LittleField Notes Two-Legged Stool

LittleField Notes: Two-Legged Stool

by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA

The milking stanchion was twisted out of shape when Big John, the Dexter bull threw a fit while we were sorting cattle one day. He stuck his head in the stanchion looking for leftover grain. When he made his exit it was in a hurry, horns colliding with polished wood and steel, geometry forever changed. The old stanchion still works, though not as smoothly as it once did.

Milking time: after I put Blossom successfully in the bull-modified stanchion, I put the halter on her little dun heifer calf, tie her to the manger and reach for my stool, my two-legged stool. What started out as a sturdy, sawed off four legged bar stool has become a rickety two-legged affair that I vow to replace each time I crouch down at the back end of a cow with bucket in hand. It’s not so difficult once you are accustomed to it: life without a third leg.

Stability and comfort come in threes. There are Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff and the Holy Trinity. The genie grants three wishes, not two or four. The basic unit of structural engineering is the triangle. The great pyramids of Egypt are, of course, gigantic triangles; we build triangles into fence corners and put them on our barn doors. When rock climbing one must always strive for three points of contact with the rock to lessen the chance of a fall. A tripod is the unfailing support for telescopes, cameras and transits. A tricycle has far more inherent stability than a bicycle.

Yet here am I, day after day balancing on a two-legged stool. I would fix it but it ain’t broke yet, or more to the point — it ain’t completely broke yet. Occasionally when Blossom makes an unexpected shift of her weight towards me I may go down, or nearly so, most times not spilling more than a few drops of milk. But that is the way of most of our lives isn’t it? We so often have to make do with a two-legged stool. That is until one day the cow will suddenly shift her weight and in response you will shift yours and you will hear a crack and suddenly your two-legged stool will have become a one-legged stool. And no one, not even a stubborn “ain’t completely broke yet” farmer, can abide a one legged stool.

Agricultural Entropy

Entropy: a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder — Merriam-Webster

The twisted stanchion, the two-legged stool, the rat’s nest I found recently in the corn sheller, the rotted off corner post in the mailbox pasture: all examples of agricultural entropy. In the 1850’s Rudolf Clausius coined the term entropy as a response to his observation that in a thermodynamic system a certain amount of energy will always be lost. Since all functioning systems in the universe involve a transformation of energy, he reasoned that the universe would naturally move from a state of higher order to one of lower order, from order to disorder.

Any farmer from any age could have told him that. Farmers spend vast amounts of their working lives simply trying to counter the forces of entropy at work on the farm. In this way a farm is a microcosm of the universe, continually moving from a state of order to one of disorder.

Orderly fields if left alone will first grow weeds, then shrubs and finally a forest. Wooden fence posts will rot and turn into the same soil that once grew the tree the post was originally made of. Buildings without maintenance will eventually fall in on themselves. A mass of untended, sprawling tomato vines will in no way resemble the neat rows of plants set out back in May.

There is job security in entropy. Without it farmers would lead dull and uneventful lives. For example, when I finish writing these words I will head outside to start on a sizable entropy related list just for today:

  • Find out why the gravity flow water to the barn has stopped flowing.
  • Now that the water has quit flowing use this opportunity to clean out the trough.
  • Re-attach the gate stop on the horse pen in the barn that was ripped off when I hired the bobcat to do the mucking.
  • Fix the seized manure spreader beater (on the brand new spreader, entropy doesn’t take long to go to work).
  • Skid out the alder tree that fell on the path to the upper pasture and cut it into cordwood.

Of course the farmer himself is not immune to entropy. As we age our once lithe and nimble bodies turn stiff and weak. We grow slower and slower until at the end we find ourselves, like so many horses, cattle and crops before us, transferring our own energy one last time as we too return unto the dust from which we were made.

LittleField Notes Two-Legged Stool


6:00 AM, August 12, 2013. I am awakened by the sound of chainsaws piercing the early morning stillness. The whine carries on for several minutes and then a moment of quiet, a crack and a boom and a giant hemlock goes down; then another and another; now a cedar, now a fir, now another hemlock. A giant tyrannosaurus rex of a machine rips and tears out alder trees without even bothering with the inconvenience of using a chainsaw. In half a day two machines and four men have destroyed what took 120 years to grow.

I have written about how I was captivated the first time I saw this farm with its fields and pastures carved right out of the woods. There is nothing more lovely than a tidy human habitation surrounded by the wildness of woods. It conjures up images of Goldilocks and the Three Bears or “over the river and through the woods.”

The deep sadness I felt as “my” woods were being destroyed set up in my mind a certain cognitive dissonance that I have had a difficult time working through. It is true that in modern times most of us cannot escape being incriminated in the very problems we decry. How many of us worry and fret over the grim prospect of catastrophic global climate change, yet day after day we drive down the highway sending ancient carbon deposits out the tailpipe? Despite all I know about the ugliness of the feedlots and 5,000 cow dairies, I have a hard time resisting a cheeseburger and chocolate malt at the local drive-in. I harness my horses in a barn made of wood, I play string instruments made of wood and I sail a wooden boat. Yet here I am slumping into a deep depression because my neighbor is selling off his trees? Am I so nai?ve as to think that majestic trees were not cut down to build my barn some 100 years ago? Can I simply pretend that the lovely curve on the tiller of my boat was anything other than a beautiful living tree in a forest full of creatures, perhaps bordering some tidy farm with a hay field and children and deer running under its boughs?

LittleField Notes Two-Legged Stool

These thoughts and more have wended their way through my brain as I have sought to make sense of this most radical change to my local biosphere. As one who has dedicated his life to stewardship, I have come to realize that it is not the “what” (wood, beef, milk) as much as the “how”, that really matters. Wood, beef and milk are all desirable and good. How we go about obtaining them is what is important.

Obviously this is an enormous subject worthy of more attention than I can give in the space I have for these few notes. Suffice it to say that the logging that went on in my back yard was done indiscriminately, industrially, violently; almost one could say, militarily. The absentee landowner had the work done with no regard to anything but pure profit. By comparison we have another neighbor who until recently earned a modest living by logging one 60-acre patch of woods for 30 years. He sold milled lumber from a little sawmill, sold some firewood, split some shakes. His logging showed a respect for the land, for the timber, for the local economy. The clear-cut approach I so recently witnessed employed very few people, left an enormous battlefield-like scar, sent the timber to the highest bidder (probably over seas) and left nothing for his children. If his past efforts are any indication he will not replant more than a few token trees to satisfy the regulators. The industrialization of everything has just come to the borders of Littlefield Farm.

In the end it only strengthens my conviction inspired by Schumacher that small is indeed beautiful, that stewardship matters, and that, though it has become an overused marketing term, the industrial model is truly not sustainable. Now I have witnessed first-hand the brutal efficiencies of industrialism. All it has to offer is ugliness and destruction. And so Small Farmers and Foresters everywhere must righteously raise the flag of human scaled industry and carry on with the necessary work of stewardship and husbandry, with the sowing and reaping of all that is good in the world.

LittleField Notes Two-Legged Stool