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,

Brian

 

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sanctuary

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.

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

The Meaning of a Local Table

Weather records kept on the farm are fairly casual. A semi-frequent journal entry documenting temperature or precipitation is about the best I manage. Those entries are usually prompted by one extreme or another: “too hot” or “too cold.” “Just right” seldom warrants an observation. Thankfully, other, more consistent individuals keep closer watch.Hubbards 002

The local weather keeper for Philadelphia, Tennessee, about 15 miles away, has so far recorded .15 inches for the month of May. My casual recordkeeping indicates closer to a half-inch. The average for the area for the month closes in on five inches.

How rain falls and how it is used is place based. How each farm uses the rain affects the productivity of the garden, the lives of the livestock, and the setting of the table. For maintaining an abundant garden, my preference is the slightly dry summer, as long as we have ample alternative sources to water the veggies, and our fairly extensive rain harvesting system meets that need in all but the most exceptional droughts.

But pastures need rain to be productive for a small livestock farm. Ample forage now for everyday needs and stored forage in the form of hay for the winter are essential. And both are at the mercy of the weather.

The frequency of our rotational grazing system for the sheep currently outpaces the slow growth of the forage: a typical week’s worth of grass is now being consumed in three short days, leaving us scanning the western ridge lines for the approach of rain.

Unless we get ample rain in the next couple of weeks, we will need to reevaluate the carrying capacity of our pastures. This decision will not affect our small cattle herd, for they are on fields ample enough to support their numbers. The grazing options of our sheep, because they require special predator-proof fencing, are much more limited.

So as it stands now, we will cull more sheep than we had previously intended, perhaps reducing the flock by a third, from around 45 to 25 or 30. We cull for a variety of reasons besides grass availability: age, susceptibility to parasites, poor mothering, problems lambing, or because a particular sheep is a simple pain in the ass. Ideally, we would market the ewes as mutton. Direct marketing allows us to get a better price than through the stock auction and rest more comfortably knowing the future of the selected animal.

Mutton has, however, been out of favor in this country for a number of years. Which is a shame. The meat has a mature flavor for a mature taste. It is the taste of a food tradition of place-based eating, a culinary table set with the dishes rooted in necessity and seasonal availability–two traits out of step with our collective national taste, that of a 12-year-old for whom tenderness and immediacy are prized over flavor and quality.

I used to joke that it took 24 months to make my chicken and sausage gumbo. Because it did take two full years to raise out the rooster for the pot. In the meantime, the old boy had plenty of time to be useful to the hens. That utility is the hallmark of the small farm: everything has a place in the overall productivity.

Which is why we continue to try and market the mutton each summer. And not just out of a necessity brought on by a lack of rain. It is the natural ebb and flow of the farmer, farm, and flock–the necessity of an annual cull creates availability of a unique meat for a local cuisine.

But these efforts remain unsuccessful because, although the buying habits of the consumer have changed, they are still predicated on buying for convenience. And as long as the small farm has to compete with corporate farming over convenience, the small farm (and the consumer) will lose. A truly sustainable farm needs a sustainable food tradition with which to partner, combining geography and a people.

In a truly local food system, it is the culture that adapts to the foods’ seasonal availability. The annual coq au vin made from the culled rooster in the fall, the slow-cooked leg of mutton from the culled ewe at the height of summer, both are simmered in a sauce made of freshly grown vegetables, herbs, and garlic. Both meals are place based, with a personal relationship with the farmer, pasture, and garden and seasoned by the utility of the ingredients.

It is this place-based cooking tradition that has the potential to nourish our lives, build resilient communities, and sustain the planet. It’s a local table that speaks about the people of that place, a people who today are scanning the ridge lines for a storm’s approach.

 

An Agrarian Life

“He lives the song he sings just as many of us sing the songs we don’t live.”

–Richard Taylor

 

It is a subject as old as the Roman poets: trying to live the song we sing. No doubt, as long as members of our race have felt consoled by the comforting embrace of empire, they have felt the snare grip their ankle as they tried to reclaim whatever was felt to them as an authentic life.

This blog is about farming, about the life of working the farm and the subtle ways that that life changes the participant. My farm life is a journey. A journey, if you will, about living those songs I sing. A journey that has taught me to live songs, often heard as if at a great distance, with muted lyrics, songs that once learned help loosen the grip of the snare.

Looking back over these 16 years of posts, certain themes regularly emerge: changes by a birth or death, the cycles of seasons, mistakes learned over and over again, the value of a willing partner, the companionship of friends and family, the rediscovery of the art of observing, the liberating value of work performed.

So too revelations of being more profoundly conservative and liberal than previously imagined. Not the conservative mindset of our chattering classes, with their mania of global commerce, their cavalier resource depletion, and their religious litmus tests. But instead, the timeless conservativism of careful consideration to structure, change, technology, land, and relationships. A growing awareness that progress and change, as needed on a farm, best proceed from thoughtful slowness.

And not the liberalism of our contemporary world, a cultural leveling to the lowest common denominator or the mire of identity politics–an effort to redress ills with broad strokes and imperial power–but a liberalism derived out of observation, of slowness, community, and responsibility, that by those acts, the world observed is seen with very different eyes. A narrowing of one’s focus, a localizing of compassion, can flower to encompass a wider realm.

Odd how this life has given this participant an active tolerance and intolerance concurrently: the former for the beauty and diversity of the natural world of which I am a part, the latter for the bad and boorish behavior of our own acts and the larger self-absorbed modernity.

How any of us loosens the snares that bind us is our own journey, our own song. It is, for me, the agrarian life, or at least my own approximation of how it should be lived, that continues to exercise a power to change. I still don’t know if I am living the song. But those lyrics, once muted, are now heard with greater clarity.

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Starting next week this blog will be split into two blogs. One, as yet unnamed, for these types of farm related musings. The second will be published under the farm name. It will address the specific farm life and business. More details to follow so you can decide which to “follow” as well.

Basic Farm Lessons: continued

  • Sky watching: A barn roof on a clear night is the best vantage to watch the Perseid meteor shower.
  • Communication: “I wouldn’t care to” means in these parts “I’d be happy to” … which is, helpfully, less confusing when you hear it uttered in person.
  • Butchering: Scalding temperature for chickens is 140-145 degrees, ducks a bit higher. Temperature for scalding your skin is 140, so scald with care.
  • Service: The postman in the country will hand deliver a card or two to your neighbor, without a stamp.
  • Communication 2: When a neighbor refers to another neighbor as “useless as teats on a boar,” he is not paying a compliment. Typically uttered when referring to a man’s procreative abilities when compared with his working abilities.
  • Forget proposed spaceflights to Mars: The three-point hitch and the PTO (power takeoff) on a tractor represent the pinnacle of modern technology.
  • Communication 3: A direct question seldom receives a direct answer. Usually, a “some might do it that way” is the most definitive you get.
  • Department of nothing-new-under-the-sun: Newly emerged leaves on the sassafras tree taste just like Fruit Loops.
  • Manure: One winter. 49 sheep. Weekly bedding. Result: a pile of manure 16 by 16 feet and up to eight feet tall.

    Manure equals wealth

    Manure equals wealth

  • Butchering 2: One large pizza, 12 beers, a butcher saw, and an assortment of very sharp knives are all three men need to break down a hog carcass on the kitchen table. (OK, and help from two women with the butchering, but not the beer.)

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Reading this weekend (again): The Hour by DeVoto. What is not to love about a man who can write the following opening paragraph: “We are a pious people but a proud one too, aware of a noble lineage and a great literature. Let us candidly admit that there are shameful blemishes on the American past, of which by far the worst is rum.”