Late In The Day

A lane in our woods.

The sun hovers on the western horizon, an hour left on its time clock, as I walk out the back door and up the wooded lane beyond the pasture gates. The walk is quiet, muffled by deep leaves of countless seasons on this land. My destination, as it often is, a pile of boulders at the base of a half-dozen oaks. I climb onto the largest and use a smaller, four-foot stone as a footrest.

A cairn of rocks six feet tall and 20 across lies at the edge of the pasture. Another stands illuminated across the field like a treasure hoard in the curious light of a low sun through a leafless deciduous forest in November. The rocky groupings are seated on the sidelines of all our pastures. They are hard evidence of generations of boys who spent their youth in farm chores, among them, picking up the endlessly erupting rocks and stacking them in mounds.

Behind me lie two oaks felled by storms decades past and decades apart, one now nearly buried in leaf litter, its long cycle of decay almost complete. Ten yards away a limb as big around as my waist dangles 40 feet up. Broken off from a parent white oak, it hangs like Damocles’ sword above we mortals who dare imagine the world as our throne.

The sound of Cedar Creek is barely audible as it channels under the bridge at Possum Trot. Another quarter-mile and it will narrow at the decaying Cook’s Mill, where elder neighbors recall as children hauling mule-driven wagonloads of corn for milling.

A leaf spirals into my view, released from a seasonal contract to land at the foot of a massive shagbark hickory. Nearby, a deep-rooted sourwood, contorted in the last ice storm, refuses to submit to gravity. At its base a large stone is covered with the debauched remains of a dinner by the resident squirrels: bits of hickory and acorns piled in the center of the table.

A small flock of wild turkeys, feeling safe a couple of days after Thanksgiving, ambles across a lower pasture and enters my wood. On the far side of the road beyond lies the expanse of pastures that marks our neighbor’s cattle farm. From there comes the nervous bawling of dozens of cows, as they discover their new home after an auction in a nearby town.

Their disquiet competes with the sound of distant chainsaws from all points of the compass, chewing on wood. And then, unexpectedly, another intrusion. A neighbor beyond the eastern ridge and half a mile away fires up his ATV to begin what is an early start to his habitual late-night motorized rambles.

Toward the house, I can just hear Cindy in the woods as she clangs the lid off the feed barrel. An overeager hog squeals as he hits the single strand of hot wire. I smile: I can check the task of determining if the current is pulsing off my to-do list for the next day.

I rise from my perch and head home. Not down the lane, but at an angle that leads me into the heart of the woods. I note a likely Charlie Brown Christmas tree along the way. I then pause, as is my wont, at the base of a sentinel white oak. Its circumference is all of 15 feet, its trunk reaches 40 straight feet before the first branches erupt, and the fissures in the bark are two inches deep. I lay hands on it, hoping to receive a blessing of sorts.

Now, on the edge of the main woods, I traverse a pig paddock not in use. In the middle is a tall pile of fallen limbs. It provides a sometime shelter for the hogs and, more often, a haven for the red fox that ventures out to make raids on errant hens.

By the time I exit the woods, Cindy is trudging up the drive in her bee suit, fresh from checking that her charges are well-fed and secured for the cool night to come.

The sun has set, the light fades, and I head into the house, pleased to call it another good day.

rock cairn

the dining table

The old oak.


Another Day on the Farm

the time before sunrise

Dawn: Sitting on the back deck with a first cup of coffee, I contemplate the rain-soaked windrows of hay on the hill in front of me. I had just finished baling half of what would have been a record harvest the previous evening, when the storm broke over the ridge with heavy winds, rain, and hail. Limping home on the tractor, I saw a glass that was half empty. Now, in the early dawn light of a new day, I see my work cut out for me: turning over windrows to let them dry out before attempting to bale the remainder of the hay. The dogs interrupt my thoughts to announce a coyote halfway up the hill. He stares down at his accusers, separated by a woven wire fence, and, with a distinctive limp, turns and abandons the hayfield. “Comrade,” I say into the morning air.

Mid-morning: I rustle a branch and a mourning dove explodes out of the crabapple tree. Leaning in on my orchard ladder, I part the curtain of twigs and leaves. There, hidden in the heart of the branches, is a single fledgling within days of its first flight. Fat and unlovely, like the son who won’t leave home, it takes up the whole nest. It stares at me with one anticipating eye before, in a “you aren’t my mother” moment, turning back to its inner world of waiting. I close the curtain and finish my harvest. I return to the house with two full buckets of fruit.

Noon: I toss down the last of the fresh bedding for the lambs, completing one of my more enjoyable tasks on the farm. I’m tempted to collapse into the soft hay, but instead grab a bag of minerals to fill up the flock’s saltbox. Before filling, I turn over the box to knock out the bits of poop and straw. And, in the doing, uncover a large nest of mice. Dozens of small rodents swarm over my boots and out the sides of the barn to safety. The dogs jump into action, fulfilling their designated role on the other side of the gate with loud abandon. Inside the barn, two dozen lambs stampede the saltbox, obliviously trampling the remaining mice. I quickly dump out the mineral and then leave the natural order to sort itself out.

Evening: I’m back on the deck, a pint of beer in hand, the same drying windrows in front of me. The dogs assume I need convincing of their utility and pick up their pattern of wild barking toward the hill. I rise from my chair and spot a large buck with impressive antlers. He stands in the evening light, the last rays of the setting sun as his company. Ignoring the peasant dogs, he turns and strolls with a dignified air over the hill and out of sight.

Raising my glass, I toast him and the close of another day on the farm.


Reading this weekend: The Retro Future: looking to the past to reinvent the future. By J. M. Greer.

Thank you, James, Siegfried, and Tristan, Part Two

Our meandering drives in Grainger and Union counties in search of land continued for a year or more before we branched out and ventured into the rural counties west and southwest of Knox County. The west part of Knoxville is an area of seemingly endless suburbs and strip malls that stretch their covetous grip over formerly pristine farmland. It’s a cityscape in which historical markers that record massacres of early Europeans and reprisal massacres of Native Americans hide in plain sight in front of Starbucks and gas stations, made effectively invisible by five lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Biblio throw-down 002Before our exodus, our home, community, and friends were in the north part of the old city. It was a district of neighborhoods with sidewalks, residents relaxing on front porches, and a short bicycle ride to Harold’s Kosher Deli on Saturday mornings. On summer evenings, we’d stroll a few blocks to the old Bill Meyer Stadium to catch a baseball game with friends. The Smokies’ stadium used the adjoining Standard Knitting Mill as the left-field wall. During smoke breaks, the workers would hang out the windows and catch an inning before heading back to the looms.

On our forays into Roane County, we discovered a landscape of small farms and modest homes. Where a hundred grand would buy five acres and a barn in parts of Grainger, the same amount in rural Roane would purchase 70 acres, with a barn, a well, and a garage.

Nonetheless, stumbling blocks abounded before we found just what we were looking for: We looked at and decided to pass on a small farm in North Roane County. There was a reason the lane it was on was called Seed Tick Road. Next, we put a deposit on 50 acres. Between the road and the rest of the property lay 10 acres of rich bottomland. Bottomland that lay in a hundred-year floodplain. Land that had, unfortunately, flooded from road to hill the next time we visited. The neighbors down the road said, “Hundred years? Nah, it happens every three.” We forfeited the deposit and continued our search.

A couple of months more and we stopped one day to look at a parcel on Paint Rock Road. Cindy insisted on knocking on a neighbor’s door to inquire about the price. (I must digress and point out a significant personality difference between Cindy and myself. Knocking uninvited on a door is, in my book, akin to staring at someone with a disability: an invasion of privacy. Cindy sees it through different eyes. She is practical, never met a stranger. If there is information to be gained, she goes to the source. Which is why one night she spent a pleasant while chatting with Wendell Berry on the phone about Red Poll cattle. But that is a story for another day.)

She went up to the door. I stayed in the truck and tried to look apologetic. Cindy stood at the door chatting with the owners; they laughed and invited her in. She disappeared inside, presumably for a Sunday lunch, before coming back out and climbing into the truck. She waved, they waved, and we drove off.

The acreage for sale next to their house was too expensive. But the neighbors steered us down the road, past the Paint Rock Fire Station and Galyon’s General Store, to a 70-acre farm that was in our price range. It had a long drive up a sloping hill to a level area of about five acres, beyond which was a large pasture rising up to the top of the ridge to the east. We got out of the truck and walked the property. It had a barn, a well, and a three-car garage. The former owner had never gotten around to building a house.

The next few weeks moved fast, and by the end of the month we owned a farm with broken-down perimeter fencing, a mortgage, and no farming tools or equipment, and we were living in a garage on concrete floors. And we owned one very pregnant horse for our troubles.

Now it has been close to 17 years, and Cindy still jumps out of the truck to knock on doors, gets invited inside, while I still urge restraint. But we’ve built a house, barns, and numerous other outbuildings. We’ve put up and repaired more fencing than any sensible person would in a lifetime, acquired enough equipment and tools to keep an estate auction hopping for days, and long since paid off the mortgage.

We still go for Sunday drives and still drive past the farm that might have been. And after heavy rains, it still floods road to ridge on that hundred-year floodplain.


Reading this weekend: Landskipping: painters, ploughmen and places by Anna Pavord

South of the River

Our farm is located south of the Tennessee River, in an area composed largely of Roane County, but with portions of Loudon, Monroe, Meigs, and McMinn. It is bordered by the river on the north and west, Interstate 75 to the east, and State Highway 68 to the south. It is called South of the River, or simply by its initials, SOR.Roane County

John Muir walked these valleys on his way to points farther south in the 1860s. Eventually, he ended his journey in a still-wild Florida, many lifetimes before modern souls touched down in the Orlando airport for their annual blowout at Magic Kingdom.

At approximately 150 square miles, South of the River is crossed by a few broad and fertile valleys that run northeast to southwest. The valley of Ten Mile, cut down the middle by SR 58, which carries travelers from Oak Ridge to downtown Chattanooga, is the largest and most developed. But Paint Rock Valley, much of its large landholding concentrated historically in a few families, is the more pastoral and picturesque.

The western border of South of the River is inhabited by a small population of exiles of the upper middle class, now living large in retirement on the river in grandish houses with speedboats out back. Pushing in on them from the surrounding ridges and small valleys and hollers is the majority of the population, much of it brought together by the 2.5 churches per square mile that call SOR home.

That area is where we live, a vast community of smaller farms like our own, family-operated dairies, and one-to-two-acre hardscrabble homesteads. There is very little commercial life, aside from the occasional general store, in South of the River, and no incorporated towns. There are lots of gardens, pigs, cattle, chickens, and multipurpose workshops.

The designation “South of the River” is often used derogatorily by residents north of the river. It’s a wrong-side-of-the-tracks designation. But to those who live South of the River, it’s a place where boys still learn to stick-weld and girls still put up produce with their grandmothers, a hinterland of self-reliance, affordable enough for working people to own a modest piece of land, though never to grow rich from the same.

Twenty-first century South of the River is still, much of it, a tight-knit land of multigenerational families living next to each other. Like Roane County at large, SOR until 10 years ago had no building codes, leaving the architecture and site location eccentrically random. This area always has been, and probably always will be, a make-do landscape — a mix of modest homes with well-tended gardens and pieced-together trailers that repurpose abandoned schoolbuses to house goats.

My guess is that South of the River, which has never enjoyed wealth, will maintain a resilience long after more prosperous and less resourceful communities fall into crisis. That you can’t miss what you never had might just be the proud motto of the ridges and valleys of SOR. That reality might also be the area’s greatest strength.

A Drive on New Year’s Day

A few raised beds

Raised beds in winter

Whitehorse is singing about “busting unions in Wisconsin, drinking mojitos by the pool” out of my truck speaker as I pass the second ugliest house south of the river in Roane County, Tennessee (random brick color and nary a scrap of landscaping). I’m driving over to some good friends’ house to pick up two more large wooden boxes to use as raised beds for our gardens.

Beyond their small farm is a pseudo-Blackberry Farm resort for the religiously devout. To get there, count either four Rebel flags down on the right or five farms with fighting cocks, depending upon how you measure distance. One of those houses belongs to our former farrier. On the 10-acre plot sit a hundred or more huts, roosters staked to each one. Staked to keep them from killing each other before their designated time.

In Harriman, on the far end of Roane, is a store where you can buy the razors to attach to the cocks’ spurs. They’re either a quaint rural item or something to horrify your inner Peter Singer, all depending on what century your sensibilities respond to. The store is also the best source for anything needed in a homestead household, so we tend to overlook any failure to adapt to the kinder, gentler modern mores — a moral failing on our part, no doubt.

After picking up the boxes and a short visit, I take a long looping pass back through our end of the county and the cost of the recent rains adds up. The toll is modest damage compared to other parts of the country, but no less dear to the person whose home access across a creek has been washed away in the floods. Get used to it, I think, because climate change is gonna bite you where it hurts, and often.

Turning down Salem Valley I smile as I pass the remains of an old satellite dish. One fine Sunday I watched as a grown man blasted it beyond repair with buckshot. Shell after shell pumped into the dish as I drove cautiously past, making me wonder what the TV had done to piss him off so royally.

That same Sunday, ‘round the bend, I spied a woman in leather miniskirt and pink fluffy sweater outside her church. She had a bible bigger than her head in one hand and a phone planted against her ear in the other. She stood out for many reasons on that cold morning.  But the Whitehorse in me wanted to imagine the man shot his satellite dish over her lost love: “Annie Lu, Annie Lu, won’t you save me from you.”

A couple of ridge loops later and the ugliest house south of the river, Roane County, Tennessee, comes into view (black and white brick, no landscaping and a blue mansard roof, which sounds way better in print than in reality). I get a giddy pleasure out of contemplating the sheer awfulness of that structure each time I pass it. I would go out of my way, and do often, just to gaze upon it. Who built it and who lives there? And if architecture shapes the soul, then what Dorian Gray-esque artwork lurks in the attic?

I pull back onto our gravel drive and arrive home to discover a friend has gifted me four pounds of elderberries, enough to make six bottles of wine. A good start to 2016.


Reading this weekend: An Unlikely Vineyard: the education of a farmer and her quest for terroir by Deirdre Heekin

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.