In The Midst

In The Midst

Necessary Questions
Acceptable Weapons
and Foisted Farming Futures

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

It had been freezing cold for weeks so when the temperature hovered around 34 degrees that January morning it felt almost spring-like. I crossed the fence and walked with axe to the pond edge to chop open a drinking hole for the 30 some head of horses and cattle. Been doing this each morning. That day the early morning sunlight set the frost layer on the pond surface to tiny sparkling crystals. The sharp axe chipped into the ice with the first stroke and I ‘felt’ a deep-throated rumble almost as though the air mumbled. Looking around for some evidence of the cause, perhaps a Rock Chuck clearing its throat or the garbled growl of a Badger or even antlers rubbing against a hollow dead juniper trunk, I saw nothing obvious and swung the axe again. This time the same noise was accompanied by a tearing preface sound and I noticed the traveling crack across the ice surface. Now it was obvious but no less wonderfully mysterious. Temperature from cold to less so, the weather had warmed sufficiently this last evening, and now with the sunlight teasing the surface of the ice-covered pond my axe blows were unlocking this taught layer enough to allow the slightest heave and yaw. The traveling cracks, disturbing the frost layer ever so lightly, looked all the world like tiny varmint trails skittering in a way to suggest God might be borrowing old Durer’s etching needle and working to capture the moment in a drawing.

Terribly glad to see and feel these things, my cranky old soul holds for the moment gratitude for my/our humanity. In this weird time of toxic food, short sentences, glib response, false community, planetary uncertainty, biological collapse and decorated infertility I have been feeling longer bouts of lost. The global discourse that includes destructive farm monocultures, the prescribed ‘inevitable’ death of books and periodicals, the general acceptance of corporate rule, the constant polemic around what would constitute ‘acceptable weaponry,’ the way we allow ourselves to be guided into tight little corners of lessened spirit, the way money feeds – and depends upon – deadly conflicts everywhere, the way youth is usurped and bled of its vital contribution by the postponements and intoxication which come of digital diversions, the way the fabric of life – the biology of our diversity – is invited piece by piece and everyday to leave. We humans are at risk of losing forever the spherical bearing of our very existence. Somewhere, once, it was written that humanity would/could come to find, at its core, a shaft running true within its bearing. We apparently got close but that was a century or more ago. We called it the golden age of farming. Since then it’s been downhill. We’ve been running without the grease of determinant and determinating heritage and gratitude and that shaft has worn out of round, it wallows now within the loud and quaky bearing.

The best farmers are observers. We might be forgiven to think that they often look like they are waiting for something to happen when in fact they are in the very midst of everything – listening, feeling, smelling, looking. And in that way they are in command of the fullest range of questions. Because to be a farmer is to be in the midst. As such, farmers are also indicators of the near future of life. When things go bad for farmers in general, likely the same will soon be true for all others. But lest you think this be a tale of dire straights, remember that farmers are also heroically resilient. Give farmers half a chance and they will find their way to health and productivity and the world around them will join in the result. In that respect they are a lot like bees.

Our honey bees have always been indicators of the health of our biological world. They contribute to it, and with their bodies they monitor it. Our honey bees have also been tiny tireless workers assuring us, directly and indirectly, of a plentiful supply of healthy and various food. With nearly fifteen years of the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) responsible for the disappearance and death of a big portion of the world’s bee population, we were given a tragic opportunity. All that death and destruction forced beekeepers, farmers and responsible scientists to look aggressively for a cause and a solution. But it was the beekeepers, in the midst of it all and aided by their observations, who began to command the fullest range of questions. They brought us to the point of discovery. We now know the definitive cause of the CCD problem are sub-lethal systemic pesticides, many of which are produced and sold by Bayer Crop Science LLC; slow acting poisons gradually destroying Bees (and likely humans as well) while, truth be known, our own protective agencies, our own government, rest complicit in the crime against life itself. It seems only the old and the young have the courage and stupidity to accuse the EPA, the FDA, the USDA, the US Congress, and the White House of accepting payment from chemical giants to continue the pesticide application. And the science? The Chemical giants provide the EPA with their own store-bought science.

It’s been years now since France first outlawed these nasty chemicals, so we have the clear and exciting evidence – poison gone, bees have returned there, they have once again shown us their resilience. Nature is astounding.

Meanwhile in the US where we are still subjected to this terrible regime of sublethal seed treatments (primarily in large corn and soybean plantations), Colony Collapse Disorder continues its destructive cycle. The longer our environment is subjected to this biological warfare the less likely bees and other life forms will be able to reconstitute. It’s about the money, lots of it, going to a few people in industry and government. The tradeoff? The global biodiversity and fertility that is every human being’s birthright, life’s spherical bearing itself is going away.

It’s all a complicated business, and yet, I know, one which may bring some of us to yawns in the telling. Ironic if humans should find themselves bored while witnessing the slow death of nature and humanity on the planet. I guess those corporate heads who remain to the end will at least have the satisfaction of knowing they died holding all the money.

And it’s so darned easy to reverse. Just STOP USING THE POISON!

In The Midst

We live in an insane time of weird lop-sided priorities. While these agribusiness poisonings persist without legal restraint, local governments have moved to make it illegal to grow vegetables in the yards of private homes! In 2011, for example, a Michigan woman was threatened with three months in jail for refusing to remove a vegetable garden from her front yard while today in Florida, the city of Orlando threatens to fine people up to $500 a day if they insist on growing vegetables in their yards. I hear you saying “it can’t be true?” I hear you asking “Why?” But those noises we make in quiet disbelief, not in suitable protest. As for the systemic pesticides issue? We aren’t even asking questions.

It was late spring a year ago, when during the morning irrigation change I spotted old Windy, the thin 30 year old endurance Thoroughbred standing soaking in the sunlight. Old, so very old, but fortunate in her horse heaven existence here on the ranch.

That late afternoon, when I went back to check the level of the irrigation pond, I knew the molten shape spread so tight against the ground to be her, to be Windy dead. Can’t say that I was surprised, she had had a long life. But I did not expect what closer inspection revealed. In a matter of hours or less the flesh had been stripped from her exposed ribcage, neck and face. And the tell tale signs pointed to cougar; more than one, because the striations in the flesh and the paw prints were of two distinctly different sizes – one full grown and the other a third the size. The head had obviously been attacked by a cub or cubs which pointed to the larger evidence being a she cat. I imagined a scene where the big cat tolerated the cubs at the “table” so long as they kept away from the larger prize. A terrible dramatic scene – but one purely of biological authorship. No corporate pockets were lined from the tragic death of this old horse. No sacred life mysteries were destroyed by plastic greed. Balance was maintained.

The story of Windy’s death comes to us from the middle of life, not the end. Gruesome as it may seem it does run true in the bearing and in the hearing. The story of a massive chemical company inserting deadly product into the dead-end of industrial agriculture (with the two prime objectives of absolute control and high profits) is grim, horrific, and linear. Nowhere in the Bayer story is there any evidence of a respect for life let alone any loving regard.

As the electronic media world celebrates what it believes to be a new honest wholesale democratization of society, with a look-the-other-way attitude towards negativity and intellectual decay, it should be obvious how and why we have returned to a new dark age. We’ve given up on the observations of nature, terrible and sublime. We feel no need to tell the stories of nature’s etching needle or an old horse’s end. Lost and vanishing are the inherited narratives which grounded societies within societies. Narratives wrapped in ritual.

Poet Paul Hunter shared with me a tale of how the Navajo have long chosen to grandly celebrate the moment in each child’s life when they first laugh; celebrate that moment and the person who is seen to have made it so. For, within the Navajo culture, this dramatic moment of passage – a baby’s first laugh – is seen to be evidence that this new life has actually become a fully-formed human being. What a marvelous and grand excuse for a party! What a magical moment to share with family and community? Easy for me at least to feel its parallel tenor and tone with the best rituals of good farming – i.e. shared work-party meals – all contributing the silent aspects of a society’s character. All very much “in the midst”.

I recently learned of a trend in public education, given weight out of budgetary concerns as well as nods to contemporary relevancy. A trend which, in my less than important opinion, is evidence of the subtle and not so subtle ways we are making of ourselves an entity less human. Some school boards are arguing that it is time to do away with cursive writing in the curriculum. Do away with teaching the writing in long hand, along with penmanship – because, they say, the world has moved to keyboards and away from pens and pencils. (I guess that means they’ll be saving all that money that has gone into team uniforms and helmets for varsity penmanship.)

Farmers know that children learn by being in the midst of life and living, by working to care for things, by feeling the doing. Penmanship is very much like that, exercises to see and feel the result of hand to eye coordination with enchanting result.

Ed Joseph has an important day job with the Department of Transportation, still he chooses to get up winter mornings at 3 am, harness a horse and use a feed sled, in the dark, to feed his small herd. This year his ten year old daughter, Natalie, has chosen to get up with Daddy each morning and go out, in the cold and dark, to help with those chores. Once the work is done, she goes back to bed and Daddy Ed goes to his highway job. With his crazy busy schedule, this is how she assures herself of “Daddy time”. Each of us know that it is also shaping her character in most marvelous ways. She purely is in the midst, feeling the doing, and understanding completely the consequences.

Ed and Natalie (and Dena and Char’s) situation is unique unto themselves. Most of us farmers have more conventionally hectic days. There is stress enough worrying about getting the field ready to plant, everything ready in good time. And then there’s having the money for the seed and soil needs. Thankfully you were too busy with everything else to pay close attention to the actual growth, but its Tuesday and there it is, a fine crop growing straight, vibrant, and ahead of schedule. Luckily, while your mind was elsewhere, the crop was not visited by destructive forces be they pest, pestilence, weather extremes or visiting wildlife. You’ve made it to this point… Should you be thinking forward? Getting some things ready for harvest?

Preparations frequently bring reflection back to useful habits and purposeful respite. You pause and remember how those first days of plowing, ground slippery wet, furrows glistening, went so well that you figured plodding ahead with more days of nothing but plowing would be good, get it done while the plowing is easy. You’d forgotten how the cold spring sun still would bake that slippery wet furrow into concrete-like chunks. But, plowing done, you were reminded pretty quick with how rough a ride it was to harrow down, how hard the going was for the geldings, how it tore that one quarter crack open so bad that the Ted horse had to be taken off the work string for a month and a half.

Years ago you learned the value, with heavy clay soils, of plowing for half a day and then harrowing for the second half day, especially if that soil was slippery wet. These new implements, combining rollers and spring-tooth harrows, sure make a difference. But you were in a hurry this Spring and the plowing was going so smooth. Going back out each session to the same implement, same job, seemed a mental rest. Don’t have to think too much, just go back out and do what you know to do. So you let slide your better self, that better-self earned over productive time, and you went for the easy shot only to be punished later. Learn from that, you tell yourself. Think now on what you need to have ready, physically and mentally for the coming harvest. Powerful analogy for all things ‘life’. But perhaps not for everybody.

Many prefer to believe that we need not worry and prepare so much, that it will all come to us in the end. Like the musician in that children’s parable of the grasshopper and the ant. Quite the perfect parable because it could be seen to prove both points. Ants succeeded through hard work and planning. Grasshopper, though threatened in the short while, made out like a bandit because the ants provided for him in the end. Lesson learned?

I certainly understand, at this late stage of life, how it is that the best laid plans and preparations, the most diligent of sustained efforts to stockpile and prepare, can shatter and blow away in the briefest of unexpected moments. While I would hold that all that work of the past does provide me with an undeniable inertia which keeps the motion forward, still it is far too easy to feel the threat of vulnerability. And for me the vulnerability lies with that terrible rhetorical question “must it all end here?” I confess that with the story of the “sub-lethal” pesticides, I am truly frightened of the answer.

So I go back to the child’s first laugh and the violent passing of the old horse – neither of which, in our world of spherical bearing, mark beginning or end – both very much in the midst, both contributing to our fertile continuity, and I know that we might still triumphantly be in the magnificent midst of life. LRM

In The Midst
Lynn with Pat and Prince, hands and arms relearning, photo by Kristi Gilman-Miller.