What it takes…

Small Farmer’s Journal

(Farming with Draft Animals)

August 11, 2009, Ukiah Valley, Mendocino, North California

[This is the Editorial in the Spring 2009 issue, from Lynn Miller, Editor and Publisher. For those of us whose grandparents and great grandparents were farmers, and because of distorted US farm policies, find ourselves totally removed from farm life — that would be millions and millions of us — this essay brings us back in touch with the care, beauty, and poetry of true farm life… in these times that try men’s and women’s souls. Amidst the insanity and greed, there are traditions still being lived and written about. Read this and weep for what has been lost. And if there be hope, this is where hope lies. If small farm tradition and sensibility becomes lost, all is lost. -DS]

Some will remember how it was that Dad never explained, just expected you to know. “No, not that way. To the left, to the left! Haven’t you been paying attention?”

Instruction was a ludicrous concept. Water in the nose, fire on the skin, ridicule in the gut, dizzy with pain, nauseous with anxiety, dull with confusion: these were the ways to learn. Those days, for some they may still be today, if you didn’t allow yourself to be pulled along you were left behind. And behind was nowhere, no flow, no connection, no justification, no ladders, no doors, no coupon, no pay, no stay, no return.

“Why would I waste myself explaining to a kid or a greenhorn how the thing is done? It’s an invitation to questions, the answers to which invite more questions. The work doesn’t get done that way. And the kid doesn’t learn that way. They either pick it up or they are out of here! Forgiveness and understanding never got the pig cut and wrapped.”

I wonder if this ‘tough it out’ message isn’t a main reason why so many of us farmers are fiercely independent?

“Nobody held my hand when I learned to work a team.”

Hard to argue with those sorts of valuations of resilience and self-sufficiency. I certainly came from that. But I’ll try to argue nonetheless, because today so many are desperate to know what to do. The collective memories of that other great depression frequently suggests that it took toughness and self-reliance to survive when all else failed. But there is also ample evidence of how it was that communities working together made a very great difference in hope and possibility. Or how ‘extended’ and deep rooted family held together faith.

Bad days at the bank, sad days on the edges of the river. Millions of good people in this country and others have found themselves in the very depths of economic and emotional depression. It has begun to dawn on those of us who thought ourselves immune, resilient, self reliant, that this minus tide IS taking down ALL boats. No amount of pretending, no amount of analytical gymnastics, hides this terrible fact. But that doesn’t stop the opportunistic merchants and priests of denial. Why do I make these observations at this time? What possible good is done by pointing out the painfully obvious? I believe to my core that amidst this depression one of humanity’s greatest enemies is alienation. I don’t mean as in those protectionist tendencies that alienate countries and cultures from one another (bad enough those), I’m speaking of the close-in alienation that breeds unhealthy suspicions and distance between individuals.

“Keep them away. Their problems aren’t ours. We’re clean and strong, they’re living on the river’s edge in a tent. We aren’t like that, we’re clean and strong.”

Wrong. Their problems ARE ours. And you know what? If we could believe that, really act and believe as though we are in this together, their problems would lessen AND the tide would turn. It has nothing to do with commerce, with spending, with government largess. It has EVERYTHING to do with TRUE community. Nothing to do with handouts. Many people know this and act on it daily. The river’s edge is peopled not just with the homeless, it is also regularly visited by folks who care and, regardless of their own personal well being, folks who will stop at nothing when it comes to helping those suffering human beings within their ever widening view.

At the same time, within the wider agricultural community, there is a stiffer, longer held tradition of alienation buried deep within the most ornery and tenacious of farming’s survivors. Some might take offense at my choice of words and prefer to call them fiercely independent. While they are definitely that, I will add that some of those folks bring upon themselves by choice and consequence a very real alienation from other individuals and community effort. But for this discussion I would point out that this world of farming’s independent survivors is a parallel universe which measured against today’s depression shows a curious pattern of weaving trajectories. A pattern which may show us what it takes to build acceptable and revitalizing community.

Long after his physical capacities have dwindled to pain and stiffening, what drives the solitary old man to continue bringing in the handful of Guernsey cows to milk? To laboriously split the piles of perfect kindling and stack so meticulously in the perfect woodshed? To struggle with the anxious young horse in tedious repetitious harnessing? To calmly shoot dead the helpless suffering cow? To stoop and pick the wild flowers for his lonely breakfast table? To disassemble the hydraulic pump for the fourth time, carefully replacing the o-ring? To scratch with pencil stub at the scrap of paper, planning a new cross fence he may never be able to build?

After all, this man does not worry about getting a piece of land to farm, he is beyond that. And this man does not worry about family as his wife is dead and gone and his children are far enough away in their own anxieties and longings to be disconnected. And he does not worry about learning how to farm, something that he absorbed in his dirt-fighting youth. Pulling a red hot chunk of steel from the forge fire, or pulling a struggling calf from its young mother’s uterus, or pulling hay from the mow, or pulling five dollars from his wallet, he doesn’t think much about making his farm pay, that’s behind him now. Eighty five years old, he doesn’t think about not having a retirement account or health insurance. If he worries it is about his cows, who will care for them when he wakes up dead? If he worries it is about his land, who will know what to do with this fragile piece of the planet? If he worries it is about his tools and what they evidence. Who will know how to use the device he invented to pull stuck posts out of the ground? Who will know how to spin the drill press head before starting the motor? Who will forgive the old millstone its dips? Who will keep the wooden handles of his screwdrivers oiled? Who is there to honor the craftsmanship he cultivated for nearly a century? For the only honor craftsmanship can use is that which carries forward with the working.

What pushes the lonely old woman to continue the working of her ramshackle ranch? To stitch together, one more time, the tired corner rock crib? To gulp cold coffee after breathing the ammonia-soaked feed dust of the poultry shed? To shoot dead the errant dogs and bury the tortured pieces of dead lambs? To siphon gas from the tractor to put in the pickup truck? To jack up the long heavy gate and balance for one half hour of juggling frustration just to get it lined up to fall back on to its hinge bolts — a job that could have been done in 20 seconds with one additional pair of helping hands?

After all, this woman owns all of this land. She could sell it tomorrow and live worry free for the rest of her days. Her physical aches and pains, her increasing limitations are each and every one met with the internal shrug of unquestioning dedication and ownership. Even so, she’d love to have someone to share the cold morning sunrises with, someone to laugh with and complain about. Someone who watched and learned without needing to be taught. Otherwise who will honor the craftsmanship she has cultivated for nearly a century? ‘For the only honor craftsmanship can use is that which carries forward with the working.’

…When I was in my 20’s, 30’s and 40’s I was drawn to old folks in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s who by choice were ‘married’ to their handmade lives on the farm, in the woods and at sea. On the surface I noticed the beautiful tools, and the virtuosity of those people. I erroneously thought these were the things which might best inform my own livelihood. Now I am in my 60’s with beautiful tools of my own and some significant level of virtuosity and I realize there is more. I might finally get it. Yes, those tools and skills are amongst the rewards of a life fully lived. But I had two more important things on my side: my ‘owned’ heartbeat and a working honor of craftsmanship. It’s not about what we’ve gathered. It’s not about what we do or how we do it. Its about WHY we do what we do. I have done most of my work because I followed my heartbeat. I’ve done what I love. And I have always felt moved to honor the craftsmanship of those chosen pursuits. I didn’t to it to amass tools and feel puffed up over my accomplishments. I did it because a trust had been handed to me by all those who came before. And I did it because the work made me feel whole…

The two examples I questioned before, the old man and the old woman, are a blending into anecdote of hundreds of individuals I know. The alienation they represent is real and it is symptomatic of our wider dying culture. And that alienation is not only unnecessary it is also a terrible shame. It is here we see the evidence of a waste of the potential strengths of community and a withering of the commonality we need in our lives. If society is to regain itself we must somehow breakdown the barriers of individual alienation and rediscover those commons to be held. Not just within agriculture but throughout the family of man. And this has become more critical given the global recession/depression. But within farming this return to commons and community has the remarkable potential to actually feed the world.

We’re a community, we far flung small farmers. We share many values, many dreams, many experiences. And, in differing ways, some of us are contributors to our chosen circle or commons. But no where near enough. What it takes is for us to value one another, old and young, peer to peer, student to mentor. Not a one of us, be he 20 or she 80, has a moment to lose, the one old woman took a half hour to hang her long heavy gate. She and another could have hung 30 gates back up on hinges and still had time to visit over a cup of coffee.

Commons. Time found. Flavor added. Economy created.

Avoiding the perils of class distinction and ridiculous corrosive prejudice, we do need to seek out one another and find for ourselves that extended family of shared values. And then we need to offer ourselves to excess. We need to quit asking what we can get out of this. We need to look for ways we can give to this. That’s what it takes. Young and old and in between all looking to give, that is what will bring our community its rising tide. We value one another through giving of ourselves and through abiding gratitude. We need to create a commons and help it to grow. We create a commons by recognizing how important our family and friends are and why. They are important in a large part because they feed us and our values.

So what do lonely old farmers, crotchety dads and an imploding industrial complex have to do with anything important let alone these nickel and dime times? People are scared; those who have lost everything, those who feel like they may lose, and those who struggle to protect their riches. There is nothing light about any of this garbage. And yes it is all related. Those lonely old folks represent just one slice of cultural opportunity for social and economic redemption. Understanding how some of us came to be what we are will help to point the way to growth. And recession/depression has already begun to change the rules of the game.

The hot air is leaving and the skin of the world’s economy is flapping loose. With only an imperceptible lessening of presumption economists, planners, architects, nutritionists, analysts, speech writers, editors, screen writers and those newly self-anoited alligatorian tastemakers calling themselves bloggers scurry around in the darkness of this recession like so many out-sized cockroaches desperately needing to appear to be with the flow. The majority of these movers and shakers demonstrate zero faith in humanity. They put all their wagers on the institutions of government and commerce and on the sacrosanct lubricity of greed. And in so doing put the gamble above the generosities, put the windfall ahead of the caring, put the personal gain above gratitude. We cannot let these efforts strip the last old paint from our culture. We cannot let these misguided misanthropes put price tags on our souls, we cannot allow bureaucracy to suffocate true farming. And we stop them and those destructive efforts by not showing up for their parties. By instead gathering on porches to share with one another the hows and whys. By singing together.

Some will remember how it was that Dad never explained, just expected you to know. “No, not that way. To the left, to the left! Haven’t you been paying attention?”

So now we say “Wait a minute, I want to do this. I want to get it right. I have been paying attention and nothing you’ve done indicated I needed to go to the left. Perhaps I didn’t see it because I was enthralled by how easy you make it all seem. I want this, I want to do it with ease. You’re smiling? So take a breath and explain to me what needs doing.”

The best of farming is a song sung in rounds, voices joining in appropriate and fertilizing overlap, soft here, voluminous there, the beginning grasping the end in a hand clasp, denying end, excusing beginnings. When the music of the farming is in full carriage, the distractions, the discords, the distractions bounce off the glistening waxed surface to sizzle in their own synthetic heat. When the music of the farming is in full carriage, and commons are held, purpose becomes assurance.
Painting by Elin Pendleton