Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Lunch at Elk Cliff Farm

Here's today's lunch:

"All local?" says Virginia.

All very local, all Elk Cliff Farm: cucumber, sweet corn, green beans, tomato, Edam goat cheese, and watermelon.

"Did you eat all of it?" says Virginia.


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Lumber and Salamanders

Timber Ridge might have made me cry this morning, had I been feeling tender. Loggers have decimated several spots along one of my favorite running trails. Carcasses were lying in rows on hillsides, waiting to be hauled up to the road by the chains of metal monsters. A four-foot diameter trunk caught my eye, an old, old friend already carted off.

I know the mountain will repair itself, not in my lifetime, maybe my son's. Some day he or his son or daughter might run up 'air and spot a rotten trunk surrounded by towering poplars, and wonder if that's the trunk I mentioned today....on a blog forgotten among centillions of bits and bytes overloading recorded history.

Less than a hundred yards away, I spotted an Eastern newt, its red spots and orange body broadcasting its presence among the logging road's gravel and weeds. Its stillness worried me, so I tapped its tail. It wiggled an inch or so and settled. When we first began visiting this area in 1998, we found hundreds of these wondering the wet woods. Today's gray sprinkling brought them out again.
"How many did you see?" says Virginia.

At least a half dozen.

Friday, August 24, 2012


When we had a new fence built around our field last year, we placed it twenty feet inside the existing perimeter fence. This left a run -- for dogs and me or just me, some blueberry bushes and other edible landscaping, and maybe, some day, a donkey cart. That day is near.

A large horse trailer on a truck's flat bed passed us as we returned from Strasburg last night. An antique horse/donkey cart rested on our pickup. I almost wanted traffic to stop so we could take a picture of them and us. An hour later we parked outside Zynodoa, our favorite restaurant in Staunton, maybe anywhere, and when we finished eating, we were pleased to find the cart still there.

Wendell Berry suggests that when you find a new place to live, you don't rush out and change things. Don't build a barn, don't tear down a fence, don't dig a pond, until you've walked the property for a year or two and listened to what it has to say. We've been listening to our field. We're still listening. The fence suits us and we think the field, too. We also built a run-in shed for our mammoth donkeys. It suits us, as do the donkeys and, so far, the pigs who live a hundred yards north. So far, we think the field is happy, too.

Joel Salatin recommends temporary shelters and movable fences, except for perimeter fencing. We read this after we put in the donkey barn and the fence that divides the field in two. We don't regret the little shed or the median fence. He would also criticize the well we installed, rather than a retention pond. Perhaps we'll do a pond some day. We're also considering how to implement his rotational grazing. In the meantime, we'll follow his other advice: "It's okay to do something badly the first time."

"It's good you haven't built an expensive barn," says Virginia.

Yes. The field hasn't said anything about that, yet.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Playing in Sand

Think of a pile of sand. Now, drop a single grain of sand on the pile, another, and another. Eventually, an avalanche will occur. I understand that studies (Bak, Tang, Weisenfeld) have shown that it is impossible to predict when the avalanche will occur, and the size of the next one. Folks have applied this thinking to other things than sand, such as falling empires (think Arab Spring) and financial crises (consider 2008).

When someone asks me what caused our current financial crisis, as if I know anything about this, I wonder where to begin. The instability of the entire system might be a good start. We've managed to do very little about this in 4 years. Or I could begin to list reasons, like grains of sand, and within a few minutes our eyes glaze over.

Why even ask the question? Well, as with anything, we like to know the answer, or at least we like to think we know the answer. Having an answer makes us feel good, or at least, better. Having our answer challenged, even if we realize it's garbage, can throw us into convulsions. There's more to it. To improve our plight, we'd like to learn from our mistakes. Unfortunately, we tend to get tied up in knots when several hundred legislators have to agree on how we implement our solutions.

In a similar transfer of knowledge among disciplines, Xavier Le Pichon, a geophysicist, transmutes his knowledge of plate tectonics to human behavior. As a scientist, he observed that weaknesses, imperfections and faults facilitate the evolution of a system. A system that is too perfect is too rigid and can evolve only through revolution, a major commotion. Weak and imperfect systems often evolve more gradually, without revolution. He gives life as an example of a weak system, which evolves based on coding errors during the duplication of genetic information. He suggests that these things are also true of our societies. He says: "[A] society that separates the producers from the others considered as dead weight, even as marginal or excluded individuals, is a hard society, characterized by conflicts and often by complete rejection of minorities. It is sad and pessimistic. On the contrary a society where all are well integrated has a much more adaptable structure, with a different, easier and more conciliatory mode of life. It is often happier and more optimistic." Voila! Another explanation for the Arab Spring.

He adds:

"A society, which is composed exclusively of uniform individuals, without any heterogeneity, is a more rigid, harder society. I have experienced such communities when living on oceanographic vessels, which I have done for a good part of my life. Most of the time, we only had young and middle aged men on board: the crew then formed a community, which was rather rough. The presence of a single woman oceanographer was often sufficient to completely change the atmosphere.

"When examining any system, it is thus necessary to study it as a whole. Its working is determined by the interaction of all the parts. The elimination of parts that may appear as less efficient may significantly change the overall functioning and may actually completely prevent it from working!"

"Maybe you should get involved in some more committees?" says Virginia.

Hmmm, those people who insist on interminable discussions may actually help committees get their work done. Could Congress succeed if it, as an organization, really put its mind to it?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


No dog days of summer lately, we've been getting regular rains and evenings that beg for light jackets. Some varmint's been tasting my corn, so today I gathered a bushel of ears and put up 13 meals of frozen corn. I may have to order some Solar Night Guards or sprinkle hot pepper on the silks. What is this with hot pepper? Pepper spray for bears, too? Do we know other animals don't like the taste of that hot stuff or are we personifying or anthropomorphizing?

I used to Jamesify all the time, then as I grew older, admittedly a serious case of arrested development, I gradually did less and less of it and sometimes even asked people what they thought. It's fascinating to imagine the different impressions other people might have of the same experience, although in real life I'm often wary of the words "you've got to taste this" or when I like something very much and choose to share it with someone else, fearful that a little mind reading, in either case, might uncover, "What's with this weirdo?"

One thing good about this blog is that it ensures I will never become a politician. Can you imagine me explaining some of my stuff, or Virginia's, during an interview with an astute reporter? Perhaps one could justify it by explaining what a blog is -- an opportunity to express thoughts in motion rather than well-considered philosophies. On the other hand, I usually have the luxury of recognizing my Akinisms (as in Todd, the gadfly (an overly kind characterization, I know) from Missouri who probably thinks he could get a woman pregnant by kissing her, that is, if she let her pucker down) before I let them loose in the atmosphere, unlike a politician who must keep a constant eye open for microphones and tattletales.

Virginia whispered in my ear, "Did you know that a home garden is subversive?"

I nodded, the thought had occurred to me, which is one reason I didn't object when Karen unplugged the television last winter and disconnected the satellite. Actually, I thought DVR might be subversive, too, because it enabled us to escape commercials. After all, our society depends on the not so subliminal messages of billboards, advertisements, bar codes and packaging materials. Find a politician who does not think, or at least say, consumer spending is necessary to revive our economy and you will have spotted a true subversive. Even a leaner most likely pushes "smart spending," maybe using Consumer Reports or "sustainability" criteria, as essential to get us "back on track," as if we ever were on track to anything but spiraling self-destruction. An eternal optimist (can you believe that?), I wonder if our trajectory will take us to the brink of the precipice where, in the nick of time, we will have to stop and completely re-tool because no alternative remains. Stop, look and listen. Does anyone still read Sally, Dick and Jane? So I garden.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


What's wrong with us? Sometimes we behave like spoiled brats. I can't imagine lasting long as a bed and breakfast host. The first time someone criticized a spider web, the hornets buzzing around a chandelier, the California queen bed, or a double-yolked egg, I'd open my mouth and then take a walk to remove the road sign.

We stayed in a very fine home while visiting our son at the Outer Banks. We liked it for many reasons. It was next to a coastal reserve, one of 5 remaining Outer Banks maritime forests, as mature as a coastal forest gets, with a wonderful, soft surface for running, walking or biking, and signs explaining the importance of the forest. It offered kayaks, tubes, and bicycles free of charge. It faced the Sound, providing comfortable water to swim in, calm waters for kayaking, shade under the forest canopy, and our own private deck to watch the Sound, read, visit, and dine. The hosts provided a breakfast tray each night, with yoghurt, fresh-baked breads or pastries, fruit, nuts, granola bars, coffee and tea, which allowed me to run as long or as late as I wished and still have breakfast waiting. They also provided a little refrigerator, in case we wanted to keep the yoghurt cool, and they were fun to talk to.

Recent guests didn't like the breakfast tray and ate at McDonald's the next morning. Look, if you come to our B&B, complain about the breakfast, and then eat at McDonald's, I'm going to laugh at you as I laughed at them.

I'll also look down my nose at the couple that parks in the driveway, husband wedded to his cellphone while wife snots, "This isn't acceptable. We only patronize 5-star accommodations. And the television is a joke." They've given away the fact that they're not the sophisticated travelers they claim to be, because they obviously didn't look carefully at our website. We might give them the benefit of the doubt and assume his secretary, administrative assistant, or travel agent goofed, but for their failure to specifically request an 18-foot boob tube so they could enjoy vacating like they do at home. "I'm the CEO of XYZ Corp.," says he, "and we only stay at the best places." I presume he won't miss the 4 nights of charges already billed to his credit card, which won't be adjusted because we turned away several halfway decent guests. Or maybe he will, mister critically (C) empty (E) oaf (O).

"You're right," says Virginia. "You wouldn't make a good B&B host."

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Beach Posting

Virginia writes:

“Midst 10-bedroom houses full of vacationers who for one week of the year don’t seem to mind paying twice the price of things close to home and trying what they rarely do at home, yesterday I passed a panting man muttering a mantra as he jogged through mist rising from hot asphalt after an afternoon thunderstorm, “I will do this at home, I will do this at home….” His red face grinned when he realized I’d heard him, “Said the same thing on New Year’s.” Funny how being South brings out the friendlies, compared to a buddy’s experience in Grand Rapids, where he groused just last week that women never respond when he greets them on a running trail. We were only two bites into buttermilk pancakes this morning when folks at the next table commented on my tee shirt and we began sharing stories; maybe they’re already missing familiar faces from home. We’ll probably run into them again soon, as usually happens on holidays like these. I remember you recounting a stay at the Wilderness Lodge near Lake Moeraki, meeting Bob and Deborah during a nature hike, and then two days later noticing the same Bob’s face as you ran through a park in Christ Church, ‘Bob’ you said, looking over your shoulder as he turned saying, ‘James,’ and so you ran together awhile.

“Drops interrupted an hour on a beach and in cold surf near the Currituck Lighthouse, then thunder, and we watched a thousand bathers rush over the dunes to shelter. Not convinced of a direct hit, we walked north, our backs to the storm like a child facing inland because he’s afraid of waves. A flash, 17 seconds, thunder, another flash 12 seconds, thunder, found us hiding under a boardwalk, singing like Bette Midler until the storm passed and large drips found their way through cracks in the pine. We threaded our way through abandoned chairs, coolers and beach towels to retrieve our own wet unbelongings.

“When they called and suggested meeting somewhere, and I mentioned the Outer Banks, it took a little coaxing to get my New York friends to try unfamiliar territory. Benny handed a picture of his namesake Ben Franklin to our Wild Horse Adventure Tour guide this morning, so I figure at least one of them is having a good time even after complaining about landing hard after the Jeep left the ground momentarily. He had whispered “I hope we get our money back” when he read the guarantee that we’d see at least one wild horse. We saw twenty-two, including three colts. Benny, from a dirt-poor childhood, now commands five-digits per opera performance. We have fun filling the living room of our rental house with voices each evening. The neighbors may not like it, but so far they haven’t complained.”

I’m glad Virginia’s having a good time at the beach. She hardly ever leaves the Valley.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Brain Worms

A further counsel bear in mind: 
If that thy roof be made of glass, 
It shows small wit to pick up stones 
To pelt the people as they pass.

Don Quixote 1605 (by Miguel de Cervantes)

Criticism can live in a mind like a worm. Sometimes I try to squish it with another kind of brain worm, a tune that won't leave. You know what those are like, maybe some jingle or popular song that repeats itself all afternoon. I've heard of people that suffered for days. I haven't had that problem, but sometimes a brain worm simply accompanies criticism for a long while, or the critic wins out and I must take another approach. Om. Om.

As my wrinkles deepen, I try harder (yes, often fruitlessly, some of you know) to keep the criticism locked up, unsaid. Keeping quiet is hardest in the face of someone else's inability to do the same.

My membership in several environmental organizations brought me the bantering among letters to the editor. Folks of the same flock criticizing each other for not living the talk reminds me of glass houses. Sell that old Volvo; it's a gas guzzler. Does it make sense to junk it in a landfill and buy another car? And by the way, you in your hybrid, couldn't you bike to work? Or walk, then you wouldn't have to buy tires and repair brakes? Or work out of your home? And grow your own food so you don't have to shop every week? It's endless.

I've heard that if it's worth doing it's worth doing badly the first time. We're trying here at Elk Cliff Farm. Some things we don't do so well. I like to think we do them better the next time. When animals die, we cry (it's part of life, some people like to say). Over all, I think we do a better job than the factories that raised the animals we used to eat when we bought meat at grocery stores. I'll half-bite my tongue and not ask whether you've found an alternative source, too.

"Unfair," says Virginia. "I thought you weren't going to criticize."

I guess it's all in the mind, you know.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Feeling Corny

Several of our chickens have discovered our corn. Lucky chickens. Not only do they get to freely wander in the rain and sunshine, they can gorge themselves on things they like -- for a while. Their counterparts in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), the homes of most of the animals Americans eat, exist on the floor of a warehouse filled with up to 40,000 other chickens. They might finally get to see daylight on their final day, when being trucked to the slaughterhouse, but then who needs a range to tour if you can't walk because you've been bred for your breasts, not your legs? Those breasts put the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue to shame. In 1920, it took the birds 16 weeks to reach 2.2 pounds. Now, they can reach 5 pounds after only 7 weeks.

Any egg eaters thinking about congratulating themselves for not eating meat might want to reconsider. Egg-laying chickens find their homes in 12" by 18" battery cages, which they share with up to 5 other layers, stacked in a large house that may hold more than 80,000 birds. What a delight!

No windows? Well, there might be windows on the neighbors' houses, but they stay closed most of the time. All those chickens stink.

Chickens are enough for today, except did you know that in 2002, two Iowa counties had more than 800,000 pigs? In February 2012, the governor of Montana was trying to entice Chinese investors to open a pig plant in Shelby that would house over 800,000 hogs. A feeding operation with 800,000 pigs would generate over 1.6 million TONS of waste per year? That's 1 1/2 times the annual sanitary waste of the City of Philadelphia. Now that's a factory, not a farm.

How do we feed the world without doing things this way? Joel Salatin tells how, in his fascinating book, The Sheer Ecstacy of Being a Lunatic Farmer. 

"Isn't he the guy who says true American heroes don't go overseas to empire or nation build; they stay home, farm, and fuss with government workers who enforce regulations inspired and lobbied by the military-industrial complex?" says Virginia.

Maybe so.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


As the candidates for president pluck each other’s words out of context and ignore the issues this country needs to face, I pick gobs of green beans and wonder how to squeeze more than 1% out of an investment. I know I should forget about the investment and focus on things that matter, such as relationships at home and in the nearby community, and green beans.

Hidden inside those little green things are tiny communities we ignore as we munch, as if it’s possible to be a vegan or vegetarian. We tend to overlook the things we’d rather not face, such as hugging our pets while eating animals bred and raised in hideous conditions -- or vegetables gathered by machines that squish baby deer and rabbits -- distributed and cooked as if they were industrial parts. Few of us take the time to nurture them, “harvest” them as humanely as we know how (as if we have any idea what it means to be raised for consumption and what it feels like to be terminated), and cook them with the tenderness they deserve, choosing instead industrial food from grocery freezers that can be zapped and eaten in less than 5 minutes, without taste and without tasting.

Meanwhile, the “bugs” that have resided in human stomachs for thousands of generations wonder what’s coming, something that doesn’t look at all like the food our ancestors ate and contains molecules, nay poisons, developed by firms that had to figure out what to make when the government no longer needed the bombs their founders designed (fertilizers and pesticides, bombs, same basic ingredients). Serfs to agricultural conglomerates buy expensive tractors that drive themselves with GPS systems so no one has to come close to the food parts that will be mixed without regard for nutrition and the tastes our grandparents enjoyed, no touchy, feely behavior, only meaningless platitudes, about caring for the land, water, air and future generations. We marched in the 1960s; that was then, this is now we give a few bucks to the Nature Conservancy and say we’ve done our share, let’s drive our grand-kids to McDonalds instead of cook them a fine dinner at home and nibble around a table while discussing matters of moment before playing a game of Scrabble.

“Hold on,” says Virginia. “I think you may have managed to alienate almost every reader.”

At least I stayed away from religion, didn’t I (for the most part)?