Winged Elm Farm

  (Philadelphia, Tennessee)
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Anarchy vs. Order

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Reading over some of these four hundred pages of farm notes the other day and the saying “the more things change the more they stay the same” crossed my mind. Certain themes are recurrent: food, labor, the seasons, community and chaos.

Last night after a long and productive day as we watched raw sewage bubble up through the access cap to the septic line the latter theme was on my mind. The day started with Caleb and me trudging up to the back for a five hour session of mending fences. Hard but gratifying work under blue skies and cool fall temperatures is not the worst way to spend a portion of one’s day. Around one o’clock we headed back home, put our tools away and went in the house. Caleb departed soon after for home and Cindy caught me up on her morning.

She had made a trip to town for livestock feed, got her haircut, made yogurt and put an errant steer up… three times. She gave up on him after the fourth escape. So, tired and ready for my beauty rest we instead both put on our boots and went in search of him. Easily found standing in our neighbor’s yard we put him back up and moved the herd to a new pasture. Well, at least we tried numerous times. The herd was not in a cooperative mood. We gave up.

Back in the house Cindy napped while I renewed my knowledge on honey extraction. She arose after an hour refreshed and we headed out and spent a couple of hours raiding the hives for honey. Twelve quarts of honey later, a few thousand aggrieved bees and we were done except for the clean-up.

We walked back in the house, satisfied but weary, for coffee. It was my night to cook so I pulled out a rooster that had been thawing in the fridge and got to work. Cindy pulled her boots back on, got the dogs, and moved the cattle up to the back forty. Hopefully they will all be satisfied with the menu of fescue and stay within our property lines.

She finished up the chores while I finished a dish of chicken mole poblano with a side of rice and a salad of rocket greens. We dined, mostly in silence, tired from a long day with some unexpected detours. An hour or so before bed, after an excursion to the bathroom, it was discovered that the commode was unresponsive: Cue standing out in the dark watching the sewage fountain.

Up at dawn I pulled out our electric auger and cleared the drain to the septic system. Anarchy or Order: some days all we do is hold the one at bay.


The Question: why we farm

It is a regular occurrence, a question we're asked:
why do we do all this work?

A night in a deep January, I’m lying on my side in six inches of snow, the temperature at 3 degrees. I have a heat gun in my hand and have been trying for 30 minutes to thaw out the well pump. The little electric pump sits on top of the well shaft and pulls the water up and pushes it on to the house. The pipe has frozen at the juncture before it reenters the ground. The epiphany comes when the ice audibly breaks and the water flows. I lie back in the snow and think, What a lucky man.

Riding through the woods on the tractor on an early spring morning, redbuds and dogwoods in bloom. Delicate wood sorrel and rustic little brown jugs scattered across the lane. I have eight hours of work with the chainsaw ahead of me. Lunch taken in the shade of the tractor. Both Lefty and Tip grovel at my feet, doggy grins displayed, hoping to be favored with yesterday's pizza. I finish the day dragging felled trees to a central brush pile, then
head home. Back through the woods, the evening light, as
peaceful as the morning's, signals a slowing down.

Next morning, I head back out. Enjoy the sheer pleasure of
turning out the cattle onto a pasture of rich spring grass. Another day, this time spent repairing the fencing the trees have dragged down. Lunch, again under the tractor, of leftover chicken, cooked to what my friend Jack refers to as “mahogany brown." What we call burnt, and delicious whatever the nomenclature. I finish the new fencing. The cattle are content and well secured. Again, the fields, the lane through the woods, and I'm home.

Or, the drama of discovering a goose is laying her first egg, that quickly becomes a clutch of 12. The snake-like hiss of the goose on her nest. The gander aggressively signals your immigrant status in his world. Noting the calendar day that begins the 30-day march to goslings. The real sense of sadness as the hatch day passes and inexplicably nothing arrives. A note of betrayal in the goose's voice as we shovel up her eggs and consign them to the burn barrel.

A better spring: The delight in hearing that first peep under ruffled feathers. The goose telegraphs the event 24 hours prior by spreading out over the nest like a hovering angel. Hearing or feeling, she knows the time is near. Catching glimpses, I count six goslings. With long-sleeved shirts to protect from bites, Cindy gingerly pulls the goslings from underneath. We place them in the brooder.

The gander—we call him Uncle—takes up a guarding position outside the cage. Regardless of parentage, he is the chosen sentinel. He will stay by the goslings' side for the next three months. He has developed a style of fighting that would be quite effective against children, and is against dogs. Flapping his wings, he levitates off the ground. Hissing, stationary, he signals his determination to protect and serve.

Midnight skies, a flock of wild turkeys heard but not seen on the opposing ridge, the uncontrollable spread of wild mint, the loveliness of peach trees in bloom, the muscle ache from setting 30 fence posts. The giddy delight in admiring our equipment shed, the morning sun throwing a splash of color through the Victorian stained glass window in the tack room. Collecting persimmons from a wild tree to make beer, not knowing or caring what it will taste like. Breathing in the smell of hay drying in the field, gentling a rooster before butchering, approaching cautiously as I move an irascible bull. Buzzards in a tree dreamed up by Tim Burton, staring at me sweating in the garden in eager expectation. The barn at 3 in the morning as Daisy calves.

And still we get the question?                                          



Ruling The Roost

The time of morning, just before sunrise, where the light is revealing the landscape, the animals are stirring but not up, the distant meow of our cat Mickey as he strolls up the hundred or so yards from his den to our front porch is my favorite time of the day.

Usually I’m dressed in shorts with my Wellingtons on my feet walking to the barnyard. As the buckets clang with spilling feed the chickens begin to flutter down off their roost with audible thuds. The hogs begin an unseen jostling for position at the feed trough signaled by grunts and snorts. My brain begins to kick into gear, fueled by at least one cup of coffee.

It is a good time to observe. And I observe the replacement rooster sneaking across the barnyard to snatch a bit of grain and a little love. This lasts about 30 seconds before the Cock of the Walk charges into him sending the boy into ignoble flight. Someday, and that day is sooner than later, the boy will have his moment.

Each rooster is kept on the flock for two seasons. Our current rooster was born in spring of 2010. In the fall of each year we gather up all the spring roosters in a pen. They get ample feed for a few weeks. And, then the literal axe will fall. But, before the slaughter date Cindy and I spend a few hours separating out two young cockerels that have promise. They match the confirmation we want for our breeding rooster. The culls get butchered, destined for gumbo or chicken and dumplings. The two we save are kept for an additional few months. At that time we make a choice and butcher one. The survivor becomes the “replacement rooster”. He is in training for the next year.

The replacement rooster leads a furtive existence, skirting the edge of the flock, dashing in for a quick (and I mean quick) romantic encounter. The rooster quickly and usually catches the boy and a sound “whupping” ensues.

In 2011 the old top rooster was butchered making way for the current ruler of the flock. A rooster, between 2-3 really comes into his own. He develops a magnificent deep chest, long spurs and beautiful plumage. Unfortunately for him his fertility drops 25% a year. So, by the third year he is firing blanks as often as hits, if you know what I mean. And that simple fact leads to the annual anointment of the replacement, like the corn kings of old.

It is sad to shuffle the boy off this mortal coil simply because he has difficulties in the … umm… you know, department. But, every year is the same, we are sorting out a couple for candidates for replacement rooster and promoting the current R.R. and preparing a sensational dinner of coq au vin with the “retired” bird. A dish, by the way, that was developed for the old boy who had lost his “crow”.

But, standing there in the predawn light, the old boy spots the young interloper, sprints the length of the run and vanquishes him in short order. At least for today he still rules the roost. I finish my chores and make it back to the house as Mickey arrives on the porch.


Full Moon

I was standing in the oldest orchard. The light was provided by the full moon. High and staggered clouds were moving across the sky providing a stop and go slide show with the moonlight. And, I was reminded again that one of the principle joys of living in the country is to experience through your senses the world around you in a most intimate way.

Living in Knoxville and sitting quietly in the backyard provided its own revelatory moments. But, a moonlit night in the country has a special quality a city neighborhood lacks.

A loud cough of a buck on the hill signals a failed attempt to cross above me discreetly. Now that deer-hunting season is almost upon us they are moving at night more than in daylight. They know the time for prudence is now. Opening day and we will be greeted by a barrage of gunfire at daylight.

I reached out in the darkness and grabbed the scuppernong vines and gave them a shake. Like large soft heavy raindrops, overripe grapes fell into the wet grass.

Walking back down the slope through the orchard, past the equipment shed, I closed the door to the chicken run. The noise caused the hens to stir. Breathing like an asthmatic child they wheezed and shifted and went back to sleep.

A hammer hitting wood and the clank of clamps and I know Cindy is in our workshop. She has moved on to building a kitchen cupboard with glass doors. The occasional expletive signals a perfectionist’s ongoing struggle with a project that has been well done. I, on the other hand, can scrape the bark off of a branch, call it a walking stick and be absurdly pleased.

After closing the chickens up I lean across the fence and smell the lambs. The sweet smell of wet wool and the poop of an animal that eats forage rise up out of the pasture. They have quiet and meek little bleats. A soft tread in the grass is just audible as they are torn between curiosity and alarm at my presence.

I lean down and pull off and chew a turnip green, what a wonderful explosion of spice, mustard and the texture of a tobacco leaf.

I turn back to the house. All three dogs vie for the honor of walking by my side. They snarl and fight. Robby wins and heels by my left leg as I walk up the steps.

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