Hermits & Harbingers

by Lynn Miller

Counting beans that were, beans that are, and beans that are sure to be.


In blind pursuit of the “bottom line” we miss entirely the “top line”. We work so hard to accumulate the means to buy ‘stuff’ that we frequently throw away or disregard our true assets. The truest asset we may ‘own’ is our self, that self which works to provide, works to create, tills, plants, gathers, stores, molds, appreciates, fixes, guides, parents, partners, loves, shapes, mixes, cooks, builds, displays, sells, and prays. Some would say we do not, cannot, own our ‘self’. I must disagree. I believe we all struggle to take ownership of our self, in so far as ownership means awareness. It is a secret of success. And it begins with ‘whole’ accounting.

Farming ain’t what it used to be. We heard that all the time, thirty years ago. Meant that the old general farm, with a family in residence joined by a mixture of livestock and crops, was a thing of the past. “Get big or get out” was the official war cry. And the government pushed hard to make it happen. So the large scale industrial farming model became the mainstream, became the orthodoxy. Now we hear it again, farming ain’t what it used to be. But this time the lament (if that is what it is) takes aim at the poor struggling large scale industrial model. Now, instead of a war cry there are murmurs growing in collective hum, and those murmurs say “Downsize or get out.” Interesting …

Our wealth is hidden within what we truly value. Size and scale and piles of beans can be critically important but not determinate of themselves. You can have the perfect size farm (for you) and a huge pile of beans and feel unsuccessful. You can have a frustrating distant dream of a farm and two beans and feel, because of your appreciative self, a tremendous success. If you ‘feel’ successful you are successful. If you feel unsuccessful….

What determines our success is what we value. I value my experiences and how they shape who I am. I value who I have known, and how I’ve known. I value the stories of my life. The big stories with grand plots, the complicated secret stories, and the little stories of vibrant lesson. When I give myself time to reflect I am showered by those remembered little stories and what they would tell me. Here’s one:

Around the world with Marvin

We had a farm in the coastal range of Oregon, up in a high wet little valley tucked in behind a natural lake. A place outside of time. Neighborhood consisted of six dozen people on farms and homesteads twenty five miles from a rusty mildewed temporary vestige of attempted civilization called a logging and fishing town. The valley was a magnificent and merciless landscape within which this small scattered sprinkling of people proved that even here there was that third criteria beyond race and religion which human society, when allowed, would filter by. A criteria of animal insouciance, of neo-primitive survival. It comes of a people who have become intensely and perhaps even unnaturally natural. You may be of the hour’s chosen religion and race and still be filtered out of society by your displayed attitude towards the trappings of class. Social accounting, where the intangibles frequently enter as debits.

Marvin Haskell was a jovial engaging disjointed hermit. Though by my description it may be hard to believe, Marvin was a real person. A crippled old wizened yet well-fed curmudgeon who lived a mile up the road on his 300 acre timber/former dairy farm. In a tar-paper-covered single-wall fourteen by sixteen foot one room tool shed of a shack with no running water. All the outdoors was Marvin’s outhouse, parlor, and workshop – the whole year long. His entire three-tiered rundown dilapidated farm environ was overgrown from the canary grass and weeds up into the wild Rhododendrons, Myrtle, Alders and beyond to the monstrous canopy of ancient Firs, Spruce and Cedars. Some of Marvin’s trees were so large you couldn’t see them unless you looked for them. Same was true of Marvin. No, he wasn’t so large, it was that you had to look at him to see him. He blended into his background, his world. You had to watch for movement. Be looking right at him with a changing focus. And the movement you saw might be one of Marvin’s two dozen dark wild Jersey cattle flitting around with the deer, bear and elk.

Marvin wasn’t a chameleon or changeling. He was a stinky five foot eight whiskered red-pointy-hatted, double-torn flannel-shirted, cigarette-mooching, wood elf who, in his habitat, blended into his surroundings like an aboriginal hunter or a second-year carpenter’s helper.

Marvin was a hermit but he wasn’t antisocial. He was too good humored. He loved company. No, rather it was hermitage that was forced upon him because our society doesn’t chance co-mingling with stinky, sticky, clinging ‘inappropriateness.’ Not fifteen years ago, especially not today. And hobbling old Marvin, with two different decrepit untied shoes, because one ankle was so badly swollen, looked every bit like an urban alley tragedy.

Yet Marvin Haskell wasn’t exactly down-and-out, he had clear title to 300 acres, half wildly fertile bottom land and half timbered hillsides. The timber was mostly old-growth Fir, nearly 5 million board feet of it. As a long since crippled into retirement logger Marvin knew the value of his trees. He was sitting on a fortune. As a wood elf and “natural” farmer he knew the value of his trees. He was sitting with a trust. Those two values were different, conflictive and Marvin always chose to preserve.

Because Marvin was crippled and alone most of the time he turned to reading. He read everything and it all went together from thirty year old crime magazines, to Reader’s Digest, to donated SFJs, to cheap science fiction novels, to great fiction. And when he needed some cigarettes, or company he’d hobble down the road to the first unlocked door.

At that time I was conducting the Journal business out of my farm house. One summer day, by appointment, an older couple came to go through our reference library in pursuit of technical drawings of carriages. The man was doing buggy restoration work for the retired actress Kim Novak and needed some assistance. His pleasant wife was along for the drive.

He was at the dining room table with piles of books and she was sitting on the couch in the front room reading when the front door opened without a knock. I had grown accustomed to the osmotic comings and goings of several of my neighbors and that definitely included my hermit buddy Marvin.

When he would first enter a room Haskell could almost always elicit from unsuspecting new acquaintances a soup of three emotions; sympathy for his down and out state — disgust for his clinging mooching dirtiness — and humor for his twinkle and vitality. And for reasons beyond my understanding many women seemed to lean towards the sympathy and humor. It was a shared leaning for Marvin did love the ladies, especially if they showed him any attention. Before I could reach Marvin he had already taken his felt cap to his chest and with his dirty hand taken holt of the ladies paw, bending at the waist while he offered a long drawn out self-introduction that was both apologetic and complimentary. My natural reaction was to ‘rescue’ said lady as quickly as possible, but alas I was too late. The bug of unreasonable sympathetic attraction had bit her. I made it clear that Marvin was not to pester the lady and she made it clear that he wasn’t. So I went back to my chair to continue reading submitted manuscripts still within earshot of them for Marvin was already seated next to ‘herself,’ his new ‘lovely lady.’ Her husband perceived no threat and was lost in his buggy restoration research.

I would look up whenever their conversation went into the soft whispers and sink thankful when the volume rose enough for me to follow at least the tenor of Marvin’s talk. But this time Marvin’s theatrical nature and soaring imagination took to new heights. He launched into a tale that began when he was 8 years old and his mother sent him, in a row boat, down the Smith River to its mouth at the ocean harbor at Gardiner to fetch a loaf of bread from the store. (A distance I knew of nearly five miles on the river.) When Marvin arrived he was attracted by the moorage of a massive clipper ship, a freighter, loading for the Orient. Curious boy that he was, he said, he walked up the gang plank to have a look around. The boat was magnificent and he exhausted himself looking into every nook and cranny. So exhausted was he that he crawled into a lifeboat for a nap!

The soggy bent unlit cigarette stub dangled from Marvin’s lip as he stole glances to see if his quarry was hooked, and hooked she was – mouth open, eyes wide, clutching his hand, she didn’t need to say a word. She was right there with that tired little boy asleep in that lifeboat. It was difficult for me not to interrupt this session if only by my chuckles.

Hermits & Harbingers

Marvin Haskell astride Rose. Photograph by Kristi Gilman-Miller.

Marvin continued his story: The ship set sail and the boy was discovered. The men were all for throwing him overboard but the kindly captain made him an offer. Work hard as cabin boy and his life would be spared. The ship sailed to all the Pacific Islands and to the Orient. All along the way there were fantastic adventures reminiscent of Moby Dick and Captains Courageous and Kidnapped and Treasure Island and on and on. Marvin managed to repeatedly save the captain and the ship. It took four years to finally reach India unload the cargo and head back for Gardiner, Oregon but not before the boy wonder was made first mate in a ceremony of laughter, tears and drinking during which the entire thankful crew showered him with appreciation.

The nice lady sat beaming for Marvin’s accomplishment, she was as proud as a waiting mother, prouder than any girl friend had a right to be.

Marvin was energized and told tales about the four year return which made Ulysses look like a supermarket box boy. When finally Marvin arrived back triumphantly to his home port, he asked his audience why she looked so concerned. He was prepared for her realization that it was all just a tall tale and struck momentarily dumb by her query;

“But your mother, what about her? She must of thought you were dead. Oh my that poor worried woman.”

“No,” said Marvin, “I just went over to the store and got the loaf of bread and rowed back home (five miles against the flooded swift river’s current) and she was happy to see me.”

Then Marvin got up and excused himself, said he had to go home harvest the squash and milk his cow. He was speechless for once. Didn’t know how to handle the realization that this woman had believed every word he had said. In his mind perhaps he had failed somewhat to take full license of this creative opportunity. He could have been gone ten years instead of eight, fought three sharks instead of just one, and so on.

This story about Marvin is all true. I treasure it along with several dozen other shared adventures. It is a piece of who I am. It is one of the accumulated assets of my life as a farmer and as a small time publisher. If I forget or refuse to count things such as this I dilute my net worth.

Truth in numbers?

Late winter 2001. If you want it or need it or are prone to feeling depressed there is ample current news to hold you down. From disease to greed to incompetence to catastrophe. If on the other hand you want it or need it or are prone to feeling optimistic there is ample current news to hold you up. What are you looking for? That is one thing within your complete control, what you are looking for. (It goes to the core of how we value our self).

I am excited by the evolving social changes which allow and encourage that we look at things in new ways. Our outlook, how we measure things, and who & what we allow to measure us, these are intangible assets or liabilities. My focus, right now, is on assets. What do I value, how do I value it, what does it tell me about possibilities, what does it tell me about the future of my efforts? I am learning that we continue in the dark ages of measurement, of accounting. We are still counting just the beans in the bag with no measure taken of those which remain on the plant, of our ability to grow more beans, of the recipes we may apply to make the beans into soups and salads and necklaces. Who the beans remind us of.

Many of us are tired of reading my criticisms of corporate ethic. In pursuit of clarity, I have labored these last many months to understand the tissues behind the weight of my convictions on this subject. And I’ve come to the realization that it is not about corporate ethics but rather about what this ‘thing’ denies. It is about what we value and how we value it. Corporate ethic, perhaps a quintessential oxymoron in its modern cultural context, is a destructive force. And it is near the core of many of our problems as a society at large and as a community of farmers. But it is not the core. We are the core. Corporate ethic, and the profit at all cost edict it represents, comes because together we haven’t learned how to appreciate all of our assets.

As farmers OF choice, farmers BY choice, we have varying degrees of understanding about why we farm. It is because we are after a thing or things we value. Likely for many of us it is about a valued life and livelihood. We apologize to ourselves, frequently, that in order to achieve, maintain, and secure these things we value we must make a “profit.” Within that apology, that less than certain stance, is a dangerous attitude towards social measure. It implies that we either value profit or we don’t. And that one or the other position is not just a threat it is down right evil. Many of us are zealots in our pursuit of profit for we believe it will make our dreams come true. Many of us are zealots in our disgust with profit for we believe that the pursuit of it destroys our dreams and diminishes that which we truly value. It is from this place that we, at SFJ, have been frequently accused of being against ‘profit’ against ‘wealth’ against ‘big’ against ‘success.’ And less frequently we are accused of being in favor of ‘property rights’ and ‘the market place’ and ‘profit’ and ‘wealth’ and ‘success.’ As if these positions, these measurements were all that mattered, or mattered at all. It comes from a linear way of thinking that ultimately abstracts what is actual so that we can connect assigned dots. It comes from measuring the ‘bottom line’ to the exclusion of any view of the ‘top line.’

Sometime in the fifteenth century heavy thinkers came up with the basic frame- work for modern western accounting. A rule book for what is counted, what is subtracted, and what determines net worth. And accounting has not changed a fig since then. I suggest it is not because the system was/is perfect but because there was never collective vision and wisdom to question it – until now.

We say that it’s time for a new ‘wholistic’ or ‘holistic’ accounting system which welcomes the inclusion of all those intangibles that contribute to a true measure of a life. All those aspects of self and community that have everyday effect on ‘what happens next’.

Making Things Happen

It was a couple of years later and Marvin Haskell had been spreading hints in obvious spots like poorly hidden Easter eggs. His sixty-fifth birthday was coming up and to him it seemed no one cared. It was Kristi that spear-headed the idea of a surprise birthday party for the curmudgeon, “our” curmudgeon. Several ladies worked very hard to set things up. It was to happen at the school. Pot luck supper and cake and ice cream. A volley ball tournament. Horseshoes. A summer time community birthday party for Marvin. Nearly half the population of the little valley was set to come and that included a dozen or so folks genuinely fond of ‘old dirty dirty’ as Marvin had been nicknamed. Actually the full nickname was ‘Old Dirty Dirty the Ridgerunner’ because as a boy Marvin would run the coastal mountain ridges on perpetual errands for his demanding father. A peer of Marvins once told me ‘Haskell ain’t changed a wit since he was ’bout fourteen ‘ceptin’ maybe for the whiskers. Looks the same, smells the same and even back then he was always moochin’ cigarettes.’

To this day I don’t know if Marvin was really surprised. He was pleased, I am sure of that. How could he not have been? Joanne had made a huge cake decorated up to be a Jersey cow and most everybody fussed over him and listened to his new bizarre story about how the Martians had come at night in their space ship, borrowed two of his best cows for breeding research, and returned them to him with an elegant multi-lingual thank-you presentation. And if we didn’t believe him he could show us the two cows, he still had them locked in the barn and the Martians hadn’t hurt them at all.

One of the patriarchs of the valley, Shorty Harrison, rose near the end of the party and gave Marvin a carton of cigarettes as a present. Then Shorty came to us, smiling, and said,

“Nice party. Marvin’s either one clever bugger, or one lucky man. This is his second birthday this year!”

Marvin’s no longer with us, but he is. He’s an asset, so long as I let him be, so long as I hold on to his memory. So long as I count him into the measurement of this life. And now, to lesser and different measure, through the gift of these anecdotes, Marvin is one of your assets – if you let him be .

Sound of enthusiasm

Paradox. Today within corporate business circles new efforts are underway to redesign accounting and provide formula for including intangible assets into net worth. Ways to put a dollar value on copyrights and trademarks which reflect not only future earnings but also reputation, goodwill, and incubation values. We’ve been doing that right along with our farms, but without any sanction or permission.

If we are smart and whole, when we measure our farming venture we take into consideration the intangible assets such as the quality of life it provides. Some are quick to note that you cannot affix a dollar value to quality of life. Yet we pay dollars for entertainment, exercise, vacations, diversions all with a view towards improving the quality of our lives. At that point it has a specific measurable value. If it costs us $2500 to be energized and/or relaxed and happy for a week’s vacation how do we measure a year of good living? I’d rather be out in my field working with my draft horse partners. I know of many people who would pay considerable sums to join me. I figure six months of good farming is worth $65,000 on the quality-of-life market. I would pay it, even after a lifetime of familiarity. Yet the old accounting would have my aggregate time spent working in the field to be less than worthless and that I should actually place a premium on finding ways for machines to do the work. I agree with my Amish friends who say the work is the reward.

But something’s happening. In spite of the old accounting which hammers at us that farming is a losing proposition, hundreds of thousands of new serious small farmers are joining our ranks each year. They are in smart pursuit of the life-style. In our own state of Oregon census figures indicate thousands of new small farmers and the data shows they are intensive operations with the majority involved in organic production for local distribution.

And it is just the beginning. We need millions more small farmers. And we’ll have them because people are reaching for the intangible assets. The attraction and health of this life, and its product, is winning the battle for favorable public measure.

Thank you. LRM