Small Town Resilience

Last week a colleague spent three hours advancing 15 miles in the cancerous landscape of Atlanta.

Around the same time, I was commuting in central Missouri down a two-lane highway through a largely depopulated land of corn and beef cattle ornamented with the occasional red-brick one-room schoolhouse sitting in a grove of trees. The schoolhouses, long empty, were universally well kept, no broken windows, grass mowed—buildings cared for symbolic of the hope or expectation that they might once again serve a purpose.

The housing stock was older, yet well cared for and solid. But it was a lonely landscape of older couples and few children. I drove past the occasional activity of men in distant fields loading hay onto trailers using tractors built to accomplish much, the work done with such little effort as would have stunned even their grandfathers. Little effort and fewer people, freeing up the children and grandchildren to follow the classic road to town and city, a well-worn path since the ancient world, but one accelerated by our fossil-fueled innovations.

I stopped for the night in Boonville, Missouri, on the banks of the Missouri River. Boonville is not a prosperous town. Its trail of empty strip mall architecture dribbles from the outer fringe of the town’s core to the interstate, signaling a raising of the drawbridge, a calculated retreat against a yet unacknowledged enemy. But the core is still vibrant with neighborhoods, small-town hardware and furniture stores, plumbing and electrical businesses, an elegant restored hotel, a diner, and a bar and grill.vfiles38877

That evening I walked from the old hotel to the bar and grill, a place called Maggie’s, for dinner. The Midwest small-town bar and grill is unique. It is the genuine third place Ray Oldenburg spoke about. Warm and friendly, with people of all ages and classes: farmers, workers and professionals, town and country, producer and consumer. These gathering spots are spread across the agricultural heartland. They are the glue to the community, providing face-to-face time between neighbors. Time not gained in a traffic jam.

I am not naively asserting a rural idyll, without strife, tension, unemployment, severed families and the ills of too much idle time. Yet the small town is fundamentally more resilient, resilient because of its smallness and its proximity to productive land. Rural communities, with their face-to-face interactions, have provided the template for human existence for the past thousands of years.

Communities within a megacity are a mere echo of that life. They can nourish and sustain in the ascendancy, but their larger host survives only as wealth is pumped in from the outside world. When the pump is turned off, the decline is inevitable and rapid. Consider Rome, from a city of a million to a village of thousands in the space of mere generations. Or the specter of Detroit, reduced by half in one generation.

Perhaps these Boonvilles, these freshly painted one-room schoolhouses, these Midwestern pubs are the starter-cultures for the wort, the yeast for the fermentation required to restart the small farm, small-town life, a way to redirect the human trajectory from the cancerous growth to the healthy organism, from the complex to the comprehensible?

The cities like Atlanta in our landscape offer nothing but a promise of continued sprawl, congestion, and three hours and 15 miles stalled in the present. And if history is the judge, they offer us nothing in their inevitable decline.

For all the problems in that rural Missouri landscape, it is still one of latent hope. The problems it faces are fundamentally local and scalable. And if the survival of our future allowed bets, mine would be on the Boonvilles and rural counties in this land.


The Blood on My Hands

I laid out my shotguns and deer rifle on a folding table outside the kitchen window. With fall around the corner, it was time to clean and oil the guns. It’s a methodical process that is satisfying to undertake on objects that are a beautiful marriage of design and utility. Using a kit made for the purpose, I rammed the cleaning rods through the barrels, oiled the working parts, and rubbed the wood stocks till they shone. I finished just as guests arrived for dinner, returning the guns to the cabinet as they walked up the drive.Guns 002

Growing up in Louisiana I, alongside my father and brother, hunted and fished year round. It was a rare week that did not find me crouching in a duck blind, running trot lines, crabbing, or catching crawfish. Game, fresh- and saltwater fish, shrimp, and oysters easily provided five dinner meals out of seven for our household. Staying up late at night cleaning and gutting fish, setting the alarm every two hours to run the trot-line, waking up at 3 a.m. to get to the duck blind or be on the open gulf by sunrise, all were part of the landscape of my childhood.

Mine was the hunting and fishing of providence, not of the trophy hunter. It was the experience of a profoundly masculine world. From the catching, shooting, and cleaning to, in many cases, the cooking, it was a culture of men putting food on the table for their families. It wasn’t needed in the middle class home of my father—he certainly could have provided all of our meat needs from the grocery store—but it was a lifestyle I shared with most of my friends growing up.

There was always an exhilaration in making a good shot or setting the hook on a large fish. It provided, and still does, a sense of accomplishment that is part evolutionary and large part tribal. The camaraderie of men in camp, the solitude of the hunt, being on the water by myself, or with my father, the rituals of killing and of eating, each shaped who I am as a person.

Perhaps it is counterintuitive, but killing another living creature can teach a person a lot about nature. Putting that act of killing in its “proper place” reminds us of where we came from and where we belong. And remembering our place in a natural order may be the best way to save this planet.

A detractor could argue against the killing, the male role in that culture, and I would listen and perhaps agree in part. But my defense is simple and straightforward: I prefer to be the one with blood on his hands. I believe it is a stance that makes me more, not less, sensitive to the value of life. It is the same reason I butcher poultry and livestock. It seems more honest.

Some may be shaking their heads right now. But as we collectively pile into our cars, while away our hours shopping, allow our kids to grow up without seeing the light of day as they game their way into perpetual adolescence, move from air-conditioned office to air-conditioned vehicle to air-conditioned home, with all that those actions entail to the planet, we might ask ourselves a hard question: who are we kidding?

Whether vegetarian or meat eater, just because we do not pull the trigger or set the hook, we are all culpable in the killing that our lifestyle requires.


Reading this weekend: The Art of Stillness: adventures in going nowhere by Pico Iyer. And, Journey of  the Universe by Swimme and Tucker.

Basic Farm Lessons: Part 3

  • Caring for tools: A couple of hours each year of rubbing linseed oil onto wooden handles will keep tools at the ready for years to come.
  • Obtaining tools: Take a few hours twice a year to attend a farm auction. It is an inexpensive way to pick up tools you did not know you needed—three dollars for a tool to remove bark from a log.
  • Your copy of the Rural Weekly Informer: Take the time to talk with the neighbors. Whether hearing of a death, of a birth or just plain old-fashioned gossip, this may well be your only chance to gain valuable knowledge of your community.
  • Never gossip … well, never call it gossip: Control the smirk on your face as you work the latest gossip into a conversation. It is more seemly and manly to assume a mature visage, as if imparting this bit of news for a valid reason.
  • Beating the heat: Wake when it is first light, go to the garden and pull weeds. Reentering the house, remove the annoyingly smug look on your face upon finding your partner sucking on her first cup of coffee.
  • Beating the heat #2: Starting mid-July, take a late afternoon walk in the woods with the dogs. It is a smart thing to do. The weather is too hot for work under the sun, and the chanterelles are beginning to carpet the ground under the mixed hardwoods.
  • Dog races: Let the dogs run unrestrained after the bolting deer. They won’t catch them, and the chase takes them far from the fawns hidden in the brush.
  • Sound show: Use an approaching thunderstorm as an excuse to sit and watch the horizon, listen to thunder and drink a cold beer.
  • Dinner plans: While sipping that beer, mentally review the larder. Dinner should be based on what you have provided.
  • Reaping what you sow: Perfectly marbled ribeyes from a steer raised out on your land, potatoes dug minutes before baking, juicy tomatoes still warm from the sun—a fine homegrown meal is well worth the time and sweat. It’s an essential farm lesson that needs learning only (5)
  • Farm flexibility: Company showing up unexpected requires only extra place settings and the ability to not fuss about quantities in a recipe. A handful of this and a dash to the garden are all that is needed when friends sit at the table.
  • The purpose: A missing lamb takes priority, dinner can wait. Because without first being a good husband to the animals in your charge, the table would be bare.
  • Light show: Before sleep, walk to the top of the hill. Admire the lightning strikes in the tops of thunderheads near the Kentucky border. Pat the heads of your dogs, and walk back home in the dark.


Reading this weekend: God Against the Gods: the history of the war between monotheism and polytheism by Jonathan Kirsch. 

The South is a Neolithic Fort

It was in a Steak ‘n Shake in Georgia, standing in a swirl of moderns, with their faux tribal tattoos and piercings, that a small girl protectively held the weathered fingers of her grandfather. He stood erect in his worn overalls, both hands slightly curled, as if gripping the wooden handles of a plow, looking out of place.

The image struck me that all of the people, the building, and the parking lot were intruders and interlopers, a mirage. That the old man was standing in the same pose, in the same place in a tobacco plot, hands gripped just so around the plow handles, two mules out front and a granddaughter by his side.Plow handles 001

The South is like this. Sometimes it is a Neolithic fort in the landscape. A slight rise in the ground indicating the presence of a past for those who can read it. A place full of relics and behaviors that are deemed out of place in a culture easily bored and distracted. It is not a landscape easily read by the digital world or understood by soundbite.

It has a people, black and white, who are looked down on and discarded because they have not adapted quickly enough. Modest people who don’t know that a paved parking lot has more value than a small field of their own. It has an agrarian soul and a heart that still beats.

This South is a run-down home, chickens scratching around the yard. Its roosters crow at all hours, riling the neighbor from up north who built a McMansion next door, an outsider who did not know pigs can stink. It is a make-do world where fences get built out of scaffolding discarded by a now defunct warehouse, a world often stubbornly ignorant of the rewards of nine to five and cultures bought and traded on Netflix.

It is a world that doesn’t easily discard anything, even the burdens of the past. A world easily mocked with sitcom humor, by a world in which advanced degrees in identity politics measure a culture to the failed standard of a “New Man” emerging.

Drive down the backroads of our valley and find gatherings of men sitting on shaded porches in the midday heat. Surrounded by well-tended gardens, with chickens scratching and kids in the dirt, they talk sedition and plot the downfall of the moderns. An elaborate plan called Waiting Them Out. Meanwhile, they buy nothing new, grow their own food, slaughter their own chickens, hunt their own game, and grip the handles of the plow.

Join them if you wish … or not, they don’t care.


John Muir the full moon (and the wallow)

Farm in May 033I have family visiting this weekend. And with forecast highs of 97 degrees we may all take our cues from Delores and find a nice wallow. So, I leave you with this older post on John Muir and our full moon.

Talk with you next week,



In 1867 naturalist John Muir walked from Indianapolis, IN to Key West, FL. He crossed into Tennessee through the Cumberland Mountains, almost getting robbed by former soldiers as he walked towards Kingston, our county seat. The account of that trek is absorbing reading for both his natural observations and those of a walk through a defeated land. From Kingston to Philadelphia, TN his walk took him through narrow slanting valleys. There are only a couple of narrow slanting valleys that would get you from Kingston to Philadelphia. So it is a good bet that 145 years ago John Muir walked by our farm.

Muir popped into my head this morning, as once again, I watched the sun light up our land. On Thanksgiving morning I woke early and walked to the top of the hill. As the pilots say, “above the clouds the sun is always shining”. At the top of the hill the sun was indeed up and striking the tops of the trees. Over the next hour the light gradually filtered down into the valley. Not fully illuminating our farm until half-past eight, almost exactly one hour from sunrise. It was another thirty minutes before the sun struck the creek bottoms giving light to our nearest neighbors.

Watching that sunrise reminded me of the pleasure we get out of a full moon. On the night of a full moon we walk to the top of the hill, sit in our folding chairs and watch that spotlight come over the hill. You know that great illusion, the one where the size is magnified by its relation to the horizon. As soon as the size diminishes, about ten minutes after rising, we walk back to our home. Where we set the chairs up and watch the moon rise again. Once it diminishes in size we jump in the truck and drive to the bottom pasture where we get to watch it rise for a third time within an hour. Actually, we think, this is a pretty cool trick for our nearest satellite, as well as cheap entertainment for the rustics.

Hopefully Muir enjoyed the same show as he walked through our valley.


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.

Apex of Evolution

Looking down at a long row of spiny pigweed intercropped with my crowder peas, a minor cousin of weltschmerz washes over me. Seemingly sprung to life overnight, the pigweed’s thorny presence towers above the peas planted six weeks ago. A clear challenge to my abilities, perhaps even to my character.

But what is this I’m feeling? What form of cowardice is this to shrink back from the world because a weed persists in an unwelcome spot? Did we rise up out of the dust of the Cretaceous for me now to recoil from this foe? Will I accept defeat?

I throw down my warrior’s implements, grab a beer, and retreat to the hammock. Perhaps after the next extinction event runs its course the spiny amaranth will develop consciousness and proceed to do better than we have with this poor planet.

Battling prickly foe hadn’t been the first challenge of the day. Earlier, I had tried to caponize a cockerel for the first time. The procedure entails cutting between the second and third rib of a young bird, extracting the male internal reproductive gland, then allowing the skin to snap back. A caponizing kit laid neatly on the table—rib spreaders, probe, scalpel, another instrument not listed in any inventory—I strapped the cockerel down with cord. Gripping the how-to pamphlet in my left hand, I picked the pin feathers away with my right.

Instructed by the pamphlet to follow the hip bone and find the ribs, I swabbed the designated section with rubbing alcohol and probed with my index finger, counting: one rib, two ribs. Rib spreaders standing by, I grabbed the scalpel and made ready to make the incision.

But where did the ribs go? They had seemed so clearly in evidence only a second before. The scalpel hung like Damocles’ sword over the little bird. “Make the cut anyway; you’ll figure it out,” I told myself. I hovered, the bird passively awaiting his fate.

Loosening the cord, I picked up the cockerel and released him back, unscathed, into the population of would-be gumbos and coq au vins blithely scratching about the farm. The capon of Christmas future will be created by a different surgeon, one of courage and surer anatomical knowledge.

I retreated to the garden, certain at least of my competence in that department. The eyes of 10,000 years of agriculture followed my movements with intimate nods of confidence.

Ah, for the simple joy of the hammock. This I can do.


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.








The mowers across the valley hum with honey bee intensity. Mid-morning heat and the grass has parted ways with the dew after their nightly tryst. Hay is down in dozens of fields, signs of industry from the stewards of those lands. Other pastures are newly shorn and baled, revealing lines both stark and sensual. Round and square bales dot the landscape like chess pieces randomly scattered after play.hay making 6-5-15 001

Gathering my own pieces—a stirrup and a Dutch hoe, a pitchfork and a rake, a 50-gallon tub—I head into the vegetable garden. As I work, the sounds of lawnmowers combine with the nearby shout of a mother to a son, “Pick the green beans while you’re at it.” The sounds of scraping the soil, grunts of my own exertion, a ping as metal strikes rock, the thud of a rock casually tossed to the edge of the garden, where dozens more have gathered over the years.

The tub gradually fills with a spring mix of weeds, a buffet of flavors I tip over the adjoining fence for the sow and gilt, Delores and Petunia, to enjoy. They have been pacing the fence since I arrived, coated in mud from their wallow, grunting and squealing their impatience to begin dining. Another hour of weeding and culling and another tub filled: cabbages and turnips past their prime, leaves of chard and collards, all to be fed to the hogs in the woods later in the evening.

A retreat to the house and a lunch of the previous night’s dinner of grilled ribeyes, creamed chard, and new potatoes, then we catch up on our respective tasks. I read and finish a book before leaving to ted the hay in an upper field.

The grass cut only yesterday is already dry and ready to be baled, no tedding needed, its conversion to winter’s feed complete. Leaving the tractor behind, I enter on foot the sanctuary of the woods. Meaningful word “sanctuary,” both a refuge and a sacred place. Under the canopy of large oaks, poplars, and maples, the woods are still cool and sheltering from the blazing afternoon heat, and the word is both to me. The dogs drink from secret stumps water collected in recent rains. How many other animals know the same? Do they find these watering dishes by scent or instinct?

I walk along the winding lane and exit back into the sunlight. In a heat not yet marred by the humidity of late day, there is an oven-like comfort, like a woodstove in a cool house. At pasture’s edge, a new mother guards her calf, fiercely eyeing the dogs. White Oak 003We move on, past the pond, past the white oak, through the equipment yard. The dogs find shelter from the heat under the chicken coop; I find shelter indoors.

Closing the blinds, we lie down under the ceiling fan and take a midday nap. Sleep is refuge against a hot Tennessee summer day, a sacred state of renewal before the workday reconvenes.


Reading this weekend: Anatole France, “Revolt of the Angels”