The Eve of Winter

Fall is shuddering to a close. A season marking the division between summer and winter, its job is complete. In another short six days, marked by the solstice, is the onset of winter. The date when the wheel begins turning again, the days lengthen and eventually winter, too, is banished.

Living on a farm makes present the folklore, beliefs and cycles of our ancestors. The work is hard and productive yet follows annual cycles as certain as the length of the days. The landscape is now quiescent, regenerating, conserving its resources for the spring. To ensure the successful harvest in the spring our ancestors would troop to the orchards and engage in fertility rites on the winter solstice, a rite in the fallow season to encourage a future harvest. These days we place our faith in science and progress, smug in our assurance that we possess the answers.

For them, knowing that the sun was returning would have given hope as they faced the long months of winter. The seeds dormant and the eternal hope of the agrarian for a better harvest next summer than the last. For us with our 24/7 lives, global supply chains and too full grocery stores the idea that we have any need for or connection with the length of sunlight on the land strikes us as hopelessly parochial.

But under that modern gloss the wheel continues to turn. All still depends on the sun, the length of the days, the warmth of the soil and the rain that falls.

Which is probably why the ancients felt the need to celebrate during these dark months. It was a way to reaffirm their presence, vitality and willingness to persevere.

Last night we hosted our annual Christmas/solstice party. Being moderns somewhat removed from the natural calendar our ritual observations are less precise and urgent. No fear that the sun will not resume its daily path for us. So our party fell on a mid-December night when convenient for friends to gather.

Friends from the valley, the mountains and the city filled the house. The tables loaded with food and holiday beverages. A few non precise toasts, good conversation, our annual nod to encouraging the cycle to continue. Greenery brought into the house, a forgotten nod to our pagan roots, symbolizing an acknowledged desire for warmer days.

The last guests departed close to midnight. To my knowledge the orchard was left unmolested, leaving the trees to complete the cycle on their own.

A Winged Elm Farm Alphabet: “Y”

Y is for Yell

A good yell is one of the ancient arts, an invaluable tool for communicating in and around this farm.

A loud and drawn-out “Pigeee” brings a sounder of pigs stampeding through the woods to the dinner trough, a “Come on, come on” projected from the chest brings the cattle to hay, and a high-pitched “Yoo-hooo” from Cindy penetrates even the deepest reverie and brings me trotting to assist.

A midnight call from a hunter to his lost dog, a mother’s call to her scattered children at dinner, a persistent call for help that signals a neighbor trapped in his barn by a rogue steer … the yell turns out to be one of the most useful tools in our farm’s toolbox.

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Reading this weekend: Sustainability: a cultural history by Ulrich Grober. A book picked up at the wonderful Malaprop’s in Asheville, NC, a bookstore to be supported and cherished.

Ten reasons I’m thankful this Thanksgiving Day

  • That we had a fatted lamb to slaughter. And we have ten friends with whom to share our meal.
  • That I have spent another year on this planet without experiencing true want or hunger. I acknowledge that experience is an anomaly in human history.
  • That we still live in a global economy and good scotch is only a containership away. Hopefully the memories and skills to build clipper ships remain in the years to come.
  • That I had the help of Hannah and Caleb this year as we rebuilt fences on the farm. Without their help and younger backs I’d be further behind and the cattle would be roaming our valley.
  • That I had a chance to reconnect with my older sister Cynthia these past five years. Now that she has passed away I am reminded once again of the fragility of our lifelines. Carpe Diem.
  • That I have lived in the epoch where antibiotics were discovered. A casual walk through the nearby church cemetery reminds one of the costs of their absence.
  • That a literate culture still thrives, that my library is well stocked, Wendell Berry lives and PG Wodehouse never died.
  • That my barn jacket, spattered with blood, cuffs ripped from barbed wire, reeking of honest sweat and manure from countless encounters…still keeps me warm after a dozen years.
  • That my family had the good sense to settle in Louisiana in the 1700’s. And, even if I left the motherland, the knowledge that everything begins with a roux is a good foundation in life.
  • And, that my partner is obsessive enough to bake bread, make yogurt and build cabinets and furniture in her spare time.

Everyone have a good Thanksgiving.

A Winged Elm Farm Alphabet: “X”

X is for Xylocopa virginica

Sitting on the back stoop under the pergola lacing up my work boots and a cascade of sawdust drifts down over me. Looking up at the rafters, I spot a neat, symmetrical 3/8- inch hole. Similar holes are found throughout the barn and other outbuildings, all testament to the industry of the native pollinator the Eastern carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica. A constant presence, the carpenter bee is busy across the farm, drilling holes to lay its eggs and raise its larvae.

The piles of sawdust are one indicator of its activity. Another is the high-pitched buzz emanating from a wooden post as I pound in a fence staple. Eventually the carpenter bee flies out to angrily confront the disturber of its domicile. But it virtually never stings and is a rather benign partner on our land, one whose work is admired and cascades of sawdust deplored

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Reading this weekend: Vintage Pellegrini: the collected wisdom of an American Buongustaio by Angelo Pellegrini (the author of the wonderful The Food Lover’s Garden)

Eating Our Seed Corn

In Atlanta this past week, I had a quick conversation with a man in the elevator where we both remarked on the weather. A cold front had moved through that afternoon, dropping the temperature to an unseasonable low. He said, “This must be left over from that typhoon they’re talking about.” I replied that it was a cold front. And he allowed that that made sense.

The high school kid down the road was relating to me why she loved her favorite class, English literature. The students there were currently enjoying The Scarlet Letter. I was pleased she liked to read, so I asked her if she read ahead of the class and had finished the book. She looked puzzled. “No,” she replied, “the teacher only plays one chapter at a time.” No reading, just listening to a book on tape.

For me, the phrase “eating our seed corn” comes to mind. One of my favorites, it perfectly encapsulates the trajectory of the human race on this planet. Whether we’re talking about climate change, peak oil, destruction of agricultural land, depletion of fresh water, population overshoot or any of the other things that keep us awake at night, the phrase seems apt.

We are eating our seed corn, cannibalizing the future for a convenient present. No resource is too precious to warrant saving–not the intelligence and education of our children, not the arable land where they built a new Walmart; not the diminishing aquifer pumped out to frack a limited supply of shale oil or gas; not the soil under the clearcut forest on our neighbor’s property, where reseeding did not enter into the financial equation; not our planet when it is at odds with continued growth.

Someday, and I fear rather soon, we will go to the collective storehouse and find that our seed corn for next year’s crop was last night’s cornbread.

A Winged Elm Farm Alphabet: “W”

W is for Wild Turkey

Midnight skies, a flock of wild turkeys heard but not seen on the opposing ridge.

Bush hogging the back pasture I startle a flock as they graze, like flying basketballs they lift off with surprising speed and grace. Walking through the woods to feed the hogs and a rustling overhead draws my attention to a dozen roosting in a sycamore. Driving down Possum Trot and I brake suddenly to avoid a large hen and poults. They scurry to join their kin under an oak. Wild Turkeys are everywhere in our valley.

Now I’m walking one fine November day, a week before Thanksgiving, carrying a shotgun, and finding that our intended dinner has removed itself from the landscape.

These sounds at midnight confirm their canny reputation.

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Reading this weekend: Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fischer, Julia Child, James Beard and the reinvention of American taste by Luke Barr. A book about a meeting between these foodies, think Bottle Shocked meets boeuf bourguignonne meets clam chowder.

A Busy Day

There are plenty of days here that slip by without visitors, phone calls or trips off the farm. But yesterday was not one of those days. Rolling out of bed at 6 am, I fixed coffee and fired up the computer. One of my first tasks daily is to compile a to-do list: what needs to get done, what supplies or groceries are needed, and what we will have for dinner when I’m fixing (This is my list, after all). That task done, I dedicated an hour to reading (Still slogging through the history of debt), began preparing a brine to corn brisket and tongue for a dinner next Saturday, and did my critical stretching before tackling farm life for another day.

Then began the onslaught. Eighteen-year-old Shannon showed up promptly at 8:30 to work. Most Saturdays she helps with assorted chores—cleaning buckets, pulling weeds. I assigned her tasks and marked them off the list. Once I completed the livestock feeding, I took a cattle panel, pulled it into a circle and fastened the ends together. This would serve as a new compost bin for the next project.

About that time Craig showed up. He and I had corresponded about farming and mushroom foraging, and upon my invitation he had come out for a work day on the farm. (I think Aunt Polly still has a fence to be whitewashed, if any of you are interested.) We got started cleaning out a sheep stall, deep in soiled hay and manure. That hay went into the new compost bin.

As we were finishing, our neighbor from two valleys away, Tim, stopped by to drop off a borrowed item. An orchid grower himself, he was on his way to an orchid giveaway in Knoxville, and in a hurry. He hung out for half an hour before departing. Tim, although a native of Chicago, has taken to a slower life on the Tennessee farm he owns with his brother. He gets a ferocious amount of work done–but all in good time, my man.

Craig and I moved onto clearing a fenceline for a new sheep fence. The farm’s master plan calls for cross-fencing and predator-proofing the old barn pasture, about three acres. Clearing the brambles was the first important step. Figuring the tractor and the bush hog would speed the job, I went back up hill. Cindy was busy talking with Andrew and Amanda. Andrew conducted a pruning workshop last December and will repeat the exercise next month. They stayed for an hour or so.

 I went back to help Craig with the fencing, but after just minutes, was summoned back up the hill to greet Whitey. A forestry professor with an avid interest in mushroom foraging, he had volunteered to lead a mushroom hunt here next weekend. Today was a chance to survey the woods in advance. I called Craig, who was diligently clearing fence rows in my absence, and sent him off into the woods with Whitey. They returned with a three-pound lion’s mane mushroom, a real prize for gourmets, and a pound or two of small puffballs. Meanwhile, Cindy was meeting with our roofer to discuss a chimney leak and I was grabbing lunch before the Baptists descended onto the farm.

The Baptists have caravanned from North Carolina every year for the past 7-8 years. They come to learn about farming for upcoming missionary trips. They are always polite and interested in our work and I look forward to their annual visit. Soon five vans and cars pulled into the barn area and unloaded an assortment of adults and children. Cindy went up to the house to bake hoagy buns for supper.

The next couple of hours were spent walking them over the farm. We covered the past successes and failures of the year. The tour is a standard bit, but it is nonetheless always exhausting. A couple of hours later, after Cindy and a guest finished exchanging bread recipes, we waved goodbye and headed to the house.

Cindy joined me for an early cup of coffee and we headed to town for much needed supplies and groceries. Back home Cindy finished baking her bread and then returned to the workshop. She is building a pine-and-poplar kitchen cupboard, doors on the bottom, glassed-in cabinets on top. I think I added some sugar to five gallons of muscadine wine and did little else until dinner.

We set our clocks back and fell asleep early.