agrarian

The Last Screw

screw

I just recently finished building a “chicken tractor” as I am expecting ten young birds this Thursday.  For those that may not know the term, a “chicken tractor” is a wooden frame that is wrapped in chicken wire (or some such wire), and is accessible from the top.  The birds are put inside the structure and the whole shebang is put out on grass allowing the birds to eat grass and bugs.

I’d never built one before and it wasn’t difficult.  No plans were needed and managed to build two doors on top: one for the food and the other for the waterer.  Such projects are typically done without a plan, by the seat of your pants and this one was no different.  There is always an idea in the head that sparks it all off and then the work begins.

A few days later (or sometimes a few hours, depending on other chores) projects such as my chicken tractor are done and another takes its place.  This particular project started with a few 2×4’s and some chicken wire.  I had some tin roofing left over from the pig house I’d built the weekend before in the same manner.

The drawings in your head change as the project progresses.  Plans change; pictures are repainted.  The door is moved, the structure is reinforced diagonally instead of just in the corners; the door is smaller and in the opposite corner. These changes are typical and ongoing and like a house or painting or a piece of music, projects are rarely finished but simply left after the last screw is screwed in.  There are no finish lines, but only last screws.

And Then Pigs

piglets

(Meet Pork and Belly, our new pigs)

For some years I’ve wondered where the line was between being a gardener and a farmer.  It began when I made the conscious decision to grow my own food.  I felt like a farmer, but couldn’t really call myself one.  Then, I endeavored beekeeping.  I started with one hive; they unfortunately died.  I got two more and lost them.  I was really hurt.

I thought that this is what a farmer must feel like when he loses livestock or must acquiesce to some sickness and put an animal down.  They were just bees (I said to myself), but they were more than that: they were my livestock, my responsibility.  I was, however, still just a gardener with bees.

Last year when we bought our current property we had to start from the ground up.  I renovated the house over the winter: I was a carpenter.  I plowed a large plot for my garden: I was a gardener.  Early this spring I built a greenhouse: I was a market gardener.  Bees came and I was again (gladly) a beekeeper.  Not long afterwards I built a chicken coop: carpenter again.

Finally, the time had come to get chickens; there were animals coming to a farm.  I felt that finally I could call myself a farmer.  I picked up the small chicks and installed them in the coop.  They had water, they had food, they had straw; I must be a farmer, but alas…still nothing.  I could have chickens in the city.

Then, I got a call on Friday from a farmer that I had met.  I ordered manure and we talked pigs.  Evidently, I ordered two piglets when they were ready (about 8 weeks old), which would be in about 2 weeks.  He told me that “my” pigs were ready to be picked up.  My wife and myself scrambled to build a house for them, a pen and bought some electric fencing.  We had the whole thing ready within 24 hours.

We picked them up and put them down in their pen.  I was nervous.  The cuffed around in the dirt and ate some food.  They were getting use to their new home.  They were a bit nervous in their new surroundings; they didn’t know what to expect.  They were, in fact, a bit like me: nervous in their new position.  Without knowing it I had fallen into farming, but I think the pigs realized it before I did.

Spring

spring

The snow gave way quickly and just as quickly came the green.  The greenhouse went up just in time; the plants, some of which I thought must have died, buried under several feet of snow for months, poking their green sprouts out of the yet still cold earth.  This is no miracle; it is Spring.

The frogs in the back pond reappeared after a long hiatus, and frog eggs line the shallow pools in the back “roads” on the property.  I’ve seen moose tracks and more deer and turkey tracks than I care to count.  The fox is about and I hear the hawk’s screech almost everyday.  The garden is waking up and the plants stir in their pots anxious to get in the dirt.

As always Spring brings anxiety: some plants got burnt up in the newly built greenhouse (my bad).  But, most are fine and I kick myself for not putting spinach in a month ago.  Every Spring I forget what I remember the previous year.  Perhaps this is part of Spring too.

Small buds appear over night on the Birch, the Maple, the Oak and the Cedar and Spruce trees seem even greener than normal.  The fireplaces are cold and everyone is outside.  The wind blows the glorious warmth around and the leaves, freed from the snowy prison, take flight.

We all feel a bit more free in the Spring.  Perhaps Spring is when happiness gets a chance to shine, just for a little, to fly around with the leaves and rid itself of the heavy weight of winter worries.  A new start for an old, old cycle.

The Custodian

the-custodian

When we have land we do not own it.  Rather, we are custodians.  What we do with our newfound role is, of course, up to us.  But ought we do good?  A custodian is a caretaker and the land, if we listen, will speak, will tell us its wants and needs.  It takes time and a few long walks through the forests and the fields.  In time, though, we can come to understand the language of the land.

I am afraid that the custodial role is a disappearing one.  It seems that landownership is taking over the caretaker’s careful and thought out intentions.  When we own land it seems that we assume that we have rights to do what we want…no matter what the land needs.  Ownership is economic; taking care is ethical.

Out in the forest, chainsaw in hand, I cut dead fall (those dead trees that have fallen and have hung up on other, often young, live trees.  Caretakers change the land for a reason, like landowners, but caretakers change the land for reasons that have to do with the land and not ourselves.  Caretakers must make choices.  Do we manage (if that is possible) our land for beauty, for use, for both?

To be a caretaker is difficult work, but to recognize the importance of being a custodian of the land is perhaps harder yet.  This concept is not an idea that we wake up with.  We must realize our roles as custodians and also realize that such work, such roles (as so many are) are thankless.  In a world measured by profit the custodian lives in poverty.

If land needs a custodian at all, shouldn’t the custodian recognize that their very existence is dependent upon the land and not the other way around.  Perhaps, in the end, this is the difference between owning land and caring for land:  the custodian recognizes his dependence and the landowner does not.  I would hope that most people get a chance to care for land if and only if they can also recognize that their very existence is dependent upon what they do with it.

Learning How to Read

snow-forst

Many of us love to read books, great articles in good magazines, and perhaps less and less the news.  But after years of reading I am learning how to read…yet again.  There are certain topics that are difficult such as philosophy (a love of mine), and scientific books, even layman science is difficult to me.  However, having recently purchased a property that I intended to make a farm, I am learning how to read again.

In the crisp, New England mornings I walk my dog through the months old snow and the half-century old forest that I own.  I’ve done the walk twice a day for some time now and every day the land teaches something new.  A crevice here, a creek that is burrowing a new furrow; hills and dales, and the trees: oak, birch, red and white pine, hickory, poplar.

Farmers, I think, know what they want, but few know what the land needs; only the good ones, and to know this they need to know how to read.  Walking the land envisioning a field but the land won’t have it.  Perhaps a fruit tree grove there, but the land has started one here.  We own land, but we don’t control land.

Land seems pliable and passive, but don’t let it fool you.  It is the master of its own fate.  We are ego-filled and short-sighted.  The land is wise and counts eons, not seconds.  It is in no hurry as its age is endless.  It knows that we are of it, and by it.  we see land as potential, but it is full of the past.

I am learning how to read the land, and it is a difficult lesson.  I am impatient and the alphabet is foreign.  But the land is patience, and its alphabet it created.  The words ooze out of the fog of my ignorance…slowly.  But as I learn to read I realize that even the choice to learn is an illusion.

The Daily Dream

pastoral

It’s interesting watching dreams move in and on, change and morph into new and strange, sometimes traditional and familiar themes.  At the end of the day, working to make a dream a reality is like most other jobs: it requires long hours, tough work, compromise, eating crow and learning; always learning.

The snow is on the ground now, and days are spent in the wood shop making cabinets and built-ins, making onion and potato boxes, and planning out woodsheds and chicken coops for the coming spring.  With each of these things the drawings and dimensions, the measurements and plans change almost with each passing day.  But the days pass, and pass quickly.

Every morning, however, starts the same: make coffee, fire up the wood stove in the shop, and take the dog for a walk.  I guess some things never change.

Six months into my dream, reality is taking hold and does so every morning when I get out of bed and feel sore, wanting more sleep but not being able to sleep because of the day’s work that rolls around in my head.  I watched, and worked, with my father-in-law dairy farmer for some years and told him this the other day.  He just laughed, but it sounded like “I told you so…”

And so tomorrow morning I’ll get up, make coffee, fire up the wood stove and go for a walk in the snow with the dog, and when we get back, I’ll get on with the work of making my dream a reality.

 

New-Old Lifestyles

Image result for old farm tools

When talking to people, especially older people who sometimes don’t understand why anyone would want to “go back” to raising and slaughtering your own meat, growing your own food and working your own land, they often point out that they are “fine” eating the modern products and processed foods of our current world.  They are right, of course; at least sometimes, or partially.

But the real point is lost on them; the point is not just the healthy aspect, but also the moral aspect.  We humans have somehow lost the necessary respect that life deserves and demands.  It is not just for health reasons that we till our own gardens and raise and slaughter our own meat.  It is healthier and better (lacking the additives and antibiotics) but is most certainly a more moral choice (respect for life and the living): a better choice.

A respect for life is the cornerstone of the agrarian lifestyle.  This does not preclude, but does not necessarily include, a religious adoration of life, but it is a necessary moral choice that does much to define who we are at the end of the day.  People that were raised on farms eighty years ago seem to remember the drudgery and forget the community.  They seem to remember the hardships and forget the rewards.  I’m not sure why and perhaps I will too at some point, but I hope not.

The irony of talking to older people who have had such “lifestyles” is that they seem to look upon the new crop of self-sufficient people as being a bit spoiled, but I would argue that the new farmers of old ideas are not spoiled, but curious and willing to do the work.  Although many people will fail at these new old endeavors (because the physicality and harshness of the work have not changed) there are many who have found solace and education in pursuing  “non-progressive” ways of life.

I think that when an honest lifestyle is dismissed so easily by others that it is because those that dismiss it have never really thought about their own life.  To do so, like the new agrarians will find, is physically and morally demanding; no less than the new- life that they have chosen to lead.

The Community of the Self Sufficient

self_sufficient

To be self sufficient is a personal thing, not unlike so many who just want to “get away” and have everyone leave them alone.  I am, and was one of those.  However, things often must change, and do.  NOFA puts on event up here in New England, and I went to a hog butchering class today.  There I realized that to be self sufficient, there must be a community.

It does sound strange, but it is, and always has been, true.  In the cities we often forget this fact of independence.  Often we can live around millions of people and be completely alone.  This is sad, true, but it is only because there are communities of self sufficient communities of people that support such lifestyles.

Aloneness is important.  Being alone we can often find our “true self”, and what we find is often a bit disconcerting.  But the self sufficient ought to be able look that self in the eye every morning and meet it head to head on those nights when we wake up feeling so alone and vulnerable.  One way to do this, is to realize our dependence on healthy communities.

Unfortunately, self sufficiency is often correlated with those who have opted out and see survival as a pile of rations and guns.  This is a misconstrued view of self sufficiency.  Self sufficiency is an education and there are many great teachers out there that are willing and often able to teach those willing to learn.  To realize that the community of the self sufficient are not these radical outliers one only has to reach out to learn, well, to be self sufficient.

At the class, there were seven of us, we each took turns learning to cut the 1/2 hog in such a way that would do justice to the animal, and to those who had, and will continue to create a community of the self sufficient.

After Death

life-afte-deathAfter years of living in cities, longing for the country; perhaps some peace and quiet, I look out over twenty two acres of forest and a half acre of tilled earth to become garden next year.

A dream come real is no longer a dream; a reality in the form of work, wood and wonder.  Reality offers it all and reminds us with the birth of reality comes the death of a dream.
Simple needs become clear and concise.  They are many reminding me that a simple life does indeed necessitate complication.  Work is the key word, the kind of work that goes beyond a scotch in the evening listening to music and imagining and composing wishes.
Happiness, the quality of contentedness that so few find is possible, but the road is long, and comparisons begin to take the joy away from the reality.
For those who wish to live their dream do not compare, do not wish for more.  The dream as reality will not be what you think, but it will be life as it is, not as we wish it to be.
The future is still clear, the present is all encompassing and the past is full of memories, if not regrets and happy times.  Perhaps it is age, but most likely it is the realization that a dream come true is the death of the dream.
Self sufficiency has been and will continue to be the goal, it is now only a daily endeavor, a clarity of mind and a soreness of the body.  The dream perhaps lives more clearly now…after death is the life that I have dreamed of.

An Update on the Experiment

experiment

This particular post is two things: an apology and and explanation.

First, an apology.  I realize that blogs are particularly important to those who write them, and less so to those who read them.  That being the case, I must still apologize for not being consistent, if only to myself.

Secondly, an explanation.  I have embarked upon an experiment in self-sustainability that involves moving from one side of this country to the other.  Such a move takes time and effort which explains my apology above.  This experiment involves buying a small (22 acre) plot of land with a house, a barn foundation, and a full woodworking shop.  This is the result of several years of contemplation and contrary thinking that has cost comfort and security, I hope, to a good end: to see just how self-sustaining an individual can be.

To this end I would like to invite anyone interested to visit two new sites that will be up and running this fall.  First, I will have a podcast called “The Philosophy of Gardening” and at some point and time a youtube channel called Trollcastle Works.  These endeavors will simply be a video/audio blog of ongoings around the property that will include forestry work, woodworking and of course gardening.

I hope to have several projects going that include: a small fruit orchard, vegetable garden, furniture making and carpentry, hops and grain fields, and brewing beer.  The podcast and videos, I hope, will be of interest to anyone that might consider self-sustainability as a way of life.

I call this an experiment, because I see 100% self-sustainability as being the speed of light, and the experiment’s goal itself being to see how close to this ideal that I can get.  There will be failures and there will be accomplishments, and I hope to share both.

The reason for this experiment is, of course, personal, but it stems from a belief that self-sustainability for individuals and families is the only moral option.  What better way to test this belief than putting it in practice!

I hope that some of you consider following me on this adventure!