Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Myth of Self-Sufficiency

Self-Sufficiency is a cardinal American value. Yet our chickens demonstrated, just last night, what a crackpot idea it can be.

The hens missed the dusk closing of the automatic door. I'd made the mistake of giving them a treat a bit too late in the day, so they ended up stuck outside the coop. When I went out to check on them, as we do nightly to be sure all are safely tucked away to roost, all six hens were clustered together, for warmth, on and beneath the cleated board that leads to the closed door. In a few minutes, I ushered them inside and shone a light to help them onto the roosting bar.

Chickens, like humans, have no night vision. They needed a light, and without it, they huddle together for mutual protection.

When I visit homesteading e-lists and Web sites, I run into the "Prepper" mentality quite often. These folks often assume that with enough supplies, ammunition, and skills, they could ride out nearly any human-made or natural disaster.

I think they need to watch a flock of chickens. They might also want to imagine their world without helpers with medical skills, without a policeman to call to sort out contentious neighbor, without a local government to resolve property disputes.

No, thanks. I'll take the imperfect compromise we call "modern civilization."  But either way, I'd also take a community over the myth of the heroic, Neitzschean loner who shapes the world with his bare male hands. In truth, that macho posturing gives way to realism of splitting wood with a hydraulic splitter, using a tractor, and hiring help. I do split wood by hand for exercise, but in a time when I must manage other tasks, the big machine helps us heat enough that the splitter has paid for itself in its first two yeas of operation.

Friends offer help, but too often I know them too well. They are not strong enough, they lack the skills and training that I got over twenty years with my father-in-law. They mean well but "play out" after 45 minutes of clearing brush or moving lumber. Even worse, they might be injured and I trust no one with my chain saws, tractors, or other machinery that can lop off limbs or crush a human body. This is what the Preppers fail to consider. Unless they are both physically fit and have a group of similar friends, any ventures into self-sufficiency would fail. Too many of my fellow citizens are metro-area folks and pretty darned soft.  A gym membership does not prepare one for the sort of work a homestead demands. And while I'm not Conan the Barbarian, I can work many hours outside doing physical work. Thank God for that.

So I'd recommend an old and rather forgotten literary reading when one gets tempted to imagine a world without laws or restrictions. Try Emerson's "Self Reliance." I'm breaking his own rule about quoting sages in quoting him, but this passage tells me how an individual might cope with a conformist world without becoming a misanthrope:
Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say 'I think,' 'I am,' but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day.
Emerson is not much read any longer, yet this Unitarian minister had a great influence on many American thinkers and what were once called "Men of Action." While his prose might not have the punch it did in a less harried, more attentive age, we might wade in again.

Once we know ourselves, in the way Emerson recommends, then seek out a community of others, we won't be self sufficient. But we'll have the self-reliance to find others to huddle with us, to help us in a sustainable way,  through the darkest of seasons.

A blessed Solstice to you all, as the light comes back and the ground warms enough for another year of turning the soil

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Hungry Stove

From now until April, the wood-stove will gobble up cord after cord of seasoned firewood. A cord measures 8' x 4' x 4' and we may well use FOUR of them this winter, if the cold endures as it did in 2013-14.  If I load it right, the stove will burn nearly all night and keeps the entire house warm. Last night was a cold one for November, and I came downstairs at about 3am and added logs. I was up anyway. When I woke again at 6, the fire was still burning a bit. Add more wood and the house responded.

All that burning brings to mind a few things, and that's not bad when one spends so much evening time by the hungry stove, sipping a good whisky and writing.  I think there is a time-suck called television, but ignoring it for the stove's show is one reason I get so many things done, including learning about what matters to me.

First, there is the notion of burning wood itself. I plan to do so until I am physically unable, but already I've outlasted a few contemporaries who find wood too much trouble. They want to come home flip a switch, and warm up by the simulacrum of a wood fire. That's their choice to make, but to me the entire point of a wood stove is to make you work for heat. The effort to split wood is great, even with a hydraulic-ram splitter such as the one I use for twisted or large logs. Increasingly I hand-split just to get some exercise, a trip to the gym being my idea of hell. Thus the old adage that wood warms you three times: splitting, toting, and burning. 

Gas logs do not add a thing to the garden, and between Dominic's market-garden and mine, we went through 100 gallons of wood ash to raise the PH of our acidic top soil. I will barely replenish that in a season of burning, but it is good to know that ash goes back into the cycle of planting and harvesting out here, not into the landfill. My gas-log acquaintances tend to go to gyms and gripe about the ash-removal part, as they do about raking (or for them, blowing) leaves. I take away leaves and actually bring them here to compost, to add leaf-mold to our garden.

The earth is as hungry like the stove, after all, as are our bellies. Now, after nearly two years of rural life, nearly every meal we fix includes a home-grown ingredient. Some meals are nearly all from the garden, a life-long goal of mine. All that ash and compost is doing the job well.

The biggest lesson of having a stove is spiritual. The second half of life should be a time of letting go, gently. Dylan Thomas was wrong: we should go gentle. So tending stove becomes a ritual of personal and even metaphysical import: I'm reminded of the Busk, a Native-American tradition that Thoreau discusses in Walden, after he encountered it in the travel narratives of William Bartram (a writer I wish we remembers more).  We refer to "busking" today as a way to sell things, but the old word was quite the opposite: it was an act of creative and cleansing destruction.  Tribes would burn old and broken possessions, worn-out furniture, and other items to make way for the new.

My stove is doing exactly that, by trading old wood and kindling (the latter from a hundred carpentry projects) for a Spring garden. The fire-pit outside burns other less seasoned and softer woods, but also outdated paperwork and such. It's a wonderful tradition we might revive in our consumerist present.

And thus, be a bit thankful about letting things go. Happy Thanksgiving and stay warm!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Mend It, Don't End It

I have been accused of being a Cheapass. Guilty as charged, but only if you mean my penchant for saving some stuff that might be of future use. There's a profound lesson in saving-and-mending for the next generation of tinkerers, hobby-farmers, and market gardeners.  In sum, a long way from the "ending is better than mending" in Huxley's Brave New World.

Long ago I dispensed with saving or trying to repair everything. It was a habit acquired from some Depression-Era friends and family members, and while it worked well for them in very hard times, today it induces madness when one cannot find a counter-top clear enough to do useful work. At times my urge to purge has gone too far: I once chucked, unknowingly, into a dumpster the air-cleaner for a '56 Chevy under restoration (this is my official confession). The damned thing looked like a flattened and filthy tin can, so "toss!" out it went.

Yet faced with an disposable present--who can recall returnable bottles?--I felt that I had to reuse things by upping my repair and restoration skills.

October 2014 was, most certainly, a month of successfully fixing stuff. The big project was disassembling, repairing, and repainting a John Deere M tractor, a piece of machinery that has given the family long and dutiful service since purchased new, in 1950. It saved my bacon in 2013, when our new John Deere had to go to the shop after a hydraulic line broke. The old M ran, but had some issues with the fuel system that I've repaired with replacement parts, learning how to flare a metal fuel line along the way.  It may still have a slow oil-leak around the engine, nothing fatal for a machine made to be serviced on the farm. Once I diagnose that, if anywhere leaks I even have extra (cork!) gaskets for the valve cover and oil pan, a dirty but rather simple job on such a simple engine.

Now I'm zeroing in on the final coats of paint for the cowl, nose, and fenders. The tractor will even get a shiny new gas cap and some factory-fresh decals. Along the way I taught myself how to use an auto-paint gun, including how to employ hardener and reducer in the paint. I've sanded out the blemishes using the same techniques I employ on 1/35 scale tanks, with Bondo in place of modeling putty. The results really "pop" and I'll feature the old machine in a future post.

Yet the tractor will be back next year, cutting grass along with its harder-working, younger stablemates who mow, skid logs, and dig ditches. That's typical for old gear, and I like that about the farm-equipment collectors. One rarely sees "trailer queens," as one does with show cars. Of course, getting the right finish on a tractor is far easier, after some paint chips, than on a Corvette. Keep it clean, put it up dry, and a machine or implement may be left to the next generation. I just pulled a rake-harrow out of the leaves after finding it. it will get a redo in the Spring, when I clean and repaint our plows and disk harrow.

As with cars, such old equipment teaches one the values that produced them. That's also true of an old GE electric fan I fixed. A machine from that time was meant to be mended and owners were considered to be smart enough to fill a small oil-cup containing a wick. When maintained, these things last down the eons. Newer technology is tricky, but help is usually a YouTube video away, as attested by helping with a starter motor in a friend's pickup and repairs to two left-for-dead lawnmowers.  It surprises me how simple and inexpensive many of these repairs can be.  In fact, these tasks bear some resemblance to growing one's own food, a task that many dream about yet do not attempt.

Yet why don't more of my peers do some of these DIY projects? I'd not be much of a Tractorpunk if I did not speculate.

First, there's a type of patience and intelligence that one must have, or acquire, when doing this work. Matthew Crawford, who is the husband of one of my colleagues, discusses it at length in his influential book Shop Class as Soulcraft. Everything in our 140-character culture, from our want-it-now, Huxleyan consumerism to broken political system appears to lead us to crave immediate gratification.  Yet the slow accumulation of mechanical and agricultural skills does not match any calendar but that of the seasons. This may be why so many young people I teach choose careers such as accounting and finance, chasing phantoms called money that are really no more than electrons dashing around the Internet and appearing as no more than glowing pixels on a computer display.

It may be that a new generations of farm-hacktivists, locovores, and old-gear fanatics can reverse the ethics of the Brave New World we're in. Matt Crawford's book helped show me that it would be possible again to recapture craft as meritorious, as or more meritorious than the more hands-off, but no less intellectual trades.

I like that idea; in the 70s we made progress against the tsunami of disposable culture and goods, fixed our motorcycles after reading Robert Pirsig. We slipped in the "Greed is Good" 80s, yet re-embarked on a quest for meaningful relationships to hard work, perhaps out of a half-acknowledged and almost spinal sense that our resources are either limited or come at an enormous cost to the biosphere. I still think there's time to prove Huxley wrong, and I'll be turning my wrenches and, I hope, teaching a few skills to a few young tractorpunks in the decades left to me.

And to Matt Crawford, I promise I've not tossed the three old motorcyles in a shipping container. We chatted about them LAST winter, but now that the snakes are hibernating again, they are ready, this winter, for you or your customers to mend.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Mowing the Upper Field: Some Autumnal Bliss

There's a small field on the family's Buckingham County property that once was part of an organic farm. The last owner, a cousin to my wife's, cultivated several areas and I've kept them open with an eye toward my project of growing Christmas trees without herbicides or pesticides.

To keep these outer fields viable, I have to mow them with a rotary cutter; folks call them Bush Hogs, although that's a brand name, one made as generic as "Kleenex" and "Xerox." I mow the field twice annually, in Spring after the fawns have grown up enough to move around and in Fall after the milkweed sets its seeds. I want to encourage wildlife, both four-legged and threatened butterflies, so twice a year is enough until we put in our Christmas tree saplings. There's a lone Persimmon tree there, too, so I'm sure the wild turkeys haunt the place.

Mowing a field in summer can be really hard work in the hot sun, even when sitting on the seat of a tractor. In Fall it is very different. The air is crisp and the sky a perfect deep blue overhead. The trees start to turn, first with the Tulip Poplars.  The contrast is shocking, as is the quiet. The four-cylinder engine for our old Ford 8N is not deafening, though I wear ear plugs at all times. When I get off the tractor to move a log, as I often do in this field where sapling pines topple over from the edges, the silence grows profound and watchful.

Some of my friends in the Unitarian-Universalist Church follow an earth-centered spiritual path, and they believe in Fall the veil between our world and that of our departed, beloved ancestors grows thin. We can hear them if we are very quiet. At Halloween, the old Celtic festival of Samhain marking the final harvest, the departed come down to Earth again and walk about. The Jack o' Lanterns could be seen as benevolent guides to lead old friends to our doorsteps or as warning beacons to keep less friendly spirits away.

As I mowed today I mused. The spirit of the last owner, Ray, seemed to be watching from the trees, as did my in-laws who bought that 8N so my wife and I could learn to use a tractor that was small and easy to manage.  That was a good plan. Some of our big diesels are real beasts.

Today, as the little Ford putted along, even a few friends who died recently seemed close at hand. That made the job less solitary, though solitude is my goal when I go to the upper field. Not being a social person, I like that feeling of separation from a world hurrying after phantoms, and not the ghosts of old friends and family. Just dots on a screen, dots that distract us from the seasons turning and the ephemeral, artist's light of a late fall afternoon.

Go out and enjoy some of that weather, if you have Fall where you live. I'd not live anywhere that did not have an Autumn.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A New Future, Visible in the Distance at Monticello

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson was already fretting about the localized changes to the state's climate, brought on by the clear-cutting of forested lands between his home and the coast.  Jefferson describes hazier, more humid weather from what he recalled from his youth.  At his mountain home, the man could see far and, whatever the foibles and contradictions of his personal life, Jefferson recognized far ahead of his time the changes humanity can bring to the land that should sustain us.

I suspect that the former President, buried just beyond the lawns at Monticello, is proud to see the annual Heritage Harvest Festival take place on his land. My wife and I have been going for several years, and 2014 proved one of the finest so far. The classes ran a bit short; I'd prefer 90 minutes so the presenters have enough time, but I got to attend one free and two paid events.

Here are a few highlights for this Tractorpunk.

  • Michael Levatino of Ted's Last Stand Farm (shown above) talked in detail about "The Sustainable Farm Lifestyle" for hobby farmers such as me or "sideliners" who make extra income, which is what I plan to be during retirement. I was impressed by the Levatinos' ability to find the right niche at their farmers' market, to learn the hard way the best practices for water use, weed control, and cool-season crops. Michael also alerted me to the free woodchips from tree companies. They work well in paths and build soil under the paths (that can be raked up onto raised beds on either side).
  • Given my larger-than-usual Fall food garden, I was an avid attendee of Pam Dawling's workshop on Cold-Hardy Winter Vegetables.  Pam's excellent book Sustainable Market Gardening has been on my shelf for over a year, and this season I am starting to apply its lessons to our small crop. Next year, we plan a business license and first sale to a restaurant, so Pam's will be indispensable advice. Her remarks on using row-covers and hoop houses at Twin Oaks Community for three-or-four season production came in VERY handy.
  • Ken Bezilla of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange reinforced Pam's lessons and added more tips that I plan to use this year. He focused a free workshop on "Fall & Winter Vegetable Gardening," and, like Pam, discussed the cold-hardiness of various crops. I'm already thinking of ordering my big batch of spring seeds from these folks.

What I'm getting from these festivals is nothing less than the birth of a sustainability movement to bring local food and best practices to every corner of our state, a future beyond the Monsanto and Ortho hegemony of sterile seeds and pesticides. A future where local growers and consumers put as much back into the land as they take from it. In a time of accelerating climate change, such efforts may be too little, even doomed. Yet they come not a moment too soon.

Jefferson would be proud of another revolution, this time one fought with muskmelons not muskets, brassicas not bayonets, being dreamed up at Monticello.

Monday, September 1, 2014

No-Kill Fence?

After blasting four groundhogs and having Meatball the dog kill another while visiting with the owner of delli Carpini Farm, I figured that there must be a better way.

In the long run, a dog pen around the garden perimeter will accomplish a lot, as we plan to have herding dogs who live outside. They will go on walks to pee the perimeter, and this seems to keep animals away from gardens.

Now that we have chickens, too, there's the issue of predators after more than an ear of corn. I recently found a dead gray fox near our driveway, and that's a chicken-eater who can climb fences. I'd like to keep our wildlife alive, but at a distance. Killing everything simply seems wasteful, since we need wild predators and prey to keep the forest and field healthy. And of course such slaughter is impractical without poison baits or an army of hunters. I reject the former practice as evil and the latter as a waste of time and beer.

A mistake made in 2012 was in fencing. We have a fence that deer won't jump, thanks to height and some white streamers at 8' intervals, 8' off the ground. Ten feet would be ideal, but given that the garden is at the peak of a hill, it works. What has not worked is the game fencing itself for smaller animals. Field fencing consists of welded wire, with either with the same sized holes (usually 4 by 2 inches) or small holes at the bottom, larger ones up top.

No one but a hawk or barn cat will stop field mice, but groundhogs and raccoons can climb fences until they get high enough to slip through a big hole or go right over the top.

Thus, out come the rifle and live-traps. This year, however, I did more reading and discovered what some bloggers call "the floppy fence." I credit Debra Graff of Square Foot Abundance for inspiring me, as I found her post about fencing (ahem, a "fence post") and studied her design.

I have combined this fencing method with my technique of burying fencing to deter diggers and building everything around a firm barrier of 6' game fence. It works this way:
  • 4' chicken wire, with 1' laid flat on the ground away from the game fence and buried
  • Next 2' attached by wire and cable ties to the game fence
  • Final 1' left to flop outward (Ms. Graff uses 2 or 3 feet. Let's see if my cheapass version works)
When an animal climbs up such a barrier, it gets to the top-most bit to falls back and, one hopes, off the fencing. Several writers who have tried this report that corner posts and gates are weak points. I have fixed the corners with extra chicken wire, also flopping out.

Such a fence is expensive. We have sunk over 1000 dollars into posts, game wire, cement, and now, the chicken wire. I do build my own gates, so that saves a lot of money.  We have seen a great deal less pilfering this year, with only one groundhog caught and killed in the garden proper. Thanks, Meatball!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Sustainable, Chemical-Free Christmas Trees?

Rural landowners face a big dilemma when deciding to earn money from the land. First, there is scale: one must have enough land in production to earn one more than a pittance. I hope, with some pasture nearby, to eventually raise Christmas trees without any herbicides or pesticides. My plan would be to employ Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices, as we do in our garden, mow for weeds, and hand shear trees each year properly until we harvest them.

As I read up on these concepts, and talk to a few local vendors who might buy my trees in a decade, I look no further than our farm garden for some advice on how to manage some of this.

We loaned much of our garden this summer out for an ongoing experiment by a tenant gardener, Dominic, who runs delli Carpini Farm. Other than feeding bugs to our chickens and applying diatomaceous earth to some plants, Dom has not been invasive in his practices. He uses organic fertilizers for top dressing, hand weeds, works the soil with manure, limestone, and fireplace ash, and hand digs most of his beds. Only one bed, never broken before, got the plow and harrow treatment by me. We both dislike that, but my own belief is "plow or till once" to get the weeds gone, then work small plots by hand after. In our sauna of a climate, it is tough to do otherwise.

Right now, the experiment has also showed him and me that being sensitive to the market and finding a niche crop helps.  For next year, if the weather holds, he is thinking of more cantaloupes and fewer tomatoes. After all, in Central VA, everyone grows tomatoes. Local melons, while not exactly rare, are harder to find and his first sales showed that these easily sell out. I will add hot peppers to the mix. Very few growers here have certain varieties I know will sell out at the farmer's markets.

I am considering something similar for trees, but I will have to identify varieties popular around here and that grow well in our climate. I love Scot's Pine but Jean English's article from Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners shows how relentlessly the market determines things. Scots Pines, also a favorite of the author, did not sell because the needles are too prickly for most consumers. Then the question becomes, what trees thrive here and will survive enough shaping to give the iconic (and artificial) conical shape that modern consumers expect?

Our great-grandparents were happy with a "natural" tree, open branches and all. Perhaps in the future, in a new era of energy scarcity, we will be again. Yet I cannot grow that tree for a profit. So the research begins as I talk to local merchants and read more from those in the business.

Because if we have to spray poisons, the deal is just off.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Old School Tools: Apinol

Since 1903, "America's Oldest Green Product" has soothed and cleansed those who work or play outdoors. Until I met my wife in 1989, I had never heard of this strange product from Alabama.

When Nancy began to talk about "Alpine Oil," which is how she and her family pronounce it, I thought it was something from a pine tree. Sure enough, Apinol is made from pine oil, and when you put it on a mosquito or tick bite, sore toe, or big scrape the sting is brief and the relief is long-lasting. You do, however, smell like pine-scented cleaning products.

We say around here that "it will help anything but a broken heart," and I'm not sure it would not  help in those cases, too. I have made a poultice from it, using cotton balls and medical tape, and let it sit on a blister or wound overnight. It relieves swelling and quickens healing.

Apinol can be hard to find. Locally, an Westbury Pharmacy carries it, and I have seen it listed on Amazon. I suspect this product, which has only changed from a glass to a plastic spray bottle in my many years using it, will be with us until 2103 and beyond.  Unlike many legacy brands, Apinol knows how to build a customer base and has a decent Web presence.

Tell your friends this summer, when the critters bite and scratch. I have not tried it as an insect repellant, but it's a soothing friend to have in a miserable time of year down South.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Looking for Mama Tree: Tree of "Heaven" Update

Not 32,000 seeds, almost all viable. 325,000 seeds, every year. Ah, Ailanthus altissima.

If you are managing--eradication being impossible--this invasive species in a time of climate change, you face an uphill battle. This plant, like poison ivy and other plants that don't serve our needs, is here to stay as Carbon-Dioxide levels continue to rise in the atmosphere.

Without resorting to clear-cutting, a practice that actually propagates the plant, or chemicals noxious to us and our bees, there are some ways to reduce the presence of this tree.

I found a great article from Phil Pannill, Regional Watershed Forester with the Forest Service at Maryland's Department of Natural Resources (link to Mr. Pannill's PDF here). It seems that the practices described last year in this blog will help, but I did find two huge "Mother trees" in the woods or near the roadside that need to be destroyed.

Thanks to the article, I now know I can do this without too many chemicals or even a chainsaw. I'm going to make hatchet-cuts around the trunks and brush in Roundup, as I do on the small trees I've been cutting. Last year's culling only yielded one tree that re-sprouted, so the method for smaller trees is about 90% successful for me. Next I'm going to put on my snakeproof chaps and wade into the thickets to get the rest, including the two "mamas" that make more seeds than there are people around here.

The key to controlling the trees in wooded areas is to keep them from reaching the canopy. If one keeps at the seedlings, they'll decline and die in the shade. Mama, however, is going to take a bit more effort. I'm still investigating what to do with the logs and brush. If they are safe to take to the county landfill to compost, off they go. The trunks are pretty and used in China for cabinetry, so I may keep them around to see how they weather for outdoor use in the garden or field.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Suburban Visitors Meet A Man From Mars

"There might be ticks," she said, stepping out of the car.

He replied, "I told you not to wear flip flops."

For the record, I don't own flip-flops or any open-toed sandals. Out here, they are not practical outdoors.

She doused her legs with bug spray. So did he, and he was wearing jeans and real shoes, good boots even.  I figured it would not be useful to tell them that I eat lots of garlic to keep the mosquitoes off, and sometimes I dust my boots with sulfur to repel ticks: not a great remedy if one wears that urban ubiquity, the flip-flop.

I also did not mention the tick jar I keep my pulled ticks in, until my bite looks okay, or the gizmo I use to remove several ticks a week from me.

That would lead to some sort of discussion about chemicals, and I'd get angry.

She got about 20 feet down our farm road and turned back. "I'll stay in the car." He said again, "I told you not to wear flip flops!"

I said something about street rods and the shell of a '55 Chevy I'm going to save, just to change the subject.

"So why are you selling these other old cars?" He asked. I have a few junkers on our property, none of them worth much, so I just gave him the real reason. "The wrecks are in the way when I'm mowing, and I've got two old cars already I fiddle with. We're going to cultivate the area to plant cover crops to feed our bees."

"Your bees," he said, as we trudged into the woods, me alert for snakes.

"You know, honey bees."

He nodded and was polite, but I was clearly the Man from Mars.

I didn't tell him, as I looked for snakes, that I'd said "hello, get a mouse!" to a big one that morning, on the steps by my garage. The serpent--a Black Racer--looked at me, stuck out his tongue, and slipped into a crack in the cinder block. My visitor would then probably recommend clearing all the undergrowth by the road, getting rid of brush piles, and so on.

Satisfied with the two pickup trucks he'd be saving from a rusty apocalypse, he and his wife went back to town. I'm sure they showered and deloused themselves. Nice folks, however, they are not my sort.

Later, another visitor came by, a talented painter and car-restorer who is going to do some body work on a car of mine. He and I walked to the garage to chat about the project, and he pointed to a patch of weeds.

"You know what THAT is?" He asked.

I looked, and looked back at him. "Poison Ivy."

He tilted his head but before he could offer advice, I said "We keep bees. I just string trim it, and we use no chemicals on our land, except some Roundup I paint with a brush on 'Tree of Heaven' after I cut them down."

Again, the Man-from-Mars look greeted me. But he too was polite and, again, not my sort.

I have seen the yards from the places where such folk come. Monocultures of grass not suited for our climate, foundation plantings just as water-intensive as the grass. Non-native trees far from the house, if there are trees. A sign on the lawn every so often, from a company with an innocuous name that cloaks its evil--GreenWays! EverGrow! BugBlaster!--that sprays poisons to kill bugs, all the bugs, or that puts toxins down so the lawn will continue its junkie life of constant chemical fixes. Meanwhile the owners of these properties breathe in chemicals daily, so trace amounts stay in their fatty tissue, accruing a little at a time...

I'd rather be a Man from Mars.

Here's a good test of a person I'd want to spend time with: they think the tick-jar is cool and talking to a snake is not odd.

I just pulled a tick off me, after my second paragraph of this post. I'll spare the readers a picture of him in the jar, crawling around.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Getting Really Local

Despite T.S. Eliot's declaration to the contrary, I do not find April to be the cruelest month. I really enjoy it, in fact. In the air are promises of summer ease, given my delightful academic schedule. We always have commencement on Mother's Day, but even before that, we have a week free when the soon-to-graduate go to "beach week" for a final communal debauch.

That sort of thing was never for me, even when I was a callow undergraduate. I tended to enjoy some casual-reading time and a bit of geeky gaming with friends, once classes ended.  And unlike so many hyper-parented students these days, back then I had no money.

Still, let them have some fun. Many of them will soon be back at home, looking for work,\ or slaving as disposable units for a large firm that will one day discard them. My students often--with a few really canny exceptions--find my attraction to the land strange. So do older creatures of chain stores and suburban neighborhoods. They cannot see the fragility and temporary nature of these living arrangements. When someone like James Howard Kunstler challenges them (as he did in a Skype visit to a class of mine a few weeks back) the students are either profoundly shocked or they laugh off Jim's dire predictions about the end of easy capital and easy energy.  After all, their smart phones, to which they are addicted, beckon them into an eternal now of continual progress and easy connections.

I'm not so sure about some of Jim's ideas, but I also doubt that our current exploitative way of life can continue, unabated, for much longer. My own solution may not suit everyone, but it involves living a deeply local life. Jim advocates it, especially in how one uses localism to build community. What does that mean?

I began by taking an assessment of what we purchase. How much of it could be sourced from a locally owned firm? How much extra would it cost, if it did cost extra? Second, I began to try, as best I could, to establish a relationship with merchants, contractors who do quality work, and old-school mechanics, not dealerships. This is not as hard as one might think. Our local butcher shop provides premium, but reasonable, meats and seafood from local sources; the beef, pork, and chicken come from our very county.  While meat may again become a luxury item at some future point, for now sustainably raised livestock help local growers retain the land, make money, and pass on essential skills to another generation. Agribusiness does none of this.

Likewise, the mechanics' shop to the east down the road and the tractor-repair to our west employ local people and have owners who live nearby. These folks will work on older cars and farm equipment that the big shops won't touch. Two small-engine wizards get things to work I can't, and I am not bad at it though chain saws will be forever finicky, even with ethanol-free gas in the tank!

Thinking local made us look for plants the same way. We were recently at Herbs Galore, an annual sale by Maymont in Richmond. It's a ritual to go and pull around a wagon of organically raised plants from local growers. Given the use of pesticides and herbicides in the soil of plants from big-box stores, we stopped buying their plants. The chemicals may be killing our bees, as seems to be the case for Neonicotinoids already under a two-year moratorium in the EU.  I will need a lot more evidence before I put chemicals into our land again, beyond the same small bottle of Roundup that has been doing a great job of controlling "Tree of Heaven" on our property. I'm so careful I use a small paintbrush to apply the product!

Perhaps it is the hope that blooms every April, but I'm not ready to give into the resignation of Jim Kunstler or worse, the despair of climate activist Paul Kingsnorth. Humans have a way of muddling along, even though we muddle things up in the process. At Herbs Galore, I saw, however, more than seedlings. I saw a new culture, a new-old type of capitalism, waiting to be born. It's at every locally owned brewery, never new bakery, every little business that finds a niche that Target or Amazon cannot crush.

Get to know your local merchants and cultivate some local skills. Even if doomsayers are wrong, any future with strong communities of committed neighbors will be a resilient one.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Barn Find Of Another Kind

image credit: item on sale at Etsy. Get over there and buy one!

I hope to write here occasionally about "old-school tools" that faded when newer technologies came on the scene. Quite often, with farm equipment, newer is better since new technologies include ergonomic and safety features that could save a life on the farm.

Not so with label-embossers. I have never heard of anyone dying from embossing plastic labels. The technology, from Dymo, was wildly popular in the early 70s. I still find my name in tidy white letters on items from that era. The little 3/8-inch-wide strips of plastic last forever, unless they get wet and the adhesive fails. For a Type-A personality like my own, facing a huge barn of loosely sorted fasteners, tractor parts, and other cryptic hardware, two things can curb the clutter: shelving and labeling.

Shelving is easy for me, as are bins and carpenter's chests for sorting the little stuff. But how to identify items with a quick glance and not the opening of 25 little drawers? Enter a 1970s Dymo M6 label embosser, new in box, found under a shelf. It's not a '67 Pontiac GTO or an M-1 Carbine rifle, two things I would love to find in my barn, but it's still a delight and will get far more use.

Dymo still makes these older devices, though the company focuses its efforts of higher-tech and higher-cost paper labelers that I see at office-supply stores.

One becomes less fastidious when living in the country, but some urban habits of mine will never pass. One is a belief that a clean countertop and well sorted tools save hours of time. I also have an OCD-person's memory for things that interest me. I can tell you where nearly every can of the 100 shades of paint are in our barn, where the galvanized screws are not, where to find cable ties, jack-stands, gear oil, or which cabinet holds the PTO parts for our old John Deere M.

As with gardening, there's an "illusion of control" at play here. Early Spring makes a garden, or a workshop, look manageable. It's one reason I prefer the cool-season months. Once the humidity and heat set in, things go to hell fast after 10am.

So it's time to get to work, making those labels!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

An Unplanned Road Trip: "The Day of the Tractors"

As I get my English 216 students to consider their own required road trips for the course, as irony would have it, I had to make my own.

Thus, I get to kill two birds with one stone: giving them a model for their project as well as writing both for the class blog and my Tractorpunk blog.  The impetus for the trip was simple. Our used but "new to us" Allis-Chalmers 6410 would be delivered by rollback to Buckingham County, then a John Deere 1250, the same tractor/backhoe that nearly killed my father-in-law, would come to Goochland where much work awaits it.  For more than a decade, I've worked on my in-law's old homestead to renovate an 1850 farmhouse and clear old fields and roads.  This trip to the farmhouse (shown above) would be a turning point. We no longer needed a backhoe to move mountains of dirt.

Plans like that rarely go smoothly. That mine did turn out well says a bit about the virtue of advance planning in spite of heavy weather. Driving up from Richmond on VA 6 and US 15, I'd made it as far as the little town of Dillwyn, VA, to await the truck carrying my tractor. As I made progress, the clouds thickened and the radio issued warnings with assuring words such as "horizontal rain" and "damaging winds."

Ignoring such loomings, down the road I went. I turned up my road-trip music, Gillian Welch's "Time (The Revelator)." Yes, take time enough, or just wait and pay enough attention, and all things will be revealed. I still buy CDs and crank them, rip them, and make my own mixes. But this recording of hers, while not about the Road, merits start-to-finish listening. There's not a weak song to be had.

Reaching Dillwyn, inspired by my road-hero William Least-Heat Moon, I ducked into two local places for sustenance. First I went to the window at Dairy Freeze, a drive-in of the 1950s sort that serves up decent cheeseburgers, good shakes, and oddities of Southern backroads such as Pizza Burgers, Bologna Burgers, and even a church flash-mob in 2012, dancing in the parking lot. I'm as suspicious of any organized religion as Least Heat-Moon in Blue Highways, but the video of the mob did make me grin.  That looks like a fun thing for God's followers to do.

God was not on my side at Dairy Freeze, however; they opened at 10 and it was 9:45. The obese lady getting ready to open, a woman who has often filled my orders with much haste and little mirth, shook her head and mouthed the word "closed." The weather looked like wrath-of-God stuff, so I drove my pickup across the highway (to take my shelter with me) and walked into Farmer's Foods for a road-snack. I came away with Lance crackers, a bottle of overpriced but cold water, and an Fuji apple. Not Sal Paradise's amazing deserts, "the pies bigger, the ice cream richer" (15) as he makes his first sojourn to Denver in On the Road, but any snack is welcome when the stomach growls and the sky lowers like an angry blanket.  For later I picked up a wedge of farmhouse cheddar cheese I have only found at this little store, a 1950s idea of a supermarket with decor that would never pass muster in Richmond because of its cartoonish rusticity: smiling cow, cartoon farmer, big pieces of fruit on the walls over the display cases.

The sign touts low prices and lacks letters, yet makes an attempt to be 21st Century with a Web address provided. Never mind that the address is tough to follow because of missing letters. From the Web site, I discovered that a real Johnny Farmer started the firm. A new Food Lion down the road has not put this location under, either. The store's scale and simplicity call to mind Heat-Moon's ideas, in particular his his encounter with a man who tells him "Americans have just got afraid to taste anything" (54). That would include having a taste for local culture that is not artisanal and expensive, as I find in the cities. On the other hand, Farmer's Foods is no mecca for local cuisine. Even my favorite cheese there is at best a decent mild cheddar, not too different from a good national brand. But folks in Dillwyn would not, and many could not, slap down fifteen dollars a pound for the sort of stuff I love.

It's easy to get Romantic about a place one passes through. I've shopped at Farmer's a dozen times in as many years, and I will never be a regular. The clerks know other customers' names. Not mine. They can't tell I'm an outsider from the way I dress when I'm in Buckingham--John Deere Cap, Duluth canvas work pants, work shirt, Redwing boots--that my tastes are different from Dillwyn's. Chalk it up to traveling the world. That opened my head: I want English table-water crackers with that farmhouse cheddar cheese and a craft-brewed local beer, not national swill. It just happens on the road. Travel, not mere tourist jaunts with a guide or in some prettified and sterile "resort," alter the traveler. Heat-Moon quotes John Le Carre, who noted about the journey of death that "Nothing ever bridged the gap between the man who went and the man who stayed behind" (188).  I would not recognize the person who, in 1985, boarded a flight for Europe.

Back then, after reading Blue Highways I learned something. Heat-Moon contributed to my desire to get out of Richmond. Yet my own road ran through the sky to Spain, where I moved for a year before graduate school pulled me back. I'd sold everything save a '74 Buick, dutifully stored in a garage with weight off the tires and stabilizer in the gas tank. I was never certain, however, that I would return for that car until I accepted the offer to attend Indiana University's PhD program. Spain was full of what Heat-Moon, quoting Proudhon, calls "the fecundity of the unexpected" (108). So is urban Richmond and rural Virginia, but I could not see it then.  All I could see in the 80s were Yuppies with more money than sense, bad musical tastes, and the and the ruination of farmland and forest along Broad Street into more of the suburbia I've loathed since childhood.

Rain was spitting as I got back to the truck, and I just made it. Soon the vehicle was shaking and shuddering in high wind, and only now, that I think back, do I recall those Weather Channel videos of cars being tossed around like Hot Wheels as a tornado strikes.  I wondered where my tractor might be, or more precisely, which ditch had swallowed it and the truck carrying it.  Then, on cue, the sky cleared and I picked up my smart phone. This happened to be my first-ever road trip with one of them. I phoned Ricky, the trucker hauling my rig, and he said was passing BB&T. That put him just down the rustic strip of quasi-suburbia from me. I only hate it less because downtown Dillwyn, a slate-mining town of nice brick storefronts, remains intact with only a few vacancies. Yet there is not a single place to eat there; for that, food has moved south to the strip and what it offers. I'm just pleased that Dairy Freeze packs in more folks than the McDonald's up the way.

Amid these somewhat morbid thoughts, I watched as Ricky's rig pulled in with my orange and "new to me" tractor. I was delighted. Ricky drove the fifteen minutes to our farm-gate and not a foot more. Our road in was nearly a half-mile of mud, at spots a foot deep. I had run it that morning, looking for downed trees, and I had to use four-wheel drive all the way. There was no way a service vehicle would make it. Luckily, by the time I got back with my John Deere backhoe, Ricky had unloaded the new tractor, and I drove it on through the mud all the way to my barn.

The unexpected had occurred again. There was not as much as a sapling down across the road from all that wind, despite the soil being saturated with water from the melted snow and the rain that melted it.  Weather works that way.

The next day my wife and I were there again at the homestead, with the Blue Ridge visible from the road at the top of our hill.  it would be an overnight mission, to cut some fallen pines and use the trunks to border our raised-bed garden.

Nancy had me stop the pickup at the top of the road, where a local man named Sam lives, a nice gent who once gave us his tiny phone book so we could look up a number. Sam told us "y'all keep it! Who am I gonna call? I know their numbers already."  My students probably will never again use a phone book, but I suspect they'd envy the view from Sam's front yard the visit stuns a visitor in clear weather. Our gently sloping mountains, largely protected from cancerous development, run across the entire Western horizon like a group of old friends coming to visit us. Nan  said "THAT looks like Virginia." She was right. If you love a place enough and are lucky to return and not be restless, there's a thrill of recognition of a place that looks like home.

In the shadows of those mountains local industries flourish: craft-breweries and cideries, ski-slopes (cutting tree and adding condos), vineyards, kayaking liveries, small-herd sheep and cattle ranching.  Each one beckons a short road trip far from strip-development, tract-housing, and big congested roads. I suspect that Heat-Moon was a bit pessimistic when he wrote Blue Highways. While disasters like Wal-Mart have devastated a great number of family businesses, there's been a concurrent and sustained interest, since the 1990s, in local food, local business, even a voluntary simplicity movement among consumers.

My hope is that these prove harbingers of a nation of blue highways or, at the very least, a space for tinkerers, homesteaders, nay-sayers, and gentlemen farmers like me.  Will my hope come to pass? Rolling home Sunday, for another week of education at the hands of my students, I realized that time would, indeed, be the revelator.

Works Cited:

Heat-Moon, W. L. Blue Highways: A Journey Into America. Boston: Back Bay, 1999.

Kerouac, J. On The Road. New York: Penguin, 1976.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Why February Matters

On Facebook recently, some urban friends noted that this is a wasted month. Nonsense.

I used to think that too, but since moving to the country, I have come to really enjoy this shortest of months. It's one of the best months in Virginia for getting serious work done outdoors.  In New Hampshire or North Dakota, it would be a different matter.

Of course, the weather has to cooperate. Today was one such day. The academic life has many advantages, but my favorite is the flexibility of my hours. Today showed nothing on my work calendar and foul weather ahead for Saturday. So, thought I, flip your Saturday for your Friday, and get work done outside while the weather is fair. Tomorrow will suffice for school work. In the countryside of the 21st Century, it's easy enough to have a VPN connection and high-enough speed Internet. My academic work will get done before Monday.

But today, with waxing daylight and temperatures in the mid-40s, it's time to hit the fencerows.

That's February for me. It's my time to prune fruit trees, clear areas around our little apple orchard, plant garlic in raised beds, get rid of an overgrown chain-link fence, limb up cedars broken by storms, run the wood-chipper, plant roses and other woody plants, take a little time off to do some target practice with the varmit-rifle.  It is a snake-free month to do the real Spring-cleaning chores. The old truck body, shown above, is one of several eyesores on our property I'm removing. It has a nice home now, as storage space at a landscaping company locally.

February is not a wasted month.  The cold air is different from January. There's a tiny hint of Spring.

No month is a wasted month, even in town. Go outside and see the daylight growing every day, preferably while taking a walk with the phone turned off.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Big Dog Needed

We decided that being killed on a tractor would not be much fun.

Our old 1952 Ford 8N, a wonderful machine once you accept its limitations, needs to come home to pull a wagon around for my work clearing brush, moving wood, and other light work. It's just NOT the machine for cutting fields when the terrain gets hilly, no more than our 1950 John Deere M that now does gentle mowing on flat spots. The Ford is certainly not the machine to grade a half-mile long dirty-and-gravel road, though I've pressed it into service for that purpose.  It lacks a roll bar and seat belt, features I consider mandatory for work on slopes.

Enter the 50 hp Allis-Chalmers tractor pictured above, a machine we just purchased. The owner, a slow-talking, relaxed cattle farmer, showed me around the vehicle recently and I ran it out of the barn to check the hydraulics and brakes. It's a good one that has not been abused, and I've spent long enough on and around tractors to check hoses, tires, suspension, and motor. I know what a well-maintained diesel sounds like now.

A rural landowner who maintains multiple properties faces the tough decision of buying a big trailer to move heavy equipment (and maybe an expensive truck to pull that load) or looking for used farm tractors to leave "up the road" for occasional use.

We opted for the latter, and I stick with my contention that one can buy outstanding and safe equipment for under $10k. We needed a farm tractor with a loader to replace a John Deere diesel tractor with a loader and backhoe attachment, soon coming back home to Goochland (where we move a lot of dirt and gravel) as well as the 8N.

For the past couple of days, we drove down Virginia's Blue Highways, from the Shenandoah Valley to the Piedmont north of Charlottesville, looking at used machines.  What a delight that has been; there's a farm revival going on in America, and it's small stakeholders as well as the big boys. We have met folks raising grass-fed beef without hormones. We've met small merchants supplying the needs of DIYers going back to the land.

You can get cheated by rural folk as fast as by anyone in town, but I know honesty when I hear it. A guy at a dealership put it clearly, and I'll sum it up here for would-be ruralists. There are three grades of used utility tractors around. Around $10K buys a good machine that's clean, around $7K buys one that has got some wear and will work for occasional use, and under $5K buys a machine that is going to be rough or old, or both.

Everything I've seen bears this out.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Old Man Winter's Friend

It's not fashionable to claim that one enjoys cold weather. I think that fondness for the warm months comes from the easy availability of central air conditioning.  People have grown soft, or at least they complain more than older folks I used to know, people who grew up before climate controls and climate change that force us, increasingly, indoors.  When I go to big-box DIY stores, I see the ideal of the suburban cocoon: a place with all new fixtures and floors so warm and smooth that the models pictured in the displays are in socks or barefoot.

I live in a home where you'll get an inch-long splinter in your foot if  you try that.  And I like that.  I live in a home where we set the heat-pump LOW to save money and once in a while, I have to restock the woodstove in the middle of the night to keep the house warm. And I like that, too.

There's merit to not living with every possible modern comfort. One hard fact of country life is that one must work outdoors in all seasons and weather. In July and August, for the past two decades, I have been required to get up early, at hours my students could never fathom, and work outdoors. Once I only did that to go fishing. My academic year permits this latitude with hours during the dog-days of Summer, yet my job also works against my being out doors during the very best months in Virginia for putting in fences, mowing fields, repairing building, cutting wood, and all of the million things that my father-in-law taught me.

Now, living in the country instead of simply apprenticing, I make the best of whatever weather I get. I do have more time on a hot day, early in the morning, to do a few chores before the burning tyrant called the Sun rises and makes the day and me suffer. In winter, however, I can excel on most days, save one like today, where the thermometer struggles to get out of the single digits. That's very odd for Virginia, though historically, the region could count on a few single-digit lows each year.

So today I sit indoors, work on the semester ahead, and wish there were snow as well as cold. They just don't come together here, as they once did.

Cold weather does cut down on mosquitoes in summer, and it makes life bearable cleaning out barns or working in tight spots where, come spring, I might find a Copperhead ready to bite me.  Black Widows are still around, that that is why gloves are a godsend (and you don't work in this sort of cold without gloves).

Winter has a spiritual side, too. The long dark nights lead a person to introspection. Yes, that's not fashionable in this day, either; to turn off the mobile device and just think about things. But when it's cold, and the coffee and tobacco pipe are warm by the wood stove, there are few things in life more comforting. Then the trek to the log-rack becomes a reminder that we should never take warmth and comfort as expectations.

If life were a little harder, day to day, what would we stop taking for granted?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Why I Don't Make Resolutions at New Year

The tradition of resolutions is doomed to failure, but setting intentions? Now those are flexible. So I will make a few for 2014.
  • Minimalism: My dear friend Steve Gott lived a life of fewer and fewer possessions. He was no hermit but thought that one should cherish what one has. I'm going to see what can be done to at least make do with fewer things and more experiences. We've been doing that since we moved to the country. It is, however, a long journey and one worth making
  • Planning: Retirement is a gleam on the horizon, but it's a brighter gleam than it was, say, five years ago.  We have a lot to do to get the homestead ready for a time of limited incomes, but we have saved many thousands by doing work ourselves or helping our contractor. We plan to keep looking 3 or 4 years out in terms of what areas of the homestead will be developed by adding trails, expanding the bee-yard, and making our woodlot suitable for sustainable harvesting of firewood for fuel.  I'm thinking of setting up, eventually, at our local farmer's market, but we must first really expand our hives and have some other produce to sell. That's going to take a business license, which is easy in our county to obtain.
  • Community: This is a key aspect of rural life that many "come heres" forget. Luckily, my spouse is a "from here" who came back, and we have friends in the community. My goal, without being the sort of butt in at every county council meeting, will be to begin doing some sort of local and non-sectarian volunteer work. I'm going to be giving one day a month to Habitat on a build, so I don't think another day monthly would add too much stress to my life. It also puts a resident on the local map. I may help at our Field Day of the Past, where I know some volunteers who make this rural fair possible each year.
  • Humor: Academics are a serious lot. I grow weary sometimes of how serious they can be, but then, the stakes are low and the prestige of careers in higher education--diminishing in many sectors--is mostly visible only to those inside its confines. I realize now that I'm still searching for a way, in my remaining years before retirement, to bring some of what I love about rural life to the Academy. That intention is going to remain nebulous, for now. But it will solidify into a project, at some point.
Meanwhile, Happy 2014. I hope our world limps along better than it did last year. There's a lot of beauty even in damaged times. Go find some or, better yet, make some.