The Wreckage We Leave: A memorial for that which is no more

The hawk floats in over the valley with eyes sharply focused for any movement. It’s a ritual performed more out of habit than hoped-for consequence, above this once-teeming feeding ground that is no longer. How does the raptor fathom a clear-cut and soil-stripped landscape? The accipiter’s ancestors have hunted this very ridge and creek for tens of millions of years, but it is now forced to move on by an interloper on a bulldozer. With wings thus clipped, it spirals out of sight and into the past.

Who gave us the right?

Where there were turtles, snakes, foxes, opossums, raccoons; nests with birds of every manner, from titmice to owls; groundhogs, deer, skunks, even kids who waded and swam in the water — they are gone now. Where there was topsoil, rich with earthworms and nutrients, and assorted species of insect and mammalian life — they are gone. Where there was any life in the creek winding through this valley that depended on a healthy ecosystem above its banks, it is gone.

Trees? Gone. Loam, clay, and rock? Gone.

A ridge called by any familiar name? It too is now gone.

Who gave them the right?

Ownership. A quaint term for destruction. That such a right should be asserted by a creature whose lifespan is a mere four-score years, over a wedge of land and ridge formed three-hundred million years in the past — a claim of judge, jury, and executioner for this province nestled between the Cumberland Plateau and the Appalachian Mountains — is pure hubris.

Able to survive and prosper through four million, sixty-two thousand, five hundred lifespans of one single human, this valley, this self-sustaining microcosm, was unable to outlast the machine. It was hobbled and tripped, chewed up and carted away … gone in the blink of a geologic instant.

This right, this wreckage, we leave behind.

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News: I have suspended the SRA Facebook page. Like most, I am both attracted and repelled by social media. Suspending that account, which saw very little attention, allows me to simplify that part of my life. I maintain an active FB page for our farm, mainly to generate customer interest in our offerings. That said, this writer certainly appreciates when you like or share his posts by any means.

Reading this weekend: The Last Grain Race, Newby. And, The Gifts of Reading, Macfarlane.

In Defense of Somewhere

I remember walkin’ ‘round the court square sidewalk
Lookin’ in windows at things I couldn’t want
There’s Johnson’s hardware and Morgan’s jewelry
And the ol’ Lee King’s apothecary

Somewhere

Somewhere — the gravel road I grew up on, the wharf I fished from, the woods at the end of the road where we roamed, the edge of the bayou where we fought off pirates to keep them from landing — is no longer. It is now an anywhere of pavement, sidewalks, Walmarts, hotels, casinos, and housing developments. Anywhere is nowhere.

I go back now, and the stores are all empty
Except for an old coke sign from 1950
Boarded up like they never existed
Or renovated and called historic districts

Anywhere is a global assault weapon, firing bullets of convenience and terminal extraction. Even without a smarter-than-you phone, you can find, around each corner, the Starbucks, the McDonald’s, the everywhere of anywhere. All the signs, hovering over expanses of concrete, flashing the conquest-driven desires of the Empire to colonize the somewhere.

Now the court square’s just a set of streets
That the people go round but they seldom think
Bout the little man that built this town
Before the big money shut em down

It always begins, thus, with the paving of roads. (For we all secretly know, the road in is a road out.) The new road comes to town and the longtime general store closes down, its population drawn by a siren’s call to the dollar store that opened in the next small town. Then, that up-and-coming town gets a check cashing store, and a rent-to-own, and a doublewide mobile home dealer. In a few years, that small town is compacted and consumed, repackaged and reissued, newly minted as a bedroom community of the anywhere. And its growing population learns the limited joys of spending its days circling the streets of plenty, like water in a drain.

He pumped your gas and he cleaned your glass
And one cold rainy night he fixed your flat
The new stores came where you do it yourself
You buy a lotto ticket and food off the shelf

A genius of this empire is that it was built in bricks of self-loathing. The new construct is a place where the food of one’s people is scorned and a quarter-pounder Thai burger sounds like a possibility, where the inhabitants wander around in such dislocation that their limbs move like invertebrates of the sea, clutching at random unneeded objects in a painful effort to perambulate down the Costco shopping aisles.

Now the bank rents the station
To a man down the road
And sells velvet Elvis and
Second-hand clothes

Until ultimately, used up and useless as a boarded-up Kmart that becomes a rock band masquerading as a non-denominational church, the Big Show leaves us, pulls out of town. In its wake a cratered post-battle landscape, a lonely fortified outpost of colonization on the edge of town that pays low wages and serves up a ghost offering to Anywhere. Pale in its incarnation, the orbiting halogen sun flickers just brightly enough to illuminate our dreams. And inside this opium den of our own making, clutching our pipe, we eagerly inhale the fumes and forget, for a while, that we once lived somewhere. That we were Somewhere. 

Now the court square’s just a set of streets
That the people go round but they seldom think
Bout the little man that built this town
Before the big money shut em down.

 (Lyrics courtesy of “Little Man” by Alan Jackson)

 

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Reading this weekend: Where the Wild Winds Are, by Nick Hunt. Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening.

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.

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.

Peak Local

Doing the sexy work of farming

We were sexy once, back in the heady days of 2009. Courted by all, admired, imitated, and flattered. Yes, we were your local small farmers. Tho­se were the days of Food, Inc.; Omnivore’s Dilemma; Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, all released in a three-year span, exploding the world’s interest in all things small-farmy. We were, for a brief moment, in the zeitgeist.

That was the moment when the American consumers got it, realized that their health and their economy could be shaped for the better, and that they could make it happen. That was the moment when a friend in Nashville could sell all the $7-a-dozen eggs his hens could produce. Farmer’s markets were the place to be on Saturday mornings. The great recession provided a steady stream of new customers and people learning to do for themselves. In a fragile world economy, local was the anchor. Local had become hip.

But, Mr. Zeitgeist is both a capricious master and himself a servant to larger forces. If anyone thinks farming is hard work, try being an American consumer. A la Bakunin-turned-beer brand, capitalism was quick to pick up on a good thing: small farms became the darling for ad campaigns, commodified, eye candy for the machine. And social media played their role. The iphone, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram were all loosed on the land between 2004 and 2010, and all began carving a chunk out of our mental landscape. Instead of “eyes to acres,” we lost the battle to “eyes to screens.”

Sure, there were an expanding number of farmer markets, where friends could sit all day on a Saturday to sell $25 worth of peppers. But, the real question, behind the hype of buying local and keeping your dollar in the community, was: how much of that average dollar spent on food was truly spent on locally grown meat and produce? Precious little (at most, maybe 5 percent, according to the little research out there). It is just not culturally relevant, expedient, or, most important, convenient in our global economy for most Americans to think outside the grocery box-store.

Already, the voices of protest rise up against this message that local has lost the battle for the consumer. “Why, just last week, Huffington Post had a series on a local farm,” you say. “My mother and I went to a farmer’s market on vacation.” “Here is an article on restaurants supporting local farms.” “I like my favorite farms on Facebook.” “My ‘Where is a farmer’s market?’ app works great when I visit New York City.”

It is that very clutter of modern life that works against our efforts. We are irrelevant, not because of what we do but because we are a small, tinny voice, lost in the great Babel of the running of a great machine. Yes, we small farms still have our loyal customers who go out of their way to support us, and we thank them for their unwavering support. And yes, the press, social media, and even advertisers have made the education of the customer easy, allowing we small farmers to partially pay our way in this life we have chosen.

But that good press allows us collectively to think inside a bubble. We see the Tweet, the post, the like, the ad, the book, the movie, and we assume that there is a major change underway. Yet, the average grocery bill has an ever-diminishing content of locally produced food. The decline has been going on for a very long time: Even a short 40 years ago, many grocery stores still routinely bought the bulk of their produce from area and regional farms. Farm stands and farmers selling from their cars and trucks along the roadside were commonplace. The resurgence of local today is merely an upward blip on a declining trend line that mirrors another rising line, one of global supply chains.

So, it should not surprise my readers that I am not sanguine about the success of the local food movement. Yes, I support it, work in it, and encourage everyone to do the same. Because by doing so we preserve a functioning framework of what was and could be again. Yet, I have come to believe that a truly successful local food movement will come at the expense of the collapse of the global.

Local is the obverse of global. It’s not just a good soundbite to say that we cannot have both a dominant global economy and a thriving local economy. For one is the master and the other the servant. And this master doesn’t give a shit about the local. It is a destroyer of worlds, and it won’t stop until the fuel, both metaphorically and literally, runs out.

When that happens, if we are all very, very lucky, we will get the local economy we need to survive. And, we will all be sexy again.