My grandparents owned the land,
worked the land, bound
to the earth by seasons of planting
They watched the sky, the habits
of birds, hues of sunset,
the moods of moon and clouds,
the disposition of air.
They inhaled the coming season,
let it brighten their blood
for the work ahead.
Soil sifted through their fingers
imbedded beneath their nails
and this is what they knew;
this rhythm circling the years.
They never left their land;
each in their own time
~Lois Parker Edstrom “Almanac” from Night Beyond Black. © MoonPath Press, 2016.
I am old enough to have parents who grew up on farms worked by horses, one raising wheat and lentils in the Palouse country of eastern Washington and the other logging in the woodlands of Fidalgo Island of western Washington. The horses were crucial to my grandparents’ success in caring for and tilling the land, seeding and harvesting the crops and bringing supplies from town miles away. Theirs was a hardscrabble life in the early 20th century with few conveniences. Work was year round from dawn to dusk; caring for the animals came before any human comforts. Once night fell, work ceased and sleep was welcome respite for man and beast.
In the rural countryside where we live now, we’ve been fortunate enough to know people who still dabble in horse farming, whose draft teams are hitched to plows and mowers and manure spreaders as they head out to the fields to recapture the past. Watching a good team work with no diesel motor running means hearing bird calls from the field, the steady footfall of the horses, the harness chains jingling, the leather straps creaking, the machinery shushing quietly as gears turn and grass lays over in submission. No ear protection is needed. There is no clock needed to pace the day. There is a rhythm of nurture when animals instead of engines are part of the work day. The gauge for taking a break is the amount of foamy sweat on the horses and how fast they are breathing. It is time to stop and take a breather, it is time to start back up and do a few more rows, it is time to water, it is time for a meal, it is time for a nap, it is time for a rest in a shady spot. This is gentle use of the land with four footed stewards who deposit right back to the soil the digested forage they have eaten only hours before.
Our modern agribusiness megafarm fossil-fuel-powered approach to food production has bypassed the small family farm which was so dependent on the muscle power of humans and animals. In our move away from horses worked by skilled teamsters, what has been gained in high production values has meant loss of self-sufficiency and dedicated stewardship of a particular plot of ground. Draft breeds, including the Haflinger horses we own, now are bred for higher energy with lighter refined bone structure meant more for eye appeal and floating movement, rather than the sturdy conformation and unflappable low maintenance mindset needed for pulling work. Modern children are bred for a different purpose as well, no longer raised to work together with other family members for a common purpose of daily survival. Their focus at school is waning as they have no morning farm chores when they get up, too little physical work to do before they arrive at their desks in the morning. Their physical energy, if directed at all, is directed to competitive sports, engaged in fantasy combat rather than winning a very real victory over hunger.
I am encouraged when young people still reach for horse collars and bridles, hitch up their horses and do the work as it used to be done. All is not lost if we can still make incremental daily progress, harnessed together as a team with our horses, tilling for truth and harvesting hope.
I like farming. I like the work. I like the livestock and the pastures and the woods. It’s not necessarily a good living, but it’s a good life. I now suspect that if we work with machines the world will seem to us to be a machine, but if we work with living creatures the world will appear to us as a living creature. That’s what I’ve spent my life doing, trying to create an authentic grounds for hope. –Wendell Berry, horse farmer, essayist, poet, professor