A Mulch of Time
by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
When I was young I wanted to be older. Seemed clear that older folks got respect, access to good stuff, and authority. Now I’m older and I see that respect is up in the air, access to good stuff is sorely over-rated and authority means nothing to the long haul. As an old man I replace authority with community. Now I know that I need my family and friends around me.
When I was a young man at one of my first ranch management jobs I had to take care of a couple of beehives. It was a case of learning to swim by being thrown in the pool. I was lucky in two ways, first bees (or insects for that matter) just did not worry me. And second, I had a friend, Wilbur Long, an old guy who was a beekeeper, he gave me some valuable insights. I enjoyed the bees. That surprised me. When I left that job, the bees stayed behind. For decades I wanted to have bees of my own. That happened this last Spring. Two hives of Italian bees; one standard 10 frame hive and one 8 frame English garden hive now live with us, stationed out on the edge of our pond sheltered by a grove of Cottonwood trees. They spent the whole summer with their backs to 70 acres of Clover and Alfalfa. It was easy to see they were happy.
Once the hives were established, my wife and I would go out and just watch those lovely bees coming and going. Impossible to fully describe the fascination and comfort, yes comfort, that we get from watching those golden buzzers. And then, seeing the incredible effect the bees had on all manner of flowering plants and trees I felt silly that we had waited so long to get restarted with them. All that time lost, but then…
One tangible way time exists for me is that I see it in the aggregate mulch or ground cover of my life, a blanket of experiences that keeps getting added to. That mulch shades the basic inescapables, the nasty and mortal shape of me. That mulch, that blanket is something I can measure. That mulch conserves my spiritual moisture and helps me to continue growing. Now this year’s experience with bees goes into that measure. I can say these sorts of silly things because I am old. When I was younger I couldn’t get away with it.
Some of you out there know what I’m talking about because you too have gotten old (or older). I have to ask. Do you enjoy it like I do? Being old I mean. I wouldn’t trade my age, experience, gratitudes, or my mastery for anything youth has to offer. As for these stumblings, forgetfulness, this occasional crankiness, the soreness, stiffness, the limited movement, all of this aging crap, it pales by comparison to what young people have to suffer through. But, appropriately, it is us old people who look like we’re having difficulty. Someone asked, “How do you get through the days, old as you are?” So I suggested that you do it one day at a time. Today you let a cold fall full moon slap you gently as you return from the barn chores. Brush the horse hairs off your vest and untie your boots. Kiss whoever met you at the door and key up a gypsy guitar, say Stephan Wremble playing Bistro Fada. Feel the inside air fill with lamb, raisin and tomato curry smells – or an apple cinnamon pie. Let the day’s accomplishments pile slowly on your brain, in that comfort zone you save for those best over-the-shoulder looks – it’s for those times when you seeing what you’ve done makes you feel good. Well yes, there is stiffness, soreness, and fatigue too – yes. But don’t let yourself follow the logic. It is far too simple to allow yourself to think that it used to be so much easier. Perhaps it did, but the gratitudes were far thinner. Of an evening as a youngster you seldom found yourself ahead in the count at days end. These days, old man, with half a moment to yourself you are overwhelmed with how fortunate you have been in this lived life. (And now the bees are back it will only get better.)
Later the extended reverie may pry open those moments when we find the nonsense questions take over.
“What ever brought me to choose this farming life?”
“Where has the time gone?”
“Seems before there were always folks around to help.”
Twenty-five years ago, around our remote ranch, surrounded as we are by forest service ground, every spring Paul Reuter ran two bands of sheep, about 2,000 in each group attended by a Peruvian sheepherder with two predator control dogs, one horse and an old rifle. Roberto Alania was one of those sheepherders and he became a good friend. When we first bought the ranch there was a dirt trail we drove to get to town, all dirt and bumps. I remember the first time, rounding the bend at Squaw Flat, when we came upon a wispy dust cloud populated by slowly wandering sheep, what seemed an endless flock. In that dust, sunlight forcing its way through, the outlines of the sheep seemed ghostly. I was so taken by that sight that it became one of my paintings. But that’s jumping the gun so to speak.
Reuter came to me one day and introduced himself saying he had a broken frame member on the old travel trailer one of his herders used. He needed to pull it to the next grazing site and was wondering if I had a welder he could borrow. I said yes and that began a shared relationship that lasted for all of the years during which Paul was permitted by the Forest Service to continue grazing. Seemed he had been driving 24 miles round-trip to draw water out of the lake into his tank truck. That water was then taken to the portable troughs for the moving sheep. I told him he could get his water from us and save many miles. He was most appreciative, keeping our freezer full of lamb.
Why am I talking about this here, and now? Because as I wander over the years of adventures we’ve had on this farm/ranch and allow the reverie to go into the cracks and creases of the stories, I realize how rich and varied our lives have been, and that all of it goes into the mix. All of it answers those last two questions, where has the time gone and who used to be part of our daily lives?
As we would encounter the shepherd camps, we’d occasionally see their hobbled saddle horses. After a couple of years passed, helping Paul with water and tools, one day we found the familiar herder’s saddle horse standing adjacent to our stud pen. She had come to visit old Abe, our Belgian stallion, walking in short hobbled steps well over a mile just to let her beauty be seen. I called Paul and he let the herder know where to find his mare. That was the day we first met Roberto Alania, one of the herders. He is a highland Peruvian of purest Incan descent who spoke, at that time, in halting broken English. I, with my similarly restricted Spanish, found ways to talk with him. Those days my brother Tony helped us on the ranch and lived in our second cabin. He and Roberto became close friends, sharing meals. The Forest Service made a big mistake when it arbitrarily decided to end the hundred plus year history of sheep in our country by revoking Reuter’s grazing permit. They know it now, for the land has shown them over time what a beneficial tool that grazing cycle had been. Our locale has many features which remind Roberto of Andean territories in South America, as we are up against the dramatic Cascades mountains. He fell in love with the country. My brother had left by then to care for our folks in Florida when Roberto came to me looking for work on the ranch. He missed the country. He worked for us off and on as we could afford to hire him, and he became a good and trusted friend. He lives and works now elsewhere but we see him occasionally and reminisce about those times. He and the story he shared with us as working companion is but one of hundreds that have made up for us, to this date, the storyline of our farming life. And for this essay I offer that there is no way anyone could have factored in such an exotic and elegant relationship when, as youngsters, we laid out our plans for what sort of life we would want out of farming. Nor could we have guessed that most of these unexpected side stories would contribute so much to the reward that has been this life.
But to shift sideways for a second: There are two conversations here and perhaps they will join at some point. One is how the passage of time, and a sense of its inevitability, sits atop our lives as farmers and would be farmers. Second, from a societal or cultural perspective, how time does drag along those geo-political, technological, religious, and slap-happy diversional changes that would affect us all if we let them. And in that “If” is the waft of choice that makes inevitability a joke. In other words inside of all of this are choices, personal and collective. Obvious, but deeper yet are the determining aspects around who we allow to decide for us, collectively and personally.
Some would say; “In the beginning, we did it for the kids. Now they’re gone so I suppose we’re doing it for ourselves. Sometimes I like to think we’re doing some wider good by sticking with farming, but its hard to hold on to that with all that’s happening in the world.”
Others might say; “I did it for myself because it represented the lifestyle I wanted. Then there were two of us, so I suppose it became what we wanted. Then came the kids and it was difficult because we needed to generate more money. Now the kids are gone and we’re finding we can enjoy it more.”
And still others would say; “We started out as a family and there were many of us. We were all excited and everyone contributed to the work. It was hard but it was worth it, and having many hands meant we could avoid the big machinery. But now the kids have left to other lives and there are just two of us. We wanted to stick with the work horses so we decided that it meant going to more sophisticated implements, tools that replaced the extra hands. It’s different now, we are no less committed but I have to say that there is a very different flavor to the days. Perhaps it is that there is less evidence of craft and more evidence of production.”
And a sad few would offer that their adventure was stripped from them by difficult realities including a string of bad luck, regulations that crippled, competition that rolled over them, until – failed dreams in hand, devastated spirits pocketed – they left.
We were young once, many of us. And in those days had drawn a bead on what we would become, where we would settle, what lives we might lead. Reading this publication it might be safe to assume that your own scenario involved a small farm of some sort, or an adventure with draft animals, forgiveably romantic or nostalgic while camouflaging the real core – a desperate need to feel connected to a living life with a reason to be. And then we got old. But in-between those beginnings and now we lived through the time. Did we live the time? Did we spend our lives wisely, or at all. Or did we tuck our lives away, waiting for a future when we’d get around to that dream of right livelihood?
Some of us are young right now, and do not feel it, refuse to allow it to define us, insist that the distinction is a distraction at best. This publication represents for us – the youthful – a tapestry of mistakes and possibilities, an indication that others, older and without the benefit of our perspectives, advantages, and energy, were able to make a go of a handcrafted rural existence. This publication is to us – the youthful – like a limited guidebook for small farming, limited because it insists that the cyber universe is irrelevant and that dues must be paid. We the youthful know that the world is littered with people dumb enough to pay for knowledge and experience and that this is not going to happen to us. Somewhere in all of that haphazard choice young folks seem to have lost sight of the fact that they need extended community and that most definitely includes older folks.
Though it is nowhere near as simple as described there is nevertheless a canyon or canyons that separate the ages. It does not need to be that way. And the separation is a loss for humanity. In a recent telephone conversation a subscriber told me that she wished she could write a story, for the journal, of and about the old gentleman whose farm she manages. But she couldn’t do that because if she did she would have to be honest about their great disagreements. She said that when he passes, if the farm should transfer to her, there would have to be big changes. When I expressed my concern that this was unfortunate, and that both she and he would benefit from just such an open transgression of confidences, she said that she didn’t want to be misunderstood, that this old man was an incredible resource and inspiration. I wondered out loud at her loss should she never hear his response to her criticisms. She knows that I insist that the story be written now and published, here or elsewhere, making sure that he read it. I said it but I know well that it won’t happen. This breakdown is representative of the wider disconnect between the ages.
Because what we are talking about are the voyages we took, take and want to take through a living life of farming. There is more commonality in that then there are differences between the youthful and the mature. Respect as artifice is nearly worthless, respect earned by shared experience and co-measure is priceless. And respect does not mean, for me, a polite regard. Respect must also embrace the most hurtful of intimate differences if it is to be all that it may be.
In the interests of full disclosure I offer that I am sixty-six years old and began farming four and a half decades ago as a complete novice. I remember in the beginning that I felt disregarded and ridiculed by many of the old-timers I admired. I do not recall any of us as beginners ever disregarding, or politely dismissing the old-timers. My memory frequently belongs to me, which is to say that I mold it to suit my viewpoints. Maybe we were mean to our elders and I choose to forget that? But again, does this mean that perspectives are hostage to view point and that view point follows us always, changing as we do?
All of that, whichever of the myriad scripts fit, came of wider environs, the world around us. And those environs, political, economic, and cultural swirled and slopped back and forth bringing new pressures and colors to each of us. Whether we felt pushed to move on to a farm because of the threat of Atomic bombs, or riots in cities, or libertine excess, or cyber bullying, or pollution, or inviting cavalcades of like minds, or the crush of violence – each of us married our personal wishes to the times we lived in and came up with our own unique formula for living and working.
There is a ridiculous saying that goes something like this; “the more things change the more they stay the same.” Social engineers like to point to how fashions seem to repeat themselves over time. And all of that I believe comes because we humans want to believe there is a pattern in all this, that there will be some predictability. But alas, such is not the case, and our present time is a prime example. We’ve never been here before, and it is most frightening.
I might suggest, strongly, that the grotesque mistakes of our Orwellian US government around alliances with corporate agriculture running parallel to the absurd rush by China to artificially spur its middle class by destroying its small farmers will coincide to create a devastating global economic storm that could and will force we small farmers on the ground to greater clandestine effort or career change.
It is only a matter of time before the oligarchs relegate natural foods, the handmade, craftsmanship, and independence of spirit to the dust bin of human adventure by outlawing any production outside of industrial control. It has already started with efforts afoot to make it illegal to allow chickens and pigs on pasture, to further criminalize raw milk, to jail people who insist on violating local ordinances to grow vegetables in their yards, to brand fertilizing manures as toxic substances, and to increase taxes and fees on proof of origin.
As an old warthog rooting around in the mulch ‘neath the hourglass, I for one say it is time for civil disobedience when it comes to our right to farm and our choice for right livelihood. And, though I certainly do not encourage anyone else to follow, I intend to keep information about what I grow, how I grow it, where I grow it, how I harvest it, how and where I sell it and what I call myself and my products to myself. I am done sharing information with local, state and federal governments I can no longer trust. Difficult as it may be it is either that or trade in my farming tools for a job at Facebook calibrating insincerities. I expect that some of the young ‘invincibles’ will find my thoughts on this to be typically old and cranky, perhaps even paranoid. That worries me. Not for my own sake but because ahead is a minefield for which some of us old cranks just might have a map. I wake up from bad dreams hearing youngsters scream at me “why didn’t you tell me they could take away my farm?”
We chose farming, choose farming, for as many reasons as there are ones amongst us. And today, though many young people seem drawn to a single tight model of farming adventure, tied by a counter-cultural fiat to the idea of market gardening primarily for vegetable and fruit production, far and away the majority of newcomers are distancing themselves from the corporate model of industrial systems agriculture. When I was young the magnetic pull was towards the notion of the old general farm with mixed crop and livestock production. Grazing and crop rotations, fallowing, the growing of livestock feeds to keep operations as self sufficient as possible, the application of both animal and green manures for fertilizer, all these things and more were central to the notion of a well-rounded and sustainable farming venture. I worry that having so many new farms insular by target and scope to just gardening becomes an imbalance going forward, one which will not be so sustainable. But I most certainly could be wrong and the best evidence of that has been four thousand years of Chinese agriculture (Read Farmers of Forty Centuries by F.H. King) wherein that model of local market gardening, coupled in many cases with orcharding and aquaculture, fed the world’s largest population with legendary variety and great musical sufficiency (Read The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones). Now that Chinese model is doomed to swift and certain death by government edict as tens of millions of small farmers and gardeners are pushed off those centuries old farms to move to urban areas. So how will China feed its people today and tomorrow? Why, with bioengineering and chemical inputs as the all-powerful Americans have, of course. And if that fails China will use its vast stores of cash to purchase food from Argentina, Australia, Iowa, Africa, and Europe. They say “don’t worry about us, we’ll be just fine” but they won’t. They will cave in upon themselves to civil unrest, disease and pestilence. The boards of Monsanto and friends say, “if that happens they brought it on themselves, it is not our problem.” They too are wrong because it will also bring the great dragons of industrial agriculture, Monsanto and friends, financial ruin.
In the late fifties, when I was in my early teens, I distinctly remember folks talking about the cruelty of time’s passage, mostly from the standpoint of a lament for the good old days. Later I would realize how scatter-shot that lament was because for my family and friends the good old days might ironically include world war one and/or two, the two terrible depressions, several recessions, and Jim Crow south – all of it horrific. How malleable is our nostalgia for the good ol’ days. And what value has the lament? Might I suggest it has great value? For in that wandering wonder after what we have lost is the buried collective certainty of how things should be, could be, would be only if…
And now we must prepare ourselves again for everything to change dramatically, perhaps for a very long time. A big change. We saw changes over the last 150 years with the great events and shifts in our culture: wars, depressions, industrial and informational jumps, political storms. But, I suspect nothing so dramatic as what is coming now. Good chance that many of the societal elements we’ve come to accept over decades are going to go out the proverbial window: elements like how we gather, where we gather, what we share at primal levels – meals, civic meetings, religious services, cinema/entertainment, ceremonies, work parties, and rites of passage. Hundred years ago country folk might have been expected of a pleasant evening to sit together on a porch and sing or play music (a few still do), fifty years ago they’d maybe sit around in a living room watching television or attending a movie together, today..?
When you’re thirty something you might be expected to make some pertinent observation or critique of coming social change feeling, reasonably, that we still have time to embrace it or reject it. When you’re sixty or seventy and big change comes at you, measurements are made to determine whether or not you can stay put, hold to the old status quo and keep your comforts and rhythm and that’s because, number one, you probably won’t be around to deal with the outcome in the distant future and, number two, you probably don’t have the political (or societal) capital to enter in to any fight to avoid the coming change. (Old folks today, just as with yesterday, are of questionable value to the young invincibles who sincerely believe they are creating everything right now and for the first time.)
The young work towards their goals with a short list of intense urgencies, very little experience and scratchy applicable evidence to brace their gamble. Used to be people in such circumstances would look to sources of shared information that would provide the sort of bracing that ‘community’ provides, such as the anecdotal evidence that others are setting out to do the same things, are succeeding at the same adventures, are struggling but no less committed to the same adventures. That’s where this publication sat for decades, a resource and access point for community connection. Unfortunately that’s not so much the case these days. And its not just that young people are getting what they need elsewhere, it is also because they are impatient to a self-destructive degree. Or is that the observation of an old person who simply doesn’t get it? I see the readership of this publication, young and old, now being more individualistic and less community oriented. Is it true? Or is it to be expected of an old wart hog like me?
The old discover that many of those goals they had when young were right-on target, but that the trajectory frequently threw them off in tangents. For some of the more fortunate, the conceit that would have them in “control” of their own lives gave permission to write and rewrite their own histories as they went along. ‘Fortunate’ because these folks, folks like me, can make like everything is as they planned, a positive accounting that fluffs along the next steps. Of course this is also a dangerous game that sets us up for terrible delusion and then regret. But better that we had ‘helped’ ourselves along through the forest of life with assurances that all is as it should be, than to be people of that modern ilk for whom the forest of life is synthetic/artificial. Isn’t it far better to discover that a real person you believed was your friend was actually a manipulative weasel rather than to find that that your friend the ‘warranteed’ person never existed at all, was the invention of software engineers? Isn’t it better to have participated in your life rather than to be a dweeb addicted to the video game that is social networking? Isn’t it better to have actually assisted at the birthing of a lamb even if that lamb didn’t make it?
Commerce says we are shaped by our acquisitiveness, inside we know very early that we are shaped by our affinities. And early on, these crazy days, people find themselves having to choose between those instinctual affinities and the constant cavalcade of extreme and bizarre virtual realities designed to trigger the basest of human crudity. It is delightfully intriguing how the life-long pursuit of those things and aspects we have always felt an affinity for delivers us experience that builds our own individual skill-set.
Early we suspect that security must be considered. Later we know that security must be considered. When do we learn that personal security comes from our skills-set and mind-set married to community and family not from gadgets, trinkets, arms, or money or power or gaming? Building our own mulch layer of experience and thereby skills delivers us to that wonderful comfort of knowing who we are and what we are capable of – individually and collectively. Time isn’t the thing that delivers this, there are many old folks without these strengths and this self knowledge. Time isn’t a passage though it does pass. The cumulative – that’s the secret. The slow deliberate accumulation of deepest experience, skills, and relationships. We are the nuclei of fertile hope manifest properly searching to accumulate the golden intangibles. Time is either the corrosive or the ultimate filter. Of course, who am I to say any of this?
I want to think I am you at a different time and in a different place.
“I know. But I have no evidence.”
– Italian poet Pier Paolo Pasolini
It’s been 37 years that I have functioned as the editor of this publication. Took that long to realize that for many years now some people have been pretending to themselves that they read and appreciate these words. Others who do read these words often find them troublesome. Some even hang on hoping that I (and we) will return to a quiet tone and comforting content they remember from years past, a tone that arguably never existed.
So here I am remeasuring the audience for this publication and these words. And through the phenomenal correspondence and communications I continued to be reminded that our audience is our community and it is close-held and immediate, its not in the wide measure, its in the one-on-ones, in the small groups and families.
Live long enough and you find yourself asking “do I have anything of value to say anymore?” I know the answer to that one, of course we have things of value to say. But the question is a distraction, the real question should be live long enough and will anyone listen to what you have to say? And why should they?
Be young enough, hip enough, arrogant enough to embrace your arrogance and you will run straight into that wall of fate without a trace of a smile and even less gratitude. Buy into the board room hierarchies of who decides what’s best for the rest of us and assign yourself a seat at that table and you do so at your own risk for the end you guarantee goes against biological life – and remember you are a piece of that biology – you go against yourself.
So why write a silly magazine about small farms?
Because it is more important with each passing day.
As the old wart hog I’ve become I think the answer is that I must embrace my new found crankiness and go slowly through my remaining time in this heavily-mulched forest of humanity mumbling my own versions of truth as I root for and dig for useful reason. Like a stone-deaf Beethoven I need to write these words to “hear” them inside myself and use all the remaining hours of each day to farm and paint. For society’s kangaroo courts, be they cyber or brick and murder, are a total waste of time, of honor, of spirit and of human dignity.
True earned community I believe in but sadly I am less interested in the shattered random shapes we take as groups of humans, groupings owing more to commerce and class pretense than to shared values and experiences. I am, though, still interested in how times do shape us. Great farmer/artists like Shakespeare, DaVinci, Jefferson, Lincoln, Cassat, Cezanne, Ronald Coleman, Albert Einstein, Edward Hopper, Duke Ellington, Lightning Hopkins, Joni Mitchell, Bill Evans, Nelson Mandella, Albert Camus, Red Skelton, Winton Marsalis and Johnny Cash were and are all noble products of their times NOT products of group membership. And they are all stellar pieces of the extended true community of mankind, a community which never abided with the notion of card-carrying ‘membership’ and committee rule.
We are born with all the answers, it is embedded within our biology. What we don’t know, in the beginning, are the questions. That comes as we are served up a smorgasborg of curiosities leading to personal appetites. The people around us, our class-conscious society, then demand of us that we either develop or accept justifications for our appetites and in that process society messes with any ready sighting of life’s true questions. If we are fortunate the questions will come to us and give weight to those answers we’ve long held.
Genetically engineered life forms are not born with the answers because they are born from a dissecting, melting and melding of genetic codes that destroys all the maps back to what makes them and who made them. These plastic-mutated psuedo-life forms have zero implicit or embedded regard for any true life.
Back at the beginning of this essay I mentioned happening upon those sheep blended into the dusty landscape. I did a painting of that scene. As I began, sketching with my brush the outlines of the flock, Kristi, my wife, saw this and remarked on its instant impact. I stopped the painting, turned it to the wall, and waited knowing from experience that with time I might be able to see it fresh and perhaps see what made that impression on her. She was right. That painting which I now call “Sheep Passed This Way” has become a testament to the powerful value of individual memory and how the right questions are always around us, nearby yet sometimes turned to the wall. We just need loved ones, family, friends, our community to help us to see.
For me, in the immediacy of this moment, one of those proper questions might be “Does this Journal have value for you?” and the answer is…