Reading This Weekend

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.

What are you reading?

A Mid-September Weekend

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We may be feeding hay by the end of the month.

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.

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Reading this weekend: Surviving the Future: culture, carnival, and capital in the aftermath of the market economy by David Fleming.

The Great Tear-Down

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Well maintained farm structures

Perhaps it is barn envy. This farm has never had enough barns or sheds for the equipment, animals, forage, and tools to meet our needs, despite our ongoing efforts. Seventeen years of building hay sheds, equipment sheds, chicken coops, and well houses has provided me with a fair sense of the work, skill, material resources, and neighborly assistance needed to construct those larger hay barns that dot our landscape.

So I feel a particular sadness watching old barns fall into disuse or being torn down before their time, the wood destined to deck a second home on the lake or, more often, simply bulldozed and burned.

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This large barn may have been ignored too long

Often this tear-down is done by new owners seeking the “country life.” The country life is a consumer choice, bought and sold. It’s quite distinct from the agrarian life, which is a life of work and provision. In the past five years, we have watched two different neighbors tear down perfectly good barns and burn the lumber. One neighbor bulldozed a two-story hay and tobacco barn and replaced it with a poorly constructed lean-to for lawnmowers and weedeaters and leaf blowers. The other leveled a barn built of chestnut and oak so he could have more room to practice his golf swings.

A recent conversation with an extension agent about fencing revealed a similar pattern. According to his statistics, more than 50 percent of fencing in our county has been torn out in the past 20 years.

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This hay barn was overgrown and falling down three years ago. They replaced the rotting wood and support beams and extended the usefulness for another generation.

The destruction of an infrastructure that is often still perfectly suited for the continued productive use of these East Tennessee valley farms is concrete evidence of the demise of a formerly vibrant community of neighbors and family that worked together. From the tobacco barn and smokehouse to the chicken coop and milking parlor, all helped to explain who went before and what worked on this land.

Although not necessarily wed to our predecessors’ choices, we’d be wise to not wholly ignore them either by tearing down the evidence of their accomplishments. That evidence is a blueprint linking the past to a possible future. Because far deeper than the grain in the wood is the pattern to sustain life and community.

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Reading this weekend: Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hoschschild. An interesting new sociology of the American right that focuses on my home town of Lake Charles and Calcasieu Parish.

A Conversation Postcard: At the Dump

The ­old man from Maine carried on a one-way conversation with Cindy as I unloaded the truck at our local dump. I could overhear snippets as I emptied the garbage cans:

Commenting that every president who does a stint in the White House comes out gray-haired: “I bleach my hair blonde; otherwise, it would all be white.”Feeder pigs 017

On a piglet his family raised as a pet when he was a boy: “Well, then my mom named her Sally, after my dad’s old girlfriend. She’d stand outside and holler, “Fat Sally, Fat Sally,” with a smile on her face, until that fat sow came waddling up from her sty for a meal. That pig would follow us into town. We had this summer kitchen outside with a couch where Sally would rest, waiting for the scraps, when Mom was cooking. Finally, one day we came home and Sally was gone. My parents never told us where she went.”

On Hurricane Carol in 1954: “Hurricane Carol blew the whole crop down — 4,000 Macintosh apple trees. Dad called up his friend at the cider mill, and his friend said, “Jim, I’m firing up the mill right now. Get those apples to me.” We kids picked up apples off the ground all day and all night, I’ll never forget.”

He finally sputtered to a halt, overcome with that memory, as I finished unloading the truck. I climbed back in the cab, then said our goodbyes and headed back to the farm.

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.

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

Thank you, James, Siegfried, and Tristan

This week a young woman from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, volunteered to come and work on our farm. It was part of her summer course requirements, to gain some real world experience with various livestock. In addition to helping Cindy castrate pigs, she got hands-on involvement with worming a lamb, shoveling manure, setting up electric fencing, and assessing the health of one of the beehives.

Suggested readings

Suggested readings

Her presence here brought to my mind the only other vet I know who attended vet school in Scotland, James Herriot — the vet whose memory often prompts a joke that everything I know about veterinary skills I learned from him. Cindy and I both loved the Herriot books and British television series, a fond look at the Yorkshire Dales in the inter-war years of the 1930s.

The stories revolve around a bright-eyed new veterinarian, Herriot, who joins the village practice of the irascible and eccentric Siegfried Farnon. The practice is rounded out later by Sigfried’s mischievous younger brother, Tristan. One of the recurring threads of the series is Siegfried’s penchant for leaving tools behind on farm visits. In our own life, when either Cindy or I am about to leave, say, a pair of fence pliers on a fence post, we look at the other, point to our eyes and then to the tool and, channeling Siegfried as he lectures James Herriot, mouth the words, “I’m visualizing where they are. That is why I never lose anything.”

The vet student’s visit and the Herriot connection had me thinking back to our decision to move to the country, and wondering about the various influences that prompted our relocation 16 years ago. Each of us likes to think we are the agent of our own life, operating independently of cultural currents. But we also all know this to be untrue.

Cindy and I lived in and restored an early 20th century Victorian house in Knoxville before our exodus from the city. We really had not paid attention to the literature of farming, had no heightened awareness of the local food movement, had never heard of Joel Salatin and had only a passing knowledge of Wendell Berry, put in a poorly thought out and maintained summer garden each year. Still, one day, I said more or less out of the blue, “Hey, let’s find some land.” 

For many Sundays we simply got in the car and drove, usually up Washington Pike, into the wilder country of Grainger and Union counties, areas that have a fair amount in common with the topography of Herriot’s vet practice. We developed a penchant for abandoning friends at parties and making early departures from dinners to go to the library or bookstore to look at farming books.

One memorable night we left a party late and drove in a snowstorm to see a farm for sale in the north end of Grainger County, a full hour on winding two-lane roads, with only an occasional farmhouse or small town to give evidence of settlement. Around midnight the storm passed and the sky cleared. A full moon illuminated the scene as we walked the snow-covered pastures of the old farm.

Another drive, around a bend in the road near House Mountain, we stopped and helped a farmer get a bull calf back inside a pasture as the mother anxiously paced the fence line bawling.

Over these drives we discussed what type of farm we wanted, what kind of life we wanted. It didn’t take many midnight outings in the snow and stops to help a farmer before we determined that this life was the one we wanted to live each day. And although I may not always be able to find those misplaced pliers, the life I visualized 16 years ago is exactly the one I found and still live today.

Eating Cake

Empire rots and grows dark at the edges even as the lights seem brightest in its heart where the leaders feverishly tweak and prime the flow of the wealth-pump and would-be leaders make promises to restore the Republic to its former glory. And both sets struggle mightily to keep the haves content and the have-nots hopeful.

We live an hour from Knoxville to our north-east and Chattanooga to our south-west in a narrow valley with low ridges. Our county just ten years ago had twelve repairmen servicing phone lines. Today it has one individual who now services two counties with the same amount of landline.

Phone companies have always been required, as a semi-public utility, to maintain that access in rural areas. But the cell phone revolution has allowed them a way out of that obligation. In a historical slight-of-hand, as the number of cell phones proliferated, phone companies began dismantling the service infrastructure. Today a disruption to the landline entails many calls and a week or more response time; a process that is guaranteed to gin up the numbers who get fed up and opt out. The more who opt out, the quainter the requirement to provide the costly landline infrastructure seems until eventually the service is removed and replaced with….?

Meanwhile, currently 7 out of 10 teachers in the US assign homework to students that require a broadband connection to complete the work (according to a recent FCC report). And one out of three households do not subscribe to broadband. The report is primarily urban-centric. Very little data about how rural-households cope. But one could reasonably surmise that for lack of digital infrastructure or for affordability, large sections of this land are left out of the techno-fantasies of our education elites.

Indeed one does not need to read that report. Read an article in a newspaper or watch a segment on a newscast and witness that disconnect between the fantasy imaginings of a connected world and the realities of everyday life. It has only been three years since we began to get a cell phone signal at our house. Before that date I’d have to drive ten miles and park at the Fender’s Methodist Church to take calls. The teenage boy in a neighboring family walked up to our back field (north-east corner) and found a forty-foot patch where he could reach his girlfriend.

Today we enjoy a ghost echo of the digital revolution here in the valley. We now receive cellphone calls in the front two rooms of the house. Outside we can take calls from the house to almost half-way down the drive. At that point you’d still need to drive out to the church to complete your call. And our connection speeds have increased. We get a pretty consistent 1G in those two front rooms with the occasional 3G pulse. And some of the time we get nothing.

I’m not whinging, I have a good job, a good farm and a full belly. But one does wonder who speaks for or is concerned about the rural lives of this country, the kids held back by both finances and access to the digital promised-land. A technological revolution that I suspect the elites are no longer capable of either funding or even conceptualizing a need for outside the core hubs where the lights still burn bright.

There you have it, as a society we are busy rolling up the carpets of communication infrastructure while requiring kids to use a technology which is only sporadically available or on terms they can’t afford. And failing that, they are effectively being asked to kindly turn out the lights when they leave.

Our rural population along with the abandoned urban core are being asked to “eat cake”. And we all know where that ends. And in case you are having trouble imagining, it doesn’t end with a “digital” revolution.