Book Ends: Farming for Free
by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
Ping Pong with the Moon
Ol’ Jessie was a befuddled cowboy who worked on our ranch years ago. He’s passed on now. When he was still with us, when I knew him, he was alive on his own very unique terms. His befuddlement was four-dimensional lending him a joyous view of consequence and action rather than consequence from action. Before he came to us he was staying with a hay ranching friend who, one morning, found Jessie asleep out in the field surrounded by empty beer bottles. Pressed to explain himself Jessie remarked,
“Gol’ Tygh, I was just a sitting out here last night drinking a beer and talking to my ol’ friend that full moon ‘bout how da guvmint is in a stinkin’ pickle jar and that ol’ moon just stared down at me smiling and not saying a thing so’s I tol’ him stop yer staring at me and he din’t listen so’s I threw my empty up at him and hit him in the eye. So then he threw it back at me.”
Tygh, being familiar with Jessie’s way of thinking, smiled and said, “Ok, that explains one bottle, what about all these other ones, Jessie?”
“Gol’ Tygh, it was a long night and that derned moon never did quit staring at me.”
Jessie was a folk artist. He did his paintings using the tips of his fingers as paint brushes. He’d dip one finger-tip in a color and draw with that, then he might add a second color to another finger-tip and draw with the two of them, sometimes alternating finger-tips and sometimes using both in parallel concert. He claimed to have used as many as four finger-tips at the same time, each with a different color, but I never saw that. His pictures of western scenes and wildlife were quite good. I wish I had thought to save one for myself. I don’t have any ‘thing’ to prove this unusal man’s existence except my memories and these stories. He may have been confused about the wide world but he was certain of his plans and measurements, taking a goofy delight in what he saw as everyone else’s scramble. He was certain being glad in the world was his lot, his consequence. Ranch help, art and music, that was his chosen action. He didn’t feel that he was glad because of the work he did, he felt he was glad and that carried to the work he did. Consequence and action. And that certainty tickled him something fierce.
He was a nut. Jessie’s confused state allowed him the distance of humor. Right from the beginning, battle lines drawn, he had to know that he couldn’t win a war of empty beer bottle pitching against that full moon. So he laughed and slept it off whilst preparing himself to start all over again. Desperate folks in our farming community may be in similar battle where every effort they pitch at their problems just seems to fly back at them, only there’s no humor in the cycle.
There is that Greek myth which has a fellow named Sisyphus cursed with having to roll a big rock up the hill only to have it roll back down, up and down, up and down, with no resolution. No freedom. That is what large-scale debt-ridden farming is for far too many good folk. There’s nothing funny in it, and not much fun either. It is manifest desperation. How does one escape it? I might humbly suggest that it begins with doubting. As humans and as farmers we need to doubt what society and the marketplace have been telling us and trust that gut instinct to go for our own version of a debt-free handmade life working with family and friends to produce, to be caretakers, to belong to a place, to have that place allow us to be a good part of what it may become.
In the beginning most of us see farming as something we want to do. Far too many lose sight of that and join the get big or get out track. Some of us are small, debt-free or close to it, and challenged by our farming, but we’re happy because we are doing what we want to do and embraced by the ownership of it all. In fact, at the core I want to suggest that quite a few of us would do this work even if we didn’t make anything at it. We happily farm for free (at least it seems like we’re farming for free), because the intangible rewards are so grand and fine. Least ways that’s the way my wife and I feel, just plum delighted to still be farming even if we aren’t making much at it. Though we would keep doing it for free, every additional penny that rolls our way from farming makes us downright giddy, ‘cuz we feel we’re already continually paid ahead and for our entire lifetimes – just so long as we hold with the work we love. In this day and age, and especially in this troubled country, I know that is unusual, even, some might say, odd.
America is a country still several hundred years too young for it to have its own rationalized ancient history and centuries too old to explain away its virtues. That’s perhaps why it has been so susceptible to the eroding destruction of public education – after all we haven’t invested nearly enough in learning to feel vested in an ever more knowledgeable society. Still it remains, in widest hope, a country ripe for human individuals to turn from the depressing endgame scenarios of indentured existence, electronic brain-numbing and mob rule straight into useful rewarding lives: lives where we choose/turn those first true plantings of healthy windbreaks into new forests, perennial grasslands into carbon eaters, small ghost towns into cherished communities, placing the love of craftsmanship into the minds of children, the wonders of science and music into hungry minds. But, ironically, in today’s negative world it starts with trusting the instinct to doubt what you hear and read. What we see, what we feel, what we touch, perhaps even what we smell? Nature does not construct the play and interplay of life specifically for us creatures. We’re here to witness, perhaps to react, but as Jessie would remind me, to always see the humor in it.
Right in front of you and Invisible
The other morning I found 7 buzzards hanging out at the corral, drying their wings in the horizontal sun. They were there for a reason because they are never there without a reason. But I couldn’t find any dead or dying animals. Two days later Kristi and I went down the road to the pasture fence to adjust the irrigation and smelled the odor of rotting flesh but we couldn’t see a source. She followed her nose to the end of a twelve inch road culvert. Something had crawled in there and died, a rock chuck or badger or coyote pup? The buzzards could smell it but never found it. Sometimes the truth is around the corner and buried in a culvert or dark place, like the halls of government. The buzzards of the fourth estate, the press, smell it but they can’t get to it.
What have I become, what have any of us Become?
Evidence every where you turn, and yet we barely observe. There’s a big farm chemical company in our region that has become one of the few places to get bulk grass and grain seed. It looks like many such companies all across the American farm scape, dusty, bland, lifeless more akin to a munitions dump than to the life-giving properties of farming. When I got there to pick up my 2000 lbs of untreated seed (leastwise that’s what they said it was) I noticed a good-looking thirty-something Hispanic gentleman sitting in a ragtag pickup truck, sun glinting off his wedding band as his left fingers did a little drum roll on the outside of the truck door. He was taking a break and listening to his radio. (Wanted to think it was a Hispanic version of a Jerry Jeff Walker train song.) I went in and did my transaction in that cold and lifeless office. Outside, receipt in hand, I watched as that same man got out of his truck with shoulders resigned and walked to the waiting lift truck where he put on a white face mask. He drove the yellow jitney up to the big warehouse/ barn door and paused. He crossed himself and then drove on in.
I write from observation. As a silly human of limited and limiting consequence, I confess I am prone to imagine back stories to what I see. I imagine the gentleman at the seed plant has a wife and children at home and he’s worried about their future. So much uncertainty today for any of us with Hispanic heritage. Add to that the terrible uncertainty of knowing he is yet again going to drive into a vast metal building full of the terrible toxins of industrial agriculture. He does this dangerous work for his family. It’s not his first choice, that would be a farm of his own with magnificent cattle and strong poultry, with healthy legumes and tight fences. The deck is stacked against him, he knows this. But he persists in his dream. His persistence is our hope.
As a Hispanic worker he knows he is seen as lower class, that’s part of the wager against him. But he is in good company. Stalwart, courageous and hardworking farmers, industrial or traditional, share the branding of a lower working class slice or caste of humanity, Crumbs, Joses, Joes, Sodbusters, Hayseeds, Yucks, and Cowherds. Immigrants many of them; Irish, German, Mexican, Chinese, Dutch, African, Arab, Japanese, Norwegian, South American and more. As refugee human beings they have absorbed, with the slightest of exceptions, the ridicule of American society for two hundred plus years. As migrants they get the short end of every stick.
(Ironic that within the mass of consumers there is a wide slice of folks who are seen as elitest for choosing to connect with small independent farmers through local purchases and the support of organic farming. These upwardlymobile customers are seen as a better class of people while the farmers they choose to support are still relegated to the lower castes.)
Is it possible to have a society which embraces, respects and even reveres its best farmers? I believe so. Yet we don’t. It’s not easy for most of us because it means doubting what the marketplace would have us believe. It is upsetting to act on the instinct that government and commerce are not our friends. But that is what follows, what is necessary – doubting their control over our lives. That refusal to follow, that doubting, will bring us a chance of better ways and better ends.
Bookends? On the one side there is the deadly inevitability of the industrial malaise while on the other side the moronic incompetence of high dollar governance. But not all bookends are negative.
Boot of a Kind
A dear long gone friend of ours earned this curious book-ending nickname back in the early seventies. Bruce always wore cowboy boots, he had many pair of different designs. He was a delightful, generous, and goofy guy, somewhat similar to Ol’Jessie. I managed a couple of ranches for him when I was getting started. Don’t know when or how it first came up but several of us noticed that on any given day Bruce would be wearing an unmatched pair of boots. Young as I was I pointed it out to him and he said, “Ya, pard, I know. See, I get dressed in the dark and the bed is surrounded by boots. I pull on a pair and so long’s they come on right and left it’s fine. Worked slick because I got some right side boots that are plum wore out and with other pairs its the lefties that are wore out. This way I get full mileage matching the good halves.” So when Bruce’s birthday loomed several of us pooled our money and sent me to get him a new pair of boots. At the store I came up with the idea to make a joke of it, so I asked the salesman if I could take away a mixed pair of boots. I’d pay him for one mismatched pair with the understanding that it would be straightened out after the birthday party. We’d stick the receipt in the box and tell Bruce, when he got over laughing about it, that he could just pick out which of the styles he liked best and go back to the store to trade the other boot for the match. He didn’t laugh, in fact he treated it as a genuinely fine gift and we hoped he hadn’t been offended.
Later the store clerk got in touch with me and said we owed them for that second pair seeing as Bruce never came in to make it right. I asked Bruce about it. “Well Pard, I like this pair just as they is, they suit me fine, weren’t no reason to mix em up.” So I went back and paid for the second pair and got another box this time with the missing right and left sides. “These are yours also Bruce, wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else.” He thanked me and said, “This is great, I’ll put the box in the closet for when the first pair wear out.” From then on we called him old “Boot of a Kind” and it stuck because I never did see him wear a matched pair again.
Bruce and Jessie never met but they shared a goofy positive outlook. Living for free, consequence AND action. Bookends.
Where’s the Water?
One Spring morning I looked up, and on the ridge of our little barn stood a proud wild male Canada Goose. Seemed an odd place for him. It took only a second for me to remember that our two ponds were dry. We’ve been here more than 32 years and this is the first time our spring-fed ponds have dried up, and this is the season when normal snow melt and rainfall would have filled them. In years past they would fill to overflowing, covering the county road that separated our land. Each Spring three pair or more of wild Canada geese would fly in to nest and raise their young on our ponds. Not many, but we valued their presence. And here, this year, was one lone goose… until I heard a plaintive honk.
Seventy five feet away, on the roof of our outhouse, perched the young female goose. They were a pair, talking to one another and wondering what they should do. Their nesting ponds were gone. They were confused and unable to make a decision. I was touched and took their pictures.
I had choices: I could turn on the irrigation pumps early and, at the expense of a couple of thousand dollars (which I didn’t have), fill the two ponds with water, but I had to be prepared to refill them again and again. Or, like the pair of geese, I could look elsewhere and find some way to fit us all, family and wildlife, into our changing world.
Nature’s Laws as opposed to the laws of men? No one is supposed to be above man’s law. Most fools are in perfect harmony with nature’s laws. The clever, some say savvy, enfranchised men, the entitled who live in spite of, or in constant battle with, the laws of nature are mostly above man’s law. But nature’s law? For those foolish ones nature is the terrible equalizer, something to be conquered, or beat down.
This spring I was out fixing irrigation pipes when heavy dark clouds started to stack up. It looked like what my French buddy Jean Christophe likes to call a “cowboy storm” coming – one with crazy wind, wild lightning, roaring thunder and sideways rain. So I closed windows and checked to see if everything was safe before heading into our old house. None too soon. I was on the front porch watching lightning bolts punctuate the magnificent sky’s cloud phrasing. Dogs were frightened so we went inside and I made an afternoon cup of coffee. Sitting at the kitchen table I was surprised by what felt like a direct hit; deafening thunder and white light accompanied by a shaking of the house. Felt like we had been struck by lightning. I quickly went outside to see if anything was burning. Old house was fine, but a hundred and fifty feet distant a large Juniper looked like it had exploded. It was raining hard and I saw no smoke so I went back inside to wait out the remainder of the storm.
Two hours later, storm passed, I went outside and saw that the exploded Juniper was smoking and that its core was in flames. I could see that I needed to act fast or that fire would spread. I took a big water tank and my chainsaw over and proceeded to cut the limbs off while pouring water in the center. The lightning had struck straight down from the top and quartered the tree trunk, drilling a hole three feet down past the shallow roots and into the dirt. By the time I had successfully neutered the fire I was exhausted and starting to realize how lucky we had been.
As with most hands-on, in-the-moment, farmers, events such as this cement our immediate knowledge that nature is capable of incredible, unexpected force over which we have no control. And yet, in one of the ruling contradictions of our age, we humans have found ways to pollute to such a degree that we are altering our fragile nature and climate.
Government today insists that climate change does not exist. I say we must doubt the rubbish of those assertions, but avoid doing so in formal fights because the polemics of fascism guarantee that the opposition not be heard. Looking for useful sarcasm might I suggest you stay out of every political and religious argument so that you may be heard at the trial for nature and the humane? Work in your own yard to limit the spread of the fires?
Be there for each Other
Today we read of the loss of farmland to developers, and the loss of farmers who have chosen to take their own lives. It’s a lot of farmland loss never to be regained. And even just one individual is far too many a farmer to have taken his or her own life because they can’t handle the pressures and uncertainties of modern farming.
Is it about expectations? Because they can be helpful and hurtful depending on how they are used or allowed to use us. Bankers, accountants, economists, corporate managers all hammer away at the argument that ever increasing amounts of borrowed money is the way to grow business and stay ahead of the business of farming. And that borrowed money has to be secured, they say. So they take control of your day to day choices, your livestock, your equipment, your land, and your soul saying you can have all that back when you finish paying them off. But, there’s the acid rub: if you pay them off they are ready with the enticements and the easy higher loan amounts to get you right back on that death cycle. With this industrial model you pretty much never earn your independence. You never become your own man. You are an indentured laborer working for the corporations. When drought and storms and pests and crop failures and unforseen disasters mess up your year you are at the merciless mercy of the lenders. You can’t go glad to your work like Jessie. You never learn the thrill of farming for free.
Maybe it’s akin to quitting a drug habit? Learning to work with what you’ve got, quitting cold turkey, and allowing nature to give you house odds that natural gains from crops and livestock will slowly build you your very own debt free farming operation. I concede that this is the only way to truly become a farmer.
I have a good friend who believes that farmers are not made they are born. I respectfully disagree with him, sort of. Farming is in the blood and nature of most people, for it was with that first great choice of mankind, agriculture, that we made a working sense of what it means to be alive, to shepherd, to garden, to live and to die and to contribute. If that is what my friend actually means when he speaks of being born to farm, then yes I do agree. But I think what he means is: if when we are born our entire environment and first contributing dependencies are of the working atmosphere of actual farming then we are truly a farmer and by no other route. If that is what he means I disagree. I believe that farmers are not born to it, they are worn to it. It is a cloth that fits and suits and goes on with us. It is a working that we wear and that wears on us and as such is a working that is worn to us. We wear farming even before we may become farmers. We are, if it remains in that deepest soul-held memory, ready to be made into farmers. Today, new as it gets, we are blessed to have a wider horizon of choice for the cloth of our soon to be farming life. Today, careful to avoid the false promise and distraction of elitism, we as ‘people’ may cobble together our own manifestation of farm and wear it forward.
As I worked, I listened to a recent radio interview, a social scientist and one who studies behavioral politics spoke about how people need to belong to comuunity no matter how perverse that community be. He and she made salient arguments, the logic sat there like blacklined graph paper but I was troubled nonetheless. I do not accept this axiom turned rule. There are good communities and bad, beneficial and silly.
The scientist had remarked that our world is the negative result of generations accepting the individualism dictates of the age of enlightenment, as if the developed world played by any rule book other than the cruel stricture of petty governance and corporate greed. He didn’t say what he thought replaces the notion of individualism, only that it left a hole in people that only community might fill. I would like to suggest that we, all of us, have a difficult to explain need not for community but for place, actual and experiential. Inside us all rests human memory that long ago some of us, perhaps but a very few, experienced balance, health and fulfillment in shared lives of honest farm and hand works. That genetic memory of those known times and felt postures has kept our noses in the wind sniffing in our wait for the natural invitations to return, the invitations to come home to farming.
Same day different radio interview, this one a travelogue, about the insular nature of Gascony, France, and how its time signature of flavor and practise, of agrarianism and pace, gave to place and people a purest deep and useful entity, character, etc. And that is all there right now, today. Two radio bits, quite different and yet perfect bookends.
We are starved for reality, starved for the purpose ‘neath reality, starved for the magic and poetic results of reality’s best outcomes. Each separate one of us needs to be a functioning link in the chain of good works which shepherds, stewards, gardens, gathers, plants, harvests and grows.
It’s in the little details. In our small town we have an independent bakery in an old ramshackle western edifice. When you go in the door you have a full welcoming view of the sinks, kneading table, ovens and flour-dusted young bakers. Recently I have grown to love their sour dough loaves, twice the size of commercial bread with a lovely crust that has the look and feel of a desert landscape quick-dried after a rain storm. They’ll slice it for you thick or thin. Having gone to college 55 years ago in San Francisco I became a bit of a snob for sour dough and I have to say this loaf is quite unusually fine. It is yeasty, tangy and has a bagel nature to it. It’s an expensive loaf. But price doesn’t matter when it’s this good and this immediate. I say immediate because, at my age I know how transitory things like this can be. When I was four years old we lived in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. My grandfather would send me every morning to the bakery next door to purchase a long loaf of fresh-from-the-oven bread. I still remember hugging that smell as I trotted back. In the kitchen he would tear off a piece of that warm bread and smear it with my grandmother Innocencia’s guava jelly and give it to me. Every morning. It taught me to smile. One of my very first memories – mostly smell and taste. That bakery has been gone for 60 years. This new sourdough loaf is that good. So I fear first that more and more people will discover it, and second that the bakery will have to make changes to the loaf to keep up with demand and finally the bakery will go away. So I savor it and as is my want I stretch that experience to apply it to the very best of farming’s possibilities. I use it as a bookend.
As we head towards the coming ‘sociopolitical/ commerce’ season with its inevitable unveiling of supreme ironies, we should not be surprised to find that the tables are turning and soon the giants of industrial/chemical/ mutant farming – the likes of Cargill, Archer Daniels, Bayer and others – will be unable to compete with the flood of successful, inventive and resilient small farmers tucked away in every corner of the planet. For these myriad small ones shall inherit the earth by attracting more customers every day.
And the ugly constant of corporate governance will be consumed with its own ridiculous and moronic malfeasance, misbehaviors and the curved-mirror circus of naked nest feathering. Some have begun to ask, what is to stop regions and even states of this country from considering trial separations at least until the fumigation of federal government has run its course? As with Babylon, the breakup may soon be upon us for our languages are morphing rapidly. Tip O’Neil said “All politics is local.” I say it should be obvious that all home and community is local. But alas, in this the dawning of the age of the Dodo, knowledge, reason and courage are fast becoming obsolete or, worse yet, out of favor.
That’s a pair of book ends for you; the Age of Enlightenment up against the Age of the Dodo. But the Dodo bird went extinct long ago you say? Yes, and that is the very strength of the example; my point in calling this the age of the Dodo is to make a case for what is certain to follow the obsolescence of humans, of what it means to be a thinking, working, compassionate, and musical human being. The unthinkable is upon us, humans may just become extinct and by their own lazy hand.
Leaving our mark on the Witness Tree
On the edge of our hay field is a magical tree. One hundred years ago when our ranch was one of two homesteaded by Paul Vileotis and Sam Pappas of Greece, a survey marking was carved into an old Juniper tree. The carving of coordinate numbers curves with the shape of the tree and reflects today the many mornings when cattle and horses have rubbed their itchy sides against it. It is a witness tree. As a tree it is vulnerable. It could be struck by lightning, or die and fall over, or be bulldozed by some farmer in the future. But today it is there and marks the spot and the passage of time. It commemorates.
For me it ties together but it also points a way forward. Our ranch is covered by Ponderosa pines and Junipers. You can look across its expanse and pretty easily pick out the dying and dead trees so long as they still stand. To my way of thinking, if they still stand their life still extends. I can point to a long dead Juniper and guess its age at a thousand years based on a rough estimate taken from its circumference and our knowledge of its species. That tree may have actually died one hundred years ago but we mark its age in casual talk by the fact that we still see it standing there. Its existence as a standing, though dead tree is evidence, is witness to its long and continuing life. Its presence in the landscape. I don’t, shouldn’t, need to point to the possible analogies with humans whose achievements in arts, letters, farming and family give them presence in the human landscape long after they are dead or gone. Their bark is also etched.
Two Juniper trees, one clear evidence of the force of nature, the other fragile evidence of a time of a few men, book ends.
Out changing irrigation pipe early one morning, six hundred feet away I spied two shapes in the short hay ground which looked like two buzzards grazing, but it couldn’t be. I got within three hundred feet and could finally make out that they were a pair of wild turkeys with a line of five babies gobbling up grasshoppers. Wild turkeys abound in our neck of the woods, not uncommon to see twenty five or more in bunches skirting around in the woods, but this was the first time I saw an individual family unit out in our field.
When I went back to the same spot that evening to move the pipes, there those turkeys were again, same activity, same family. I felt lucky to see them, lucky to have them enjoy a corner of our little ranch. Next day I watched for them but no sign. It was three days later that, from three eighths of a mile away I spied those two big bird shapes in the same corner and it gave me comfort. It framed my repeated work with the watering and again it gave me comfort.
We speak of the concept of a farm for free and farming for free because we believe the notion may be the end of the long line of thread that would, if we follow it back, take us to essential understanding that restores balance to the world and re-enchantment for humanity. Sometimes, often, being able to continue with work you love is the ultimate triumph whether or not the work is profitable, financially compensating or traditionally successful.
Which brings me back to Ol’ Jessie. Forgive me if you’ve heard this one before but it bears repeating often and with alternating eyes squeezed shut. I asked Jessie to repair a half mile of ancient four-strand barb wire fence which ran along the county road. And I watched him, his beat-up Toyota truck close at hand, as he set to patching mule deer breaks. An hour later, as I was leaving the ranch for the Journal office, I noticed Jessie in his truck driving very slow in the pasture on the opposite side of that fence. I hollered to him “Hey Pard, whatcha doin on that side?” to which he answered without skipping a beat
“Gol’ Glenn everbuddy knows you gots to fix these ol’ cowboy fences from both sides.”
Book ends. LRM