Old Man Farming
by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
Note: This material has been lifted from the new book by Lynn Miller entitled Old Man Farming. Hopefully by the time you read this the book will have been released (in print form).
With the passage of our collective time, through the corrosive sieve of plastic disconnect and modern indifference, who will survive to remember; remember what was long ago inherited, what was long ago desired, what was long ago left to us to protect, all that experience which taught us those difficult lessons of how to fit within ourselves? And how to know who we are, what we might choose as our very own embraceable lifelong endeavors. To be of an age when such questions come with urgency is…
My father taught me how to work, my mother tried to teach me to avoid sentimentality. My father succeeded, my mother never came close. To the contrary I have found strength in the re-imagination of new forms of sentimentality, new that is until I discovered that they were the old original definitions and forms. For sentiment of old, along with romance of old, embraced and grew from conscious understanding of structure and history. Once upon a time there were two ruling observations to the social history of mankind; naiveté and sentiment.
It was a pasty, mustard-yellow, half-ton ’80 Chevrolet pickup truck, the entire body of which was riddled by small dents. I bought it at auction years ago. It belonged to an old rancher whose family fondly referred to as Mr. Magoo. In his later years he could not see well. He only drove at home on the ranch, and he drove this truck. He’d drive slow until he bumped into something, then he’d back up a little and turn one way or the other and try again. In this fashion he ‘felt’ his way around the ranch. And in this fashion he dented up old yeller. The surface of the vehicle was like a reverse brail, a record of ‘felt’, as if Mr. Magoo used ‘old yeller’ like a big motorized blind man’s walking stick, feeling out around him as he moved through his farming world. The pickup truck was in great shape, internally. It had low miles. But externally it looked like a real disaster. I bought it cheap and drove it home to become our ranch “crummy.”
Today I found myself remembering that old truck as my current physical condition seems to parallel that of Mr. Magoo’s Chevrolet. I too am badly dented with dozens of ridiculous problems from failing eyesight, to loss of hearing, to sundry nerve damage problems, to dizziness, etc etc. The parallel continues as I too have bumped around, feeling my way through life seldom able to see what has been right in front of me, better perhaps at the long views. Even so, deep inside I am in great shape – way deep inside. Happy to be where I am and farming still. Sure, I’d love to get the use of my hands back so I could drive my horses again and return to my fountain pens and paint brushes – maybe that will come. But my story, my condition nearing on seven decades of life, is nothing unique and only worth mentioning to give some authority to the following short treatise on the comic, heroic, socially invaluable tragedy of old men farming.
There is a giant old Juniper tree in our front yard which, twenty-six years ago, provided luxuriant shade and bird habitat. As it slowly dies off the shade aspect becomes goofy, useless and spotty. But oh the posture! Bare limbs akimbo this beast of a tree twists out and up, only thing is it has begun to lean – towards the power line! I know that some time soon I may have to take remedial action but for now I look upon the old tree and ask myself ‘what is the lesson here?’ Should I be so quick to judge, to act? After all, I too am leaning towards some proverbial power line. How long can both of us hold this pose? And what might be the value of this?
We had a twin to this tree which for many years stood over my blacksmith shop. One day, in a stiff wind, I watched and listened as it sucked its huge roots out of the ground and slowly fell on to that shop roof. Another old man, dear friend Jean Christophe of France, chainsaw in hand, climbed high up in that monstrous tree, leaning at 45 degrees up over the building, and cut pieces of it off from the top, lowering by cord each chunk to waiting Natalie on the ground. It was like some utilitarian circus act played out for an audience of 25 peafowl, saddened because this had been their favorite nighttime perch, and an old farmer who wished things like that ancient tree could have stayed on forever.
What is notable with this writing and these observations, is that today I put far more enthusiasm and energy into the notion of planting more trees, many more. I don’t think or worry so much about the aged frail trees now leaning. There in lies part of the secret strength of old men (and women) farming. We reach back and forth in time with the earned intimacy of overlapping growth cycles and how we might magically influence those. We know, completely and well, where farming choices fit in the superb uncertainty of the natural world. And we, if of those long suited to the venture, embrace the odds.
In our front yard stand two massive tall Poplar trees which I planted 25 years ago. (If you saw them you might think they are three times that old.) I know by their example that, with good fortune and planning I might plant more which will have that sort of dramatic effect 25 years hence. No guarantees of course, but should I succeed – what magnificence!
Along with big old Ponderosa pines, our ramshackle hundred year old western ranch is home to many ancient scraggled and gnarled Juniper remains which ‘act’ as place marks, as headstones, nature’s allowed and preferred notations. Occasionally we humans moving through life stumble on to embraceable endeavors which allow that there might be some evidence of our lifelong efforts to linger after our passage. Maybe one of those endeavors for us is the planting of additional trees. I like the odds.
Tree planting seems a quart-sized analogy for the craft of farming. Perhaps it’s the obvious chance of durability, and then they are those pesky vagaries. Who can predict, who can know, how a series of lightning storms, heavy wind, dry weather, heavy snowfall, bouncing temperatures and sideways moisture, might yank at roots, split limbs, invite pest and pestilence; who can know? Yet we old farmers remain enchanted by variation.
This year we divided one field into six 7 acre lands. Careful to record each variation; we planted four successive lands to an Oat and field Pea mix for hay and soil health. Each land was tilled differently and the four were planted over a period of 5 weeks to stagger harvest times. The fifth land was planted to Buckwheat intended to be a cover crop and soil envigorant. The sixth land was left fallow. We irrigated the planted fields and kept a record of performance. As of this writing we are nearing harvest of the first land. The growth of the five lands has been dramatic and dynamic in each moment, but for us what has been equally felt have been the floating questions about what crops will follow in each land as we progress with this multi-year rotation plan. Will we plant oats as a nurse crop with legumes and grasses after tilling in the nitrogen-rich Buckwheat? And will we do the same on the fallow land so that we might be able in the following spring to gauge the advantage of the Buckwheat? Will we follow Oats and Peas with Wheat or Barley, or experiment with Chick peas? Will we allow one land as a strict planting of Timothy? Will we plant cereal Rye in these irrigated plots or save it for the dry-land?
For forty-seven years I have practiced what some people choose to call organic farming. We use no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or store-bought poisons in our farming, but that is not how we choose to define ourselves. We don’t want to be known for what we don’t do. We want to be known for what we choose to do. We prefer to think of ourselves as farmers. Over the years the “official” organic approach to agriculture has become institutionalized to an unhealthy degree. Today it is a monetized, highly structured, policed private club. There are rules, there are fees, and there are rituals. If you do not follow them you will find yourself ostracized or afoul of the law. If you label your products as ‘organic’ without formal federal certification you are a criminal. We are not certified and have no intention of ever applying to that process.
A young farming zealot recently made a curious set of observations about me. She said by way of questions “What do you mean you’re not certified? I know you’re an organic farmer. You know it’s the better way to go but how can you call yourself organic if your not certified? I mean let’s face it, it doesn’t matter how you farm if you aren’t certified, because you can’t reasonably prove to anyone that you farm organically unless you allow neutral federal testers to check you out regularly. If the federal government didn’t offer a certification program anyone could claim they were organic and the word would mean nothing. You don’t want that do you? I mean, honestly, how do you see yourself? What do you call yourself?”
I answered, “old man farming”.
Once was a time I would have taken her on in two-fisted argument, but not anymore. I’m in a new zone, old man farming.
Anyway, I’m too busy to mess with such nonsense. Instead of age putting the damper on our future farm plans its lit new flames. We have things we are doing now on our place that won’t come to fruition for three to five years and that suits me to a T. And as for any membership, compliance, or government control – it don’t apply in my zone. There is that terrible cliche about old folks – they say of us “why he’s so old he has nothing to lose”. Truth be known we are so old we have everything to gain and that much more to contribute. I’ve forgotten where I learned it – perhaps from my father, to win a race or complete an arduous task the secret is to see the goal line far beyond where it actually is. That way you’ll fly by it. As I approach my seventh decade I imagine projects that will take three decades to complete. So whenever my life is done I will be far beyond that point in time.
The meaning of sad, the meaning of hopeful. The old juniper grag.
Late life musings certainly take first impetus from the work at hand, much more than from memories of what is past. Of course that changes if we are bed or chair bound and out of the work-a-day cycle. In those cases the tableau stretches back across our spent time. Spent, spending, built, building, oiled and oily.
Occasionally there are specific memories which surprise us with durability and application. As I find my old self working harder than ever at farm and ranching tasks, bumping along like Mr. Magoo in his yellow pickup, my brain reminds me that I gave that truck to a ranch-hand of ours, Jessie.
You’ve heard the term ‘he had a screw loose’? Jessie’s entire brain was one magnificent loose screw. Jessie had ‘outlookitis’, he’d look out at the world and it would carry him off to flights of bizarre conclusion and self assessment. He would leap like a ballet dancer from unrelated point to scattered premise all the while oblivious to how he came off and thrilled to be in control of the solution to all matters practical.
My friend Tygh Redfield, the man who introduced Jessie to us and who holds title as Jessie’s existential biographer, reports that once upon finding a mess of empty beer cans in his hayfield he approached then neighbor Jessie for an explanation. With a raspy inhalation he said, “Gol’ Tygh, last night I was playing catch with the moon and I guess the moon won.”
Tygh somehow convinced us, years ago, that Jessie ought to come live on our ranch and be our handyman. He did that for a year. Even though I have fond memories of the man I am surprised still that I did not chase him off early on.
But he was so uniquely endearing. And that came in large part from his way with certainty and corrective respect. For example, he thought it was a sad mistake that my folks would give a girl’s name to me. He couldn’t bring himself to call me Lynn, instead he’d always call me Glen but with a happy preface, he’d shorten Golly to Gol’ and address me with the setup as “Gol’ Glen!” always followed by an odd observation. “Gol’ Glen, this here is like some sort of real old-time cattle ranch, with cattle and horses and trees and everything! Gol’ you got to love it Glen, There ain’t no more places like this. And you and me we’re just like a couple of old cowboys just cowboying and stuff. Gol’!”
Made me smile and park my mature self so I could take out my compassion for the old guy, except…
One morning, as I had requested, Jessie took fencing tools and drove the half mile of county road repairing our five strand barb wire fence. Mule deer damage. Three hours later as I left to drive to town, I saw Jessie and his little pickup on the other side of that same fence driving along at two miles an hour. He stopped, got out, and tapped at a post with his fence pliers while waving to me. “Jessie”, I asked “what are you doing? I watched you earlier repairing this fence?” With rasping inhalation he answered “Gol’ Glen, you gotta fix these old fences from both sides.”
Jessie fell completely in love with ‘old yeller’ that dented pickup truck, and the back-story of Mr. Magoo the rancher. To him here was evidence that all was right with the world. “Gol’ Glen, do you figure you could ever sell me that old truck? She and I would do good together, I just know it.” There was something insistent in that implied logic, that this man and vehicle belonged together, so I sold it to him cheap. Probably should’ve held on to it, but there’s that sentiment-business governing ways forward. Jessie’s long gone now likely in charge of meaningless limericks up in heaven. He only factored in as a piece of one year in our long history, as a couple of small dents in our trajectory, feeling our way along.
But each of these specific little storied pieces of living rhythm played out as layers against the backdrop of trees, and the planning and planting of trees, fields and crops, livestock, and facilities – they give this old man a real charge forward.
Chronology offers us a peak at the comic aspects of relative age. I have dear friends in their seventies, eighties and beyond who, upon learning I am 67, pshaw their ways toward reflecting on all the things they coulda/shoulda done when they were as YOUNG as I am now. And that invariably brings us to discussions about odometer readings and the relationships between roads traveled and miles accumulated. How do I explain to the uninitiated amongst them that my accumulations reach forward and backward in time putting me squarely in the old man farming zone, where the numbers mean nothing?
Praying to you my fellow travelers, don’t take from me my comforts, don’t strip from me my stripes, allow me my delusions that I might continue to laugh at my own jokes and hurry at my own pace. For mine is the power of the old cuddler of connivance and your last order of business is to allow me a brief moment to intervene that together we might take some credit should the outcome satisfy.