by Lynn R. Miller
One of our ranch ponds lays adjacent to the old cabin we call home. We can look out the picture window and see a wide slice of that water’s surface framed by picket fence, Juniper limbs and rim-rock edged dryland pasture. Late one evening Spring’s first full moon filtered itself through a musty scattering of cloud froth and shot silver trails on the pond’s dark surface marking the comforts of wild water fowl. The marks were quick, glistening, crystalline, fleeting and muscial – if sparkling lines can be said to have an orchestrated sound. Mallards and wood ducks were playing. When one of them would flap wings and rise to its dancing broad feet skating across the water’s top-side, the silvering which chased behind exceeded any fireworks imaginable. A shooting cascade of white notes underlined by long thin streaks of light-charged line punctuated at the end by a splash of light as the bird settled back down to its wet bed. Then in response, on the other side of the pond another duck would swim fast in a tangential S-curve, seeming to know it was followed close by its own light show. And as if choreographed by Ravel, at just the right moment a third Mallard would raise up slightly, hold its place and flap its wings so that their tips would send lunar-charged sparks in outward splashes. The full moon, held in its high spot by a beard of clouds, seemed more of a stage set flood light than nature’s periodic nocturnal beacon perhaps because the mess of uncertain clouds and fog kept the radiance focused just on the pond’s dark surface. Watching the dancing sparks, lines and splashes pulled along behind the dark silhouettes of the waterfowl I felt as though we were being treated to nature’s horizontal marionette rehearsal. Kristi remarked that a trick of that crazy light made it seem, at times, as though something swam just beneath the surface and slightly behind the ducks focusing a flashlight upwards. It was magical and grand and the show went on without end.
That moment sent my mind looking for cousins of the experience and I recalled our early October visit to Les Barden on his New Hampshire forest farm. We sat with him and felt his grateful will and elegant stoicism. Saw again what one man, well into his eighties, might do, day in and day out, to layer the poetics of work, weeding and cultivating his forest, watching after his racing pigeons, wondering after oxen and horses he had loved and sawing his lumber. The light he gave off in that moment was a soft harmonic hum.
Nature, and humanity’s better interactions with her; that combination does hold the best and I think only answers for a good and fertile society. As for the planet and its future health, it is pretty darned obvious she doesn’t need us anymore than she needed the dinosaurs. Wouldn’t it be magical and even divine if the societies of man could attain a plain of conduct and stewardship which would have us all be an invigorant and bejewelment for our Earth? A future essential?
Of course, not all of nature is good for or to us. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, severe heat and cold all can affect communities of man and beast in terrible ways. All of these calamities are part and parcel of the planet’s living self. Yet, outside of natural rhythms, here on our ranch we watch patterns and we see our lowest winter temperatures, over 20 some odd years, go from minus forty degrees fahrenheit (1989) to an occasional minus ten (2010). We watch snowfall diminish from thirty inches to seven or eight. And we see wind patterns alter so that these last two years it is severely windy 70% of the time instead of 15%. Our observation is that the weather is changing.
There is a parallel between today’s world economy and the planet’s weather. Certain economists need to think about the present depressed condition as a natural correction without granting that what is being corrected is an unnatural ‘tricked’ out economy. Something similar is happening with observations about nature, as folks are want to say our severe weather is a natural correction without granting that our pollutants have created an unhealthy atmospheric soup.
As for the ducks in the moonlight, there is that ample evidence of the vast health of nature and its inherent capacity to heal itself when necessary. And then Les Barden’s example joins millions of others in proof positive that there are human-scale economies which give back more than they take.
In this, the great recession, we share a time of upheaval and uncertainty. For these long and painful months many friends have suffered difficult choices having lost elements of security they had taken for granted. Though a few have been insulated, most everyone has felt a direct impact. For some the deprivations and loss have been terrible beyond imagination. The deep self-evaluations, the personal doubts, the sense of looming failure lingered about me trying to make a case for terror. But somehow there was found a place of comfort and ease inside the embraced acts of gratefulness which had me rediscovering those wealths we so easily discount. Like that evening view of the duck ballet.
But then we are back to the terrible demands so we reinvent ourselves. We hold to the vigilance. We set clear monetary and production goals insisting that nothing short of success will work but tweak ourselves to never forget, especially in these uncertain times, that success is want to morph. We prepare ourselves to see recent steps as true success. No matter how small, do not downplay the good that has come, that has resulted. And to add the dash of useful contradiction, do not put too much credit there either. So much to do, so much that can be done and always think- ing on the models which romance our choices and efforts.
‘Romance’ because if we are left to dry “bottom line” accounting we too easily lose sight of the truest reasons to continue. As example, certainly I do need to concern myself with an affordable efficiency to my irrigation systems, and for that there must be criteria upon which to base the measurements: criteria which in my case will include asking questions about new/old ways to continue to build a microbially-enhanced, humus-rich soil structure that retains more of the naturally occurring moistures: criteria which will have me ‘time’ the crops and cropping to provide and create tiered shading: criteria which will result in a “climax management” program that will have optimum root structure decay at just the right time. For these sorts of reasons I know that economic efficiency (or affordability and/or profitability) will not stand up as the only reason to continue a practice or set of practices I deem essential.
For me, the farm accounting doesn’t even get interesting nor useful until it draws in the courtship of natural process. And most any ‘real’ accountant will, of course, tell you that all of this is nonsense. Ah, but in these difficult days do I need to point out where ‘real’ accounting has taken our economy and societies?
Someone else, for the sake of example, may find that establishing an apprenticeship program on their farm is the most efficient way to address a labor shortage (or the high cost of labor). Either they have neglected to assess the time it will take to actually mentor and/or teach their “help” or they are genuinely invested in passing on knowledge in this fashion and the cost is something they embrace. A matter of choice, careful choice. For my ways of working, apprenticeships do not succeed because I am selfish with the adventure and its inherent spiritual efficiencies and believe, right or wrong, that working solitudes and earned peerage partnerships have in the past contributed balance and intellectual fertility to my farming. Apprenticeships have not.
But then I am that romantic, that unreasonable fellow. In a recent conversation with a friend I was once again admonished that this periodical of yours and mine falls short in the areas of practicality. “Where are the simple, honest, direct formulas for how we can make a decent living on a small farm? You are forever telling us why people should do it but there’s not enough of how to do it.”
Outside of the shear scope of such a question; scope which asks that honest folks share their deepest financial secrets with everybody, scope which must encompass what is grown and where; scope which needs to include the experience, skill, aptitude, and energy of the pilgrim; scope which has to take into consideration scale, available funds, fitness of soils, ready labor, number of seasons in the plan; scope which will be affected by age and health; scope which will owe much to the coming weather; scope which begs that society’s current whims be directed elsewhere; scope which must court the most illusive mysteries of fertility; outside of all these things comes that beastly intangible we know as individual expectation. The “how to” ain’t even heard unless you want to hear it. And rare is the occasion when the straight honest formula gives the dreamer’s expectations full lift-off. That is why the models which romance our choices are so incredibly important. If we are fully immersed in our chosen landscape, “living the dream” as it were, we can handle an egg production less than stellar, worm damage to many of our cabbages, a work mare having an off day, even a broke down tractor. If we are chained to a job we dislike, the smallest infraction or disappointment is terrible to endure.
This spring my friends, the McIntoshes invited me over to help plow the field that would become oats. Young Jacob, James and Nellie, dad Mike and nephew Josh Kezele (on leave from West Point) and yours truly (away from the computer screen) hitched Belgians to walking plows and turned some sweet moist earth up to receive the sun and the rain. Friend Bing Bingham, the photographer, along with partner Dennis Turmon, the auctioneer, stopped to join grandpa Mac as a cheering section. This was a job needed doing, and we were there in various measure to get her done. Nobody, not one single soul, made any entries in accounting books about costs and inputs and the like. For every single one of us it was a red letter day marked plus, plus, plus. If we were to make up some kind of formula or recipe for that day which would be included then in a how to article, all that stuff would be met with either smiles or frustrations.
But I know that these things don’t offer solace to folks who have lost everything or feel as though they are going to. Some of the evidence of this time includes our urgent need to find a job, urgent need to find money for farming inputs, urgent need to help family members with their house payments or rent, urgent need to pay the bills, to feed the family, to heat the house. to water the garden… Money’s in hiding and we are being asked to conduct ourselves in whole new ways.
Thinking further of the evidence of this time, trying to understand if all of us are falling still or if we are wandering sideways in search of what we are supposed to know. Perhaps the thrust of this change is in the introspection. We are told and shown in the marketplace that the wholesale human experience is finding new abbreviation, all is being shortened with the volume turned to ‘capture’ – not loud not soft no balance no complexity save for the pixelation, hard sharp and reminiscent of digital reality. Odd how we’ve come to this point where our applauded arts are those which mimic mimicry – those which out-plastic the plastic – those which virtualize the virtual reality. Only nature may save us and she is at war with us. And she is at war with us because the most of ‘we’ are, with each passing day, more patently unnatural in this new modern form. The majority of us have moved away from making product, from creating something new, from growing things. We are told that this country of ours can no longer afford to make a product, it must now find ways to provide services. Abstraction. That’s all that is, a bloody abstraction. It is because we gave up making things that we find ourselves so fantastically dependent on things that don’t exist, that aren’t real. Paper-worth in a digital age?
Remembering back, once again, to another December day I recall a cold morning with a light snow, a feathery wall of foggy snow creeping towards us from the mountains and watching the horses and cattle, pastry-dusted white, curve inwards towards their deep warmth.
(Towards us, towards them, in all of that there is a loss of perspective – it should be us towards, them towards – it should be our touch more than our thought.)
And that morning, early, early we had a good warming wood fire and I had a splendid coffee while sitting in my Amish-built bentwood rocker. It was as if music left a trail. I felt, as with so many like mornings, the thirst for farming and field work, the call to write and draw, a call to paint and to reflect. Every moment we are awake is a time to embrace being alive. The fight with our anxieties and regret, though alive in its own acidic way, is wasteful of this precious and limited time. The “if onlys” seldom are that absolute. We drive ourselves to these intensities almost as if to say our focus would be lost without the screws applied. Empty that chamber. Yes persistence, but without drama, without panic, with absolute certainty of outcome. See everyday as a beginning built upon a head start.
And so with this hesitant spring, with these plucky bursts of spring mixed in with winter slaps, the new year does truly start, and we start with it determined to prepare on several fronts for the inevitability of growth and fruition. Keep it all moving. Starts and preparations are amongst the best movements lest we sleep through a valuable next opportunity.
The world is beginning to constrict in upon itself. The world, as in societies of man overlapping and newly interdependent. The constriction comes when cultures will-out or evaporate, no longer accepting homogenization of aspect. This is a time which unfortunately shuns true brilliance lest it be socially edible. The market forces won most every battle to this moment but the future is closing off, circles are forming close to the strongest heart beats. Tomorrow brilliance will once again have value and small worlds will give the strongest life.
Yesterday’s thoughts ran with the geography of societies while today’s sidle up against the geography of dignity, not so much collective but none the less contagious. We need to believe that humanity may once again embrace, if not embody, an elegance of mind and manner. Disdain, indifference, intolerance, mean-spiritedness may have some attraction as caustic solvent but our time has taken to wearing these ill manners misplaced as a cloth or badge of triumph. What triumph is there in any of this nastiness? The cost has been horrendous to our spirituality and our civility. Where be civilization?
Farming was one of the first acts of civilization. Let’s settle in a spot with good soil and water, somewhere on the caravan trail. Let’s dig clay and make pots, and collect seeds and plant them each successive year and gather grains to eat and to trade. Let’s make something new from these natural resources while protecting the source of it all. Fast forward to this confusing time.
Right up behind the critical need to protect our farmlands has always been the urgency to preserve and inspire human-scale farming – those categorical endeavors and values which give a ringing tone and constant regenerative living definition to farmland. Those practices which also give working truth to the opportunity that better soils and more farming acreage can and should be grown. Yes, there is a finite land base but the casual presumptive argument that all land suitable for farming is currently in production is absurd. There are vast tracts of land – some once farmed then abandoned – some never farmed – that lay waiting for the craftsman’s touch and stewardship. And that land also waits for communities to return. All of it is of nature in nature and towards nature.
And then the vulgar coin of the money-changer’s bib married the starched collars of the liars of madison avenue and our world came crashing down. But the ball bounces and these ages are changing faster than we know. These hard times are giving pause to the rapid social de-evolution of these last twenty years. Speaking of our extended world of farming, rural fabric and small towns; some of us have worried over the demise of our prized institutions and organizations such as the Grange, 4H, Future Farmers of America and others, and we’ve seen our county fairgrounds – those once sacred community plots where folks met to measure, share, laugh and do right commerce, fall to the developer’s short term logic or abject abandonment.
But now, with money in hiding, we see, just maybe, a chance to hold on to what remains and build our folkways infrastructure back up. I say folkways because that is exactly what it’s all about, the ways of folk – as opposed to the ways of government or of industry or of commerce, or of corporate structure. We lost sight of that beginning where these aspects were all originally permitted and conceived “in service to” folks. The way we farmed with our heads, hands and bodies, or made music, or worshipped, or made cloth, or prepared food, or raised our children, or taught ourselves – all those things defined us – they were us. Government was never meant to define us (a nod of disagreement to Messers. Lincoln & Kennedy) it was meant to serve us. Corporate structure, science, schools, industry were all meant to serve us. Not any more…
Trying to find an analogy for just how out of whack things are I remembered an embarrassing recent story about myself. My daughter Scout and I had gone to the feed store in town and loaded up with fence posts, salt blocks, and sundries. Out behind the store I had pulled in to the yard to get the posts loaded. When backing out I spied in my peripheral vision the store’s forklift trying to pass me so I turned somewhat sharp as I backed, watching in the mirror that I wouldn’t run into the building. What I couldn’t see, and had forgotten about, was the concrete loading ramp which ran alongside the building. I felt the back of my truck going up but I thought it was just a rise in the asphalt. Then I heard a crunch and the pickup truck stopped. I got out and saw what you see in this photograph. One wheel hanging off in mid air, the other barely touching, I had high-centered on my rear-end and bumper hitch. I instinctively got my camera and snapped this picture thinking, nobody is going to believe this. Then two friendly fellows from the feedstore used two lift trucks to carefully pick up my truck so that we could build a ramp under the hanging wheel with railroad ties.
That whole time we worked to get my truck righted I thought “you complete idiot, you absolute fool, you second-hand banana salesman, you worthless piece of camel drool…” Then daughter Scout and I began to laugh. Laugh because it was so ridiculous. Laugh because no permanent damage was done. Laugh because everyone else was going to laugh. Laugh because a very specific lesson was learned. (You should have seen how careful I was next time I drove around that building!)
Remembering that experience I thought “Too bad the problems with our false economy couldn’t be as direct and approachable as that silly accident. Too bad a few of us couldn’t just lift up the rear end of this country and build a traction ramp that would allow us to drive things right. But then, in my experience there were no real villains, and the stupidity was close to home and manageable, after a fashion, and no new laws have to be formed to protect the feedstore from me or vice versa.
It was almost as if the whole thing was an act of nature. Kind of like those ducks dancing in the moonlight on the pond? Well, maybe that is going a bit far. (And I sure don’t think my hero Les Barden’s ever done anything so stupid as to drive half on half off a loading ramp.)
I say we try to learn the lessons of this stupid, accidental and patently false economy. I say we continue to do the best jobs we know how to build self sufficiencies for ourselves, our families and our communities. And, I don’t know about you but I plan on keeping it as real as possible while still taking time to watch those ducks wiggle their feathery butts across the moonlight charged pond surface.
Hasta luego, LRM.