by Lynn R. Miller
Summer of ‘68. Mendocino, California and the redwood forests. Ocean and tree smells folding together like a Dvorak string quartet. Back then the vistas and envelopes of wind-directed sight and longing were set loose by the outside of this splendid place. From city and suburb to here was a passage through the prismatic boundaries between nature’s nature and humanity’s growing toilet.
The region was anchor to my short-lived commercial fishing experience. When off the boat I stayed with a big family, husband, wife and ten children, one on the way. He a massive, powerful, jovial dunce of a man free, completely free, of the ravages of requited thought. His entire life was his working and his family. He was a woodcutter, firewood his game. Every day five days a week, he set his sights on cutting and splitting a cord of wood, over 250 cords a year to sell. On weekends he did whatever it took to help his wife with the subsistence gardening, butchering, fence mending, canning, smoking meats, and repairing their ramshackle house.
His neck and head all the same width slightly narrower on its flat-topped top. His shoulders sloped a long ways down to the tangle of exaggerated arm muscling. When he walked nothing moved from waist up. His feet pointed straight forward in spiky, heavy caulk boots. I wondered if all those thousands of hours packing chainsaw and supplies into the woods hadn’t somehow thickened his torso to immobile – until I saw him scramble up along massive fallen tree trunks with fifty pounds of burbling, deadly McCullough saw, chain sharpened to resemble those light-activated shark’s teeth of my nightmares.
Jerry was proudest of one thing, his family. Ten children in ten years, no beat skipped. All healthy especially mama Mitzi. She was a Dorothea Lange stoic in a perpetual smiling cloak. Plain, strong, and fully smart with her own gratitudes. She was built for motherhood, built for self-sufficiency and made for Jerry. Ecstatic to find that her small world offered overlaps of constant good challenge, her happiness sprung from purpose.
This half century later I cannot picture her but I feel her steadiness and watchfulness and contentment. Her large garden crawling with that herd of careful children picking bugs and thinning plants while they giggled and sang. All summer long supper came from a giant wok on her enormous wood cook range (built for a logging camp) from which came the day’s stir-fry of venison or fish in with the garden’s bounty – sweet edible podded peas, chopped cabbage, carrots, potatoes, onions, greens of all manner. This over brown rice – one of the few purchased food items. Same menu yet slightly different each day – fresh tuna I brought from the boat or Jerry’s venison, a chicken no longer laying eggs – whatever the protein always framed ecstatically by Mitzi’s fresh garden bounty. Those children knew no other way. Though poor as church mice Mitzi and Jerry gave them the richest possible young lives.
Allowing what I wrote to transport me back to that summer, I find the words work but I know it’s only for me. Because I was there and it takes so little to return me to that yeasty dream-like Tom Bombadil time. A time that was all answers no questions. A time that was deliberate and aimless in an animal sort of way. A time that was a salad-like middle to accidental parenthesis. It was symbolic of nothing, it supported nor acknowledged no governance or religion; it sat still as a best time could while constantly blooming. It was a restful time for the brain. Anticipations deflated there. Anxieties became giggles, tight muscles wiggled and the outer layers hung on for fleeting moments, unnecessary and thin.
“Hand me that shovel and get out of the way.” That was me back then, and even today. Not a man to wax sentimental about the poetics of comfort. But in that life with those grand folk it was impossible not to slip into slow and easy gratitudes. Yes, still got up crack of dawn, laced up tall, weaponized logger’s boots, gobbled food, sharpened chainsaw, mixed oil in with the gas, greased up cuts on my hands and slapped on bandaids while trying not to think about having no money and no prospects. Or, got up before light, checked my gear and went down to Noyo Harbor to climb onto that stinky, oily, death trap of a trawler to head back out to the merciless sea for salmon and tuna in a wager with myself that either I would drown today or come back with my share of a big chunk of change. Neither happened but it was there in my mind as a gamble accepted. Today, as an old farmer my rituals are very similar except for the important fact that, as long as my mind works, I have a million memories like those of Casper Flats and that big family which return me to appreciate the midst of constant bloom.
Who we choose to associate with, those we choose to people our best memories, the good people and the ones with way too much character to be called good but who always make us glad, it is in that company purpose finds purpose. Important to keep sight of the other side. Some lives intersect with slicing, cutting, burning surety. And they return randomly, in our troubled memories, to suck joy and comfort from the least of us. But so what? If we allow this we are this. And in that is corrosion and unmaintained inventory and babies who are named too late for it to matter.
Contradictions? Sentimentality and romance, though particulate embarrassments which slow us for the bullets of evil’s worst thrust would also cradle us in slow beats and warm liquids sweet with inoculating substance. These split-screen times pretend to give us, in the whole, a view of life’s true poverty and vulgarity while they disguise the fact that the smallest, spiritually insolvent souls amongst us decide every moment what we may see and how it does hold and sell and push and round back again. The largest souls amongst us, though charged with pulling babies from burning buildings, must also never quit arranging flowers, planting trees, scripting songs, capturing visions of splendid beauty and romance for in the deepest sentimentality is the most fertile of nature’s answer to wastefulness and emotional insolvency.
Our better memories most often tell the stories of how and when our better selves were formed. One late summer day, half century ago, I was given the chore of caring for the children while Mitzi and Jerry drove their Dodge pickup east over the mountains to a pregnancy checkup with a clinic nurse. When they returned that hot evening, the rear end of the truck was dragging from a full long-wide pickup box full of windblown peaches they had gleaned from a valley orchard. Juice was leaking out of the bottom of that truck. What a mess! Mitzi, eight months pregnant, came out of the vehicle at a fevered clip, hollering for all the children to come straight away. She giggled as she fretted giving instructions to each of them. “We ain’t stopping til all this fruit is in jars.” I fired the big stove, hauled in lots of wood, and put enormous pots of water on to heat. Jerry went after the lye, and the older kids cleared counter and table and went for planks to bridge between the surfaces. From that late afternoon til four in the morning we dipped peaches in lye, rolled the skins off with our hands under rinsing water, sliced fruit and filled jars for the two enormous pressure cookers. The top layer of peaches, damaged some from laying on the ground, were nothing compared to the squashed, dripping fruit beneath. By the end of our adventure I was scooping that sweet, sticky wasp and fly-tickled mush off the pickup box-floor with a flat bottomed shovel and filling a wheelbarrow to take the stuff to the pig, the chickens, and the compost. We went to bed exhausted and got a bit of a nap to wake finding Mitzi at the stove making small individual peach cobblers for each and every one of us.
That truck load of peaches had been given to Jerry free for the gleaning, the farmer I am sure had been surprised that anyone would want to bother with them. He would have thought it beneath most folks to scrounge fruit off the ground. For Mitzi and Jerry it was like having been offered a chance to glean gold from inside a played-out mine. It was the best of good fortune. And for their children it was yet another indicator of what life is supposed to be like. For me it was education.
When I was a young man I worked hard at preparing myself to be a righteous old man. Now I am old and I worry that the kids aren’t preparing themselves to be properly righteous young men. But what do I know? Why should I care, now? I certainly ain’t no righteous old man partly because “knowing better” is one of those applied sayings that make me want to break things. We had a saying when I was young (several to be sure) “go soak your head”, seems it was most often applied to anyone who we thought just didn’t get it. But truth be known we borrowed it from wise guy elders who dished it out to us. What am I talking about? What does any of this mean? It’s me saying that the young and the old have so damn much in common, for starters we’re both scared about what’s to come. The young are trying to jump on the carousel (or avoid it) and we old are trying to get off as gracefully as we can. And we lose sight of the midst. Old and young we are so often oblivious to the offerings of being in the middle of constant bloom. I love it so because my farming puts me, keeps me, in the midst of that constant bloom.
When I hear of young people who are struggling with their farm venture, or worse yet who have given up, I am flooded with mixed emotions. One voice in my head smirks its way to a smug observation that those struggling young farmers just don’t have what it takes. (And I tell myself “go soak your head old man”). And then another voice wonders if these poor saps haven’t been lucky enough to find their way to success. (And I remember Mitzi and Jerry and how they found their luck.) Then the better parts of me shift focus to those cultural and social impediments that work over-time to squash the small farmers. And most complicated of all I wonder if their struggle isn’t a condemnation of those of us who have made a go of it and are not interested in helping out? (And I tell myself “go soak your head”.)
Old and misted by solvents – we waste our time arranging displays of our collections and our memories while the very nature of craftsmanship is threatened.
They, young and blistered by portend, blinded by impatience. We are at the risk of losing those, our new farmers, if we allow useful examples to remain scarce.
But more effective than examples should come intriguing ideas as tools.
The colander of choice for ancient civilizations was the stamp of ‘learned citizen’ a stamp no longer offered by the wider arena of public education be it higher or lower. A stamp only available to those who, as with good farmers – artists – mechanics – food cart chefs – poets – devoted mothers – philosophers – luthiers – wildlife biologists – cellists – barrel-makers – and the better teachers, are all in constant pursuit of new knowledge. They know from the pain that the learned citizen stamp oozes itself forward pulled by the magnetic force of experience, out from the inside, resulting as a magic tattoo of knowledge. They know, we these presumptuous geriatrics, that the tattoo of knowledge needs to be offered up into the face of the young and blistered, where it cannot be avoided, where they are forced to feel it. The limping learned, those portfolioed old snobs, need to run backwards, in front of the young, with cornucopia as megaphones explaining their discoveries and how it all might give those young a booster charge. The learned know that the run-alongside handoff which provides continuum and inertia is their only thing standing a chance of advancing humanity. And they know that the run-alongside handoff, long a given, is now a dirty negligee joke amongst vapid movie-makers. Meanwhile the blistered young, in search of acceptable catastrophies, fill their squirt guns with manure tea and carry software prayer books to protect themselves from the embarrassment of old people running backwards while spewing thinly disguised apologies.
Hand milked a Jersey cow for my friends the other evening. Haven’t done so in many years. Pleased to find the rhythms and touches remained. Surprised to find such enjoyment in the practice. Reminded myself of how the forehead in the flank feels the cow’s lift of leg and switch of tail. And when some milk went to feed the pigs, near slaughter age, to feel and hear their inhalation of the liquid, so fierce and rapid as purest counterpoint to the gradual release of the same liquid moments before, to understand the part played. But does this momentary remembrance as experience mean a damn thing in the midst of a twenty-something year-old man or woman’s struggle to maintain the twice daily chores of dairying while keeping field, orchard, apiary, and garden balanced and in trust? Yes, it does. If you are in the midst, allowing the chores, the routines, even the worries and challenges to be what they are, patterns of the routine, the character of that, your, time. Let me say it for you, “Go soak your head.”
Seniority is such a smelly business, so bothersome and needy. How then is the pilgrim to discern between Bill Murray or Warren Buffet, between Brigitte Bardot or Desmond Tutu, between Wendell Berry or Jane Fonda, between Sophia Loren or Bill Moyers, between this neighbor or that uncle, between Cary Fowler or Elliot Coleman? And so many more examples desperate to be on the tongue or of those with tongues. One thing obvious, it needs to be done quickly and on the fly for these toadstools and flowers are near compost soon to be fodder for the indiscriminate food mill of scholarship and nostalgia. The living elders of each time and every region are pure gold, they carry maps of moments and trajectories inside their souls and must share or their very clothing comes too tight to bear. Yes, they are on the outer edges of the midst but as such have earned their understandings and learned how important it is to hand off same.
Each Fall is different. Some the leaves turn slowly and hang on til first snows and later. Others, blasted by winds, have leaves falling very quick. Still others, the leaves turn colors with the first light frost and go limp and fall without so much as a breeze, leaving the trees bare long before the season’s swollen. Makes me think of what it means to hang on to the edge, edge of time, edge of the precipice, edge of the season, edge of disbelief, edge of life. Edge hanging. Can’t make it to old without seeing and feeling that. But I know we have readers who will scoff at my nearly old age, quick to offer that 68 is ‘youngish’. To further confuse the story, I don’t feel old – least ways not like I thought I would. I believe to my core that I have some vitality left and that there is value in what I know and the tracings of where I have been in this long life. And that, my friends, brings us squarely back to the sward of farming.
There are beginnings and endings and everything else, all that in-between, all that MIDST. Messy, complicated, growthy, and fertile. How are we to know what to believe, what to retain, what to apply. What to plant, which stock to select for breeding, when to harvest, where to go to sell it all? Aren’t we required to figure those things out? This is farming. There ought to be a clear, simple and proper way to go about it all. Or?
Occam’s Razor: The principle that the simplest of two competing theories is to be preferred. The myth of specialization and industrial process. Agribusiness would point to simplification – whereas life and the notion of a learned citizenry, successful small scale farming and benign governance point towards complexity and inclusiveness. (Willliam of Ockham 14th century)
Hickam’s Dictum is a counterargument to the use of Occam’s Razor at least in the medical profession. As Dr. Hickam stated: “Patients can have as many diseases as they damn well please”. (The principle is attributed to John Hickam, MD. Hickam was a faculty member at Duke University in the 1950s, and was later chairman of medicine at Indiana University.)
Occam would have it that we go for the ‘obvious’ uncluttered path for that is the essence of success. Hickam would remind us that we can bring in as many elements as we please for that is the essense of life. I choose Hickam’s Dictum for farming because complex interdependence offers us the magic and something better than success, it offers us true membership in the entire blooming process.
There is something dastardly and diagnostic about edge-hanging in agriculture – it should be an indication that complexity has not been invited in or has been held at bay. For so very long humans were concerned with why, these times now demand, without entitlement, the presumptions of how come and how will it come and how fast. It is in the midst of a complex, interrelated and interdependent farming life where we discover that any small event has the potential of progressing or shattering outcomes.
All of my long life I’ve heard it said that farming (the craft, the livelihood, the religion, the service, the calling, the romance, the mumbled heart-felt benediction) is a fool’s errand. And they add, all that is required as proof is to see the ‘edge-hangers’ for what they are. Where, they implore rhetorically, is the security, the certainty, the profit, the stability? ‘Oh, these sad losers,’ they say, ‘who refuse to see that their silly clutch on the farming pattern of the past is a certainty of failure.’ Aren’t we being told, between the lines, that biology – the very fabric of life itself is a thing wholly of the past? Aren’t we asked to believe that this new plastic electro-magnetic implement, more powerful chemical, tricked-out hybrid seed, profitably engineered sheep breed, computer guided drone-run tractor system, that all of this and more gives us a better future by denying the truths of biological order? Is it being suggested that we small farmers with ears to the ground and eyes to the sky are proverbial turtles, obsolete, slow, ridiculous? And is it being insisted that life itself is too limiting an arena for the most efficient production of food? That the profits, trophies, and power go to the proverbial jack rabbit that is modern industrial agribusiness?
I’ve been at this schizophrenic business of farmer, farming observer, and community confessor for so blasted long that patterns do out themselves. Arrogance is a shirt that fades to threadbare in the shortest of seasons. Some times feel old and some times feel young. Some times belong to the intense earned passions of those who dwell in them. But much of our time, this time, belongs to the plasticized board rooms and misguided community organizers who insist we be in their moment. Say it is all new and feel the foolishness. New farmers are quick to claim separation and uniqueness. Today’s rationale would have us readily excuse ourselves by pointing to the new market gardens and saying ‘we ain’t your father’s farmer – we grow for the table.’ Huh? Such comic observations fail to distinguish the new (old) intensive market gardeners from the fatherhood of farming. But they do point squarely at the missed opportunities. And the attitude feels very much to me, in these modern cyberlithic times of amped denial, as the late-fall clinging-apple-leaf exception as excuse. We brought this apology on ourselves, everyone of us complicit; those who see themselves seeing without reaction, and those who believe they are above because they have chosen not to see.
Please remember that our Justice system is primarily charged with protecting property rights, less so civil rights. A curious recent example from Alberta, Canada may illustrate a way forward for small farmers which indeed levels the playing field. Imagine that each farm landscape be copyrighted by its creators, and that each farming system have, in the name of national security, its farming system patented, and that the unique produce of that copyrighted, patented farm be trademarked. See the opportunity to marshall and protect the magic in a way that insists even to our judicial system that what we do, what we have and what we sell are works of art, are unique operations and systems – are property demanding protection in the same way that corporations like Monsanto have demanded protection.
Today the wider world is one of marketable patented patterns, not equations. I call them patterns because they are hard, objective, measured formulas forced to fit accounting’s rule. The magic is missing. What we need, wholesale, are open equations which take into account all that is our jumbled and terrible time while balancing all the magnificence each and every human is capable of.
A closed rigid equation, one without magic, is a mechanical recipe – each ingredient doled out with maddening precision and timing – a copy of a copy of a copy. An equation which allows magic, even encourages its happenstance, provides for those reaches beyond the edge of any ordination, any boundary, and limit. And begins with beginnings where we decide what is to be the plan, the scope, the outline, – where we decide what is to be included. And I am not speaking of magic that is prescribed, I am speaking of the magic which follows when we look out past our efforts to see and feel how it all fits in and how it all triggers unforeseen outcome and circumstance.
That big family on Casper Flats in Mendocino, their entire adventure was life as a work of art. I didn’t see it then. And even now woodcutting and gardening and scavenging might not seem like farming or art to some folks, but it definitely was. And I see it now. I learned it back then, it oozed into me from my shared time there. It gave me an understanding under my skin of who I might be, what I might do, what I could hold as valuable. Life and farming is one gigantic messy truck load of overripe peaches, mushed and leaking and calling in the wasps. Hey, let’s get those peaches in jars right now! LRM