Walking and Wondering
Walking and Wondering
Mac McIntosh on John Deere Binder, photo by Kristi Gilman-Miller

Walking and Wondering

by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch

Eighty acres of hayfield/pasture isn’t much. It lays out ahead, and on either side, in a way that suggests no secrets. (Of course that’s not true.) If you can see its edges and feel an intimacy for it, it ain’t much or perhaps better put, it’s just enough. Me and my old stock dog Lucky waggle along looking out and looking down always surprised to find compressed stories in that green grassy legume expanse. Here it is thick and dark and lush, shading its own piece of fertility to encourage more. Hiding the valuable truth. Over there thin and dry and crusted to suggest a flat rock size of a pickup truck just under the surface and threatening anything that thinks of taking root. And a dandelion and sour dock patch adjoins announcing a confused spot of acid imbalance. Right there Lucky nervously jams his nose down a sage rat hole puffing so hard that his back end does a little hop as his front end digs at the edge. Me, I watch a red tail hawk a distance away sitting atop a juniper fence post. The hawk seeming to say “you’re only here because you’re no threat to my food supply”. And just to my left are the large droppings of elk from the night before. All of it together a gradually undulating carpet of soil entanglements and plant futures.

Old Lucky moves along sure except that every third step seems to hesitate then hiccup his back end and push him sideways. I smile only until I realize my own gait shows similar irregularities. Me, I have to work at having a true step and hiding those inevitable moments when my signal never reaches the offending leg until a jig step, more burp than dance, escapes. Two old dogs that’s us. Have to wonder which of us will go first. Me – I’ve got the odds favoring a decade or more ahead, him – he’s got maybe a year or so, but where it counts, out walking the field, we’re pretty much evened up. These days, both of us have felt our appetites constrict, both of us have paid a whole lot more attention to our bottom sides than ever before. And our past tolerance for sympathy has easily morphed to a real need.

Lucky and I own this ground. Me ‘cuz my name has been on the papers. He because his entire life has been spent right here delineating and encircling. If you connected all his dog urine moments in a dotted line, these last eleven years would amount to three times around the eighty acres or four and a half miles. I know the distance by patch jobs in the barb wire fence. We aren’t the only owners. There is the entire rest of the family and all the other animals living here. There is that cosmic history of the place. There are the ghosts of many a grateful Paiute brave and the ever-changing cavalcade of guvmint boys out to prove that permission needs be granted in this neighborhood. Pretend deference or saddle up and move on.

So we keep our heads down and smile most times. It’s the same way when the talk swirls around to industrial farming. Keep your head down and smile, otherwise you’re pegged as a trouble-maker and a loony. But Lucky and I know some things, and one thing is that the loonies will be inheriting the world. We also know the only way to feed billions of people is if millions of families, ordinary families, work small plots of ground with their hands, minds and hearts. That way the water, soil, seed, and livestock are protected while food is made available. That’s the valuable truth – that little people protect water, soil, seed and livestock. And you got to have all four if you’re gonna feed the world. Actually that list includes five – because those little people are a mighty important piece of the puzzle. It’s a beautiful thing; small farmers with the spirit of gardeners improving air, water, soil and genetic diversity all while feeding their share of the world. Wow. A neat and repeatable solution. But one which worries some people.

These days there’s no end to folks who believe that the world is being destroyed by you and me and her and him – doesn’t really seem to matter what we’re about – there’s some official or learned one out there who says you’re to blame. And moving up to the top of the world’s villainy list right now are farmers! Yep, hard to believe but good scientists and social engineers have come to the ridiculous conclusion that we farmers all of us pollute and abuse even more than factories, chemicals, cities, cars and wars. They’ve got the statistics to prove it with charts and graphs and everything. And most of them come to the same conclusion; the solution oddly enough, paradoxically enough, must come from more sophisticated industrial agriculture with subsidized research and development into new zowies in bioengineering and chemistry. They say we who farm the old ways with our hands, hearts and minds are destroying the world while factory farms – though they may be ‘somewhat’ culpable in the overall picture – offer the best solution to feed more people and save the planet. Even my old stock dog thinks this stinks like pig manure in a hair salon.

The factory farms are ONE of the problems. Small farmers are most of the solution. Whoa they say, we farmers use up the water, the electricity, the beneficial carbons, the best land base. Whoa I say – you do everyone a disservice when you lump us small farmers in with every entity invested in food production, processing and distribution.

To say we are small farmers is to say something very important. We are not miners. We are stewards. We are not users. We are husbands. We practice farming methods which retain water and build soils. We embrace low impact approaches to working because of the smaller ‘footprint’ but also because it suits our economy. We don’t poison. We refresh. We harvest with hand and eye and we distribute the same way. We walk our fields and gardens and ‘look’ at them and into them because we want to know them. And we want to know that land – because from the knowledge come the right answers to problems and opportunities. We are not factory workers. We are shepherds. We are not tacticians or economists or efficiency experts. We are parents, lovers, artists, and gardeners. We are not landscape architects. We are the landscape. We are not theologians. We are the religion. We are not destroying the planet, we are healing her. We are small farmers.

And we are at war with those who care more for money and power than they do for life. The cleverest of industrial forces understand that in the near future the single arena on this planet which offers the greatest opportunity for profit and power is food – nothing compares not petroleum not gold not armaments not currencies not housing not education not religion not energy not electronics not artificial intelligence – not even Facebook or Google or iTunes. As we move towards 9 billion people who will need to eat every day, the magnetic equation is easy to see.

If we accept the fact that the food supply is already inadequate and industrial agriculture ill-equipped to supply that increase, what then? Supply and demand. Only in this case the demand is tied to life and death urgencies. Think of it, an arena of endeavor upon which literally every human being is dependent. It’s not like whether to buy a magazine subscription or a new suit of clothes. You’ve got to eat. So if every human being on the planet is waiting with a bowl in one hand and coins in the other can’t you see what that attracts?

Organized crime has moved from drugs and prostitution to politics/news and now to wholesale identity theft and income tax fraud. They use computers to bilk billions out of the IRS. It’s easy, it’s relatively pain and risk free. It makes criminals billions of dollars a year. And it has given the mobsters something they never had, a new respect for education. They need more thugs trained to work computers. It’s a monster which cries out to be fed new opportunity. This amazing new pool of human excrement is growing by leaps and bounds and is well-positioned to move into the arena of food – yes food. Because the production models, the futures markets, the distribution matrix are all dependent on computers, access to which is wide open to the unscrupulous. It’s not a new thing, industrial agribusiness has long been a happy home for criminal minds but, outside of a couple of villains in mega corporations, most of these guys and gals are petty thieves.

Imagine with me what happens when the federal agencies, corporate board rooms and food distribution infrastructure are infiltrated by Harvard-educated gun-toting computer-stroking mafiosos trained to skim a lot more than cream off the food supply. Bizarre you say? Paranoid you think? Well think a little harder. If there is an opportunity to corner a trillion dollars worth of profit from feeding people, who do you suppose is going to show up for their piece of the action? The good guys?

One of our little secrets, something that keeps us hopeful? You can’t control the food system IF it is tied directly and largely to millions of independent small farms. Too many cats to herd. But if there are five or six multinational corporations which control food production and distribution, its easy to imagine tying up that bundle into something highly lucrative and larcenous. Don’t think for one minute it isn’t happening right now.

Speaking of tying up bundles; as we cross the field I see our peafowl in a gaggle wandering the harvested hayfield where it is easier to see the tasty bugs in the stubble. And of course, out in the open as they are, it is easier for the coyotes to see the pea fowl. When our Great Pyrennes guardian dog, Hal, passed on, the coyotes began to move in. Nothing a young coyote likes better than a fresh unplucked peafowl. So they lie in wait, in whatever depression or tufting of grass and weeds gives them cover; lie in wait, perfectly still and incredibly patient, until a peafowl is dumb enough to walk by, then the wild canines bounce, usually from behind. If its a male in summer that means long fancy tail feathers. When the coyote gets a hold of those feathers and the bird flees, all the feathers come out and scatter across the field for us to pick up. (But if its a female with their short tails and the coyotes grab holt – curtains.) We started the winter with twenty-seven birds – free range. Today we have a dozen and only three of those are females. We have friends who are sure to remark upon reading these words, “good riddance those birds are noisy and messy”. But I’ll let you in on a golden secret if you promise not to tell the others; one male peacock will produce a magnificent tail of over a hundred patterned and luminous feathers. Those feathers are worth a dollar a piece. They regrow those feathers each year. That means nine peacocks can generate one thousand dollars a year. They require NO purchased inputs raised as we do, free-range. Peafowl just may be the most profitable livestock a rancher can raise. And I’ve figured out how to make the easy wholesale transactions, just take those feathers to flower shops, tatoo parlors and hair salons. Only thing I can’t figure out is where to sell the coyote hides, unless the tatoo parlors might…?

I see the peafowl story and our experience with the birds as an analogy for just how exotic diversification might be for the small farmer. (And diversification is still the ticket to allow the small independent farm operator a real chance to succeed.) If you have an attractive nuisance on your farm its in your best interest to carefully analyze how that nuisance might be converted to cash. We have lots of rocks, some of very interesting and even pleasing shape and color. They are a nuisance to our farming. A man once drove up and offered to buy the flat thin rocks for patio paving stones. We live in the high desert and much of our grazing land is peppered by Juniper trees, considered by many a weed and a nuisance, yet every other year or so a nursery business from the city shows up to harvest the berry-ladened limbs for holiday trim. We get paid for that nuisance. I need to find out if those berries are the same what make gin. We have a large herd of elk that come in most nights to take what they want and go. I’ve been approached by hunters who will pay me for the right to ‘harvest’ those elk.

Of course most farms are not “encumbered” by all the wild flora and fauna that live with us. But there are some, and quite a few of those ranches, with problems similar to ours, have taken to ranch tourism; that’s where folks pay to stay and partake of the outfit’s day to day rituals. Hmmm, diversification.

The real point in all of this is that this is how my mind works when the dog and I are walking the field, it wanders with us and then sets off on its own. And that’s a very good thing, it’s one of the regularly available rewards of this farming life.

Lucky’s getting tired. He’s hugging the side of my knee as I amble along. Looking down at him I notice a pair of sidecutters in the grass which must have fallen from my pocket on the previous trip across the field. I stop and reach for them and he thinks I’m reaching for his head to scratch it. We both chuckle, the old farmer and the old stock dog. He does it by blowing out, I do it by inhaling. Similar wheezing noise. And I’m fond of these small moments because they have a scale and an immediacy that color days less grey and more vibrant.

That, after all, is what we’ve been trying to do with this magazine for almost 4 decades now, gather up small moments of rare honesty and vibrance and allow you to discover them in your lap or at the kitchen table. Little pieces of how we truly fit in this our chosen work-a-day world. And the physical format of this magazine as a print edition, ink on paper, has lent itself to this discovery process. Kind of goes together with the image of this old rancher wandering one of his hayfields with an old stock dog friend. Easy to feel the scale and relevance of it. Easy to see, in your mind’s eye, the speed of it,

But then today is another time. I think, even more than a hundred years ago when the internal combustion engine offered cars and trucks to replace horses and mules in harness, today the electronic world of the internet is changing how many people walk and wonder each day. Some of us hold-outs still want the paper and ink just as we enjoy teams in harness, heirloom seed varieties, a good and trustworthy saddle horse, and flower boxes round the porch. Some of us don’t have the patience for any of that, we want what we want at exactly the moment we want it or we go elsewheres and right away. When I was growing up, that was a definition of spoiled. The hallmark of the spoiled person was and is impatience. Fewer people walk and wonder, today many more sit in one place, fidgeting, leaving the speed to computerized vehicles and virtual realities, demanding to be satisfied RIGHT NOW.

Perhaps measurements of good and bad, right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate don’t always rule the day. For far too long, I as editor of this magazine, denied that people were changing how they wanted their information; what the information was to include, how it was presented, and how it was delivered. Fossil that I am I honestly believed there would always be a place for paper and ink, that it represented more than the thing whether book or newspaper or magazine – it represented the experience of deep reading, the experience of a personally chosen context for ‘seeing’ information, a way that the ‘thing’ seemed to give the reader a sense of ownership and membership all at the same time. The way we hold altogether firmer to the book as we near her ending, not unlike how I seem to pay much closer attention to my old dog Lucky.

But the paper and ink are different from living creatures because they allow that we might give them an extended shelf life. We might store them for future reference. And enjoy their accumulation as if some measure of places we’ve been or intend to go. Electronic files, digital archives, though attractive in an antiseptic hospitalized sort of way never offer us those aspects. We can’t even be assured of their safe-keeping. Sure, books can go up in flames or slowly crumble with age. But they die in our arms. While electronic files can disappear in the press of the wrong key, they can go fugitive and morph into weird cousins of themselves, They can do the supercede waltz and be twirled by the search engines until they drop off the bottom edge into a cyber dumpster. And there has yet to be any wake or funeral for those cyber slough-offs. There is nothing to hold in your arms at the end.

It is after all the end of the copyist. That human expertise married to process which either by hand or machine gives us another dozen hard copies of the Illiad to pass forward. If I were to tell you that Moby Dick is a thousand page novel and that I know this because I have a hard copy and you were to tell me that ‘NO, Moby Dick is actually a 58 page novel because the page counter in the PDF archive tool bar so indicates’. Who would you believe? It may matter now but in the near future it may be an absurd question. Because the cliff note version may be all that’s saved on the internet.

Our friend Cary Fowler is attempting to store a few pounds of every known seed variety on Earth, all in a Norweigian arctic snow cave. I have been told he already has varieties in storage which the internet either refuses to acknowledge ever existed or boldy and gladly claims are extinct. There are scientists and computer worshippers who put the highest priority on the accuracy of the computer data base universe. They are more concerned that the information is right in cyber space. They do not see the incredible monumental accomplishment of Fowler’s Cave and what a gift it is to humanity at this very moment. Don’t ask them to choose which to hold dear, please don’t ask them.

If you ask me, the answer is no contest, the seeds are far and away more important to our survival. Electronica for electronica’s sake is the Tesla dream gone nightmare. But, not to be seen as disparaging ‘our’ most important inventor, Nicola Tesla, if he were here he would want to remind us that tools should always be seen and treated as just that and no more; tools. Perhaps there are vestiges of Electronica and the Internet which ‘might’ serve as useful tools in the incredibly important work necessary to save the biological and sociological diversity of mothership Earth? Perhaps, but what be the value of the ‘saving’ if access is controlled by ‘govmint’ and/or corporations?

Pompous as it may sound, I have long seen this Small Farmer’s Journal adventure as a form of democratic existential seed-saving. With each issue and the extended community of readers, we are saving the ideas (read seeds) and methods (again read seeds) and recorded life adventures (read evidence of seeds) that give us our past and future ways of working. A four dimensional multi-generational recipe book for good farming.

Example: The grain binder in its ultimate ground-drive manifestation was (and is) a superlative engineering fete allowing one person to cut, gather, and tie grain into bundles which could be gathered in groups of six or less and deposited in exact spots across the field. This machine featured a complex system of interconnected moving performances from the mowing to the conveying to the gathering to the knotting to the field deposit all requiring timing and precision; and the operator needing to learn how to rub her belly while patting her head – a reference to what it takes to fly a helicopter. Sitting on the binder perch, so much of what happens with this machine seems counter-intuitive. Brilliant engineering, presupposing that farmers would be able to grasp what was required and make the beauty work, and work it did to astounding result. Yet this pivotal engineering moment lasted for just a couple of decades before combines replaced binding/threshing. Should the machine and its concept have been trashed then? No.

I believe we are most fortunate that the Amish farmers and living history farm re-enactments have kept alive all that goes into binder familiarity, we are fortunate that this very specific way of getting a field harvest job done is still, albeit limited, alive for the near future. Publications such as ours have played an important part in that historical preservation. But what has been unique to SFJ is the extent to which we dedicate pages to this work. Even within this issue you will see a complete reprint of the operating instructions for one make of threshing machine. An “extravagance” that few other paper and ink publications choose to afford to do. And we do it in a form, paper and ink, that allows you spread it out on the work bench, on the kitchen table, in your lap one evening, out in the field adjacent to your thresher. Something that an internet version doesn’t lend itself to.

But with a tip of the hat to Tesla, we might at this point add that there is some merit to making sure that this information, in a useful and accurate context, is also ‘stored’ electronically. Because ultimately, tool that it is, the internet still depends on people deciding what information is ‘worth’ saving and in what form; for example should it be an abbreviated reference to an obsolete piece of machinery or an in-depth and complete archive of all that we know? I say it must be the latter or we’ve lost the ‘germination’ potential should we need to revisit this technology and methodology again in earnest. Because already we are seeing how arbitrary and fickle people can be with what gets stored on the internet. Complete information in a useful and appropriate context will be critically important. It’s a case of where the ‘qualitative’ may be more encompassing than the ‘quantitative’.

And so we come to this question; what is the importance of the qualitative? And why is ‘all’ better than ‘complete’ or vice versa?

As Lucky and I continue our walk across the recently mowed hay field pasture we come to the elk trail, a distinct depression wandering a quarter mile from the irrigation lagoon to the corner of the fence. I recall while mowing that, even though I knew it was there I was surprised as the mower dipped and revealed with the cut this wildlife highway, an eighteen inch wide cut in the height of the field. Before the hay was mowed you wouldn’t have seen it, it was covered or shaded by the tall grass, you could only ‘feel’ it when your feet hit solider ground, slightly dipped. But it’s there, reinforced by the continuing visits of the herd of elk and occasionally used by the cattle and deer. It connects as it traverses. Just like that binder in our working history of farming. Just like Cary Fowler’s seed cave. Just like this old rancher and his limping stock dog. Just like this publication.

Which is my long way around to say that this publication is incredibly important, important in what it does, what it represents, what it may yet do. With the rapid changes in our world – changes that go to the very core of how we communicate with one another and why we still need to – it is my job with this Journal to find new ways to introduce ourselves and make our information accessible. While maintaining this print editon format we will be reaching out through audio, video, electronic versions of our books, radio programming, and college involvement to give this publishing community greater ooze. We want to permeate through the new membranes of the digital age and allow people to have access to the widest spectrum of biological diversity, wider human significance and the most beautifully appropriate tools. While much of this new digital age may prove to tax our notions of biodegradeable, as farmers we know the importance of completing cycles. Me and my old dog will sometime add to the fertility in direct ways. We must be careful that this new so-called freedom we feel from the internet be no less tied to the cycles of life.

Freedom is nothing unless it is biodegradable. Knowledge is nothing without qualitative context. Biology will wait out our follies and rule the day once again. Who knows, perhaps the great storms of the future will rearrange our garbage and presumptions just enough for us to actually be intriguing to the next ‘superior’ species to come along. ‘Or not’, as the comedians are fond of burping.

Meanwhile I’m planning on continuing to walk my fields with the dog and allowing myself to wonder. We set quite a few young ships to sail through the rippling waters of right livelihood and it feels good to know that. Let’s you and I not stop doing that until we are no longer able. Let’s find the elegant hand-off.