Sunday, June 30, 2013

More on Aerial Views

don Juan, commenting on yesterday's blog entry, asked if viewing Elk Cliff Farm from the sky has changed my perspective on the place. I've been thinking about his question ever since.

I'm reminded of Wendell Berry's essays on community. It's easy sometimes, going about your life on your property and in your house, to live on an island, separate from the people who live on the other side of the creek, lawn or wall. But whether or not we like the idea, we are not independent.

The aerial views of our farm point out very clearly that our home is part of a landscape of homes. The James River, Elk Creek and Arnold's Valley Road surround our property and, as the deed to our property will attest, physically delineate it. The higher you go, the less clear those boundaries become.

Without my help, you probably wouldn't recognize the borders of our farm. You'd notice clusters of homes -- our neighbors and us. A higher, broader view might see Natural Bridge Station, then our zip code 24579. If we'd gone higher, perhaps Rockbridge County, Virginia, the United States, North America, Earth, and beyond. An economist might call these macro and micro perspectives.

All of these are communities, in a sense. In the warmest view, our neighbors and us make a community. We know, or quickly learn, what happens in our neighborhood. Some of us interact almost daily, sharing talents, the bounties of our gardens, tools, carpools. Others choose to stay apart or to note our presence in limited ways -- waves as we walk or drive past, lawnmower and weed-whacker whines, the bangs of target practice.

Of course, we also relate in communities not based on geographies. For example, we belong to a community of farmers (if you define this term loosely enough) -- goat farmers, donkey farmers, organic farmers, tractor-less farmers, farmsteaders, etc. Musicians. Runners. Gardeners. Outdoor lovers. Writers. Raw milk users. Aerial views aren't very helpful here.

This morning, as I foraged for wineberries below Thunder Ridge, I came across this fellow:
"You put him there," says Virginia.

No, I didn't. It's hard to tell from this aerial view, but that snail is about 3 feet off the ground. How did it get up to that leaf and why?

I realize this is stretching things a bit. Indulge me, please, and forgive me if need be. Aerial views show only a little bit of anything. We use them at great risk of oversimplifying. So, dear donjuan, know that I'm very skeptical of drones.

"You're droning," says Virginia.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Aerial View

Today we sprouted wings. Here's a picture of Elk Cliff Farm:
And another:
And yet another:
Here's our field:
A little closer. See the pig-aerated garden in the right bottom corner? (Click on the pictures to make them bigger.)
"All right, cough it up," says Virginia. "Whose plane had that wing?"

Our neighbor. Here he is taking off with the next load.
[Note: After I originally posted my photographs, my good friend Jerry Tovo, a master of all things camera (and internationally known for that), worked his magic on 4 of them. Can you guess which four (hint -- not the last one)? If you can't, go to jail, do not pass go.]

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Disordered Garden

A couple Ronde de Nice squashes await picking tomorrow. Says Baker Heirloom Seeds:

"50 days. This is a delicious French heirloom variety. The flesh of this round, green zucchini is very tender and fine flavored, making it an ideal squash for stuffing. A popular variety for home gardens and specialty growers. Vigorous, quick-growing plants."

I'm looking forward to a bountiful harvest, assuming a derrecho doesn't whisk things away tonight.  Green beans and wax beans, also found in my pig-aerated garden, are coming in, a sure sign of summer. I think Sunday may offer my first picking of wineberries for the year, two weeks later than last year.

My college roommate may be arriving this week, just in time to help harvest our winter wheat. That could keep us busy from dawn to dusk every day he's here. When i plant wheat this fall, I may have to specify in advance which will be a cover crop and which will grow to maturity. As it is, we may have wheat berries to sell.

Or maybe he'll want to work on the sailboat deck. He's a sailor after all, unsure what he thinks of a permanently beached boat. I think he felt a little better when I said someday it may float away in a flood.

"Where are the pictures?" says Virginia.

I'm not about to post pictures of my weedy gardens. Things started out well, neatly organized, well-intentioned. Then I hemmed and hawed. Meanwhile my closely planted rows grew together even more, with weeds crowding in between. 

Now I need an intern.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Busy or Not?

Several people have commented that blog posts have a direct relationship to free time available. I'd like to point out that time is not free. Time is limited and, as with almost any choice, one's use of time involves trade-offs. Nothing is free if you forego something else to choose it.

People who are not busy blog. Very busy people also blog. The only way to determine whether a blogger is "busy" or "not busy" is to examine his or her use of time. I don't believe "busyness" is something Google or the National Security Agency can determine. In fact, I don't believe I can determine whether X is or is not "busy," although I might develop an opinion based on my own prejudices and priority decisions.

Looking at today, June 12, for example, if I had to answer the question, I would say I've been "busy." I did not devote the entire day, or 8 hours of it, to the work I get paid for doing. I chose instead to run, freeze peas, weed garden beds, eat, read a little bit in "A Forager's Harvest," work on a book update for a few hours, and a few other things. Other days this year I have allocated as much as 16 hours to the work I get paid for doing, yet I would not say I was "busier" those days than I was today. Even on some of those days, I blogged.

So let me offer an alternative explanation. Blog posts depend on the time one chooses to make available for blogging. Today, after a day full of other activities, I decided to relax for a few minutes and write this blog post. On another day, I might have chosen instead to read part of a book, play piano, work on a poem or story, walk around the field, or sit on the front porch. Obviously, blogging is not something I must do.

Most days, even on days I'd call "busy" days, I choose to use at least an hour for writing, and I don't mean writing I get paid for doing. I mean worthless, self-indulgent writing. Of course, it's not really worthless or useless. I dream that some day people will pay to read it. But even if they don't, it's an essential, useful part of my life.

"What is this, an apologia for time-wasting?" says Virginia.

Of course, she's an artist who knows better.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Going Home -- Part 4

            The stale air of evening, or every time of day, begs me to open windows, which seems to be verboten. When the occupational therapist brings brownies for lunch, my mother informs me that she made them, with applesauce and pasteurized eggs. “They didn’t look right,” she says, and I have to Google what is a pasteurized egg, reportedly required in nursing homes.
            Bingo. On the sixth day this slow learner understands bland food. Litigation avoidance apparently mandates serving the least common denominator, so as not to offend the least of the fittest. The rest have fully documented their allergies. Maybe eating in the dining room would offer a smorgasboard of additives to tease taste buds. Mother, staying in her room, must ask for salt.
            Another college classmate visits today and the room is full of yesterdays. “I’m ahead of you,” the visitor says, who turned 91 in January. “I might catch up,” says the June baby. Indeed she might. The roommate told me she is 94. Today I heard her tell someone she is 97.
            Mother is ready to take a walk. Only after we head toward the door do I notice a chair obscuring the pathway. For the umpteenth time I appreciate the efficiency of aides who do this many times each day, repositioning call button cords and heating pad cables as fast as I type another word, without a misspell. I don’t even notice when shoes are missing.
            And so, the time has come to take Mother home and hand my baton to a sister-in-law.
            I have apportioned my half-gallon of raw goat's milk so carefully I have some left to drink on my way home, reminding me of home.
            "That's one generous sister-in-law," says Virginia.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Going Home -- Part 3

She sleeps thirteen hours straight, without interruption. I imagine this is wonderful for body restoration, yet a few hours of normal daily activities and visiting make her eyes droopy. I write an hour while she dozes, then a verbal “knock-knock” announces company. The man who bought her mother’s house has come to say hello, which reminds me of good friends we have in St. Louis, who came all the way to Virginia to celebrate my birthday earlier this year. When we moved to St. Louis, we bought their house.
            Mother remains asleep until the next pair, one of her best friends for 70 years escorted by a daughter-in-law. (My mother dated her future husband a few times.) As they visit, I remember being surprised about 50 years ago when my mom answered one of those questions parents usually refuse to consider, “Which of our friends would you choose if you had to date one of them?” And another moment…as our family drove past their house, Mother commented on the “tomcat” running through the yard. Eureka! Until that day I thought cats were female and dogs were male.
            An aide brings another barely-nibbled lunch as the neighbor whose dog’s leash prompted this hospitalization arrives for her almost daily apologia. I head for a new restaurant in town. My bosom buddies at the next table explain that the place takes a day off on Tuesdays. Last Wednesday, the sign said “Closed” when they came for lunch. They stopped the next day to check hours, and the owner explained they’d had a break-in Tuesday night. Not knowing what had been touched, they threw out all the food and hung the sign an extra day. I doubt they would have taken that precaution fifteen years ago. Now terrorists lurk behind every tree.
            I presume the restaurant locks its doors. Perhaps the experience illustrates a difference between a small town and a larger town, where burglar alarm systems are popular. On the other hand, maybe even small towns have criminals smart enough to disarm burglar alarms.
A good capitalist would cause as little collateral damage as possible, focusing on his or her profit-making objective. So says Adam Smith, which is why our air is clean, waters are pure, only minimal government is necessary, and folks in our neighborhood don't lock their doors (I realize I'm repeating myself here, perhaps due to my current environment).
            Speaking of regulation, on the way to the restaurant I make a point of passing an infamous house mentioned during dinner the evening I arrived. The town’s attorney stopped at our table to ask what we thought about publishing, before arraignment, the name of an adult suspected of breaking-and-entering. Is he a public figure, my digital newspaperman brother-in-law inquired. The conversation veered to a recent citizen-of-the-year who has since been identified as a slumlord, the owner of the only boarded-up house in town. When the city finished serving notices demanding repair or demolition, the citizen-of-the-year transferred title to his daughter. The house looks bad, maybe not that bad.
            My mother’s roommate has been complaining that her pants are too tight. An aide says she has changed four times today, that if they’re really too small, she needs to ask her family to bring a larger size. Her daughter shows up to explain, “1X, we just bought those. She tried 2X, which slid off.” The aide says she weighs the same she weighed last fall when she moved in, “Maybe her stomach hurts.”
Yesterday afternoon she asked her husband what he’s been watching on television. He talked about the Oklahoma tornadoes and the family party scheduled for later that afternoon. “Why aren’t I going?” she asked. “Because you said you didn’t want to.” “Well, I do, why aren’t I going?” “You said you didn’t want to.” “Well, I do, why can’t I go?” Back and forth, back and forth, until she kept repeating, “You are so dumb.” Later she said the party was “Wonderful, six generations, and we were the oldest.” Still later, “Help, I need help. Move my pillow up. How does this work?” Her television suddenly blasted so loud several aides came running. “Sweetie, what are you doing? It’s too loud and way too late. Time for bed."
           If Mother were counting her blessings, a need for hearing aids might be one of them. She can remove them and sleep through everything except the TV explosion.
           In my mother's apartment, a wall clock and an alarm tick-tock a musical storm. Sleeping on my left side does not help. I banish one to a closet and the other to a drawer.
           "You're putting me to sleep," says Virginia.
           Okay. Give me one more installment.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Going Home -- Part 2

A friend says he doesn’t like to visit the town he knew as a boy because everyone is old. On Main Street, faces bring to mind parents of classmates who, like me, might have moved away. When we see each other, we probably think of mothers or fathers, and then wonder, later, maybe he or she was us.
A giant air-conditioning unit strikes up the band, tuning a D and holding it like a long-winded diva. Now and then a gust blows the D elsewhere, leaving a low rumbling accompaniment. When I first heard this, I wondered where the nearest train tracks could be. A week ago I attended a solar workshop in an engineering classroom at Virginia Tech, where persistent HVAC humming threatened to out-talk the speakers. In some ways, we are very advanced, yet we have replaced the drums of ancestors with noises we can't control.

Lunch includes a super-sized chicken nugget, canned asparagus, congealed pudding speckled with cinnamon to give it a little flavor, and a white substance spotted with blueberries. I expect criticism of the chef. Instead, someone speaks what is to become a daily refrain, “They hire such fat ones here.” Fifty years ago I heard Thumper say, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all."

I run on the local university’s track, smooth, forgiving and good for training my legs into five-fingered Vibrams. Each time around a Monsanto sign and its slogan, “Imagine,” greets me. I try to imagine a world without Monsanto. Does it ever imagine a world without us?
Perhaps we have paid too much attention to Thumper. We heed the commandments, “You deserve a break today” and “You can’t eat just one.” We don't object, we don't question, we take a break, and we eat two, over and over again. Running like lemmings at a cliff, we hesitate to listen to the frankness of elders and ancient drums.

This may be exactly what the vested interests who spend billions urging us not to put on the brakes want. On the other hand, I like to think even Monsanto would change its tune if customers demanded what they wanted. Until we decide to consciously choose our desires, the dictator of commercial advertising may or not remain benevolent.
I follow my tracks in thick, dewy grass back to the patio of my mother’s apartment, slide the screen door open, and press down on the latch. It doesn’t move. For the second time in two days, I must find a “companion,” the retirement complex equivalent of a WalMart “associate" or other “stakeholder.” Wells Fargo has no branches; they are “stores.” We have filed "flight attendants" and "secretaries" with typewriters and record players.
I’ll carry the key. When I lived here, we didn’t lock our doors unless we were leaving on vacation (to places like southwest Virginia). Any thieves reading this, help me out. First question: When I lived in cities and worried about crooks and muggings, I felt safe on rainy nights, figuring the water created too much work and kept them away. Was I wrong?

Next question: Let's say you've driven up a lane or forest road to your next target. My assumption is, having gone this far, with no neighbors in easy hearing distance, you'd break in, leaving a door or window to repair. An unlocked entryway would make everyone's life easier. Am I wrong?

"Back to Thumper," says Virginia. "Sometimes he makes sense, others not. Movers and shakers would agree."

(To be continued)

Monday, June 3, 2013

Going Home -- Part 1

I need a twist tie to close a plastic bag of popcorn. At home I know where we keep things like that. My mother’s apartment is a different story. Well, maybe not. After opening and closing a few drawers, I say to myself, stop, think, where would I put them?....

I look in a little drawer next to her kitchen stove. Bingo. I think I’ve heard somewhere that an acorn doesn’t fall far from the oak….

except when it does. Forty years ago I said goodbye to my boyhood home in a small town in flat, rural northwest Ohio. I followed a circuitous route to the mountainous countryside of southwest Virginia, where visitors often envy our relatively rare, level, bottomland field of twenty-five acres in a valley capped on the east by the Appalachian Trail, an eight-hour drive from childhood memories. Of course, I have childhood memories without driving anywhere, but….

that popcorn bag boasts “100% Whole Grain,” truly unusual, setting it apart from the competitors, whose corn must be popped in halves or quarters. Now I’m sounding like my father, a scientist, not a lawyer, who taught us not to take statements at face value.

Names crawl from the woodwork, like roaches sometimes hard to grab before they disappear. What’s in a name? Forgotten stories, connections, relatives, former play when words do not. When I drove past Henry’s, a restaurant, the parking lot was full. The name has not changed since a small plane crashed thirty years ago, my friend leaving a widow and four children. Another Henry, this time not a surname, piled thousands of pennies in stacks on the furniture, windowsills and floorboards of his bedroom, better than a sign saying “Do Not Vacuum!”

Some things don’t rub off. I’ve never been disciplined enough to keep houseplants alive for long. Any indoor greenery in my house is in nursery school, anxious to graduate. Our eyes focus on the yard, paddocks and pasture. A day after checking Mother’s patio plants for dryness I finally noticed her indoor succulents. They probably know she’s on leave for a few days and figure they’ll draw moisture from the air until she returns.

I consider sitting in the back pew on Sunday morning until my mother reminds me my sister will not be there to introduce me. That ritual almost guarantees a long service if you count the walk out afterwards, answering over and over again the searching question, “Where are you these days?” Several options come to mind. "Here, don’t I look like it?” “Virginia, near the Natural Bridge.” Maybe “In a happy place,” or “Having fun figuring it out.”

Roxie’s in a funk. Karen worries she’s about to die in her mud hole, the film set of the classiest mud spa in Arnold’s Valley. Last time she was pregnant, she gathered grass to line her little barn. This time she limps on a hind leg, as if piglets are packed inside unable to exit, and I’m a mile away for each of her five hundred pounds, unable to assist in any way. At home I might be able to lift a bit of her or sing “This little piggy.”

Instead, I look out on a gray Sunday, watching a breeze that smells like a beach morning push the Amish rocker I forgot to bring inside last night. Safe inside, the twisted wood rests still, silent, and lonely without my father. Rock-a-bye, baby.

"What's this 'going home' business?" says Virginia.

Not what you might think. Perhaps you'll keep reading the installments yet to come.