Death of a Neighbor

When death arrives in the country, the signs go up at the roadside — “Slow: Death in Family” on the front, funeral home name on the back, in case passersby want to send flowers or attend the funeral, or have an ailing relative who might soon need services of his own.

Sometimes we know a neighbor has passed away because of the large number of cars and trucks gathered in the driveway and people congregated on the porch and in the yard, dressed in their Sunday best.

Or, the phone rings and a neighbor who seldom calls lets us know another neighbor is in the hospital or has died.

Or there is new mound of dirt at the Cedar Fork Baptist cemetery.

Or there’s an obituary in the local paper.

This culture likes to think it’s more connected, “wired” in to the world. The reality is that the technology of the day distances us from what matters. That separation has been coming for a century or more, as village life and the interconnectedness of communities have unraveled.

It’s a process accelerated by the arrival of the automobile. A highly impersonal mode of transportation, cheap, motorized travel allowed us to drive away from our community obligations and connections. And now, today’s digital world is putting an end to the daily arrival of the community newspaper, a place where people could peruse the high school football scores, learn who was arrested for drunk driving, read the tedious notes from the county commission, and find out who died.

Our subscription to the local paper lapsed many years ago. Of course, we could still go online to read. That ritual, however, is not the same as sitting down and digesting the local paper over coffee. And for many complex reasons, our new online rituals seldom inform as to the kith part of “kith and kin.” We instead are more current on what Kaitlyn Jenner is wearing or the latest cute cat picture on Facebook.

With the collapse of face-to-face community and the readership of the local paper, so too collapses our local knowledge of the people sharing our surroundings. Sometimes the “Slow: Death in Family” signs don’t go up and we discover the loss weeks or months later, leaving the deceased’s family to wonder why no one grieved with them or offered condolences.

A horrible accident a mile away from our home this week brought home that tragic point. Two cars collided. Three people were airlifted to a hospital and one to the morgue. While speaking with one neighbor about the tragedy, Cindy heard of the sudden passing of another neighbor’s daughter a month ago.

No signs, no gathering of cars, no call, and no dirt in the local cemetery alerted us — a neighbor who lives directly across from our farm allowed to grieve thinking his neighbor callous or indifferent. True, we were not close, but that would not preclude the courtesy of a condolence.

Odd that, as the world gets smaller, our neighbors get further away.

Cigars, Banjos, Lard, Fencing (of course) and Strawberry Mead

Tim, a fellow farmer from two valleys over stopped by a few nights ago for dinner. I had ground up a beef heart and fixed us both burgers on the grill to go with his, as always, excellent salad of spring veggies. He made a nice fresh raspberry salad dressing that I wasn’t sure whether to drizzle on the salad or add rum and ice cubes. I opted to use it as a salad dressing.

After dining we sat on the front porch and spoke of weather, vegetables, pigs and Billy Bragg as we smoked cigars and sipped our drinks.  It was nice to sit with a friend and watch the sunset over the next ridge and not feel in any sort of hurry. He pulled out his banjo and played while we talked. A couple of hours later we moseyed out to the barn and put up the animals for the night before he headed down the road and over to his own valley.

That night it rained. But, like a slightly soggier version of Camelot, it let up by sunrise yet remained cloudy and misting all day. Hannah, our farm volunteer, part of the WWOOF program, popped out of her apartment around 8 ready to work. She has been on our farm for a week working for room and board and learning about farming. She will stay for a couple more weeks. In one short week she has resurrected the garden after a couple of weeks of heavy rains and knocked out a fairly heavy to-do list. And by all appearances seems to have thrived with the work load.

She and I loaded up our work sled, a truck bed liner abandoned in a back field that we repurposed fourteen years ago. It now serves as a convenient way to haul firewood, equipment or stones anywhere on the property. Pulling it with the tractor we hauled it up into the back forty where we put in a hard mornings work setting t-posts and digging post-holes. As you are now no doubt tired of hearing this ongoing project of rebuilding or repairing every fence line on the farm is now in its third month. Perhaps in fifteen years when I reach retirement age we will have completed the project…in time to start again.

Last night a trip down the hill to our neighbor’s house with dinner prepared by one of her daughters, good conversation, good food, nice wine and when stuffed I trudged back home and was in bed by ten. It was a nice way to cap a day of hard labor.

This morning with rain coming down Hannah and I turned our attention to domestic skills making lard and some mead flavored with Tim’s strawberries and ginger. I await Cindy’s return from her parent’s home, a semi-annual visit, by fixing chicken sausage gumbo for this evening’s dinner. And that is all from the farm this week.


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 Farm Weekend

Weekends on the farm: Attending a farm estate auction last weekend, picking up various tools and putting them back down, kicking the tires on a nice horse drawn buggy ($800), told by the estate operator “We can come down on anything you are interested in” and not really interested in anything enough to pay cash for, so we stood in the doorway to the barn and watched snow start to fall. An elderly man stood next to us as big heavy flakes drifted out of the sky. We talked about the weather for a few minutes.

After polite conversation he said cheerfully, “Since my wife died I can buy pretty much any damn thing I want.“ He went on to speak of the five tractors and bulldozer he had bought in just the last few months. “I could buy this whole estate if I just had room to put it.” Weather worsening, he then volunteered that he had to “go to the house” and we said the same.

This past Friday we both took some time off from work to attend a mule and draft horse equipment auction an hour and a half northeast. A cold rain fell in Mascot as the auctioneer ran through his high-speed pitch on the virtues of plows with broken handles and buggies with mismatched tires. A lot of items were selling for $5-10, a wagon sold for $75, with only about three bidders in the crowd of a couple hundred. We exercised restraint and headed toward home. That night we joined a group of other farmers to watch a documentary on creating an English forest garden. We ate our fill of BBQ and drank some deadly homemade Belgian ale (curse you Tim and Russ) before leaving with a beautiful mix of orange and purple carrots.

Saturday morning we were up before dawn doing the usual chores. Caleb and I cleaned out the barn, part of an annual spring cleaning. A few hours later,the barn now cleared of accumulated junk and the
truck bed full, I headed to the county landfill. From there,
I ran up onto the Cumberland Plateau to bring home our horse wagon from a farm where it had been being used.

By the time I returned Cindy and our neighbor Sara had butchered and processed nine roosters, cleaned up the mess and were moving on to other endeavors. The rest of Saturday I spent setting up a new germination room for the garden, tilling the late winter garden. (Today the low hoop tunnels will be set up for early crops of kale, mustard, spinach and cabbage.) Cindy spent the late afternoon light working our Haflinger in harness. Coffee, final chores and then our neighbor Adrienne joined us for dinner.

This morning, back up before dawn with the usual chores–then the last couple of hours spent trying to load hogs for market. Loading hogs, as you may recall, requires the patience of Job. One is loaded and three more to go. We can outwait if not actually outwit these hogs.

And there you go, a standard weekend on the farm: work, community and pleasure.


Reading this weekend: The Localization Reader: adapting to the coming downshift, edited by De Young and Princen and published by MIT. Well worth picking up.

A Winged Elm Farm Alphabet Book

“A” is for asparagus.

In a way starting an alphabet book in winter it is fitting to start with asparagus. Right now the asparagus patch is brown and seemingly empty of life. But “seemingly” is deceptive. The spears begin to show in late February. And it still remains a surprise to walk by the patch and spot that first spear, popped up like a mushroom after a rain. How did it get to be six inches tall without our noticing? Eating that first asparagus raw, still cool from the morning chill is one of those things on a farm that makes the labor have purpose. We harvest them daily for about 10 weeks.


Reading this weekend Jared Diamond’s new release, The World Until Yesterday: what can we learn from traditional societies.

Christmas Eve

The old man who works our dump has a wreath on his work shed and four cars parked at his door. As I unload my garbage the visitors begin to spill out his door calling back over their shoulders a “Merry Christmas” to the man they had all come to see.

In the pasture across the road from the dump are twenty ewes grazing in as pretty a scene as you could paint. Heading back down the road I pull up to a stop sign at the former Galyon’s General Store. I glance over at the parking lot. Two men straight out of central casting, clothed in overalls and with beards down to the waist, stand behind sawhorse tables laden with citrus for sale. It is Christmas time in Paint Rock.

From Paint Rock to Cedar Fork: it is a hardscrabble valley we share. Most homes are a modest eight hundred to twelve hundred square feet. A few of our neighbors have clearly spent their ‘holiday” money at Wal-Mart on inflatable snowmen. More homes are simply decorated with wreaths and a few lights. All have a steady plume of smoke coming out of the chimney. The homes of the older residents all seem to have an extra car or two. Family brought home for the season.

A few visits around the valley to share some of our farm’s bounty and then it is time for a last minute visit to the Farmer’s co-op. Santa rocks gently in one of the rockers for sale up front. It is a downtime for him as he waits for another kid to show up, so he busily texts on his Blackberry. I crack to the clerk that I see no reindeer. He replies, “This Santa arrived in an old Dodge truck”.

Christmas Eve and all is ready. Cindy is home with her family and returns tomorrow on Christmas Day. A final visit later today with Mr. Kyle and a shared glass of Mayfield’s finest. Then perhaps Adrienne will walk up the hill with her bottle of warm gluhwein to toast the evening and an hour or two of conversation before she heads back down to her family.

Midnight, I’ll stroll out to the cattle in the barn to see if they kneel and speak, before turning into my bed.

Merry Christmas!

A Recollection of haymaking

A recollection of cutting late season hay two years back: Summer had seen heavy rain once or twice a week all summer. Finally as September arrived the experts agreed on a beautiful seven days, no rain and low humidity. I made my plans while the gods smiled, chuckled and made their own mischievous plans.

Tuesday afternoon under gray skies, I double checked the forecast, crossed my fingers and put on the disc mower. Four hours of mowing in the lower field and I was done for the day. That night I woke to hear the sound of steady rain on the tin roof. Normally, a pleasant sound, I’m sure I heard an ominous chuckle in the thunder.

It rained until dawn and remained overcast all Wednesday.

Thursday, a forecaster still telling one to get out and enjoy the spectacular sunshine, dawned with heavy cloud cover. Mid-afternoon, I hitched up the hay rake, reversed the wheels into the “tedding” mode and drove down the drive. I entered the field and begin turning over the hay. The hay had managed to cure on the top. But, underneath it was still green and damp.

As I laid down that night reviewing the next day’s raking and baling, it began to rain, just a light “screw you, Brian” kind of rain. It lightly rained for a few hours.

Friday dawned with a forecast calling for picture perfect sunny skies and low humidity. The sun showed late for its appointment around four in the afternoon. I checked three times and found the hay still slightly damp.

Saturday: The skies were partly cloudy with the sun showing often enough to dry the hay by early afternoon. I began to rake hay. Two hours in and the clouds began building over the ridge on Possum Trot. Putting the tractor into 5th gear I flew across the pasture, up and down, raking, even skipping a center section, where the hay was thinner, to save time.

I finished with windrows thicker than any seen all season, great swaths of hay piled 3 feet high, like long brown pillows striping the grass. This cutting alone would tide us over all winter with feed and bedding for the livestock.

I dashed back up the drive to the barn and unhooked the rake. In my haste I took off the drawbar thinking, incorrectly, that I did not need it for the baler. I drove the tractor back across the yard to hook up the baler. Immediately I realized my mistake, with one eye to the sky I double-timed back to the rake to pick up the drawbar.

A drop of water hit me. Must have been sweat I told myself. I ran to the barn to pick up a new cotter pin and heard the first wave of rain hit the roof. I sprinted through big plum- sized cold drops to the tractor and baler. “It will only rain for a minute and the hay will be fine”, I said.

In the short time it took me to sprint the fifty yards the drops turned into a deluge. I still tried in the pouring rain to hook up the baler. Finally soaked to the skin I held my hammer up to the sky and shouted “#$&%, Big Guy!”

He and his cronies laughed all night as we received another couple of inches of rain.

The proud windrows of Saturday afternoon were molding piles of compost by Sunday morning. It rained for the next four days.