Keep The Change
by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
The world has changed.
“I’ve seen all the videos. It’s really no big deal.”
Yes, it is a big deal. All bets are off.
Do we want this change?
“In sickness and in health from wealth do us part?”
Part of the deal, don’t matter if we want it or not.
Define your world. Hold to the magic.
“Hold your horses Bub, Don’t go flyin’ off the handle.”
Now and today each and every step we take matters.
Take care. There, that circle of light, that’s the change you want.
And me – I’ve been caught by a Green Hairstreak
Our century old ramshackle house perches on the edge of a spring fed pond edged by cottonwoods and a grove of aspens we planted thirty years ago. This, in the center of our farmstead and entire place. Today, the very end of spring, it teems with wildlife; dozens of varieties of birds, our honey bees, buzzing insects, peafowl, grazing work horses and our two blue stallions, red cattle, chickens. It is peppered by small buildings; two greenhouses, a farm shop and small low barn, chicken house, a bunkhouse, hay barn and painting studio. This place we call Singing Horse sits mostly in a wide, sunken, rimrock-lined canyon. Up, elevated on our northern edge, we have a gravel pit. The county road runs on by. On this morning I went up to catch the view all across our ranch and on to the Cascades towards the southwest. This time of year the deciduous trees fully leaved, the farmstead looks particularly lush and inviting. It’s hard for me to imagine, even after all these decades, that we are anything more than very lucky chance inhabitants. But if I think about it a while I know we have been far more than that because we’ve made choices everyday that have protected and grown this place to its present state of health and fertility. And sometimes it’s as much about what you don’t do. We’ve been responsible for change on our farm, positive change. And moments like this, standing up here looking out across our little high desert canyon, at the oasis we’ve built and maintained, I know it’s change we can hold, and must hold to.
Whether it be a gesture of generosity, a rudely subtle tuck and hide of the obligatory tip, or an implied curse, the phrase ‘keep the change’ is deeply ingrained in our transactional language. Recently I woke from a pleasant dream with that phrase on my lips but it was attached to an entirely different sentiment. It was an observation that with the best natural farming our reward comes because we, individually and collectively, may get to keep the change we create. And that change, that improvement, can go a long ways to keeping us at the task. I know, we more often think in terms of keeping a profit percentage, or the excess, or some of a direct gain. But truth be known, with good farming each operation creates more stability, increased fertility, improved bio diversity, hedges against inclement weather, growth of a burgeoning habitat, and results in better genetics. All of that represents change, and for the better. And we get to keep it. Better still that change we create and get to keep defines us.
Sometimes the change is so subtle it may escape view and measure. For example; in the case of our remote farm/ranch – we’re here all the time working and often taking for granted what we see. But then I am only speaking of the farmer’s internal, up-close perspective. If we watch our crop, checking it several times a day to see if it is healthy and gaining, the changes, the gains, are miniscule or invisible. If we go away for a week in June and come back, the obvious gains seem dramatic.
As for that invisibility? The rewards are often in the wane rather than the gain. In the vernacular of lumber, when a board has an edge of bark or does not reach the full dimension, sawyers and carpenters speak of ‘wane’ to describe this. Those edges of the thing which, as with lumber, expose the truth of the wood by falling short of the blade’s cut edge. You can, if you look, see the outer character of that wood’s muscle. Same with farming. No matter how hard we work we sometimes fall short and thereby expose the defining muscle of the farm, its biology, color, texture and tone.
Over long years and as a former sawyer, I have come to see and welcome ‘wane’ in our farming and farm. Edges of fields that don’t perform to follow the tillage, sometimes usurped by the margins, where rocks and volunteer plants harbor and shelter wildlife and mysteries. Sometimes these edges, or these wanes, are clearly where we haven’t done anything, where we allowed nature and biology and magic to do its thing. And this is ‘change’ as well, coin in our proverbial pockets.
One of the changes I hold dear has been the abiding gift of experience. Over time in farming, the more fortunate among us have arrived at a transparent or invisible comfort, maybe even a mastery, which we may call on for the remainder of our lives.
- At the forge, the mature see the slightest variation in color of the hot iron and meet it with quick sure defining blows.
- There, over on the outside corner of the shop, there’s where the four fence stretchers hang.
- At the feeding chores, the sweep of view tells her experienced self these animal are not well, and she knows what to do.
- The cultivator shovels, disc blades, mower guards, and plow shares know where they belong on this steady farm.
- The sky’s hurry prepares the old farmer for what might be next.
- The smell of certain clouds announce electrical storms but only if you are experienced.
- Ready salt, purest trough water, shaded corners, grassed over ditches, closed gates, all filling out the summer evening breath of warm-over-cool air laced with the smell of nature cooking.
- And, with ease, the quiet, patient, senior teamster thins and calms a novice work horse’s anxiety.
- All of this, allowed by experience, is change to hold. All of this is magic.
I’m an older farmer still learning how to go down carefully to my knees for small tasks, and then to rise up from the work, slow and creaking, to a standing position. I know now I don’t flatten my hand, with wrist bent back, to brace myself, especially not to catch myself as I fall. Instead I tuck a shoulder, and prepare to argue myself to safety.
And I know that when I have a pair of lines in my hands, and a team moving forward, my only chance of comfortable success is through subtlety and grace. Even if I wanted to, I don’t have the strength to allow a constant strong pressure on the lines. So, my long held philosophy of a perfect light line tension serves me exceedingly well in these golden years.
It was a long time ago, but I still remember when I was a young man, folding myself down to the garden soil level to plant or weed or scoop up a handful of soil, that it was an easy fluid intuitive action. Even if I did fall, it was often a slow motion float fluttered by the soft laugh of embarrassment. Now when I fall its like someone cut the puppeteer’s strings, I go down hard. And embarrassment is swallowed by anger and frustration, by fear of breaking something. With age things have changed.
Woke with the thought, “keep the change,” up front in my mind. Fertilities and all of nature arguing that what ultimately we take from this life is the sweet solace of the positive change we may have accounted for.
But “keep the change”? It can mean so many things. Keep as in hold on to. Keep as in take care of. Change as in the difference or remainder. Change as in a difference or effect.
So much of these thoughts feel insular, small circled, and as such, less useful in these times when apartments are choked with fear and streets are filled with insistence.
This day’s world rages, cries, moans and festers at a rate equal to or greater than the worst of humanity’s times. And it is humanity which has wrought it all upon itself. Riots, pandemic, weather of destructive force nearly everywhere. Race wars, ethnic cleansings, famine and poverty sure to follow, more disease and guaranteed mayhem. Humanity in a great slough, more than skin shedding. I think of Camus, and of The Plague, WWII. The humors evaporate. The thirst for humor burns. The continence turns to attack and evade. The world needs possible peace.
Realizing that the beast of society needs to throw pieces of itself into the proverbial fire, to sacrifice lives and futures as fuel for the angry urgencies of the moment; woke with the secret being “don’t get caught” and then morphed to “don’t be compliant” which again clarified to reject authority by refusing to answer, and that shrank down to a most useful “be invisible.” But then the cascade of admonitions roar dangerous cliches at me: “if you aren’t part of the solution you ARE the problem. If you want things to “change” for the better you MUST stand up and be counted.” But these farmer’s eyes also see so many who follow solution’s mob-rule path only to become another piece of the problem
How to deal with the tyranny of quaking, quacking logic. This is where the experience comes to advantage. Each of us must decide if we are properly hitched to our lives. Each of us must select the instrument(s) we shall play and which chorus we join. For me? The farming needs done, the books need written, and the pictures need painting – but none of that needs audience or attention in the wider sense. It needs to be there, all of it, in life and nature’s weave – often invisible. Society is no calling. Today’s society is a broken loom. As farmers we know what to do to splint the loom, retie, adjust the comb, and tease the colors forward. It’s not loud work. It’s not work that demands consensus. It’s not work that gets done by electing the “right” people. In American society, electing the ‘right people’ for government is akin to ancient societies’ throwing innocents into the volcano to appease the suspected and suspicious God.
During good times and bad, there are things you just do not say out loud. Such as: Farmers understand you don’t ‘ask permission.’ Not within the confines and outline of your own farming. You move ahead with what you trust is the right course. Because to ask permission is to grant authority and invite public argument. When neighbors suggest that what you are doing is contrary to the community’s welfare, the successful farmer, quietly and invisibly, changes course, accordingly and without public argument required.
For you see, in this time of social reckoning, I am not to confess that I harbor a deep-seated prejudice against society. For to do so is to invite dismissal. But today I am okay with that. Dismiss me, please. Society is no calling. Humanity is a calling. To be more humane, to be better humans, to slide in quietly and provide the care.
I came in from the field for a bite of lunch and sat with my wife on the deck. She said “don’t move, hold still, just like that.” She took a picture of the left side of my face and showed it to me. A beautiful small green butterfly, Callophrys rubi – The Green Hairstreak, had clipped itself to the outer edge of my ear. She gently took hold to remove it, but it didn’t want to let go. Brushing it into her palm she set it on a potted flower where it fluttered its wings and wandered off on the breeze.
I realized my new little friend, the ‘buttorfleoge,’ had captured me. For quite a while it had stolen a ride on my ear, sheltered from the wind by my hair. And from that safe perch it had whispered all manner of butterfly wisdom deep into my thoughts. One of the streams of thought it shared was this: yes, you have changed, your older, sillier and wiser now. You aren’t worried that your ‘brand’ of thinking doesn’t fit in. You don’t seem to need to be accepted or understood, like your younger self did. You seem to be quite content to get your work done in a most pleasant fog of gratitudes. You aren’t threatened by a little butterfly taking you for a ride.
“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” – Aldo Leopold, Round River
“The artist, and particularly the poet, is always an anarchist, and can only listen to the voices, that rise up from within his own being, three impervious voices: the voice of Death, with all its presentiments; the voice of Love; and the voice of Art.” – Lorca