Fig Nation

Figgy goodness

You just never know when good luck will turn on her high beams and hit you with some gifted produce or a home-brewed beer. We’ve been hard at what is best described as a homestead weekend on the farm. We’ve planted figs and blueberries, transitioned the summer to a fall garden, made mead and apple jelly, fed the bees…. Later today friends are coming over to donate an afternoon of converting logs to lumber.

Which makes me think of Fig Nation. A couple of years back, an elderly Slavic émigré visited the farm to buy a lamb for his freezer. A long conversation ensued (which seems to happen more often than not), during which he and I shared some of my homemade pear brandy (which also seems to happen more often than not). We walked about the fig orchard and got to talking about fig love and the joys and struggles of growing figs in the upper South. He mentioned a cold-hardy variety that he had had success growing in Blount County. The conversation and afternoon then drifted on to other topics.

A couple of weeks later, a mystery package arrived from an out-of-state nursery. It contained six small rootstocks of figs, a gift from the farm visitor. Since that time we’ve nurtured them along, first in pots in the house, then in the rich soil of the hoop-house. Finally, yesterday morning I dug them up and divided the rootstock of each into new plants. Two of each went into the orchard. The remaining figs were gifted to two more friends in the valley.

What took place here is an example of what I call “Fig Nation,” an informal farm economy and community based on producing, sharing, and enjoying. The concept of Fig Nation is simple: A few weeks back, my nephew and I harvested five pounds of elderberries. We cleaned, bagged, and tossed them in the freezer. Yesterday I pulled them out and combined them with water and honey to make an elderberry mead. Come winter, I’ll enjoy the mead with guests. Welcome to Fig Nation, where sharing brings pleasure and automatic membership.

Those friends coming over to help with the sawmill? While here, they also plan to use our cider mill for some perry from their pear crop. After milling lumber and pears, we will conclude the day with a glass or two of my newly bottled raspberry wine — members in good standing in Fig Nation must be prepared to produce, converse, work, and sip.

So you see, Fig Nation, in concept and in practice, isn’t difficult at all. Now, you may find the founding premise a bit too anarchistic, this making and giving and receiving. And, if you don’t comprehend, I’m not allowed to explain it in detail — except to say, it is not a bad way to spend your days and evenings and life.

A Farm Breviary: Vespers

Evensong, I pull up my chair into the bee-loud glade and sit down in the shade of a young oak. It is a mere child of 15 years, with near two centuries of growth ahead. Yet, already sturdy and full, it provides a cooling shelter for myself and our small bee yard.

Storms build in the west, as the sun, already hidden, prepares for departure, his work done. This is the office for the ending of the day, sung as a work chantey by humming bees finishing up their own day’s labor. Laden like the stevedores of old, they return to their community one last time, legs loaded with pollen. Soon the daybridge will be pulled up in readiness for the night and her watchmen.

In the poultry yard nearby, the chickens join in chorus with the bees and begin the return to roost. They flutter up into the coop, where their elder aunts have already gone to bed. The roosters, giving a last challenge to the fading light, crow once more, then declare victory and retire from battle. In the lower fields the sheep still graze. Soon though, the dominant ewe will signal an end to the day. She will lead the flock in a doxology of contented bleats back to the barn, all readiness for rest and security.

Vespers on the farm is a coming home.

Next to me is a small hive worked earlier in the day, a captured swarm from a friend and neighbor’s apple orchard. Eleven days it has labored in building a new home with the old queen. We were prepared to find it weak, to merge it with a stronger hive. Yet, the queen still lived, busy laying eggs, building brood, surrounded by her attendants. Not yet a strong hive, but with luck, hard work, and the inevitable act of regicide — like the corn kings of folklore — the colony will end the summer and fall strong enough to survive the next winter.

I sit in idleness and rest as these last bees return from the field. I watch as they and their sisters gather, bearding the front boards in tight-knit community. With news exchanged, plans made for the following day, they begin to go indoors.

Rising, I put my ear to one of the hives and listen to the hum of their evening song. It’s a melody picked up throughout the farm. I pause and listen for the refrain, and then, as the poet says, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

There’s a 100 Percent Chance of Weather

summer gardens 2

My garden…just not this year.

4:45 this morning and a neighbor maybe a half-mile away is shooting a rifle. Sounds like a .22, so he is probably potting raccoons or rats raiding his cattle feed. Or perhaps he is a man who likes to annoy the world. Regardless, I roll out of bed and make a pot of coffee.

We promise you rain, tomorrow: For a man who gets up so early, it is amazing how late I am in getting to haying this year. It is the perennial struggle to find just the right week between cooperative weather and work schedule. Driving back from Sweetwater yesterday, I observed that almost all the fields were either cut, raked, baled, or a combination. I have been holding off for one more good rain, but apparently all the moisture continues to dump on Texas. Meanwhile, our Roane County forecast is an ever-shifting horizon, the moisture always promised in another three days.

Beware the nine-banded armadillo: On yesterday’s drive back from town, just past the big hog roast in progress at the Luttrell community center, I spotted the distinctive and familiar remains of an animal ­on the road. The sighting was commonplace to me on the backroads of Louisiana growing up. Later that night at dinner with friends, we discussed what I’d seen. Our friend remarked that, coincidentally, she could’ve sworn she’d seen the same kind of animal a few days before, but she decided against it, since the critters are not known to live in these parts. But, sure enough, a quick bit of research and we found that the nine-banded armadillo has arrived in East Tennessee.

Busy little bees: In the immortal words of Margot Channing, “You are in a beehive, pal. Didn’t you know? We are all busy little bees, full of stings, making honey day and night. Aren’t we, honey?” Frantically painting more supers and putting together more frames, Cindy has struggled to keep pace with this spring’s exponential colony growth. The number of our hives has doubled to four, and the girls (all worker bees are female) seem unusually productive. Cindy keeps slapping on supers, and they keep filling them up. We look for a bountiful honey harvest come end of summer: I see horns of mead aplenty and a rereading of Beowulf in my future.

Let’s not go there: I fixed some chicken sausage gumbo last night. “Cindy, when you go out to feed, grab me an onion from the garden. There are three rows of weeds before you get to Petunia. Buried in the last row are the onions.” Typically, the dry years like this are the years the garden looks the best. So I really have no excuse … except the fencing. That massive project of closing in the ravine for the pigs was a time-suck this spring. Sigh.

Who cares why you crossed the road. Where are my damn eggs? After raising speckled Sussex almost exclusively for 16 years, we are going to make a change. We ordered 20 brown leghorn chicks, which arrived this week. They are the foundation bird for the modern leghorns and an egg-laying machine, purportedly. Our dual-purpose meat-and-eggs Sussex are too irregular in the latter department. So, unless the governor calls (and why would he?), the flock will go in the pot. We look forward to endless bowls of coq au vin, chicken paprikash, and gumbo.

Well, with coffee and the blog now done and the eastern sky alight with the approaching dawn, it is time for me to go dig holes and plant grapevines. One must take advantage of the coolness of the morning and reserve the afternoon for a siesta.


Reading this weekend: The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a southern girl, a small town, and the secret of a good life by Rod Dreher. A tribute to a sister who stayed put while her brother pursued a career and moved away from home. She died young at forty. A fascinating, emotional, look at family and small town culture.

Bargaining with the rain gods  

OK, give us some rain, not too much, not too little, just enough and when convenient…for us. With crazy weather patterns becoming the norm I’m not sure what totem offerings to make to whomever is listening. But I’m willing to try. Just clue me in big guy.

The folks in the UK, I hear, could stand a dry spell. The good people of the Gulf coast could use a month or two to dry out from Noah like deluges, just not too long…. And we’ve been running low for the year. Not a drought, yet. But edging into the scary zone where you know what can happen. So when a major system kicked up and started firing moisture northwards from the Gulf of Mexico and along a frontal line, we were hopeful.

But after a misting over 24 hours and by yesterday afternoon a mere measly 10th of an inch was in the rain gauge. So late on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, with the skies having parted I was glued to the computer watching stray storms popping up; calculating wind directions, intensity and whether the gods were going to play fair.

For a couple of hours we watched what appeared to be a promising cell fire up on the Cumberland Plateau. An agonizing drift eastward at a glacial pace and it finally crested the ridge of our valley around 6 pm. A nice round ½ inch dropped into the gauge. We’ll take what was offered. Do I need to slaughter a lamb or offer burnt offerings?

So after the rain of yesterday I piddled about the farm today, did a bit of fishing, mainly as an excuse to smoke a cigar. And I mulled over an email we had received. Someone wanted advice on leading a more self-sufficient life. I disclaim any authority to answer adequately. But apparently I can’t seem to resist the siren call of thinking I have something to say (see below).

So, while I’ve been a bit useless today, Cindy has been her usual industrious self. She has been cleaning our hive bodies and getting frames ready for our two new bee nuc’s. These are ones to replace the four hives lost last year to bad weather and poor management.

5 Guidelines to greater self-sufficiency

Lesson #1: Garden

Start by getting your hands dirty. Plant a garden. Grow what you like to eat. Plunge your hands into the soil, make some notes of what you did and repeat next season. It is not hard. At the end of the season you have some fresh produce, don’t waste it. Eat it, save it or compost it.

Lesson #2: Livestock

Start small and raise for your own home consumption. Raise only what you like to eat. It doesn’t take a college degree or permaculture certification to raise a hog out for nine months, butcher it and eat well for the next year. Chickens or ducks, a hog or a lamb, can all be raised successfully on a small bit of land.

Lesson #3: Work

We all have more time than we realize. So, use it. You are going to feel better at the end of the year when you have some food in the freezer and in the pantry, I promise. Knowing you can produce food for your family is simply the best feeling.

Lesson #4: Killing and cooking

Get over your squeamishness. You got an extra rooster, learn to butcher. Do it cleanly and humanely and honor it with a really nice dinner with some sides of fresh vegetables you grew.

Lesson #5: Intelligence

Use your brain. Educate yourself on the best ways to do any of the above. Our ancestors have been providing for themselves for thousands of years. Hey, how hard can it be?


March Journals

Linsey-Woolsey Winter, Dogwood Winter, Redbud Winter or Blackberry Winter: All of these are names for spring cold snaps based on what might be in bloom when the weather turns cold. The first is an exception, the old fashioned name for long-johns. I imagine so called because you had to pull them out of the chest and put them back on when the weather turned cold in spring. Cold snaps are on the mind with the current extended spell entering another week. Not unexpected at this time of year but they leave one yearning for warmer days.

Last year at this time the spring honey flow was in high gear, so high that we had our first swarm on March 27th. So this weekend Cindy repaired and replaced foundations in the hive frames. Late yesterday I got into our four hives and added new supers and frames. Even with the current cold snap the bees were active. The plums and peaches are in bloom, as are the forsythia, spirea, flowering quince, maples and a host of other ornamentals. All of which makes me nervous with one eye on the skies and the other in my journal.

This weekend in 2011 I was putting down a favored sow, Snowflake, on a warm spring day after a failed farrowing that left her unable to stand and suffering. Late March 2010 Cindy and I were building a farrowing hut in a high wind so cold that it brought alternating waves of sleet, snow and cold rain slashing across us as we raced to complete the structure before a sow farrowed.

Looking back through the journals covering thirteen years of this one weekend and I am reminded of Mark Twain. As he said in the preface to one of his novels, “there is a 100% chance of weather in this book”. But sometimes instead of weather I find a bit of snobbery has crept in to those pages. Back around 2006 this entry on the last weekend in March on a BBQ dinner we hosted regarding the now ex-husband of a friend. “….he is such a dreadful bore that he is best tolerated in a larger crowd”. Well at least the weather must have been pleasant.

But hovering over all of these late March entries is the year 2007. April 8th we had a severe cold snap with a low of 19 degrees; so cold that the hardwoods did not leaf out again until late May.  It was a stunning loss of greenery in one night. Our woods had leafed out with that bright green of spring color and the next week they were the brown of early winter.

The nurseries and garden centers loved that year. Everyone lulled into plantings based on an early warm spring had to rush out and replenish all that had been lost. Almost 100% of the Tennessee apple crop was lost. Many orchards had to buy apples from Washington state to meet contracts with area grocery stores.

Who knows what this spring will bring. Tomorrow the forecast is for snow showers.

A Winged Elm Farm Alphabet Book “B”


“B” is for the bees.

Our smallest livestock, for that is what they are on a farm, are a constant presence whenever the weather allows. Even on a warm January day they congregate on the stoops of the hives and then fly off in search of nectar. The Jessamine growing on the pergola flowers in January. Each time we step off the back porch the hum of the bees greets that step.

The hum that announces their activity is a dramatic note in the sheet music of our farm whether we are harvesting cucumbers or dining at a picnic. The honey harvested at the end of the season from their labor is the coda to the piece.


Reading this weekend two books, Energy: overdevelopment and the delusion of endless growth by the Post Carbon Institute and Beauty: the invisible embrace by John O’Donohue.

You call this winter?

January 21, 1985 Knoxville’s temperature dropped to minus 24 degrees, the coldest in the lower 48 states. As a new transplant from southern Louisiana just the month prior I wondered what had motivated me to move to the frozen north (Tennessee). Then just this morning the temperature at 7 am was a balmy 57 degrees, twenty-seven degrees above the normal low for this time of year and a full eighty-one degrees above that historic low.

When not dwelling on the darker aspects and implications of temperature fluctuations my thoughts have been on gardening and pasture renovations. The flood of seed catalogs, the first arriving the week of Thanksgiving, have kept me entertained with grand fantasies of what might be accomplished if only there were a few more hours in the day.

I have my favorites. Some I love for the over the top descriptions: one praising turnips in the fall when “new winds blow into the fields”. Not quite sure what a “new wind” is exactly but I get the spirit of it.  Others are loved for their encyclopedic listings of every variety known. But my favorites are Sand Hill Preservation Center in Calamus, IA, Sow True Seed in Asheville, NC and Horizon Herbs in Williams, OR. These three are work-a-day catalogs with a minimum of the frou-frou dribble that seems to appeal to the …well, you know who you are.

The problem at this time of year, as I see it, is one of restraint, resisting the urge to plant just a little too early. Maybe a few sugar peas in a protected area and we might be blessed with an early crop? Thomas Jefferson held an annual contest among his neighbors. Whoever brought in the earliest crop of peas hosted a dinner for his other neighbors. Think about that for a moment. To succeed in being first in bringing a crop to the table and the reward was to gather and feed your neighbors, not the other way around. There is value in that story and practice.

While waiting and waiting impatiently we will weed and mulch the garlic and onions this weekend. Those two kitchen essentials will be ready to harvest in late June. In the meantime I can gather my seed collection about me and plan to plant in February, cabbage, lettuce, spinach, kale, mustard, peas, radishes and celery (which I have never grown before).

Later this month we can begin to reseed some of the pastures with a rye, clover and fescue mix. Using the tractor and a disc harrow I’ll lightly disc the fields and spread the seed where hopefully it finds purchase to give us a full crop of hay later in the year. Then there are the plans to sow buckwheat in the orchard for the bees. And there are more plans for, well, plans.


Reading this weekend Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” and “The Saucier’s Apprentice” by Raymond Sokolov a history and guide to the classic French sauces. Do I dare try and master the Sauce Grand Veneur (Master of the Royal Hunt Sauce) for the leg of venison for Saturday’s dinner?