The old Morris chair celebrates Christmas

In the darkness, a couple of hours before sunrise, the wind has come up. I dress quietly, find my way downstairs. After making coffee, I take a seat in the old Adirondack chair on the front porch. The warm blast in advance of the cold front, roaring in like heavy surf at night, rolls over the wooded ridge and across the valley in waves. Becky, our aging stockdog, takes up point behind the chair, in easy reach of a comforting hand. Obstreperous bulls and boars are as nothing before her snarl, but a bit of rain, a rifle shot, or a clap of thunder sends her from the field in a cower.

Something has shaken loose out by the haybarn, prompting me to mutter a hope that it isn’t anything significant. As Christmas draws near, it is not visions of sugarplums, but rather vast sheets of plastic blowing off hoop-houses that dance in my head. Meanwhile, the yearling lambs bleat in protest at being woken up. I should tell them that with a month left on this earth, they’d best be up and enjoying the early morning. The butcher waits for no one.

Perhaps the great thread-spinners prompted me to do the same this morning — one never knows when death will arrive. On the eve of the winter solstice this year, we hosted the daughter of a best friend from college. Only 2 when her father unexpectedly passed away 22 years ago, she was now beginning a quest to visit his friends, to answer the unknowns of self and place.

It had been more than 33 years since I had shot pool and drunk Dixie beer in the Bayou with her father. I could hear him clearly in her voice and laugh, reminding me that we only think we are masters of our individual selves. A step back reveals context, threads connecting us as part of a larger and lovelier tapestry. Like the wind hurtling over the ridge, which began over the flat prairie, which began over the cold oceans, we have origins within origins rolling back, back, to the beginning and the before.

On the morning of the solstice we put my friend’s daughter in her car. She headed south to a Louisiana home she had never visited, a motherland that had nurtured generations of her father’s family. We wished her well and waved goodbye.

And now, this early morning, my coffee finished, the storm moving closer, I stand up and bring Becky into the house. She heads directly to hide behind the venerable Morris chair — a relic of a wedding suite belonging to my great-grandparents, bought in Boston on their honeymoon, brought home to Crowley, Louisiana, before journeying north to Tennessee, a century later, to this farm of their great-grandson.

I return to the wind and begin my morning chores, my first stop making sure the hoop-house is indeed intact. The pregnant ewes in the main barn let me know with familiar bleats that they wish to be fed and turned out into the fields. The ewes are only days from the start of lambing season, bellies hanging low, udders engorged, the struggles of birthing and raising last year’s offspring forgotten in this year’s discomfort of waiting for the new generation, fresh threads on life’s ancient tapestry.


Reading this weekend:  Small is Beautiful, by E. F. Schumacher. Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands: a book of the rural arts, by Allen H. Eaton. American Fantastic Tales, the two volume collection from the Library of America.

The Template

The wind was out of the northwest, the temperature hovering in the low forties, as I hoed the potato beds for a spring planting. A weak March sun broke through often enough to bring out the ruddy freckles of my hands, hands that were the mirror image of my father’s.

At the end of the row, I stopped and put the hoe away and went inside to begin packing to head home to Louisiana to visit my dad in the hospital. My father is just shy of his 89th birthday and has always enjoyed good health, but he had had a stroke and was now recovering in a rehabilitation unit. With good care and the attention of my sisters, he was in good spirits and improving ahead of expectations.

A couple of days later I was at the hospital, helping him tear open a packet of crackers as we caught up on his progress. Earlier that morning, while he was busy with rehab, I had gone to the parish documents office to get a copy of my birth certificate.

Staring down at the record before me, I was struck by the inheritance that came with being the son of William H. Miller of Lake Charles, Louisiana: Fifty-three years earlier, I had been born in the same hospital where my father now recovered. It was the same hospital where all eight of his children were born. The same hospital where my mother and older sister had died, and a younger brother had passed away a few days after his birth. The same hospital where my dad recalled carrying me as he walked up and down the hallway when I was sick as a child.

My cousin from Texas showed up for a visit just as my dad was eating lunch, part of a steady stream of well-wishers who stopped by throughout the noon hour and into the early afternoon — an appropriate testament to a man who for nearly eight decades has been an active part of a community, a man who has lent his hands, as it were, over the years to whatever has been needed. 

That involvement in the community was a lifelong occupation of my father’s generation. Countless hours each week, often on the heels of working all day, were spent in service. Years ago, as a child, I found a handwritten list from my dad’s boyhood, a list of items he deemed essential to a good life. Top of the list was to do a good deed each day without the person on the receiving end being aware of it. No chest-thumping, no look-at-me, just a hidden hand helping others up.

As I prepared to say goodbye and return to Tennessee, I recalled an evening when my older brother and I had sat around the kitchen table with other family members. We both had our hands resting on the table’s surface in front of us. My niece, my brother’s daughter, looked across the table and said in surprise, “You both have the same hands!” I laughed and pointed at our father, who was sitting in a similar pose: “Well, there is the template for those hands.”

It was those hands I shook as I said goodbye, cognizant that my inheritance is both a privilege and a responsibility.


Reading this weekend: The Peculiar Institution: slavery in the ante-bellum South by Kenneth M. Stampp. A classic work of history that illustrates how and why the burden of that institution haunts us today.

Don’t Come Back In Until Dinner

I grew up in a household with strict rules. Foremost among them: Get out of the house. When not in school we were expected to be outside. We spent our days doing chores and fishing, looking for pirate treasure along Contraband Bayou or building forts, swimming in ponds or going to the library. Whether on bikes or on the bayou, that landscape was full of kids. On days spent inside because of rain we would play board games or read, watching TV was off limits.

Today, where our farm is located, in East Tennessee, the countryside is mostly empty. You see the occasional activity outdoors, usually men on tractors. But only once in sixteen years have I seen a kid cross the seventy acres of our farm. Never have I had to yell at a kid for building a fort on our land. No kid has ever darkened the door to ask permission to hunt rabbit or squirrel, or fish in our ponds.

Our companions in this landscape

Our companions in this landscape

There are homes nearby where I have never observed a person outside. Cars appear and disappear in the driveways. But the owners are not once glimpsed. I’ve cut a hay field; long hours, three days in a row and never spotted a person outside a neighbor’s house. A house, I add, that often had four cars in the drive.

While baling that hay on the final day, I saw one of the cars start up and move down the driveway. It drove the 150 feet to the mailbox. A youthful arm extended out of the driver’s window and collected the mail. The car reversed back up to the house.

It would be tempting to ridicule the generation of kids who spend their lives in darkened rooms, zombied in screen-time with their gadgets. But their parents, who by example, are equally to blame. With all of the challenges we face to our civilization and planet, it seems somehow dishonorable to while away one’s life in such an unproductive manner.

That the rural landscape is empty in the very place where hands and eyes are needed is troubling. Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson refer to the benefit of “eyes to acres”. They mean that the understanding and the correction of problems in our landscape begin by an intimate daily familiarity.

In a way, it seems like a modern day Highland clearance; where blame rests partly with forces that have devalued the local in favor of the global, removing those eyes-to-acres. But it is a blame shared by us for our willing collusion in that withdrawal, as passive consumers of this life.

Understanding our land begins with engagement, even if it is just a kid rambling along on an idle afternoon across a pasture and a wooded hill.

Maybe our inner mom needs to say, “Get out of the house! Don’t come back in until dinner.”


Postscript: Hopefully the weather is finally breaking towards spring. Our final crop of lambs are being born, we have piglets to castrate and potatoes to plant. So the navel gazing tone to this blog should return to more mundane topics of the farm in the coming weeks…or not.

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 Book: “J”

J is for Jack Frost

As a kid in south Louisiana I remember the keen excitement of being told at the breakfast table that Jack Frost had visited overnight. We’d run outside to see the brushstrokes of frost on grass, windows and on the last of the summer garden. By the time we were off to school he had already gone, taking his artwork with him.

On our Tennessee farm I still feel the same pleasure, walking a pasture dusted with his work, watching the sun reclaim with streaks of light. Part playful, merry prankster, harbinger of change: Jack Frost signals the exit of summer’s Jack of the Wood and tells us to check our stores of goods for the coming of Old Man Winter.

Brassica Rapa: the humble turnip

Brassica Rapa, the humble turnip, that poor misunderstood veggie, fodder for livestock and disdained by cooks. Out of my, not inconsiderable, gardening library, few newer books devote any space to growing turnips. Even the heirloom books devote less than a page to the vegetable and its varieties. Heirloom turnips are just not as sexy as peppers, squash and tomatoes.

But, speaking with the unconquerable zeal of the converted, I am here to testify to the glory of the turnip. The past few years, the turnip has been a revelation as I have branched out with varieties and vegetables that would not have grown in the semi-tropical climate of my southern Louisiana childhood.

Over the past years I noticed and admired the winter gardens of greens growing next to other farmhouses. Even in snow, one sees those wonderful greens poking out. But, I never attempted growing them myself, until a few years back.

Turnips require very little care, tolerate a wide range of soils and positively thrive in cold temperatures. You can harvest the leaves a few at a time off of one plant, as needed. Or, harvest the whole plant.

After feeding the animals on a typical fall night, Cindy and I might walk to the garden and pull a turnip. Accompanying a typical dinner of ham with the turnip greens and the turnip, mashed with garlic and fresh yogurt. Follow this meal the next morning by frying the mashed turnips for breakfast as a turnip-egg hash. This will make a believer out of you.

My older gardening books mention raising turnips as a given. One of the most enthusiastic writers of the kitchen garden, Angelo Pellegrini, an Italian immigrant to Seattle, made turnips part of his spring and winter gardens every year. (I do recommend his book “The Food-Lover’s Garden). Even Plutarch relates the story of the Roman general who retired to his small farm turning down offers of gold for the delights of a simple meal of boiled turnips.

Thomas Jefferson mentions growing turnips 24 times in his wonderful Garden notebooks. Turnips were part of his kitchen garden every year at Monticello. And, he does not neglect their importance as a fodder for livestock. In his farm notes he leaves these observations: “sow an acre of turnips for every ten sheep. Turn them out to graze on the turnips when the grass dies (mid-December). A pint of seed sows an acre of ground. Turnips do not exhaust the land if dug before Christmas. Turnips sowed on the wheat stubble succeed well without hoeing and folded off with sheep are very advantageous.”

Personally, I do not care for turnips simply boiled. But, substitute, or add, in any recipe calling for potatoes, or roast them with other root vegetables, from leaf to root what a wonderfully productive plant.