A Farm Breviary: Sext

It’s the midday office and I’ve brought my chair to the bottom of a grass-covered bowl, my own private Greek amphitheater. The greening spring grass grows thick where the play-goers sit; the stage for the actors and chorus is set hard against a fenceline, its backstage leading out to a former wood.

Here, our play opens. The oracle enters, predicting that where the fenceline stitches its feeble wire suture on the land, in a hubristic claim of ownership of what can’t be owned, the future already knows what we have forgotten.

The backdrop to the play is the clear-cut forest where I used to harvest ramps each spring and chanterelles late summer, deep in its quiet center. Now it lies as an exposed landscape of splintered trees and muddy roads, marking a deafness of the present custodians and neighbors to the past and the future.

Stage left is land that until recently belonged to an aging farmer who is in the long process of retiring, step by slow-moving step. He stopped by to deliver some much needed hay the other day, and I had a chance to chat with him about his life. Had he ever worked with horses? Yes, he said, he used to love to drive a team out into the field to pick up shocks of corn, the rhythmic stooping and bending work he liked as a youth. How old, I asked, when you were allowed to drive that team by yourself? Oh, very young, he responded. Eight years old.

Can I name a child of acquaintance who has the intelligence and responsibility to handle a team of horses and spend the afternoon doing physical labor? The sadness and absurdity of thinking we have improved on the past by infantilizing our children, swaddled even into youth and young adulthood, their girth and limbs malformed, their intelligence maladapted to the work of being men and women.

With these unsettled thoughts, the midday hour closes and I pick up my chair and walk back down the lane to the heart of the farm. The sounds of the chorus fade.

Rounding the last bend, I ignore the muttering of the audience and pretend the oracle’s prophecy was wrong. Blinded, I reenter this modern life.


Reading this weekend: Cottage Economy, by William Cobbett

What Are You Reading

I love books, always have. I grew up in a family that made plenty of space for reading, in a home where the TV was not allowed on after the nightly news. Books were a prominent part of our physical landscape, from the shelf of books in our bedrooms to the bookcase in the living room that was filled with history books.

Fence Pliers in the Library, with....

Visits to the Lake Charles Carnegie Library a couple of times a week during the summer were supplemented by gifts from my grandmother, a librarian, of books deaccessioned from the Acadia Parish Library. And each birthday or Christmas included at least one book as a present. The question “What are you reading?” was raised in each phone call from a relative. Books were then, still are, central to how I understand and experience the world.

As a youth, they took me on adventures and exploration. I sailed on voyages aboard clipper ships, Viking ships, sailing warships. I explored the Rockies with the Mountain Men. I was kidnapped by pirates and later by Indians. I learned to raise a raccoon with Rascal and to navigate the Mississippi with Tom Sawyer. I became a 1930s vet in the Yorkshire Dales and rode with Paul Revere as he raised the alarm to the British invasion.

As an adult, books still provide a bookend to my farm life: a few chapters before sunrise and a bit more before sleep. Visiting others, I’ll gravitate to the bookshelf (or, special joy, bookcase), that semi-public form of autobiography, a map of character, if you will, where the knowledge that a friend has a collection of P.G. Wodehouse means he can be relied on in tough times.

Our culture has changed and people do read books less, sometimes not at all. But it is still a wonderful question to ask, one that teaches if we listen to the answer: What are you reading?


Reading this weekend: G.K. Chesterton’s biography of William Cobbett

Geegaw Nation

’Tis the season: for plastic, for wrapping, for quantity, for abundance. It is a funny word, abundance. My 1901 dictionary defines it as “ample sufficiency.” Today’s Webster’s defines it as “more than sufficient quantity.” The former points to an appreciation of what we have; the latter speaks to our current state of overconsumption. The former indicates an abundance secured against future want; the latter, merely a quantity in excess of what is needed for the present, just stuff, all of it the same.tacky-christmas-decorations

Our local discussion group is reading the wonderful book Larding the Lean Earth by Steven Stoll. Stoll discusses at some length a topic that has troubled me for years. Has the sheer abundance of our continent ultimately conspired to corrupt our better angels? Or were we doomed by some inner corruption, some genetic predisposition to be the bipedal locusts hoovering up all in their path?

Has this abundance destroyed our sense of wonder and beauty? William Cobbett in his curious and judgmental work The American Gardener (1817) wrote of assessing the morality of a man by how he kept his garden. George Marsh (congressman from Vermont), when he took the floor in 1848 to argue against the Mexican War, made the unusual argument that what we already had was enough for any civilization, that to grasp for more, we would risk losing the sense of what was best about where we lived. It’s an argument that seems out of place with where we journeyed and where we have ended up.

Where we have ended up is as the spoiled kid on Christmas morning, surrounded by new geegaws and already bored. Why take care of the presents when he’s been given so much and expects more? Our consumer ethic, molded by abundance, has stunted our hearts: why take care of a home when it is only a “starter” home, a spouse, land, or neighbors when they can so easily be replaced?

Cursed by an abundance of land and resources, we have fouled our nest and moved on so often that our internal landscape now mirrors our external. The sheer ugliness of our daily landscape has a corrosive effect on our spiritual and political selves. Do all the geegaws we purchase this holiday season give us any more sense of well-being?

Maybe the true act of love for our planet, our home, is to repaint, tidy the garden, repair the torn pants, patch the jacket, sweep the sidewalk, bake some bread and give it to the neighbors. Maybe less can still be more. Maybe less is still abundance.

Seeds, Plantings and German Board Games

The first seed catalog arrived around Thanksgiving. Since that festive date, as more are delivered, the inside of the house now has totem piles of nursery offerings scattered throughout. I’m sure the seedsman and seedswoman must agonize as to when to mail out a catalog. Too early and it is disregarded as hopelessly out of season. Too late and the grower is out of funds. The non-gardener thinks of gardening in May when the farmer’s markets open, or perhaps not at all. But here we are a week into winter and a few days shy of the New Year and seeds and plantings on our mind.

On the kitchen table lie two baggies, one contains marigold seeds and the other basil seeds, gifts of the Fuja boys a few valleys over. We joined them last night for a nice dinner of a peppery and delicious turnip soup, accompanied by tasty fresh brewed farmhouse style ale. And then we retired to their music room and played a bizarrely entertaining board game called Agricola. Trust me, if you play, make sure to get someone who has played before to explain the rules. Fortunately their brother from Chicago was in for the holidays and shepherded us through the evening. A bit overwhelming for the novice, but we had a great time, particularly Cindy who won the game.

And as we left Tim gifted us the aforementioned seeds. Russ and I discussed our impending receipt of olive trees. In either a spectacular act of optimism or gloom we are both going to make small plantings of some olive tree varieties that can grow one planting zone to the south. Optimistic is our thinking that even if they die back every few years, a harvest of olives every three to five years can’t be a bad thing. Gloom, because the climate is so inconsistent, and likely to become more so, that a planting of olive trees might just be the outlier of a new planet. But at $10 a pop for the whips we figured the risk was low.

Last weekend Cindy, while perusing Craigslist, found a listing from a nursery in Georgia that specialized in Southern heirloom apples. A wonderful listing of varieties I had only read about in Creighton Lee Calhoun’s classic work. So without hesitation we ordered a Brushy Mountain Limbertwig, Black Limbertwig, Buckingham, Magnum Bonum and Original Winesap. We back ordered a Horse and a Hall. These will be planted below the hazelnut grove in their own orchard, some distance away from the main apple orchard.


The wrap-up

  • Year-end housekeeping: This coming year, now that the alphabet is complete, I will continue posting a piece each Sunday-ish. I will also start a twelve part piece on farm tools to be published once a month. And each month I’ll be posting a few farm pictures as part of a year-long scrapbook of life on our farm. Hard for me to believe the blog is entering its fourteenth year!


  • Reading this weekend: William Cobbett’s, Advice to a Lover; an 1829 pamphlet by one of my favorite writers on gardening and agrarianism. This is a pamphlet where he lays out for the young man how to find an appropriate mate.

I would not suggest any of you take his advice seriously. Indeed it would be hard to find a woman today who would measure up to his list of qualities of what she must possess. But his wonderfully opinionated prose is priceless,

“There are few things so disgusting as a guzzling woman. A gourmandizing one is bad enough; but one who tips off the liquor with an appetite, and exclaims, “Good! Good!” by a smack of her lips, is fit for nothing but the brothel.”

Everyone enjoy their New Year, stay safe, and by all means, avoid those guzzling women.