Late-winter is the precarious season on a farm, all on balance between hope and disaster. A race for fresh growth against dwindling stores of forage. Early blooming peaches and plums gamble against a late hard-freeze. Bees venture out in search of pollen sources, fighting against the clock in the starvation time of the year. Cabbages and greens go in the ground, while I scan the fields for early dandelion shoots for our salad. Chicks peep loudly in the brooder. The post office calls at seven, one morning, to say more have arrived. A hen sets on a dozen eggs in the sheep hay manger. Every week we load up and cart off hogs and lambs to the butcher for customers, making room for more on this land. Precarious, a roll of the dice, a preamble to the really busy time that comes with Spring.
the bee listener
an ever changing road sign
a well house that doubles as a smokehouse
Reading this weekend: Craeft: An inquiry into the origins and true meaning of traditional crafts.
The front wheels are angled perfectly for the eight-foot gate opening between the barn and the corral. A round bale of hay dangles from the front spear. In spring, summer, and fall, the tractor turns smartly, with clearance on both sides. But this is not spring, summer, or fall. The tractor takes on a mind of its own and begins sliding off to the left, back tires pushing forward, front tires mired lug-nut deep in mud, until, rudderless in the late winter slurry, it skids to a halt against the gate post.
Mud season in East Tennessee is well underway. The weather is never quite warm enough to dry out the ground; the green grass is still a month away. Every surface stays in a stalled-out state between slop and frozen. Margery Fish, in her book “We Made a Garden,” says if you want to know what the world looked like after the great deluge, visit a barnyard in winter. We say, if you want to visit our farm, wait until spring. Sad sheep paths and nasty pig sties look to those unlearned in the ways of the farm to be the product of gross inattention. Hell, they look the same to me, and I know better.
Each slippery step I take leaves a rut in its wake, the dead grass sloughing off like a snakeskin with my passing boot. It’s as if the world has taken a giant gulp and held its breath until its skin has become soft and spongy.
The sow peers out of her shelter when I approach, her bulk blocking her piglets from the great outdoors: “Not today, kids, you’ll just track it all back inside.” The hens scouring the barnyard take great shuddering leaps to clear the mire and get to higher ground and fresh bugs. Eggs collected in the season of mud are all imprinted with spidery claw prints.
Every year ’tis the same complaint. Then, every year the mid-March miracle occurs. All in a matter of a week, two at the most, emerald hairs of grass explode from below. The sponge squeezes and even the ruts from the tractor fill in, seemingly overnight. The trees on the opposite ridge wear their first hint of green, and the rose-purple redbuds begin to work their understory magic in the deep woods. Demeter comes out of her funk as her daughter returns.
But for now, early spring growth is just a memory and a promise. The tractor tires still mutiny against my commands. They go left when I order right. The mud offers no purchase to my boots. The sheep reproach me with yellow eyes as they leave the barn single file on a high path out of the mire.
I back up and try for the gate again, and the rain begins to fall, merging sky with muck.
The sun hovers on the western horizon, an hour left on its time clock, as I walk out the back door and up the wooded lane beyond the pasture gates. The walk is quiet, muffled by deep leaves of countless seasons on this land. My destination, as it often is, a pile of boulders at the base of a half-dozen oaks. I climb onto the largest and use a smaller, four-foot stone as a footrest.
A cairn of rocks six feet tall and 20 across lies at the edge of the pasture. Another stands illuminated across the field like a treasure hoard in the curious light of a low sun through a leafless deciduous forest in November. The rocky groupings are seated on the sidelines of all our pastures. They are hard evidence of generations of boys who spent their youth in farm chores, among them, picking up the endlessly erupting rocks and stacking them in mounds.
Behind me lie two oaks felled by storms decades past and decades apart, one now nearly buried in leaf litter, its long cycle of decay almost complete. Ten yards away a limb as big around as my waist dangles 40 feet up. Broken off from a parent white oak, it hangs like Damocles’ sword above we mortals who dare imagine the world as our throne.
The sound of Cedar Creek is barely audible as it channels under the bridge at Possum Trot. Another quarter-mile and it will narrow at the decaying Cook’s Mill, where elder neighbors recall as children hauling mule-driven wagonloads of corn for milling.
A leaf spirals into my view, released from a seasonal contract to land at the foot of a massive shagbark hickory. Nearby, a deep-rooted sourwood, contorted in the last ice storm, refuses to submit to gravity. At its base a large stone is covered with the debauched remains of a dinner by the resident squirrels: bits of hickory and acorns piled in the center of the table.
A small flock of wild turkeys, feeling safe a couple of days after Thanksgiving, ambles across a lower pasture and enters my wood. On the far side of the road beyond lies the expanse of pastures that marks our neighbor’s cattle farm. From there comes the nervous bawling of dozens of cows, as they discover their new home after an auction in a nearby town.
Their disquiet competes with the sound of distant chainsaws from all points of the compass, chewing on wood. And then, unexpectedly, another intrusion. A neighbor beyond the eastern ridge and half a mile away fires up his ATV to begin what is an early start to his habitual late-night motorized rambles.
Toward the house, I can just hear Cindy in the woods as she clangs the lid off the feed barrel. An overeager hog squeals as he hits the single strand of hot wire. I smile: I can check the task of determining if the current is pulsing off my to-do list for the next day.
I rise from my perch and head home. Not down the lane, but at an angle that leads me into the heart of the woods. I note a likely Charlie Brown Christmas tree along the way. I then pause, as is my wont, at the base of a sentinel white oak. Its circumference is all of 15 feet, its trunk reaches 40 straight feet before the first branches erupt, and the fissures in the bark are two inches deep. I lay hands on it, hoping to receive a blessing of sorts.
Now, on the edge of the main woods, I traverse a pig paddock not in use. In the middle is a tall pile of fallen limbs. It provides a sometime shelter for the hogs and, more often, a haven for the red fox that ventures out to make raids on errant hens.
By the time I exit the woods, Cindy is trudging up the drive in her bee suit, fresh from checking that her charges are well-fed and secured for the cool night to come.
The sun has set, the light fades, and I head into the house, pleased to call it another good day.
Our little farm is humming along as we enter spring. From the green grass and ample rains, to the large flock of sheep and expanding poultry yard, the farm looks more prosperous this year than last; when the onset of what was an extreme drought began to color the land brown. That the orchards and all of the new plantings survived and are now thriving, we remark on daily as a miracle (thank you, Mr. Dionysus, for keeping the new wine grape plantings alive).
Between tending the animals and the gardens, I still try to find time to maintain an active reading life, a balance that is important to my mental health. And Mr. Cobbett is always a good tonic to put things in perspective. Reading (again) portions of his Rural Rides, volumes 1 &2. This work is now close to its bicentennial and still full of timely information. Example: beware of visiting clergy, particularly the Methodist variety, they keep a keen ear for hog butchering days and consequently time their visits for the dinner hour.
Also, reading the new work by Jeffrey Roberts, Salted & Cured: savoring the culture, heritage, and flavor of America’s preserved meats. It is equal parts travelogue and history, and an interesting account of cured meats as they exist today in our land. A bit awkwardly written with a confusing narrative but it still has me interested in continuing our own curing experiments.
The 2015 title, Collards: A Southern tradition from seed to table, published by the University of Alabama, and written by Davis and Morgan, is well worth seeking out by any lover of greens. Personally, I’m more of a turnip or mustard greens man, having grown up outside of the core collard-belt. But this book is a well-written and enthusiastic account of the cultural importance of greens, a food group I always will celebrate.
Cresting the hill on my tractor on a Saturday evening of bushhogging, I was followed by a long, dry cloud of chaff and dust. Ahead of me, a few hundred yards of brown fields extended to the woods. It has been a dry year, technically, a moderate drought, that has gripped our valley. A claim that, in this year of extraordinary heavy rains or continual rains in many areas of the country, seems oddly boastful.
Making the final turn at the bottom of the hill, the south end of the field, in the shelter of the oaks, I found my green pasture. Like the last of the snow left in the shade of a tree, here lay a swath of grass, no more than five yards across, still exhibiting the trademark signs of life.
As a kid in Louisiana, I saw my first snow at the age of four — a remarkable day in which the white stuff melted almost as fast as it fell. I ran around our yard, gathering snow from underneath the trees, trying to collect enough to make a snowball. Eventually, I brought a golf ball-size ice ball inside to proudly show off. That is what I felt like doing yesterday upon spying the patch of green. “Look, Cindy,” I’d say, “green grass. Quick, get a vase before it loses its color.”
Friday night we drove to the next valley over to another farm. Turning down a small road, we passed the spot where one enterprising local farmer raises fighting cocks for that lucrative blood sport. Hundreds of wooden huts, each housing a single, tethered rooster, are positioned in neat grids up and down the well-manicured hill.
A bit further down the road we arrived, across a small bridge over a diminished stream, at our friends’ farm, where the next several hours were spent deconstructing four sides of hogs into usable cuts of meat for the two brothers’ freezer. In a slightly chaotic assembly line, I focused on removing the ribs and sides (bacon) and deboning the hams. One of the brothers removed the loins and cut the Boston butt from the picnic shoulder roasts. Cindy and the other brother took on the job of vacuum packing the massive piles of meat. Meanwhile, our hosts’ mother kept busy presenting trays of snacks and penning content descriptions on the sealed bags of cuts. We eventually headed home after capping off the butchering session with a late-night dinner and glass of wine.
Saturday afternoon we headed back up our dry valley to another farm, where we joined a hundred or so guests for a pig-pickin’ party. The 200-pound pig was from our farm, bought by a neighbor just that week, then killed, scalded and slow roasted for 13 hours. The resulting meat was something any Southern boy would have been proud of producing. That it was prepared by a native New Yorker showed that the art of the slow-roast pork is not defined by the geography of one’s birth.
After a few hours of conversation and food we returned home. Up the long, dusty drive we went, past the dying fields and drying ponds, where the cattle and their newborn calves kicked up their heels over some pleasure unseen by us.
Reading this weekend: Surviving the Future: culture, carnival, and capital in the aftermath of the market economy by David Fleming.