by Lynn R. Miller
It is spring, early clear morning, and I am out spreading compost across the field. One side of my face is crisp with cold and the other side is warm from the sideways sunshine. A small flock of Canadian geese fly low from our house pond across the hayfields to the irrigation lagoon. Seventy-five mule deer wander across the grainfield and birds skitter about. The lilac bush at the house is budding furiously, pointing to more blossoms than usual. And, as I gaze at the shimmering snow-covered Cascade mountains in the near distance, it is nearly impossible not to feel that all is well with nature and the planet. At least in our corner. But our corner is a glaring exception. We are surrounded by thousands of acres of forest land with very few people. Our water and air are pristine by any and every measure. There are no factories, or highways, or city centers, or warring religions, or drug dealers, or brokers for many miles in any direction. It is an anomoly, this paradise where we live.
We live here by choice. We chose this place. We choose to live here. And, most everyday, we make choices in how we live here. We understand, to our core, that this tiny piece of earth is a fragile wildlife habitat. The balance is easily tipped. Fragile not because of any inherent lack but because with any and every reckless encroachment of human society the flora and fauna are set back. So we try to have our footprint and presence in this landscape be as low key and unobtrusive as possible. For many reasons our farming has for decades been done without herbicides, pesticides, insecticides, fungicides, or chemical fertilizers. That said, it is important that we do not see our effort to be about what we won’t or do not do, but rather what we value and how we knowingly protect that. So our farming efforts are decidedly small by choice and embrace. It is our way of making a miniscule contribution to the global effort to restore peace, natural balance and relevance to man’s presence on earth.
Every person alive should be concerned with the health and future of this planet. Should be, but most aren’t. They may be guaranteeing their own extinction.
Humanity must now earn the right to continue living on this planet.
We need to find simple, direct, rewarding solutions to human interaction with all other forms of biological life. We need to find ways that our time on earth is beneficial for all. People are the problem but they are also the solution, or they contain the stuff that would make things right. Strength and billions of small adventurous choices to protect where we live, that’s the stuff.
Ed and I took a seven hour voyage to pick up ten tons of pelleted composted organic chicken manure for the hay fields. We drove north and west through our arid central Oregon. From the busy commercial farmlands of Culver and Madras, through the dry junipered middle of the Warms Springs Reservation, between the wide set Ponderosa pines and into the dense Fir forests that allowed us over snow-covered Mt. Hood — with beautiful sunshine we were given the clearest view of the landscape and the lingering effects of winter. The landscape, scarred here and there by fire and by pockets of trash, with a scattered peppering of houses, was for the most part natural. The vistas still expansive and generous, altogether hopeful and terrifying. Terrifying because you might easily imagine some gigantic weather event roaring across the sky, spilling over the Cascade mountains and laying waste to what mere mortals valued. Terrifying because each of us know that we, collectively, can do nothing to deny such an event. Force of nature. Larger than life? We don’t get tornadoes, or hurricanes, or massive tropical storms like other parts of the country and world. We live with our volcanoes but that’s different. We like to believe we can load up our cars and drive a safe distance away from eruptions. What we have is this underlying fear of earthquakes from which there may be no safe distance, no escape.
Once we passed over the mountain and headed west and south to skirt the city of Portland, our view was of people, traffic and also of spring’s insistence upon this entirely different climate region. The growing conditions and soils which ring the east and southeast of the Portland metropolitan area are now perfection for nursery stock, market gardening and fruit production. A riot of fruit tree blossoms and lush green growth, pouring over rolling hillsides and through neighborhoods with inclusive generosity, shortened the vistas enough to give a false sense that all is as it should be. But viral as nature is there and now, the human encroachment is an undeniable destructive plague upon this land which WILL “condemn” this small region and it’s own climate and claim it as sacrifice to the voracious human appetite.
Over fifty years we have entertained small, failed, local and regional discussions about the preservation of farmland. Now we entertain equally doomed — equally small, local, regional, national and international discussions on the preservation of the planet. We argue about global warming and humanity’s culpability because weather is affecting us today. But the particulars everywhere tell us that our climate change is but symptomatic of the much larger bugaboo; human beings, as we currently now do conduct ourselves, are at odds with nature, natural balance, and reproductive surety. A handful amongst us are alarmed by the growing rate of species extinction, even fewer still see this as a harbinger of a possible extinction of the human race itself.
Now we sometimes hear ourselves saying “government needs to do something right away.” We forget that government works primarily to assure itself, following that, it works to grow humanity and society in some ordained fashion. Government also pretends to protect and defend its people and borders. Governments, many argue, were never supposed to save the planet. Any individual government lacks jurisdiction, lacks scope, lacks the core strength required to “save the planet”. While, paradoxically, we see that it is humanity itself that is in need of remedial miracles. The planet reserves the right to regenerate itself in humanity’s absence.
Continuing on our trip after fertilizer we drove through Oregon City, along the Clackamas River, and spring continued to push itself forward reminding the insightful that within the spherical realm of biological life regeneration is a magnificent promise. Birds want to be born, seeds want to germinate, mushrooms need to push themselves up and out, insects enliven themselves and all around, and — here in western Oregon — blackberry brambles reach out and surround everything, engulfing the untended buildings and detritus of human adventure, swallowing without chewing, reclaiming for biology. Sort of what happens to our brains while we sleep, our thinking grows over our memories, concealing as it swallows.
You get old. And you wonder why you remember certain things at all, certain people. Usually always a reason but often kept from you. “Why am I remembering this now, is it important? Nah. I don’t think so.” But then… it becomes clear to you. Sometimes you have to follow the thread, deep in, before you see the lost ends, the entrances.
I wake up agitated by whatever dream had last inserted itself in my brain and begin the rituals to shake it off. This brings a litany of mostly unwanted flashes: fulsome crops that never make it to table — big outfits running roughshod over small ones — mines playing out — wells running dry — everything turning to dust — scripture being warped to suit liars and thieves — colleges spitting out teachers who can’t read — hospitals hiring butchers — crows flying backwards into the sun — pretty women turning ugly in the rain — strong boys running for the safety of closets — ripe fruit bitter to the taste — clothing made of plastic — banks unable to find accountants they can trust to count their ill-gotten gains — politicians filling their air guns with artificial excrement — and paranoias, including mine, piling up in the basements of dying societies.
Ice water in the face and a moment of quiet reflection and review and I realize that once again I have allowed the slather of our bizarre media landscape to flavor a piece of my time. And I am ashamed for the weakness. Because there is so much that is grand and purposeful and essentially beautiful in the world, yes this world today. I said I was ashamed of the weakness and I do mean weakness because these mindsets, however accurate they may seem on the surface, offer us little or no strength to move through our days. Strength; strength of character, of outlook, of values, of membership in the community of man. Denial you say? Delusional? Give me a break! Turn 10% to the right or left of any perspective and you are potentially ‘in denial’ of something. Pick stasis or impetus but for heaven’s sake pick something!
So my mind, my mental rolodex, goes in search of strong people.
Roping the Runaways
I met old Big Joe Herrin twenty plus years ago at a bit and spur auction. I was the ring man and he a customer, we struck up a conversation during the preview portion of the event. He said he knew about me from his active interest in working horses. We became friends. One of our best shared memories was when Kristi and I joined Big Joe and Pearl Herrin at the Big Loop Rodeo in Jordan Valley, a contest very dear to Joe’s heart. (With a sixty-five foot lariat cowboys were timed roping fleeing horses.) We ate Basque food, laughing we argued with Owyhee Indians, watched some fascinating/unique rodeo and compared notes on horses and life. I asked if Joe and Pearl would permit me to paint their portrait and the conversation got gushy.
He was an imposing western figure, well over six foot tall with muscles so thick that to free arms and shoulders he would rip the sleeves out of his snap-buttoned western shirts. He always wore these with a loose, loud, fifties dress tie. Unmistakeable. He’s gone now, but even then Big Joe was a cowboy legend in eastern Oregon. He wasn’t of the tall, thin, laconic, wonder-if-he’s-Hispanic-or-Norwegian, buckaroo type. He was western more than cowboy, but darn sure more cowboy than most. He was wide, with a small waist, thick neck, thicker arms and barrel chest and all of him covered in fine white-tipped salmon-pink hair.
Hear tell he was so big, strong and fearless that as a lad he got the job of perching way up high, out front and over the top of thirty-horse combine hitches working the wheat fields of the Columbia river basin. Two lines strung yards ahead to the leaders, he drove the rigs solo with a six man crew in attendance on the combine.
Out east of Prineville, Oregon, in the vast dry high desert there is the huge legendary ZX ranch. When they were still using teams of horses to mow the prairie grass hay Big Joe had a special assignment. To hear him recount the story:
“They were using broncs, some half draft some not, they ran 9 months of the year out wild on the desert. Come hay time they’d go out and scare ‘em into the big corral where we’d rope ‘em, blindfold ‘em, harness ‘em, drag ‘em kicking to the waiting mowers. There we’d hook ‘em up. The hay meadow was a mile or two long. A cowboy would climb onto the mower seat and we’d yank the blindfolds off the team. If everything held together, most times they could get that team halfways quieted down in less than a mile of mowing. Sometimes though, they’d completely lose their heads or the mower would bust or what ever and that’s where I would come in. I had a good big stout gelding and a long loop, just like they use at Jordan Valley. Sixty-five foot of lariat. When I’d see a mower more out of control then the rest I ride out fast on the left side and rope the near horse and yank ‘em around in a circle til they stopped or fell down. By then a couple or three boys would have ridden up to blindfold the horses again, fix things, line them up and turn them loose again. It was a hoot. Guess they didn’t have anybody else big enough to dalley-off them mower outfits. Seven or eight teams all at a gallop, we cut a lot of hay fast in those days.”
Some time after Big Joe was gone, I found myself in the company of a retired Prineville cop and we were visiting. I asked him if he had ever run into Big Joe Herrin. A wide grin circled by his memory-searching eyes gave the answer. “Damn yes. How you know about him?” So I told him a few stories of times I had shared with Joe, all which happened when Joe was getting on in years. And he offered in trade this tale.
“Prineville not so long ago was a rough and tumble cowboy and logger watering hole. For hundreds of miles around guys would stumble in here looking to drink and fight. Hardly a summer weekend would pass without at least one big bar-room brawl. The bartenders all had two phone numbers on the wall, mine and Big Joe’s. They’d call Big Joe first. See, Big Joe didn’t drink but he loved to brawl. So when furniture was in jeopardy the call would go out to Joe and he’d come slow, pass through the door and one of two things would hap- pen. Either the fight would stop right there or Joe would take each and every brawler usually one at a time but that didn’t matter, punch ‘em once and toss them out the door into the street. Joe was happiest when two or three would gang together and figure they could stop him. He’d just smile and tie them in knots. He was always real careful not to hurt any innocents. Then he’d leave and the barkeep would call me. Happened more times then I could count. It was like he was the town janitor, just cleaning up the messes. Big Joe Herrin, yep gentlest big man I ever knew. Kinda like an unofficial judge/bouncer.”
Makes me wonder. In this day and age, when justice wears starched underwear and no blindfold, if Joe wouldn’t have ended up in jail himself.
Prineville not so long ago was an almost ghost town. And before that it was a great small town serving ranchers, farmers, and loggers. Today, Prineville is being uppified (yes, not yuppified, uppified) which is by way of saying that software minions have moved in and are making the town into something they can call their own. They found relatively cheap electricity, land and local expectations and have rushed in, BMWs blaring, to claim this piece of the west. Enormous computer and software facilities have been built. Courage and character has lost out to limited partnerships and funny money. But they haven’t cleared the strength and character out completely, not just yet.
Taking the Cure
My old friend George Ziermann recently moved George’s Boots to Prineville. Now here’s a man cut from the cloth of strength, courage and independence. On a recent visit we sat in his shop and compared notes on all sorts of things including the sad state of health care. I mentioned a mutual friend who upon diagnosis with cancer took to making trips to Mexico for alternative care. I said that this fellow was looking mighty good. To which George offered;
“I got my own thoughts on this sort of stuff. A long time ago I had this infection on my chest, got so bad it turned black and stank. Went to a doctor and he said that’s cancer, real bad, we got to get you in right away, start chemo-therapy and a routine of drugs. I said to him, Doc better make out my bill right now so’s I can pay you cuz when I leave here I’m done with this foolishness, I’m never coming back here. I went home and went outside and sat under a tree for a day and a half thinking. I’ve got mining background and from that I knew that cyanide and cancer don’t mix. So I went down in the Snake River canyon and gathered up a whole bunch of ripe windfall apricots. I mashed up the pits from that fruit. On that first day I ate 29 of those pits. I stopped at that number because they tasted bad and by 29 I was throwing up. Next day I ate 27 pits before I got sick. Following day 25 and so on. By the time I got to where I couldn’t eat any of those pits I felt heaps better and eventually that cancer went away completely.”
George’s story is more about his courage, self-determination and doggedness than anything else.
Those of us who prize a “natural” life have got to lace-up our time with every such example of unusual courage, strength, and fortitude and let that lacing hold us together as we move along.
But what place do the Big Joes, the Georges, or any of us for that matter — what place do we occupy in the wider world? That other place…
Accepting Our Place
Edward O. Wilson in his latest book, Half Earth, makes a strong case for relegating the human species to half of the planet and reserving the other half for nature — my choice of words. It is as if to say that most humans are separating themselves more and more from the natural world while, at the very same time, hastening the loss of thousands of species to extinction and diminishing the planet’s capacity to sustain life. So since — as Wilson offers — that is the case, let’s draw a line and separate them allowing nature to regenerate herself and return the planet to a safe and fertile balance.
It is as if to say there are human beings on this side and biological life on the other and they are at odds. Obviously, human beings are (or — more purely — were) part and parcel of biological life. But over a hundred and fifty years, give or take a few, homo sapiens have worked to break the bonds and sacred laws of life.
Any examination, however, repeatedly shows that there is no absolute in this discussion — there are good people in solid membership to biological life even as there are those who long for escape and even freedom from the natural world. It is as if to say society has become a cauldron of paradox and contradiction spiced by greed, unselfishness, arrogance, humility, evil, goodness, vitality and indolence. Those who are destroying the planet directly and indirectly (intentionally and unintentionally) are in the majority. Many of those who would save the planet are writing on invisible chalkboards in front of empty auditoriums. Meanwhile the planet burns.
Exhausting. We might not be in this discussion but we are most certainly in the outcome.
Our media wants to limit such talk to systems analysis — to economics, to weather, to politics, to surveillance, to justice(?), to defense, to trade, to prison systems, to health care systems, to education, to transportation, to agricultural systems, to entertainment. “Life” is just too dicey to warrant a showcase of its own. Any focus on life tends to be at odds with the “money.” How do we put a price on life? Well that is silly, really, because we put a price on life every dog-gone day. Our government decides how much collateral damage is acceptable when we bomb neighborhoods in pursuit of the “enemy.” That puts a price on life. Drug company’s decide what might be acceptable sickness and mortality losses for new prescription drugs. That puts a price on life. Cities put a price on life when they ignore (or refuse) the homeless. So instead the big media go for the small views, the tight-in discussions of systems, the hand-held focus on tragedy and misery that sells ads. They stay away from the bigger picture which then ironically gives us the enormous out-of-focus pictures of idiot politicians repeating themselves moronically and viciously until we are hypnotized and just don’t care anymore. It gets louder and louder while the information shrinks to nothing.
Some of the loudest amongst us want to fix what’s wrong with the weather. Others argue there is nothing wrong with the weather, the weather is what it wants to be. Neither camp wants to talk about the fact that the majority of humanity is looking for a comfortable life with a chance to get ahead. The hot potato here is that the majority of humanity IS the problem — its needs, its demands, its all-encompassing, choking, footprint smack-dab on top of nature. We can’t all have what we want — with swimming pools, three square meals a day, three cars, free access to shopping malls and wilderness — health care, a big house, and every available electronic device — without causing the destruction of the planet. The irony is that all that stuff — including the three square meals a day — ain’t making us happy, ain’t giving us a fulfilling existence. The irony is that if we had to eke out an existence, grow our own food, learn to keep ourselves healthy, do with less, develop a bunch of real skills, learn to make stuff, learn gratitude, the planet would heal itself because we’d no longer be a drain on her, we’d no longer be in the way. We might, in fact, just might, become once again a beneficial life form.
The louder amongst the activists want everyone else to believe that the great risks to the planet are people like farmer me, like big Joe Herrin, like George Ziermann the boot-maker, like new homesteader Ed Joseph, simply because we are males who insist on bullying life and breaking rules to get our way, because we kill and eat animals, because we rope horses to stop them, because we are capable of force feeding ourselves poison, because we poke fun at people’s politics, because we water our crops, because we insist our kids do their chores, because we don’t walk into a government office and ask permission to live our lives. I respectfully offer that all these independent folk out there, “bad” people such as we, are exactly what is needed to get the job of saving the planet done. The world needs us as pattern, as example and proof. We are farmers and that is exactly what the world needs now. If this planet is to win every battle she faces she needs independent farmers.
Winching a Barn Into the Air
The Josephs purchased eighty acres of raw ‘undeveloped’ land a few miles north of us. They took the plunge and quit good paying career jobs and moved children, chickens, cows, pigs, horses, rabbits and dogs a hundred plus miles to a hardscrabble subsistence corner where they then set to work to build themselves a farmstead completely off the grid. The strength, talent, imagination, and grit they have brought to this project is staggering. Ed built a barn, with his father’s help, to use as a temporary accommodation. To illustrate my assessment of their strength I tell the story of one part of that building’s rise. Ed devised a system to raise the roof structure of his building incorporating boat winches. He put in the dimension pressure treated posts up eighteen feet in the air (mostly by hand and by trick) and then built trusses, between the corresponding posts and on the ground, wide enough to fit around the posts. He fastened purlins between a pair of trusses. The idea was to raise a pair of trusses straight up four posts. He welded steel caps for those posts with pulleys and put those on top of the posts, running light cable through the pulleys and down either side of the posts. He then temporarily anchored a boat winch at the bottom of each of the corresponding posts, attaching one end of each cable to a winch drum (cable up through the cap pulley and down the other side) and the other end to truss corner. As Ed and his father turned the winches the trusses rose slowly up the four posts until the unit reached its target height. Ed then went up a ladder, leveled things up and anchored the trusses. This process was repeated three times to create a total of five bents. Ed successfully and brilliantly winched his barn up into the air! Now that is what it means to be a farmer. That’s the stuff it takes.
“Farming” gets a bad rap. In discussions about environmental degradation and in societal thinking about career opportunities it gets a bad rap. Does it deserve it? The difference between huge, agri-business-governed, industrial agriculture and what we enjoy thinking of as human-scale farming is as vast as the difference between war and peace, health and sickness, sterility and fertility, gain and pain.
And the defining separator in all of that is the question or issue of scale. It’s all about what a person or a family can get its arms around. So, you might ask, what does that — or any of these stories — have to do with the larger question of mankind saving the earth? Everything, we answer.
When humanity is fully invested: our time, imagination, dreams, cares, thoughts, hands and prayers, into the beauties and yearnings of day to day, piece by piece, peace by peace survival, of making a true marriage with nature, usable skills are refound, fertility is rebuilt, biological diversity is recharged, and all of farming becomes a forested garden. And that is a fine plan for inside society.
Outside of society? I agree with E.O. Wilson that we must at the same time quarantine humanity from great expanses of the earth to give her a space to heal and recharge. We must set aside the deep oceans, the frozen south and north, the tundra, the inhabitable deserts, the darkest deepest scary jungles of Asia, Africa, South America, Eurasia, Northern Europe, Oceania and North America as a vast half earth no-man’s land.
We must limit so-called civilization to its present congested confines. We know all those things that must be done to reduce pollution. It must happen now, time has run out. The trade-offs and compromises that have been hallmark of democracies worldwide are shown in these dark and loud days as shameful gifts to the wealthiest, most powerful, greediest and arguably most short-sighted amongst us — large corporations and the idle rich. The deals that have been made and would still be made in the name of ‘progress’ are all deals with a devil that will destroy earth and humanity. And they are destroying humanity right now from the inside.
Millions of migrants, all over the world, risking everything, even the lives of their smallest children, trying to escape to an opportunity for a life — a life! That is both a symptom of and a root cause for vast social unrest. Our governments and big businesses have created this climate and they refuse to do anything about it — so we are invited to argue amongst ourselves as to how we might keep all “those” people away from us, keep them outside, so that we may peacefully shop for our new tennis shoes, cosmetics, electronic gadgets and recreational vehicles? Oh what a perfect storm for drug dealers and sellers of weapons. Shame on us.
Ironically, where most of the migrants are headed, when they can, is to city centers. The pot does boil and boil. If just a portion of them could be granted opportunities on pieces of land to grow food and fiber, and reform community, and get together of an evening to sing the old songs and laugh a bit, we let the bad air out and the good air in. Everyone wins, wins big. Small farming, again a solution.
Any such schemes require not just vision, clarity, unselfish intelligence and organizational skills — they require great courage, strength and drive. They require people like Big Joe, George and Ed. What we might do to build a better, more fertile and stable world requires you to have that courage, strength and drive even when the personal circumstances seem impossibly daunting, even when the losses and the ugliness wants to pull you down to join in the darkness, you need to fill your space with your imaginative power.
Walk into that brawling space and ask the rabble to clear out — or clear them out. Face that deadly disease and beat it on your own terms. Winch that barn roof up into the sky with your bare hands.
Choose your place. Choose to be there. Choose how you will live there. Choose to make it all that it can be. It is unthinkable that you would waste your birthright. You were born to evolve forever and to protect our biosphere, our home.