“Do you have any toys Uncle B?”
by Bill Ward II of Mountain City, TN
My nephew turned 4 last week. He looks like my sister-in-law, but peering though the window watching a cold March rain he is the 7th generation to look across the narrow creek valley and up towards the hillside pastures.
He and his younger sister are staying the weekend with their grandmother, and a short walk through the woods from the homeplace and farm. After chores I walked up to sit with them during breakfast. Instead of the oatmeal, farm eggs, toast, homemade blackberry jelly, and apple butter set upon the table he asked for a Hardees cinnamon roll. His sister discovered a spoon makes a handy catapult and launched oatmeal across the table and all over herself. She’s cute, messy, but cute. I helped clean up, and asked if he’d like to go help on the farm. In a flash he is putting on his coat, and struggling with his new “farm boots.” We walk the old wagon road down the hill and through the early spring woods like his father and I used to do. The morning is mild but the sky is overcast and threatening. The ewes were fed by sunrise but he wants to check on the new lambs and fork a flake of hay and scoop a handful of corn into their feed troughs. He scatters corn for the chickens and musters up the courage to pet Emma the Maremma. He and Emma stand eye to eye and she has always been just a bit more interested in him than he in her. Today is different. He is growing up.
My work is behind or at least feels like it. I enjoy spending time with my niece and nephew, but part of me regrets asking him to “help” when I have a long list of jobs and projects demanding my attention. A bag of clover seed hangs from the rafter of the corn crib. Grass and clover should have been frost seeded in February, but it was abnormally warm and dry, so I waited. Temperatures in the 70’s triggered buds to swell on the gnarled apple tree in the fence row while a bright green hue swept across the pasture seeps as confused grass crept cautiously upward. March arrived like a lion, bringing snow, ice, rain, and a bottomless sea of mud. Today it’s wet, but not terribly muddy. Grabbing a large bucket for myself and small one for him I open the gate into one of the winter paddocks. My reliable Border Collie, Mac, will drive a group of ewes into this small field after supper, letting them work the seed into the ground. After a couple days of trampling and a forecast of freezing and thawing temperatures ahead the seed should have adequate contact with the soil, and be harder for my rogue chickens to find.
I point to bare spots in the pasture and show him how to scatter a handful of seed over them. He is preoccupied swinging his empty bucket and peppering me with a hundred questions about clover, mud, sheep, chickens, and the host of mysteries perplexing to four-year-old’s. I’m not sure he’s paying much attention to the task at hand. I’m not terribly confident he knows what to do but I send him off, staying within ear shot and where I can keep an eye on him. He is focused on the ground but throwing seed into the wind. It doesn’t appear to be a very effective method, but sowing clover is a good job for a boy, and I’m thankful for his company. We work half an hour before a cold drizzle turns into a steady rain accompanied by a brisk wind. We retreat to the house and sit by the stove to warm up. “Do you have any toys Uncle B?” Upstairs I find the Fisher Price® “Little People Farm Set” his father and I played with as boys. The silo is missing, but the plastic barn is full of farm animals, tractors, and toy farmers wearing bright bandanas and broad yellow hats. On my eighth birthday I asked for a Holstein heifer calf but ended up with 2 toy Holstein cows instead. They live in the miniature barn (even the one missing a leg) alongside several animals from my father’s farm set. Survivors from his circa 1955 set include realistic depictions of a Jersey cow and calf, a sow with her piglets, a turkey, ducks stamped in a row, a rooster, several hens, and chicks. What I cannot find are the thick cardboard cutouts of individual horses, cows, and sheep. One side displayed a picture of a Shire horse or Shorthorn cow, with a breed description on the back. They stand upright on wooden blocks we often used as hay bales and were his grandfather’s as well.
He settles down to play and set up his farm, just the way he wants it. All the animals have their place. A few chickens peer from the hay loft. The Holsteins “graze” near the barn while the pigs “root” behind. He leaves the cow with the missing leg in the barn “so she’ll get better” he says.
From birth children from farming families are inundated with farm themed toys, rubber boots, stuffed cows, and trite “my other stroller is a tractor” t-shirts. I’m guilty of buying stuffed Border Collies and fuzzy sheep, but not anything to do with tractors. I do it hoping to keep farming on their mind and pique their curiosity. When my nephew turned one month old his great aunt knitted a cow outfit, complete with little horns stitched to a cap they tied around his head. Propping him in a corner his maternal grandparents took an overwhelming number of pictures with the caption “Ready to go milking with Uncle B” for everyone in the family and Facebook land to see. I’ll admit it was cute, but those photographs are a bitter pill. I sold the Jerseys that year. He missed the opportunity to help during milking time. He missed riding to the barn atop gentle, plodding Shorty. He missed the well-choreographed dance Slim and I rehearsed everyday, she kicking and I dodging hooves while securing the milker. But here he is “farming.”
Farm toys, in a small way, give a nod to a universal underlying need, and that is for farms. Lots of farms. Small, diversified, unique, healthy, ecologically rich farms. Seated deep within the human psyche is the innate yearning to connect with and be a part of nature, to share our lives with the plants and animals that sustain us and which we in turn care for. Playsets speak to that. Children are drawn to depictions of cows, horses, chickens, and people on the land, and living from it. A monoculture cornfield playset (if they exist) would not be a very engaging play thing. A large green and yellow board bereft of animals, trees, and people wouldn’t inspire much imaginative play. Feedlot miniatures are sterile and industrial rather than agricultural — which they are. I seriously doubt any child asks for a manure lagoon to complete his confinement dairy set. Farms, real farms, either in reality or as play things, inspire. They’re beautiful. They engage the senses. Every farm is a distinct place, different and unique according to and mirroring the land, people, and animals that belong to it and are a reflection upon it. They encompass the natural cycles of birth, growth, maturity, and death. Those of us fortunate to steward a small piece of earth know this and are drawn forward into this circuitous ballet again and again. Some days are hard. Some mistakes we live with for a long time. But in the spring we start all over. Grass grows, lambs are born, seed is sown, and just maybe the next generation walks outside feeling the call of newly plowed earth.
I get on the floor and “farm” too, directing his attention to the visible veins on the Jersey cow’s udder and setting up the play farm how his father and I used to. He tolerates my encroachment, but moves all the animals back where he wants them after I walk away. I smile, but feel a twinge of guilt for my previous inclination to rush through my work without the restraints of a four year old tagging along. It turns out what I considered a burden, was actually a blessing for a sodden March afternoon. I don’t know if he’ll be a farmer when he grows up but it’s good having him here. It’s good to know he is curious, and enjoys “farming” in the living room. And it’s good to spend a day stomping through mud scattering clover to the wind with a four year old.