The human labors here at the Farm consist largely of moving Sheep and Cows from one paddock to another. Before domestication and fences, this work—keeping the herds of hungry ruminants bunched together and always on the move—was the responsibility of those with gleaming incisors. The top predators. And the ground was the beneficiary. Think Bison herds thousands strong thundering across the Prairie, building legendary meters-deep topsoil. The herd acts like a paintbrush in the hands of a master landscape painter. In simplified terms, they use their remarkably-adapted mouths, tongues and digestive systems to transform the standing Grasses into urine and manure, with which they paint the ground. You could say that their job is to feed the ground back to itself. They beget a greening of riotous fecundity. Tragically, after just a few hundred years under the lash of the plow hitched to an economy of extraction, the remarkable capacity of those Prairie soils to sustain life has largely been reduced to rumor, to legend.
I heard an expression once that goes something like, “That which you banish you become.” In the case of this Sheep flock brought over on the ships from England grazing these thirty acres of grassland carved from an ancient forest, the banished one goes by the name Wolf, or today, Wolf’s surrogate Coyote. Last evening, I extracted the bone from a large leg of Lamb, broke the lean muscle into two roasts, coated each with Salt, Pepper and Coriander, and put them in the fridge to brine for a couple of days before roasting. The cold roasted leg of Lamb will be sliced thin for the sandwiches that will fuel the farm work on the upcoming hot days. As I carved and salted and sliced, I noticed my tongue pausing on the pointed tip of an elongated tooth, third from center in the top row. Incisor. Of the livestock here at the Farm, only the Sheep flock is large enough to replicate some of the behavior of those thundering herds of Bison moving in the presence of prairie predators. They number over forty, and already the Spring Lambs graze hungrily alongside their mothers, transforming standing Grass into flesh, urine and manure, feeding the ground. These images of the flock-as-paintbrush and the predator-as-painter have kept me going on long, hot and fly-bothered days in the field this week, offering some welcome aspiration-as-fuel. I have been smiling as I imagine introducing myself not as a farmer but as an aspiring Wolf, or Wolf-in-training. The one with the gleaming tooth.
In a recent Letter, I shared the dismay delivered by a handwritten record of bales harvested from these fields in 1995. The small piece of paper, hanging from a nail at the base of the stairs to the hayloft, informed us that these fields used to yield some seven times more hay than we had just finished baling. Let the deluge of that news soak in for a minute. The Farm’s capacity to sustain life has diminished by a factor of seven in just thirty years. The other handwritten note found in the barn, dated some thirty years again before the hay tally, records the final breeding of a Guernsey Cow owned by Giles Schermerhorn on August 11, 1966. From what I can tell, that is the last year there were livestock here to eat the Grass and Hay and paint the ground with their life-giving manure and urine. In that Letter, I also described the old manure trolley that runs the length of the Barn and the way it remembers a time when a Farmer was someone who assisted the process of feeding the ground back to itself. Imagine the hay yields back then, some sixty years ago. In the Farm’s heyday, so to speak. When Cows and Sheep leave the Farm, the hay begins to leave the Farm, which means the ground stops being fed, which means the Farm begins to die.
So why did the Cows and Sheep leave the Farm back in 1966? As I have mentioned before, this Farm’s story is a tangle of the forgotten and the long-dead. For the past seventeen years, since Henry Schermerhorn died, the place has been unoccupied by humans, the old Farmhouse unheated and slowly rotting. Patching together the old stories has proven slow work. I have met a few old-timers with memories to share of this place and the family who lived here. And there are clues everywhere around the Farm waiting to be noticed and interpreted. Recently, on a rare walk through the musty farmhouse, I noticed an envelope tucked into a box of books at the top of the attic stairs. Postmarked 1941, the envelope is addressed to Mr. Giles B. Schermerhorn. The handwritten note inside, which begins “Dear Dad. Don’t read aloud,” drifts from block lettering back to cursive longhand as it goes, and it is not signed. From the pieces of the family’s history I have gleaned, I am fairly sure that it was written by Henry’s brother, Adgate.
Don’t mention it to Mom but I may get a chance to come home over Memorial Day. Does the ferry run yet or when does it start? I do hope that you can find someone to shear the sheep as if I do get home I want to rest a bit. I know of nothing else to tell you right now. Until the next time be careful of everything.
From this note, and others that I have come across since, it appears that both sons had moved away for college by the early 1940’s and didn’t return to the Farm except as a place to visit. By the time Henry retired and moved back home, his parents Giles and Caroline and the Farm they had maintained had been dead for some time already. This handwritten letter and its request that someone else be found to shear the sheep, begins to answer the question of why the Farm began to die. Imagine what it meant to Giles to receive this request from his son, asking maybe for the first time not to be involved in the work of the Farm as a condition of visiting home. Twenty-five years later the final Cows left the Farm. There were no longer humans here willing or able to carry on the work.
If you come to visit the Farm, I will take you on a walk around the fields and show you how to see the impoverishment of the ground in the pale coloring and thinness of the Grasses. As we walk, we will eventually come upon a place where the Grass grows tall, lush, dark green. These spots are no more than a foot or two in diameter, widely scattered around the field. In these places the Cows or Sheep have peed or pooped since they arrived in March. And if we stand in that place, looking out across the sparse, pale Meadow dotted with dark green spots, we might begin to imagine how it was possible to harvest seven times more hay than we did this year. These spots are the Farm, remembering.
I have been struggling to figure out how to write about the impoverishment of the ground here without reducing the inquiry to a scientific account of soil health. There are others better equipped to interpret and describe those measurable declines, and I will gratefully lean on their scientific ways of knowing as I attempt to do right by these depleted fields. There is something else I am trying to say about the ground as the repository of memory, and the signs and symptoms of its degradation. There is something to say about the ground as the repository of the past, of all of those who have lived and died, all those who ate and peed and pooped and labored and laughed and cried here and what it means for us that all of that stopped happening. Or at least it stopped happening in one place. Once the livestock left the Farm, the harvested hay was sold away. But the sale contract did not require the buyer to ensure the health of the Farm by returning manure—too costly and inconvenient. A distance opened up between the eater and the land. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say. And something began to die on that day. There is something to say about the ground as the repository of continuity and culture, about standing on the backs of those who passed through the place before us, about the ways in which they did and didn’t keep us in mind. And surely others have tried to say something about all of this before me.
In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde describes the potlach ceremony practiced by the first nations of the Northwest coast by citing the field notes from the 1890’s. “One of the men giving the feast in the potlach….says as the meal begins: ‘This food is the goodwill of our forefathers. It is all given away.’” (p. 45) Notice that the statement is not, “This food symbolizes the goodwill of our ancestors.” The food simply is their goodwill. There is food because they proceeded as if we would be here and looking for something to eat. The food is them, keeping us in mind. The food is their lives and ours and the food is the ground. Remembering this to be so is what makes it so, ongoingly. Remembering this ensures the food and the feeding both. Remembering this is the culture being fed back to itself, its capacity to sustain life renewed. Forgetting this is something else entirely. Forgetting this invokes calamity.
Wendell Berry wrote about agricultural decline back in the mid-seventies, a decade after the Cows left this Farm. He wrote the following in a book titled The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture:
A culture is not a collection of relics or ornaments, but a practical necessity, and its corruption invokes calamity. A healthy culture is a communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, aspiration. It reveals the human necessities and the human limits. It clarifies our inescapable bonds to the earth and to each other. It assures that the necessary restraints are observed, that the necessary work is done, and that it is done well. (p. 43)
It’s hard to imagine saying it any better than Wendell has in these stunning lines. “A healthy culture is a communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, aspiration.” So what about healthy ground, healthy soil? I have been learning about a movement for regenerative agriculture from my neighbor, fellow farmer and constant conversation partner Ashlee. She has an ear and an eye for the science of soil testing and what it can disclose about the working of fungi, bacteria and micronutrients and their unique contributions to the conditions for healthy soil. And as I listen to what she has been learning, I am grateful to have her eyes and ears in the neighborhood in a time with a lot of depleted ground to recover, a time with so much to repair and rebuild. Her learning frees me up to wonder about the connection between culture loss and soil degradation, to imagine my unique contribution to the calamities at hand, to ask questions such as: Are we treating symptoms without naming the disease syndrome? Wendell writes that a healthy culture, “assures that the necessary restraints are observed, that the necessary work is done, and that it is done well.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t see much of that happening anywhere I look. Necessary restraint and necessary work seem resoundingly unpopular these days. I hear more often, “Do whatever makes you happy.”
How would we describe a regenerative culture movement? I’ll take my cue from the old-timers, who seem to love telling of the way things used to be—remembering the place aloud in story. I don’t often hear them discussing the cat-ion exchange capacity of the soil, or mycorrhizal associations. Instead, they tell stories about a time when the ground was more fertile than it is today, of a time when life was less “Out of sight, out of mind.” They tell of abandoned breeds of hardy cattle, of bulls getting out and causing mischief, of barn dances and horse teams, of a time when it was unimaginable that culture and agriculture could be estranged from one another. And yet that estrangement has come to pass in their lifetimes. I have been wondering if their stories could begin to renew the culture’s capacity to sustain life by feeding it back to itself. Story as the articulation of memory, memory as food for the culture, the culture as food for the ground, the ground as food for the coming generations—or at least that is how it strikes me this morning.
Last weekend I attended a dinner at the local Grange Hall, a place that historically hosted lively gatherings of farmers. After several months of meetings, a group committed to revitalizing the Grange hosted their first event—a potluck supper. About twenty folks show up. A good showing, but I do notice that there is only one old-timer in attendance. His name is Steve Pray, and these days he delivers the mail in addition to keeping up with the semi-feral herd of cattle that roam the hill pasture across from the farm house he grew up in, just around the corner from this Farm. I sit myself down across from Steve and start asking him questions. As a child, he remembers that Giles Shermerhorn would bring the milk from his small herd of Guernsey Cows over to his family’s Farm and pour it into their tank, as Giles didn’t have enough Cows to warrant his own pick up. They would record the number of gallons and divide the payment from the creamery accordingly. Steve tells me a story of the time his father walked back through the woods in the dark from a Barn dance in Port Douglas—some five miles away, over the mountain—and arrived home at two in the morning. The next day, exhausted, he fell asleep cultivating Corn with the Horses and woke up when Steve’s grandfather slapped him across the head. The Horses had wandered back to the water trough at the Barn while their driver snoozed. I tell him about the calves I am training to work as Oxen, and he begins to remember aloud the complex system of ropes and pulleys used to get the loose hay from the wagons up into the loft with an old hay fork. “Would you be willing to help me figure out how to refurbish the hay fork at my place?” I ask him. You can guess that he said yes.
The next morning, I receive a phone message from my neighbor Phil who is not feeling well—abdominal pain, unable to keep food down—asking for help getting his hay in. Being so new to town, I take it as an honor to be high on someone’s list of “Who can I call on when I am in a tight spot?” Sadly, my phone didn’t ring when Phil called, so he has already stopped by Ashlee and Steven’s place to find someone in person. His condition is severe enough that Ashlee loads him in the car and drives him right to the hospital. He has since undergone surgery for a hernia. So Ashlee and Steven and I figure out together how to get Phil’s hay raked and baled and under cover, with Rain coming the next day. Ashlee rakes the hay around noon. Before going to the hospital, Phil arranged with another neighbor named Joe LeClair to operate the baler. Steven and I will stack bales. Joe grew up on a Farm around the corner from Phil’s place. Neither Steven or I have met him before, and Steven warns me that he sounded a bit gruff on the phone. When Joe pulls up, he indeed doesn’t have many words for us, so we confirm our roles and head to the field to get started. Steven takes the diesel cans to fill, so I work alone stacking the first wagon. I have stacked hay a few times before with guidance, learning the pattern that ensures a secure load. The field is not flat, and a toppled wagon of hay would slow us down considerably. The tractor is hitched to the baler, which is hitched to the wagon upon which I receive and stacking the bales as they come. The noise of the machines mean that Joe and I can’t hear one another, so we communicate with hand signals as the wagon approaches full, and he drives to a flat spot to unhitch. Once the tractor quiets to an idle and we’re both on the ground, Joe says, “You’ve stacked hay before.” Just like that. Not a question, and with almost no visible emotion on his face. “A few times,” I reply. And then he says, “I’ve been stacking hay since I was seven, and no one knows how to stack hay any more. You have to set the bales in at an angle and force them down to make contact so the stack goes up tight. I watched you do that.”
When Steven returns from picking up the fuel I say, loud enough that Joe can hear me, “I think I just received a compliment on my hay stacking.” And I am pretty sure I can make out the beginning of a smile on Joe’s face.
I can feel the desire to gather all of these threads together and tie them into a bow. A tidy package with an actionable plan for cultural and ecological regeneration. The paintbrush and the master landscape painter. The Wolf and the Human. Bison herd and Sheep flock. Cows and culture and the ground. Memory as food. Well, I hope it doesn’t disappoint or surprise you terribly to hear that I don’t have any actionable plan. Aspirations, yes. An ear for the old stories, yes. And forty Sheep waiting for a new paddock, wondering where I am. I can hear them calling through the open window. It strikes me there is a whole lot of work to do, and the day’s heat is coming on. I’ll see you in the field.
Photo provided by the author