The key to most of Ben Green’s stories is meeting a stranger on the way to or from somewhere new and strange. Is this a friend, an adversary, a rival in an elaborate charade? A farmer down on his luck, or a fellow trader addicted to the thrills and rewards of sharp practice? Green has the knack of traveling incognito, of gaining valuable information by sharing meals and swapping favors.
This past year like most shut-ins I’ve had time to read, write and sit quiet, but little met my need to face some ugly truths and quiet our political and social demons, until I came across this 2007 novel set in the Civil War, a ruggedly chiseled but beautifully rendered piece called COAL BLACK HORSE, by Robert Olmstead. The main character is a 14 year-old backcountry boy whose mother has a premonition, sends the boy to find his father and bring him home. They live in the Appalachian mountains, farming a high remote ridge in what is now West Virginia. The boy’s father has enlisted in the Union Army, and neither Robey Childs nor his mother Hettie knows where he is. But Hettie has heard that Stonewall Jackson has been killed, and her troubled visions and dreams lead her to send her boy out on this vague lifesaving quest.
Burnout is common to idealists who invest deeply in their dreams. It is easy to overreach, and promise more than you have to give. Then too there is that tempered hidden anchor called hope, the mountain climber’s friend driven into cracks to belay and secure him as he goes, which still may fail first or last. So following the story that underlies these essays it is not hard to see how, as Kingsnorth says, finding himself increasingly mired in endless meetings with corporate spokesmen paid to resist him, enough futile effort might lead to despair.
The interwoven human stories in the book hold many surprises, with unlikely heroes and distressingly ordinary villains. I will try not to spill the beans, but the most memorable story for me is a newly met couple who join some environmental activists, and are talked into climbing up into the canopy of an old-growth tree, to halt the clear-cutting of an ancient forest. Expecting to only be up there for four or five days, they are both alarmed and slowly charmed to be marooned 220 feet above the forest floor for a stay that stretches a year, when the beleaguered activists can’t find anyone to replace them.
SFJ Spring 2016 Preview: Edward O. Wilson’s new book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, offers a plan for the problem of species extinction: the dominant species, man, must hold itself back, must relinquish half the earth’s surface to those endangered. It is a challenging and on the face of it improbable thought, expressed in a terse style. But his phrases are packed because the hour is late.
Sure, the hands thought they knew all about broke horses, and green-broke horses, and those that had never felt a rope or bit. Being broke was mostly a deal the horse made with you, some easier than others. If you quit riding them, they got harder to ride till eventually you were back where you started, having to catch and subdue an animal who was far from curious, intent on just running away. Nobody could blame them, and there were only a few tricks — what else but patience to calm their fears, touches and treats to reward their curiosity, and for their ears a nonsense lullaby.
Over 40 years Lynn Miller has written a whole library of valuable and indispensable books about the craft of working horses. He has helped beginners acquire the basics of harnessing and working around horses, and has led those further along to focus on the specific demands of plowing, mowing, haying and related subjects. But, in a fitting culmination, his latest book, The Art of Working Horses, raises its sights and openly ponders secrets at the heart of the work that may over time elevate it to an art.
What happens to this young farmer dropped into a spy thriller without a parachute can’t help but come as a shining surprise. In Miller’s world Nature seems almost to relish its potential to thwart human misdeeds, solve man-made problems and meet human needs — as if human greed and autocratic control were minor failings easily forgiven, as if the whole planet still deserved a many-tongued voice and a diplopod dance to a vast harmonic measure. This is a dark comedy to brighten the night sky, a novel as purgative, a bracing and serious ride.
Gary Paul Nabhan’s book “WHERE OUR FOOD COMES FROM: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine” (Island Press, 2009) is a weighty tome, freighted with implications. But as befits its subject it is also portable and travels well, a deft exploration of two trips around the world, that of the author following in the footsteps of a long-gone mentor he never met, the Russian pioneer botanist and geneticist Nikolay Vavilov (1887-1943).
The margins are where we overlap, where we test our absolutes. Where we touch. Whose land, whose barrier is this? And individual species’ invisible barriers may be stronger than those we erect and repair. I know a farmer who built perfect bluebird houses and screwed one atop every other post around his field. But the bluebirds couldn’t stand to live so close together — no more than three or four of the dozen boxes to a side were ever occupied.
Wouldn’t you know it, right in the middle of all that fixing and building on my new place, somehow tryin’ to make a go of it, make a ranch, out of the blue I met someone, and all the puzzle pieces that hadn’t made sense started to drop into place with not much more than a love-tap. I think that’s how you tell if you’re on the right track, when all at once the hard things start gettin’ easy, and the easy things just kinda sort themselves out. You can get awful tired of protecting and defending yourself, tired of treating folks around you like the strangers they’d rather not be, while you shut yourself off, thinking your own silly thoughts. When you feel yourself open like a plant to the sun after a long hard winter, it’s worth takin’ a look around to see what shined on you, that maybe shook you awake.
The first surprise came in the old barn, which had a huge raised level floor and steel beams that spanned its forty foot width without posts. And on that floor were parked three small bright prop planes. Single-seaters — red, yellow, and blue. A look around told me all I needed to know. With his jigs and jacks, saws and clamps he really had built them right here. Did they all fly? You bet.
Planting, raising and harvesting food has had a long and vigorous literature with two complementary aims – practical knowledge, and what the Captain in the chain-gang movie “Cool-Hand Luke” calls “Getting your mind right.” In that regard a farmer I know says, “If nothing is nibbling your garden, that just means it’s not part of the ecosystem.” Fine classical samples of farming’s philosophical and emotional mindset are to be found in M.D. Usher’s new work of selection and translation: How To Be A Farmer: An Ancient Guide to Life on the Land, A Work of Many Hands.
Mokelumne Hill, the site of our first evening gathering and one of the richest early motherlodes, had been a bustling community of 15,000 by 1850, though its tight little valley overlooked by its eponymous hill, is now home to roughly 800 souls. We drove up and parked in front of the Leger Hotel (built in 1852, and in nearly continual operation since then), and met our hosts, Michael and Diane Kriletich, who were setting up the fundraising dinner for Calaveras Grown, a local farmers’ group, in the town hall across the street. We were quickly involved in a stroll around town with their son, Sean Kriletich, who is a community organizer and self-styled “urban farmer.” We quickly saw why.
This is my third Horse Progress Days, including 2008 in Mount Hope, Ohio, and 2016 in Howe, Indiana. We could note a few trends in a nutshell — how tall draft horses are back, and miniature horses (which are not stocky ponies but perfectly proportioned horses more pleasing to the eye) are being bred to ever more refined and useful conformations. How the current style for most big draft horses is to have their tails severely docked, though the tails of miniature horses are left long. By way of footwear these days there seem to be few of the brightly colored Crocs for the whole family, but gray and black Crocs aplenty. One huge change over three years ago is that here were as many bicycles, with and without baskets and trailers (and some with batteries and motors), as the dark square family buggies drawn by identical lean brown trotters and pacers. Bicyclers include both youthful and older farmers, using this healthy and efficient form of transportation to get around.
Taking us to the dawn of agriculture, where the domestication of animals predated domesticated plants in the middle east by hundreds, even thousands of years, Essig argues that, unlike all other domesticated species with the possible exception of the dog, the pig domesticated itself. As he says, “We might think of the pig as a judicious risk taker, open to the new but capable of assessing potential threats. In that quality, pigs are much like people.” He also points out how pigs “like to watch TV and drink beer, and, given the chance, they tend to grow fat and sedentary.” But how can we even tell the pigs in the village of Hallan Cemi 11,000 years ago were domesticated? Because nearly half of the pig bones found were from animals killed at less than a year old, nearly all of them young males, superfluous for breeding. Animals hunted to feed the village would have been of all ages.
Then, when everyone had about given up twice over, out of what looked like a clear blue sky the rains came. And when the rains came they came hard — it rained a year’s worth in a couple weeks. As with most of the cowhands around here, that first day I just stood out in the rain whoopin’ and hollerin’ and got soaked to the skin. Renaldo and Clyde came out of the bunkhouse to laugh with me or at me, I didn’t care, and we cut a little buck and wing skippin’ around in the puddles. Before I got back in the house, my old everyday boots had about fell apart. But I wasn’t likely to forget, and got busy storing up what I could, and preparing for the next dry spell that might come any minute.
As most of us know, bees swarm — that is, leave the hive en mass — for several reasons. The most common reason is a lack of room to grow, when there are plenty of blooming plants in the vicinity. When bees swarm, they hatch out a new queen and follow her to find a place to build a new hive. By contrast, in Colony Collapse Disorder the bees slip away as individuals, leave their posts and duties, signalling some kind of failure. Perhaps they only leave in a last desperate urge to avoid fouling the nest with their corpses.
Homesteaders drawn to new land were often soon down to guesswork, and learning the hard way. In the early years there had been crop failures and experiments tried that never worked for a minute. The growing season here was short, and the grass wasn’t lush enough even at best for more than a cow to every twenty-five acres. Too many cows on the land might mean the new owner could sell fat cows after a good summer that first year, but then they might starve the next year, on land that had been eaten down to the roots and couldn’t bounce back. Orchards got planted that froze out or were eaten to nothing by deer and elk before they ever bore fruit, by animals that gobbled that tender fruitwood bark like candy.
But what is most notable in this new book is a kind of coming of age saturated deep into its fabric. With age comes outspoken courage, saying your mind, speaking your piece. Former hopes and fears, ambitions and delusions fall away. As the great Irish poet Yeats says, “We wither toward the truth,” and here is truth aplenty. Lynn Miller has always taken his role as editor and spokesman personally, but here are hard subjects coupled with a wide and easy range of expression. Jokes like “She ran like a young widow after a pie thief, with determination and pluck,” jostle in the mind alongside his declaration that he feels “the corrosive constant crawl of evaporating time,” a ferocious and unapologetic mixed metaphor that slides in and sticks. And there is more here of what I can’t help but call courage, as contrasted with something said for its shock value, or as veiled education. Or, Heaven help us, to make a buck.
Coming to more recent times, we might visit a pair of small farmers to whom we owe much. Luther Burbank (1849-1926) and George Washington Carver (1864-1943), were both known for their practical plant and crop innovations. Both have been viewed with skepticism by agricultural academics, dismissed as scientific amateurs since neither kept meticulous notes or conducted formal experiments. Both were too busy garnering practical results. Perhaps their backgrounds will suggest why.
So it might be well to recall national models such as John and Abigail Adams, who when it mattered, knew what to do and did it without fanfare, whether the moment called for defending British soldiers against charges of murder in the Boston Massacre, drafting a state constitution, melting down pewter spoons to cast musket balls—or getting in a hay crop before the rains came. Their values extended beyond expediency and profit to the greater social good.
Not much for romancing Charlie still put on red suspenders and red socks slicked his hair back then fluffed whatall up front he had left into a wave even hung his good hat on a peg to drop by after supper come to find Evaleen alone on her porch swing figured to take this main chance to parcel out his thoughts that had become such a burden like a load of green firewood you need to quit driving around stack some place out of the weather near where you’re fixing to burn
So when he started watching these two horses he’d put out to pasture, he thought he’d better give them more things to look into and mull over. After all, they’d been smart around him, caught onto new things pretty quick, and when he messed up and got them confused they’d seemed forgiving. So at night he started putting things out in their pasture — first was a rusty red pickup with a blown engine.
I’ve got two teams of Belgians that power all the things on the farm. I don’t have a tractor, I don’t have a truck or anything like that. Everything must be done by them. I have two buggy horses that I use for transportation. I have a one-seater buggy for when I’m going into work or into town by myself and then I have a two-seater one for when I’m with the kids.
Somewhere amid the ebbs and eddies of a curious childhood I wondered who Alexander von Humboldt might be. I had noticed all the places named for him, sprinkled on maps of the world, and assumed he was some kind of explorer. It was not till I took up sailing in my late twenties that I learned of the Humboldt Current, a cold nutrient-rich Pacific current known to fishermen from time immemorial, that runs up the coast of South America from Chile to Peru, Ecuador and Columbia.
The lessons of farming are no different from those of any other study. In order to internalize a lesson and make it a skill, you have to go through the motions, and more – you have to grab the business end of the pitchfork, and sense cause and effect to know what it consists of in this new setting, how it operates. So when one seasoned teamster says to another that driving the buckrake is counter-intuitive, it’s a caution and a challenge for both men and horses. And a thing of beauty when horses and teamster catch on, and it works.
As an example of Research & Development, this study is actually an “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment where most farmers already know from experience what the study’s findings will be. The lobbying and advertising dictates of Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill notwithstanding, their products don’t make good economic sense, and haven’t for a long while. Where we find ourselves is eye-deep in Roundup-resistant superweeds, with no easy fixes in sight.
Reynolds’ book offers a treasure-trove of artwork, photos and letters that show how Joe’s friendly contacts grew into an artistic and historical network. As with his entree to Charles Russell, Joe De Yong would introduce himself in an illustrated letter, and engage the stranger with kindred interests. It was an easygoing, direct and generous approach, offering peeks behind-the-scenes into his workshop, for those who might need or want what he had to offer. Joe De Yong quickly became an inveterate and skilled letter-writer, and his letters were a preferred method because of his deafness, where he could unfold an expert understanding, aided by detailed notes and labeled drawings.
I had only been to Horse Progress Days once before, at Mount Hope, Ohio in 2008. It had been an eye-opener, showing how strong and in touch with sustainable farming values the Amish are, and how innovative and sensible their efforts could be. So at the 23rd annual event in Howe, Indiana, I was there partly looking for signs of continuity, and partly for signs of change. Right off I spotted an Amish man with a Blue Tooth in his ear, talking as he walked along.
If they had their druthers, most hands on the place would sit a tall horse and work cows. But there were always those who could farm if they had to, though they might grumble over the plowing and planting and weeding, coaxing things out of the ground, bucking bales. But as Len says, where else will winter hay and oats and feed corn come from — it don’t grow on trees, and whatever you buy, you surrender the profit.
And there we were, in open rolling country a few miles shy of Montgomery, Indiana, approaching Dinky’s Auction Center, the host for this year’s Horse Progress Days. This is the 28th year for the event, missing only 2020, that is rotated through the Amish communities in five states – Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – usually taking place on two days, before the 4th of July. It is an event to showcase the modern utility of animal power in farming, featuring the latest equipment and the best in animal training and performance.
In her new book, Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate, Laura Lengnick assumes a dispassionate, businesslike tone and sets about exploring the farming strategies of twenty-seven award-winning farmers in six regions of the continental United States. Her approach gets well past denial and business-as-usual, to see what can be done, which strategies are being tried, and how well they are working.
In his greatest works — Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi and Huckleberry Finn — Twain offered a contrast and tension between town and countryside, between the web of deals and cons and bustle of activity that the modern world would call decidedly urban, and the hard-scrabble but quiet and ultimately nourishing living on farms. There were four farms that touched Sam Clemens, rural locales that sustained and helped mold him, that reached from his beginnings through the decades of his greatest creative efforts.
from issue: 42-1
…until farmland preservation gets figured out. A pardon for farmland! Amnesty for farmers! And the world court for large banks! Below is a summary from the most recent AFT analysis of the loss of farmland to development. We have asked a few Journal readers and editors to share thoughts on the topic. A conversation with Lynn Miller, Paul Hunter, Shannon Berteau, Klaus Karbaumer, Ryan Foxley, Ken Gies, and Ferrel Mercer representing Oregon, Washington, Missouri, New York, and Virginia.
But then came the oil anyhow. The last of the lots on the far end was bought by a man with two grown sons. He figured all three worked off somewhere in town—little did he know, since they’d paid cash. Big rough old man Maximillian Donnelly and his two big roughneck boys cut of the same cloth, Whit and Brat. When they banged up a house in eight days in one corner of the lot, in a big hurry right through the nights with halogen lights and a boom-box playing Tex-Mex music, right next to the road rather than set back in the middle like all the others going up, he should have known. By the time they moved into the house they already had a drilling rig set up, over the lot’s exact center.
Hardly a soul on my mail route knew I was even a horseman till they saw Ketchum’s tracks that morning breasting thirty-some inches of snow. I hadn’t even known what I was going to do about that much snow when the sun rose on a cloudless dazzling sky, where the valley lay stiff and still. The postal jeep had about sixteen inches of road clearance, and even heading downhill in four-wheel drive had been stopped in a couple car-lengths by its undercarriage packed tight with the white stuff. I’d had to shovel out the worst of it, then saddle and bridle Ketchum anyhow, get a loop on the rear bumper and tow the jeep back into my barn where the town let me park it. The town didn’t own a real shed but the one behind Town Hall where they parked the school bus and snowplow. I’d given Ketchum a couple flakes of hay and broke the ice on his trough then called Hank Overton to find out there’d be no snowplow this morning.