Geegaw Nation

’Tis the season: for plastic, for wrapping, for quantity, for abundance. It is a funny word, abundance. My 1901 dictionary defines it as “ample sufficiency.” Today’s Webster’s defines it as “more than sufficient quantity.” The former points to an appreciation of what we have; the latter speaks to our current state of overconsumption. The former indicates an abundance secured against future want; the latter, merely a quantity in excess of what is needed for the present, just stuff, all of it the same.tacky-christmas-decorations

Our local discussion group is reading the wonderful book Larding the Lean Earth by Steven Stoll. Stoll discusses at some length a topic that has troubled me for years. Has the sheer abundance of our continent ultimately conspired to corrupt our better angels? Or were we doomed by some inner corruption, some genetic predisposition to be the bipedal locusts hoovering up all in their path?

Has this abundance destroyed our sense of wonder and beauty? William Cobbett in his curious and judgmental work The American Gardener (1817) wrote of assessing the morality of a man by how he kept his garden. George Marsh (congressman from Vermont), when he took the floor in 1848 to argue against the Mexican War, made the unusual argument that what we already had was enough for any civilization, that to grasp for more, we would risk losing the sense of what was best about where we lived. It’s an argument that seems out of place with where we journeyed and where we have ended up.

Where we have ended up is as the spoiled kid on Christmas morning, surrounded by new geegaws and already bored. Why take care of the presents when he’s been given so much and expects more? Our consumer ethic, molded by abundance, has stunted our hearts: why take care of a home when it is only a “starter” home, a spouse, land, or neighbors when they can so easily be replaced?

Cursed by an abundance of land and resources, we have fouled our nest and moved on so often that our internal landscape now mirrors our external. The sheer ugliness of our daily landscape has a corrosive effect on our spiritual and political selves. Do all the geegaws we purchase this holiday season give us any more sense of well-being?

Maybe the true act of love for our planet, our home, is to repaint, tidy the garden, repair the torn pants, patch the jacket, sweep the sidewalk, bake some bread and give it to the neighbors. Maybe less can still be more. Maybe less is still abundance.

Journey’s End

Fog has the wonderful feature of closing off the world. A good hour before sunrise I was walking to the barn. There was a light fog across the valley, heavy frost on the ground and trees, and the just-past-full moon competed with the dawn even as it began its exit. The fog and the light gave my world a feeling of seclusion, creating a private landscape for my own enjoyment.

My purpose at this early hour was singular: to hook the trailer to the truck and haul a steer to the butcher. It’s a task now routine, having been performed so many times these past 15 years. The butchery I have done, but it’s a job I usually leave to more capable hands. The delivery of the steer was itself uneventful, and on my return home, my enclosed, private world had vanished with the fog.

Turning to the work of the day, I counted a full slate of tasks—14 to be exact. I finished the morning, instead, having accomplished only one: the futile search for a sick calf. Over the span of several days, we had been trying to pen the calf for treatment. We have always taken husbandry of our animals seriously, often without regard to the cost or benefit to the financial life of the farm. But, with the price of replacement steers these days equivalent to a small mortgage, every calf has acquired a make-or-break status to the bottom line.11-9-14 006

The morning’s work ended with all the steers up in the barn, except the one we wanted. Fears that he lay dead in a brush patch were pushed aside; we had a houseful of guests arriving in a couple of hours, friends we had not seen in 20 years and a dinner to be prepared.

My take-away from the morning was a frustration that bordered on anger at not completing my list and not solving the problem of getting up a sick calf. Later that evening, after our friends had settled in, we pressed-ganged all seven into a search party. In short order we found the calf, very much alive, and moved him back through three fields and into the inner corral.

We have already started our ministrations and will continue to keep him in a pen in the barn for the next week. Once he shows clear signs of recovery, he will be turned back out with the herd. Hopefully, a trouble-free 24 months lie ahead before he makes the inevitable journey, a couple of years for him to enjoy his own private landscape without interruption.


Reading this weekend: Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the spectacular rise and fall of the railroad that crossed an ocean. By Les Standiford.

Small house, small farm

 ED fallen timber

Small house and quiet roof tree, shadowing elm,
Grapes on the vine and cherries ripening.
Red apples in the orchard, Pallas’ tree
Breaking with olives, and well-watered earth,
And fields of kale and heavy creeping mallows
And poppies that will surely bring me sleep.
And if I go a-snaring for birds
Or timid deer, or angling the shy trout,
‘Tis all the guile that my poor fields will know.
Go now, yea, go, and sell your life, swift life,
For golden feasts. If the end waits me too,
I pray it find me here, and here shall ask
The reckoning from me of the vanished hours.

–Petronius Arbiter

New Sawmill

A rare midweek post: here are some pictures of our new sawmill operation.

Sleep Walking

Another nice evening with our South Roane reading circle/supper club, starting around six it lasted until long after dark. We have gathered once a month for the past two years to read and discuss climate change and peak resources and how they might affect farming here in our county. We rotate the gatherings between our farm and Kimberly Ann farm a couple of valleys and ten miles away.

Usually about ten area farmers or residents gather, bring food, homemade wine or beer. Invariably we spend time walking around the gardens and barnyards, before or after eating, chatting about the weather, our successes and failures. After a couple of hours we settle in to discuss the topic for the night. The readings have ranged from Wendell Berry to new works on permaculture.

Last night we read a governmental assessment on the Knoxville Food-shed, covering the 11 counties bordering Knox. It was a fairly benign piece that surveyed the state of agriculture in the region, what the region was capable of producing and what it was currently producing. It was fairly ambitious in tone, yet like so many such documents it walked a bland bureaucratic line, offering some substance tempered by the language of restraint and institutional structure.

It outlined three recommendations for the food-shed: USDA slaughterhouses, food corridors and food hubs. As the evening progressed, between the wonderful spread of food, a few pints of the local brew and the stimulating conversation I realized that our current cultural vocabulary was inadequate to explain or anticipate the future.

We lack, in this age of abundance, the vocabulary of the past. Our knowledge of the cycles of history has been reconstructed into ever ascending cycles plateauing into greatness. Knowledge of dark forces in the past, of the ebb and flow of empires and stability, has no place in our vocabulary of the present. Even as the current generation of twenty-somethings matriculate in their parents’ homes or on friends’ couches; as the drought ridden Imperial Valley begins to resemble more and more its southern cousin, the Death Valley, or as the planet racks up another hottest year on record and another species goes extinct as you read these words, we still cannot conjure a language of need.

It is not that we need to learn the words of despair. But we desperately need to learn the language of limitations. A Sysco selling local produce is not going to change our global trajectory or solve either climate change or peak resources. One of these days, whether in ten years or a hundred, one of the children of this culture will once again be able to write convincingly these words written by Kathryn Anne Porter, “I am a grandchild of a lost war, and I have blood knowledge of what life can be in a defeated country on the bare bones of privation.”

Butcher’s Wife Pork-chops: a recipe

After a late evening shearing sheep with the help of neighbors, we reentered our home with well-earned appetites. I had done the prep work on this recipe hours earlier. So it was the matter of about thirty minutes before we set down to a late meal.

This is a favorite recipe, using ingredients produced on our farm.

Season a couple of inch-thick pork chops with salt and pepper and any herbs you like. Heat up a cast iron skillet and throw a knob of butter into the pan. Cook the chops about ten minutes a side. I’ll usually throw more butter into the pan when I turn them over. When the chops are done put them into the oven to keep warm.

Fry a few strips of bacon in the same skillet. Remove the bacon and add one chopped onion, sauté until soft. Add two diced garden tomatoes, a bit of wine or balsamic vinegar and let cook for a few minutes. Add some chopped homemade dill pickles (capers or olives also work well) and a large bunch of greens (about a pound). We used turnip greens last night but any garden greens would work.

Cover your skillet; turn the heat down to simmer for about five minutes. The greens start out bulky and piled high but quickly lose their volume within a few minutes. Uncover, crumble the bacon into the mixture and toss the ingredients.  Spoon the ingredients over your pork chops so that it forms a nice pile on top. Make sure to spoon some of the pot liquor from the greens over the dish.

Before eating say a note of thanks to the pig (the one on your plate) and dig in. You might also thank me for turning you onto one of the best, and easiest, dinners in your repertoire.

Thanks to Mr. Reynaud for this recipe, from his French Feasts cookbook.


Reading this weekend: Plato’s Revenge: politics in the age of ecology by William Ophuls. I should, however, be reading the manual on our ancient New Holland manure spreader. A tension bar broke and I’m not sure if that might not signify something more technically advanced than my duct tape approach to all things mechanical would solve.


Late Spring Update: bungee cords break

Important tip for you gardeners and farmers out there: bungee cords don’t last. This may seem self-evident. And this lesson is one I learn repeatedly. But please remember that when using a bungee cord to secure a gate or fencing around your garden that it will eventually rot and fall away. That falling away of the cord can then be interpreted by thirty sheep as an invitation to brunch.

Waking after my afternoon siesta, a civilized practice that I have adhered to since kindergarten, and one I am fortunate to share with my mate, I heard our flock bleating what I took to be signs of distress. Upon examination of the source of this sound I found the whole damn flock in the spring and summer gardens. Magnificent kale, three feet in diameter, reduced to a nub. Onion tops nibbled down to the bulbs, potato plants trampled in their haste to get to the cucumber patch. And what I thought was sounds of distress were instead the sounds of delight from gluttons stampeding into a casino buffet.

I chased them out the open fence line, aimed a few well-placed kicks to the rear of the dawdlers and replaced the bungee cords with some wire ties. Surveying the damage and I realized that they had probably been in there less than thirty minutes. It could have been worse. At least I got them out before they hit the dessert bar and eaten the tomatoes plants.

This has been a vacation week, cutting hay, weeding the gardens, bush hogging fields, hauling hogs to market, canning pepper sauce and a hundred other small tasks. We have had two farm volunteers this past week from the state of Vermont, two women in their mid-twenties on a summer hiatus from the job of looking for careers, spending the next few months working gratis on farms across the country. We provided room and board and our charming company each evening over dinner. They helped work through the mountain of tasks that kept getting bumped to the back burner. This morning they hit the road for Alabama. They planned to stop in Dayton, TN to visit the site of the Scopes Monkey Trial, just a short 30 minutes away from our farm.

On other fronts we have new bees and are working on our sawmill shed. The shed is 30×20 feet. It will house a portable sawmill and have room for storing cut lumber. The footings have been poured and the support posts set. Once the shed is completed we will order that sawmill and move forward on our woodlot management plan.

Our new beehives are in place and both are active. We had to introduce a new queen in one hive. Tomorrow we will get into the hives to determine her status and when to add a new hive body to each. Clover is still in bloom, so they should be getting plenty of pollen and nectar. However, we will supplement those sources with sugar water over the summer.

Finally, for this update, we have been working with the state forester and local extension agents on a plan to develop a remote pasture into a nut orchard. We have a pasture of about 6-8 acres that is seldom used for cattle or hay. We had discussed using it to grow pines for a crop, harvestable in 16 years. But we’d prefer to use it for a food crop. Still in the exploratory stage, but excited about a new project. Because, we know nothing stays static on a farm.

Now why are those cattle bawling?