The Master Comes Home

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.

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A walk back to the house and barns.

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.

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Muscadines coated in a half inch of ice.

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.

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Reading this weekend: Lost Country Life by Dorothy Hartley

A January Scrapbook

The high temperature today, January 4th, is in the low sixties. Wednesday night the temperature is forecast to be 7 degrees. Such is the joy of an East Tennessee winter. We have been busy this week and weekend. The lower fencing was completed and the cattle moved for the winter. Hogs are going to market this week and so are last winter’s ram lambs. Our replacement pigs are due to be farrowed this week. And the ewes began lambing last Tuesday. That is as neat a cycle as one will experience on a farm. I leave you this week with some random shots of Winged Elm Farm taken today.

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Never enough equipment sheds

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Plenty of hay this year

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Coop Angles

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Roof lines

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A Dorper ready to lamb

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Lounging by the barn door

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Twins, born healthy

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This ewe had twins, one of which had to be put down

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Making honey before the temperature drops

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Well-house

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Our farmhouse

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stonewall and steps

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Dry-stack stonewall

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The last of the Pomeranians

 

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.

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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.”