A Farm Breviary: Sext

It’s the midday office and I’ve brought my chair to the bottom of a grass-covered bowl, my own private Greek amphitheater. The greening spring grass grows thick where the play-goers sit; the stage for the actors and chorus is set hard against a fenceline, its backstage leading out to a former wood.

Here, our play opens. The oracle enters, predicting that where the fenceline stitches its feeble wire suture on the land, in a hubristic claim of ownership of what can’t be owned, the future already knows what we have forgotten.

The backdrop to the play is the clear-cut forest where I used to harvest ramps each spring and chanterelles late summer, deep in its quiet center. Now it lies as an exposed landscape of splintered trees and muddy roads, marking a deafness of the present custodians and neighbors to the past and the future.

Stage left is land that until recently belonged to an aging farmer who is in the long process of retiring, step by slow-moving step. He stopped by to deliver some much needed hay the other day, and I had a chance to chat with him about his life. Had he ever worked with horses? Yes, he said, he used to love to drive a team out into the field to pick up shocks of corn, the rhythmic stooping and bending work he liked as a youth. How old, I asked, when you were allowed to drive that team by yourself? Oh, very young, he responded. Eight years old.

Can I name a child of acquaintance who has the intelligence and responsibility to handle a team of horses and spend the afternoon doing physical labor? The sadness and absurdity of thinking we have improved on the past by infantilizing our children, swaddled even into youth and young adulthood, their girth and limbs malformed, their intelligence maladapted to the work of being men and women.

With these unsettled thoughts, the midday hour closes and I pick up my chair and walk back down the lane to the heart of the farm. The sounds of the chorus fade.

Rounding the last bend, I ignore the muttering of the audience and pretend the oracle’s prophecy was wrong. Blinded, I reenter this modern life.

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Reading this weekend: Cottage Economy, by William Cobbett

A Farm Breviary: Terce

The mid-morning office is a sun office and the heart of the workday on a small farm. It is the sweat-of-the-brow, hands-in-the-dirt, muscle-to-the-posthole-digger time of day, the time to get it done and not waste time. Putting my hands in the dirt, I plant, weed, and thin. Dirt, the alpha and the omega, where we all begin and where we all end.

I clean out the barn and pile the manure and bedding. By tomorrow, it will be smoking, a steam of decay already beginning new life. The farm in action is a plumed phoenix, flaming through life and death and life. Risen from the ashes, the bird becomes dinner, becomes compost and manure, becomes vegetables. Becomes a trinity of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Becomes us.

Yesterday, two friends joined me in cutting several logs into lumber. The morning was spent in pleasant labor, strenuous but never exhausting. Labor that if done in solitary might have been a chore was lightened by their company. Sawdust lay thick on the ground when our work was done, already becoming something new and different, yet still the same.

The challenge of today is to decide in the tomorrow how to best use this tree, this kith of the woodland — this matter, present at the beginning, that chanced to become the tree in a fencerow, and became stacked lumber in my shed. My responsibility is to make something if not beautiful, certainly functional. William Morris had it right, though we have drifted far enough into the fog bank that his words are now muted across the water: “Have nothing that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” It’s a directive bold enough to color my sins of misuse scarlet.

We are part and will be part of the plumage of the phoenix that fires and dies and is reborn. Holding that image in the eye, I will follow Morris’ instruction with the lumber. But for now, I start with my hoe, making my rows clean and productive, leaving the plants in fertile soil to track the sun across the sky.

The day will come when this matter too becomes compost, and begins again in dirt and life; when trees, in feeding, embrace the sun that brought me to their dark feet.

Finished, I hang up my hoe.

A Farm Breviary: Prime

Dawn is an active office, a time for movement and chores, a time when reflection and observation are often drunk on the go, when dark gives way to light and to shadows. Dawn begins the dutiful time of day, when the role of husbanding demands an attentive service. It is a time of rivers.

The back door shuts, a noise, carried to the barnyard as a signal to the ram. He rises and the bell around his neck wakens the flock. They stand and gather together with expectant murmuring, awaiting my arrival. An open gate, a shaken bucket of feed, and the river runs forward, eddies around my legs, erodes my stability, before flooding into the fresh grass: a flock experiencing the full pleasure of an early spring morning. The chickens mirror in lesser volume the actions of their sheep sisters. They stream out of the coop and into the sunlight, bugs and scratch high on their list of priorities.

Below the farm, down the hill at the road, the world of man has begun to reassert a misshapen dominance. A rising water at flood stage, threatening to overwhelm, the road is quickly engorged by the tributaries of commuters in cars and trucks flowing into its main channel. Among them, a school bus moves in and out of the road current, accumulating children, eventually depositing them like a debris field after a storm, to be trained in the finer points of boredom and disengagement.

After an hour or two, the morning flood will subside to a trickle before the mystery reverses itself in late afternoon. In the meantime, my path is a well-trodden one of scheduled rituals, starting with the giving of first food then water to all who need it. I end the dawn office leaning over the paddock fence, watching with pleasure as the pigs enjoy — as only pigs do — their early morning breakfast. A pause in my activities, a quiet few minutes to review the day to come.

I turn from those in my care now fed, the initial flow of morning chores observed, and return to the house for my own breakfast. Overhead, the fine blue sky is now streaked with half a dozen contrails, sad evidence of our misplaced search for wonderment.

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Reading this weekend: Wendell Berry and the Given Life, by Ragan Sutterfield.

A Farm Breviary: Lauds

The dawn office, taken at 5 a.m. in the orchard on a cool morning. An ending of the night and a start to the new day, the work ahead still unformed, drifting through my mind like the mists in the creek bottoms below me. The waning half moon presides over the Southern late winter sky, one eye on the job in front and one eye on the job completed. The Big Dipper holds court to the north, its cup turned in welcome to the colder climes. The deep mysteries of the night office now wane with the promise of the sun.

This is the time of dogs and roosters. The night creatures are returning to their dens, ready to report back to hungry children the success or failure of their labors. The dogs in the valley, invigorated after a night’s rest, track the movements of each skunk, opossum, or fox as it crosses their domain. Agitated barking from all points of the compass signals a last hurdle for the weary parents.

I sit in my chair and let the sounds of this ending enter. The past few days I have hosted a cousin and his family. They were paying a visit to the last surviving sister of mine and my cousin’s mothers. As our aunt closes in on 97, she is still healthy and sharp; yet her long day must inevitably near its close. Her offices observed with intelligence and faithfulness, she has achieved what our old dependable scribe Berry would term “a complete life.”

One step in front of another and a life of daily cycles becomes a decade, a century, a millennium, a billion years. It’s not for my intelligence to know the duration. And only for others to judge the completeness of my projects, to wonder what tasks I left unfinished, to know whether my footsteps traveled on a purposeful path or toward a dead-end. I resolve to be like the moon: Does she wonder if she should alter her footpath? No, she sets her course and stays true, knowing her place, her duties, a life faithful and complete.

I gather my chair and return to the house, the rooster crows now being answered from over the ridge. The light of the sun, still a few hours below the eastern hill, respectfully waits for night to complete its work. My dogs disappear into the brush; the cool air moves, bringing the scent of a skunk disturbed by their explorations.

I leave them to patrol the farm and I enter the house, first one foot and then the other.

A Farm Breviary: Matins

The Full Moon setting

The night office, midnight at the top of the hill on a cold March night. The hour opens on the long silence of deepest night with the taste of snow in the steady wind. The few lights from our kith down in the valley seem more intimate for their distance. Signaling the presence of a modern life alone, they are connected and affirmed by the grid of powerlines humming a feeble supremacy on the far edge of the pasture.

Overhead, in gaps in the cloud curtain, the sharp clarity of winter stars is visible in the night sky. Remote intelligences communicating in a winking semaphore the unwelcome message of humility and insignificance. From my chair, my feet firm on the pasture, I hear behind me what must be a rabbit breaking cover, pursued by my dogs, conveying in their own language a place and hierarchy.

The owls hoot from the 20-acre wood beyond me a song of plausible deniability as the rabbit escapes under a fence and back to ground. On a nearby ridge, coyotes yip a prayer for sustenance. The hens squawk a nervous call and response, moving around on their roost, a sound of apprehension carried up the hill to my ears. The world in acts, some played and some still being written, surrounds in this hour. The challenge comes in a quiet listening beyond my own thoughts.

I break the hour and pick up my chair and return down the hill. My boots make small crackling sounds on the frozen ground, and a few swirling snowflakes accompany me with a delicate dance. Each step brings me closer to home and further away from my reverie.

A last glance skyward, before I enter the house, finds the semaphore code broken as the clouds shutter the sky. The world is once again close in and yet remote, both knowable and unknown. The link now only a thread, I open the door.

The Experiential Life

Recently, a young woman I met was explaining her job to me. “I provide an ‘experiential approach’ to shopping malls,” she said. The “experiential approach” is one of the current hot terms in business. From what I’ve read, it works like this: “… experiential retail turns the boring experience of browsing, trying, and buying into something fun and exciting.” Many millennials, I’m told, do not wish to simply purchase pants; they want an immersive activity that makes the purchasing experience more authentic and engaging.

Last week On Point’s Tom Ashbrook interviewed a millennial who spoke about the transcendent benefits of adults’ spending all of their free time playing video games. Callers phoned in eager to justify their electronically engaged evenings. They talked of the many “friends” they had made, and they said that gaming had allowed them to have victories, providing a framework to “experience” life as a winner.

So, what does it mean when a culture needs to spend time and wealth conjuring the means to experience life, when our viewfinder on this world consists mainly of ways to see it as a consumer and a spectator?

I think it’s safe to say that my 89-year-old father hasn’t spent much time immersed in a technology-generated experiential life. No instant status updates or sharing of memes from the deck of a WWII destroyer in the Pacific. No existential worry on how to connect his existence with life: he worked hard every day, raised a large family (seven kids), spent several nights each week volunteering with service organizations, served as a trustee for his church, and regularly visited shut-ins. And, for all of that, was a strong presence in our lives. No need for him to purchase an experience to be a winner.

The Stoic Epictetus warned us to avoid giving over our minds to others, but instead to experience life on our own terms. Quaint advice these days, as many now live the totality of their lives merely as consumers and commodities, careening across the fluorescent-lighted landscape in a desperate search for the authentic experience to purchase, never realizing that they are the purchased. Our species has gone through billions of years of evolutionary struggle to reach this experiential moment … blasting alien invaders from a computer screen or hanging on a rock wall at the local mall.

Yesterday my day was spent planting strawberries, tilling potato beds, making kraut, feeding bottle lambs, and preparing a venison roast. It was not a planned gaming experience to evoke a sense of activity and purpose; it was genuinely experienced, unmediated by apps and digital connectivity. My days and nights engaging in this life may not offer the thrilling victories of a well-played Warcraft game. Yet I’d still maintain that a full day’s farm work, capped by a fine dinner with friends and a good book at evening’s end, is sufficient.

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Reading this weekend: The Agricultural Fair, by Wayne Caldwell Neely (1935). Letter to a Young Farmer: how to live richly without wealth on the new garden farm, by Gene Logsdon

The Farmer’s Desk

We had a late night. Five friends from Knoxville came out and dined with us on lamb, greens and grits. So, when I came downstairs to write the weekly blog at 5:30, nothing was stirring the little gray cells. Except, back in the dusty shelves of my brain, I recognized something familiar. Clifford Harper, an old anarchist illustrator, had done a wonderful drawing of a militant’s desk, chock-full of representations of that life. As I stared at my keyboard and my desk I made the comparison.

So, with considerably less artistry, I give you the “Farmer’s Desk”.

Everyone have a great week.

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Reading this weekend: A Peter Lovesey mystery. And, I’m trying to read John Clare’s Shepherd’s Calendar. But, true confession time, long poems are a bit like opera and ballet. While I may appreciate the skill and artistry, the native understanding eludes me.