Rivers of Frost
and saving the pig
avoiding the extinction of resiliency
by Lynn Miller
I was ten or eleven when my father finally agreed to let me go to work with him. Man, was I excited. He was a real life hero to me; big man with lunch bucket, thermos, and heavy tool belt. Powerful in every respect. He knew things, was intrigued with little details that went into his pouch of truths; details that proved the points – that added up to the sum total of life. His knowledge made him powerful to me. So did his black 1952 Ford pickup with its flathead V-8. And his sense of humor, some people thought it dry, I saw it as soft and unannounced.
“Son, you can’t be a farmer until you can convince the pigs that you like your spinach. Remember a field of spinach can turn pigs the color of money.”
A terrible tour of duty during WWII, Marine as first sergeant for Carlson’s Raiders in the South Pacific; he came back having separated anything related to warfare and bloodshed from useful bits and pieces of information. He buried the bad memories. He came back hard and quiet. So we young boys had to learn from other people, men who had served under him, the stories of his strength and courage. Directly from him we learned the stuff in front of us. How to sharpen a flat carpenter’s pencil to a chisel point, and how to hold it for a thick line or thin. We learned how important it was to measure carefully, fully attentive, before marking any board to cut.
If you made a mistake and cut that board too short, he made sure you understood that you were less of a human being than you had a chance to be. And if you had done it perfectly that was all the reward you would see, the self-knowledge that you had measured up to your fullest stature as a human being. Yep, cutting a board properly, that’s where you felt it, saw it first hand. Today that would be seen as silly or dramatic and definitely too harsh. Crapola I say. Without forceful examples and lessons, the reason for the knowledge never gets etched. Today you aren’t supposed to hear yourself think things like that, let alone say them out loud. It’s not cool. Crapola I say, out loud.
My Dad showed us how to hold a shovel, if you were serious about using it for the long haul. How to place your feet in a ditch while shoveling. He showed us how, if we were serious about walking anywhere, we needed to pay attention to our feet and to have them pointed straight ahead. “Paddle with your feet splayed out side-ways in a shuffling meander and I’ll get where you’re going half a day before you.”
He could tell you the date that each state was admitted to the union. He could name every country all ’round the world. I marveled at that. Of course it was 1958 and politics seemed to have settled to a predictable set of adversaries and outcomes – not like today when the names of countries are subject to change at any given moment. (If he were alive when it happened, he would have been livid that “idiot scientists” would downgrade Pluto from planet to big rock.)
And if he were alive today he’d say forty years is a long time to be writing these editorials. Forty years is a long time to be doing anything this day and age. Attention spans, as seed-man Stephen Scott shared with me when he and Cindy visited us recently, average seven seconds. I’m sure there must be some perimeters or limits to that observation but that’s not as important, for me, as the general agreement that today people struggle with attention. I’m a farmer, why should these things matter to me at all? Matters because at the center of our society, where the vital little things are attended to every second of everyday the most important work requires complete long-term attention. Curious, acute, attention.
And it matters to me because I am an aging farmer and we old people are bombarded these days with talk of the inevitability of senility, memory loss and shortened attention spans. Phooey I says, right in the face of the entire medical profession, its sisterhood of internet doom-flaggers and the ill-prepared entertainment industry, few of which understand that potatoes and carrots come out of the ground dirty. (I do love a long inverted sentence with dangling precepts and torsioned verbs.) Phooey I says, right in the snoot of the snootiest portfolioed experts, because what keeps us attentive is the practice of attentiveness. Attention gets us there and keeps us there but most important it moves us beyond in exciting ways.
On that first day of work on the construction job with my father we went to a church-addition project. His crew was both remodeling the classic, tall, steepled church and adding a community hall to it. Alongside the main portion of the church, adjacent to the steeple was a boom truck. Boom extended up as high as that tall thin steeple, the end of its dangling cable nearly reached the ground and there was a harness of some sort attached. Seemed poised to lift something way up high. I looked straight up that steeple and it gave me the shivers.
The other side of the building was a freshly graded and ditched piece of land that looked like it was going to receive a concrete foundation wall about 30 by 30 feet square. He walked me to that long rectangular ditch in the dirt and handed me a square point shovel. “This is your job son. Clean all the loose dirt out of this ditch and square up the sides and floor like this.” And he showed me. Then he handed me the shovel, pointed to the ditch and said “go on, get in there and get started.”
“But Dad,” I objected, “I came to help you build stuff.”
“It starts here son, now get going.” And he walked off.
It was a hot summer day in southern California. And I wasn’t happy with my assignment. My effort was less than half-hearted and the next hour felt like a year. I had hardly gotten ten feet cleared when he came back round.
“Here, give me that,” he insisted obviously disappointed, and he jumped into the ditch. “Get back and watch.” And he scurried, shoveling the bottom flat, scraping the walls, and cleaning out the ditch portion lickety-split. “That’s what I mean.” he said. To which I responded, “It’s easy for you, I want something else to do, something important.” He glared at me and walked away. I got back in the ditch and tried harder. I was mad and lost myself to the working, lost track of time, lost track of how hot it was and how tired I was getting. I was mad. I guess for the first time I felt I had something to prove. I made it to the end of that 30 foot side and felt like I had conquered the world. I climbed out of the ditch and went looking for my father.
He was talking to a small circle of men at the boom truck. There seemed to be some general disagreement about the notion that one of them had to slip into the harness and be lifted to the top of the steeple, fifty feet in the air, to do some repairs. When my father saw me he stopped the conversation and asked, “you finish that ditch?” “Yep.” I offered as casually as I could. He took me over to inspect the work and stopped short and wheeled around. “Son, you did a half-hearted job of one side. There are three more sides. Get back in there and finish that next side then we can take a break for lunch.” He patted me on the back and I slinked back to the ditch.
Later when he returned with his lunch pail and my brown sack lunch, I had not yet completed that second side. He shook his head and muttered “Come up out of there.” He jumped in and said “I guess that leaves me to do it.” Boy I was mad as I watched him effortlessly finish my second wall ditch. We ate lunch silently, sitting on a lumber pile. I enjoyed the sandwich more than any other time I could remember but it didn’t take away how bad I felt. After lunch break we went back together to the ditch. “You gonna do it or am I?” He asked. “I am.” “Okay then son, I want you to pay attention to what you are doing. I need this ditch with straight walls, a flat floor and clean. That’s your job. Pay attention to what you are doing.” And he walked off.
It was hotter and I felt myself dragging when I heard the men talking and my father’s conversation-ending statement “I guess that leaves me to do it.” A little later, head down and pushing the shovel along the floor of the ditch I heard a squeaking motor sound and looked over to see a man, in harness, being lifted high up by the boom truck, up alongside the steeple. I was looking into the sun and could only make out silhouettes but it still seemed pretty scary to a kid. When you are ten years old, standing in a ditch, and looking up into the sun at a church steeple and a man dangling precariously fifty feet in the air everything is exaggerated. Then I heard my father’s voice, “I can tell from here that you haven’t finished that ditch, get back to it and pay attention.” I knew in an instant that it was him up there looking down on me. Boy I was confused. I felt small and scared, scared for my father and small because I was failing him. But I was also proud as punch that it was my Dad who was doing the job nobody else would risk, repairing that steeple. It energized me well beyond my capacities. I went at that ditch cleaning job like a crazy man, or kid. And every time I felt myself lagging a little I’d peek up over my shoulder and see my father’s silhouette as he carefully re-nailed shakes to that steeple. I could feel him paying attention to his job up there and to me down below and it re-ignited my work.
At the end of the work day, my father looked over my ditch and nodded – no words, just nodded. As we walked to the pickup I said “good job.” He looked at me quizzically and I pointed up at the steeple. I slept in the truck all the way home. And when I woke I knew how to work. I knew it took attention.
So nowadays when someone speaks of people having short attention spans I make the visceral leap to people not knowing how to work. I believe it IS a defining distinction; no matter how naturally talented, or intellectually gifted, or wildly creative you are – if you do not KNOW how to work the world can never be your oyster. If you have a short attention span and cry-baby ways, long-learning distances through life’s swamps and sunrises will never be yours.
This is especially true of farming: Whether you are on a tractor, on your knees with hand tools, or behind work animals, field work is long, arduous and demanding. The repetitions on the surface seem moronic but the long hours, long days, of coursing round and round, back and forth, cross the field, down the rows, they get the work done, and done right. (And the truest teamsters amongst us know that those same long, dusty, moronic hours of perfect repetition give us our most excellent and perfectly trained work animals.) But the long hours are only part of it, a major part I’ll grant you but not the whole enchilada. You need to be awake and aware and paying attention as each and every foot of travel contains information that fuels decisions and broadens opportunity.
On a recent visit to to an urban farm, I found myself in a conversation about Buckwheat as a crop and as a soil benefit. The farmer is within the city limits and bordered on the east side by a city street and diagonally crossed by a canal ditch. He observed that he learned to appreciate Buckwheat, which he also planted to build the soil and add nitrogen, as a critical frost indicator. He said he could go out of a morning and see the markings on the Buckwheat of the night’s invisible rivers of frost, commenting that it surprised him to see freeze damage at the canal and road edge where conventional wisdom might suggest water and road temperatures should mitigate the cold. These observations helped him to make planting decisions, an example of how paying close attention reaps rewards. You have to be “in” the working and aware to receive the benefit.
Sometimes good work requires paying attention out behind us as well. Coming away from that farm I made the observation that trying to farm surrounded by people, housing, cars and commerce would be very difficult for me. Every neighbor might reasonably have a concern for dust, noise, odor, messes, customer traffic, and more. And those neighbors, if feeling put upon, might search for some ‘agency’ or gov’t. body that could intercede and determine whose interests take priority. It’s all about living side by side and making it work. I have long found it frustrating that these starting points move quickly to a disinterested person or office being in place to give permission. If the small local bureaucracy doesn’t have a pigeon in the game they might reasonably look to yet another group, organization or professional to help them judge the matter. Could be a local church, farming club or neighborhood group – or an entirely other more remote agency. All of us out west long ago gave up on the notion of a ‘good and accessible human’ making such decisions, a Solomon deciding who gets to keep the baby.
The Solomons of old came of their own culture, or tribe or city state. They were formed in part by the contradictions of group identity as well as by ritual. Under most of the old cultures was the supposition that each individual (outside of superfluous royalty) had intimate knowledge of work. What the culture did was to lay upon that knowledge certain critical tests, brutal trials and curious challenges to force each person to find his own shape. For the best working men and/or women have tests in their background – tests that shaped their privacies.
At a young age I faced such a test and it determined for me that humor in costume is in my nature, and that, no matter how hard I tried, I would never amount to much, or at least not reach my potential.
Shortly after my father taught me how to dig a ditch, our family traveled across country and sea to spend a long Christmas at my mother’s ancestral home, back on the island of Puerto Rico. Ritual is and was important there, passionately so. When we first arrived on the island my Puerto Rican cousins eyed me, and my uncles jabbed, and Pepe said “he is the one – he will guard our pig”. And they laughed. Made me mad, I took it that they were making fun of the fact that I was a skinny little kid. No way did I know they had something more ‘sinister and branding’ in store for me.
For the Davila/Perez clan, the Puerto Rican Christmas feast was a twenty-foot long exotic buffet of food. All manner of tropical fruits, great heaping bowls of arroz con pollo asopao (soupy chicken rice with avocados, pimentos, peas, and more) guava paste with long hot loaves of crusty bread, pastelles (a kind of carribean tamale), shredded beef slow cooked in spices, and so many dishes the flavors I remember though the names I may never have known. And in the center of that long table were two spectacles. One was a life-sized, glistening, ice-sculpture of a Swan and the other was an entire roast pig complete with baked red apple in his mouth. This pig I knew pretty well. I counted myself as his protector. But I must back up my story to explain that.
The day before this feast I had been invited to work with my cousins in a screen-lined outside kitchen. There we took a cold, slaughtered and dressed feeder pig, perhaps close to 200 pounds, and worked with brushes to paint his entire body and cavity in many coats of a basting formula the main ingredient of which was powdered Achiote peppers. Then the women of the family brought us stuffing materials which included dried fruits, whole apples and pears and whole chorizo-style sausages. When we finished stuffing the pig and sewing it shut, the last preparation was an inch or more of wet red clay which we formed around the entire body. We then wrapped it in fresh green banana leaves and tied it up tight.
We all loaded in trucks with the pig and went on a surprise trip. My uncle, Tio Pepe, had a farm at the base of El Yunque, the rain-forested mountain at the center of the island. On this farm he raised, among other things, fighting roosters. He had many fearsome, wildly-plumed birds with razor sharp talons, and these birds were tethered, each by a single leg, to a barrel or box that was their shelter. These shelters were lined up in a ring around the stone-walled fighting arena. The roosters could not reach each other but there were frequent leaping, wing-flapping, displays of poultry anger at each other. The ring was about forty feet across and the 3 foot high stone wall had passage-openings at each quarter. Out just beyond the ring of tethered roosters was a stone tool shed and a tall thick wall of rainforest. If you did not know where to go you might never find this hidden arena of death and gambling. As an eleven year old I had absolutely no concept of what went on there and loads of fascination and curiosity for a place that seemed to me designed for wild worship.
But at Christmas time this arena had another special culinary application. At the center of the bare floor there was a large hole in the dirt with coals smoldering in amongst white hot rocks. It was evening when we got there and the men laid some sort of palm fronds or plant stalks in the hole. The plant material steamed wildly in contact with the rocks. Steam and sizzle. With a thick bed of this hot plant fiber in place the men lowered the pig down through the steam cloud and into the middle of the hole. Then they covered it with wet burlap sacking and followed with dirt until the hole was filled. The dirt steamed with little rivulet shoots leaking out here and there. Next a bucket was placed near the site and I was handed a sack of apples and a stick.
They explained that I was to guard the pig as it cooked in the ground. The bucket was for me to sit on. I was not to fall asleep or the wild dogs of El Yunque would come into the arena and dig up the pig for their dinner. If I heard anything like wild dogs I was to holler and scream while beating the stick on the stone wall, all to scare them off. If I saw anything in the woods I was to throw an apple at it. “Why an apple?” Because the wild dogs love apples so after they get over being hurt by your excellent aim, they will take the apple back to their den and eat it. While they do this you can rest on the bucket.”
And they left me.
I should have been scared but for some ridiculous reason I felt well armed, with information and the stick, plus I knew that when confronted by such things my anger swelled in place of fear. The wild dogs of El Yunque had no idea what was in store for them. Lucky for me it is very warm on the island and the night was most comfortable. I was alone for a little while and beginning to fret when I heard strange noises and went to beating the wall with the stick. From the forest darkness I saw eyes and threw the apples and things got quiet. A while later it started again and this time my aim was so good that I heard a distinct OW! in Caribbean spanish. That’s when a half-eaten apple core came into the ring from the forest and I heard all of my cousins and two uncles laughing. It was almost sixty years ago now, and I prefer to remember I made it through that long and threatening night and saved the Christmas pig. Maybe it was only an hour or two, with all the laughing and back slapping at the meal I may have been the only one who thought I had done a courageous night’s work.
Ah work, what various ways we think about it all. My thoughts had taken me astray… As my friend Bill Reynolds has asked, who gets to give us permission? Once it was a contest between church and royalty. Then it became a contest between academia, government, church, civic groups, schools, royalty (as applied) and industry. Then it became corporate boardrooms, advertising agencies, government, colleges and just a little bit from churches. There were splashes of time when the arts gave permission. Now it is still corporate boardrooms, advertising agencies, but with the existential crap shoot of the internet thrown in. Schools, churches, civic groups and industry have been relegated to the bottom of the cultural dust bin while government and royalty have moved sideways to populate reality shows and scatological comedy. In essence, right now nobody is in charge and the mob does rule.
So we all, each of us, give ourselves permission for just about anything and the result is anarchy. And anarchy cries for an antidote, and the only one is for people to engage in good work which creates actual new product while caring for the whole of biology.
Biology and nature, in this old brain, are not one in the same. Biology is the internal structure and flux of working life. Nature is the shape and manifest attitude of life. Both are easy to love and to blame. I blame biology for the horrid shortcomings of the human species. I love Nature for her unfathomable ways, for nature does demand the acids of contradiction and even hypocrisy.
He is foul, that old man who loves the sounds of his own thoughts. But close to ends, that is what he is stuck with. And truth is, often he does not love his own thoughts. He swings hard and wide and does damage to all the world – as does most every man and woman. That the world’s life span would/could be determined by the pointless needs and lousy demands of unstable egos is a cosmic joke of terabyte proportions. We are, each of us, as insignificant as molecules – yet we hold the ultimate cancer in our empty hearts. We demand plot, goals, trajectories, purpose, diets, legacies, enemies, communities, curable diseases and property rights. We demand explainable outcome. We say we demand justice when what we actually insist upon is the rule of law. We want endings to feel like endings. We want our arbitrary community to agree upon a set of lies that would result in and on an acceptable outline, an acceptable identity.
This summer nature herself would seem to step aside (and down a notch?) to watch the ‘fabulous’ stormy weather of ‘developed’ man’s self-destruction – the earthquakes of political stupidity, the hot dry winds of economic collapse, the hurricanes of hatred, the typhoons of depravity, the theaters of misery, the lightning storms of ‘small’ wars, the floods of deadly poverty, the wildfires of avoidable pestilence. It is all obesely insidious in its new intensities. Yet all the ‘powers’ that be remain helpless against the boardrooms and private jets that have brought this upon us. The world, the natural world, will succeed and continue but humankind not so certain for the skills that will be required, sans ‘infrastructure’, are locked away in the closet of embarrassments.
The ridiculous notion that there are now lateral class distinctions to compete with and color the vertical notions of upper – middle – and lower class adds insult to injury. Now, over here sideways we have the individuals who work with their minds. And opposite that those poor people who insist on working with their hands. And then, forgive me my sarcasm, the basest class of all, those ‘sorry-ass’ people who delude themselves into thinking they can marry the workings of mind and hand, they are way out on the fringe, they are the out-liars and outliers who long ago were left off the invitations to debate. They include every one of us farmers, most traditional artists, artisans, animal trainers, old-time mechanics, bird-watchers, teachers, florists, jugglers, acrobats, carpenters, mid-wives, old-school bakers, puppeteers, one-at-a-time cabinet makers, luthiers, and seedsmen.
For it has become embarrassing to be one who knows how to work, how to farm, how to fix motors, how to build new contraptions, how to make shirts and boots, how to cut firewood, how to slaughter and prepare meats, how to build a structure, how to help a neighbor, how to tell when a crop is ready to harvest, how to turn away the bugs, how to discover new beneficial companionships of plants and animals, how to milk a cow, how to fish, how deep to cultivate, how high to hill, how wide to plant, how thick to mulch, when to water, how to behave in the presence of devastation, how to save a life, how to figure out a puzzle under the threat of time. The closet of embarrassments is a vast chamber and for those who listen and place their hands on the door, you can hear and feel the thrum inside.
While it may be true that there are no longer any permission givers, we do have a vast industry which records humanity and offers up evidence of her tragedies as a defacto sanction of behavior. It is that segment of the entertainment industry we call news media.
We watch what the media serves up and it is so painfully clear that, from public to profit – across all sectors – much of our media is manifest sleaze. With violent crime who wins? You say nobody wins? I disagree. Violent crime is profitable: the media wins and profits greatly because with each ratcheting up of the terror and the tragedy they have our fuller attention and they sell more ads. Crafty politicians win with every view of human sorrow and loss through disingenuous commentary lending these con-men a false air of empathy. Government wins as people are driven to demands for a widening mandate of controlling legislation. Gun sales win as people rush to ‘protect’ themselves. Lots and lots of money is made. No money is made when the ‘spectacle’ of humanity’s spiritual and moral insolvency ceases.
Work a day farmers have at their elbow the sorts of stories which leaven life, which hold off the bad news, which stitch together the fabric of resilience and completion. Buried in with the tedium and minutiae of farm work are those many wonderful vignettes that make us nod in appreciation as they give to us our moral solution.
In 1972 I managed a coastal farm up Fiddle Creek on the back side of Siltcoos Lake. I had made many friends one of which was whiskey-drinking Hugh Martin who, with the help of three teenaged girls, milked 35 Jerseys. On the coast, making hay was always a challenge, what with fogs and constant rain. If you had a stretch of clear weather you had better move like a squirrel crossing a highway if you wanted to get the crop in dry. I had a whole bunch of excellent baled hay in the field and was scratchin’ my young head about how I could get it all in quickly. Hugh Martin made me a wager.
“I’ll bet you a fifth of Fleishman’s Preferred that I can get all that hay in your barn before dark without lifting a finger. And what’s more that whiskey is all it’ll cost you.”
“No way” I offered.
Turned out there was a high school dance scheduled for that very evening and Hugh’s good looking daughters wanted to go. Hugh told them they could go but only if all those bales were in the barn first. Now, Hugh’s daughters were farm-raised and plenty capable of putting the hay up themselves. But they were also Hugh’s daughters so they made a few phone calls to the several different boys who had asked them out.
“Bring your pickup and as many guys as you can get. We can’t go to the dance unless we get this hay in the barn.”
I was out in the field loading one bale at a time on my wagon when I saw, coming down my road, Tina’s pick-up with Carrie and Radena in the back. Each girl was attired in a bathing suit. Horns blaring, right behind them came four more pickup trucks, each one with boys in the back. They all peeled down the field access, a steep drop from road to field, and immediately started throwing bales on trucks. All, that is, except for the girls – they parked in the middle of the field and watched. There was a lot of heckling and cat-calls but the bales were getting loaded very fast. One after another the trucks drove up that incline to the road and took bales to the waiting barn. Then one guy got the idea it was time to impress the princess troupe. He and his two stalwart buddies loaded thirty bales on his full-sized Ford, and then kept going until they had them stacked forty bales high! Precarious.
I watched nervously as they went to leave the field. The truck tipped on the incline and slowly rolled over! Nobody was hurt but bales were scattered and the Ford lay on its side. Those three young ladies were out of their pickup marshalling every single boy to the accident. Sixteen or twenty high school football players then managed to roll that pickup back on its wheels and get the remaining bales to the barn with plenty of time to go home and get ready for the dance.
I bought Hugh his whiskey to pay the bet and he never passed up a chance to tell folks how it was he taught me to work.
When I became a farming adult, my retired father would often come to visit me. He loved to watch the horses work and amble along looking over whatever cropping adventure was at hand. Having been raised in Southern California suburbs, my farming adventures in the wilds of Oregon were a long leap. For me it was a leap forward, to others observing they frequently commented that I had lept backwards into a world of dangerous nostalgia. My father would observe that I would be ok because I knew how to work, and because I had rediscovered the farming that he believed had always been in my blood.
He added, directly and indirectly, that the sort of work he had done all of his life was construction, building something new, something which had not existed before. He saw an important distinction in that the farming I did was primarily involved with maintenance. The crops were new, yes, but so many of the procedures were orchestrated repeats of tillage, cultivation, planting, watering, etc. That the horse and tractor workings were repetitious. To him it was remarkable that his son, who once had so much difficulty cleaning a ditch, could appear to actually enjoy going back in and doing that same monotonous work day after day.
There has never been anything remarkable about my farming. And I appreciate that distinction. But for me the daily workings have always been the work I choose to do. I have been trebly fortunate – first to have family and friends who tolerate my workings – second to have this farm to occupy me and accept my adventures and failings with the process – and third to have this publication where the observations, the attentions, have an additional place to go.
But because of this publication I frequently have cause to see from an entirely different angle. I know, for instance, that though I find my farming unremarkable, to those looking in from outside of farming there is so much that is intriguing and enlivening. And that is certainly true for each and everyone of us who choose to farm. Implicit in every example is the question “but why do you choose to farm?” For the narrow few that question goes without asking. But for the many, perhaps the question has such weight because each of them wonders after their own life adventures, wonders after their own boredoms, their own sense of self-worth, of connectedness to the natural world. Could this example contain something of an answer for them?
Remembering that iconic bit in Tom Sawyer when he tricks his friends into believing that painting the fence is such fun only to find himself, as he counts his money, drawn to the job himself by his friends’ obvious new earned enthusiasms.
“Thanks but na, I don’t want to go with you to play video games, I’m having too much fun plowing this field.”