"Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a farm and live entirely surrounded by cows–and china." Charles Dickens

April 23, 2013

Random Acts of Violence

Menacing storm clouds over our ridge farm last spring.
On Monday, April 15th, after a late afternoon at the library helping my eldest son gather research for his World War II project, we came home to our ridge. As we drove down our farm lane, I shared my benediction with my son as I noticed the fringes of redbud along the greening forest and our cattle grazing on pasture after a prolonged winter. Each time I come over the rise and dip of our knob and behold the picturesque meld of landscape that defines our farm, I am grateful. No matter what has happened in my day, I feel nestled, even safe, in the sustenance that is our homeplace.

My husband greeted us at the door. “Have you heard about Boston?” I had not even checked Facebook at the library, as involved as we were in our short research of the enormity of World War II. “Bombs went off near Copley Plaza at the end of the marathon.” Without knowing anything more, I felt sick. Boston is a city where we are both familiar, where I once lived, worked and went to graduate school, and where my husband was planning to be this week for an annual club dinner (he did not attend, after all, but had a lovely visit with many old friends in the area). We moved to Kentucky five years ago but we will always be New Englanders at heart.

Before I could process the Boston Marathon horror, my husband came closer so our boys would be out of earshot. “I picked up some trash on the side of the road and got pricked by a hypodermic needle,” he said. I went into my usual mode of rapid-fire questioning when presented with something jarring. Yes, he’d called the doctor and made an appointment for a blood test the next morning. No, he’d burned the evidence in the stove, left in its Hardee’s bag, after a fit of anger and so no one else could be harmed. We called a neighbor, not telling her why, to ask if she’d seen any vehicles drive past when we were both off the ridge to get our boys from school. Any vehicle driving past our farm is cause for a pause and a wave. No one lives on the county road but us so it isn’t especially well traveled—however, it is a short-cut connector between our larger ridge road if you don’t mind the bumps.

I saw my husband and our youngest son as I passed and waved to them at an intersection before they headed home. I remember thinking, with their arms outstretched towards me from their car windows, “They look so joyful!” They came back to the ridge before we did, a few hours later. My husband notices details and stopped to pick up the Hardee’s bag. The constancy of trash along the roadside, or dumped wholesale down a gully, is a sad occurrence in parts of Kentucky where there often seems to be little regard for the land or its intrinsic beauty by the people who were raised in these hills. This is not a judgment call, just fact: just as many seem to disregard their pets by not spaying and neutering them and allowing them to roam and become other people’s problems.

My husband has built a working cattle operation in the past few years from run out farmland and he works very hard. Even though we struggle at times, we don’t even take the farm subsidies that are available to us through the Farm Bill because we regard it as unnecessary welfare. [“Send it back to Washington to pay down the deficit!” my husband said when our local agency said it was there for us. “That’s not how it works,” was the reply. Just imagine the logic, for a moment, of being paid to not grow something?] I admire someone who, in his 50s, has the conviction that this is what we should be doing with the rest of our lives. Neither does he hesitate to pick up trash, barehanded, on our barely-traveled farm road where it always seems such a deliberate violation.

My first thought regarding the needle prick was that he has health insurance (I was denied). My second thought was more selfish and entirely mother-driven: “thank goodness it wasn’t one of the boys.” My final thought was “what if?” I didn’t linger long with that question. In my upset over the needle incident and its possible outcome, as I watched the coverage of the tragic Boston bombing, I realized there is no predicting the senseless events that occur in our world. Neither is any place safe or immune from the possibility of tragedy, whether natural or triggered by human interaction. There is a strange calm in this knowledge. My anxieties do not revel in the things I can’t control but in the things that I can.

I winced at the irony of receiving a “service message” phone call as I wrote this: “The FBI says there is a home invasion every fifteen seconds,” it began. “If you allow us to install a new security system…” at which point I hung up the phone. If bombs can burst and kill and maim in a crowded city street in America, or a troubled person can enter a suburban school with a semi-automatic weapon, then a tossed and dirty needle can pierce a hardworking man’s hand on his own peaceful bit of farmland. No one is exempt from being violated and, like everyone, my family has had its share of harmful acts from external sources. Yet we can never allow ourselves to be defined by our misfortunes or the difficult things that happen to us along the way: victims always wallow in the mire and blame while victors rise and move forward from the wreckage.

Even if we are able to find the person who used and threw away the needle, the damage may have already been done. So now the question is do we live in disgust or fear of every bit of “trash” or person who wishes to do harm or do we listen and look for those moments of quiet beauty, as when the whippoorwill calls across our fields at the edge of twilight? Or when neighbors let us know that they saw one of our cows struggling to give birth and then offer to help our boys while their father is away? [But I do need to boast for a moment: by the time the neighbors arrived, our boys had corralled the mother and pulled its calf safely and with all the finesse of seasoned midwives.]

I had to cheer what David Ortiz said at the Red Sox game on Sunday: “This is our f@#$ing city!” This is our f-ing country, too. I don’t often say this, and at the risk of sounding jingoistic: “Love it or leave it.” At least respect, nurture and honor it. Don’t trash it. Please don’t deny that we have major environmental or societal problems and accept that our own small orb in this immense universe is in trouble—and, God willing, or not, we can affect the outcome of our planet and how we interact.

My heart is with the families who have suffered loss of life or massive injury in last week’s bombing and as a mother I also feel for the family of the brothers in the Boston tragedy. At nineteen, the youngest brother is only four years older than my oldest boy. Where was his mother or his father for the past few years? Even though he seemed Americanized and had even become a citizen, did he feel alone and homeless? Without home or country? Feeling displaced, or without place, are disconcerting places to be—sometimes with no firm or familiar ground. We may never know what drove these young men, or other people, to hurt innocents in the name of a cause or personal hurt. What causes someone to explode rather than to quietly implode? I will never understand a religious faction that advocates killing or hatred—and, throughout its long history, Christianity, as a religion (not the person in whose name it exists), has not been immune to this, either.

While we live on an inconsiderate planet, where people, animals—and the land—seem increasingly disrespected, I still know there are those who run back into the fray to help or who stop to assist a stranger, to take in a stray animal, or who are willing to share their time or what they have with their neighbors. When there are random acts of violence and terrorism—as there have been throughout our world’s history—we must also assure that we never lose our humanity and hope for goodness. If we do, those who terrorize, or who bully or disregard the rest of us, will have won.

Each spring, violets bloom from the detritus of fall––always a reassuring sight in a weary world.

“Love thy neighbor as thyself.” If we could just remember this basic creed and put it into more regular practice, whatever our religion (and it is a tenet of all faiths), the world would just be better. Practice random acts of kindness—daily, even hourly—in quiet benediction or loudly to the hills or the city canyons. And pray—pray especially hard for those who wish to harm us or through their own sad lives, can’t seem to help it (whether from their hatred, envy, greed, ignorance or inadequacies). Sometimes, in a crazy world, it is all that we can do.

You come back when you're ready! 


April 10, 2013

Signs of Spring –

Spring has been stealthy and late this year on Hickory Nut Ridge. March was cold—record cold apparently for Kentucky—and a complete reversal from last year’s record high warmth in the 70s and 80s (which also brings many storms––something we've not had yet this year). So the Bradford pears, always the first to bloom, did not come out until early April and the forests remain brown and bleak, while the wild red buds and dogwood have yet to emerge.

It has been a busy winter. In addition to working on several books, which I will soon be pitching, I have applied for a few jobs in public relations and, my first love, historic preservation—both professions where I was once gainfully employed. I remain hopeful about one job in particular but my “Plan B” of staying a full time farmwife, mother and writer is fine, too: even though it does not help pay most of the bills on a growing cattle farm. The reality is, when you’ve left the work force to be a mother, even though you may remain as a published writer, there isn’t a huge amount of interest in your return [I wonder what Facebook’s Sheryl Stanberg, author of Lean In, would say about this reality.] Not only are you competing with others your age in a diminished job market, there are 15-20 years of people younger than you who are eager and, well, younger. This is the reality of middle age—at a time when many of my peers are at the height of their professions, I am willing to enter back in for less pay or prestige. 

Fortunately, published writing seems to remain an ageless profession—all it demands is talent and/or marketability and a persistently annoying modern term called “platform.” [Which is why, in the past decade or so, many popular bloggers have become published writers—I started blogging after publishing articles and while writing my first contracted book—a bit of a departure, but there you are. I blog because I enjoy it, if for no other reason—and am delighted when people read them.] And, let’s not forget the biggest asset to a writer or to any pursuit: perseverance, which really, much of the time, would seem to trump talent.

Cows grazing on new pastures that we are leasing down the road for our growing herd.

I have not blogged much in the past eight months because we are still without DSL on our ridge and my PowerBook is hopelessly slow so it is difficult to blog on my slow server––it takes a long time to post a blog with photos! [I cannot even upload Firefox because my laptop, at the ripe age of seven, is considered a relic—the guys at the Mac Store in Lexington laughed when I brought it in for advice. It was likely made before they were out of diapers.] My entire laptop experience has been symbolic of my life right now: a bit slow, creaky and, apparently, very much out-of-date. Emailing on iCloud is even a challenge—again, laborious to upload emails or to send them—so I read my emails, respond briefly if I have to, and then usually type or pen longer missives via Snail Mail. How very retro! But delightful—it has been great to be away from the noise, chatter, and occasionally obnoxious clamor that is the Internet and Facebook (or Twitter, for which I refuse to sign up—mainly for the same reasons I refuse to get anything other than a track phone for travel emergencies: I’m just not that important.).

My chickens are laying again but some are getting older and in perimenopause, no doubt.

I recommend an Internet and/or social network sabbatical for the purposes of actually living or savoring your life or for creating something within it. And what is it in this virtual realm that compels us to crow about everything all of the time (but I should mention that my hens are laying again after a long hiatus and that my roosters are finally crowing)? I am also proud to say that the oft used “I’ll Google that” is no longer in my daily dialogue and that I can now better appreciate my husband’s resolve to remain a Luddite. It’s just easier to stick with what we know and to eschew the rapid-fire fervor of the latest, always evolving technology. I believe we will experience an “Arts and Crafts” revival in the decades to come—the current artisan and “slow food” movement is testament to this. All of that said my laptop, while not so good for the Internet these days, still makes an excellent portable word-processing device, so I shall keep it.

One can never have enough gnomes around!
I have missed blogging for the connective fiber of it as well as the occasional virtual scrapbooking of my life (as “scrapbook crafty” I am not—and I haven’t even been on Pinterest in months, either). My camera has also not been cooperating, so I’m going to have to send it somewhere and will likely be reliant upon my extensive photo archive for future blogging in the meantime. The photos in this blog entry are the last gasp from my faulty lens that works when it wants to in fits and starts (ok, I admit—it got dropped a while ago, so I can’t blame Canon).

Anna, right, and her daughter Norma amidst the tea spread at our Chick-a-Biddy Cottage at Valley View Farm.

A chance to use my lemon fork!
On April 7th I hosted a 60th surprise birthday tea party for my Old Order Mennonite friend Anna. It was a great reason to get the cottage in order and to do some cooking and entertaining, which I do enjoy, forgetting the fact that I was more or less comatose for two days afterwards (and that I was reliant upon Trader Joe’s for some of my savory items). This will likely be a long aside (see, I still am not a brief blogger after seven years!) but people who cater, bake or cook professionally—from scratch—have my complete respect. 

I am reminded of the forty-year plus dedication of my baker friend (and part-time boss for ten years) Robert Koerber who, five days a week, without fail, got up at 2am to prepare his homemade dough, breads, donuts and pastries for his 7am opening. For over three decades his admirers came from near and far to his Kernel Bakery in Peterborough, New Hampshire and, during the 1970s, at his Cyrnel Bakery in Forest Row, England. I enjoyed Robert’s discussions on Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical beliefs as much as I did his ricotta cheese Danish, fat chocolate croissants, and tasty fig bars—to name but a few delights—outdone only by his seasonal chocolate ├ęclairs, on Saturdays in the colder months, with their sublime vanilla custard filling.

AFTER THE PARTY: Cleaning up is half the fun! Here is some of my favorite
"Mythologique" silver set that once belonged to my great-grandmother Manton.
(one of my brothers has the other half of the set of twelve).
AFTER THE PARTY: I used my great-grandmother Manton's pink for-12 dessert set for the tea,
complete with small demitasse cups and saucers–the set in the foreground was her
breakfast-in-bed set. [It is often used on Mother's Day, thanks to my husband.]

An angel on an early headstone at
the Abbey of Gethsemani.
During Holy Week I treated myself to a five-day silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky—a belated 50th birthday present to myself. This is the subject of a future article and book chapter so I don’t want to blog too much about it but I highly recommend the experience. The day before Easter I was delighted to be a participant in my friend Jamie Aramini’s first “Kentucky Green Living Fair” in nearby Somerset [see her fabulous blog, Sustainable Kentucky]—now to be an annual event. There I signed and sold The Pantry, met many interesting people and some familiar faces, and reacquainted myself with some other Kentucky writer friends. It was a great contrast to having been more or less silent the week before.

Every year I welcome the Earth’s renewal and spring’s return with the open arms of Persephone’s mother, Demeter (and how I miss my daughter who often returns to the farm for a visit at this time of year after a long winter working in the ski industry—not this year, sadly, I don’t believe, as she is recovering from a wrist break in Colorado and is working so hard, right into the summer season—she is almost 25 and I am so very proud of her!). The world is warming and things are beginning to grow. I become more sociable, less introspective, and ready to be in the dirt. Every day now, after school and on their Easter break, our boys, 15 and almost 13, help their Dad with farm chores––we are so proud of their responsible and hard-working natures.

Five healthy kittens, here at seven weeks: two look like Mama and are female (black & whites), two are male and female tigers with white markings, and one is an all tiger taupe & gray male. Some have names, some not yet! All will be well-loved barn cats–but will be spayed and neutered, including Mama Mittens.
Boris and Natasha, to whom I am quite partial, at seven weeks.

Boris, Natasha & Chumley.
Mama Mittens–aka "BooBoo Kitty"
so named by my husband!
We have five, now eight-week old, kittens ready to roam our barns with their Mama (who, after she wandered up our driveway last October, has used up two of her nine lives in the past few months—I am in awe of both her will to survive and her natural mothering instincts after her unplanned pregnancy—but aren’t they all in the animal kingdom?). Calves are being born daily. Our chortling mockingbird and bluebirds have returned to join the chorus of spring and I’ve even heard the barn swallows as they swoop about looking to nest in our now-empty hay shed. [The fields are greening up just in time for hungry cattle.] 

The recent comet at sunset soars into the depths.
It is that reaffirming time of year that whispers life is good, that there is profound beauty—and immense order—in the natural realm, and for no other reason except to proclaim that **God is great, Sabu.

You come back when you're ready! 


**A favorite line from a favorite film—and a favorite book, Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen—although I don’t recall the actual line in the book.