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.

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.

The Places in Between

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another favored view on the farm

One of my favorite spots on our farm is not so much a destination as it is a place to pause along the way. Situated between the gates of the upper pasture and the hopper field, it’s the highest point on our land, a resting place where I can linger in the shade of a massive white oak and catch a cool breeze. There are many such places here, spots that collect and funnel the elements or provide an island of calm from the same. In this place, on a warm day, as the breeze blows up from the Shinn field through the hopper field, I’ll turn off the tractor, lean back in the seat, and take a rest

To my south, the upper pasture softly rises and falls across ten acres. At its center is a large dew pond that even in this severe drought remains deep. At the southern end lie the handsome fields of our neighbor Heidi, and far in the distance, on a clear day, the Appalachian Mountain chain is visible to the southeast.

Closer to home, I can see the massive roofs of a handful of McMansions towering above the old pine plantations of Bowater. When the pine monoculture grounded on the shoals of a beetle infestation in the early 2000s, the paper and pulp giant sold off the degraded land to the over-extended. Mainly couples who engaged in a bit of monoculture of their own and built their dream 6,000-square-foot homes-for-two. When the bottom fell through in 2007, many of the homes never got finished. And today, from the vantage point of my tractor seat, the roofs, like mushrooms after the rain, poke up from the dying pine forest, indicating the presence of a larger organism at work.

This restful spot is not only a collector of cool breezes; it’s also an auditory funnel. Sounds that float to me on a hot day archive the life of our valley. Lowell starts his tractor to the south, the Strickland brothers yell to each other as they repair a fence to the east, and Heidi calls out instructions to her daughter in the horse ring, all as roosters crow from every direction, mowers hum in a modern imitation of honeybees, and my dogs yip a sound that tells me a rabbit is giving its mortal best to avoiding an untimely end.

When I’ve taken my rest and am ready to start back to work, it once again occurs to me to erect a bench here, where the fences converge between the fields. My own personal retreat, a place I can visit and while away an hour or two. But I never do, instead opting by inaction to preserve this place as a simple haven for a few stolen moments. Like trying to recreate the magic of a well-remembered conversation, I seem intuitively to know that formalizing this special spot as a designated “peaceful destination” would undo the pleasure I find in a surprise rest from work.


Reading this weekend: A Forest Journey: the role of wood in the development of civilization, by John Perlin

Valley Photo Album: Chickens

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A stylish coop that would make any hen proud.

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Our friend Sara playing the pied piper to her flock of chickens.

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A typical variety of home-flock chickens.

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Watering systems vary from home to home.

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You are correct. There is a goat in the picture.

Guess that every third home in the valley keeps a flock of chickens and you would be close. If you were to take a casual drive around they might seem even more common, darting across the road for reasons of their own or scratching in front yards.




In addition to chickens you will see guinea fowl, ducks, turkeys (wild and domestic), geese, and the occasional peafowl.





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A typical set-up for those who still fight cocks for sport.

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A neat and well organized chicken run.

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Our Speckled Sussex rooster.









Some flocks are composed, as ours is, of only one breed. But most are varied collections, freely allowed to breed and mix at will. The vast majority raise the birds to supply household eggs. A few have signs on the road indicating eggs for sale, with a standard price of $2-3 on average.



Many raise chickens for the table and the pot. A few, like Heidi over the hill, offer sanctuary to the birds for their natural lives or until a fox intervenes.





And there are some dozens of homes South of the River with the tell-tale pitched roof housing fighting cocks in the front yard or out back.





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One of our hens setting on a clutch of eggs.





But there are no commercial egg or broiler operations in this region of self-sufficiency.











The birds are housed in traditional coops, makeshift pens or no enclosure at all. But most are let out for the day to peck and live as their ancestors have done for thousands of years. A true partner in the lives of our species.


Reading this weekend: a fascinating work on sustainable agriculture, dealing with depleted soils and combating poor farming practices that threaten the stability of the country and the government. Of course I’m speaking of the 2000 year-old, 12 volume study of Roman agriculture by Columella.

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.

Basic Farm Lessons: continued

  • Sky watching: A barn roof on a clear night is the best vantage to watch the Perseid meteor shower.
  • Communication: “I wouldn’t care to” means in these parts “I’d be happy to” … which is, helpfully, less confusing when you hear it uttered in person.
  • Butchering: Scalding temperature for chickens is 140-145 degrees, ducks a bit higher. Temperature for scalding your skin is 140, so scald with care.
  • Service: The postman in the country will hand deliver a card or two to your neighbor, without a stamp.
  • Communication 2: When a neighbor refers to another neighbor as “useless as teats on a boar,” he is not paying a compliment. Typically uttered when referring to a man’s procreative abilities when compared with his working abilities.
  • Forget proposed spaceflights to Mars: The three-point hitch and the PTO (power takeoff) on a tractor represent the pinnacle of modern technology.
  • Communication 3: A direct question seldom receives a direct answer. Usually, a “some might do it that way” is the most definitive you get.
  • Department of nothing-new-under-the-sun: Newly emerged leaves on the sassafras tree taste just like Fruit Loops.
  • Manure: One winter. 49 sheep. Weekly bedding. Result: a pile of manure 16 by 16 feet and up to eight feet tall.

    Manure equals wealth

    Manure equals wealth

  • Butchering 2: One large pizza, 12 beers, a butcher saw, and an assortment of very sharp knives are all three men need to break down a hog carcass on the kitchen table. (OK, and help from two women with the butchering, but not the beer.)


Reading this weekend (again): The Hour by DeVoto. What is not to love about a man who can write the following opening paragraph: “We are a pious people but a proud one too, aware of a noble lineage and a great literature. Let us candidly admit that there are shameful blemishes on the American past, of which by far the worst is rum.”

Rural Rambles

I’ve been reading a curious work titled In Your Stride, a manifesto of sorts in favor of walking. Written in England in 1931 by A. B. Austin, it describes the rapid changes of the rural landscape to accommodate the automobile—the widening of rural lanes, the straightening of curves, the paving of surfaces—and the influx of weekend visitors to the country and accelerating trend of rural peoples leaving for the cities (A road in is a road out, after all). The author doesn’t offer much of a solution, other than urging his fellow Brits to get out and walk for their holidays. But underlying this urging is the fear that the auto is changing something fundamental about the British life.

Walking equipment

Walking equipment

It is an odd and thoroughly alien concept for us Americans, these 84 years later, that we could walk any real distance. Indeed, that we would wish to walk as a form of transportation is no longer in our modern DNA. Our landscape has been on the whole surrendered to our automobiles. And that is even truer here in the country, where the casual walker is the commuter who has run out of gas, the “eccentric” who picks up trash, or the unfortunate DUI relegated to walking after an arrest.

It is, I find, one of the supreme ironies of our age that people routinely pack up their cars and drive hours to state and national parks for the pleasure of walking. Our cities, towns, and countryside, for the pedestrian, are like medieval castles walled off from the plagues of the outside world, where one can only visit at speeds fast enough to prevent contamination by contact.

I have long wanted to launch a rural walking society in which neighbors could walk the roads together, a rural ramble whose goal would be to reclaim the pathways of our communities. The sad reality, however, is that there is nowhere to go. The scale of the world we have created is suited only to fast transport. Any proposed rural ramble would have to deal with the paradox that most participants must drive to the start location, like those weekend hikers to the public parks, burning up the fossil fuels to get their dose of authentic nature.

A gathering of my neighbors walking to the nearest pub for an evening social would take three hours and 24 minutes. Then there would be the walk home. A walk to our good friends at Kimberly Ann Farms would take two hours, 32 minutes. Definitely doable, but the direct route involves a long stretch of state highway, not conducive to either health or peace of mind. A more scenic route, the old roads first designed for horse and foot, would take a mere four hours, 15 minutes.

No wonder that our rural ancestors visited for days and weeks at a time. The distance, the scale of the landscape, was so vast and the countryside so thinly settled that the effort of travel was rewarded with extended hospitality. Yet, a case could be made that the automobile decreased our overall social interactions even as it made casual visits more available, much like the introduction of the phone cheapened the value of intimate correspondence, while greatly expanding the circle of those we could reach. (And God only knows what texting or tweeting has done to further these trends.)

Still, I hope there is some value to reclaiming the old roads and byways of our country. That the pace of walking, “the eyes to acres” of Berry and Jackson, allows us to see both the beauty and the scars (to appreciate the former and correct the latter). That that slower pace encourages a neighborly word instead of the short wave from a speeding car. That a regular excursion by foot might nurture our sense of civic space in both town and country. That it might not only slow the clocks but ultimately provide the courage to throw them away.

Then, if we are diligent and lucky, the distance between farms will not be measured in time but in anticipation of both the journey and friendship at journey’s end. And perhaps we will find that we have enlarged our world by the simple act of reducing its scale.


Farewell to my cousin, Lynne Yeomans Craver. You were an elegant balance of joyful living and service to family, friends and community.