Thoughts of a Modern-day Slaveholder   

For all intents and purposes, we are the beneficiaries of a slave economy. We may have exchanged human chattel for the energy slaves contained in a barrel of oil and the machines that consume it, but the economics work out the same and we can’t walk away without giving up status and wealth.

Thomas Jefferson well understood the conflict between the words “all men are created equal” and the reality of being part of a slaveholding economy. He called slavery a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot” on our country. He asserted that all had the right to personal freedom. And yet, he did not free his slaves.

This life we all live, powered by fossil fuel slaves, is certainly not a system based on the indentured misery of human slavery. It does, however, produce the same relationship between we the slaveholders and our property, a destruction of life, a high moral cost, and dependency on an unsustainable system. In this system, our slaves labor tirelessly to provide us with a level of grand living that would not be attainable if we relied on our own two hands. These units of stored sunlight, the busy hands of eons past, they slave away, providing comforts, doing the hard work, making clothes, shipping wine to the table, toiling in the fields, building us roads to leave by and planes to fly —at a resource cost that dooms ours, as all such slave empires, to the dusty midden of history.

Some think that in this established order there is no need to change: We are the rightful masters. God declared our right to make all subordinate to our needs. There is no moral depravity in looting this world. Our modern slaves exist to make our lives ones of comfort and ease, of mint juleps taken on the veranda. This is the “natural” world, the natural order.

Others (and I am one of them) sip on juleps and read, discuss, and try to understand the horrifying consequences of using up a limited resource. We are the self-styled enlightened. The knowledge that our privileged place is built on the lashed back of a ruined planet does not escape the grip of our soft thinking and our softer hands. We know the machines can’t keep working for us without being fed. We see the warning signs that the land is being worn out, the animals disappearing in a great new extinction, the endless offspring of our own species displacing the native flora and fauna, the waterways and the oceans soiled and empty of life.

And so we act as the planters of old acted. We make deals with our moral depravity. We use our blood money to buy “green” machinery that we hope exempts us from exploitation of the slave economy. We pledge not to buy more slaves. We put the old slaves on the block to be sold for new ones that, we tell ourselves, don’t need to be fed: sustainable slavery. All the while we conveniently ignore the huge numbers of the old order that will always be needed to build and maintain the new.

We think that if we use the profits of this hideous trade wisely, it will be for the betterment of the planet. But blood money is always blood money, and the game comes to the same end: a ruined planet. Meanwhile, wed to our Faustian bargain, we defer abolition for another generation, for our comfort is our birthright on this poor enslaved planet.

Someday, perhaps in our lifetime, the starving slaves will disappear in the middle of the night — the planet in revolt. Weeping, we will step out on the veranda of our mighty homes, calling out in vain for another julep, a sumptuous plate of food. Weak and alone, we will stumble into the fields and take unfamiliar tools into our hands, only to find the land bled dry, exhausted by our profligacy, refusing and unable to extend a hand of help.

We will then walk out the gates and begin a life of wandering through a shattered landscape. We will gather around a fire at night and tell stories to skinny offspring of the grand days when we lived in the big house.


Reading this weekend:The Forgiveness of Nature, the story of grass by Graham Harvey.


Approaching storm

Growing up on the Gulf Coast, where life was measured by the big storms, your given name could serve as a handy marker of your age. Post-1957, Audrey disappeared from the lists of incoming elementary pupils almost entirely. After ’69, no one named their child Camille.

In the hallway of our home in Lake Charles, Louisiana, hung a map. On it we plotted the latitude and longitude of each new disturbance as it sprang to life off the African coast or in Mexico’s Gulf of Campeche. My older brother, always a bit of a weather nut, actively tracked the storms. He would often plot an apocalyptic path to our door, then erase the hoped-for trajectory with a “there is always next year” shrug when the storm petered out or went off to blight someone else’s life. It’s not that he ever wished harm on anyone. There’s just something seductive about the destructive power of a hurricane. It’s like watching a Powerball lottery grow, except that the payoff is something that no one really wishes to win.

This past week it was my extended family in Beaumont and Houston who won that lottery, and recipients of the winning tickets will still be dealing with the aftermath in years to come. Harvey is just one in a long list of tropical storms and hurricanes that have recently resulted in 500-to-1,000-year floods in the South: Houston (2010, 2015), Baton Rouge (2016), Columbia, South Carolina (2015), the Carolinas (2016). Sadly, epic floods account for only a handful of the extreme events now occurring with increasing frequency across the globe, and it looks as if this nasty-weather lottery will only keep building to a stronger payout with each daily contribution made to the fund of planetary climate change.

As the waves of Harvey hit the Texas shoreline, likewise a predictable wave of finger-pointing washed ashore. Seems that a certain segment of the population confused the larger community of devastated coastal residents with the lesser community that had voted for Donald Trump, and proceeded to say that they had gotten what they deserved —blaming the whole of Gomorrah on just its naughty residents.

This holier-than-thou attitude rankles me. Because, let’s face it, whether we fall into the camp of climate-change deniers, with their heads buried firmly in the sand, or climate-change acknowledgers, staring in awe as the storm approaches, virtually none of us is doing anything significant to change the planet’s trajectory of catastrophe or to prepare for its impact.

Both camps, by and large, are still active participants in the consumer-industrial machine. Unless we have gone Amish or medieval, we depend on the people of the Gulf Coast for our cushy life. Our great collective illusion of progress is that we can continue to enjoy our current lifestyle simply by making the correct purchasing choices or pulling a lever in the voting booth, that we can use magic or tweak our way out of this mess. We can’t. That life is no longer sustainable.

According to that map hanging in the world’s hallway, the potentially cataclysmic future — for earth and, consequently, for humanity — has now passed the Leeward Islands and is picking up speed and strength. No wiping the grease board when a fantasy destructive track changes its course.

We all have bought into this lottery, and we all are at risk of winning it. So, if there is to be finger-pointing, let’s do it facing the mirror. And in the meantime, fill your bathtub with water, stock your larder, and prepare for landfall.

The Good Tenant

I look on as the last of our Red Poll herd clambers aboard the trailer, bound for a farm in Southern Illinois. One lone steer remains behind, with nothing but ewes and lambs for company. Around the corner, the Barred Rocks and Brown Leghorns scratch for bugs, totally indifferent to the leaving. The pigs in their paddocks, still sleeping off their dinner repast, are oblivious to all but dreams of breakfast.

To run a small diversified farm is to live within the wheel. It turns for the seasons, for the markets, for the climate. We have spent these many years planning, building, and repairing the infrastructure to support multiple endeavors, to make the farm resilient, to create and sustain a place where the absence of one species simply indicates another cycle, unremarked in the larger scheme.

Livestock live their lives out here, with their offspring raised, fattened, and slaughtered. Crops are planted, watered, and harvested. Dinners are planned, cooked, and enjoyed. The refuse is gathered, emptied, and composted. Wheels within wheels, seasons within seasons, years within years. Everything is done within a scale that is appropriate to our abilities, our infrastructure, our needs.

Some wondered, with the sale of the cattle, if we were scaling back, down, in retreat. They deconstructed the act, examined the entrails, to discover more than was presented. But if they had taken a closer look and a broader view, they would have seen a panorama painted over seventeen years, and one that continues to unfurl.

In that big picture, the beautiful snow in winter becomes a distant dream come the dry, hot summer and chicks in the spring lead to a convivial table in the fall. A herd of cattle is followed by a flock of sheep; a harvest of potatoes is replaced by manure and then a crop of beans. The one true constant in all is the turning wheel that brings the careful observer into active participation.

The small farm is itself a participant workshop of opportunities and dreams. It’s a place that, if we will read the cycles, does not scale up or down, but in a circle. A place where the new becomes the old becomes the new again, all within a framework of what is reusable, possible, and desirable.

Yet, as well as we live within the wheel, we are but fleeting stewards. The farm belongs not to us but to a much more demanding landlady, one who insists on her share of the successes and who is unforgiving of our failures. The panorama she paints is of billions of years, not a mere seventeen. And while capricious in her communications — railing one minute and calm the next — she is nonetheless predictable to a degree. Our challenge is to watch out for her moods and scale appropriate to what she will allow, knowing that when we are done the tenancy of our land reverts back to her.


Reading this weekend: The Running Hare: the secret life of farmland, by John Lewis-Stempel.


A Great Divide

In this country we have a long tradition of alternatively praising the work of the farmer and disparaging his lifestyle, the latter often accompanied by the epithet “hick” or “hillbilly.”

I was reminded of this these past few weeks with the ascension of the Tweeter in Chief, when a new broadside of vitriol was being fired at rural America. At a recent march, one speaker actually said, “We are tired of these people living out in the middle of nowhere telling us how to run our government.” On his Inauguration Day late-night show, Bill Maher referred to voters in the rural state of West Virginia as “pillbillies.” Closer to home, my own doctor condemned complaints by rural Tennesseans about lack of services by saying, “Who needs rural America anyway?” My answer: “Anyone who wants to eat.”

To say that basic respect has broken down between the cities and the interior seems at this juncture in the Republic an understatement at best. Any attempt to find a middle ground gets shot down by the left and the right as a defense of the other side. “Communication” is now a cracked landscape of carefully parsed conversations, tweets, and blog posts, all looking for hints of a wrongward tilt.

Example: An economist being interviewed recently on NPR suggested to his host that to better understand the anxiety in the country, the interviewer drive 45 minutes out of DC to see firsthand the economic dissolution of the rest of America. The interviewer glossed over what seemed a reasonable suggestion and, instead, asked the economist to explain why rural America has failed to endorse a laundry list of popular cultural agendas — a connection whose relevance I failed to comprehend.  

Our farm is located in Appalachia, an area that has long been the subject of scorn and mockery. The region’s people, although poor in ways that matter to a money economy, have traditionally been rich in independence, resilience, and self-sufficiency. It now seems that the language used to denigrate this area historically is to be applied across the land to anyone outside the belt of the bright lights.

And that is a mistake. First, because as the wealth of this country dwindles, as the climate becomes increasingly unstable, as the resources that provided this amazing historical interlude run out, we may very well be looking to the hicks and hillbillies to teach us the skills that have long sustained their culture.

Second, because history has shown that it’s imprudent to rile an armed and downtrodden population. Fully 86 percent of our military is drawn from rural and small-town America, and following policies that erode rural families and communities and ignore skyrocketing permanent unemployment, culturally mocking that same population as “pillbillies,” is a recipe for revolt.

As the economist on NPR said, it might be wise for the elitist policy and cultural trend makers to visit the hinterlands and have a non-condescending conversation with the inhabitants. But I don’t hold out much hope for that to happen. Instead, the hard work of dialog will be left to us — town and country, middle America and the coasts — to create anew a language of respect and understanding.

Decision Time

A week ago last Thursday I heard what sounded like the hiss of a fire. I sprinted from the kitchen in alarm, only to realize that a hard rain was falling on our metal roof. It ended a short 10 minutes later, giving us a meager two-tenths of an inch, qualifying as the only precipitation in the month of October. Add to it one rainfall in September and another the first of August and we have slipped into extreme drought this early November.January 2015 021

The fields on our farm are rock hard and parched from the topsoil on down. This week we planted our annual garlic crop in a four-inch layer of dust. On a trip to Georgia last Monday, we drove through an hour and half of smoke from the mountains; the newspapers report that north Georgia and Alabama are on fire.

Farming requires an optimism that good times will return sooner than later. But it also requires a pessimism, a conservatism that leads us to prepare for the worst, to be resilient. So we hoard our water supply (when cisterns and well-house spigots are not left on and forgotten absentmindedly). We stockpile hay, we mulch, we sell unused and unneeded equipment, and we cull old, ornery, and unproductive livestock.

Last year also began in drought. A slim first hay cutting forced us to cut our flock of Katahdins by half. Eventually the rains returned, rejuvenating our pastures and restoring our confidence in the number of mouths we could afford to feed through winter and lambing. The 2016 winter-spring lambing season rewarded us with a hefty crop of lambs, and we were able to sell off many of our weanlings, some to customers stocking their own freezers, some to individuals wanting to begin flocks of their own. It’s an annual event that brings in needed farm income and hedges our bets against the future.

In this period of extreme drought, it was with some surprise to us that we purchased another eight ewes and a yearling ram a week ago. The decision was based on simple economics: the ewes were all bred and offered at a price we couldn’t pass up, the owner having sold out because of the drought. We have an adequate stock of hay on hand and assurances to purchase more at pre-drought prices, and with that as security, we made the decision to carry an expanded flock through winter.

Yesterday, after a morning spent castrating piglets, we spent the afternoon working the sheep. We trimmed hooves, wormed a couple, and separated out the rams and market wethers from the ewes. With the ewes beginning lambing season in January, pulling the boys will help the females maintain condition and prevent a late lambing. The males are segregated in another paddock, where the rams will recondition after servicing the ewes and this year’s wethers will continue to grow out before being butchered in February.

The task of separating rams and wethers is always a bit of a rodeo. First we enclose them in a pen, with Cindy working the gate while I wade into the flock. She points and I grab, lifting the chosen one off his front legs. At between 125 pounds for the wethers and 175 for the older ram, the boys give me a workout. Once I have a firm grip, Cindy opens gates and I haul the sheep out to the corral. Then our English shepherd, Becky, moves them to another paddock as the ewes cluster around the gates for the farewell.

Such is the recipe for our farming decisions: pragmatic optimism, seasoned with conservative management of resources; ample hard work; choices made based on what is possible. Ah, that our political leaders adhered to the same.


Reading this weekend: Alternative Agriculture: a history from the Black Death to the present day. By Joan Thirsk

South of the River Revisited: Thoughts on Rural Resilience

My bookishness, my Louisiana childhood, my habit of looking at a rooster at the end of his procreational contributions and seeing a pot of coq au vin — sometimes I feel the odd duck in this Tennessee valley. But what I and my neighbors do share is a respect for the land, work, and community and the pleasure that comes from doing for yourself.

The homes in this valley are often unattractive, built piecemeal, their landscapes strewn with the debris of a wasteful industrial world. But one man’s junk is indeed another man’s treasure. Tell a neighbor that a weld broke on your bushhog and he immediately rummages around in the weeds before emerging with a stack of metal bars from an old bedframe he salvaged from a scrap heap 10 years earlier. “These should do the trick,” he says, then helps you weld the bushhog back together.

This is a poor but resilient rural landscape, a land inhabitated by multi-generation hardscrabblers seeking only privacy and independence. Chickens, a pig, maybe a cow are common even on an acre or two, and often a well-tended garden of tomatoes, okra, and pole beans sits alongside the house or barn.

In our valley, neighbors seldom call a specialist to fix the plumbing or dig out a clogged septic line. They repair tractors, mend fences, wire a barn, butcher chickens, cure hams, make wine, deal with an intruder (With wandering dogs, one old neighbor adheres to the three S’s: shoot, shovel, and shut up), or any of the thousands of other skills essential to living a rural life. They do it all themselves or shout over the barbed-wire fence for help.

A neighbor may help you run the sawmill for an afternoon, accepting payment in a few beers, conversation, and the side rounds from the logs for firewood. When you step into their hot summer kitchen, you may find them hovering over the stove canning endless jars of garden produce. Sometimes you’ll come home to find homemade loaves of bread, a jar of jam, a bottle of fruit wine, or a basket of vegetables leaning against the front door.

For better or worse, our neighbors have a yeoman’s obstinacy to rules and regulations and change. Even after a couple of hundred years (or maybe because of it), they still do not take to outside government intervention with enthusiasm. They prefer to be left alone to live in a manner that has been repeated down through the generations.

And this valley is certainly not unique. Across the continent rural values of community, cooperation, and resilience, while battered, still have life. Perhaps we are fortunate that while the urban centers still glow pink-cheeked with wealth, these rustics have more or less been abandoned to muddle along and do for themselves. It’s that abandonment that has preserved and nurtured self-reliance and partnership.

Definitely not an Eden, theirs is a resourcefulness often born of poverty. But it is one model, of sorts, that offers an emergency escape plan for the hard times to come: a poor people without the necessary capital resources to stripmine the future for their benefit — a gift that this planet might appreciate at this particular juncture in its 4.5 billion years.


Reading this weekend: various winemaking books. This is the season of country wines. We have a plum mead and elderberry wine bubbling away merrily. 

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.


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.