With the old year coming to a close, our farm, like many of your farms and towns, is in the grip of an extended cold spell. While we are not forecast to get above freezing until next weekend, I’m sure for many of you it will be much longer. So, I’ll leave you today with one from the “winter” archives, When the Master Comes Home.
Hoping everyone has a safe New Year’s Eve. Thank you for allowing me to share my weekly rambles with you this year. I look forward to sharing more musings and to hearing from you in the coming year.
The initial thrill that comes with an ice storm and a loss of power faded a bit the morning the temperature bottomed out at 3 degrees. Delores the sow had dragged the heater out of her water trough for the fifth time, the pond ice for the cattle and horse had to be broken every few hours, and a young ewe and her newborn had to be rescued after lambing in a far corner of the wind-blown sheep pasture and relocated to the shelter of a barn stall. Still, the domestic pleasure of coming into a cozy house heated by a woodstove to sip a hot cup of tea is not to be dismissed.
Traditionally we built our houses to meet the demands of our climates, a grass hut if you lived on a tropical isle or a house with connected barn if you lived in New England. Older houses in Louisiana, when I was growing up, were typically built a couple of feet off the ground. It was a good model for a warm climate. The open space underneath kept the house cooler in the warmer months (most of the year), and the elevation protected against the occasional flooding. Freezes, like the big one in 1940 my dad recalled, were rare. And given that most plumbing was limited to the kitchen, freeze damage to the house was minimal.
Infrastructure was on my mind this past week here in East Tennessee. After a week of temperatures barely budging above freezing, we had an ice storm. The storm caused our farm to lose power. Then the temperatures plummeted to low single digits. Thankfully, we had a generator to run the refrigerator, well pump and a few essential electrical circuits. A Jotul woodstove helped keep the house a comfortable 60 degrees. Another generator at the barn kept a variety of water tanks heated for the sheep, chickens, goose, cattle and horse.
Today, our houses are designed to accommodate the additional “essentials” that just a generation ago were not needed nor even available. The electricity to keep the modern house functioning is a relatively new concept in human culture. The boundary line of what is essential has shifted. Shelter, heat, food and water now share demand with internet, smartphone, cable TV and microwave.
Older forms of infrastructure had built-in resilience: barns carefully constructed to hold heat, with hay mows above to ease the feeding of livestock in poor weather; deep in-ground cisterns to provide fresh water for the farm; houses designed to facilitate warmth in the winter or coolness in the summer—smart, low-tech designs that we have pushed aside with the assumption that the power grid will now take care of us.
Over the years Cindy and I have discussed converting our farm to an off-the-grid power system. Each time, though, we found the costs to be prohibitive. But this week, after a few days without power, as we scrambled to keep up with our needs, it occurred to me: off-the-grid is easy; it is our modern needs that are complicated, the prohibitive factor, the stumbling block, the real expense.
Those old houses in south Louisiana worked year in, year out because they had very little modern infrastructure to protect. Working under the house insulating each individual pipe before the ice storm, I was overwhelmed by how much plumbing is needed in our small house just to furnish us water on demand. Hot and cold pipes to the kitchen and the two bathrooms, the hot water heater and the washer/dryer—a complexity of plumbing requiring protection from the elements, so that it might protect us from the elements.
Driving into town late in the week, I saw dozens of downed trees, limbs still balancing on utility lines, brush pushed to the edges of the road. As I looked at the miles of power lines and telephone lines, our true vulnerability was evident. It was not the loss of electrical power that we feared but the loss of a certain status that comes with our modern life, a status of predictability.
Off-the-grid literature is typically geared towards finding ways around the commercial power source, yet retaining the modern conveniences. As we watered and fed our sheep, as lambs were born this week without regard to the temperature or the state of our utilities, I thought about the Amish. While many of us were without power, were they concerned with an inability to update their Facebook pages, charge their cell phones, keep their freezers going, stay warm with their electric furnaces? Did they feel powerless? Somehow I doubt it.
The complexity of this modern life, the infrastructure that maintains it, is hardwired for disruption. Our system and our expectations for what it must provide are such that losing power is a form of powerlessness. That in itself seems a form of slavery. Which is why there is, for me, always that bit of anarchic joy in an emergency, an unshackling from the system. Though that uncertain joy is accompanied by relief when the master comes home and power is restored.
Reading this weekend: seed catalogs!
It pains me to speak of parental moral failings. Yet, an honest, clear-eyed assessment of the shortcomings of our role models is what makes us men and women, separates us from the mere beasts, even when the lessons on how to live are learned at the clay feet of those nearest and dearest. Indeed, out of rigorous self-examination does greatness rise.
Now, in order that others gain from such experience, let us draw back the curtain, stiffen our spines, and take instruction. My stepmother, limited by her birth in North Louisiana, had two principal failings, each of which was encouraged by not being instantly and roundly denounced by my father.
The first, she put a powdered creamer in her coffee. In those distant days, when the northern part of the state was still a foreign country, the natives of that blighted land were wont to using this unholy substance. And they did so without shame. When dining at the Pioneer Club, with all the family as witness, my stepmother would request it with her after-dinner coffee. A quick scurrying by waitstaff, huddled conversations, eventually a distraught chef issuing from the kitchen with apologies: “We are sorry, ma’am, but we do not have this ‘powdered creamer.’ Would you like some milk?” She soon took to carrying a jar of Coffeemate non-dairy coffee creamer, a scarlet sin hidden away in her purse, for emergencies, its mere presence an indication of membership in an outlier clan of which such an act would be construed as “normal.”
The second failing, and perhaps the more to be pitied, was her preference for Smucker’s fruit syrups over our native Steen’s cane syrup. No doubt, my siblings will be mortified at my airing of such dirty laundry, but, there it is, it cannot be unsaid. Sins of such magnitude (to be cataloged alongside the predisposition of norlanders to drown their breakfast with sweet tree sap) cannot be lightly dismissed with a “we must make allowances.” Lines must be drawn.
That my brothers and sisters have all managed, even with this egregious moral instruction, to still learn, one foot before the other, that a syrup created from the juices of sugar cane stalks cooked in an open kettle to burnt gold is the only correct choice to pour over pancakes must surely give hope to the citizens of our land. Children learn lessons from both good and bad example. They can and do transcend poor practices through acute observation, ultimately choosing the higher road and shunning the moral transgressions of those of weaker constitutions.
Fear of flavor is not a lost moral crusade; pilgrims still struggle on the rocky road. Although in these waning days of the Republic our options may be limited, the way obstructed, we still stand resolute with a courage that never wavers.
Steen’s syrup, now and forever.
Reading this weekend: Father and Son, by Larry Brown. S is for Southern, a guide to the South, from Absinthe to Zydeco.
Farm- To-Do List: November 2017 (11-19-17)
Our to-do list on the farm (updated every weekend) is a constant moving target. It can be comprised of small personal items, like curing a jowl and making wine; the everyday, check electric fencing; the ongoing, building new infrastructure. But, it is always a snapshot of both the production and the homestead aspects of our life on this farm.
Short-term: now-14 days
Mid-term: 15-90 days
Long-term: 3-12 months
Perhaps the saddest accolade of our modern faith is this: “Our world is more interconnected than ever before.” It’s a statement as bold on the first read as it is meaningless on the second, and one that is not only sad but also somewhat horrifying upon further examination.
So, exactly what is “more” interconnected, and why are we celebrating?
Are we more connected to our natural world in the early 21st century than, say, the early 19th? Is the screen shot of a desert on Windows 10 a more authentic form of experiencing the world’s beauty? Does being jetted to an ecotourism rainforest holiday (with spa) connect us more deeply to the planet than the act of sitting alone under a tree in the local park for an afternoon? Are we truly more connected to each other, as we shuffle to our cars, to our work, to our homes, to our beds?
Is it social media that brings us to be interconnected with our thousands of “friends”? That brings us pictures of intimate dinners, cute cats, clever memes? Can we even begin to measure a hundred Facebook likes against the satisfaction of receiving one handwritten missive from a longtime friend, and years later, discovering her letter of reply, tucked into an old copy of Tartt’s The Secret History? No doubt, for many, racking up likes is a bridge from loneliness; certainly, signing on to social media makes it easier to “connect” than knocking on a neighbor’s door and chatting about the family and the weather.
Perhaps it is through the economy —whose institution has sacrificed the local web of livelihoods for the fragile gratitude of a global supply chain — that we’re more interconnected. Or maybe it is to our fellow species that we have become more connected, although not the 50 percent of them projected to be extinct by mid-century. (It must count for something that they are preserved for eternity on select Nova episodes.)
Oh, what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive!
I am ensnared now by threads of deception, many that I have spun myself. If I could but seize the axe and sever these cords, I’d return to a world that wasn’t interconnected. A hypothetical “disconnected” world in which I knew, really knew, my family, my neighbors, my community, this valley, this land. A world in which I experienced the view of my fields from under a favorite tree, and never on a glowing screen. Detached, cut loose and drifting, away from this horror show of a failed civic discourse. Into a world in which misunderstanding was solved with respectful discussion and a handshake; communications with family were handwritten instead of texted, in which relatives would come upon my friend’s letter, tucked away in a book, when going through my estate.
Where, standing in the barnyard, I would proclaim, “I didn’t retreat, I attacked,” to the listening crows and the steaming compost bin. And then sit on the porch, with you, in companionable silence, as together we tore apart these threads.
Reading this weekend: Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (Modern Library anthology). And, scaring myself silly with Victorian ghost stories.
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.
Reading this weekend: Butter, a rich history, by Elaine Khosrova.
I woke up this first day of the New Year thinking about over-consumption. No, not of overindulgence from the drink or food variety. But, instead, of the just sheer wasteful consumption of our species. I got dressed for chores in my new union suit, wrapped my new scarf around my neck, put on my new barn jacket and slid my new wallet into the pocket of my old overalls; all the new items were Christmas gifts that I appreciated and needed.
But just the sheer mountain of stuff and garbage that we accumulate is embarrassing. The blogger at Spiral Staircase has written about the impacts of our species in his latest post Killing From a Distance. The concept of our species killing the future resonated with me. I’m not sure what to do about it, being too firmly embedded in the project of building our terminal midden. I guess I’ll do my part and carry the trash out.
Now, so as not too leave you thinking this old farmer has lost his spark and appreciation for this world, I leave you with an awkward segue. Here are some pictures of our winter greens.