The waking dream of my single digit years was of a doe-eyed Guernsey cow chewing her cud at a rail fence near the barn while, across the lane – inside a poultry-netting fence – a mixed flock of hens pecked at grains as a mottled white- gold- red and black rooster stood tall at guard. In a wheelbarrow between cow and chickens was a bag of grain – or was it seed? The dream had muted sounds and sharp competing manure odors. I loved that dream, still do. It always brought me comfort as it offered to me the simple, infinitely useful push as question… ‘okay, what are you going to do next?’
I soon found out that Whitey knew more about dragging pulpwood than I did. So, I quit driving him in the woods. I would drive him on the first drag and from then on I could turn him loose and he would take every drag to the first one. I would be cutting and limbing while he was on the way to the landing with his drag. If he got hung up on the way, he didn’t panic. I’ve watched him get hung on a stump. As soon as he realized he was hung, he’d swing right, if that didn’t work he’d try left. All this without being guided and me not even close. Working with an animal that smart it doesn’t take long to drag out a truckload of wood.
One of the most striking aspects of this development is the strength and confidence that comes from this communal way of living. While it is impressive to build a barn in a day it seems even more impressive to imagine building four barns or six, and all the rest of the needs of a community. For these young Amish families the vision of a shared agricultural community is strong, and clear.
Yesterday afternoon I found an ad on Craigslist (a computer classified ad service on the internet) and immediately emailed the ad’s poster (a ‘poster’ is the person who did the listing). Large Black Hog piglets for sale, they were 8 weeks old and located not too far away (well, about an hour and a half, but you gotta do what you gotta do to get piglets). I was so elated when the guy emailed back last night – you have to act fast on Craigslist – he said he had 13 available. I told him I’d come in the morning, cash in hand.
This past year a phenomenon occurred I had not heard of before that brought me mixed feelings. In the face of the nationwide quarantines and shelter in place mandates, people everywhere put out gardens. People who had not gardened before, those who had not in many years, and the regular gardeners did even more. This resulted in seed companies everywhere running out of seed relatively early in the year. Many of these companies had surplus stock that was completely wiped out. And then it happened again this year. As I said this brought me mixed feelings. The first was “Wow! This is great, more people are gardening than ever!” The next thought was a little more somber and perhaps selfish, “I may not be able to count on getting the seed I want when I want it.”
There are exceptional books written by the British agriculture historian George Ewart Evans among which are “Horse In The Furrow” and “Horsepower and Magic”. In these he recounts stories from the British Isles of the extent to which the teamster’s craft was magic and mystery to be protected. He talked about the fact that when somebody in the British Isles had the obvious and complete mastery of the craft of working those big horses, the tricks of his trades, the little secrets, he had to keep to himself, because when he gave up those tricks and those secrets, he gave up his power. He gave his position in the community. If everybody could do this then he would no longer be special. This became a community dynamic so that there were literally secret societies of teamsters, and they were forever playing tricks on each other and on outsiders, but especially on the novice.
The true ‘Jackson Fork’ is arguably the single most iconic product invented by Byron Jackson, of early 1900’s San Francisco – but it was by no means the only important innovation/product Jackson engineered. As these old cuts testify, he designed many devices and systems for forage handling. Some, like the Threshing Outfits, were geared for handling large volumes of grain crop.
Nature, and humanity’s better interactions with her; that combination does hold the best and I think only answers for a good and fertile society. As for the planet and its future health, it is pretty darned obvious she doesn’t need us anymore than she needed the dinosaurs. Wouldn’t it be magical and even divine if the societies of man could attain a plain of conduct and stewardship which would have us all be an invigorant and bejewelment for our Earth? A future essential?
I could catch glimpses of this story as I walked through my dusty little farm; when I went past coulees full of dark moist places scattered with poplars and willow, chokecherries and sagebrush, causing my heart to ache… I wanted to explore that coulee forever. Sorting out the smells while flushing out prairie chickens and partridge. Listening to the wind blow through the fox and coyote smells as a horse snorts scents from his nostrils; I wanted to drink the water from the ever-flowing story well and discover all the moist, fertile grounds hidden in the dry prairie where I lived. So, first we follow the wind…