Skunks, Snails and the Manured Wedding
By Lynn Miller
(This editorial originally appeared in the Fall 2011 Small Farmer’s Journal)
In one hand five wrenches, 3/8”, 1/2”, 9/16”, 5/8” and crescent, in back pocket a rolled and dirty implement manual, I walk that quarter mile back to the hayfield where I left the busted mower. I know what I need to do now, so I enjoy the luxury of thinking wide. It’s quiet here, quiet and lovely. No neighbors, no traffic, no sign of any insistent commerce, just a scittering coyote pup racing away from my approach. So I think of how fortunate we are and, try though I may, I cannot keep out of my old brain snatches of the terrible stories of starving Somalians, riots in England, wars and unrest in the mideast, tent cities in Haiti and across the U.S. as homeless jobless thousands wonder after a world gone stark raving nuts. But before the staggering list can be completed, I am saved because the distance to the mower has been covered and I am back to the work at hand.
Grease blotches scattered in odd places over torn clothing, dust hiding in the folds of the neck, ears, small of the back – jagged fingernails – a steadying fatigue – I hold a clear focus on the farming job at hand. A long lifetime of working at these jobs and sharing stories of other people at these jobs, I know that every moment begs to be watched and understood lest that one accident, that one quirk of misaligned movement results in breakdown of implement, animal and/or farmer. It is a vigilance that may hold us fast and firm and competent. Without it we are a bit of chaff in the wind of the work. We may survive today, tomorrow or the next days but we are, without that knowledgeable vigilance, just stealing a ride. Nothing earned, even less appreciated. Ironic that for me, this chosen, calm, steadfast vigilance gives me an arm’s width of purest freedom. I don’t want to be anywhere else. This is my moment.
And I know there is wider value in all of that, I know that efforts to do my best with this alloted slice of farming I hold adds in a very small but significant way to a better world. But, I have always felt drawn to those terrible pictures of inequity and ruin with a compunction-driven urge to do something more. Don’t know, even at this late stage, exactly what that means. But I see things, and feel them too.
I feel that our communities and neighborhoods are falling apart. I see that there is less and less evidence of any collective knowledgeable vigilance in our communities – and that absence is beginning to be felt in neighborhoods as well. There is that piece of a line in the Declaration of Independence which has always stopped me to think… ‘we hold these truths…”. We did, sometimes well, sometimes not so well, but we did. We held those truths… Seems now we don’t so much. We have come to take for granted the most basic of truths, the obligations of family, the possible sanctity of work, the human as a humble piece of a biological universe, the realigning and reaffirming power of beauty, the deep comfort of great friendship, the absolute primacy of life, and the list goes on. The money-changers, the creeps of commerce, the death-dealing ethos of the board-room, the criminality of store-bought science, the slithering subjective moral insolvency of a plastic humanistic psychology which puts the individual ahead of everything and ahead of nothing, the economic crutch of war and the emotional poison of digitized social networking, all of these things have driven us from our truer selves.
Ah, but then there is farming, that handmade farming which holds us in the wider patterns. In the heat of summer, crops calling out, we know persistence. If we are able we wear patience as we carry our persistence. And with farming’s required patience and persistence comes ample opportunity for clarity.
After all these years there’s plenty of things I should’a known, certainly many little things about farming. But the older I get the more clear it is to me that I know relatively little. Take knotters and neighbors for example.
My buddy Ed recently told me something about baler knotters, I’m sure it must apply as well to binder knotters. And the information seemed a metaphor of neighborliness as compared to community.
This is the way it goes; knotters have adjustable twine discs which hold the string during the knotting process, allowing the proper tension for the tying. If the string is sisal or if it is synthetic poly twine different relative thicknesses apply. So it stands to reason that a setting for sisal might account for too much space between those discs to properly hold poly-twine.
I’m seeing those twine discs as an adjustable filter of sorts. We can tighten or loosen them to make a certain dimension of string work and resulting in other string being held off. Now I see that as an analogy for neighborhoods. Some, by their design and ‘adjustment’, favor certain income and social brackets – while others are set to prevent certain people from any comfort in passing through. I feel held off from wealthy exclusive rural communities, I just don’t feel welcome, it’s that exclusivity factor, the ‘twine disc is set too tight’. Whereas a rural landscape peppered by thriving small farms and businesses welcomes me right in. (Twine disc set loose.) That’s just me talking. Cranky ol’ me.
You might observe that I should be speaking, perhaps, of communities rather than neighbors and here is where I would beg to differ. We, the wider western world, tossed the words around helter skelter these last decades and permitted ad agencies to make of them what they will but I wish to offer that ‘community’ by definition speaks to a group of like-minded, like-employed, or membership-bound people such as Carpenters, Orthodontists, Baptists or Shriners. Commonality is the guiding principle. Whereas ‘neighborhood’ speaks to proximity, shared environs, locality. Neighborhoods may contain a strong or absolute contingent of community, as in this is a black neighborhood or a Jewish neighborhood. But most neighborhoods are a mix of races, religions, sports preferences, fraternal memberships, income levels, etc.
Why these word distinctions might matter here and now? Some of our communities are solidifying, calcifying, thickening, getting stiff – especially as regards politics and cultural issues while many of our neighborhoods are becoming dark and forboding. Members of some church communities are becoming completely intolerant of other church communities. People in neighborhoods are feeling more and more threatened and/or are suspicious of others in their own locale. These are not good turns.
We, most journal readers, are a community of small farmers, farflung yet sharing many values in common. We, each of us, are part of local neighborhoods, which may or may not serve us as a market base for what our farms produce. It is ironic that while we may know other small farmers, living far from our locale, quite well – we have neighbors next door who we know little or nothing about.
I, for one, see the biological environs of our ranch as neighborhood. The eagles, the badgers, the mule deer, elk, cougar, coyotes mixed in with the bitterbrush, sage, pines, junipers, rocks, bitterroot, sky, dirt – every piece of it part of our neighborhood. And I have complete conviction that we need this fragile balance that is our local ecosystem – and that we in turn contribute to its balance and vitality.
But our case is somewhat unique in that we have no actual neighbors for five miles in any direction. We are ‘by choice’ isolated. But are we really? Recent efforts to create a wilderness area bordering our ranch on the east side and encompassing a stretch of the Deschutes River have played up the question in a most specific fashion. We have signed on to the proposal endorsing its objectives. Recently while visiting the local hardware store a young man approached me and said he could not understand how we would go against our “neighbors” wishes by our endorsement. The implication was that we were ostracizing ourselves by going against the wishes of the wider group that is seen as our neighborhood. Though five miles away as the crow flies, that community rests on a mesa the other side of a 700 foot deep river canyon. “You can’t get there from here.” I’ve lived on this ranch for more than 22 years and I have never been to that community. Our towns are Sisters to the south and Madras, across the lake, to the north both at nearly 20 miles away. We do business in those towns and we share many neighborhood concerns with them because our own business is there in Sisters and we do our annual auction in Madras. But the community to the east, the one bordering the wilderness proposal, we are completely separate from them and yet…
Many if not most folks have personal situations which incorporate jigsaw puzzle elements in how their chosen communities and their landed neighborhoods set together on a map. We think we have a say in what’s included or not. Sometimes encroachment changes definitions.
We have used predator control dogs to hold at bay the wildlife that would redefine our farmstead, garden crops, and livestock (in other words our immediate personal neighborhood). These days our Great Pyrennes no longer has the full use of his back hips and our old Australian shepherd has vision and hearing constraints. We will no doubt be replacing them soon because we feel each day how the wildlife have moved in closer. Where we seldom ever saw wild rabbits near buildings and in garden areas they now come and go at will. With them has come the pack of coyotes a dozen or more strong. Last week I shot and killed one within twenty feet of the house in the middle of the morning. (I don’t hunt them as a rule, I certainly don’t mind if other people do. Coyotes do a valuable service controlling the population of sage rats, rock chucks and, to some small degree, badgers but when they decide to move in on us with impunity, measures have to be taken. Enter the human predation element.) There is a natural balance to our neighborhood. How we behave with and within all the natural elements affects that balance.
The wildlife habitat we call our neighborhood extends to an area of about a quarter of a million acres, running from the Deschutes River canyon on the westside all the way towards the neighborhood of Camp Sherman and then around the north to the banks of the Metolius River. The south side is marked by housing developments and Whychus creek (formerly Squaw Creek). This area was prized hunting and burial ground for the Pauite Nation before the 19th century “discoveries” of Captain John Fremont and Kit Carson. The migrating mule deer and elk use this area for winter habitat, moving in good climes to the High Cascades which border. As all-terrain vehicles and human population pressures increase, the migratory patterns fracture and constrict affecting birthing cycles, feed supplies, and predator concentrations. In other words the balance is altered. We believe, and have seen how, the existence of our “low impact” ranch has actually improved wildlife habitat offering central watering and shelter during critical times of the year. Without the ranch’s working presence we are certain that this “neighborhood” would deteriorate quickly. But in order to have all of it work as well as it does we need to do our part to selectively and constructively “pressurize” our presence. What I mean by this is that when deer and elk come to our ponds for water and our field edges for grazing they NEED to feel cautious and ready to flee. Otherwise several hundred elk and several thousand mule deer would decimate the forage of this irrigated corner in no time at all. We don’t want them hanging around, comfortable within a protected area. We want them coming and going with normal caution, concerned about us and coyotes and cougars and great white hunters. It’s a tricky balance but one that has evolved over these short hundred years of shared dominion.
All of this talk about our wildlife habitat realities and thoughts are meant to suggest that neighborhoods are seldom simple. The best ones are a constant balancing of communities with sometimes conflicting values. We recognize that our wish to provide refuge for the wildlife seems in direct contradiction to our need to control their full access to our farm fields.
All human neighborhoods contain, to varying degrees, these elements of balanced conflicting values. Ethnic tensions around the world point to the challenges of maintaining some semblance of peace in neighborhoods made up of warring racial, religious, and political elements. Communities within these neighborhoods want to completely insulate themselves one from another but such efforts cause problems that go to the heart of continuing strife. What is needed is for communities inside of neighborhoods to work consciously to at least understand how they differ from each other, to understand how a measure of mutual respect can be earned from sharing the local news and calendars. Here’s an example of what I mean:
Last issue of this Journal Paul Hunter spoke of our visit to Hillcrest Orchard in Penryn, California. Steve Pilz, third generation on the farm, took us on a walking tour sharing his passion for the diversity and fragility of this lovely sheltered world. The farm sits atop a hill and cascades down its sides to a ribbon of encircling bottom land. On the crest of the hill is a naturally-filled reservoir supplying gravity-flow water to the citrus trees on the grade and finally to the market gardens down below. The waters are directed by buried tiles.
As we walked, Steve pointed down and said “watch out, don’t trip on that broken tile. I leave that opening there because it provides a home for our friends the skunks.”
“How”, I ask,” is it that skunks are your friends?”
Steve answers, “They are a beneficial member of the neighborhood of this farm, at night they come out and eat the snails. If they didn’t I’d have to find some way to control those snails because they could do a lot of damage.”
Our tour continues on down the hill as Steve talks about the intracies of the biology of an organic orchard, telling us of how it is that the best fruit always comes from the oldest trees. In his orchard the maturity of the tree is prized for the quality of each orange even though it may not produce as many pounds of fruit per year.
Coming down the hill it is hard not to notice that this lovely old farm in completely encircled by relatively new suburban tract homes, so I ask the direct question; “Steve talk to me about your neighbors there. How do they feel about your farming right across the fence?”
“Most of them identify with the farm positively. Over the years their kids have been coming here for summer jobs. But it isn’t always roses. You see that big house there, with the swimming pool? They don’t particularly like us and I guess I can understand why. You see, in the early summer we have large loads of livestock manure delivered to use for compost and fertilizer. It was on a windy day when they had a wedding for their daughter in their yard and we had a big load of fresh manure dumped up here. The strong odor gave an unfortunate flavor to that wedding.”
“Oh my,” I said, “that could not have been good.”
Steve smiled a sad smile and said, “They should have invited us to the wedding.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “what do you mean exactly?”
“I would never have had that load delivered on that day had I known they were having a wedding in their yard. If they had invited us to the wedding we would have known.”
There it was in a nutshell, the whole story of what and why neighborhoods work and don’t. How can we hold what we don’t know? Ironic that a chosen, calm, steadfast vigilance and concern can give us a neighborhood’s width of purest freedom.
All of those thoughts coming to me in the farming; back and forth, across the field, slow monotonous back and forth until your old body says “I’m seizing up here – do something different or I’ll never let you bend freely again.” So you stop, get off, stretch and mutter to yourself. It’s easy to be cranky and ungrateful. I am not interested in what’s easy unless there is some fertile reward of lasting consequence. So, whether I’m old or not, I’m making big efforts to be positive and grateful. Because it sets the tempo for everything else. And truth is I am a most fortunate man.
Speaking of which, when friends made offhand remarks about so-called obvious signs of age, I reminded myself that I ain’t old until I can no longer put my experience to good use. And yes, for some of us that happens overnight. For others there may be that ober-season of “muleing” your way through with nothing to guide you but your glued-on inertia.
To paraphrase my friend, the poet Paul Hunter, you should love the work that loves you back. LRM