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.