Farming is Blood Knowledge
by Elizabeth Quinn of Bend, OR
photographs by Debra Hollern
For me, farming is a blood knowledge. Diluted as it is, under my skin I carry a knowing; a pulse rippling through me sent from generations before. The pulse is partnered by images collected over my life from time spent in farm country of southwestern Ohio. I have witnessed soil filled cracks on wide, muscular hands, brilliant eyes set in deep creases and broad smiles despite fatigue. I’ve watched the frail, ninety-year old body of my great grandmother bent over tending her 20’ x 20’ garden. I’ve witnessed my father lose his 88 acre patch of family held soil, his dream piece of tradition. I’ve been warmly welcomed to huge mid-day feasts, an unexpected guest, and hugged close, smothered in the breasts of hard-edged, full-bodied women upon my arrival.
This way of life, a farmer’s life, is on my paternal side of things. My maternal side is made up of business owners. From them, I’ve been taught that farmer’s are simple folk; a definition formed by the filter of society’s values based on the outward objects of people. Simple things in farming life as viewed from the eyes of the industrialist are bland potato salad, hog farming, limited formal education, annual family reunions and the dialect of country people. My mother’s family rarely gets together. When they do, the champagne is copious, the food is catered and four letter words are abundant. They are the industrialists with shiny shoes, Indy racecars, funny nicknames and an airplane hanger full of alcohol. They are savvy to the way of the machine; a machine that created a super fund sight in northern Kentucky where a foundry of theirs once stood.
I have never lived where the farmers and industrialists live. Despite the thickness of blood, I have been and always will be a visitor in their lives. Even still, I do feel my blood has poured form into my life. Today, I split my time between a growing urban area in the center of Oregon and the desolate high desert that lies miles and sage southeast of that city.
Last fall, a representative of “the press,” I stood with my mixed blood, in an events tent full of people listening to discussions about oats vs. grass and how to warm up a cold bit in the crook of your arm. With my hair smooth, my shoes clean and my pen poised to paper, I felt the slick business shadow of my mother’s family creep over me. This shadow allowed for the learned judgments to slip in and I began to think I was in a tent full of simple folk, talking about simple things. I thought I might be in for an afternoon of such talk, so I settled in and started to look at the people gathered in the tent. I looked in their eyes and at their hands, and began to see things I recognized; creases, stains, and smiles. This recognition pulled at me. I began to pay attention. I listened with more curiosity, more intention.
We all moved outside to a corral where two Shires and two Percheron stood. My knowledge of horses is shallow. As a young girl, I took English riding lessons for several years and, despite my exposure, I was always a little scared of horses. I guess as a young girl, I’d been thrown, jumped on and kicked in the face by a horse one too many times. My fear lent itself to keeping horses in a neat category of being for show, trail riding or racing.
As I stood near these huge animals, any fear I’d ever felt before was nowhere to be found. Maybe I was just too affected by the sheer size of these horses. Maybe the ripples in my veins became waves of generational blood of my father’s family, drowning everything else out. Maybe I was too impressed by all the information being given and shared; information that spoke to the needs of the animal as a sentient being; information with roots and legs back generations into farming with horses. Whatever the reasons, I was too swept up listening to the best body position for cleaning hooves, the reasons to put shoes on a horse and how to trim the frog, to further fancy my inner industrialist’s initial thoughts about simplicity.
It was announced the four horses were going to be harnessed together and it would be a few moments before they would be “driven” out of the corral to the arena. I had no idea what all that meant, so I turned my attention to the woman beside me. Having looked at the Small Farmer’s Journal a couple of times, I had a sense of this workshop in comparison to the publication, so I asked, “Is this workshop like walking into a live version of the Small Farmer’s Journal?”
She smiled and responded, “Oh yes! I’d never thought of it like that before, but yes it really is. The way people share how to do things, not just Lynn and Doug, but everyone here, it is very much in the same spirit as the magazine.”
Suddenly, there was commotion and we were told to keep our heads up. Peering from my pen and paper, I caught sight of one man, Lynn Miller, leading the four horses I stood near a few moments before out of the corral. I later learned these four horses had never before been harnessed together. I stood stunned as he directed those horses with one leather strap in each hand from the corral into the arena.
Watching the shared pace of four animals and one man shifted something in me. Any shadowy remains of industrialists’ teachings were sent running. Everything I had been taught about the meaning of simple began to be radically altered that day. “If this, a man walking behind four huge animals leading them only by his two hands, is simple, then I don’t think I understand what simple means,” I thought to myself.
The image of one man and four horses, set clear by a purposeful, harmonious gait is one of raw elegance. Such elegance does not come by way of simplicity. It comes from, as Wendell Berry wrote, “the complex accomplishment of knowledge, cultural memory, skill, self-mastery, good sense and fundamental decency.” The accomplishments are gifts of grace; of food, warmth, poetry and deep connection.
The attendees of the workshop, their diverse interests and lives fleshed out complexity for me. I was introduced to several organic farmers. Because of the humble farmers in my family who simply define farming by saying they grow corn and soybeans, I never learned the vastness of farming. The organic farmers I met the afternoon I attended the workshop gave me a clearer picture of the extensiveness of a farming way of life.
After introductions that could have simply begun and ended without any more dialogue, I asked questions; questions that lead to a vision of farming as anything but simple. It’s about raising millet, wheat and barley in coldest part of North Dakota, along with raising cows, chickens, sheep, along with processing wool, along with writing poetry, along with raising children, along with running co-op meetings. It’s about leaving a financially stable career in a chemical engineering field to build faith in a farming way of life; a faith in the relationship of land and people and animals. It’s about living the life you believe in for yourself, for your family, for the place you live. It’s about taking care.
Bearing witness to the stories of farmers’ lives, to the regard for a relic technology that is kinder to the land than machines, to the increased flow of my own generational blood, I now see beyond the raw elegance of one man and four horses moving together. I possess a sketch about elaborate, involved relationships that take endless energy, skill and passion; relationships that produce rich and fruitful gifts. I have only touched the surface of a farming way of life, but I know one thing, there ain’t nothing simple about it.