In Praise of Slowness
by Brian Leber, photos by Joanne Aono, both of Wauponsee Township, IL
It is a ritual of sorts. I open the tack room door and take the pair of leather bridles down from the cast iron hook bolted to the pinewood wall and set them down within arm’s reach. Our two big mules, casually chewing their morning oats, quietly watch as I get things ready. I exit the barn for a few minutes to attend to some other tasks outside and when I return, these auburn colored drafts are standing stock still, side by side in their stall, patiently waiting to be harnessed. They know.
We came to this farm several years back. When we first saw this place, Joanne and I, rather than previewing the house as the realtor intended, made a beeline to the barn. While not large, it was built as a sheep barn a century ago, the steep gambrel roof and whitewashed exterior looked exactly like a proper barn should. Once inside we took in the old oak beams and four stall partitions, worn smooth by the countless generations of sheep and then horses, that once called this old barn home. The farm’s outbuildings, slightly weathered but still sound and functional, the large stand of mature coniferous and deciduous trees, a rarity in this former tallgrass prairie in north central Illinois with its mile after mile of industrial-scale corn fields, and a blank slate of tillable land full of dry corn stover waiting to be carved into something showing a little more imagination and purpose, all together meant we had found what we were looking for.
With leather collars buckled around their strong necks, I lift the work harness over their broad mule backs, first securing the hames strap, then the belly band, followed by the pole, and finally the quarter straps. Next come the bridles. I reach up toward a tall equine head and carefully position her long ears through the top leather band then fasten the chin strap securely. Would it be easier to walk to a shed, turn a key, and have an engine rumble into fossil-fuel driven animation? Perhaps. But farming with mules and horses is far deeper than that.
Ours is not a large farm by most measures. Ten acres total. Six in a combination of quarter acre market gardens, generous grass lanes and headlands, with half the grassland kept as a sort of semi-wild meadow where nature, or at least the red-wing blackbirds, countless insects, and other prairie creatures that share our homeplace, can establish residence. The remainder of our small landholding is in fenced pasture, farm structures, house, and trees. Ten acres enough.
Loretta and Emmylou are their names, and they are Belgian draft mules. Sisters. Emmylou is the younger of the pair. She’s the quiet one, perhaps a little shy. Her eyes impart the donkey side of her lineage, making her look a little sad or at least introspective. We think she writes poetry, in her free time. Plath, Rosetti, Kaneko. Emily Dickinson was better known as a gardener in her lifetime than as a poet. Maybe that’s her inspiration.
Then there’s Loretta. My lead mule. She’s smart. She’s strong. She’s beautiful. She’s the kind of mule that looks you in the eye, holding prolonged contact with her deep brown eyes, and seeming to peer inside you, studying you, sizing you up. She can be a handful when the mood strikes her and very independent of thought, but her loyalty is more than I could hope for and she would pull down an oak tree if I asked. My wife says she’s my girlfriend.
I slide open the stall door and with a “Loretta. Emmylou. Let’s go,” the two mules follow me over to the waiting cultivator, now tilted forward in mechanical repose, tongue and yoke resting against the ground. They know their jobs and don’t need me to micromanage. As the mules stand in their respective spots, Loretta on the left and Emmylou on the right, I attach the driving lines, then the yoke, followed by their trace chains, to the cultivator.
Fine art plays a big part in our farm’s place in the world. Joanne is an artist in addition to being a farmer, companion, wife, and excellent stall mucker, and basically is the one who makes all the little details of my big ideas work. She also organizes a program we run called Cultivator, that provides a venue here on the farm to exhibit emerging, established and under-represented artists from both the urban as well as rural worlds. Small-scale equine-centered farming and fine art. Both require dedication, observation, skill and committed practice. They are not simply something you do, but are at the core of who you are. Combined, somehow it seems to be a symbiotic fit.
There are a few flies lingering around but there’s still enough of a breeze that it keeps them mostly in check. I can tell the mules are ready and pulling things is what they enjoy the most. I walk over to the metal gate that separates the center pasture from the grassy lane leading to the field, and swing it wide open. It’s time to go to work.
We call what we do holistic farming. Simply put, it means farming with an understanding that everything relies on everything else and that we should meddle with the natural world as little as possible. Nature provides everything we need and works by its own accord, if we let it. But for many humans, that isn’t enough. They want more. Because they feel they need more, deserve more. For better or worse, nature will get the last word in edgewise, eventually. In the meantime, for things to work as they should, maybe we just need to use less, slow down and be a little patient. Slow farming. I like the sound of that.
There’s something about the near-silence of working with equines that settles my mind. No rumbling machinery to jostle one’s soul, no exhaust fumes, and no need for ear protection from the cacophonous drone of a diesel motor. I can actually hear the barn swallow’s chirping call in flight and the breeze in the boughs of the Norway spruce row as we set about our field work. I can smell the soil beneath the cultivator’s slowly turning steel wheels and the scent of multi-colored wildflowers blooming in the meadow. We roll past a killdeer, foraging for insects in the recently turned soil. Whereas if I were on foot it would startle the bird into taking flight, the muted grey plover remains indifferent to the presence of the homo sapien interloper and the slowly treading beat of eight mule hooves only a few feet away. It’s as if, working with animals, we temporarily shed a bit of our humanness in the eyes of the natural world and are, at least for a brief moment of time, granted a pass into nature’s midst unnoticed.
I can sense it every time a big farm machine rumbles past, especially the big boom sprayers, with that malevolent turbine whine and those metal appendages that unfold like some unholy mantis about to consume its prey before discharging streams of poisons, abolishing all soil life, both flora and fauna, sans the single genetically altered crop no one really needs outside of some Wall Street commodities traders. And yet they call that “conventional” farming. To this I say, I dissent. Perhaps, not unlike “conventional” weapons, it is a phrase used deliberately to deceive and to mask what is knowingly quite destructive and threatening to all life.
Loretta doesn’t like tractors. It’s not that she’s afraid of them. On the contrary. I believe she understands what they represent. I sense she knows that decades ago, after a World War ended, her ancestors were led in the front door of the tractor dealership as a trade-in for a shiny new petroleum-powered farming machine fresh from Rock Island or Louisville, then right out the back door, straight to the slaughterhouse. Perhaps the stories of that equine near-genocide have been passed on from horse to horse, generation after generation, on farms and ranches all across this country of ours.
One time, as we were working the meadow garden which runs alongside the county road, a big green five hundred horsepower John Deere tractor was working the field across the pavement from us, motoring parallel to our path and pulling ahead. I first felt it in the lines. Subtle. Loretta’s pace quickened, ever so slightly, and Emmylou matched her cadence in turn. Two Belgian mules with forecart and harrow in tow, first kept pace with, and then slowly passed, this rumbling tank-treaded machine. I knew exactly what they were doing, and I smiled.
Up and back we go, the cultivator’s shovels turning the soil and burying the weeds that burst forth shortly after last week’s rains. I know every plant has a purpose and perhaps I should be more philosophical about it, but I take a certain glee in seeing the tiny weeds turned end over end and drying in the warm sunlight. Maybe I’m not as enlightened as I’d like. Loretta and Emmylou know the plan and every time we reach a row’s end, Loretta steps into a hard-left turn with her sister following along. I quickly throw in a “Haw,” for good measure. I sometimes think they could probably do this without me, once they figured out the pattern, but I still like to feel useful.
There may be faster ways to get things done than farming with a span of mules, but there are none better. Scores of good reasons, logical arguments all, can be made why this old and nearly lost craft may be the most forward-thinking and hopeful thing we can do to save our world and ourselves in the process. But none equal this. The sun is out and the breeze is fresh, the soil is just right, the jingle of chain is the only sound beyond the soundtrack nature provides, and I’m spending the morning with my two companions, namely, a pair of fifteen hundred-pound Belgian mules, that I know ever so well. We’re a team, after all. And that’s the best reason I know.
We finish our day’s work, then pause a moment at field’s end. “Let’s go home,” I say. My mules Loretta and Emmylou step off the row and, instead of turning right toward the barn, head left down the path that leads around the west meadow. Once around the fencerow for good measure, the long way back. We take it easy and I hum a song in praise of slowness. We’re in no hurry to get there because this is exactly where we want to be.
Brian Leber and Joanne Aono live and work on a ten-acre diversified mulepowered farm in Wauponsee Township, Illinois.