end to the day. She will lead the flock in a doxology of contented bleats back to the barn, all readiness for rest and security.

Vespers on the farm is a coming home.

Next to me is a small hive worked earlier in the day, a captured swarm from a friend and neighbor’s apple orchard. Eleven days it has labored in building a new home with the old queen. We were prepared to find it weak, to merge it with a stronger hive. Yet, the queen still lived, busy laying eggs, building brood, surrounded by her attendants. Not yet a strong hive, but with luck, hard work, and the inevitable act of regicide — like the corn kings of folklore — the colony will end the summer and fall strong enough to survive the next winter.

I sit in idleness and rest as these last bees return from the field. I watch as they and their sisters gather, bearding the front boards in tight-knit community. With news exchanged, plans made for the following day, they begin to go indoors.

Rising, I put my ear to one of the hives and listen to the hum of their evening song. It’s a melody picked up throughout the farm. I pause and listen for the refrain, and then, as the poet says, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

A Farm Breviary: Nones

The ninth-hour office is the quiet hour. This is a time for either a short nap or a walk before returning to the task at hand. For this hour, on this day, the woods are my destination. I cross our pastures to travel a winding footpath through the woods. Often, my passage signals the start or the completion of a day of work. Today, I’ll stop, pause and reflect.

This small wood of twenty acres is crossed by a steep ravine. Three offshoots, broad church aisles of ridge land, converge on a private sanctuary in the heart of the forest, a natural presbytery for the unchurched. The time of day, the wind, the season, all influence where I stop and sit. I light a cigar and lean back against a tree and drift.

The light slants down, filtered, dropping in through high lancet windows of nature’s cathedral. It falls onto and illuminates my pew, where the smoke lifts up through the leaves in an offering to the peace found in quiet observance.

The dogs, after a bit of chasing around, like kids at a Sunday service, pick up on the mood and settle near me. This is not a formal ceremony where members of the elite sit in designated and privileged seats. It is a come as you are, find a convenient rock, fallen tree or flat ledge of land, where the ritual begins when you are ready.

An hour of simply sitting brings to me a satisfying mental quiet in which thoughts eddy and drift with the smoke along unexpected paths — a reverie softly interrupted by the distinctive devotional of a woodpecker, heard in its search for a communion grub, or the alarmed bucksnort, a cough by the old man of the woods as he catches a whiff of the dogs, his whitetailed flag flown, signaling if not surrender, then at least a quiet retreat up the central nave and out the back door.

When my cigar is near its end, I stub it out on a nearby rock. The dogs are off chasing squirrels and the scattering scent of the vanished buck. A cloud obscures the light from the upper windows, and I, the remaining congregant, arise and start the journey home along a familiar and welcome path.

Those of you still reading this breviary will note something familiar; that I have largely borrowed this post from an earlier one I wrote a few years back. It seemed (in my opinion) a good fit for the series.

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Reading this weekend: I scored a complete 8 volume set of the Farmer’s Cyclopedia, published 1912. Beautiful writing, “choose a ram that has a fiery eye”, by the folks at the US Department of Agriculture. And it is full of great information from before the days of big-ag.

A Farm Breviary: Sext

It’s the midday office and I’ve brought my chair to the bottom of a grass-covered bowl, my own private Greek amphitheater. The greening spring grass grows thick where the play-goers sit; the stage for the actors and chorus is set hard against a fenceline, its backstage leading out to a former wood.

Here, our play opens. The oracle enters, predicting that where the fenceline stitches its feeble wire suture on the land, in a hubristic claim of ownership of what can’t be owned, the future already knows what we have forgotten.

The backdrop to the play is the clear-cut forest where I used to harvest ramps each spring and chanterelles late summer, deep in its quiet center. Now it lies as an exposed landscape of splintered trees and muddy roads, marking a deafness of the present custodians and neighbors to the past and the future.

Stage left is land that until recently belonged to an aging farmer who is in the long process of retiring, step by slow-moving step. He stopped by to deliver some much needed hay the other day, and I had a chance to chat with him about his life. Had he ever worked with horses? Yes, he said, he used to love to drive a team out into the field to pick up shocks of corn, the rhythmic stooping and bending work he liked as a youth. How old, I asked, when you were allowed to drive that team by yourself? Oh, very young, he responded. Eight years old.

Can I name a child of acquaintance who has the intelligence and responsibility to handle a team of horses and spend the afternoon doing physical labor? The sadness and absurdity of thinking we have improved on the past by infantilizing our children, swaddled even into youth and young adulthood, their girth and limbs malformed, their intelligence maladapted to the work of being men and women.

With these unsettled thoughts, the midday hour closes and I pick up my chair and walk back down the lane to the heart of the farm. The sounds of the chorus fade.

Rounding the last bend, I ignore the muttering of the audience and pretend the oracle’s prophecy was wrong. Blinded, I reenter this modern life.

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Reading this weekend: Cottage Economy, by William Cobbett

A Farm Breviary: Terce

The mid-morning office is a sun office and the heart of the workday on a small farm. It is the sweat-of-the-brow, hands-in-the-dirt, muscle-to-the-posthole-digger time of day, the time to get it done and not waste time. Putting my hands in the dirt, I plant, weed, and thin. Dirt, the alpha and the omega, where we all begin and where we all end.

I clean out the barn and pile the manure and bedding. By tomorrow, it will be smoking, a steam of decay already beginning new life. The farm in action is a plumed phoenix, flaming through life and death and life. Risen from the ashes, the bird becomes dinner, becomes compost and manure, becomes vegetables. Becomes a trinity of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Becomes us.

Yesterday, two friends joined me in cutting several logs into lumber. The morning was spent in pleasant labor, strenuous but never exhausting. Labor that if done in solitary might have been a chore was lightened by their company. Sawdust lay thick on the ground when our work was done, already becoming something new and different, yet still the same.

The challenge of today is to decide in the tomorrow how to best use this tree, this kith of the woodland — this matter, present at the beginning, that chanced to become the tree in a fencerow, and became stacked lumber in my shed. My responsibility is to make something if not beautiful, certainly functional. William Morris had it right, though we have drifted far enough into the fog bank that his words are now muted across the water: “Have nothing that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” It’s a directive bold enough to color my sins of misuse scarlet.

We are part and will be part of the plumage of the phoenix that fires and dies and is reborn. Holding that image in the eye, I will follow Morris’ instruction with the lumber. But for now, I start with my hoe, making my rows clean and productive, leaving the plants in fertile soil to track the sun across the sky.

The day will come when this matter too becomes compost, and begins again in dirt and life; when trees, in feeding, embrace the sun that brought me to their dark feet.

Finished, I hang up my hoe.