by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
Proof Against the Weight
It was warm for a March Saturday, warm except for the crisp intermittent breeze. I started the day by filling two temporary water troughs for the pasturing cattle and horses. The tanks we normally use are filled from the irrigation well but a Raven had committed suicide atop the power pole and the resulting short circuit had fried an electrical transformer. The power company said it would be a couple of weeks before we got juice back to that pump. So we’re using a yard hose today to fill the temporary tanks. As is commonly if wryly observed, “that’s farming.”
After taking hay to the shut-ins, three horses, I took Lucky, the Australian Shepherd, and my fence tools up to where the night marauding Elk had destroyed a corner of the fence. They would be back and tear it down again. And I will return to patch it again until we can figure out why the Elk’s migration has been disrupted, holding them in and near the ranch all around the year. Last summer one hundred Elk ate half the hay crop. It was too expensive for us. One of many problems which cascaded down over us from late summer through to early this year.
I’m thinking about this later in the day as I walk across the 80 acre hay field retrieving pieces of broken wheel-line irrigation pipe which came loose of its moorings and rolled, pushed by winds up to 50 mph, until it hit trees, power poles and/or the cross fence. It will take time and money to repair it all. The cost of doing business.
But I can’t think too hard on it because it’s such a beautiful day and the soft lift of the awakening soil is a joy under foot. The smell says it’s time to work the soil. I get down on hands and knees and comb the fallow ground with my fingers. I ball up the sandy loam and open my hand shaking it to feel the grains fall between my fingers. We are most fortunate to have our time on this splendid tract of mysterious fertile stony desert dirt. Tired from moving the pipe, I head to the house for a sandwich and a cup of coffee.
The next job on my list is to fix the jack on the front of my flatbed trailer. Seems something must have broke for it to fall off its blocking. I’ll need this trailer to begin moving stuff to the rodeo grounds as our auction and swap meet is in a little more than a month from this writing. The trailer has some old rotten hay bales piled on it that I’ll have to remove to a good spot.
At the trailer I find that the jack is okay and from the tracks I figure out that Elk have been crowding around the trailer to chew on the bad bales, probably the first time back in January when we were snowed in. They might have rubbed it off its jack block. It’s an easy job to use the handyman jack and get the trailer up where I can hook it to the back of my pickup truck. I am thankful that in this case it’s not the big problem I had originally thought it would be.
The breeze kicks up and I lift my head to it and smile when I feel the cold shaft of air whistle through the gap in my teeth. Again, as with countless times before, I thank goodness that I am alive and my eyesight is intact. I remember through a rush of returning physical sensations to the Fall and that confusing day of emergency surgery.
(Then I skip further back to last August and remember how, while fixing a hay field fence, I woke up face down in the grass without a clue as to what happened and how I got there.)
After the surgery, the doctor said I must have had that abscessed root canal for at least seven or eight years for the problem to have traveled so far in, through and past the bone. He said he was surprised I could still see, that I felt no pain, that I was still alive. He was not surprised that I had passed out. I had thought for months that the stiffening of the muscles around the eye and up the right side of my face was just part of aging. I had no idea.
Three months after the operation, the extracted tooth, the mouth full of stitches, the bone graft and the empty bank account, the surgeon pronounced the procedure a resounding success. I feel great, broke but great, far better than I felt for months before the procedure and purely glad to be alive.
I haul the trailer with the bad bales to the north shore of what we call ‘desolation pond’, named that because livestock grazing has stripped its banks of any vegetation. I spread the flakes of moldy hay in a thick mulch along the upper bank where I intend to plant grasses, cattails and shrubs as a habitat belt for wildlife. While there I rethink how the proposed fence will go, thinking that a wide spot around the old Juniper tree might be encircled by poplars and shrubs and in that way make a good viewing blind for watching the snow geese, the merganzers, the mallards, the bald eagles, the herons, the mule deer, and the coots. I’m excited about the project and the discussions we are having with our neighbors about forming the non-profit organization to formalize what has been happening on the ranch towards wildlife habitat enhancement and applied research.
Larry and Sue drive by on their daily round to their quail test sites, where they will check the traps and put out more feed. Don and Jim called yesterday to say that it was time to put out some new Kestrel hawk nest boxes and would Scout and Kristi like to go along.
I unhook the trailer near the shop and go inside to work on a disc harrow for the auction. Even when it’s a mess, like today, I get comfort from my shop, the tools, the projects waiting so patiently for my time. The space is a small safe haven, not as intensely personal but much the same as my painting studios are. And as anxieties mount, with this last season’s financial, physical, family, and weather-related struggles making the winter journal late and stripping us of the hopes we had for winter farm preparations, I need safe havens. I need those direct uncomplicated, mind settling little jobs which offer up small rewards upon completion.
Weather inviting, I take a chair from the shop and move it outside to sit and work on a tangled pile of baling twine. The shop building shelters me from the cold breeze and the sun hits me square. The warmth is what I like to think of as a drawing warmth. I see the horses and the cattle standing and on the ground, muscles limp, soaking in the penetrating rays. The dogs are spread out flat on their sides, noses pointed away from the body, legs spread, so that a maximum area is exposed to the sun. The peacocks are spread out as well, not for the warmth but to take advantage of how the early spring sun makes their magnificent tails shimmer. When the cold is invasive, the animals and humans hunker down turtle-like, shoulders up and limbs close in. With the first fresh warmth of early spring we mammals unfurl ourselves and stretch out much like the emerging new plant. The warmth draws us out from our winter curl and huddle.
I am sitting on an old metal folding chair, leaning back with cap cocked even further back on sweaty hair and brow, legs stretched out forward as far as they can go. I pull loose one cut length of baling twine at a time and tie an end of it by square knot to another length. In this way I am making one long twine I might use for various purposes, perhaps to trellis beans or peas in the garden. The warm sunlight, the birds spring chatter, the resting muscles, the resting brain, the slow methodical finger work are calming. I am able in this moment to reflect on the recent past and to project thoughts forward to how we’d like to see the near future. And all of it is a model for what our difficult days most require. Calm reflection, positive outlook and steady small steps forward. Often easier thought than done.
I think about how the true economy of the nation has put a tourniquet on the budgets of so many friends, out of work – less work – more financial pressures. We are told that inflation is at a standstill but that doesn’t ring true when gasoline hits 2+ dollars a gallon, steel & lumber prices soar, and electricity bills keep climbing. Most of us struggle to get by on less. I wish I had the means today to help my son as he manages valiantly his new difficult world of single dad. He’ll make it, he’s strong and two year old Eva is the ultimate incentive. We work at finding creative ways to help them. I smile a familiar father’s smile when my thoughts move on to Juliet and her many successes with theater and career. And I chuckle as my twine fixing reverie is interrupted by a scream of “watch this one Dad!”
Scout goes wizzing by on her bicycle, shoulders down low and forward face up flat to the oncoming air, arms bent up at the elbows bug-like, as her little legs pump the pedals for all they are worth. She navigates a quick turn around a puddle in the dirt road, manages a tight figure eight, and just when it seems she has pulled off her trick, falls over with her bicycle into a clump of grass. The look on her face is one of surprised disappointment. She gets up slow and offers “I’m okay.” Two children in their late twenties and one not yet ten and me better cut out to be an uncle than a father, a friend rather than a guardian, a playmate rather than a model.
She walks her bike over to me. “That was a good trick honey, sure looked scary, did you hurt yourself?”
“Yeah, see.” She points to a red elbow.
“Whaddaya doin Pop?”
“Untangling this string and tieing it into one long string.”
“How come? Don’t you usually just throw it away?”
“Today, honey, I feel like sitting here and making something useful from this pile.”
“Oh… Watch this one!” and she races off, elbow forgotten, to threaten the laws of physics one more time.
As I watch her, my face swells up with gratitude and I think how fortunate we are to be living here right now. I think about the challenges of millions of children and families in Rwanda, Iraq, the Gaza strip, the ghettos of Baltimore, Afghanistan, and countless other struggling corners of the world. I think about fathers whose children have been killed or maimed. I think about children whose fathers have disappeared forever. We are fortunate to live here, but I am conflicted by my worries that we are dangerously complacent, we are so disconnected from the terrible suffering of millions, perhaps billions of fellow humans.
I shake my head and look straight up at the blue sky struggling to focus. We’ve had a bad winter but it was nothing, NOTHING, compared to what so many have withstood. And that is the word which shifts me and my perspective, WITHSTOOD.
I like the word and its suggested meanings and I promise myself to look it up in the dictionary later.
I reach for a short piece of discarded doweling and I tie the end of my string to it. I then wind the string into a ball on the stick, alternating the wrap to amuse myself. My thoughts shift to a quote I have hanging on my computer screen at the office.
“Ask that your own life have a meaning” Albert Camus
And I embarrass myself thinking that because of the little positive things that have been accomplished with this Journal, our lives do have meaning. Feeling that compressed air of self-congratulation rush in I struggle to let it out. With this publication and its resultant community of readers, we had fate design a magnificent opportunity and lay it before us and, truth be known, I have done my work in less than half measure and must be very careful to permit us to claim too much credit. But that confession does not let all the air out. It can’t because it is true. We do feel validation, we do feel good about what we have done. Twenty-eight years of a constant soft drum beat for small farms and great working partnerships with the equine, yeah that’s one good, small thing.
But far and away more important has been this thing we have all built together. This tight knit, far flung community of contradiction and commonality: Of differing opinions, differing outlooks, differing dreams and common values: This community of affirmation and shared wonder: This group of people who together insist, against cultural and market pressures – against political propaganda, that their working lives matter in joyously pervasive ways. We work at living and we live at working. And we care about how others of us fare. We talk with one another, sometimes silently through wishes, prayers, muttered arguments, hopes, tears and laughter. We feel the others, no matter how far away they may be – no matter how unknown they are, we feel them just over our shoulders as we work in field, shed, corral, garden, and barn. And we take comfort from each other in this and other ways. It does matter that others are doing what we do. It does matter that they have failed or succeeded and just how that has happened. It does matter that they know we are here just as we know they are there. When Gene Collins of Wisconsin writes in to us, “We have been on this farm for 55 years and have a very contented life,” we all share in that absolute triumph. When others write in of terrible loss or tragic setbacks we all share in those moments. When someone tells us of an adventure with raising pheasants or breeding on the farm for a new strain of plant, many of us tingle with our own ‘some day’ projects.
So it is not far fetched that we actually come to see in this fabric of connections a better world, happier safer people, better food, soils ripening beyond scientific measure, livestock blooming, cleaner air and water, and each kitchen the center of the universe. It is not far fetched to see this community as a source of a drawing warmth which would cause us to unfurl like a new plant growth.
This publication fits into that picture of community in a fragile, tenuous possibly important way. I liken it to the old children’s homemade phone, where two empty soup cans are attached by a length of string. Stretched taut, one can is held to a child’s ear while fifty feet away, at the other end, the second child speaks into the open end of the other can. They alternate listening and speaking, the sound traveling through and down that string to the resonating can. I see this Journal of ours as a web of cans and strings through which thousands of people communicate. It is true that we may eliminate the web of cans and strings, or the Journal, and that the community of individuals will remain. It is also true that other media and systems exist and will continue to be developed to provide additional ways for these people to connect. But I believe our connection with and through this Journal provides a positive expansive aspect to our collective identity.
Fragile though it may be, I cannot let go of the conviction that this publication is incredibly important for each and every one of us. These first 110 issues, and 28 years, have been mind boggling (at least my mind is boggled) but they are just a beginning, just a front porch to what can be achieved, what should be striven for.
Even with the accomplishments of this last quarter century of the Journal, there are failures which need to be addressed. I, we, worked over these last twenty years to keep the business of this Journal small. We believed that it was essential not to have a readership so large, an editorial process so extensive, and a staff so numerous that a family could not manage the operation day to day. We thought this was the way to have time to farm, to write, to do our art work and publish. We did little or no advertising to garner new subscribers, we trusted that you readers would pass on the word to folks (and you have) and that this would stabilize our circulation. Though this managerial philosophy served us personally to some extent, when we look at what was best for this publication we see we may have been wrong. Wrong on both sides of the equation. We now know that in order to have time for our other related pursuits of farming and writing we need to grow the business so that additional new people may be afforded to help us with the Journal, to help the Journal and protect her for the future.
We owe it to this business, the future of the Small Farmer’s Journal, and to you, to get this important little publication into the kitchens of as many people, worldwide, as we can. We’ve been hiding her, this publication, for too long.
These ideas and values belong to the future as much as they belong to this day. I have often felt dizzy when told that young adult readers of SFJ grew up with the publication, that it was present in their parents home even before they themselves were able to read it. There are children today who may, in another 28 years, feel the same heritage and connection to this publication and, more important, to its community of readers. I believe it is worth a great deal to give that a chance of happening.
If this publication and its support business grows, retaining the philosophy which has guided and shaped it for 28 years, we will be able to afford additional editors, business managers, and support staff. I’ll need to move over and let go, of more or less of the business and editing. I am selfish and I would like to stay on at least writing for, designing and putting together the Journal. Perhaps, with the changes we see as inevitable I will be permitted that luxury, perhaps not. That’s not really important, what is important is that this publication and WE as its community continue strong, solvent, and fertile. We must continue to oppose those cultural and economic forces which would destroy or alter our support community and our values. We must withstand.
I looked up the word and found this limited definition in my old dictionary:
Withstand. To stand against; to oppose or resist, with either physical or moral force; specif., to be proof against the weight, pressure, influence, etc., of, as, to withstand the force of a storm; to withstand ill fortune.
I was somewhat disappointed because I had begun to feel the word differently in its parts and possibilities. “With” and “Stand.” When we have withstood I feel as though we have prevailed, survived, succeeded, rather than to have, in a competitive sense, won against something or someone. I am drawn to the part about being proof against the weight. We Millers have withstood this challenging Winter. We the journal readership have withstood 28 years in partnership with this glorious publication. And we have done it purely together. And that we is a sum which extends backwards and forward, a sum which is more than its parts.
When you address a fellow reader with the query, “did you read the article on page 52 of the latest Journal?” you have allowed this publication and its content to expand your sharing. It may be a case of a new agrarian math where one and one makes five or six. And it is this possible multiplication factor of addition which should interest us as the individual parts of a collection of readers. For it is this which gives us our strongest shot at growth and subsequent fertility for the Journal.
While speaking to a couple of dear friends the night before last, she turned to her husband and said, “Honey we know at least six people who ought to be reading this magazine, it would change their lives! How do we do that, how do we get them to start reading it?” And he responded, “Lynn can’t keep giving the magazines away for free in hopes that people might someday pay for them, we’ve got to talk them into subscribing or start them out ourselves. We could do that, we could get one or two subscriptions say for Sally and George and let them know they are on their own after that.”
Ah, I thought, but they wouldn’t be on their own after that, they’d be part of us, part of the we which, as it grows in number, grows in hope and future. As we see and feel our numbers grow it will draw us out, like that drawing warmth of spring I spoke of earlier, to our larger, looser-limbed, more positive selves. To see a better future, a well lit tomorrow, a happy outcome, a full barn, the perfect rainfall, a bountiful garden; to see these things out ahead of us is to enjoy the pursuit. And to see these things together, whether or not it is through the pages of something like this publication, is to feel energized and more capable.
Even with a positive outlook it is highly possible, within a life and a living, that there are spans of time, or short spells, when a person or a family can feel buried by a pile up of unexpected, unpleasant, tedious, difficult, threatening and destructive events. Buried and alone. Challenges which can bring a person or a family to its knees, challenges which work to destroy any positive outlook. For some of us it may seem it’s the rule rather than the exception. But all things change, and we must see the better future. We must have faith that better is always possible. Let other people in to walk alongside.
Farming is an enterprise which rides on faith. It is an ingredient in that difficult to explain mix of motivation and appreciation which permits the hope of farming. We go on blind faith that there will be a spring which is conducive to field work, we go on blind faith that moisture and sunlight will combine in good measure to bring us our crops. For those of us who are farmers, but of course for all human beings, so much depends on a positive view of the possible and a belief in our inherent abilities to be a beautiful living proof against the weight.
I am startled from my weighty reverie by my daughter’s words.
“Dad, did you see it!? I went all the way up past Roo’s pen and up that rock! My bike was in the air! And I didn’t crash! Did you see it?”
“Honey, You are incredible. I am sorry I missed seeing it with my eyes but I could sure see it inside my mind as you described it. Let me try it once?”
“Okay, but be careful Dad, it’s scary and you have to hit that flat rock just right…”
Please excuse me folks, I need to go prove myself against this new challenge. LRM