Farming as a Sacred Trust
by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
Nobody watched me before; now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me and the window behind me,
Where, once a day, the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
– Sylvia Plath
It was the state game warden who, when driving slowly by in the morning’s foot deep snow, noticed an anxious heifer of ours. Following the attention lines from the heifer’s eyes, he saw the wet, red bundle folded into the branches of a fallen tree. Apparently the new mama had backed up against the mass of limbs as she gave birth resulting in the calf falling into and folding itself up in the tangle. New mama took it badly to say the least.
The game cop immediately came to our house and let Kristi know. Off she went and with the officer’s help rescued the shivering calf from the strange cage. Kristi knew she had a balancing act; how to warm the calf while not interfering in the heifer’s hopefully natural inclination to bond with and accept the baby. Mama heifer was frantic and confused, calf was close to shock and needing sustenance. Back to the house she went for colostrum. After getting the first milk into the calf’s stomach and seeing that the heifer wanted nothing to do with the baby, we loaded the calf on the pickup tailgate and took it to the maternity ward that is our little barn. The state policeman was with us every step of the way.
The calf, weeks old now and named after the officer, is now strong and frisky. The mama heifer, for a while in the same stall with her baby, had no interest, so Kristi maintains the bottle schedule. A simple case where farmers interceded with the natural process and miraculously saved an animal’s life. I can attest to the fact that at no point in that string of events did anyone measure the profitability of the exercise. We did it because it is our charge, our responsibility, our choice. It could be argued that it wasn’t the officer’s responsibility either, but he wanted to help.
A few days later, while I was at a dentist’s appointment, the nurse asked “how’s the calf?” “Huh?” – was my dullard response, partly because we are in the midst of calving so ‘which one is she talking about, and how does she know we have cattle?’ Turns out that the assisting officer’s wife works for the dentist. And everyone at the office was sharing in the saga of the ‘tree-born’ calf that her husband had helped to save. Now, the officer’s little one and a half year old son wants to meet the calf for himself. Lovely circle in this little story which is more important than might first appear. We farmers are prone to “see” those circles because, even after decades of experience, farming is what we love, farming in all of its aspects. We are doing what we want to do and that measures up to being in full attendance and seeing and feeling the good and not so good of every moment. These experiences give off abiding warmth that keeps our motive for farming alive. Sharing this world increases the warmth, it’s the outer edges of trust and faith, where the best fruit hangs.
Farming as a trust?
Farming, at its essence, has offered, and still does, a set of opportunities for man to work in communion with nature. Farming is always best as a calling, as a soul’s livelihood, as a grandparent’s handoff, as a hand on a planting stick with heart to the magic. Farming is that everyman’s punch card to self-sufficiency and holy order. All of these reasons and more are why I say farming is a sacred trust; one of the sublime possible marriages of man to nature, nature to man, wherein sustenance is the outcome because nature – worshipped, sweet-talked, coaxed, listened to, courted, fed, groomed, honored and stewarded in minuscule ways and at minuscule stations – allows it so.
But we of the wider developed world, all of us complicit, turned our collective backs on farming and went with, or allowed, an industrial pursuit we now call agriculture, a glorified, indentured, hopped-up, sharecropper’s pursuit governed by corporate law and sanctioned by the lords of profits. This unfortunate agriculture has made of every one of us dependents, addicts of convenience if you will. We cannot live without the monolith that is agriculture because we believe we cannot live without it; it brings us daily our milk, bread, eggs, pizza and grains – does it not? Who amongst the wider population is able to provide themselves these essentials from scratch? The handfuls of true farmers are. But who else? The historians and economists and politicians want us to believe that we are so very lucky to have our robust, genetically engineered, test-tube, plastic-wrapped, corporate agriculture. They ignore the hundred years story of corporate agriculture’s rape, warp and pillage of nature, the environment, and biological diversity. Corporate agriculture is guilty of ravaging the land and destroying the biological diversity and environmental health of the planet.
In spite of this there are a few million people on the planet who still see themselves as farmers in communion with nature. In this country the number is but a few thousand. And of those few there are small farmers and big ones. Scale doesn’t always define. Motive always does. It doesn’t matter whether you farm 10 acres or 10,000, if you do it strictly for profit with no eye towards what is owed nature; in that way you are not a farmer you are an agriculturalist. And it is NOT a question of science versus superstition, it’s a question of who owns science and who arms superstition, it is a question of ‘to what ends’ do we use science and superstition.
If however you farm to feed your family and neighboring families, if you farm to be wholly in nature, if you farm to hold legacy and stewardship as sacred, you are NOT an agriculturalist, you are a farmer. Maybe I am guilty of forcing the semantics, but I am not forcing the meanings and the history of consequence.
Nature provides us with food, water, shelter and connection with our biology. Some in academia and leadership would say this makes of nature a financial asset. In and of itself, that assignment is ridiculously arrogant. It is as if to say nature ‘belongs’ to us to use as we see fit. And that she is but one ‘asset’ we have in our social ditty bag. It would suggest that we have options for other food and water – we do not. It would suggest that we have a choice whether to ‘balance’ our needs with the health and vitality of nature. We do not. Nature is everything, she is vital yet we do not now treat her so. Nature is essential. In some ways we treat her as a nuisance. We treat her as a wild thing which needs to be corrected, improved upon, controlled.
We think we know best and demonstrate that we don’t know much. We dam the rivers to control water flow and generate power, then we tear the dams out to return flow to the rivers for fishery habitat, soon we’ll come back round to damming the rivers again.
We put up elaborate, massive wind farms because we think we know better, and those farms kill untold numbers of migratory birds. We cannot see the value of the birds to our ecosystem. Soon we will and then we shall tear down the wind farms.
We dump our collected garbage in the oceans, out of our sight and out of our mind while the plastics and toxins destroy the larger part of our ecosystem. We cannot see that the garbage we produce from the ridiculous lifestyle we insist upon is accumulating in bulk to the point that the planet is at greater and greater risk – from us.
Some might say it is humanity that is an out of control nuisance.
And then there are these ones, these farmers who stand separate defined by their motives. They are, in these changing days, finding their numbers growing. So is there a solution in plain sight?
Though we may, if fortunate, farm with friends and family, even so we often find ourselves alone in this working communion with nature. Alone except that the farming, the fields, the livestock, the plants, they all have eyes on us. It can at times feel uncanny, are they us? They see who we are and who we have been in our time with them. Come new to this exceptional work of farming and find that, though nobody may have watched you before, now you are watched. Don’t let that realization trouble you. See the good humor there, see the useful humors there. Those mules, oxen, workhorses see you coming, see you as you are with them, see you leaving and feel what you take with you. Hear the workmates plead for feed even before you have entered the barn, they see you. See the grasses of the field bend towards you as you walk into the wind to measure them. See those hens cock their little heads towards you to see which hand holds the grain you might fling. There, those parched plants in their tentative rows plead for water and later thank you as their colors return. There’s that perpetually flooded alkaline corner of the field wondering when it might be drained. There’s your free verse fencing which would wave a loose wire your way for attention if it could.
While good humor is splendid ‘fertilizer’ to apply liberally to your farming days, grumpiness is not so good. Please explain, you ask. Okay, let me try: When I’m grumpy I see my failings first and I frequently waste time arguing with the need for self forgiveness. When I’m in good spirits, the forgiveness I give my less than worthy self is always already done and way back behind. I’m beyond that in an instant, looking forward and around. It’s easy to see the positive in what I have accomplished, in my work today, and the work ahead. What I ‘see’ governs my choices. I ‘see’ that the conditions are right today for early plowing – so I might move ahead with that. Or, I ask myself, should I just disc the ground up? The view of what I did last year is fresh in mind and I pick up on how the ground I spring toothed harrowed, disc harrowed, rolled and planted was side by side with ground I plowed deep and worked up well. The same crops planted in those side by side lands produced dramatically different results. The plowed ground out produced the other by twice the yield. I see when measuring the conformation and health of those yearling heifers that the choice I made with the breeding bull was a solid one. And I think on the next choices. I see this late winter that once again the bees did not make it through and I wonder after new ways to try, new things that might give the next colonies a better chance.
Do not suppose, as you read this, that I set myself up as an example of how to be a good farmer, a conscientious steward, a better human being. I don’t for I am not. As a story teller and ticket taker I am but a reflection of my time, space and choices in this life and in this corner. Have I had successes? No time to check.
Whether I am farming, writing or painting; I often have no usable way of measuring my success save for what authority I grant myself. And as a thinking feeling human being, deeply in love with my partnership with nature, those moments when I must grant myself authority terrify me. I have lived now three quarters of a century and it hasn’t gotten easier to make decisions about life and death matters. A few days ago I had to put down one of my old Belgian geldings, he was 31 and laid down unable to get up. He was all but done with life.
I have a fifty year old backhoe which works only because I forgive its missing parts and loud hiccups. I have no doubt that when I am gone the only one who would ever be able to work it successfully is my son for he carries himself and approaches life in mirrored forgiving ways.
I took all the necessary precautions and preparations and got the old machine running in the freezing weather. Then I babied it half a mile to where I would bury my old equine friend and work mate. I picked an excellent spot surrounded by young trees. The ground was stone free and dark with moisture. The digging was easy and I quickly noticed that the moisture line was three feet down. Below that was dry, dry powdery dirt. Here it was February with the mud a foot deep and snow still under the trees, yet at just three feet down the earth was telling me there was no reserve moisture for the coming year. When I finished burying Rex and saying my goodbye’s and thank you’s, I took the long slow dozer crawl back to the farmstead thinking about my time working horses, this land that I love, these emotional notches that come from such defining events and that soil moisture.
I had forty acres to finish tilling and to plant. Some of the seed was on hand but most of it would need to be purchased. The clear evidence that moisture may well be a concern again this year told me I needed to choose forage that would do well enough if there was no rainfall or irrigation available. Timing, tillage, seedbed conditions, and more needed to be thought through. I was granting myself authority to make choices and wagers on this year’s outcome. And, though ‘well enough’ rattled around in my sensibilities as a governing determination, I knew that was not acceptable unless it included a measure of return to the land and protection for the ecosystem. What were my choices then? Did I need to consider at least half of that acreage to go into a green manure crop with no view this year of producing forage? The thoughts then went to a laundry list of farming and stewardship options until I remembered how this started, with the burial of my work horse Rex and that burial view of soil moisture.
One man or one woman in a moment, there’s the view of farming as a sacred trust.