by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

If I were some of you I might not read the following essay. But I am not you.

When Bud Dimick was 80 and I was 40 he came out to the ranch to help me mow hay, brought his own team and mower. That first morning he stood his team in one double tie stall and I had mine in the adjacent one. I noticed that he was having a bit of trouble lifting the harness up to his gelding’s withers. “Here,” I offered, “let me help you with that.” He turned, dropped the harness to the floor and shoved me against the wall. “Don’t ever do that again!” He said, “I do my own harnessing.”

We went on to mow that year and for a couple of years after. He was a good friend and, in my eyes, a real giant of a man. Last time I actually saw Bud drive his horses he was 94 and in a parade. Bud passed a couple of days after his 105th birthday party at which he fed himself and visited with family and friends.

“The Horse He Rode In On,” charcoal on paper, Lynn R. Miller.

Sometimes, when we think hard about a subject, images and stories from our past seem to jump up and say ‘here’s an example’ even though it may not seem so on first look. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to get the right sort of folks personally, intimately interested in the future of this publication. Quickly I must add, NOT because I am infirm or sick or needing to quit but just because it seems to be my responsibility to cultivate a future for the Journal. So stories like the one I just offered jump up and say ‘here’s an example’ and I am stuck with figuring out how that may be. Perhaps it is so obvious it is difficult to see.

The opening vignette speaks to what it took to be long-lived and heroic Bud Dimick, a self-made man, a blacksmith, wheelwright, race horse trainer, farmer, wagon-builder and teamster – every one of those vocations/crafts he perfected by his own measure. He was tough – on himself.

We hear it. “I want to be a farmer, a true farmer, but I don’t know where to go for land, for money, to learn. Who will help me?”

Doesn’t sound particularly tough-minded. When I hear it expressed this way I want to turn it around to: “Do you have what it takes to be a true farmer? Where might you go to learn? What do you have to offer in trade for that learning. Are you gonna stick with it?” And that leads me to think about the place of elders. Maybe one of our jobs is to thresh out the candidates for this ‘tough’ life? Maybe, not every person has what it takes to make a go of a life as an actual farmer?

Bud didn’t come all the way out to my ranch to help me because he wanted to help me. It was something else. On his small plot in Madras he didn’t have a place to mow and he loved to mow. He appreciated the moronic repetition, going round and round a big field to harvest a crop. He knew what it would do to the conditioning and responsiveness of his horses. He appreciated how it made him feel. And he wanted the simple direct challenge of measuring his own work with the work of the other teamsters also mowing. In fact, on one occasion, while he and I were both mowing a forty acre field, I with Cali and Lana and he with his big roans, I with my number 9 mower he with his beloved number 7, he finished that first day with a surly nod my way and said, ‘guess you just got better horses than I do’. He was a taciturn fellow, not one for lots of words. That statement was loaded with everything from self-criticism to compliment to coaching tip – he was saying in his own way that I was tough enough. Now, a quarter century later I come to wonder if toughness is enough, especially for us old guys. Perhaps without him knowing it, Bud was threshing a candidate, me.

How do we make new farmers? Or is that our responsibility? I was well along with this writing when we received the Heritage article from Mr. Vastine. A clear case of the classic way young people are brought along by a vibrant family tradition. This has become more rare with the passage of time. Today people who are one, two or three generations removed from farming find themselves attracted to the life but without those traditions that leaven. Are new farmers of the actual brand the product of society or purely self-made? And why do we ask this of society in general instead of asking it from the community of actual farmers? If farming is an art, and I believe that it is, where are the similarities in humanity’s crush?

Humanity is in a world of hurt. Some folks think they know right where the problem is, and they’ll tell you in a quick minute. I’m one who’s come to believe that there is no single problem with humanity (or society). I believe that, though each problem is certainly bad enough, when you combine them they add up to more than the sum. In medicine they might refer to this as the ‘double crush’ with lots of incidents demonstrating how dramatic improvements can be made when even just one of the problems in the mix is corrected. Humanity has come to disregard tradition, to segment and target education, to turn a blind eye to nature’s rhythms – all of this while feeding war, breeding pestilence, and pointing entertainment’s cameras on human suffering. I suspect that if we were to rebuild tradition we might see a natural move to lessen poverty and hunger. A stretch?

True masters of the arts are the purest gold of human society. The arts include the obvious list (music, dance, theater, literature etc) but of course that list must also include any long developed useful human endeavor which combines creativity and craft such as actual farming and the shoemaker’s art among others.

Alchemy by historical definition is the faux science / magical ability to convert base materials to gold. It doesn’t need to be a stretch to see that taking the raw clay of undedicated humans and bringing them along to the pure gold of artistic mastery requires alchemy, the illusive recipes of which should be of the highest value to all of human history.

Definitions to think on:

Legacy: the cheap and quick computer definitions include: a gift of personal property by will, a longer definition might include a measurement of what you MIGHT have to hand off to future generations.

Heritage: practices handed down from the past by tradition.

Tradition: the sum or range of what has been perceived, discovered or learned. A specific practice of long standing, an inherited pattern of thought or action.

What constitutes tradition when it comes to heritage and legacy?

What is today’s view of tradition, heritage and legacy?

An apprentice works for an expert to learn a trade, or at least that is as it should be.

Boot Maker’s Turn

George Zierman is my friend. He advertises his “George’s Boots” shop in this journal. He makes exceptional boots. I wear them. George is a master craftsman and artist of the first order. He makes each individual boot to fit that foot. And he takes his opportunity as a responsibility. He wants to have the boots help to make the wearer more comfortable. George has been a longtime reader of SFJ. We met in person back at one of our early auctions in the 80’s. Now George and I have come to share a time of life concern. Both of us feel compelled to do what it takes to assure that what we know and the body of work we’ve built up, he with his boot shop and I with this journal, have the best chance of continuing on beyond us. We feel the need to share all of our secrets with those who might want to get a head start in valuable hands-on work. Maybe it’s an archaic notion, maybe when today’s young adults get to our ages they won’t share this compunction. That would be disastrous for humanity because it would spell a complete end to tradition. George and I sense that we are feeling an instinct to protect our traditions by preparing for the handoff.

I’m the one who will stick his gnarly neck out and say that within this instinctual urge to hand off our mantel is, ironically, a basic societal need for self preservation and self improvement. Society desperately needs us to succeed with these last chapters.

This publication has always been about individuals, individualism and craftsmanship. Central to all of that are stories. I am not going to tell you George’s stories because that is part of what he needs to offer directly, in person and with solemnity. But in my line of work telling stories on myself seems standard operating procedure. Therein lies the reason for the opening warning label on this writing. Some of you are terribly bored with these narratives. I feel for you and offer in greatest sincerity that you flip this page and move on to other less personalized and more informative reading in this important publication.

I have said often that we see this periodical as a kind of pot luck supper, where any who wishes to contribute may do so and all are free to sit and partake. We strive to allow all voices. But just like the proverbial pot luck suppers of time immemorial there may be people at the table who you don’t particularly like (me for instance), and there will be dishes on the table that you find distasteful (these editorials by example). So what? Don’t let that rob you of all the other good people and good food that suits you.

Up On The Roof

It was 1960. I was a thirteen year old city kid. Seven of us in the family drove down in our ‘55 Buick to a cousin’s beach house on the western side of Baja California. That’s in Mexico. Whatever the reason, I was told I had to sleep on the roof, away from everyone else. I remember a flat-topped building with vegetables and herbs growing on the dirt roof of this large rough structure. It was surrounded by grass-capped sand dunes except for the beach front. I remember smells, the surf sounds, and a blanket of stars so close I was sure some had snuck into my clothing. Though it was clear I was being punished and separated, I was thrilled to spend those few nights like a bony swizzle stick in a fabulous sensorial cocktail.

Our cousins were Hispanic with no English. I was forbidden from 5 years on to speak Spanish. As Spanish was my first language, the immersion those few days in rolling, folded chocolate word sounds was like a blanket. I was jealous to witness the happy comfort of my mother as she lobbed Castilian phrases into the waiting air of that short visit, jealous that we never saw that “belonging” comfort in our own home.

Walking on the beach I was fascinated to watch saddle horses being ridden in the surf ’s shallow back wash. Must have been obvious because a tall Cinnamon brown gelding approached me with what looked like a ten year old boy on his back. After he figured out we had to speak English for my enjoined understanding, he asked if I wanted to ride. He said he would let me ride his horse for a quarter. I told him I didn’t know how. With innocence instead of courage I slid up on the bare back of the tall horse. A rope came round the neck and withers fastened to either side of a braided cord halter. No bit, no hackamore, just a halter. The grinning boy explained by motions how to pull the horse’s head in the direction you wanted to turn. He slapped the animal’s rump and we walked off along the edge of the receding surf.

Looked over my shoulder and the boy was gone. Didn’t matter. the comfort I felt was real, comfort not security. The horse ambled for a while then entered a bouncing trot. I gripped mane and rope. He made a slow wide arch and trotted away from the ocean and towards the dunes. Then he broke into a long lope. Now I was frightened. I leaned forward, head to one side, and hugged his neck in an effort to stay on. We hit the grassy cap of a dune and he dug in and leapt forward. We were airborne for a very long two seconds and as I looked down I saw two terrified people, a man and a woman laying on the sand in an embrace, shielding their heads from flying sand as they looked up at the underbelly of some great beast its form distorted by the sun directly above and beyond.

We landed hard yet he still picked up speed then slowed as we approached buildings. There at the open gate stood the little Mexican boy flipping my quarter and whistling for my borrowed charger, my Bucephalus, my first horse. The horse stopped, I slid off, and the boy followed his steed back into the farmyard. I walked back to the beach house weighing my adrenalin rush.

The story of my first experience with a horse is very much a curious empty box. It actually forebode of nothing yet it has always been there, sock-like, to take on whatever relevance or meaning I needed to apply. For me sleeping at the edge of the sea in a rooftop vegetable garden and feeling the immersion in a strange yet intensely familiar language is all very important to the story of that first ride. So as I think about beginnings and all those things that go into shaping a life’s work I find myself slipping on the sock that is this story as I try to understand the force of my earliest attractions to farming, art and horses.

People ask this question in many shifting forms; “What made you choose the life of an old-fashioned horse-farmer?” Sometimes I answer it, sometimes I don’t even make an effort. But now I’m intensely interested in understanding how we must crack the new armors of the young if we are to “get through to” candidate novices, those people who think they want to do what we do. And we must get through to them if we are to complete the hand-off, the passing of the proverbial baton. So that means we have to honor all these questions and make good attempt to honestly and completely answer them. To that end, and pointing back to that story of my first horseback ride, I tell that I had experiences which instantly cemented my attraction to horses and farming and the creative arts. Those stories have become more important than any polemic about the politics of these life choices. People are drawn to the evidence that our most human of attractions might be shared. Later, perhaps much later, we can get around to how to do these things. In the beginning, we need to allow the sharing to flourish and the attractions to be gathered as definition of our future.

Union with the Work

The attractions, realized, understood or catalogued, though important for motivation don’t necessarily provide a foundation for learning. That requires building with some foresight. When you build, helter skelter, with little or no thought for the long haul, you invite that what you build will be less than it might be. Your start must be about building a foundation. At whatever age or background you might hold or have, if you decide to embrace a craft, learn it, practice it hopefully some day master it, how you start, be it deliberate or happenstance, – how you start will affect your success. When I started out, in the early seventies, to learn the craft of working horses, I had absolutely no sense of this. And there was no cultural framework to try to instill this in me. Way back then society was well on its way in the wholesale process of demeaning, belittling, devaluing the life of the craftsman especially within a discipline like agriculture where the big money had settled on industrial process. Back then there were no schools, no books, no videos, no computer internet elements, nothing that said come here to learn. I know now that I was lucky beyond measure for the genuine relationships I stumbled onto that gave me internship with true masters. One in particular, Ray Drongesen, gave me the foundation necessary to allow that what I was to build would carry for a lifetime, and perhaps beyond. Ray taught me to get the mechanical stuff right, to pay attention to details and to quit trying to analyze everything. He taught me to hurry up and get it done. Before any ad agency sucked the life out of the words he repeatedly told me to just do it.

Mentors and mentorship come often as casual and fleeting bits of experience, not always structured and prescribed. But the structured internship can be most durable. I do, or try to do, many things with my days including farming and painting and writing. I never saw myself as one who would become a writer. While attending the SF Art Institute in the sixties I was required to take English. Didn’t do well at it at all until a visiting instructor changed everything for me. He required all of us art students to sit on the floor cross-legged and just listen as he told stories. “Now,” he said, “tell us your own stories and hear yourself writing those words down.” Every so often he’d interrupt and say “cool” or say “listen to yourself, you don’t talk like that.” His name was Ken Kesey and his subsequent literary contributions are legendary. As a teacher and as the one who I consider to be my writing mentor he was a liberator. He allowed me to give up on notions of what it meant to write correctly and embrace what it meant to communicate, to tell a good story and to see in that story its value out away from the teller. To see the story as a hollow conveyance. A one sock.

Though less than perhaps at any time in modern history, mastery of a craft, of a handmade skill-set, of a human way of working, of an art form is still valued by society. To be a masterful farmer, or musician, or carpenter, or writer, or … is, by consequential effect, to be a positive contributor to the future of all humanity. And it is an accomplishment to be earned over a lifetime of devotion to the requirements of that craft; routines, rituals, menus, formulas, procedures and ever-unfolding spectrums of possibilities for adventure and innovation – it all goes together to make of that farmer/artist a seamless union with the work.

Some disciplines offer devices and opportunities to see a life’s work, a mastery, passed forward in time to new generations. It comes when there are devices to record and store the evidence and the recipes. Books, artifacts that reveal themselves completely, sometimes film, sometimes recorded sound. Even so, to study a set of original paintings by Rembrandt or Georgio Morandi or Albert Bierstadt or Winslow Homer or Charles Burchfield – masters all – may reveal to the thirsty and prepared eye many secrets of process but it never will reveal the realities of natural facility, context, reflex, failings, urgings, and captured hungers. If these things, specific to these artistries, are to be learned completely it must come from shared experience and/or from a hard long road of parallel experience.

Sir Albert Howard was a masterful soil scientist, farmer, and lay nutritionist. Today some of us credit him with the beginnings of “Organic” agriculture, while others of us see him as an ordained protector of the biological world. Howard, thankfully, wrote books and papers. (See An Agricultural Testament for one.) He established agricultural test stations, and he taught others. They in turn, along with his written words, allowed that his exceptional and incredibly valuable work come forward to us. But Howard did not spring from a vacuum, he came to us courtesy of the influences of other powerful thinkers and doers. The list of names goes back in time just as those who were influenced by Howard directly have moved forward in time. No brainer you might say. You recognize the value in these handoffs? Then why is it we find ourselves in these dark days falling so far back? How is it that ‘apprenticeship’ has come to mean so little to the individual and to society at large? How is it that tradition is now viewed as silly?

“Where He Got Off,” oil on canvas, Lynn R. Miller.

Stop The Bus, This Is Where I Get Off

Though I obviously must think that stories of some of my past experiences are useful and fair game in these editorial slots, it is long past time for this publication to evolve to that other plain where the examples come fresh from new sources. Old age is supposed to bring wisdom, if that is so then I know by fleeting experience that in my case I was wise for about twenty minutes one Wednesday afternoon about three years ago. Since then I’ve been struggling to keep the boat afloat and wisdom often got in the way. It does not come from a place of wisdom when I say that my job now is to find for you and this publication someone or ones else to climb up on this soap box every three months. Until other options afford themselves, I will continue to work to keep the boat afloat. And doubtless, slipping in at other spots within this journal, I may wish to insert some of my article copy. So this is my happy song of transition. Thirty-eight years is a pretty good stretch.

I do sincerely wish that some “tough” people would step up who might want to learn from me where the treasures are buried for this publication and reader community. I do want to share that stuff but only if we can be convinced that there is long term commitment, toughness and genuine passion. You deserve nothing less. LRM