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.

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Reading this weekend: Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey. and, Southern Harvest, by Clare Leighton. 

The South is a Neolithic Fort: revisited

Paul Kingsnorth, in his latest collections of essays, references a Scottish poet who moved to a small isolated farm and never left. His friends visited and asked why he had withdrawn from the world. Standing there among his gardens, he answered, I didn’t withdraw, I attacked.

These past weeks as a residual collection of pond-scum Nazis and Klansmen fought against those swept up in an emotional new-Taliban-ish movement, it occurred to me both were hell-bent on purification, either of a people or a history. Both seemed an appropriate stand-in actor for our modern world, with its mania for either paving over an inconvenient past or an arable landscape.

The real rebel culture of the South has always been found in its gardens, chicken coops, and pigsties. So, today, I resolve upon leaving my study to go out to my gardens, where, in an act of rebellion, I will launch an attack against modernity, one tomato at a time. Let my monument be a well-stocked larder and a cured ham hanging under the stairs.

It was in a Steak ‘n Shake in Georgia, standing in a swirl of moderns, with their faux tribal tattoos and piercings, that a small girl protectively held the weathered fingers of her grandfather. He stood erect in his worn overalls, both hands slightly curled, as if gripping the wooden handles of a plow, looking out of place.

The image struck me that all of the people, the building, and the parking lot were intruders and interlopers, a mirage. That the old man was standing in the same pose, in the same place in a tobacco plot, hands gripped just so around the plow handles, two mules out front and a granddaughter by his side.

The South is like this. Sometimes it is a Neolithic fort in the landscape. A slight rise in the ground indicating the presence of a past for those who can read it. A place full of relics and behaviors that are deemed out of place in a culture easily bored and distracted. It is not a landscape easily read by the digital world or understood by soundbite.

It has a people, black and white, who are looked down on and discarded because they have not adapted quickly enough. Modest people who don’t know that a paved parking lot has more value than a small field of their own. It has an agrarian soul and a heart that still beats.

This South is a run-down home, chickens scratching around the yard. Its roosters crow at all hours, riling the neighbor from up north who built a McMansion next door, an outsider who did not know pigs can stink. It is a make-do world where fences get built out of scaffolding discarded by a now defunct warehouse, a world often stubbornly ignorant of the rewards of nine to five and cultures bought and traded on Netflix.

It is a world that doesn’t easily discard anything, even the burdens of the past. A world easily mocked with sitcom humor, by a world in which advanced degrees in identity politics measure a culture to the failed standard of a “New Man” emerging.

Drive down the backroads of our valley and find gatherings of men sitting on shaded porches in the midday heat. Surrounded by well-tended gardens, with chickens scratching and kids in the dirt, they talk sedition and plot the downfall of the moderns. An elaborate plan called Waiting Them Out. Meanwhile, they buy nothing new, grow their own food, slaughter their own chickens, hunt their own game, and grip the handles of the plow.

Join them if you wish … or not, they don’t care.

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Reading this weekend: Butter, a rich history, by Elaine Khosrova.

Farm Postcard: a sigh heard ’round the farm

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The first tomatoes of the season, scattered drops before the deluge

“When your first tomato is ripe, take salt and pepper to the garden. Pluck the fruit from the vine. Cut into quarters, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, and pop it, a quarter at a time into your mouth. I shall be listening to your sigh of contentment.” Angelo M. Pellegrini

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Reading this weekend: White Goats and Black Bees by Donald Grant, a classic farming memoir set in rural Ireland during the 1950’s and ’60’s.

Farm Postcard: Earth Day

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A pin oak fronts two silver maples, all planted twelve years ago.

Plant trees: It is our constant and perhaps best advice to would-be-farmers. The old Chinese adage is true. “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” Our farm was evenly split between large woods and open pastures when we moved here in 1999. In order to provide shade for the house, barns and outbuildings that we built, fruit and native trees were planted in abundance. Dozens of fast growing maples and tulip poplars and slower growing oaks dot what was an open landscape. Several winged elms, transplanted from the woods, are set apart giving a living shape to the name of the farm. Two orchards, one now sixteen years old and a newer orchard still being planted are located in front and to the side of the house. The sawmill is located between the two, next to a hay barn sided with oak from our older trees. Additionally we have a couple of dozen pecan and pawpaw trees potted and ready to go into the ground. On this Earth Day we suggest that every day should be Arbor Day.

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Reading this weekend: Miraculous Abundance: one quarter acre, two French farmers and enough food to feed the world, by Herve’-Gruyer.

An Ode to the Meat and Three

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One assumes the stewed apples are stage right in this photo

Oh, how I yearn for the return of the meat and three. The simple joy of knowing that with a quick turn off the highway, any small town in the South yielded a diner that served up the sacred trifecta — that assurance brought comfort to restless, dark nights.

The daily break for lunch, the communion with one’s people. They have given way to the blight of Hardees and its ilk, the shuffling herd inching forward at the drive-through, devouring at the wheel, afterward pitching leftover hamburger wrappers out the windows. Our collective soul has been starved, even as our collective waistline has expanded.

We were a people of the garden once, the content of our favorite diner’s lunch fare reflecting the abundance of the seasons. Served in modest portions that allowed us to eat healthy, but not to excess or somnolence, the choices were varied and yet consistent: two or three meats, perhaps six or more vegetables. The daily decision was made while waiting for the iced tea to arrive.

The chicken was a smaller bird, the cuts done to maximize the number of servings. Each breast was cut in half, and when it was served on a small plate, it did not dwarf the other choices. The meatloaf was divvied into small squares, the country ham shaved in modest slices, the vegetables simply prepared with minimal seasoning.Meat and three 2

“Yes, ma’am, we are ready to order. Hmm, I will get the chicken today, dark meat, please. And let me have the okra and stewed tomatoes (which still counted as one side), turnip greens, and the crowder peas. Roll or cornbread? Cornbread, of course. Yes, ma’am, that is all today, no dessert for me. Peanut butter pie? Oh, that’s tempting, but, no.”

Y’all have a good day. We’ll see you tomorrow.

The Template

The wind was out of the northwest, the temperature hovering in the low forties, as I hoed the potato beds for a spring planting. A weak March sun broke through often enough to bring out the ruddy freckles of my hands, hands that were the mirror image of my father’s.

At the end of the row, I stopped and put the hoe away and went inside to begin packing to head home to Louisiana to visit my dad in the hospital. My father is just shy of his 89th birthday and has always enjoyed good health, but he had had a stroke and was now recovering in a rehabilitation unit. With good care and the attention of my sisters, he was in good spirits and improving ahead of expectations.

A couple of days later I was at the hospital, helping him tear open a packet of crackers as we caught up on his progress. Earlier that morning, while he was busy with rehab, I had gone to the parish documents office to get a copy of my birth certificate.

Staring down at the record before me, I was struck by the inheritance that came with being the son of William H. Miller of Lake Charles, Louisiana: Fifty-three years earlier, I had been born in the same hospital where my father now recovered. It was the same hospital where all eight of his children were born. The same hospital where my mother and older sister had died, and a younger brother had passed away a few days after his birth. The same hospital where my dad recalled carrying me as he walked up and down the hallway when I was sick as a child.

My cousin from Texas showed up for a visit just as my dad was eating lunch, part of a steady stream of well-wishers who stopped by throughout the noon hour and into the early afternoon — an appropriate testament to a man who for nearly eight decades has been an active part of a community, a man who has lent his hands, as it were, over the years to whatever has been needed. 

That involvement in the community was a lifelong occupation of my father’s generation. Countless hours each week, often on the heels of working all day, were spent in service. Years ago, as a child, I found a handwritten list from my dad’s boyhood, a list of items he deemed essential to a good life. Top of the list was to do a good deed each day without the person on the receiving end being aware of it. No chest-thumping, no look-at-me, just a hidden hand helping others up.

As I prepared to say goodbye and return to Tennessee, I recalled an evening when my older brother and I had sat around the kitchen table with other family members. We both had our hands resting on the table’s surface in front of us. My niece, my brother’s daughter, looked across the table and said in surprise, “You both have the same hands!” I laughed and pointed at our father, who was sitting in a similar pose: “Well, there is the template for those hands.”

It was those hands I shook as I said goodbye, cognizant that my inheritance is both a privilege and a responsibility.

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Reading this weekend: The Peculiar Institution: slavery in the ante-bellum South by Kenneth M. Stampp. A classic work of history that illustrates how and why the burden of that institution haunts us today.

Apex of Evolution

Looking down at a long row of spiny pigweed intercropped with my crowder peas, a minor cousin of weltschmerz washes over me. Seemingly sprung to life overnight, the pigweed’s thorny presence towers above the peas planted six weeks ago. A clear challenge to my abilities, perhaps even to my character.

But what is this I’m feeling? What form of cowardice is this to shrink back from the world because a weed persists in an unwelcome spot? Did we rise up out of the dust of the Cretaceous for me now to recoil from this foe? Will I accept defeat?

I throw down my warrior’s implements, grab a beer, and retreat to the hammock. Perhaps after the next extinction event runs its course the spiny amaranth will develop consciousness and proceed to do better than we have with this poor planet.

Battling prickly foe hadn’t been the first challenge of the day. Earlier, I had tried to caponize a cockerel for the first time. The procedure entails cutting between the second and third rib of a young bird, extracting the male internal reproductive gland, then allowing the skin to snap back. A caponizing kit laid neatly on the table—rib spreaders, probe, scalpel, another instrument not listed in any inventory—I strapped the cockerel down with cord. Gripping the how-to pamphlet in my left hand, I picked the pin feathers away with my right.

Instructed by the pamphlet to follow the hip bone and find the ribs, I swabbed the designated section with rubbing alcohol and probed with my index finger, counting: one rib, two ribs. Rib spreaders standing by, I grabbed the scalpel and made ready to make the incision.

But where did the ribs go? They had seemed so clearly in evidence only a second before. The scalpel hung like Damocles’ sword over the little bird. “Make the cut anyway; you’ll figure it out,” I told myself. I hovered, the bird passively awaiting his fate.

Loosening the cord, I picked up the cockerel and released him back, unscathed, into the population of would-be gumbos and coq au vins blithely scratching about the farm. The capon of Christmas future will be created by a different surgeon, one of courage and surer anatomical knowledge.

I retreated to the garden, certain at least of my competence in that department. The eyes of 10,000 years of agriculture followed my movements with intimate nods of confidence.

Ah, for the simple joy of the hammock. This I can do.

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Reading this week: Lesser Beasts: a snout to tail history of the humble pig, by Mark Essig. Another nice addition to bookshelf on the rich history of the pig.