Time Whispers
Time Whispers
drawing by Jules Pascin

Time Whispers

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

“When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples.” – Stephen Crane

Should we tell them what we have learned? Or is it better we show them and in the showing remind ourselves how fortunate our lives have been?

Draw a line around those two work horses, a line only you can see, a weightless line, a line with no point. Let them push the line, lean into it, stretch it perhaps and know it without ever once breaking it. Find your way inside that line, allow that you lean together against that imagined barrier. Allow those horses to own you. And keep those horses to yourself lest fools remove the line, or worse, break it. Such things come to old teamsters as whispers from the passage of time but only if listened for in the moment. See it take shape.

It is revealing, and curious, that we farming humans live through this long winding string of days on our individual places, so close to the everyday work, that we are oblivious to patterns that have unfolded right in front of us. The slow grind of change blinds us to compromises and bad choices that may have been made. And it also conceals those victories we missed in the moment. So often for us on our ranch we have made decisions and plans for projects and actions that we were unable to do. And the result of not doing it somehow turned into a triumph or a tragedy averted. All that time we were being whispered to by that time. If we missed what time told us in the moment, perhaps the result was a fortune left behind, unclaimed.

Fortunes come in many shapes and sizes. Not taking out that old apple orchard, because we ran out of time, allowed we discover later that there was life still in the wood and that these were rare heritage varieties incredibly well suited for where we live. We didn’t like the look of that young bull and decided to get rid of him at the end of the breeding season only to find out that the crop of calves he sired were the best we’d ever had.

Time whispers ‘take the time.’

Perhaps an opportunity to take that gain and move ahead with it, perhaps that was lost because we didn’t see that we had created new opportunity. That unplanned for opportunity, in the vacuum of our inattentiveness, it had tried to get our attention and failed.

Today’s taste-makers, news-directors, and money managers frequently see humility, goodness, compassion, resilience, sacrifice, capability and generosity as ‘common’ attributes and embarrassing, which is to say ‘lowly.’ Farmers, those who choose the work and the life, who embrace their day to day adventures with nature, earn that entire list of common attributes. And this dwindling number of hardworking farmers are seen by the many as common, when, whether they are successful or not, the exact opposite is true, they are uncommon.

A life of chosen work has a trajectory, a path, and it owns time. Today the concept of a life of chosen work is often rare and misunderstood. Then mess things up a bit by measuring an inherited line of work against a choice made in spite of heritage. Your father the surgeon presumes you will follow in his footsteps. You do not. Your mother the actress hopes you will not pursue her line of work, but you do. Your farming grandfather wants so desperately that you would walk by his side, learn where he puts the tools, when he goes to plow, how to treat a sick cow, when the crop is ready, so that he might imagine handing off his sacred candlelit, whisper-braced, farming trust to you … but the other voices are louder, sparkly, cajoling and judgmental.

And then there is that heroic individual who, in spite of opportunities, inclinations and talent, opts to stay and care for family. Because it fits my actual history, I am interested in him; that parent who sacrificed dreams as he worked for the family, all the quiet while offering up a window into a passionate longing, that whispered dream of chosen work. That person is a bridge in the purest sense.

Heritage is becoming an obsolete concept. ‘Actuality’ is a casualty. In case these sound like generalities, we offer complexities and contradictions to flood the horizons.

Time whispers, heritage is the string that bridges.

My late father would never have believed where this country and the human race finds itself today. The pace of change (read decline) even in just these last dozen years has been staggering, yet we don’t seem to know it, otherwise wouldn’t we be dragging our feet trying to slow the decline?

Growing up in the 1920’s and ’30’s on a small dirt farm in Wisconsin my father, as millions like him, learned the hard, depression-era lessons of sacrifice, discipline and routine. Leaving there, 18 years old, to audition for a job as a cartoonist with a young Walt Disney in Burbank, California, only to find himself as a body-guard for a movie producer before enlisting in the Marines in 1938, he never lost sight of where he came from, he never once violated those core tenets of sacrifice, discipline and routine. No wonder the recruiting officers prized midwestern farm boys for the war effort. He moved up the ranks and as first sergeant he worked alongside his friend and co-equal the actor Henry Fonda, mediating Hawaiian shore leave challenges between the Marines and the Navy. Both of them would leave Pearl Harbor to the war front in the South Pacific. Dad was assigned to active duty as platoon sergeant for Carlson’s Raiders at Guadalcanal, among other beach-head battles.

After the war and with a young family, those cataclysmic events, horrors and changes having been lived through and witnessed, those exciting glimpses into the world of Hollywood tucked away in his memory, what he chose to talk to his five young children about instead, day after day, was what a glorious life it had been on that small Wisconsin farm of his youth. Don’t ask him about the war. He had nothing to say, no stories to share. He armored himself everyday against those memories, those atrocities.

I have no doubt that my father’s love of that small farm life imbedded in me a path. He handed me the end of a length of string and I followed it. From him I also absorbed a heritage of behavior. Late life lessons about the deep value of discipline and intelligent routine belong in the top left shirt pocket, where we can pat them every so often to assure ourselves the track is maintained. With this reminder, when temptations to join the self-indulgent, vegetative masses catch our attention, the long view can be a salvation and a guidance. Yet the horizon is its own trap, pushing us ever forward and making it difficult to listen today to time’s whispers. Our push forward, that is the horizontal path of time. But there are also important vertical paths. No less of time, this is when we stop, lift our heads, pause, and listen.

Recently I have been sticking my head up a lot. When nobody is watching, sticking it up and looking around. Noticing that there are big changes to the world of our own farming that somehow escaped me in their moment, I missed so many whispers because I was busy.

When we started this publication, notions of small farms, craftsmanship in agriculture and local food were generally seen as either curious or whacko. I stuck my head up the other day and discovered that those things aren’t whacko anymore. We were so busy with our chosen work that we missed those whispers. Had I heard back then what that time was trying to tell me, would I have changed course, or perhaps figured my work is done here? Don’t think so, but I’m scratching my head in an empty room.

Now, almost everyday, I am holding to the whispers that tell me not to take for granted this publication and its community of readers. Now, after forty-five years, this time tells us to cherish and to understand, to hold on and to work towards preservation. What we all have accomplished with this community is a fragile treasure of actual and yet boundless value. This community and its gathered and shared information has a wide and wonderful address.

And time whispers, never forget those addresses.

Time Whispers
Sheep Passed This Way, oil, L.R. Miller

When we moved to our ranch/farm in 1988, there were scads of mule deer. It was on record that our land was in the center of the largest winter habitat for mule deer in the world and annual census taking back then pegged the numbers at around 7000.

Over the last four years the mule deer population has shrunk to maybe a couple of hundred. (This fall we have seen four, not forty or four hundred but four.) Concurrently our elk population grew to about 400 from what had been, way back in 1988, perhaps fifty or less. When we moved here the town of Sisters was small, population around 600. Now there are tens of thousands and nobody can guess where the total will end up when the hundreds and hundreds of houses and apartments under construction fill up. The growth of this small(?) town is limited only by the supply of building materials and contractors, as the local government is giddy with the growth and incapable of sensible limits. The old Barclay Ranch, once on the outskirts of town, is now well within the city limits and is now several overlapping developments. As I write these words thousands of new emigres from California and the southwest came this spring and summer and have yet to experience our mountain winters. Aggravated by climate change I suspect those new people will find time’s winter whispers more than a little uncomfortable and likely frightening.

In 1988 the roads were all but impassable six or seven months of the year and never maintained. There were times in the winter when we had to meet ourselves coming and going to get through. I carried a snatch block and a coil of steel cable in my trucks, yes trucks, because we would park our ancient, winch-equipped Power Wagon midway to town, on the ranch side of a 1/8 mile stretch of road that had deep, high suction mud holes scattered along nasty ruts that four foot tall wagon wheels couldn’t pass through. On the t’other side of that frozen swamp stretch we’d park our town truck. This way we could leave home, drive to the nasty-alley portion, get out of the Power Wagon and walk the hillside around the muddy road to the waiting town truck. This then would take us on to the Journal office. The routine would be repeated going home, knowing we would have the Power Wagon (with no heater or wipers or upholstery over the seat springs, or defroster, or ….). Why did we have snatch blocks, cable and winches at the ready? Because three times out of ten, from either direction, before we’d reach that nasty-alley, virago of doom, we’d come upon this or that ‘car’ mired in deep (if not deepest) mud and abandoned in the middle of the road. With timber and rocks and sandy hillsides we dared not drive around the stuck vehicle, so we’d fasten the cable to its bumper, thread it through the snatch block and fix that up to a tree on the hillside and back to shackle to our front bumper or the Power Wagon winch hook. Then we’d reverse and pull that offending car way up and out of the way.

Enough time has passed that I can now confess to having done this to dozens of vehicles, wondering each time what people would think when they came back with a tow truck and found their Celica, Audi or Chevy Nova had crawled out of the muddy road and attempted to escape by going up over the hill?

This rutted and many-holed stretch of road wasn’t the most sinister. That was reserved for any portion of the road that went smooth and flat; because we learned through extremely difficult experiences that ‘smooth and flat’ out here meant quick-sand, that’s where the sandy glacial soil had taken up so much water that it was the consistency of split pea soup. With this stuff there was absolutely no way of knowing if the bottom was six inches down or twenty.

Lest you think I exaggerate: twenty years ago one sunny spring day I was working on my number nine mower, tuning it up for the coming hay season, when a man came trotting up sweating and breathless. “Please I need help right now, my car is sinking in the mud and my wife is trapped inside!” I wiped my hands and calmly asked, “Where are you stuck?” He was jumping up and down and pointing, “in the road, please hurry.” I loaded him in my Power Wagon and we drove 3.5 miles to a new glass smooth area of the gravel road, in the middle of which was a Ford Explorer stuck in the quick-sand … to the bottoms of the windows! Inside was a short-haired woman weaving back and forth with a look of total panic. The man jumped from the truck and ran to the quick-sand hollering “I’m coming honey, I’m coming.” We pulled brush and limbs and jammed them up to the side of the car so we had a way to hold ourselves from sinking down in the wet sand. He tried to cross the tangle and gave up. I scrambled and got to the car which had now sunk another two inches so that the mud was gaining up on the side window glass. Luckily there was an open sunroof, he had forced it open to escape and come get help. I hoisted the small woman up on the car roof. She was in bad shape, shock I suspected. Just then a car pulled up from the town side. I helped her and we made it across the brush bridge where she proceeded to beat on her husband, hands and sticks, screaming at him. The Explorer kept sinking, very slowly.

The man and woman got a lift into town and brought a big tow truck back to retrieve their car. Don’t know how well that went. I never saw them again. But I did make a report to the county and put up makeshift signs which said “road closed.”

After reviewing the situation the county brought in a D8 cat on a lowboy. The first rounds of excavation determined that the soft area was twenty or more feet long, and that eight feet down they found a rock shelf. Running across this shelf at a right angle to the road was a six foot wide belt of rain runoff, coming off the side hill with force and headed to the flat area. On the second day of excavation I drove out to see if the road would be open soon. It would not. Looking, as I approached, I could not see the top of the cage on the D8 cat which was down in the hole pushing material up the other side. It took several belly dump loads of material for the county to fill and repair that road. During that week, to get to town, we had to drive an additional 40 miles, across a steep and winding canyon lake road with a treacherous slide area. Our “road is closed” signs stayed for months. The meager traffic stopped… and the deer population grew.

‘Did you hear that?’ Time whispered.

What does any of this have to do with our farming? Quite a bit. When we first identified that we wanted to live and farm in the area, we visited a local real estate firm. After describing what we were looking for, we got an oily, condescending smile from the realtor who said, “This area is vacation country and, with the new golf course subdivisions that are going in, it is a community for retirees who can afford to be here. There’s no farming or ranching here any more. You need to look a hundred miles or more east.” Instead we looked north 20 miles, into a forested rangeland desert where no one lived and found an abandoned ranch that was only accessible six months out of the year. This was something we could afford and chose. It was perfect and it was tough. So tough that we seldom had moments to listen to the time whispers.

For example, there were glorious character-defining goings-on back then that were far too easily taken for granted. In those first years, from spring to midsummer, three large bands of sheep were still grazing the 150,000 acres of forest service lands that surrounded us. There were 2000 in each band tended by Peruvian herders in wagons and trailers. Each shepherd had one or two predator control dogs, a border collie and a saddle horse. The owner of the sheep, based out of Madras, drove out daily with an old, leaky-mufflered, rusty, flatbed truck carrying feed troughs, water troughs and a water tank. He became a friend and traded us lamb for water and access to our shop and tools for repairs. We learned that very first year that having the sheep pass over our rangelands, early spring, helped to control weeds and actually improved the subsequent growth of the dryland alfalfa and crested wheat. It also helped to reduce the risk of fire hazard.

The sheep operation owner, Paul Reuter, knew the land intimately and charted the routes for the three bands with a view towards best access to water. He knew where the creeks, ponds, rivers and the one spring-fed quarry were. Our land had three ponds and we made them available to the sheep. When one of the flocks were on our lands, one of his herders, Roberto Alania, would visit my brother to watch video tapes of old cowboy movies. I retained some of my childhood language and we became good friends, learning from one another.

One cold spring morning Roberto showed up at our door. He had walked three miles trailing his mare who had smelled her way to our ranch to visit our Belgian stallion Abe. She had walked most of the night in tiny steps because she was wearing hobbles. Abe found the hobbles helpful.

The third or fourth year, I was out at dawn and something was bugging me. It took a while to figure out that it was a soft waffling percussive sound that came like a vibrating odor on the wind. Then I heard the first bleat clearly. It was the call of a ewe. Immediately came a hundred more, then several hundred. They were coming from two miles away, southeast, and deep in a creek canyon. The sheep were returning to us, climbing that steep canyon wall and calling their lambs to follow. It was easily an hour or more before I saw them, a mile off, cascading down from the rimmed edge, walking and eating and bleating through our rangeland grasses. It was a glorious and welcome sight.

I muttered back in the direction of time, ‘These things I heard, can’t imagine ever forgetting them.’

For over 80 years a delicate balance had evolved and been maintained in these parts, with cattle, sheep, horses, elk and mule deer sharing graze through a fragile balance of seasonal access. The horses and some bulls belonged to a rodeo stock company who turned them loose in the off season. The sheep belonged to homestead families and then stockmen from Madras. The cattle belonged to the previous owners of our place, and then us. The mule deer and a smattering of elk were wild and indigenous. And the grasslands and forests thrived and grew.

Ah, the whispers, we can still hear and see them. The definitions of the landscape, of the biology, of the air, were enchanting and bracing. But I do believe that our life, if it has been special, has been such because we heard enough of the whispers to have been caught up with the grandeur. Each life contains, within, the seed of an epic. It needs first to be heard.

But time’s whispers are thin, illusive and fragile.

The fertile, western magic of those first years changed for the worse and now I understand that the change came from within the logic-neutered natureless vacuum of federal office cubicles.

A set of young eastern bureaucrats were assigned in the early nineties to our region of the forest service and given a post-Butzian mandate, bring the forest lands and western ranching into the modern age. Using drafting tables and slide rules, these bureaucrats conveniently(?) determined that the sheep, cattle and horses were harmful, putting an end to decades of livestock grazing of rangelands. To them, for them, the sheep were the worst culprits. They also determined that all Juniper trees were harmful weeds and needed to be cut down and left to lay, ostensibly to add to the habitat?

The result over a few years was an enormous increase in dead and dry grasses, forbs and tree remains. A terrible price has been, and will continue to be, paid. Large scale fires became, and still are, commonplace; fires of such intense heat that the result are forms of near absolute soil sterility and subsequent flushes of invasive weed growth. Agree with my assessment or not, what is clear is that the once glorious and fragile balance has been destroyed.

With this, time whimpered and drew its breath, no whispers.

Those original bureaucrats, along with the sheep and subsequently the mule deer, are gone. The roads are somewhat improved and graded semi-annually. The traffic has quadrupled. The elk have increased in number dramatically. (I suspect that will change as well.) What has been a long history of extraordinary wildlife habitat health is, we fear, rapidly coming to an end.

I believe geological addresses such as biological locales, watersheds, foothill stretches, valleys, basins, coastlines, may be caused to go extinct. There are many pockets of living locales in the west, addresses if you will, which have already gone extinct. What makes that happen? Most often it is people, or circumstances caused by people. That is an opinion, my opinion. Today saying such things makes some people very angry. Nature has been altered by human endeavor. You could say she suffers because of us.

And humans are suffering as well from the effects of climate change, a change I believe we brought upon ourselves. And we don’t want to think about it up close. Arguing about it theoretically? That is a long distance game. I want to suggest that the myriad up-close changes we are experiencing in every single corner of this magnificent planet are far more pervasive, far reaching and deeper than simple equations of carbon pollution. With the species extinction and biological devastation that comes from deforestation and the avalanches of garbage and toxic chemicals that pour into the seas, shutting down coal plants and changing to electric cars isn’t nearly enough. At this late stage there is terrible humor in the evidence that we collectively are trying mostly to lessen the inconvenience to humanity. And that those of us who would dare to argue that Nature, biology and the planet should be the first concern, not humanity…. well, we are branded, in sloppy mutters, as terrorists.

Where in these last fifty plus years do we see evidence that this society, our culture, values humility, goodness, compassion, resilience, sacrifice, capability and generosity? For that must happen before we will ever fully understand our largest problems.

As I mentioned, my father grew up during the great depression on a small dirt farm just like millions of others. Today millions are growing up where, doing what, listening to what, taking from their days what lessons? How will they discover the view towards a worthy life in concert with nature? They need to be listening for what each time would whisper to them, individually. And they need to be on the look out for string ends that just might be bridges to a heritage of right livelihood and natural working balance.

At the beginning of this piece I spoke of a defining, invisible circle drawn around a pair of work horses. A kind of satellite view of a working relationship. There is in that model a possible value for those who struggle today to try to make for themselves a life of chosen work farming with nature, in nature.

Trust the whispers from inside yourself that say such things as, ‘I love orchards in bloom, and bees and the fruits that come of them.’ Or, ‘the entire world of rice growing in small flooded paddies, the smells, the shine, the insects, the fogs and frogs, the rice itself.’ Or, ‘I see chickens and sheep and pigs and my chest heaves.’ Or, ‘the textures and taste of that tilled field gives me goosebumps.’ Now pick your attraction(s), understand the limitations of your education and experience, but nonetheless draw an imaginary line around that dream and, for a while, watch how your thoughts move the picture of that dream up against that line, stretching it, testing it. When the time is right, and you will know it, step inside that line and join that dream, let it own you. When you do that, the dream will never let loose of you. Your farm will truly belong to you. That team of horses will always be there for you. And you will never have to listen after time’s whispers because you will have become one.

Time whispered, what took you so long?

“It was surprising that Nature had gone tranquilly on with her golden process in the midst of so much devilment.” – Stephen Crane

Time Whispers
To put horrible rumors to rest, Jean Christophe attempted, at the last SFJ Auction, to capture Boswell Adroit on film … and he did! That’s his bald head way back behind Ryan Foxley! (on the left). Center is Ed Joseph. The far right is LRM. By our measure there are five or six degrees of separation between the editor and his nemesis. That should answer that once and for all. SFJ