A Farmer of Dreams

Each day I go into the fields 
to see what is growing
and what remains to be done.
It is always the same thing: nothing
is growing, everything needs to be done.

A farmer of dreams
knows how to pretend.

A farmer of dreams
knows what it means to be patient.
Each day I go into the fields.

~W. D. Ehrhart, from “The Farmer” in Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War

This time of year our farm is brilliant, verdant and delicious to behold.  The cherry orchard blossoms have yielded fruit and the pastures are knee high with grass.  By mid-June, the daylight starts creeping over the eastern foothills at 4 AM and the last glimpse of sun disappears at nearly 10 PM.   So many hours of light to work with! 

Yet today I yearn for a dark rainy day to hide inside with a book even when the lawnmower and weed whacker call my name, and the fish pond needs cleaning and the garden must be weeded.  It’s not that things don’t happen on the farm during months like this.  It’s just that nothing we do is enough.  Blackberry brambles take over everything, grass grows faster than we can keep it mowed down, the manure piles grow exponentially. 

The fences always need fixing.  The old hay barn is falling down and needing to be resurrected.  The weather is becoming iffy with rain in the forecast so we may not have anything but junk hay in the barn this winter in a year when hay will cost a premium.  For a decade now we have stopped breeding our Haflinger horses as even the demand for well bred horses is not robust enough to justify bringing more into the world.

Suddenly our farm dream seems not nearly so compelling.

We spent many years dreaming about our farm as we hoped it would be.  We imagined the pastures managed perfectly with fencing that was both functional and beautiful.  Our barns and buildings would be tidy and leak-proof, and the stalls secure and safe.  We’d have a really nice pick up truck with low miles on it, not a 30 year old hand me down truck with almost 250,000 miles. We would have trees pruned expertly and we’d have flower beds blooming and a vegetable garden yielding 9 months of the year.  Our hay would never be rained on. We would have dogs that wouldn’t run off and cats that would take care of all the rodents.  We wouldn’t have any moles, thistles, dandelions or buttercup.  The pheasant, deer, coyotes, raccoons, and wild rabbits (even the occasional cougar, lynx and bear!) would only stroll through the yard for our amusement and not disturb anything.  We’d have livestock with the best bloodlines we could afford and a steady demand from customers to purchase their offspring at reasonable prices so that not a dime of our off-farm income would be necessary to pay farm expenses.   Our animals (and we) would never get sick or injured.

And our house would always stay clean.

Dream on.  Farms are often back-breaking, morale-eroding, expensive sinkholes.   I know ours is.  Yet here we be and here we stay.

It’s home.  We raised three wonderful children here.  We’ve bred and grown good beef and horses and great garden and orchard crops and tons of hay from our own fields.  We breathe clean air and enjoy hearing dozens of different bird songs and look out at some of the best scenery this side of heaven.  Eagles land in the trees in our front yard.

It’s all enough for us even if we are not enough for the farm.  I know there will come a time when the farm will need to be a fond memory and not a daily reality.  Until then we will keep pursuing our dream as we and the farm grow older.   Dreams age and mature and I know now what I dreamed of when I was younger was not the important stuff.

We are blessed with one another, with the continuing sunrises and the sunsets and everything in between.  This is the stuff of which the best dreams are made.

Catch the Sunset

All day he’s shoveled green pine sawdust
out of the trailer truck into the chute.
From time to time he’s clambered down to even
the pile. Now his hair is frosted with sawdust.
Little rivers of sawdust pour out of his boots.

I hope in the afterlife there’s none of this stuff
he says, stripping nude in the late September sun
while I broom off his jeans, his sweater flocked
with granules, his immersed-in-sawdust socks.
I hope there’s no bedding, no stalls, no barn

no more repairs to the paddock gate the horses
burst through when snow avalanches off the roof.
Although the old broodmare, our first foal, is his,
horses, he’s fond of saying, make divorces.
Fifty years married, he’s safely facetious.

No garden pump that’s airbound, no window a grouse
flies into and shatters, no ancient tractor’s
intractable problem with carburetor
ignition or piston, no mowers and no chain saws
that refuse to start, or start, misfire and quit.
..

…then he says
let’s walk up to the field and catch the sunset
and off we go, a couple of aging fools.

I hope, he says, on the other side there’s a lot
less work, but just in case I’m bringing tools.
~Maxine Kumin from “Chores”

When I pull open the barn doors
every morning
and close them again each evening,
as our grandparents did
one hundred years ago,
six rumbling voices
rise in greeting.
We exchange scents,
nuzzle each others’ ears,
rumble grumble back a response.

We do our chores faithfully
as our grandparents once did–
draw fresh water
into buckets,
wheel away
the pungent mess underfoot,
release an armful of summer
from the bale,
reach under heavy manes
to stroke silken necks.

We don’t depend
on our horses’ strength
and willingness to
don harness
to carry us to town
or move the logs
or till the soil
as our grandparents did.

Instead,
these soft eyed souls,
born on this farm over
two long decades ago,
are simply grateful
for our constancy
morning and night
to serve their needs
until the day comes
they need no more.

And we depend on them
to depend on us
to be there
to open and close the doors;
their low whispering welcome
gives voice
to the blessings of
living on a farm
ripe with rhythms and seasons,
sunrises and sunsets that keep coming,
as if yesterday, today and tomorrow are
just like one hundred years ago.


The Heart of the Field

sam7months
photo by Nate Gibson

 

 

homermaple

 

 

 

samhill

 

 

 

Remember that meadow up above the ridge
where the dog ran around in circles
and we were tired from the climb up
and everything was tilted sideways
including the running in circles
of the ecstatic dog his bright tongue
lapping at the air and we were
leaning into the heart of the field
where no battle ever took place
where no farmer ever bothered
to turn the soil yet everything
seemed to have happened there everything
seemed to be happening at once enough
so we’ve never forgotten how full the field
was and how we were there too and full
~Tim Nolan “The Field”

 

 

 

leadogtree

 

 

 

sunsetpups

 

 

This hill on our farm is for running, for sunning, for lolling, for rolling, for pondering, for wandering.
With dogs or without them, our time spent here is full and fulfilling.

 

 

sunset101183

 

 

 

damppups

 

 

 

homer1110172

 

 

 

samgrass

 

 

homerroller

 

 

The Rhythm of Furrowed Ground

sunrise97143

 

cloudsandponies

 

evening99181

 

harrow

 

Well I know now the feel of dirt under the nails,
I know now the rhythm of furrowed ground under foot,
I have learned the sounds to listen for in the dusk,
the dawning and the noon.

I have held cornfields in the palm of my hand,
I have let the swaying wheat and rye run through my fingers,
I have learned when to be glad for sunlight and for sudden
thaw and for rain.

I know now what weariness is when the mind stops
and night is a dark blanket of peace and forgetting
and the morning breaks to the same ritual and the same
demands and the silence.
~Jane Tyson Clement from No One Can Stem the Tide

 

sunrise99181

 

gardenrows

 

2018gardenplot

 

Our garden is over-producing so we freeze and dehydrate and give away and compost what we cannot eat now.  It is a race to the finish before the first killing frost in less than a month.

Carrying dirt under fingernails is a badge of honor for the gardener.  The soil that clings to our boots and our skin represents rhythm and ritual in every move we make – we know what is expected of us when we rise first thing in the morning and later as we settle weary under a blanket at night.

May there ever be such good work as we rise in anticipation every morning.
May there ever be such good rest as we sleep in peace, forgetting the demands of the new day.

 

raincornhair3

 

sunrise99185

 

cornsky

 

plowing-the-field-joyce-lapp
“Plowing the Field” by Joyce Lapp

 

 

Get On With Work or Take It Slow

barbsrooster

 

clematis2

 

emptychairs

 

Sweet smell of phlox drifting across the lawn—
an early warning of the end of summer.
August is fading fast, and by September
the little purple flowers will all be gone.
Season, project, and vacation done.
One more year in everybody’s life.
Add a notch to the old hunting knife
Time keeps testing with a horny thumb.
Over the summer months hung an unspoken
aura of urgency. In late July
galactic pulsings filled the midnight sky
like silent screaming, so that, strangely woken,
we looked at one another in the dark,
then at the milky magical debris
arcing across, dwarfing our meek mortality.
There were two ways to live: get on with work,
redeem the time, ignore the imminence
of cataclysm; or else take it slow,
be as tranquil as the neighbors’ cow
we love to tickle through the barbed wire fence
(she paces through her days in massive innocence,
or, seeing green pastures, we imagine so).
In fact, not being cows, we have no choice.
Summer or winter, country, city, we
are prisoners from the start and automatically,
hemmed in, harangued by the one clamorous voice.
Not light but language shocks us out of sleep
ideas of doom transformed to meteors
we translate back to portents of the wars
looming above the nervous watch we keep.
~Rachel Hadas from “The End of Summer”
sunrise94141
hazycows
fieldcows9517
In observance of Labor Day:
I did not grow up in a household that took time off.  Time was redeemed by work, and work was noble and honorable and proved we had a right to exist.
Vacation road trips were rare and almost always associated with my father’s work.  When he came home from his desk job in town, he would immediately change into his farm clothes and put in several hours of work outside, summer or winter, rain or shine, light or dark.
My mother did not work in town while we were children, but worked throughout her day inside and outside the house doing what farm wives and mothers need to do: growing, hoeing, harvesting, preserving, washing, cleaning, sewing, and most of all, being there for us.
As kids, we had our share of chores that were simply part of our day as our work was never done on a farm. When we turned twelve, we began working for others: babysitting, weeding, barn and house cleaning, berry picking.  I have now done over 52 years of gainful employment – there were times I worked four part-time jobs at once because that was what I could put together to keep things together.
The thought of “retirement” is anathema for me but that time will come for me when I am ready to take it slow. I know I’ve missed out on much of life being a “nose to the grindstone” person.
I wish there had been more times I had taken a few moments to be more like the cows I see meandering, tranquil and unconcerned, in the surrounding green pastures. Part of every day now I pull myself away from the work to be done, the work that is always calling and staring me in the face, and try a different way to redeem my time: to notice, to record, to observe, to appreciate beauty that exists in the midst of chaos and cataclysm and neverending portents of war.
Life isn’t all about non-stop labor, yet we get on with our work because work is about showing up when and where we are needed. Not being cows, we may feel we have no choice in the matter. Just maybe, like cows, we can manage to slow down,  watch what is happening around us, and by chewing our cud, keep contemplating and digesting whatever life feeds us, the sweet and the sour.
sunrise971411
morning528151

When Life Provides Chicken Soup

buttercups

 

 

I have sharpened my knives, I have
Put on the heavy apron.

Maybe you think life is chicken soup, served
In blue willow-pattern bowls.

I have put on my boots and opened
The kitchen door and stepped out

Into the sunshine. I have crossed the lawn.
I have entered

The hen house.
~Mary Oliver “Farm Country”

 

 

johnshens

 

What did I love about killing the chickens? Let me start
with the drive to the farm as darkness
was sinking back into the earth.
The road damp and shining like the snail’s silver
ribbon and the orchard
with its bony branches.
All eighty-eight Cornish 

hens huddled in their crates. Wrapping my palms around
their white wings, lowering them into the tapered urn.
Some seemed unwitting as the world narrowed;
some cackled and fluttered; some struggled.
I gathered each one, tucked her bright feet,
drew her head through the kill cone’s sharp collar,
her keratin beak and the rumpled red vascular comb
that once kept her cool as she pecked in her mansion of grass.
I didn’t look into those stone eyes. I didn’t ask forgiveness.
I slid the blade between the feathers
and made quick crescent cuts, severing
the arteries just under the jaw. Blood like liquor
pouring out of the bottle. When I see the nub of heart later,
it’s hard to believe such a small star could flare
like that. I lifted each body, bathing it in heated water
until the scaly membrane of the shanks
sloughed off under my thumb.
And after they were tossed in the large plucking drum
I loved the newly naked birds. Sundering
the heads and feet neatly at the joints, a poor
man’s riches for golden stock. Slitting a fissure
reaching into the chamber,
freeing the organs, the spill of intestines, blue-tinged gizzard,
the small purses of lungs, the royal hearts,
easing the floppy liver, carefully, from the green gall bladder,
its bitter bile. And the fascia unfurling
like a transparent fan. When I tug the esophagus
down through the neck, I love the suck and release
as it lets go. 
I’m empty as I rinse each carcass,
and this is what I love most.

It’s like when the refrigerator turns off and you hear
the silence. Even in just this one thing:
looking straight at the terrible,
one-sided accord we make with the living of this world.
At the end, we scoured the tables, hosed the dried blood,
the stain blossoming through the water.
~Ellen Bass from “What Did I Love”

 

rooster

 

For a number of summers, we spent most of the morning and afternoon of Fourth of July with neighbors at a farm down the road doing that most American of activities:
communally butchering chickens.

There is some risk to writing about killing living creatures.  I also pull carrots, radishes and onions from the ground, dig up potatoes and weed-whack thistles in the field.

It is what farmers do. As we shop at the local farmers’ market or grocery store, we are insulated from this harsh reality, this terrible one-sided accord humans have with the land and growing things.

It is how food ends up sustaining us, supporting the next generation and the next, and these living creatures deserve our blessing of gratitude.

I grew up on a farm where we raised our own meat and my parents, who also grew up knowing the animals that would eventually be on their plate, encouraged us kids to watch and participate in the process so we understood what it meant to sacrifice an animal or a plant for our benefit.  We knew that animal from birth, we named them, looked them in the eye, we petted and held them, we fed them, cleaned up after them, and when the time came, we watched them slump to the ground, their hide or feathers stripped and their steaming carcass prepared.

I cannot take this lightly.  These creatures, who I respected and cared for, were breathing heart-beating beings just minutes before, and have been sacrificed.

It has been quite a few years since we raised our own meat as a family, since those summers our children growing up also learned this relationship with the food on the table.  As a group of neighbors, we would combine our chicken butchering together on Fourth of July so we had an efficient assembly line approach to the process of putting dozens of chickens in the freezer all within a few hours.  There were catchers, holders, choppers, boilers, pluckers, gutters, rinsers and baggers. We all took turns doing different aspects of the task. There was an irreverent reverence to the day, a bit more joking and laughing than was warranted as blood is intentionally spilled.

We had to acknowledge the tight intertwine of life and death though none of us could bear to eat chicken for dinner that night.

We too bore the stains of the remains of the day.

 

feather201815

 

 

feather201814

 

Berries as Big as the End of Your Thumb

25993_580422063854_1907838202_n

 

thimbleberry5

 

Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!
And all ripe together, not some of them green
And some of them ripe!  You ought to have seen!

I wish I knew half what the flock of them know
Of where all the berries and other things grow,
Cranberries in bogs and raspberries on top
Of the boulder-strewn mountain, and when they will crop.
~Robert Frost from “Blueberries”

 

thimbleberry7181

 

raspberry

 

 

augustberry

 

 

cherrycrop2018

 

 

blackberryweb

 

We live in the middle of a county with bountiful berries this time of year, both wild and farmed.

Just as sweet cherries are disappearing from the orchards and strawberry harvest finished a few weeks ago, now raspberries are going strong for almost three weeks and blueberries are hanging in heavy branch-busting clusters begging for relief.  Domesticated marion blackberries are already in the berry stands, but the wild evergreen and Himalaya wild blackberries are about two weeks from harvesting.  Local currants are shiny and glistening.  There are only a few cranberry bogs left in our area, hampered by marketing issues that favor New England’s crop.

It is truly a miracle to live within a few miles of all this lovely fruit, with many of them growing wild in our own back yards and woodlands.

There are still wild strawberries in close-to-the-ground crawling vines with little roundish-shaped berries with a slightly tart taste, far more savory than the standard sweet juice laden market strawberry.  Thimble berries hang from wild bushes – salmon colored, red and black varieties.  Orange huckleberries grow wild in the low lands, and purple huckleberries are happiest up in the foothills, a great treasure find for hikers.  Most highly prized, however, are the sweet tiny wild blackberries that are ripening on gentle winding vines right now at the edges of the woods and fences, as well as in roadside ditches or around tree stumps.  They command huge prices per pound because it takes such effort to find and pick them.

As a child of the Pacific Northwest, growing up on a farm with both wild and domesticated berry vines and bushes, this was simply part of summer as I knew it.  I watched the blossoms, then the forming fruit, then watched as the color would get just right, waiting to pick until the precise moment of ripeness before the birds would beat me to it.  I also picked in the local fields as a summer job, including wild blackberries from our own woods, for 3 cents a pound.  For the sweet wild blackberries, a yield of 75 cents was an exceptionally great day.

I preferred blueberry picking most of all.  When I now put a blueberry in my mouth, I transport back to those summer days that started at 6 AM, walking down the road to the neighbor’s berry field with pungent smelling peat ground converted from swamp to productive berry farm before the legislation that now prevents messing with wetlands.  The bushes were tall, towering over my head, providing shade in the hot sweaty July  sun.  The berry clusters were easy to find, there were no thorns to shred sleeves and skin, and the berries made a very satisfying *plink* when they hit the empty pail.  They didn’t smush, or bruise, and didn’t harbor many bees, spider webs or ugly bugs.  They were refreshingly sweet and rejuvenating when a quick snack was in order.   I wasn’t even aware, as I am now, that blueberries contain anthocyanins and other antioxidant chemicals believed to be helpful in preventing the growth of cancer cells.   In short, blueberries were perfect then, and they are perfect now.

There are now so many raspberry and blueberry fields in our county,  the price per pound has dropped and the market is shaky.  A few years ago one farmer put a full page ad in the local newspaper today, begging the public to come pick his ripe blueberries at 99 cents a pound, just to get them off his bushes.  I stopped by another farm’s roadside stand and chatted with the Sikh owner and his three young sons as they measured out my 5 pounds of luscious blueberries.  He was philosophical about the low prices, explaining he was a patient man, and he hoped the bushes would yield blue gold for his family for a very long time, even if some years are low price years.

Some raspberry farmers aren’t feeling so optimistic this year as their primary corporate buyer backed out at the last minute, and the fragile berries are just falling off the bushes for lack of a place to be processed.  Sadly, it is possible some berry fields will be torn out and converted to some other crop with more certain market potential.

As a fellow farmer, I am aware of how one’s carefully tended crops can go to waste, whether it is due to weather or pests or the vagaries of the market.  I hope our berry farmers can persist through the hard times so the exquisite perfection of a local berry bounty can continue in such variety of colors, shapes and sizes, even some as big as the end of your thumb.

 

mountainblackberry

 

 

blackcurrant

 

 

currant615

 

 

redcurrant61115

 

 

huckleberry