Saving for What
Saving for What

Saving for What?

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

“Will you listen to yourself?”

The first thing you notice upon meeting him is that voice, slow and oddly musical, immediately recognizable… “It’s something I worked at,” he said. “I grew up listening to my favorite actors, and they all had unique voices. James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney. And when I started acting, I did not have a good voice, so I had to actively experiment with it and see if I could find rhythms in it, or break it up, or mess with it in some way.” – speaking of the actor Nicholas Cage

“I am that false character who follows the name around.” – Don Delillo paraphrased

Reading the words of Nicholas Cage I am reminded that I began my life’s work in farming and art wishing I looked, sounded and moved differently. I wanted to have the character of a character. I had this secret wish to be one of those old sidekick types, like Smiley Burnette, or Raymond Hatton, or Gabby Hayes… only I wanted to be my own sidekick – not second fiddle to someone else who was in charge. There was this notion that I might dress up my own life with humor and harmonica-ed tap dancing. And when things got serious the attention would just naturally slide sideways to the grownups in the room. I wanted that because I saw no future for me with the serious stuff. I wanted that because to my way of thinking the grown-ups in the room were off the mark. They could have the controls to the ship. Me and the girls in the room knew who was really in charge.

That fixation I had on the sidekick business always seemed to naturally parallel my deep interest in farming and art. I saw farmers as grizzled old Barry Fitzgerald characters with a kind touch for the leaf of a cultivated plant and a twinkling nod for the others sharing the space. And I preferred those artists, like Alexander Calder, who seemed to embody a jovial grampsterism. I wanted to be like them.

But in my middle years I thought all of this silliness from my youth was just that, silliness. And I grew to understand, or so I thought, that we need to accept and embrace who we are at our core. That you can’t change your voice, or how you stand, like some paid actor. Well to add contradiction and paradox to the mix, now I know for certain that I don’t know anything for certain. Yet, I do have notions and perceptions that I can’t seem to shake. One is that how we see ourselves when we are young is a powerful force in our lives. A force that can set us up for success or failure or a mess of regret. Makes me wonder, these days, how young people might see themselves. Who might they want to emulate?

I’m an old man now. I feel the corrosive constant crawl of evaporating time – but I suspect I feel it less than many folks because I have my uplifting hunger for the next bits my farming will bring me. At many ages folks are heard to utter the deadening words “there is nothing to look forward to.” The words seem to come from tragic personal circumstance, from the regrets of a life spent waiting, and from the vacuum of a livelihood without life.

Two young brothers visited our ranch recently to discuss a partnership that would have them adding fifty bee hives to our small cluster. We talked about the best locations, the shared-chore responsibilities, the challenges. On the surface it may have seemed to an outside observer to be a pedantic, even boring conversation, but to us it was exciting. It spoke to the vitality of what each of us knows, from experience. It spoke to “looking forward to…”

Saving for What

Early spring, visiting farms to look at possible consignments for our annual auction I was struck by the stories I picked up from the very different farmyards I viewed. Three in particular seemed to touch my reverie.

One was of an old ramshackle place that had been abandoned last fall. All machinery and debris had been stripped from the place save for the old leaning livestock buildings. The season had not yet allowed new plant growth so the view was of accumulated drying piles of cattle, sheep, chicken and horse manure. To an old farmer the manure was all good. I saw in this neat if crumbling panorama certain fertility, suggested history, and a kind of situational pregnancy. This place, in my admittedly slanted perspective, seemed to beg for a new young family of farmers to slip in leading a milk cow and carrying a box of layer chicks.

The next farmstead had been meticulously tended like a combination Japanese Zen garden and a western historical museum with rusted pieces of farming, ranching, mining, and ghost town memorabilia painstakingly presented in raked, raised-bed platforms. Though the history was on display it all seemed borrowed. No cobwebs, or misplaced minutiae, every single particle carefully in its place. Though it was fascinating to look at, there was no implicit invitation to engage the spot.

The third farmyard warned me from the first glimpse that to enter was to give up something. Young trees grew up through abandoned implements and garbage. Scattered vehicles sank into the ground from years of neglect. Old horses and cows lent rib shadows to the confused patterns of bits of blown-apart roofing and reclining rusted refrigerators. And the haggard single-wide mobile home seemed to be an argument with itself about utility. Then came the crowning contradiction; the golden people in residence. The old couple were in their eighties. She never got up from her recliner but bubbled with excitement around our visit. There was a promise in her smile that seemed to say “we’ve got things to show you.” You could tell by the length of his cane that he had once been taller but the captive reflections in his eyes, marking the center line between his down-turned handlebar mustache and upturned fedora brim had him fill all available space in a small room holding four people.

Within two sentences it was established that there was no need to waste a second, we had many things in common to bring into useful reflection. Any first impression sense of tragedy, from the yard view, was gone replaced by the vital rapid bits of over-lapping tales. We spoke of pack animals, laying hens, old springing cows, saw milling, rigging John Deere model Ls for garden work, starting a Paint team, leatherwork, vaquero traditions, western painting, book writing, Colorado, Juniper lumber, mounted Longhorn steer heads. And without an ounce of regret he said, rising up several inches, “I got so many things yet to do that I couldn’t do ‘em all if ’n I lived to 200. Seen 83 winters so far.” This magical man, his majesty stripped from him by his infirmity and by the abuse of his young relatives, was there in front of me (and himself ) to make a case for how his future still had the power to positively flavor not only his remaining days but any assessment of his true place in life.

The first place was just that – a place – but one which spoke of possibilities.

The second farmstead was like some sort of storage, where valued memories were benched.

The third homestead was a backdrop in flux and of little consequence to the real view which was of a particularly fine humanity.

It speaks volumes that I was most drawn to the third farmstead. The people there suited me and gave me a dose of purposeful gratitude. The other two places had their attractions as well.

Musing about them I kept hearing the voices of other people saying “but we need some guarantee that this is going to work, going to make us some money. We can’t afford to take a chance.” And why not? I heard myself asking. Is it that threatening and dangerous when you go for what you are drawn to, what seems to give you promise and right identity?

You don’t want to hear the old saw from me; the one that includes ‘I started with nothing and had to work hard all the way’. But what you need to hear, especially if you are feeling hesitant about following your heart to a life working the land, is that I am an old man who took every chance to farm, followed the thread of my instincts, had a whale of a lot of setbacks and I would not trade that time so spent for any other life. I haven’t made much money, I worked without medical insurance or any kind of safety net, and for these last five years I volunteered my time to keep this Journal going. When I would sell a painting or two or some of my books, that all went into this publication and into my farming. No complaints, it has given me a golden life. So I say jump in there right now. Take the plunge. Yeah, you might fail, and maybe even several times. But so what? Failing at a full-throated life is no failure at all because you’ll be doing what you want to do.

All my life I have heard people talk about saving up for the life of their dreams. That usually entails charting a course and figuring a budget. Those two nebulous things – course and budget – they are the ultimate moving targets. When you worry yourself through that process you never have enough money, you never feel reassured. I have to ask, ‘Saving for What?’

Others will anger at these words, pointing out that it is irresponsible to encourage people in general to take life-changing risks. And that at the core it is also anti-social because society is supposed to be the balance beam of humanity and to counter the prevailing notions of success and livelihood threatens society. To which I say society right now, as we know it, stinks. It is the result of our collective appetites, requirements and appointments buried deep beneath artificiality. Society is a nasty swirl of class conflict, collective impatience and pettiness. I say go ahead and threaten society with bold moves towards purposeful livelihood and creative fertility. Society will be the better for it, and so will you.

In my mind’s eye I see an old photo of three people; the frightened young man wore faded blue jeans stiff from drying on the line and presenting the crisp pleat of a woman’s hot iron, the old man’s felt hat rocked back to allow his face forward to be first to catch everything in his path, and the woman her hands rolled into her apron front said “hurry up, I’ve got things in the oven”. I see the photo and I wonder why I’m showing this to myself, what’s it supposed to mean? Up pops this notion in my head that what I’m looking at are three different manifestations of vitality. The young man guessing himself forward. The old man face to the next wind. And the old woman always setting the next table, already forward

Saving for What

Our vitality is so incredibly important. Yours, mine. We should be protecting our vitality? It’s only natural for young folks to worry some about the choices they face, natural and intelligent. But somehow we need to help them to see that this modern world is confusing their options not helping them. For those of us at these later stages of life it is time to have the courage to make every case against how so much of industrial chemistry, genetic engineering and information technology race to extinguish humanity. We need to turn the lights on so that its obvious how most of the highest paid, most lucrative positions in modern society are toxic to everyone. There is that deadly irony of how it is that a few people are being paid enormous sums of money to orchestrate the end of our species through supplanting human effort.

There may be some calling equal to farming but none superior. Saving for what?