The Stuff Of The New Year

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.

Rain, Music and Old Jackets

It has been a good week. A solid five inches of rain fell on our farm early in the week and we received another inch last night. Maybe not enough to break the drought. But it is enough to give us hope.barn-jacket

It was a week that also ended with an impromptu jam session, after dinner last night, at a neighboring farm. Our epic version of Ring of Fire was definitely one for the record books: with Cindy on the trap-set, Russ on the recorder and bongo, Tim leading on the guitar and harmonica, our northern Alberta volunteer, Stephanie, on banjo, and yours truly, anchoring it all with a steady beat on the wash-tub bass.

That night had capped a day of hard work hauling logs and repairing fencing. It was a cold day with all of us bundled up to stay warm. I wore my old barn jacket. A jacket that is now a veteran of 17 winters on this farm, witness to chicken and hog butcherings, the birth of calves and lambs, occasional falls in muck, and work in the worst weather.

It is not yet ready for retirement.


Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: the secret history and redemptive future of fig trees, by Mike Shanahan. 

Habitat Loss

Here is another post from the archives. A topic that continues to preoccupy me each spring. And this loss of cultural habitat continues…100_0954 (2)

What happens to us as a people when the sources of knowledge are only to be found outside of our communities? When we ask the internet for gardening advice on a plot of land between Paint Rock Valley and Big Sandy instead of the farmer who has lived those conditions for eighty years? When our education is served up by the likes of the University of Phoenix instead of the slightly eccentric teacher living down the street? When childhood summers consist of structured play and digital devices instead of pirates and adventures?

Is the human spirit so easily channeled and contained? Is the knowledge needed to live so easily reduced and boxed up for our consuming pleasure and sold to us at Wal-Mart? Where does the “person” exist in that world?

I’ve been experiencing loss this last week for something only known to me for fifteen years and no doubt making a bit more of it than needed. But I have an old fashioned conservative streak running through my bones that hates change. So when the Sweetwater Fruit Market closed their doors a couple of weeks ago after thirty years I began to tally what was lost not just to me but to our community.

We lost a great source for fruit and vegetables sourced locally and regionally long before that became trendy. They were carrying heirlooms when they were still just the old-fashioned varieties everyone always grew. I grieve over the loss of their seed selection. The store carried twenty varieties of cowpeas alone, not to mention a couple of dozen varieties of sweet corn. They knew the best variety of potato for our clay soils (Kennebec’s) and when to plant. Do you think the Lowes garden department will match that knowledge or localized selection?

Theirs was a typical small town business that carried too many items with too small margins of profit. A place that dispensed advice built on their local knowledge and from local farmers. It was a business that any small town community supported easily before the era of big-box stores. The ripple effect of this closing will extend beyond the owners and the customers. It extends from the small farm providing collards and beets to the pig farmer who weekly collected the spoiled produce. And it extends to who we are as a people and what we expect from our community.

It is another in a long line of essential businesses rendered not essential by those who can’t be bothered to shop anywhere but Wal-Mart or its ilk. How many times do you hear someone bemoan the lack of civility, the loss of community? Yet their weekly shopping habits adds to that misery and increases that loss of community and civility from not knowing or being responsible to ones neighbors, supporting them so that they may in turn support you.

Our communities are suffering from what I see as a habitat loss as real as the loss in the natural environment. We collectively strip those habitats, both natural and social, of resources we cherish. And then express our disgust and amazement at their loss. No doubt I’m making too much of this small loss to our community. But it seems a symptom of something larger that does make one wonder what we truly value.


Reading this weekend: Greens by Thomas Head (a new entry in the Savor the South series by UNC press). And Afoot in England by the excellent W. H. Hudson.

I’ve Done It Again

Time for a confession. Do not trust me with your pocket knife, for I have lost another one. It was a handy little French grafting knife from Opinel. Easily replaced and inexpensive. But it replaced a more expensive Le Theirs pocket knife, which replaced a German pocket knife, which replaced another in a long line of perfectly good knives….

Pocket knives

Pocket knives I have lost

Try an exciting thought experiment: Put yourself in the shoes of this farmer. Or make that a pair of rubber Wellingtons because it is raining or snowing or icing. You are driving the tractor. It is sliding this way and then that as you make your way up the hill pasture. Ahead the cattle are bawling, waiting for fresh hay.

In preparation for dropping off the hay, you first have to remove the baling string surrounding the round bale. You climb off the tractor, in the rain or whatever, and pull out your pocket knife, where it has been nestled securely in an overall pocket, under a barn jacket, under a raincoat. Reaching up, you cut the strings on the bale. And here is where it happens.

In the rain or whatever, as the cattle gather round impatiently, you do the following: Once you’ve pulled the various cut strings off the bale, you place the knife on the fender well of the tractor and you simply get back on the tractor and drive off. You will find this an extraordinarily effective means of losing a knife.

Then there’s a second option (my personal favorite). In this scenario, you fold up your knife and slide it into the raincoat pocket. And your knife vanishes immediately and forever. Because every farm raincoat has two fake pockets. These are the slits that allowed you to reach inside your raincoat, under your barn jacket, to access the overall pocket and remove the knife in the first place. By returning the knife to the raincoat pocket-slit, you have conveniently deposited it directly into the muck, snow, or whatever for eternal safekeeping.

You never notice its absence immediately. You assume it is in another coat, in a different pair of jeans, on the kitchen counter. But after days turn into weeks, the reality becomes clear: “I’ve done it again.”

Anyone want to loan me their knife?


Reading this weekend: The Classical Tradition in Western European Farming by G. E. Fussell. A dry but interesting work on the impact of classical farming literature on actual Medieval farming practices. Books create innovation!

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.


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.