by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
What makes men and women free is learning to trust their own thought, possess their own history, speak in their own voices. – Lewis Lapham
Mid-spring morning, feeling more like early summer. And I glance down through the half light of our small kitchen to the bright golden light and purest air – a passage; a tone poem that is, first full sun of spring day, framed by a screen door. It says, ‘You choose. Today can be anything you want – so long as it’s right here on this farm.’ Fifty two years farming, 34 of those on this place, and it’s still where I want to be, right here on this farm.
Thirty five years ago, I gave up, somewhat sadly, the morning definition of milking a cow or cows. Since then my choice has long been to make the pre-dawn earliest minutes of most days work for penning a next essay or working on books. This morning thoughts have gone internal, not so much to find something to write about but rather to understand where I find myself at this late date in a long life. I’ve been at these scratchings since before light, now the sun is up and shooting its brightness straight across from east to west. I get up and go open that door to let the brisk air in. When I sit back down I cross out a sentence and make some notes off to the side, this causes me to look to my left and see that light beckon through the screen door. The contradiction brings a smile. The screen of the door actually softens edges of what is seen outside in spite of the strong light, while inside in half light every object is in sharp focus. I feel anxious to get outside into that beckoning glow, so I close up this essay and grab a smaller notebook to check what the farming brings for the day. More work on the old irrigation pipes, repairing the fence that the crazy heifer keeps jumping, servicing the seed drill. It will be a good day. This old body will be more than able and ready to handle these light tasks.
In nature, when fruit goes way past mature, all the way to announced disappointments of mold and rot – shouldn’t we refer to that as decline? Don’t we? As I mature to over-ripe (read decline) I find myself going through periodic fogs of aggravated irrelevance. Old farmeritis is a real thing. I got it. It translates to me constantly mumbling “get out of the way, I’ve got work to do.” And that is sometimes met by side-bobbing young heads on limber necks giving the disregard sashay. I am beginning to realize that one of the first things you lose with seniority is your public right to decide what’s essentially important – for yourself, let alone anyone else. These days I don’t have the energy or interest to contest what seems to be the general assessment that I am now a slow moving, cranky whale in dangerously shallow waters, pretty much completely out of touch with the world at large. It may be true but I don’t have to agree with that. And all that really is not important to talk about except to set the stage for changes in editorial tone.
Today, people in their thirties and forties are the ones expected to make public decisions about what’s important. Anyone younger lacks ‘maturity.’ Anyone older, especially with soil-decorated gravitas, lacks relevance. Time however does not recognize any of that. There are buildings and trees, and shapes to the landscape, plus the lineage of good livestock which prove the genius of decisions made in fullest youth. And there are next generation choices of seniors made with the full carriage and learning of those early successes. Yes, there was that clueless courage of youth and yes there is a clued-in aggression of old age. But what of appetites? What of long whispered cautionary messages reaching you from a distant tortured and terrible past? What of ecstasies of arrival and accomplishment urging one on?
These todays I find myself hungry for the illusive audience of youngsters, the five to seven year olds who are looking for useful understanding. Those bright and curious souls who are less interested in imposters, who are mesmerized by character and intrigued by old persons still suited-up for chosen work. Those tiny people are built to trust that which they are attracted to. And that means there’s an enormous opportunity and responsibility, talking to them means taking care, bringing humor and elevating the conversation. That’s quite a bit different from talking to ‘grownups.’ Today, with them, it requires either talking down or, on my part, some combination of selective argumentation and insult ping pong. Not so much because they aren’t all there but rather because I’m, though always moving forward, in advanced rot while they, with lifetimes ahead, keep insisting themselves backward. And I don’t want to be where they are. ‘Adults’ (as in ‘badge’ wearing) are like single cell entities who’ve long ago lost arguments they had with themselves about what constitutes lives well lived and worthy work. ‘Adults’ wear the badge of responsibility as if it were an award instead of a natural aspect of being human and, as such, a resulting characteristic. For the youngsters, responsibility is a big word in another language.
I am writing this on the anniversary of my son Ian’s accidental death. In 1985 he was 7 years old and, along with his siblings Justin and Juliet, a perfect little person. In 1985 I was 38 years young. Juliet was 8 and Justin was 9. I was a single dad and on our remote farm we were a perfect quartet. It was a very long time ago and still, with silent screams, it feels like yesterday. It happened when I was eighty miles away trying to move the journal offices into something more affordable. The children were with neighbor friends and Ian had gone for a ride on the fender of their tractor. The road shoulder gave way and the tractor rolled over him. I am lost in the horrible memory of that evening seeing through all of these years in that way we do when the worst unforgettable images in our brain blind us to what is right there in front and alive. Thinking about Ian, I had been looking through that screen door into that generous light but didn’t, couldn’t see the light. I was instead driving my pickup at its fullest speed down a pitch black, winding late night road, all that while thinking that if I could just get to the hospital in time it would be ok. I wanted the sharp, horrible focus to go away. Wanted Ian back. Wanted that soft bright light of best outcomes. But I never did escape that sharp end.
Eventually I would bury myself in my chosen work and works, this publication, the books, my farming, time caring for my children and animals. In repeated soft and useful ways I deluded myself into thinking I was heading with deliberation towards some significant accomplishments. It gave me carriage.
Turns out those accomplishments were less than significant. It was the work, the directed chosen effort, that carried me. It managed to take me this far. There is certainly a lot to be said for that because in my early years I was not given much of a chance. The vorago of delinquency had me by the ankles. Being a bright young teenager didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was too obviously poor and of Hispanic descent. Which translated to a chip on my shoulder, I had something to prove, didn’t know what it was but I had it. School I found unchallenging, even boring. Up to, that is, one perfect exceptional experience.
The best class I ever took in school was made possible by the best teacher I ever had, Tom Guinapp. It was Geometry at Fullerton Union High School in California. Mr. Guinapp teased each of us students to look inside of equations and see how incomplete information about the shape and density of a thing might actually lend enough detail to allow us to ‘build’ that complete shape, to “see” it. He taught us the best sorts of detecting skills. “Organize the pieces you have before you and see what they say. If the information is lacking, reorganize those pieces until perhaps you find the suggestion of a formula you might apply. Always be prepared for that moment of discovery, that ‘aha!’ moment when all becomes clear. The moment when the sun comes out to shine. That moment is the treasure that serves.”
Oh my. He was right on the button. The ‘arrival’ was so transformative that I realized in the moment that this was my pivot. I have never once forgotten that combination of trust, revelation and challenge Mr. Guinapp gave me. And the outlines of that thought-process adventure in geometry he shared gave me flight.
My secret day-dream wanderings way back then had to do with the landscape and interiors of an old fashioned general farm. Everyone everywhere told me that my dreams could never be more than that, just dreams. It was Mr. Guinapp’s geometry class which gave me the courage to see my dreams of a life on a farm as something I just might realize, I could find a way there by organizing the pieces and allowing them to talk to me. I would, as Mr. Guinapp said, keep myself ready for the discovery of the path.
The dreams we go after, those we build into a set of goals to strive for; their shape and form can be the stuff of magic. My farm dream was. Land on a dream you can believe in and feel yourself armoured up. Attain those dreams in good and honest ways and then feel yourself, in advancing years, as greater than the sum of your efforts.
Twenty-three years later I had my farm. It was 1985 and on that farm when we lost Ian. I had my ways of working. After his death, those and the help of family and friends kept me upright. Kept me going one step at a time. But nothing makes the horror and the loss of my son go away, not even time. It becomes the larger part of who you are. And it does not help to talk about it, to write about it, not even these many years later.
Justin, Juliet and Ian loved that farm. I did too. It was on the Oregon coast and all aspects defined it as a mixed crop and livestock operation. In the old days they were identified simply as stock farms and were by design a sustainable home to a mixture of livestock species supported by and/or supporting of a variety of crops. The higher and mightier call of this form of farming was mixed crop and livestock. And such a program used to belong to large and small farms all across the country. Along with small farms, mixed crop and livestock farming has all but gone away.
To read a description of that coastal farm of ours, along with a piece of its history, is to read the great goodness of the model. It exemplified diversity and sustainability. It was 148 acres about 60 of which were cropland, the balance was woodlot made up of Douglas fir, western red cedar, and a remarkable stand of Myrtlewood all criss-crossed by two creeks. There were two fine strong farmhouses, a 40 by 80 gambrel-roof dairy barn with operating loose hay mow. There were two orchards containing antique varieties of apples, pear and plums. There were table grapes growing in trellised arbors, a long, narrow, terraced vegetable and herb garden, wrapped cosily around behind the one house. In the years before I purchased the farm it was a small 13 cow grade B dairy, transporting high butterfat milk in cans to the cheese factory in Reedsport. Every other year the Jersey herd was bred to a Hereford bull to produce crossbreeds for meat. In the even years the hope was to end up with some suitable purebred Jersey heifers for replacements. The farm also had a sawmill in a building. It was an American No.3 single head rig with a cable carriage belt driven by an old diesel engine out of a fishing boat. Within the property lines, a two-room schoolhouse functioned as a community center as well as school. Later we would bequeath a similar plot for a community fire hall. It was the proverbial dream farm.
Income came from cattle and draft horse sales and from custom cut lumber. In my internal private ledger, that all important ‘other’ set of accounts we all should be holding close, the income further extended to the food we grew for ourselves and the quality of the life the farm provided. It seemed a perfect setting for us but, right or wrong, it could not compete with the pervasive life-sapping fatigue and depression that came of Ian’s loss. The decision was made to move far away to another climate and another world. So we left this farm and went in search of another region and place.
When Kristi and I found the ranch we now live on, two hundred miles distant, it was a mostly inaccessible stretch of desolation. The fields were dust, the old ramshackle house was nearly dilapidated. There were no neighbors for many miles. It was almost impossible to get into or out of in the winter time. When we asked the county about our place they said simply “nobody lives out there.” It had been abandoned and because of all these things it was affordable. It took 34 years but we’ve got quite a bit done. Some new fences, lots of trees and shrubs, crops, the reconstitution of the antique irrigation system, new buildings, the land returned to varying degrees of productivity. Being of limited means and because the business of the journal reduced what time we could put in, we know things are not what we had hoped for the old ranch. But we love it and it seems to feel pretty good about the Miller family. We’ve done no harm and many would say we’ve improved the wildlife habitat and general health of the land. It remains exactly where we want to be.
Recently a young rancher approached us in dramatic, sympathetic tones observing that we were getting on in years and that farming had to be more difficult every day. His tone morphed to veiled go-getter as he said he would take over our ranch, put his own cattle herd on it, and allow us to continue living in the house for as long as we wanted. He in turn would give us 5% of his calf crop. All we had to do was sign over the deed. I’m sure my jaw tightened and my eyes got real small.
There are moments in old age when you feel most vulnerable, when what you thought was the logic and strength of your place, your work, your beliefs, is tested by the high heat of vulturine arrogance. Why is it that such moments seem to ask of you that you apologize for your circumstance when instead you should scoff loudly and point to the door? Apologize and step aside? How is it that, remembering this and looking left, I notice that the light framed by the screen door has seemed to fade?
In other places and other times I have spoken of the story of my great Uncle Ephraim who farmed his last many years alone, milking a handful of long lived cows. He was 95 when his family decided he could not continue farming and living alone because it was unsafe. They had him committed to an old folks home. Hauled him off against his will. His last concern was for his milk cows. When a friend came to the rest home and told him the herd had gone to slaughter, Ephraim turned himself off and died two days later. I never knew him but my father used his story as a cautionary tale, warning me that grand as a farm life might be don’t let it become your own tragedy. I look left at the screen door and wonder if I should be making plans for self protection. My family is different, they want to see the ranch continue, they want to imagine I will continue for a long time yet. They hope I am taking the necessary steps to make that so.
I was having a conversation with a cousin two days ago about my paintings. She wished that I would work to exhibit more and make the paintings available for sale. She believes in my artwork and says maybe it’s time for me to back off the publishing business and/or the farming. She didn’t say it but I could hear the ‘you aren’t getting any younger’ observation coupled to her assessment of what I should be doing.
That in turn reminded me of a recent correspondence with someone who believes my writing might amount to something but that I need to put more serious time into it. That it is an art form which demands full attention. The suggestion was that the full nature of my failure was wastefulness.
My life’s pursuits form a quadrangle: farming, publishing, painting and writing. I’m being told I may be too old and infirm to continue farming and too distracted to continue writing or painting. That leaves the publishing. I believe in this publication and the good it does. My efforts here give me a solid sense of worth. Farming and painting are lifetime passions which share my time and define me. That leaves the writing, which is the right way to put it.
I am not giving up painting, farming or this publication, I see myself with these things as long as I shall live. But I do not see myself as a writer, I have but little respect for the craft, and its rules. Does anyone these days? I was in the hospital waiting room while Kristi had surgery, sitting and reading a book. The nurse walked by and said, “Oh my gosh it’s been years since I’ve seen anyone reading a book in here. It’s so refreshingly old fashioned. I guess the internet has taken that away from us.”
The important element in this is how we see ourselves, at least with regard to how that fuels our next efforts. I see myself as a farmer, a painter and a publisher – all three small time. The difference is between what you pursue, and what might define you. Writing no longer defines me.
So there, while you were reading I did it. I‘ve gone from a quadrangle of pursuits to a triangle with a teetering third leg. Mr. Guinapp would love it. Leaning on farming terminology I’m culling writing from my list of “what I do.”
And I’m NOT going to make efforts to commercialize my artwork. Instead I will just roll the paintings up and store them. And with the farming I’m going to continue to try to improve stopping every so often to ask over my shoulder of Ian, ‘How’m I doing son?’ And, with his and Justin and Juliet and Scout and Kristi’s nods, I plan on getting better at it.
The real work calls me. I once again look left and marvel at the screen door’s portal magic and the smile comes. I’m going to do a painting of this view through the kitchen to the screen door. I’m going to try to capture the magic.