Farming Archipelagos and Nested Hope
by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
In 1981 I bought an eight year old, half Brown Swiss/half beef cow at a rural auction yard in Douglas County, Oregon. We named that cow Begonia. She had a pleasant disposition and became one of our herd’s lead cows. Where she went the others followed. She lived to be twenty-eight years old and had an excellent calf, without assistance, every year. We paid $400 for her, all we could afford. The price was a little low at the time but she was an odd-looking, large cow, brindled and big framed with a huge udder. Seemed at the time to be a safe bet.
The other day I was trying to decide whether or not the current value of cattle was realistic (what on earth does that mean?) and set to counting my fingers which led me to remember Begonia. She had twenty calves for us and at older previous valuations they came to a total value in excess of $8,000. She was old-fashioned and unusual; hearty, vigorous, fertile, excellent mother with no drain on our pocketbook. Ugly in a pretty sort of way. A real golden goose. Part of that, perhaps a large part, went back to her mixed breeding and the complimentary cross of dairy and beef. We’ve had plenty of other excellent, long-lived, productive cows, but Begonia stood out. She made us money, gave us a return on our investment that spoke volumes of the essence of good farming’s room for profit.
Now, and then, deep down I knew and know, from experience, that a good cow is an excellent investment. Yet when the values sky-rocket as they have I still have to hesitate. One of my other learned lessons, over half a century of trying to farm, is that investing in something when the values are at new and/or unusual highs most often results in substantial losses later. I’ve almost always benefited when I purchased livestock and seed when it was out of favor. All of that comes from the wellspring of experience which I like to think of as a ‘place’ we might luckily come to find ourselves in, a kind of mental state which would help us with tricky choices. But it means we need to keep tabs on who we are and where we have been. Threads, such as the story of our shared life with Begonia the cow, need to be kept where we can get to them when we make new decisions. Otherwise the new false urgencies of these modern times will catch us, over and over again.
Fuel prices, now half of what they were a year ago, mystify us up front – but deep down most of us aren’t really surprised. We get all those arguments of how supply and demand has been put on its head and that today’s prices are a direct reflection of today’s supply levels but it doesn’t take much to see that this is not the truth. As farmers we have to project forward and fuel prices might be a part of that puzzling equation, so we ask ourselves are today’s prices realistic, can we count on them going forward? Can we budget for them?
Turbulent times, the whole world is in a massive unpredictable storm at sea. And people focus on what they individually see is wrong with the world and fester around their indignation. Lots of indignation out there and it’s oozing oily flammable scepticism and causes d’jour. And we want to believe that the general public, ‘indignant’ about what’s wrong with the world, the environment, and humanity, spells a real force for positive change. But alas that indignation is dividing off into countless slimy globules of oily acid floating across that stormy sea, bouncing off each other and dividing further as it does. And with each division come new levels of silliness and irrelevance. We don’t want to even talk about specific causes as examples of what we see for fear it might give ANY credence to the stupidities. We do need to talk about, or at least observe, that this gurgitation, this agitation, these foments are dividing humanity further and further and at a time when we could darn sure use some ‘coming together’.
Most anywhere we turn we can find spokesmen for extreme views of the world today. One side has it that we are in a golden information era with high-tech delivering us the true democratization of thought. Everyone’s an expert. All information is free and easily accessible. But is it? Another side says the high-tech world is destroying the human spirit and paving the continued way for the corporate destruction of society and the planet. Is that so? Yet another thought stream would nod to those two extremes and observe that in spite of, and perhaps because of, those things we are seeing new young generations of free-thinking, caring, creative folk hard at the necessary work of saving the planet and building a better society. May we believe this? Follow this stream right down to the silliest little sore points and I’m sure you can add all sorts of ‘positions’ and beliefs to the story of what’s right or wrong with the world today.
Our own farming adventure, remote and insignificant as it is, gives us welcome insulation from what most people feel as tightly-packed daily pressures, concerns and, calamities. We have made a life for ourselves on our farm which on best days allows that the quietude and hum of nature’s fabric gives us strength and calm. This spring, working up fallow ground, I allow myself to sniff and turn slowly trying to understand what the grand evocative smells and sensations of the dirt-stirring tells me. The cooks amongst us might know what I mean when I say I smell a subdued vinegar mixed with rising bread dough hovering over the new/old soil, the soil turned up to ‘talk’ with the sky and beg for moistures. And of the evening as I watch, the mule deer return to that same piece of ground they grazed yesterday to find it altered, I am pleased to see them scamper like new goat kids discovering that their front ends can be made to move separately from their back ends. The pillowy spring of the tilled earth pushes back at the deer, and they see humor in that. I feel strong comfort in these things as assurances that nature still blankets us all. Then I drive a hundred miles or more to a city and feel it strip from me to be replaced by a general sense of illness, I don’t feel well.
You don’t feel well, you take something for it and you feel better, so much so that you quit taking that curative. You start to feel bad again and instead of going back to the medicine which helped you, you tell yourself it didn’t work because you didn’t stay well. Inside of that story-line we can see relationships to each of our farming adventures, to society as a whole and to the pickle we find ourselves in with regards to the health of the planet. We have much of the information and experience we need to make things much better. Although useful new ideas and approaches will always present themselves, we must trust that what worked before will work again.
Many of us need to be reminded, directly and forcefully, that what works for us, what makes us feel connected and healthy, must be held close, appreciated constantly, protected. It can slip away and leave us behind. Over this last half century countless folk have come to us, because of the Journal, to share that they were happiest, healthiest, strongest when they were on their farm farming. Even when the numbers didn’t pan out, even when external pressures abounded, they were still at their best. “Society” said to them then, as it does today, that they could and should want for more and that this life of farming was cheap and dull and hard. None of that was ever true.
It wasn’t/isn’t better in the city, in suburbia, working for a big business, competing, shoving, grabbing, belonging purely and totally to the plastic “system.” And those lives lived on the farm, in sync with nature, growing food, family and identity, were never cheap, never dull and always substantially, enjoyably and profitably hard. For humanity it has long been the grand bargain, I’m speaking of farming. You put in the time growing food and managing the defined microcosm of nature that is your place and you in turn receive an opportunity for an outstanding life. And then there is what you have made and cared for, that place we call your farm. It reaches out beyond its confines and fertilizes planet and human health.
If, in these times of advancing biological sterility, we might agree to see an intensely fertile, naturally managed farm as an oasis; a green magnet for wide and various life surrounded by a vast desert-like dead zone; an island, if you will: what might we see and feel of a cluster of such oases? Were we truly speaking of islands as an analogy, a cluster of them would be called an archipelago. As an opening brushstroke in a concerted campaign to save the planet and most of its inhabitants, I enjoy the image of many archipelagos humming and flowering all round the world.
Each and every farm, regardless of size, has the potential to become a biological world unto itself, a mini ecosystem, a regenerative universe, a playground for fertility and health, a nest-like haven for family. Therein sterility is abated. Therein we rediscover the value and advantages of a deliberate culture, a culture which flowers, flourishes and follows.
This essay began with a prod into the economics of farming; it started out asking how to measure the acceptable cost of a good cow. And the words have progressed to hopefully suggest that a very direct and simple analogy can be made to decisions about our wider life choices. Of even greater importance are the questions of the economics of saving the planet. Think of the choice to farm, to invest one’s self in a farming operation: what is that going to cost you – and us? Does that cost pan out, is it a good investment for you and for all of the rest of us? I believe the evidence is remarkably clear; the choice to farm will work for you and for all of us. The investment that is required, if sensibly chosen and approached, will create a substantial return in both tangibles and intangibles.
Now with the first stages of a political detente (or easing of relations); on the island of Cuba we are just barely allowed to see what years of ‘isolation’ has wrought for biology. Here, perhaps for only a short time, exists a laboratory that tells us what it might mean to stop pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and GMOs. To halt the application of toxic industrial fertilizers. Halt all of that poison NOW and what have we wrought? The evidence is so fabulously dramatic that we can fully expect that media and store-bought scientific community will ignore it completely. Over the ages, many smart people paying attention to the natural world have observed the incredible capacity of nature to regenerate herself, to re-pollinate, reseed, regrow, and reinvent. Over these many years a handful of smart people have repeatedly commented on the clear evidence that corporate ethos, industrial excess, and scientific hubris push for the planet and the human species to pass away and soon. Some worry aloud that irreversible damage has been done. With the Cuban lab we can see the awe inspiring spectrum of nature’s ability to heal and replenish itself – IF we arrogant humans would but give her a chance.
With Cuba we see a world within the world of spectacular biological diversity evidenced by Polimia Snails, Rainbow Snails, Ligus Land Snails, Bee Hummingbirds, Cuban Trogons, Blue-headed Quail Dove, Iberian Dwarf Eleuths (frog), Cuban Hutias (forest rodent), Cuban Finches, and Bananaquits to name but a few of the species which live solely or primarily on that island and its oceanic environs.
I pray that the rush to monetize this island paradise into yet another Trumplandia will somehow fail miserably and that nature retain majority ownership.
Forty some years ago we were all treated to the hideous show of thalidomide’s needless toll on the human equation. Offered as a beneficial drug after passing research and testing muster, the drug was given to pregnant women. Something happened in the biological world to cause the drug’s cellular structure to produce it’s own mirror-image and the unexpected results were massive birth defects and a compromising of the human gene pool. The scientific community did not foresee this! We don’t know what we don’t know: and the arrogance with which commercial science (pharmaceuticals and genetic engineering) plunge the human experiment down to darkness is truly mind and spirit boggling. How is it that the brightest(?) humans insist on applying a complete disrespect for the mysteries of the natural order, for the unfathomable and myriad equations of biological life? It’s because they will not allow themselves the free and unfettered exploration of life’s molecular equations. When we mess with nature how can we ever know the short and long term effect?
Do we want this global culture that we collectively have created for ourselves? I don’t think so.
Accidental, unintended and un-embraced cultures, the cultures of neglect and run-amok commerce, culture as a consequence of the aggravated and aggregated collateral damage of societies – the foreshortening of moral equivalency to the mass coronation of plausible insincerities. “Let them work for it.” “We are the kings of cool!” “I am the Queen of my own beauty.” “I am not my sister’s keeper.” “They are the aristocracy of their own fashion sense.” Blah blah blah, as in “why do we bother to think any more?”
While it may be argued that to deliberate the design and construction of a culture is to de-liberate most literally and likely with hideous consequence; corporate ethos is working overtime to design an ideal world for all of us and to strip us of the desire to fight it. That our completely disengaged larger society rolls-over for commercial belly scratches, whilst humanity burns, guarantees humanity the scrummage (everyone locked arm and arm and competing for the inbounding of synthetic pastries) we have today. In this view we have, each and every one of us, become our own clones. We have become shadows of ourselves. We have become herdable.
My old cow Begonia was never herdable. Not in the sense that you could threaten her, and get her to find the comfort of a cluster of other cows, and then move them all along. She was a true leader, an individual. So as farmer I had to learn to go with that. Instead of herding them I found that I could move my cattle by announcing to Begonia that I was opening the gate to allow her to go where she wanted to, and all the others followed. (The trick was making where she wanted to go be where I wanted her to go.)
I suspect that we as farmers aren’t leaders, not in any true sense of the word. But I do believe the best of us independent farmers supply valuable counsel to leaders; valuable because we are so grounded in the reality of our working world. What I get from that is that we as farmers need to continue to do our very best – as farmers. For in those examples and in that production we will attract the ‘leaders’ to our example and they just may choose to go through the next gate we open, followed by their herd into a better pasture where they can proceed to re-liberate and be their new culture. Where they might observe the gross and commercial simplicity of modern humanity evolve naturally to a more complex and respectful level.
So we farmers just do our thing remembering to occasionally open the right gate and keep our fingers crossed that humanity will allow itself to become the measurements of what was most important, what is most valued.
What it costs to buy a cow today? What fuel takes out of our wallets? Those dollar amounts do not/should not define us – and, with that, should not define our choices. The over-arching, permeating influence on our economic reality, on our dollars is inflation. Money is worth ‘less’. None of that matters though. How much I ‘made’ off Begonia is not most important. The fact that you and I value such things, that fact says we are farmers; good constructive, reliable, hard-working, seed-gathering, cow-caring, plant-watering, barn-filling farmers. That is our ‘reality’. We are part of a sea of farming archipelagos. And we lend the world nested hope. Farming is the place to be. LRM
angiogenesis: (biology) the process of an individual organism growing organically; a purely biological unfolding of events involved in an organism changing gradually from a simple to a more complex level.