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.

Priorities and Validation

It is not that we do not have any interesting projects to occupy our time;
We have new electric fencing to string for the sheep,
And hooves to treat to prevent the spread of hoof rot.

There are trees to harvest for firewood and lumber,
And that new small barn to house the new draft horses
will not build itself.

We have a barn full of winter squash to bake and preserve,
Fencing the lower pasture in woven wire,
And another cattle barn, small, to be designed and built in that pasture.

Yet, on a day where the temperature has not yet budged above forty,
And a cold drizzle pours down, our day has been spent inside,
Drinking hot tea and taking naps.

And… and wondering why Google Maps has not updated the satellite picture
Of our small farm.

 

As seen from space

As seen from space

A Crow Perspective

The wind has been up and blowing hard in the high crowns of the oaks since dawn. The crows seem to love these times, their caws to each other in the trees having only recently returned to the soundscape—a clear indication that fall is near. The crows radiate intelligence and even nobility, black shrouds of solemnity observing the change of the season.

The maple leaves are turning backwards, a prelude to dying in a burst of color in another month or two. The woods are dense with an undergrowth of seedlings and brush. Rabbits seem to occupy the corner of every glance, as does the telltale flag of the deer bounding just out of sight. The high today of 72 is welcome after the recent late-summer blast of 90 degrees.

Last Monday evening Cindy and I were both involved in the type of farming accident that is always lurking in the background. We emerged cut, bloodied, bruised, battered and clothes in tatters. Fortunately neither of us ended up in the hospital, or worse, but for a few minutes that evening, it certainly could have gone either way. The cawing of the crows to each other overhead as we made our way back into the house relayed the news the old-fashioned way.

I left the next morning and caught a flight to my homeland of south Louisiana. It’s a place where the honorific “Mr.” or “Miss” still precedes the first name of an elder when addressed by someone younger. Walking with my dad, now 87, I watched with admiration as he was greeted repeatedly with a friendly “Hello, Mr. Bill.” At a farmer’s market, children approached my sister Kathryn with a respectful “Miss Kat.” At a fast food chain, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the same salutation was used with customers: “Mr. Brian” and I was handed my breakfast.

No crows heralded my arrival or departure from my ancestral home. But none were needed to convey the shades of change coming in the not-too-distant future. Life is, as they say, terminal, and unlike the ancient Romans, we do not need to consult the entrails of a slaughtered bullock to recognize the inevitable change and cycle in life. With my family in the evening, in a house full of laughter, I watched my dad, surrounded by his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The next morning, he was still hale and hearty as we two stood in the graveyard. The tombstones of my mother, sister, and brother and my dad’s mother, aunt, and father stood in front of us. Without sadness, my dad pointed out where he and my stepmother would be buried when their time comes.

Farming, as we do, fine tunes an appreciation of the inevitable cycles of life: butchering a rooster and hearing the peep of newly emerging chicks, delivering a ewe to the slaughterhouse and assisting in the birth of a lamb; helping our old dog as she struggles to rise from stiff slumber and savoring the first tomato of the season, grieving the death of a sister and sharing a glass of wine with her daughter.

The seasons change, the wheel moves, and the crows always return.

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Reading this weekend: Distant Neighbors: the selected letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. And, Larding The Lean Earth: soil and society in nineteenth-century America by Steven Stoll

Life and death in a rearview mirror

St. Patrick’s Day 2012 and our guests were arriving in the next hour for an annual dinner of corned pork. We corn a pork shoulder and cook it with cabbage and potatoes from the garden and larder. Invited friends come out, less for any shared heritage and more for a convivial evening of good food, drink, and conversation.

While final preparation moved forward, one of the yearling Katahdin ewes had been trying to lamb. She had been walking around in the pasture showing all the usual signs, and those signs eventually included a very large head protruding from her back end. We left her alone hoping she would get on with the job. Half an hour later, with no signs of progress, we moved her into a lambing pen in the barn.

We were both dressed for the get-together, not fancy duds, but nevertheless cleaned up with fresh clothes. Another half-hour went by and the ewe had made no further progress. We decided it was time to intervene. As I held the ewe, Cindy put her hand in the birth canal and extracted the forelegs. The head protruding showed no sign of life, and it looked grotesquely swollen. Applying pressure in sync with the ewe’s contractions, Cindy gradually pulled the lifeless lamb out. She then began swinging it by all four legs, then handed it to me to continue the exercise.

I grasped the slippery legs and swung, without any conviction that there would be any life in the limp body. But after a few minutes I saw the lamb begin to breathe. Cindy had meanwhile cleaned up the mother and filled up a fresh water pail. The lamb was a striking golden red and huge, at least 10 pounds. She looked exactly like a Hereford calf.

We emerged from the barn spattered with gore to find our guests beginning to pull up in their cars and trucks. We welcomed them, went back out to show them the mother and baby. The lamb was already on its feet nursing and seemed no worse for the long afternoon.

The vivid memory came back in detail this week as I drove my truck to the slaughterhouse. That golden red lamb, now grown with two lambings of her own, had reached the end of her time on our farm. We had decided to cull her. Her mother, as a Katahdin, is a hair breed, but her father was a woolly red Tunis. The cross resulted in a lamb with a thick red wool coat. We do not have any interest in wool or the time or equipment to shear those with wool coats. So, as this past season progressed, we culled all of the crosses.

It struck me how unusual the experience: to be both the giver of life and the deliverer to the executioner. This young ewe was a beautiful creature, noble even, as I viewed her standing in the truck bed in the rearview mirror.

A rearview mirror seemed an appropriate method for considering my role in her life and death: It conveys a vanishing landscape that with a few more turns of the road or an averted gaze recedes and disappears. It is an act of removal.

I pulled up at Morgan’s, turned over the ewe to the care of the man who would kill and butcher her. After concluding my business in the front office, I pulled back onto the highway. A last look in the mirror and nothing remained but the memory and a new view.

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Reading this weekend: A History of the Future, by James Howard Kunstler. The third in the “World Made By Hand” series. A weak and disappointing offering.

Pasture renewal, guns and boar semen

This Farm Note is from the archives, before I began to regularly post on the blog. The Farm Notes began in 1999 and were shared for those years with a group of friends and family. Over the coming year I will post periodically from those archived “Notes.”

Last Saturday, early, I hooked up the disc harrow and headed to the lower fields. It was time to reseed the lower pastures. The lower field, our primary hay field, is about six acres. There is an additional smaller field of about an acre, enclosed with woven wire, on which we intend to finish out lambs this spring and summer. Both were in need of reseeding. As I finished the smaller field I spied our neighbor trudging up the drive to visit.

He, of the paranoid fantasies about little Chinese men wanting his property, had not been seen much this long cold winter. We had both kept an eye on his chimney: as long as there was smoke we assumed he was okay.

Quite the character, about six foot, burly with a beard down to his belly that he keeps tied like a pony tail, usually stoned and a conversational style to match. As he approached he began to use his own personal semaphore code to direct the landing of my tractor. I signaled back that I needed three minutes to finish and I’d meet him at the barn.

Pulling through the gate I turned off the engine. “Hey man, how are you doing”, I said. “Since you are the landowner I’m required by Tennessee law to notify you that I’m carrying a loaded weapon onto your land”, he replied.

Shit, just what I want, a paranoid depressive with a loaded gun. It reminded me of the upstairs neighbors we had back on Morgan Ave in Knoxville: when they weren’t rattling our china in lovemaking they were rattling the china in fistfights with each other. One night Butch stormed down and banged on our door. Standing there wild eyed and waving a pistol he said, “I couldn’t start my car this morning, last night I saw a man who looked just liked you monkeying under the hood of my car. I him here to tell you if I see him again, I’ll start shooting”. “Butch”, I said. “Put your glasses on first”, and shut the door.

Well, as I stood there last Saturday with our neighbor, who informed me he hadn’t had a bath in two weeks (I had noticed, even in the stiff breeze), he kept reaching in his overalls under his arm like he was holding something. I thought that this could be a silly way to check out of life as he moaned about people driving new pick-ups that cost more than he had ever earned in his life.

I definitely did not like the turn of conversation. So, I invited him out to see our pigs. He likes pigs. He once worked on a large hog farm in North Carolina helping gather boar sperm. As we talked pigs he returned gradually to earth and left me with this priceless gem while he gazed fondly at our hogs: “I have had more boar semen on my left arm on a Saturday afternoon than most people shake salad dressing out on their salads all week”.

As he shambled back off down the drive I laughed long and hard. This was a better anecdote to share than the headline in the local paper that morning about the cops being called to the First Baptist Church of Rockwood to break up a fistfight between the pastor, who had just been fired, and his parishioners.

Ah, life in the country.

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.”