Eating Cake

Empire rots and grows dark at the edges even as the lights seem brightest in its heart where the leaders feverishly tweak and prime the flow of the wealth-pump and would-be leaders make promises to restore the Republic to its former glory. And both sets struggle mightily to keep the haves content and the have-nots hopeful.

We live an hour from Knoxville to our north-east and Chattanooga to our south-west in a narrow valley with low ridges. Our county just ten years ago had twelve repairmen servicing phone lines. Today it has one individual who now services two counties with the same amount of landline.

Phone companies have always been required, as a semi-public utility, to maintain that access in rural areas. But the cell phone revolution has allowed them a way out of that obligation. In a historical slight-of-hand, as the number of cell phones proliferated, phone companies began dismantling the service infrastructure. Today a disruption to the landline entails many calls and a week or more response time; a process that is guaranteed to gin up the numbers who get fed up and opt out. The more who opt out, the quainter the requirement to provide the costly landline infrastructure seems until eventually the service is removed and replaced with….?

Meanwhile, currently 7 out of 10 teachers in the US assign homework to students that require a broadband connection to complete the work (according to a recent FCC report). And one out of three households do not subscribe to broadband. The report is primarily urban-centric. Very little data about how rural-households cope. But one could reasonably surmise that for lack of digital infrastructure or for affordability, large sections of this land are left out of the techno-fantasies of our education elites.

Indeed one does not need to read that report. Read an article in a newspaper or watch a segment on a newscast and witness that disconnect between the fantasy imaginings of a connected world and the realities of everyday life. It has only been three years since we began to get a cell phone signal at our house. Before that date I’d have to drive ten miles and park at the Fender’s Methodist Church to take calls. The teenage boy in a neighboring family walked up to our back field (north-east corner) and found a forty-foot patch where he could reach his girlfriend.

Today we enjoy a ghost echo of the digital revolution here in the valley. We now receive cellphone calls in the front two rooms of the house. Outside we can take calls from the house to almost half-way down the drive. At that point you’d still need to drive out to the church to complete your call. And our connection speeds have increased. We get a pretty consistent 1G in those two front rooms with the occasional 3G pulse. And some of the time we get nothing.

I’m not whinging, I have a good job, a good farm and a full belly. But one does wonder who speaks for or is concerned about the rural lives of this country, the kids held back by both finances and access to the digital promised-land. A technological revolution that I suspect the elites are no longer capable of either funding or even conceptualizing a need for outside the core hubs where the lights still burn bright.

There you have it, as a society we are busy rolling up the carpets of communication infrastructure while requiring kids to use a technology which is only sporadically available or on terms they can’t afford. And failing that, they are effectively being asked to kindly turn out the lights when they leave.

Our rural population along with the abandoned urban core are being asked to “eat cake”. And we all know where that ends. And in case you are having trouble imagining, it doesn’t end with a “digital” revolution.

A Farmer’s Guide to the Senses

Hearing: When the fog comes into the valley, the cattle bawl a fearful alarm at the loss of any horizon. It’s a sound that raises an ancient fear of the husbandman worried for his stock. You cock your head, desperate to locate the sound. Is this the bawl of your own cattle, now escaped and on the highway? An experience lived once stays forever.

Red Poll Cattle

Red Poll Cattle

Smell: Walking out at midnight among the cattle on a hot night, you take in the sweet rich aroma of sweat and foraged dung rising from the earth. Not unlike the smell of yeast and dough working together in a bowl under a heavy cloth. Both are promises in the dark, a womb-like gift of fertility for those capable of interpreting and understanding their uses.

Touch: While the ewe is still expelling the afterbirth, you cradle her newborn lamb. That gaze, that softness, delivers in an instant the totality of life, what the world offers. This, a mere moment between birth and death, for the joy and the living, for all of us.

Sight: The blood will come quickly, more than you expect. With a merciful cut across the jugular, the yearling ram-lamb will bleed bright on the winter grass. You carry his dead weight across the barnyard and hoist him up by the gambrel tendons to a singletree dangling from the front end loader. You execute the evisceration quickly, then place the carcass in the cooler.

Taste: You place a bit of smoked pork in your mouth. The fruit of your land, it is simply seasoned with salt and pepper, stuffed with garlic from the garden. The fat is rendered out during a long summer day spent in the smoker, then the meat is pulled, chopped, and doused with a vinegar sauce. You serve it on a plate alongside crowder pea salad. You wash it down with homemade mead and wine, sitting around the long table with friends as the day becomes evening. This is farming.


Re-reading this weekend: The Localization Reader: adapting to the coming downshift. A collection of essays, this is the designated reading over the next six months for our farmer’s reading group.

A Late Summer Update

Two weeks before the autumnal equinox and the rhythms on the farm begin to shift. The humidity lowers to a bearable level for work, the mornings are cooler and summer vegetables are past their peak. Quince jelly and fig preserves grace the larder and the freezers are stuffed with meat. It is time to take stock on our success and failures over the summer season.

Summer Vegetable Garden:  a remarkably wet and cool summer affected the garden negatively. My approach to our gardens is to create a fairly low maintenance operation with lots of mulching and trellises to help reduce weeding. But the rainfall overwhelmed the usual efforts and the weeds flourished. The harvest was plentiful but the appearance of the garden was not pretty. Recalling what Mr. William Cobbett said regarding the state of a man’s soul in relation to how he keeps his farm… it might just be best not to inquire into that subject during this particular year.

Fall Garden/New Plantings: Yesterday I planted the fall turnips, kale and mustard greens. Last weekend we planted a small grove of ten hazelnut trees/shrubs. Planted in a double line across the upper portion of the pasture where the pond that is no more was located. We have high hopes to begin harvesting our own nut crop within a few short years. We also purchased five highbush blueberry plants. These will be planted just above the rock wall in the backyard. And to round out the edible landscape portion of our new plantings is an elderberry bush out by the well house.

In the front yard we cut down the green ash that had grown but not thrived. Cindy planted an iron tree to replace it.

Observations: The summer has been characterized by excessive ant infestations in the house and the field, large wasp nests in the barn, out-buildings, equipment and gates, and ticks and redbugs; all in larger numbers than previously seen. It may be that the cooler summer with more rain has allowed them to flourish. Or it could be that, as our 17 year old neighbor said, that we have managed to kill off some important part of the natural world that fed on these critters.

Livestock: This spring we took advantage of the high cattle prices and sold off most of our herd at auction and to our customers. We spent, as previously related, sometime rebuilding fencing. Although there is more fencing to complete we felt secure enough to purchase another small herd of weanling steers. They should be ready for market in 2015.

The lamb flock has done well and we assume most of the ewes have been bred for a winter lambing. The spring crop of ram lambs will be ready for slaughter in November.

The hogs are fat and ready for their date with the butcher in October. We will have a new crop of weanlings ready for the wooded paddocks about the same time. That crop of hogs should be ready to market in May of 2014.

Hay: As mentioned in an earlier update the hay crop in the spring was the largest we have ever produced. The second cutting is always a bit lighter. So imagine my surprise when the cutting just completed surpassed the harvest in the spring! And that was before the drive shaft on the round baler broke with at least 5-10 more bales to roll. So we enter the cooler months with plenty of hay for the farm.

Infrastructure: Cindy has built a new gate leading into the back yard and painted it a lovely light blue. She is in the process of attaching some wrought iron fencing bordering each side of the gate. She picked up the fencing at a salvage store in Knoxville. That is one handy woman.

That is all from our farm this week.


Reading this week:  Songbirds, Truffles and Wolves: an American naturalist in Italy by Gary Paul Nahban. A memoir of his walk along the ancient pilgrimage path of St. Francis of Assisi.

The Blame Falls on Wendell Berry

The seventy acres of our farm touch the boundaries, borders, property of ten other landowners or farmers. These ten property owners account for thirty or forty persons who represent our nearest neighbors, who we know ranging from close friendship or partnership to the category of not at all. Having neighbors entails certain obligations. Those obligations range from the simple notification that an animal is loose to working together rebuilding fences. We work to keep those obligations from entering into the realm of being “obligated”.

Of those ten neighbors only one is active in farming his land and he is about eighty years of age. The rest of our neighbors derive incomes from the categories of “best not to inquire”, retirement, toxic waste handling, nursing, and the job of no visible means of support.

I was thinking of neighbors and neighborliness yesterday. We were returning from a conference in Louisville, KY celebrating the 35th publishing anniversary of Wendell Berry’s “Unsettling America”. It was our first vacation off the farm together in ten years. That simple act of leaving obligations and responsibilities behind in the care and trust of those thirty-forty individuals, leaving one’s home place, all brought back to me how thoroughly tied we are becoming to this land.

Our drive through rural Kentucky found us focused on fencing, outbuildings, housing stock, livestock, soil health and all of those small things that make up good or bad agricultural practices. We would find ourselves grimacing at good ponds aware of our eyesore of a pond back home which is still waiting for a solution. Or we would smile at poor fencing that clearly suggested lack of practice, something of which we now have plenty. But overall we were studying the land, observing it for hints at how we could steward our land.

We drove back into Tennessee invigorated by the conversations, moved by hearing Mr. Berry read poetry and humbled by the intelligence of the presenters. We came back home with new purpose and plans. We came back home to a steer standing in the front yard, a steer that simply will not stay in a fenced pasture. A rebel steer does not make for good or happy neighbors. He moves your needle from obligations into the red obligated zone. We moved him back into the pasture without real optimism or expectation that he would stay.

And indeed this morning our small herd of cattle was one short, the rebel steer had gone wandering, again. I found him on the highway. After some work we got him up to the barnyard and loaded him into the trailer for sale at the stockyard. But not before we saw him jump a five foot wooden fence from a standing position…without touching wood.

Obligations discharged we were able to turn our attentions to other matters.


Reading this weekend: From the Forest: a search for the hidden roots of our fairy tales by Sara Maitland.

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.

Jack Frost

An early morning walk down the lane behind the house, a small woodlot of a few acres on my right. On the left, screened by a copse on the edge, runs a long steep pasture. At the far end lies a fallen oak straddling the two worlds. I sit on the trunk with Tip and watch the sun rise on one of my favorite views.

The pasture is smooth, clear of any obstruction, rock or tree. The grass is short and green, covered with a thick sheen of white crystals left from Jack Frost’s nightly visit. The pasture has folds and hills as it rises up the ridge. A starkly sensual sight as the sun rises and illumines through leafless trees selective contours of the land.

The blankets of frost quickly disappear in streaks where the sun touches the hill. In minutes the pasture is rippled with stripes of green. It will be another hour before the sun will vanquish the frost from the pastures. Another hour yet before all the remains of a cold night will be the skim of ice on water troughs and crunch of grass in shade of the porch.

From my desk, as I write, the view is of the chicken yard and coop. The light has crested the hill and hit the coop window, a window of ancient and honorable pedigree. A large rectangular piece of zinc lined glass, each pane four inches square of distorted lines from a pre-mass production furnace. The window, one of a handful rescued from the Jacobs Agricultural Building at Chilhowee Park when it burned around 1900. A grand palace of a now vanished agricultural heritage, its relic gives reflected light to our hens on their roosts.


To be a good husband or a husbandman or to practice husbandry all mean essentially the same for a farmer. Managing land, animals and resources is what we do most weeks and some weeks more than others.

Which brings me to the subject of maggots. Did you know there is a spray that makes maggots uncomfortable? If the topic of maggots makes you squeamish then read no further for this is a tale of woe, pain and redemption and not for the delicate of stomach. It started a week or two ago, the exact day or time frame still subject to debate, when we noticed one of our ewe lambs limping. We made a half-hearted attempt to catch her up in a pen. She was too cunning and fast for us which seemed to indicate that whatever was bothering her was insignificant.

Over the next week we noticed her continued limp and her wool was discolored. Again an assumption was made that the wool was dirty from her prolonged contact with the ground. She was spending a lot of time lying on the ground. Long about Thursday evening we decided that come hell or high water we were going to get her up in a pen.

I had just returned with two ram lambs bought off a neighbor. After unloading the newcomers we made a concerted, long and ultimately successful attempt to catch her up. The discolored wool turned out to be putrefying flesh on the back left leg and smaller patch on her right. Clear puncture wounds from a dog bite. A dog bite we recognized as coming from Robbie, our English Shepherd. He had gotten into the pasture a week or two ago, the exact day or time frame still subject to debate.

The wound had time to fester. As bad as the wound was the lamb seemed alert and clear eyed. We put the lamb in the dog pen, sans dogs, washed, sprayed iodine on the wound and called our vet. He showed up the next afternoon. With Cindy’s help he sprayed the wound area with the anti-maggot spray. After a few minutes they began to exit the wound. Using tweezers he removed 30-50 maggots over the next 30 minutes.

A shot of penicillin, a spray of anti-bacterial mist and a liberal coating of fly repellant and he was off leaving us with a bill equal to a new lamb. For the next three weeks we will give her a shot of penicillin twice daily, check for maggots with the spray each day for a week, spray the anti-bacterial mist and use the fly repellant as needed.

The woe and pain in this tale belongs to the lamb. The redemption is ours to earn when she recovers. If all goes well this ewe lamb will “lamb” in February or March. And we will be more attentive to our livestock in the future, we promise.