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.

Reading this weekend: 2015


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.


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.


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


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


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. 


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.”


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


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. 


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.



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


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

Reading this weekend: Marcus Cato’s On Agriculture.


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.


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.