Time To Get To It

Barn 008

Spring lambs, spring grass

It is still a couple of hours before sunrise, the birds are chattering in the crape myrtle as the sky begins to lighten over the eastern ridge. Our rooster has been offering up his dawn greeting for at least two hours. And Becky just killed a large raccoon at the garbage can. In other words it is another morning on our farm in east Tennessee.

We have a full couple of days ahead planting grapevines, a new nut orchard, adding to the pawpaw grove, finishing the new raised beds for the strawberries and stretching a hundred yards of new fence. There will be a hard freeze tonight and preparations will be needed to protect the figs which are fruiting. And I am smoking a whole lamb today for a few friends who will dine with us this evening.

The work load on the farm at this time of year is over the top. In addition to all of the usual chores and ongoing infrastructure projects the seasonal tasks of mowing, gardening, mulching, pasture renovations and the annual barn cleaning just keep stacking up. Just the prospect of getting off the farm for an hour sends us in to a tail spin, feeling that we just got that much further behind.

But for all that work and the carping about it, we love this life. Mostly, the sheer loveliness of spring in Tennessee, the excitement of waiting for Petunia to farrow and being able to share with friends the bounty of the farm are ample compensations.

Time to get to it.


Reading this weekend: The Dream of the Earth, by Thomas Berry

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.

A Winged Elm Farm Alphabet: “Z”

Z is for Zucchini

A poor gardener’s friend, the zucchini rewards inattention with a bumper crop. But ignore this veggie at your peril. With back turned for a day and you find a modest fruit has grown to the size of a baseball bat. This tendency alone is why it is good to raise a pig next to the summer garden. Pigs will eat your oversize zucchini and overripe vegetables. And they would eat your baseball bat for that matter.

Two good plants will provide all your “zuke” needs for a season. So productive you scramble for ways to eat them: layered in lasagna or simmered in tomato sauces, bread and butter pickles or added to your kimchi, baked into a sweet bread or made into a savory pancake with fresh yogurt and chives.

But our favorite way of using excess zucchini is to stealthily leave them on a neighbor’s porch, ring the bell and run.


Reading this weekend: Roots: the definitive compendium by Diane Morgan, a cookbook devoted to roots. And, Roast Figs, Sugar Snow: winter food to warm the soul by Diana Henry. A bit obvious as to what is on my mind this week.

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.

John Muir, sunrise and the full moon

In 1867 naturalist John Muir walked from Indianapolis, IN to Key West, FL. He crossed into Tennessee through the Cumberland Mountains, almost getting robbed by former soldiers as he walked towards Kingston, our county seat. The account of that trek is absorbing reading for both his natural observations and those of a walk through a defeated land. From Kingston to Philadelphia, TN his walk took him through narrow slanting valleys. There are only a couple of narrow slanting valleys that would get you from Kingston to Philadelphia. So it is a good bet that 145 years ago John Muir walked by our farm.

Muir popped into my head this morning, as once again, I watched the sun light up our land. On Thanksgiving morning I woke early and walked to the top of the hill. As the pilots say, “above the clouds the sun is always shining”. At the top of the hill the sun was indeed up and striking the tops of the trees. Over the next hour the light gradually filtered down into the valley. Not fully illuminating our farm until half-past eight, almost exactly one hour from sunrise. It was another thirty minutes before the sun struck the creek bottoms giving light to our nearest neighbors.

Watching that sunrise reminded me of the pleasure we get out of a full moon. On the night of a full moon we walk to the top of the hill, sit in our folding chairs and watch that spotlight come over the hill. You know that great illusion, the one where the size is magnified by its relation to the horizon. As soon as the size diminishes, about ten minutes after rising, we walk back to our home. Where we set the chairs up and watch the moon rise again. Once it diminishes in size we jump in the truck and drive to the bottom pasture where we get to watch it rise for a third time within an hour. Actually, we think, this is a pretty cool trick for our nearest satellite, as well as cheap entertainment for the rustics.

Hopefully Muir enjoyed the same show as he walked through our valley.

Waiting on Isaac

Waiting for Isaac: like the RNC, Florida and the mid-west, we too expected the storm to visit. Instead it parked itself over my ancestral homeland and unleashed insane amounts of wind and rain and left Clint Eastwood gesturing at an empty chair. Meanwhile, having myself just returned from the humid climes of the Gulf region, I spent much of the week tossing in sweat soaked sheets with a 100 degree temperature. Like a soldier returned from the tropics with a case of malaria, the grippe or ague I just couldn’t shake it.

Farm work, work-work, all seemed a bit hazy through the fog of fever. Somehow a hog was delivered to the tender and mercifully quick hands of the York brothers. Four hundred pounds of porcine pleasure conveniently packaged and returned to us in time for the Labor Day weekend. We kept one side for our use. Friend and fellow culinary adventurer John W. removed the other half to K-town. A ham awaits my curing efforts later today for a side of pork is a gift that gives.

The farm work load on Saturday, our usual work day, was fairly over the top and made more difficult by being sick (Let us call it malaria, a bit more romantic than saying one has the “crud”.) But between Cindy, me, Caleb and Shannon we managed to clear the slate on a large “To Do” list; an effort that may I clearly state “kicked my ass”. A dinner last night with friends and neighbors and we were in bed by midnight.

Aside from the aforementioned curing of the ham and curing Brian (Cindy suggested slathering me with salt and hanging me under the stairs), the making of perry still awaits and a week of haymaking is on the calendar in someone’s twisted idea of vacation. Yet much of it still depends on that tropical moisture and how it impacts us over the next few days: waiting on Isaac and a fever to pass.

Drought, Rain and Death: a normal week on the farm

Like a desert after the rains our farm has erupted into mid and late summer growth. June was dry and hot, then July above average in rain and now August with five inches of rain to date. I recently returned from a trip to Iowa to find my neat and manicured vegetable garden a veritable rain forest of foliage, some intentional and some opportunistic. How pigweed can appear and grow into spiny three foot plants overnight I’ll never know? Jack’s beanstalk ain’t got nothin’ on pigweed.

Concurrent with the explosion of growth is the discovery of our tomatoes by the chickens. Reaching through the dense tomato vines I clutch a beautiful two pound Brandywine only to find it hollowed out and empty. I chase the chickens out only to find they have additional partners in crime hiding under the ever expanding pigweed who then dash out to resume their tomato festival after my departure. Will their flesh be tomato flavored?

Our new pond has filled 1/3 full with the rains and seems to be holding. The hard work of putting down grass seed and hay, what seemed to be a folly in 105 degree heat and in the middle of a drought, now seems Solomon like in wisdom and forethought. Sometimes best laid plans work out.

And sometimes they do not. In June we lost three ducks in gruesome attacks to a snapping turtle. An early morning stalking session by one of the ponds and I was able to send the turtle to the afterlife with the assistance of my double barrel 12 gauge. Our beautiful Saxony ducks, a heritage breed we have long wanted: Cindy wanted for their beauty and elegance and I for their possible contributions to the table had been ordered in the spring from a hatchery in Oregon. We had nursed them along from hatchling status. Then watched them feather out into beautiful mature birds.

Thursday, while we were gone the flock disappeared. Cindy looked unsuccessfully on that night and was unable to find them. Arriving back from my trip on Friday evening I called our neighbor Lowell to see if he had seen the flock. He had. I put my boots on and Cindy stayed at the house. Walking up the big hill a few hundred yards I climbed over the gate into Lowell’s hay field. It was another hundred yards until I found the site where our neighbor had spotted the flock the night before. I found them just as he said. Spread out over a large area, were our Saxony’s… all dead.

We can only hazard a guess. And that guess is death by canine. The ducks mostly had been killed from the back consistent with our herding dogs. It is possible that the ducks had moved up the hill while grazing and Robbie tried to herd them back. Frustrated, he may have started to bite. He may have had help. Or it could have been a neighbor’s dog. We will never know: a death by misadventure.