Archive for the ‘Farming’ Category

Old Friends

November 13, 2009

  Last weekend wife and I traveled north to visit a friend with whom I had crossed paths but once in the thirty-five years since college.  Make that twice – as I told his wife, last time I’d seen her she was all wrapped in white.

  Our college years were quite the mix of intellectual rigor and ribaldry.  Malheureusement, I’ve forgotten everything I learned, but can still be gross and disgusting with little trouble.  For example (and the only one I’ll provide) I’m still a urinary artiste.

  He met his wife when she was three days old.  I had to wait till kindergarten to find mine.  We exchanged that info after regaling each other with memories and new developments.  We agreed that it was an incredible stroke of something that we ever got a second date with any female, let alone a life long commitment from a girl with the advantage of a long view.

  Anyway, my friend and I both sought thrills and latterly careers and deep meaning.  He’s now a farmer quite close to the earth.  He raises grass fed cattle, humanely, gently even.  And is justly proud of his family’s stewardship of their rolling bit of Wisconsin.

  Before lunch we helped separate out a few head and then move the rest to a new pasture.  The process was beautiful.  There was rhythm.  No prodding or loud noise.  Like a shaman, farmer friend moved the cattle with softly shaken long handled rattles.  That’s all it took.

Cates 1a 

  “Cattle here have a great life up until that last day” he said.  For what more could one hope?  Herd eagerly entered the new pasture and its  fresh grass.  They change every other day or so.  I look out the same window every flippin’ day…

  Lunch was a fine repast of lean grass fed Angus hamburgers, pesto, and applesauce.  All procured by them, from their land, with care.  I had seconds.

  After lunch we hiked across fields and through timber for several hours.  I was amazed at his concern for the state of even remote bits of his land.  He’d bend, scoop, and toss sticks and small branches over the fence so as not to impede the verdancy. 

  Then, in the forest, he explained about the driftless area and how the nature of the landscape had evolved over the eons.  How the flora and fauna changed through the stewardship of the Native Americans and  now his. At dusk, we entered a clearing atop the last tallest hill open to the sky and through the leafless trees, beyond.  It had an aura, an incredibly palpable sense of place.

  Throughout our perambulation we talked about our lives through the years since graduation.  A lot of shit has happened.  Paul Simon’s song Old Friends came to mind. 

Old Friends,
Old Friends,
Sat on the park bench
Like bookends. 

  But, though creaky we’re neither ready for a park bench.  What struck me was a metaphorical take on that verse.  By graduation there were a few text books between us. Now pushing sixty however the volumes are many and the shelf bends under their weight.  Some were light and quick reads, some tumescent, several revelatory and wonderful, and, well, a few drew toward denouement with relentless and terrible power.

  Late in the lyrics Paul Simon wrote, “how terribly strange to be seventy…” But he was only twenty-seven then and might as well have written about what he knew about life on Mars.  Me?  Now forty plus years closer to that mark I’d say why look up from the book I’m reading now – might lose my place.

Grace Under Pressure

January 16, 2009

 Once heard Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night Live being interviewed.  Questioned about what made for the best guest hosts he responded “athletes” without missing a beat.  He said that people like Michael Jordan were used to being in front of a demanding audience and performing under pressure.

  He didn’t mention the tremendous work ethic that great athletes must also have.  Or the ability to take mistakes in stride or worse – how to deal with “the agony of defeat”.

  Youngest daughter played D1 soccer for four seasons.  Team made it to the Big 10 championships her last season.  Lost by one point to the eventual #1.  They worked out from 7:00 AM to 10:00 AM and several hours late in the PM six days a week.  And that was the off season.  Seniors all graduated with honors.

  She’s now in Aspen working at an exclusive club.  Waitress/sommelier.  Her first time in Colorado was during the summer before she was born.  I remember being concerned for her prenatal wellbeing when we all hiked above the upper lift at Aspen Highlands.  +12,000 ft.  I worried that the thin air might somehow attenuate her potential to, well, smile.

  Needn’t have worried.  On her Facebook wall her brother’s post read: “Why is it that in every picture you look like you are having more fun than everyone else in the room?”  In Sydney, Australia she and a friend won the grand prize at a karaoke contest singing “Born in the USA” along with the Boss.  Who else could get away with something like that?  In June of 2008?  Her name comes from a Hebrew word meaning “source of joy” so maybe that’s it.

  Lorne Michaels’ thoughts came to mind when we heard that senior staff at the club were favorably impressed with her performance.  Maneuvering trays and bottles through a room crowded with demanding folks has to be easier than doing the same with a ball through a bunch of Amazons intent upon inflicting bodily harm.

  These months have been a great opportunity for her to sift through her thoughts of the year she spent working at a fine winery in New Zealand.  She’s just now begun evaluating graduate programs in viticulture and oenology.  I was quite taken by her response to my question of what drew her interest thereto.

  She said “Dad, you can’t cheat or lie.  You can only do the best you can do with the soil and the grapes.  The fact that a crucial ingredient, the weather, is completely beyond the vintner’s control only makes the work more interesting”.

  Her first comment evoked a vision of the current scoundrels of Wall Street.  I thought about how all of the ugly headlines must reverberate across the cerebrations of those with career choices not yet hardwired in.

  Then it dawned on me that she was talking about farming and how, in any of its permutations, agriculture is the archetype for an honest living.  For exactly the reasons she mentioned. 

  A few years ago some urbanite asked Pulitzer Prize winning poet Jorie Graham why she lived in Iowa:

  “Iowans respect work.  When one comes to live and work here, from whatever corner of the globe, one realizes after a while that one is working amidst people who work hard, who work with their hands, who stand between land and sky, corn prices and weather, with determination and faith and courage and an uncluttered understanding of the value of work.  When you sit down to work in their midst – you have a deep sense of their being at work in your midst.  Whether it’s the farmland that surrounds us, or the small businesses struggling around us, writers in Iowa are encircled – and instructed – by all kinds of other real work being done… One can feel the rightness of a well-planted thing, the incredible hard work it takes to make it come to fruition, the miracles and the sweat and the patience and the technique – both literal and imaginary – are in fact poems or stories that carry in their marrow the values and the beliefs of that community…” 

  Yup, can take the girl out of Iowa, but can’t take Iowa out of the girl.


The grapes of my body can only become wine
After the winemaker tramples me.
I surrender my spirit like grapes to his trampling
So my inmost heart can blaze and dance with joy.
although the grapes go on weeping blood and sobbing
“I cannot bear any more anguish, and more cruelty”
The trampler stuffs cotton in his ears: “I am not working in ignorance
You can deny me if you want, you have every excuse,
But it is I who am the Master of this Work.
And when through my Passion you reach Perfection
You will never be done praising my name.”


Persian mystic Jelaluddin Rumi  1207-1273

Dang, I guess that makes me a rainmaker…

June 27, 2008

  Amazing.  After just having remarked about what a great magazine is the Economist, the very next issue carried a short bit about my father’s first cousin!  The interview was shorter than a haiku, but cool just the same. 

  It had to do with the terrible flooding here in Iowa.  “Surveying his farm [with the reporter, he] saw glistening pools where corn stalks should have been.  Where the water had receded the earth was muddy, dotted by feeble plants.  ‘I consider us lucky’…  Much of his farm has survived.  Others have seen their land almost totally submerged.” 

  When I called out to ask if he was signing autographs, his wife answered and paused at first.  She hadn’t seen the article.  But, someone had called from town a few days back and asked if it’d be ok for a reporter from NYC to stop out…  

  They’d agreed to help, but with some concern.  They’d been interviewed before about life on the farm and the experience had done little but reinforce their innate reticence.  One’s life should speak for itself. 

  I read the bit to her.  She said they had been lucky, that the Lord had always been good to them. 

  Doesn’t all that make you wish your were a farmer? Had an intimate and interactive relationship with the earth?  No BS, no whining, no spray, no bling. 

  Reminds me of a poem (and source of the name of this little digital acreage): 

Subtle Signs

by Michael Carey – from his book The Noise The Earth Makes 

Although they had worked for days
hardly a word was spoken between them –
just hand gestures and a waving
of arms.  From tractor to truck,
from hillside to house,
these said what was needed.
His father, once, had called his uncle
a “terrible talker.”  he knew, now, what
he meant; that sometimes over dinner
and beer, Uncle Al found a use
for words, making them dance
around the pudding and cranberry sauce
and fall down upon them
like a crazy invisible rain.
Helping his father and brother with harvest,
he learned to read the subtle
signs in the subtle landscape:
how nature speaks to those who listen,
and those who listen when she speaks
hardly speak at all.

Also just like last time, I am reminded of something Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard once said: 

“You don’t see farmers as climbers.  You see city people.  Farmers don’t need to climb”