A Farmer’s Guide to the Senses

Hearing: When the fog comes into the valley, the cattle bawl a fearful alarm at the loss of any horizon. It’s a sound that raises an ancient fear of the husbandman worried for his stock. You cock your head, desperate to locate the sound. Is this the bawl of your own cattle, now escaped and on the highway? An experience lived once stays forever.

Red Poll Cattle

Red Poll Cattle

Smell: Walking out at midnight among the cattle on a hot night, you take in the sweet rich aroma of sweat and foraged dung rising from the earth. Not unlike the smell of yeast and dough working together in a bowl under a heavy cloth. Both are promises in the dark, a womb-like gift of fertility for those capable of interpreting and understanding their uses.

Touch: While the ewe is still expelling the afterbirth, you cradle her newborn lamb. That gaze, that softness, delivers in an instant the totality of life, what the world offers. This, a mere moment between birth and death, for the joy and the living, for all of us.

Sight: The blood will come quickly, more than you expect. With a merciful cut across the jugular, the yearling ram-lamb will bleed bright on the winter grass. You carry his dead weight across the barnyard and hoist him up by the gambrel tendons to a singletree dangling from the front end loader. You execute the evisceration quickly, then place the carcass in the cooler.

Taste: You place a bit of smoked pork in your mouth. The fruit of your land, it is simply seasoned with salt and pepper, stuffed with garlic from the garden. The fat is rendered out during a long summer day spent in the smoker, then the meat is pulled, chopped, and doused with a vinegar sauce. You serve it on a plate alongside crowder pea salad. You wash it down with homemade mead and wine, sitting around the long table with friends as the day becomes evening. This is farming.

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Re-reading this weekend: The Localization Reader: adapting to the coming downshift. A collection of essays, this is the designated reading over the next six months for our farmer’s reading group.

Evidence of Our Passing

Here is one from the archives this week:

The past two weekends Caleb and I have been engaged in a massive fencing project, rebuilding three hundred yards of woodland fence. Some of the fence line dates back twenty years and some perhaps as old as forty. Condition of the barbed wire, size of trees that have grown up in the old fence line, type of wood used for posts all give some indication of the age of the fence. Pulling out the old fence and putting in the new has had me thinking about the visual clues of human settlement. A more knowledgeable observer of the natural world could point out botanical interlopers on our farm. I have to rely on more modest powers of observation.

It is hard to say how long our particular valley has been settled. European settlers, before finally pushing out the Cherokee in the early 1800’s, have now been in the area for 250 years. The Cherokee in turn had pushed out the previous inhabitants a few hundred years before that date. And I’m sure wave after wave of earlier inhabitants engaged in the same activity. But any visual evidence of long inhabitance in this particular valley is slight. Our soil is poor and the land is hilly. Neither are virtues that encouraged settlement until the growth of our current population.

We have no grand antebellum homes in our valley or even prosperous 19thcentury farm houses. The housing stock dates back at the oldest to the 1920’s with most from around the 1950’s. My guess is that the older families moved in as improved roads and vehicle transportation made settling more marginal land viable.

Over these fourteen years I have found one flint scraper used to clean hides, an indication of at least the passing through of older Americans on this land. And we find the occasional mule shoe in a pasture indicating that the hills have been worked before the use of tractors. But in our locale that could be as recent as 1960, though that could once again become the preferred or only method. Other mechanical debris turns up from time to time: spring tines, cultivating harrows and other twentieth century products of an agricultural bent. In the back forty on the edge of one field is a pile of mattress springs now covered in leaves and dirt, hardly an item to stir ones imagination.

Walking through the woods we see numerous trees that have two or four main trunks shooting from the base. I am sure you have noticed that when you cut down a small tree it often sends up shoots from the stump. Same thing in our woods, they were logged thirty years ago. The remaining stumps that sent up shoots are now mature trees.

Across one of our fields is a long swale that cuts diagonally across four acres. This is evidence of a previous fence that existed long enough to leave a tangible mark on the land. All of which brings me to the reminder that our presence is somewhat tenuous on whatever land we inhabit. We can abuse the land under our stewardship or take care of it. But the reality is that sooner or later someone else will be faced with that same task and deciphering evidence of our own passing.

Reading this weekend: 2015

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One of the agrarian shelves in the library.

Reading this weekend: a list of the titles referenced occasionally at the end of my weekly blog from 2015. I make no claim that these are worth your time. Some were useful to me and some I enjoyed. And to take Dorothy Parker’s advice, some should not be put down lightly, but thrown with great force.

January

Reading this weekend: The Empty Throne by Bernard Cornwell. The master novelist of manly historical fiction has done it again. If you aren’t prepared to stand in the shield wall alongside Uhtred, then you better pass. Also, just started The Emergent Agriculture: farming, sustainability and the return of the local economy by Gary Kleppel.

Reading this weekend: Home Gardening in the South by H.C. Thompson, Farmers’ Bulletin 934, USDA, February, 1918.

February

Reading this weekend: Lost Country Life by Dorothy Hartley

Reading this weekend: The Crowded Grave by Martin Walker, Our Only World by Wendell Berry and A Guide to the Good Life: the ancient art of stoic joy by William Irvine.

Reading this weekend: The Pig: a British history by Julian Wiseman

March

Reading this weekend: Ancient Herbs by Jeanne D’Andrea

Reading this weekend: Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: essays from a farmer philosopher by Frederick L. Kirschenman

April

Reading this weekend: The Edge of Extinction: travels with enduring peoples in vanishing lands by Jules Pretty. One of the better works I have read this year. The author focuses on the collapse of traditional communities and their ties to the land. 

May

Reading this weekend: The Generous Earth by Philip Oyler. And Much Ado about Mutton by Bob Kennard

Reading this weekend: Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: how human values evolve by Ian Morris

Reading this weekend (again): The Hour by DeVoto. What is not to love about a man who can write the following opening paragraph: “We are a pious people but a proud one too, aware of a noble lineage and a great literature. Let us candidly admit that there are shameful blemishes on the American past, of which by far the worst is rum.”

June

Reading this weekend: Waking Up To the Dark: ancient wisdom for a sleepless age by Clark Strand (2015). A quick read, of some interest to me, about the impact of light on our nature. Ultimately it was more than a bit too new-agey for my tastes.

 

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.

Reading this weekend: Revolt of the Angels by Anatole France

July

Reading this weekend: Peter May’s The Blackhouse and The Flickering Mind by Todd Openheimer

Reading this weekend: God Against the Gods: the history of the war between monotheism and polytheism by Jonathan Kirsch. 

August

Reading this weekend: 200 Classic Chess Problems by Frank Healey. That explains the lack of new output on the blog. Fiendishly elegant ways to not get anything done this Sunday.

Reading this weekend: Pawpaw: in search of America’s forgotten fruit by Andrew Moore.

Reading this weekend: The Art of Stillness: adventures in going nowhere by Pico Iyer. And, Journey of  the Universe by Swimme and Tucker.

 

September

Still reading through the new book Pawpaw this weekend in preparation for a “pawpaw picking party” next week.

October

Reading this weekend: Marcus Terentius Varro’s, On Agriculture.

Reading this weekend: Marcus Cato’s On Agriculture.

November

Reading this weekend: Book of Tripe: and gizzards, kidneys, feet, brains and all the rest by Stephane Reynaud. 

Reading this weekend: The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson. The perfect book in case you get marooned on the Faroe islands and have to cure a joint of mutton.

December

Reading this weekend: Animate Earth by Stephan Harding

No Blog This Week

Blame it on the rain, the excess food or that I’m struggling to make sense of the Paul Kingsnorth novel, The Wake, written in an invented language. But I can’t seem to muster the energy for a blog post today. So I’ll leave you with a video of my neighbor running our Norwood sawmill yesterday. He helped me cut and stack about 300 board feet of oak lumber.

Video link: Our neighbor cutting an oak board on our Norwood sawmill.

Discussion Topic: should we get out of bed in the morning

In this life it now seems increasingly likely to me that the gods know and track our weaknesses. Perhaps to better exploit them for their own merciless sense of humor. 

The Dodge truck had been running a bit slow and the a.c. not at all for the past three years. So we dropped it off at our local (10 miles away) mechanic for a tune-up and evaluation. Leaving me to spend a few days without transportation. Which, in the country, with the nearest public transportation forty miles away, is a pain. Although there are plenty of days when we do not leave the farm, knowing we can makes the difference.April Scrapbook 007

During my truck-less days consider the following: It would take three hours and twenty-one minutes to walk to the nearest gas station. That number was important when I ran out of gas for the ailing lawn mower. A mower that burns through oil, spark plugs and doesn’t start more often than not. Seven hours walking just to get the damn grass mowed? Nah. So I turned to our trusty Stihl weed-eater. It too was running a bit slow, so I took out the air-filter and cleaned it as best I could, spark-plug removed and scraped off the carbon, blew out the fuel filter and still no joy.

At this point in that day I’m really missing that truck so I make a quick call to the mechanic: tune-up complete and a.c. checked out. Good news is that the tune-up cost $125. Bad news is that the a.c. system is truly shot with holes in the compressor. Repair bill if I wish to proceed, just under $1000. Apparently this model requires removing most of the engine and dash to access the damaged parts. Geeze, don’t know if it is worth fixing the a.c. for that much money? Let me think about it, I say.

OK, he says. But here is the really bad news. That slight miss in the engine is due to some valve chatter. A complete valve job will be needed. The problem will get worse. Maybe, he says, with a hopeful note in his voice and bank account, the truck has six months. JESUS, how much is that going to cost? Well…, he says again, this model Ram is a real pain to work on…$4000 plus.

Cindy drove me in to Sweetwater to pick up the patient that evening. She headed on home and I to the farmer’s co-op and picked up a new $3 air filter for the weed-eater. While I was there I talked with one of the staff about it. He suggested removing the EPA mandated screen on the carburetor. Doesn’t do anything except keep the emissions down, he says. Or keep climate changing gasses out of the air, I thought. Leaving with the filter and with this dubious advice, I got the gas for the mower and drove home.

I pulled into the farm in time to see our second tractor be delivered. Also ailing, it had been at the tractor mechanic for some much needed work. Getting out of the truck I headed over to the mower and filled it up with fresh gas. Still the damn think wouldn’t start.

We resolve to bite the bullet and purchase another push mower. These mowers do get used pretty hard on a small farm. And five years seems to be the average life span for them.  We also decide to get the old one fixed but hold it as a reserve.

Now for the weed-eater, looking around to see if anyone is watching, I remove the little EPA screen. Tugging the cord to start it purrs like a dream. Damn those little screens, screw the environment, I’ve got work to get done. (Is it just me? Or is it getting hot in here?)

Cindy meanwhile hitches the newly fixed small tractor to the ailing finish mower and begins mowing the orchards. She finds me on the other tractor, where I’m bush-hogging lamb paddocks, a short ten minutes later. The finish-mower just burned up and is gone. Our old Mennonite mechanic had warned (ten years ago) that it could die anytime. I took my hat off in memory… kicked the hat and shook my fist at those cruel laughing gods.

Thank goodness we sold another four chicks for $18 dollars and that half mutton for $100. We only need to have 65 more weekends like this to catch up. No problem.

Staying Put

A couple of years ago, this week, my eldest sibling passed away. At the time of her passing and often since I’ve reflected on the power of staying put. Here is the piece I wrote at the time.

A few weeks ago I was home for the funeral of my oldest sister, aged fifty-six. The four days home saw a constant parade of neighbors and friends bringing platters of food each evening. It started a Monday evening after her death and continued through Friday on the day of her service. Each evening cars began to show up laden with casseroles, fried chicken, roast pork, boudin, banana puddings, salads and cakes of all descriptions. The parade of visitors stayed for only minutes, long enough to voice their condolences, a show of respect for a family that has stayed put for generations.Banana Pudding Republic 006

The groaning tables of food lightened the grief, made festive the gathering and allowed the extended family to have communion together over a shared meal. How often does it happen in our lives that the best memories are centered over a symbolic breaking of bread? An echo of our agrarian past, a statement that as long as we have food on the table we can weather any storm, that we can shelter in place until the danger is passed.

The average American moves 11.5 times in their life. My total was thirteen moves before settling on the farm at age thirty-seven. These past fourteen years of staying put have been an education in how to be part of a place. For me, anyway, the act of being a steward of this land has made me value those ties that bind us in life: community, neighbors, family and land. Hopefully that has made me a more thoughtful steward of those ties. I’ll leave that determination to those who know me best.

Each day when we plow through our long to-do lists each task binds us tighter to this place. Each task completed makes us more a part of this farm and value more our neighbors and distant family.  There are plenty of ways to fracture a community, neighbors, family.  But like the land they can be nourished back into productivity with a little water, manure, sunshine. Once again productive if lightly used they can be lightly harvested.

If nourished well they will thrive. If ignored and not cultivated they wither. We do give so that we can receive, that is part of the compact of a healthy society and healthy land.

And if we have done our part, our community will honor our survivors with food and honest sympathy. That the land we have worked will honor us by continuing to offer food to those who come after. And, hopefully, if the life has been lived well there will be a platter of banana pudding somewhere on the table.

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Still reading through the new book PawPaws this weekend in preparation for a “pawpaw picking party” next week.

The Blood on My Hands

I laid out my shotguns and deer rifle on a folding table outside the kitchen window. With fall around the corner, it was time to clean and oil the guns. It’s a methodical process that is satisfying to undertake on objects that are a beautiful marriage of design and utility. Using a kit made for the purpose, I rammed the cleaning rods through the barrels, oiled the working parts, and rubbed the wood stocks till they shone. I finished just as guests arrived for dinner, returning the guns to the cabinet as they walked up the drive.Guns 002

Growing up in Louisiana I, alongside my father and brother, hunted and fished year round. It was a rare week that did not find me crouching in a duck blind, running trot lines, crabbing, or catching crawfish. Game, fresh- and saltwater fish, shrimp, and oysters easily provided five dinner meals out of seven for our household. Staying up late at night cleaning and gutting fish, setting the alarm every two hours to run the trot-line, waking up at 3 a.m. to get to the duck blind or be on the open gulf by sunrise, all were part of the landscape of my childhood.

Mine was the hunting and fishing of providence, not of the trophy hunter. It was the experience of a profoundly masculine world. From the catching, shooting, and cleaning to, in many cases, the cooking, it was a culture of men putting food on the table for their families. It wasn’t needed in the middle class home of my father—he certainly could have provided all of our meat needs from the grocery store—but it was a lifestyle I shared with most of my friends growing up.

There was always an exhilaration in making a good shot or setting the hook on a large fish. It provided, and still does, a sense of accomplishment that is part evolutionary and large part tribal. The camaraderie of men in camp, the solitude of the hunt, being on the water by myself, or with my father, the rituals of killing and of eating, each shaped who I am as a person.

Perhaps it is counterintuitive, but killing another living creature can teach a person a lot about nature. Putting that act of killing in its “proper place” reminds us of where we came from and where we belong. And remembering our place in a natural order may be the best way to save this planet.

A detractor could argue against the killing, the male role in that culture, and I would listen and perhaps agree in part. But my defense is simple and straightforward: I prefer to be the one with blood on his hands. I believe it is a stance that makes me more, not less, sensitive to the value of life. It is the same reason I butcher poultry and livestock. It seems more honest.

Some may be shaking their heads right now. But as we collectively pile into our cars, while away our hours shopping, allow our kids to grow up without seeing the light of day as they game their way into perpetual adolescence, move from air-conditioned office to air-conditioned vehicle to air-conditioned home, with all that those actions entail to the planet, we might ask ourselves a hard question: who are we kidding?

Whether vegetarian or meat eater, just because we do not pull the trigger or set the hook, we are all culpable in the killing that our lifestyle requires.

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Reading this weekend: The Art of Stillness: adventures in going nowhere by Pico Iyer. And, Journey of  the Universe by Swimme and Tucker.