Whirling, Dirtbucks & The Jimmy Red Grits Accord
by Lynn Miller
Threshing machines are designed to jostle grain crops on oscillating screens and straw-walking tables. The lighter straw and chaff are suspended in whirl of air as the heavier cleaned grain settles down through crop-specific screens to be carried separately, through the side-mount grain auger, to waiting bag, bin, truck or wagon. At the same time, the lighter straw and chaff is directed to where the paddle fan forces it through and into the overhead straw blower pipe. It’s all a calibrated, shaking and whirling action of great and specific benefit.
The evolution of human society had us incorporate, over time, a variety of threshing machine-like activities (think churches, schools, farming communities and non-profit science) to separate the good stuff from the less essential and sometimes downright bad stuff. I say our society has been functioning of late with all threshing action off. There is plenty of whirl but the screens are plugged and the straw walkers are worn smooth. The separation is malfunctioning or missing. Many schools now are bottom-line businesses with little or no priority on actual education. And farming communities? Yikes, they are under assault from within and without, with deadly consequence for those who do not pass political litmus testing. And science, in continued corporate thrall, may destroy humanity and then mankind. The pursuit of harmony and beauty, joined with the full engagement of a gardener’s farming, will hasten man’s ascent to nobler forms.
When I was 9 and 10 years old my best friend in the world was Chuck Wells. In elementary school we shared an odd distinction; we were the two people the school bully couldn’t completely intimidate. You see, Chuck and I had discovered the solace of the private joke. Whenever I’d think of something funny and let myself go with it, laughing privately, the scary old world would turn and leave me alone. Chuck would come along and see me shaking with laughter for no apparent reason and he’d start in laughing as well. I might stop and watch him, but not for long, because the sight of him laughing would have me join him. No words, just looking at one another and perhaps pointing with one hand while holding our sides with the other. Anything could trigger it at any moment.
First time it happened in the classroom we were seated next to each other. With sideways glances, we were laughing spastically and silently while the teacher was doing her job. She stopped talking and just watched us. We grew silent but not for long, the laughing burst out again. Think of it like hiccups. Once we started, together, we just could not stop. Got so bad that sometimes it was hard to breathe – which we thought was, of course, pretty darned funny.
So that first time the teacher sent us to visit the principal. We sat in his office, heads down, as he lectured us about how disruptive and disrespectful we were being to the teacher. That struck us as odd. Was that the reason we’d been sent to the principal’s office? I certainly didn’t mean to be disrespectful to the teacher, I had a crush on her and loved being in her classroom. ‘It must have been Chuck’ I thought as I turned and pointed at him … and saw that he was pointing at me and we burst out laughing again. When I was able to look up I saw that the principal was trying not to smile. With a phony, gruff voice he said, “now that’s enough of that. The two of you go sit quietly in the hall until I tell you its ok to go back to class.”
Our offense had been laughter … at the wrong time.
So after school, leaving to walk the short distance home, I overheard something troubling and went around the corner to find Chuck being held by two kids while the school bully was jabbing his chest and taunting him. Chuck had that silly, the joke is all mine, smirk on his face and I couldn’t help myself, I just burst out laughing – which of course got Chuck started. Danny, the bully, wheeled around and snarled ‘what are you laughing at butt face?’ But I couldn’t muster any ‘respect’ … or fear, I just kept on laughing and pointing at Chuck. To which Danny threw up his hands as if to say ‘I’m done with you turkeys’ and walked off. I went with Chuck to the bus. He got in and sat at a window where he could see me. I looked at him and again busted out laughing. The bus drove off and I walked home, happy as a lark.
Next day the teacher figured she had to do something so she put Chuck up at the front left desk, by her. And she had me seated far back right corner. It helped, some, but for all of that year the rest of the students would steer clear leaving us alone with our insane laughing. Doubtless they thought we were crazy,
Laughing with Chuck, me and him – two ten year old boys: as we’d cross the playground we could feel the whole world spinning around us. We weren’t spinning, the world was spinning as we stood in place. We were protected and centered, focused on all that made us laugh. We weren’t dizzy, that sensation that comes when your own head wobbles and spins and whirls around. Dizzy is when balance and focus are impossible, makes you feel sick like you have some sort of Whirling disease. We were protected by our mirth – and by our focus.
That young I just figured this was the way life was supposed to be. You had one special friend that you laughed with til your sides hurt. Then he and his family moved away and I lost my friend. But I still knew how to laugh, even by myself. It has always served me well.
That was 61 years ago. I remember it now because I am trying to understand what is happening in the world and whether or not my life has been a waste? Whether or not I have spent all these years with my head in a hole, protected by my own private jokes? Can too much insulation separate us from life’s forces? But wait… how can focus separate us from life? At this stage of the game I say we, most of mankind, are separate from life because we have lost our focus.
Consider this. Mankind is at war with biological life and it can’t go on. People and the planet, both sides are losing the war. Something must be done immediately. We need to work out a peace settlement between humans and the natural world. Here’s an idea, let’s call it The Jimmy Red Grits Accord.
I just want to farm. Don’t bother me with that other stuff.
While it is true that you as farmer ARE the solution; like it or not, that other stuff is coming to take you off your farm. Good farming, traditional farming, is the working union between people and biological systems. Good farming is a peacemaker between people and nature. Good farming engenders good humor. Good farming can be an equalizer, rendering the poorest folks security and the wealthiest folks balancing purpose. Social scientists, economists, historians, bio-engineers, psuedo-environmentalists, political pundits, some comic book artists, most realtors, land use planners, landscape architects, software monkeys, real estate moguls, sportscasters, et al, they badmouth anything which stands in the way of their notions of profitable progress, that most definitely includes traditional farming.
For government, big business, and the idle rich, traditional farming is a nuisance, an embarassement, a problem, a thorn. Something to be done away with. It starts with societal embarrassement, moves to corporate nuisance and quickly, in the eyes of our erstwhile justice system, becomes criminal mischief; a property crime punishable in most states by up to ten years in prison. We are told farming is for qualified professionals, not for mom and pop amateurs. The argument is not about industrial agribusiness versus organics, or traditional farming methods or appropriate scale – all notions which can be tailored by the language police to satisfy today’s discombobulated folks – its about notions of professionalism. That’s what they say, that’s what they want you to believe. ‘Food production should not be the hands of the naive, the quirky, the financially insolvent’ – so they say. Anyone insisting on milking a couple of cows, or a handful of goats, or raising two dozen hens for eggs, or two acres of hay, or a quarter acre of grain, is nuts. Or, if they do it deliberately, just plain mischieveous – perhaps criminally so.
I just want to farm. Don’t bother me with that other stuff.
Who’s going to protect your right to farm? Most people thirty years ago still had a lingering appreciation for the old general farm, for self-sufficient farming, for the notion that a hardworking family could honorably, intelligently and diligently build a successful productive human-scale growing operation in perfect harmony with the earth and the seasons. And that such folks were to be valued members of society.
Right before our eyes that is changing. From the mirrored vantage point of a driverless car’s heated seats massive chunks of human endeavor, artistry and membership are being assigned extinction. Go to your digitized GPS system and type in the address for a life worth living – it’s like dividing by zero, you can’t get there from here because there is no ‘here’ here.
These new age, digitized, virtual-reality dependent humans are stuck, whirling and dizzy numb, in a hall of mirrors of their own construction.
Mirrors, curious things those. Mirrors; they reflect, they refract, they reverberate. As an old man I have noticed that I, and other old people I know, use mirrors with great caution and care. Recently one of my friends looked up at me and said “good looking beard Miller” and then reacted by stroking his own haired chin. Thinking he was alone in the moment, my friend went round the corner and snuck up sideways on one of his wall mirrors hung, I noticed, at chest height. He quickly peaked down and in at his beard, careful not to make eye contact with his own reflection. He was checking on his own beard, successful in not seeing his self, successful in not allowing himself to reverberate.
We look in mirrors to see what is behind us or sideways, it is in that way a useful tool. We look in mirrors carefully for an extension of our vision. When we look directly into our own eyes, and at our own visage, many of us experience a curious sensation deep in our chest, it is as if we are trussed and carried off. Isn’t this the very reason we feel compelled to make faces at our selves?
Actors and politicians learn early on that they must harden their hearts so that they might withstand the stage, which is but a phantasmogorical mirror. It becomes the job of those on stage to know exactly how they look so that they might then alter that appearance to positive or useful effect. But this alteration is a bargain with the ‘devil’, they barter away something important when they win this staring contest with themselves.
I maintain it is no accident that the loveliest among us do not know what they look like. They do not look at themselves in mirrors. They look at themselves, instead, in the eyes of those living breathing humans they interact with. It is also no accident that there are so few narcissistic farmers.
The times changed, and now they are changing again. Droves of people are returning to ways that give them back their identities. I feel those ‘returnings’ are out of necessity, need, compunction. Were I an investing man I darn sure would not put any money on the future of social networking, artificial intelligence (aptly named, no?), nor the cosmetics of genetic engineering. A lot of money will be lost in those ventures in the very near and confusing future. Instead I would invest in humor, the best seeds, dirt away from prying pocketbooks, and clothes that suit open gratitude. And the only return I would accept is good heart. Time for The Jimmy Red Grits Accord.
Speaking of good heart; the very best teachers are always examples of good heart. It is a shame that schools public and private rarely have room for them. I have heard tell of private tutors being pressed by so many demands to teach young people how to read, how to do numbers in their heads, and how to write cursive or long hand. When these new chaperoned underground students also learn to milk cows, plow a field, gather seed and mend their own garments many kleptomaniacal politicians will shrivel and compost along with corporate board members.
The times changed, and now they are changing again.
A man came to my office with a photograph of an old tractor. He had tried to sell that tractor for three years, employing free internet advertising listings, social networking, on-line auction services and paid advertising. It was a good, small, older cultivating tractor suitable for market gardeners and small farmers. The price he wanted was fair. But he had no takers. He wanted to advertise in this magazine. He came to find us, made the effort. I took it as a sign and an indication. At a loss to us I gave him the name of someone who needed his tractor. This other man had looked high and low for a good smaller cultivating tractor and couldn’t find one for sale in his area, the same region as the first man.
Those systems and networks of advertising and outreach which had been in play for decades had disappeared. No local advertising, bulletins boards or auction events could be found. They had peeked into the sphere of the internet, and yet both men refused to invest time, energy and expectations there. Need I observe that both men were over forty years old? Need I point out the obvious disconnect?
A local farmer had butcher-ready, all natural, hogs to sell. He even had a cut and -wrap service on stand by. Time was when he had people waiting in line for the meat, now the buyers seemed to disappear. He knew that wasn’t true, buyers were out there. He figured he needed to find another way to get the word out to folks that he had pork to sell. But the local newspaper’s classified ads had dwindled to nothing and no one went there anymore. The nickel-ad publications had shriveled to real estate and car ads because no folks went there either. And the free internet listing sites had become bizarre fourth-dimension garage sales with creeps lingering on the edges to take advantage of folks.
An exercise club with a hundred members, under the close supervision of a health and fitness coach, had identified that all natural/organic meats, fruits and vegetables were essential to their diet regime. Individually these members were paying high prices for the meat through natural food stores. They were buying small quantities and suspected that if they went together en masse, and could find a trustworthy direct source for the meat in bulk, they’d be better off. A sign?
A farmer had raised and trained a team of two year old Belgian cross fillies. She, the farmer, had always planned to sell this young team as she had more foals on the way plus two excellent teams of mares working. But she knew that she had to find the right people to sell that team to or the full value would not be realized on either end. On the one hand, she wouldn’t get her price and, on the other hand, they, the new owners, might not be equipped to appreciate and utilize the phenomenal young horses – might not be equipped to husband that team to its fullest potential. But all the old stand-by options of places to sell her fillies had seemed to disappear. She refused to advertise online, she wouldn’t subject herself to the process. All her instincts told her the internet was a swirl of organized and disorganized crime folded in with tragic neediness and basement creepiness. She wanted her young team to be advertised directly to just the right crowd of prospects, serious work horse folks. She remembered fondly when, a dozen years past, she could attend meetings and field day events of the local draft horse club to meet prospective buyers for her young horses. But those clubs had dwindled as digital screens had replaced face to face contact.
Perhaps it was how the internet and electronic media had succeeded in giving people a notion that they could ‘connect’ with folks a long ways distant? That an aspiring Arizona farmer could, via the digital universe, ‘chat’ with the Nova Scotian dreamer and the South African herdswoman and feel a warm, if wholly synthetic, rush of belonging to ‘this’ group. Afterall, there is safety in this plastic sphere of communication, this hall of mirrors, because each individual can believe in their own authority and impact without the pain of real consequence. But there is nothing safe about it. It drains everyone of their self worth and identity.
The time is running out for arguments about what is wrong with society, running out or perhaps it has played out. Most reading folks now get what’s wrong. What they sometimes don’t get are useful possible solutions, or examples of what needs to happen. I spoke today on the phone with Lance Ring from Indiana – he knows of things which work. He’s on a first name basis with his beloved 278 organic heirloom apple trees. He spoke enthusiastically of his gratitudes for the neighboring community from which come the individuals to purchase Cortland baking apples, and from which come Amish children to visit and help with farming, also comes the community farrier, and come so many others adding a wide array of security and strength, poetry and fertility – a sense of glad belonging.
And I spoke with seventy nine year old Melvin Magnuson of Idaho who relayed his concern that what we old timers sometimes take for granted, the skills and expectations that fill our every day, are ways of working which may be passing away. His concern that people will lose the knowledge, for example, of how to put up hay loose. As an aside he mentioned that a man from Russia came to visit him, wanting to learn how to do some traditional farming. And that man quickly came to be astonished observing “you do the work of a hundred Russian farmers!” I could feel in Mr. Magnuson’s voice and words that this Idaho farmer’s work was nothing more or less than what he knew as necessary and possible and desired. For he was truly glad, just as Lance Ring, to do what he does every day. Here are two good-humored men at working peace with nature.
But most of mankind is at war with biological life. Molecular biology is being disparaged at every turn of the corporate cash-register handle. And biological systems are being ‘re-calibrated and morphed’ into degraded and diminishing (though highly profitable) support infrastructure and products for city dwellers…. And artificial? I say we don’t need bitcoin, we need dirtbucks, and we need The Jimmy Red Grits Accord.
When we meet in person, those of us humans who still occasionally get out and about in public, the conversations invariably turn to weather or sports or Armageddon. Nice sandwich that? Once upon a time it was out of our direct control, now weather is being gassed by our industries and burned by our overpopulation. Weather now has become a wild set of time bombs. And Armageddon, or the biblical end times as some are want to think of them, is now seen as a possible consequence of a growing, nasty, acid stew of human nest-violation, assuring mankind’s demise through whirling and wasting. Between those two toxic slices of bread we place spectator sports. Hmmm?
For the sake of profit, power, and convenience, men and women are continuing to wreck havoc with biological systems, geological tectonics, and the climate to a hideous and deadly degree.
We need a battalion of farmer-diplomats, people whose entire beings are synchronized with biological life, even while they engage the new underground economics – the new dirtbucks. For these people are the best hope to work out a humor-filled peace settlement between the new ‘Homo Qui Legit’ (formerly Homo Sapiens) and the planet Earth, that glorious manifestation of the most ancient formulas of biological life.
I argue that humans have morphed, right before our eyes, from intelligent beings, sometimes excelling in physical and spiritual communion with nature, to distraction-slaves excelling in mind games, virtual realities and meanness. Looking back at theories of evolution, there are those who believe that when we don’t use certain features/ aspects of our bodies and minds those features/aspects gradually disappear or shrink dramatically. Think about it, soon the hands and arms of Homo Qui Legit will shrink like those of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, because they’ll only need little arms and tiny hands to work their ‘smart’ phones and ipads. It’d be funny if it weren’t so tragic.
We want things to be funny, and never more than when exhausted by tragedy and failures. Laughter has a way of pulling us up out of our funk and setting us free.We want to see the benign humor in things because it holds us firm while spinning the world around us. And good gentle humor, when you feel it, wants to be followed, pursued, held on to, repeated. Chuck would laugh, I would laugh, and whatever brought it on we’d repeat. We’d reach out to grab hold of it so it wouldn’t leave too quickly. It would invariably set us on our way. Which is exactly what we need of life, to be set on our way, to have purpose and enjoy the lift of good humor in work.
Jimmy Red Corn was a legendary staple of deep south, moon-shiner corn whiskey, lending as they say tones and flavors to the brew (these negated the need to add additional flavoring). Jimmy Red just naturally lent humor to whiskey. It was also told that Jimmy Red Corn made the absolute best grits for the very same reason.
But the world very nearly lost Jimmy Red. Not so long ago one old moon-shiner, on his death bed, handed over the last two known ears of Jimmy Red to a friend and said plant these and keep the seed, save Jimmy Red. The heir did that, and handed the seeds on to proper believing hands and the result is that these last three years have seen the chance at salvation for this heirloom variety. Now a small distillery is making Jimmy Red whiskey and high end southern restaurants are featuring grits from the good kernels. Half a dozen folk saw the value, the worth, in the plant and, with clear purpose, set out to give it a future. Without any real planning, these corn saviors worked in accord for the shared goal, to make sure Jimmy Red seed corn would be available for the future.
In honor to that success and the scale and nature of that endeavor, might I suggest that we farmers continue our work finding our own equivalents to Jimmy Red corn, be it livestock varieties, or ways of farming, or particular crops, or an attitude about sharing habitat with wildlife, or ? And, without legislation or governance we continue adding to the mix of all those similar efforts? It might be useful to think of it all as a wave of beneficial human-stance, we’d have our Jimmy Red Grits Accord. The slow sure guerilla tactic to bringing humanity and nature back together.
There are new developments afoot. I keep bumping into people who are looking to sell something, or find something, or locate a piece of information or share a discovery – directly. They don’t want to use the internet, for various reasons. They are looking for ways to advertise to people in their own communities, they are looking for products and services near to them, they want to talk with someone who can show them how to do a particular job, and they want to tell folks that they found a way to get something done that works and works well.
Time was when the term underground economy meant something devious even dishonest. We used to think of the underground economy as that criminal shadow world of barter and cash transactions frequently employed by fringe, if not outright criminal, elements in society. That’s not the case any longer. Millions of people are finding ways to connect and exchange directly with others who have legitimate and needed products and services. And those connections are more often than not made without the internet. But most important, those connections are made out of a natural drive to survive. For ‘ordinary’ folk the mainstream, bank-oiled economy does not work. Ordinary people are hungry, worried, cold, homeless, disconnected, and forgotten. Perhaps the luckiest segment of ordinary people are the farmers who at least know how to take care of themselves, how to fix things, grow food, heat themselves, plan for gain, prepare for shortages, laugh at themselves and revel in the obvious goodness around them. They are all part of The Jimmy Red Grits Accord whether they realize it or no.
Have we entered the last days of the age of personal advocacy? Terrible if so. I, in my advancing age, watch with unhappiness as we lose our doctors, our lawyers, our farmers, our book-keepers, our consulting friends, our community leaders and examples – lose them to the inexorable accounting of time. Those advocates who were always there to step between us and the on-coming boogey men, hand flat ahead saying ‘no you don’t, not with my friend.’ The doctor saying thus to a medical establishment bent on billable amputations, the lawyer saying thus to opposing counsel’s billable rush to judgement, the community leader saying thus to the whirling local mobs of decorum. And equally so, I watch with horror as we lose our poets, philosophers, spiritual leaders, artists and, yes, our farmers – for they are all advocates for the natural world, for health and for the exaltations of people.
The new snide critics-without-portfolio mutter the same dismissive phrase over and over again “oh, get over yourself.” without a passing thought to holes pierced in our collective humor.
I learned well over a half century ago, learned with my buddy Chuck Wells, that we should never ever get over ourselves. Instead we need to give ourselves over to Jimmy Red grits. Instead we need to give ourselves over to love and beauty and all those amazing fragile fertile private jokes. Can you hear Chuck and I laughing? LRM