WEEDER WARS (Parts 1-4)

It doesn’t matter if you don’t call yourself a “farmer”, for even if you merely raise a lone tomato or cucumber on a patio or porch, there will come a day your idyll is interrupted by aphids, or a ravenous tomato-hornworm-caterpillar, and on that day you will understand farming isn’t peace. It is war.

To a certain degree this is life as usual. It doesn’t matter if you are starting a garden or engineering a bridge, “Murphy’s Law” will state “Whatever can go wrong will go wrong”, and you will have to deal with unexpected foul-ups and unintended consequences. In moderation, this is fun, much like the stress of solving a crossword puzzle. Many assume gardening will involve moderation and be fun: There will be weeds but they will be weeded in a leisurely way, with dignity. Nope. Sooner or later it is war; total war.

One aspect of warfare is that not every attack results in victory. More ordinary is for an attack to result in resistance.

In terms of gardening, what this means is that when you pull some weeds, it is seldom a rout, with weeds fleeing in panic. In fact weeds often counter-attack. They think they have every bit as much a right to fertile soil as your tomato. Just who do you think you are, depriving ragweed?

In like manner, just because you put up chicken-wire, it is seldom a discouragement to predators. Just who do you think you are, depriving a mother fox food for her kits? In fact farmers have a wry saying, “If you want to know if there is wildlife in your neighborhood, get some chickens.”

In fact a farm is a lot like a fifteen round fight; you can’t expect to win every round. The problem is that some novices find it appalling, when they are knocked back on their heels and it is fairly obvious they are losing a round. It doesn’t fit their idyllic preconceptions of how gardening should be. A single sweltering day, or single swarm of midges, is enough, for some, and turns their confident advance into a panicky retreat. It is for this reason many gardens that look lovely in April become a thick and luscious bed of weeds by July. The gardener has lost the war.

Back when half of all Americans farmed, people were more reluctant to throw in the towel in the first or second round of the fight, because the consequences of losing were grave. There were no food-stamps, and poor people were not fat. Even if the bank took your farm you didn’t escape farming, for you had to go live on the “poor farm”. Often what you grew was all you had to eat, and people would struggle on despite much adversity, for a few small potatoes was better than none. As hard as such farming was, people were seemingly grounded in basic realities which the modern Socialist has forgotten. Where the Socialist promises to tax the rich and give the poor lots of free stuff, the old-time farmers knew nothing was free. The old-timers knew you “reap what you sow”, and that even such reaping didn’t happen unless you spent month after month fighting round after round.

My early life knew some amazing adventures which some would call “hardship”, and somewhere along the line I stopped taking anything for granted. Certain people I counted upon failed to keep the trust, so I became unwilling to rely on anyone but my foolish self, and God. For the most part my foolish self-reliance generated fiascoes, yet I always seemed to emerge from the rubble older and wiser, and for that God gets the glory.

To some degree my old age and (so-called) wisdom has involved a retreat into a sort of fall-back position. I am more inclined to adopt the attitudes of my great-grandparents than anything modern. In this manner I am like many New-Age idealists (and like Hippies of 1969, dreaming of idyllic communes), but the difference is that I don’t expect an idyll. I expect a fifteen-round brawl.

In dealing with this battle farmers have come up with various sprays: Pesticides and herbicides and fungicides, but what is really needed is a “socialisticide”. Socialists can be pests, when you put the rights of your chickens ahead of foxes, for they complain you are neglecting foxes, (when they aren’t clamoring for greater rights for your chickens.) How is it a people who have never farmed can assume they have authority over people who do? I’d like to spray them all down with “socialisticide”, when I’m in a grumpy mood.

I am saved from this grumpiness by my wife. Somewhat to my own astonishment I recently recognized my beloved is a socialist. But it is for all the right, non-materialistic reasons, based upon the “Book of Acts” in the Bible. Where politicians get insanely rich “helping” the poor, my wife’s brand of socialism sees our marriage’s skinny wallet gets skinnier. To some degree some of her charity is selfish, for “charity begins at home”, and she is big on “family values”. I am often asked to ignore an important farm-job, such as weeding, to attend an event that “supports the family”, such as a grandchild’s birthday.

I am reluctant to procrastinate, when it comes to weeding, for a weed which you can pinch from the soil with ease on Monday swiftly develops a root system by Friday that requires eye-popping effort to remove. My wife fails to understand this, for she rarely weeds. She also fails to understand my panic, when weeds are growing and ignored, and accuses me of caring more for weeds than grandchildren. (Such shots-to-the-heart are typical of Socialists.)

Like most good husbands I chose my battles, and the rest of the time I meekly say, “Yes Dear.” However I felt my tolerance getting stretched to the limit when I was asked to ignore farm matters for “good business practices.” My wife was staging a Socialist event called “A Preschool Graduation” at our Farm-childcare.

Absurd. Of what use is a diploma to a five-year-oId? And how can it compete with weeding the broccoli? Weeding produces a crop, whereas a five-year-old’s diploma produces nothing. (Sadly often a twenty-five-year-old’s diploma produces the same nothing.) However my wife stated diplomas produced “satisfied customers”, and that customers, and not my broccoli, was what truly fed us. I muttered we were teaching five-year-olds to value the wrong things, (in an inaudible manner), and said, “Yes dear” more loudly. My wife didn’t much like my tone.

I was then expected to “spruce up the place”, which involved making the productive farm look like an unproductive suburb. Rather than the important work of weeding , I had to “groom” the farm. I did a fine job, mowing and “weed-whacking ” edges and planting non-edible flowers and clearing trails of fallen trees and putting up balloons and banners, but the entire time my broccoli was screaming, “Help us! Save us!”

Finally the Socialism was done with, the children performed songs and parents were enthralled and diplomas were handed out and people ate a fine meal and the satisfied customers trailed off into the sunset, and I could at long last get down to the real work of catching up with my weeding. Immediately it rained.

Now it just so happens I can’t weed in the rain, because it spreads bacteria and fungus and diseases (especially with beans). Also I had to undergo oral surgery and have the roots of five teeth extracted from my upper jaw, and there were complications, and I was reduced to a diet of soft boiled eggs and gruel, which likely weakened my resistance to a summer cold passing through the Childcare. As my fever spiked at 101 degrees I was glad it was raining, for it gave me a good excuse to set a record for the number of naps a old man can take in a single day. But then my fever dropped and the forecast promised a single sunny day in a very rainy spring. I prepared to leap from bed and attack those weeds.

It turned out a side effect of this particular summer cold is that ones lungs are made hyper-sensitive to pollen, for a while. A number of local folk I spoke with complained about how they could not shake the congestion and hacking cough. I concur, but think they were too stoic and modest in describing how crippling the pulmonary inflammation was. I’ve never had asthma, but felt like I was having attacks. My nose streamed mucus in a way highly annoying to my wife, as she feels a dripping mustache does not lead to “satisfied customers.” My coughing fits can only be described as fits of hysteria; the coughs were so rapid they sounded like a machine gun, and one time, driving twenty miles an hour on a country lane, I nearly went off the road.

But I was not going to let some dumb cough slow me down. I muttered the old motto, “When the going gets tough the tough get going”, and figured some energetic exercise would clear my lungs. After I “hucked a looey” or two of phlegm, I’d be fine. The bell rang, and I headed out to fight the next round.

It was a bit like I walked into an uppercut to my jaw, though in fact it was a wall of pollen. Rather than clearing my lungs, exercise gagged me. My coughing was unproductive, and also embarrassing, for it was a senile “ih-ih-ih-ih-ih-ih”, yet so prolonged I couldn’t inhale. When a fit dropped me to one knee, I imagined a referee began counting, “One…two…three…four…”, and also a sardonic voice in the back of my mind stated, “Well, you are always telling people you want to die with your boots on.”

Fortunately I was saved by the bell and retreated to my corner, which was a shady place out of the sun. And when you are in the shade you can see things you can’t see out in the sun. I could see the air was filled with dust, fine yellow dust, streaming in the wind. Looking down at puddles from recent rains I noted each puddle was rimmed with yellow. Even as they shrank in the sunshine their little coasts were made golden by pollen. The scientist in me concluded that plants that have no use for bees, and pollinate using wind, have evolved some sort of self-restraint. They know better than to release pollen in the rain, when it will be beaten down, and withhold the release until the sun shines. And, when it has rained a solid week, this means an amazing amount of pollen gets released when the sun finally shines. The coach in my corner concluded we would be wise to avoid breathing, so I fought the next round sitting on my rider mower, catching up on cutting-the-grass.

Of course, as I sat on my duff on the puttering mower, I could look over at the garden and hear the broccoli weeping, “Help us! Save us!”, and I eventually heard the coach in my corner propose weeding in a pinkie-raised way that required no hacking hoe and heavy breathing. And we did a little of that, as the sun dimmed in streamers of cirrus overhead, and the west darkened with the rising purple of approaching thunder. But what really stuck in my head was the moment I sat in the shade, and looked out to sunshine, and suddenly understood how thick the pollen truly was. I said to myself, “There’s a sonnet in this”.

Midst my misery; my sneezing summer
Cold; my snuffling self-pity; weaker
Than a kitten; glum and getting glummer,
My heart required humor be it’s speaker:
“If we’ve got to die, let’s have our killer
Be pine pollen, streaking yellow in the wind.
These swaying trees aren’t like the miller
Grinding flour steadily, but have grinned,
Held back ammo all a rainy week, and then
Let pollen go like a cavalcade of gold
Dust in the wind. Why gripe you’re choked, when
Sun-stirred breezes make twigs prance uncontrolled?
The green-gold pine pollen’s such a wonder,
Golden against rising purple thunder.”

Part 2

At this point I adopted a new attitude. It was: “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” In my war against weeds, I think it won me a round.

In terms of the original American family farmer, (now seen as a “third world phenomenon”), to fight when all is lost makes good sense, because a few potatoes is better than none, and hunger is better than starvation. However in the eyes of certain modern mentalities such forlorn struggling makes no sense, for only winning matters. If you don’t win every round, you sulk, and the loser demands a “participation trophy” as big as the trophy the winner gets. But gardens own no such Socialist sensitivity. If you don’t weed the broccoli, your trophy is not as big as a winner’s, and sometimes you get no trophy at all.

I think I picked up this old-fashioned earthiness from my elders when young, from the toughness of the people who in many cases lost everything in the Great Depression, but refused to roll over and die. In like manner, my father lost a great deal when, as a young surgeon, he was crippled during the last polio epidemic in 1954, and had to fight back. But one thing that impressed me most, as a small boy, was strangely derived from the attitude of the Boston Red Sox sports fans, (called the “Fenway Faithful”), who supported a losing team, at that time.

How I, as a seven-year-old, became infatuated by baseball is a bit of a mystery to me. My father had played as a boy, but didn’t like to bring up the subject because he now couldn’t play, due to polio. Perhaps to forget his handicap he became deeply engrossed in his work. Being engrossed, in fact, seemed a family trait. My mother, would could care less about baseball, was often absorbed in reading, as were my three older siblings, only one of whom played baseball. That particular brother vanished from time to time with a bat and glove, but I never went to any of his games, and he was downright secretive about what occurred while he was away.

Outside of lively discussions at the dinner table, my family usually was deeply absorbed in their private occupations. The noisy chirping of a curious seven-year-old like myself was not appreciated. My eldest brother tended to see my interest as an interruption, and also he sometimes was doing something he didn’t want people to know about, (such as making nitroglycerin). My mother could be so deeply engrossed in an Agatha Christi novel she didn’t notice loud explosions in the backyard. Some evenings the entire family might be reading, but I had no idea what any of the books were about. This made me want to write books, (so they might pay attention to me), but it also gave me plenty of scope to wander about unattended and discover baseball on my own terms, which included some early stages where I entertained some odd ideas about what the sport entailed.

The person most passionate about baseball was my grandmother. We lived about four miles away from her kitchen. Once we were not actually living with her and my grandfather (after 1954-55, when my entire family had polio, to different degrees, and we collapsed into my grandparent’s household), visits became formal and not all that often (to give them some well-deserved peace). When we visited they both sat in their armchairs in the living-room, as was their custom with guests. But even then, during the summer, in the background in the kitchen, I sometimes could hear a baseball broadcast, and occasionally my grandmother would cock her head and then vent some spleen about the “Red Flops”, which made me initially unsure of the team’s actual name.

Her sneering was odd, considering she knew the names and trivial details about every ballplayer on the team, and her eyes could moisten talking about them, but I think it was symptomatic of tougher times, when people’s lives were ruined by polio and measles and mumps; many families had lost members in World War Two and the Korean War; and few had made it through the Great Depression without experiencing need and want. Such sneering would most definitely be politically-incorrect now, fifty years later, but back then it was what you got instead of a “participation trophy”. When my older brothers poked into my non-stop scribbling and discovered I spelled “Red Sox” as “Red Socks”, I could expect sneering, but it wasn’t without goodhearted humor, and did alert me to my mistakes. Not that I would concede to asking them for a correct spelling. Come to think of it, one reason for the fact my family was so uncommunicative, when engrossed, might have been because they didn’t want to face a lot of sneering for their rough drafts. When things were discussed at the dinner table they tended to be completed events in the past tense; either a story of a success, or a funny tale of how an effort had crashed and burned. There was not much discussion about events “in process”.

In any case one thing I did, when my home was silent and I was left to my own devises, was to wander into the Victorian house’s big library and poke through my parent’s books, or an out-dated version of Encyclopedia Britannica, or go “fishing” on the old radio, which had AM, FM, and Short Wave bands. I’d chance upon strange music and languages. I recall one foreign music that fascinated me was a long drone of syllables in C, with the final two syllables descending through B-flat to G. It took me some time before I realized it was a local Catholic Mass, with the priest intoning in Latin.

Baseball made about as much sense to me as a Latin Mass, at first. I recognized it was in English, but the jargon was gobbledygook to me. I primarily was interested in the background noises, the man shouting “Hot Dogs!” and another shouting “Ice Cold Beer”, and the occasional voice shouting something rude, which I’d get in trouble for shouting, if I ever dared shout it.

The Red Sox had become a bad team and the crowd was so sparse at Fenway Park that individual fan’s voices could be quite distinct, over the radio. But I seldom listened long, as there were more interesting channels to search through. However there were an amazing number of affiliates in the “Red Sox Network”, back then, so I kept running into the same game on different AM stations, some far away and staticy, and some near and loud. I even could run into games on the FM band. There was no escaping gradually attempting to make sense of the nonsense.

One September afternoon I came home after a bad day at school. My Third Grade Teacher was a cross old lady, and I already had the strong feeling it was going to be a bad year. It was going to be a bad year on the bus as well, for the elder brothers who once defended me from sixth-grade-bullies had moved up to Junior High and took a different bus, and my sister preferred to pretend she didn’t know me. When I came trudging into my home after my bad day I could hear my mother busy upstairs with her afterthought babies, a brother aged two and a sister aged six months. My job then was to be quiet, and not keep the babies from napping, so I tiptoed off to the Library to quietly zone-out “fishing” on the old radio, with the sound turned down very low. I noticed the end of an afternoon Red Sox game was on, but something seemed very different. The announcers, who usually had somewhat robotic “newsreel” voices, seemed ever so slightly emotional. Not that a modern Socialist could hear a hint of emotion in their stern voices, but, to a 1950’s boy like myself, accustomed to the stoic machismo of that time, they were all but blubbering, and it made me so uncomfortable I changed the station.

But I kept running into the same blubbering announcers on other stations, and eventually curiosity kicked in. What was so special? Even the crowd sounded larger and very different. Once I focused my seven-year-old brains, I learned a lot in a hurry. Not necessarily about baseball, but rather about how “it is not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.”

As my seven-year-old brain attempted to assimilate the data, I came to understand the Red Sox were losers, who were finishing 32 “games behind” (whatever that meant). They were “next to last”, in terms of some thing called “the standings”, but the first-place team, called the “Tankies” or some such thing, apparently quaked in their boots when facing the Red Sox, according to the announcer. Even though the Red Sox could only spend a dime for every hundred dollars the Tankies could spend, there was no other team that had won more games against the Tankies. The Red Sox had won seven games, and only lost four, against the Tankies, which was better than better teams did, so who was actually better?

(Now that I’m old and cynical I suspect the highly-payed Yankees perhaps did not take lowly teams like Boston and Kansas-City seriously, and stayed up too late and drank too much beer the night before, which explains why they got their butts kicked so often by cellar-dwelling teams. But at age seven I lacked such cynicism.)

As I listened to the announcer I came to understand it was the last home game of the year, and that even though the Tankies had won 94 games and the Red Sox only 65, the Red Sox were better than the Tankies. This made no sense, so I switched the station.

Immediately coming across the same game on another station, I learned more. Apparently the reason the Red Sox were better than the Tankies was because they had a great player named Fred Millions, or some such thing. However not only was it the Red Sox last home game of the season, it was the last home game of Fred’s 21-year-career, and, because it was the eighth inning, it might be Fred’s last time at bat at Fenway Park. The half-empty ballpark held more than thrice as many fans as the poor team usually drew, and they were making more noise than usual as he walked up to home plate to bat.

The announcer was droning statistics, going on about how Fred might have hit as many home-runs as someone called something like Gabe Tooth, but Fred left baseball to serve as a fighter pilot in World War Two and again as a jet pilot in the Korean War, missing five years “in his prime”, whatever that was. Even so he’d hit 520 home-runs, third most of all players in world history, and was the last player to “bat over four-hundred”, and, if you included all the times he was walked by pitchers scared to give him a good pitch, his “on-base-percentage” was the highest of any player who had ever lived.

None of this gobbledygook made much sense to me, so I switched down the dial and listened to the end of a lively polka. When an announcer then began speaking Polish, I searched on and blundered across the Red Sox game again, and was startled by the difference.

Fred Millions had hit a home run his last time at bat, and the cheering went on and on. The cheering continued when the inning was over, and Fred went out to play left field, and then the manager, named “Pinkie” (which seemed strange), sent out a young substitute and the crowd roared louder as Fred jogged in, and began chanting “We want Ted” when he disappeared into the dugout, (which alerted me to the fact his name was “Ted” and not “Fred”). But what seemed most interesting to me was a conversation between the announcer and some other guy. They were wondering whether Ted would “doff his cap” or not. I was unsure what “doffing” was, but the other guy said Ted would never do it. He listed a long string of reasons, going back 21 years.

Apparently my grandmother wasn’t the only one who called the team the “Red Flops”, and Ted got tired of fan’s fickle sneering, and the way they would boo the same day they would cheer. But worst were some people called “Ports Retorters”, who had called him a “draft dodger” (whatever that was) when he was actually a “war hero”, and also called him lots of other bad things. Ted, after spitting in the direction of the press when young and hot-blooded, decided to just be a great hitter and skip doffing, and he didn’t doff no matter how the crowd cheered or booed. (Note: As an old man in 1999 Ted Williams eventually did “doff” a cap he brought out onto the field, saluting the “Fenway Faithful”, 39 years later, during a ceremony to honor him, during an All Star Game.)

I turned the radio off, moved by deep emotion (for a seven-year-old). I too wanted to have everyone cheer me, and to not doff. I wanted everyone to be good and sorry they had sneered at me. I wanted my crabby old teacher to be sorry she crabbed, the bullies on the bus to be sorry they bullied, and my older brothers to be sorry they teased and jeered, but to not to care a hoot about their dumb, old apologies. They didn’t matter. What mattered was “how you played the game”.

My embryonic seven-year-old’s toughness was actually quite spiritual, when I think about it. The Truth remains the Truth whether one receives adulation or the lack of it. One should focus on the job at hand, irregardless if they are cheered or booed, encouraged or discouraged, in first place or last, rich or poor, or whether they win elections or lose them.

Of course, no man is an island, and we do tend to be influenced by others, irregardless of their connection to the Truth, and their status as “good influences” or “bad influences”. I confess to being swayed by flattery and discouraged by rejection, even when I recognized the people influencing me were idiots. However deep down every man has a lodestone called a “conscience”, and this criterion, and not some silly “participation trophy”, is what tells us if we are on track or not.

One thing that I shake my head about, concerning modern Socialists, is their tendency to be driven wild by the most innocuous events and statements. They become imbalanced by the blow of a feather. To a gruff old-timer like myself, they seem the epitome of “snowflake” wimpiness, and even an opposite of stoicism quite different from epicureanism, for at least epicureans can hope for hedonistic pleasure, whereas Socialist whining calls misery its beloved company, and cultivates caterwauling.

If Socialists had been in Fenway Park on September 28,1960, I imagine they would have quickly become furious with Ted Williams for not doffing his cap, and their cheers would have swiftly devolved to the rot of booing, if not a riot. I’m glad I was formed in a different time, when the “Fenway Faithful” could not only cheer an amazing career, but even cheer the simple fact the star would not doff his cap. They did not need his praise any more than he needed theirs. What mattered was deeper.

What has this to do with farming?

In farming there is an odd tendency to keep fighting even when you have lost the first fourteen rounds. Where in boxing there is at least the chance of a fifteenth-round-knock-out, whereupon the loser becomes a winner, in farming one can be in the position of the 1960 Red Sox, more than thirty “games behind” the Yankees. There is no chance of being champion, but one still fights on, and, like Ted Williams, seeks to hit a home run their final time at bat.

Farming is like baseball because in April all hope to “win the pennant”, which in farming terms is called “harvesting a bumper crop.” If your harvest is big you might make a profit and then be able to invest the money on improvements. However, just as few teams are champions, in baseball, few farmers harvest bumper crops, in farming. As the summer proceeds one starts to understand they may not “win the pennant”, but they keep playing the game. They pay no heed to booing or cheap shots from the peanut gallery, and instead plod on.

Some poets call this toughness a sign of a “desensitized” man, and like to preen before mirrors and think their emotional responses prove they are more sensitive, when often their hysteria only proves they are fickle and irrational. After all, the same crowd that cheered Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem jeered and demanded he be crucified only days later, and I see nothing particularly sensitive about that.

Lord, how they sneered and mocked You and Your word,
Yet You asked that they still be forgiven.
That doesn’t mean that You thanked them. It’s absurd
To think You should thank cruel, ungrateful men
For their misdeeds. Our tardy gratitude
Seems too little too late…
……………………………………….When his at-bat
At the very finish astounded the rude
Boston fans with William’s final home run, his hat
He would not doff. Why thank fans who sneered
For twenty years, and saw flaws in great deeds?
His hat stayed firm, as home plate neared.
Odd how our sneering reveals our hid needs.
Some were quite hurt Ted did not doff his cap.
We’ll all feel the same when Christ points out our crap.

Midst thriving weeds I plug onward, knowing
Earth is not heaven, and my sweat and strain
Won’t make me rich. Perhaps what I am growing
Is character, more than material grain.
Perhaps in the fall I’ll reap a small crop
Which is better than none, but it’s also true
That my own green season, called “life”, must stop
And then I’ll see “You can’t take it with you.”
While in this world we gather and then store
In pantries the foods to feed us through the snows,
To death we go naked. What life calls “more”
Is left behind, and the gardener then knows
What he grows is not rolled off in a cart
But is blooming that hints at a truly changed heart.

Part 3

The original farmers of the United States were different from modern “agribusiness”, in that they were not in the business of farming to get rich as much as they were in it for a quite different reason, (basically to live free, and raise a family, which involved raising the crops that would feed that family). Farming was way of life, a deed men did without thinking deeply about why they did it, just as we get dressed in the morning without thinking deeply about why we wear clothes. What’s more, they didn’t have the time to think about it. Physically they worked more than twice as hard as we do. This is shown by the fact they ingested more than 4000 calories a day and didn’t get fat, while some us can get fat on less than 2000. In many ways they were a very different people.

It is hard for modern psyches to grasp the fact more than half of all Americans could feed (often large) families without working for any boss other than themselves. Not only did they feed themselves, but they also were forced to be artisans: They spun wool and cured leather and clothed themselves, built their own cabins and sheltered themselves, burned tallow candles for light and burned wood for heat, and had absolutely no need for government welfare or food stamps. They were the “Yeoman Farmer” Thomas Jefferson admired and called crucial to democracy, and were the “Kulak” Stalin despised, and sought to “purge” from Russia, even if millions starved in the process.

Because I in some ways see myself as a “Kulak”, I can’t help but notice that nothing irks a Socialist more than an individual who is self-reliant, for he is proof we do not need bureaucrats (who make a living off telling us how to live our lives). In many cases such independence on our part threatens a bureaucrat’s very livelihood. For example, if you are a social worker, and families are self-reliant and happy, of what use are you? In such a case it is the social worker who needs food-stamps and welfare, and not the people he or she imagines is dependent on him or her.

Not that the original American farmers had an easy life. I could go in great detail about the conflicts between an immigrant people who could feed a family with 60 acres (New England) or 250 acres (Prairie States) and a native people who wanted to feed their families utilizing 100,000 or 1,000,000 acres. But let me simplify matters by mentioning conflicts between farmers and a grasshopper called Melanoplus spretus.

Melanoplus spretus was North America’s locust. A locust is a grasshopper which has the ability to undergo a Jekyll-Hyde transformation. For years, even decades, it can hop around like an innocent grasshopper, but some sort of trigger can cause it to amazingly change, whereupon it looks physically different and it reproduces differently as well. The innocent grasshopper becomes a voracious swarm, darkening the sky and not only eating all your crops, but the wool off the backs of your sheep, and even the leather of your shoes. Although Melanoplus spretus lived in the Rocky Mountains, when triggered by drought or over-population into its locust form, huge swarms traveled east all the way to the farms in my homeland of New England.

It is difficult to imagine how gigantic and devastating these swarms were. The largest could cover an area the size of California and number over ten trillion insects. In a matter of hours, months of a farmer’s hard work vanished. Using my boxing analogy, it was as if, in the tenth round, one’s opponent abruptly morphed into King Kong. And then?

Then farmers fought like hell, as if their lives depended on it, because their lives did. The tales of how they fought back are amazing, but the fighting seemed basically useless. Worst was the fact that, at the end of the summer, these huge swarms would hunker down and lay trillions upon trillions of eggs.

This was hugely depressing to farming families. As the locusts ate everything above ground, farmers knew they might eek by on the incompletely-formed crops that grew below ground: Undersized potatoes, beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, onions, sweet potatoes and rutabagas might help a family struggle through a hungry winter, but the following spring they would not be able to even plant such root crops, for the soil was infested with locust eggs, and they’d hatch in the spring and eat the first sprouts of every crop you planted. Then, when they had eaten everything in sight, the swarm would arise en-mass and head east, always east. Melanoplus spretus never returned home to the west with trophies of conquest, but continued east until the Atlantic Ocean proved an absolute end to a swarm, and fishes got fat.

It is difficult to see what ecological advantage Melanoplus spretus derived from these banzai charges to the east. As they left the arid west they increasingly moved into lands they were not suited for. Early Mormon history speaks of farmers falling to their knees in prayer when a swarm threatened their crops, and how their prayers were answered by a huge flock of voracious gulls. Also, even when Melanoplus spretus laid trillions of eggs, a very wet spring with standing puddles in the fields could kill every egg. Therefore not every swarm made it to the Atlantic. No colony was ever established in the east, and the swarming seems a sort of extravagant waste, on the part of Mother Nature.

Melanoplus spretus was but one form of ruin faced by the early American homesteaders. They also faced droughts, floods, hail, and the simple fact their eastern farming-practices were not suited for the naturally-arid western lands. They faced stampedes of buffalo, and the arrows of a native population who did not much like squatters who killed their buffalo.

Lastly they faced misinformation from callous people who sought to financially gain from the migration of millions of basically ignorant farmers. These dishonest people included those investing in railways and farm equipment, and the banking institutions that financed such endeavors. What such profiteers tended to do was make farming look like an idyll, and to fail to mention it is a war. The advertisements in the eastern newspapers of that time look comical, in the way they describe a paradise out west.

One concept that seems strangely modern was the idea of Climate Change. What homesteaders imagined would change their arid 250-acres was not virtue-signaling by buying curly candles or riding electric horses, (or throwing a virgin into a volcano), but rather was through their sweat, as they busted the thick sod, and also planted an acre of trees on their 250-acre-farm. The “climate scientists” of that time, with pompous authority, stated “farming brought rain”, and the more naive farmers believed them, and planted the required acre of trees in an arid landscape. Optimism abounded during the wet years, but then the climate did what it always does, and there came drought and ruin and, with the dryness, Melanoplus spretus.

It is easy for us to look back and smugly criticize, for the farmers made many mistakes. (Remember many were gutsy fathers fleeing sweat-shop factories in cities, seeking a better life for their children, and some had little experience of farming outside of what they read in pamphlets.) Before we are too scornful of them we should understand that some day people will look back at us, and smugly criticize us for all the dunderhead things we do in the name of “Climate Change.” But what amazes me is how the farmers fought, against daunting odds, and how they became an unrecognized and vital (and very necessary) “part of a process”, which did profoundly change the world, in a way we all benefit greatly from.

It is easy to criticize the changes as being ruinous to the ecology of the prairie, and to the indigenous people dependent on that ecology. The slaughter of the buffalo was appalling, and the fury of the Sioux understandable, but that is because we are able to sit in ivory towers, blessed by our ability to indulge in a leisurely appraisal. We forget the people of that time were within the fog of war. Even the Sioux were a culture going through radical changes, for they had formerly hunted buffalo on foot, but now were an amazing, new people on horseback.

To the farmers in the fog of war there was little time for leisurely appraisal, for they had children to feed, and often the situation was desperate enough in a mere drought, even before Melanoplus spretus appeared. When the trillions of grasshoppers then descended the way farmers fought insects, back before pesticides, is both laughable and courageous. They built fires and created thick clouds of smoke, and hammered together gadgets that knocked flying grasshoppers into trays of kerosene, which they pulled through their stripped fields with their horses. To kill the grasshopper’s eggs they would churn the soil with plows, even plowing soil they had no intention to plant.

When they turned to the government for help, moronic politicians wrote a law that punished farmers with a fine, if they didn’t devote two days a year to killing grasshoppers. (I wonder who spied on the farmers, and who collected the fines.) The government also offered a bounty for every bushel (35 liters) of dead grasshoppers the farmers turned in. In March, when the baby grasshoppers were small, a farmer might make a dollar a bushel, but by June, when the grasshoppers got big and fat, the bounty shrank to a dime. But even a slender, silver dime was better than zero, when you had a family to feed. To feed their families desperate farmers fished for the smallest horn-pout, and hunted rat-like prairie dogs, and even fried the grasshoppers themselves.

The most effective help came from fellow farmers, via churches. Farmers in areas outside the reach of a swarm sent food and fodder to those afflicted. Often the favor was returned in only a few years. When the climate swung from dry to wet the grasshoppers vanished, and the empty fields abruptly held bumper crops even as farmers to the east suffered floods, and then the farmers who had been helped became the generous helpers.

One way or another the farmers got by. It is easy to scorn and sneer at them, for they knew little about soil erosion, or that, by busting the sod, they were creating the loose soil that would blow as enormous clouds in the Dust Bowl. During the Dust Bowl over a million farmers lost everything and became refugees, and we can now sit back in our ivory towers and say “tsk tsk” about their ignorance, but perhaps we display a certain ignorance by forgetting that much we know about soil erosion came through mistakes they made. They were the ones actually learning from their mistakes, and actually suffering in the fog of war.

Some of the things they learned had benefits of a magnitude they likely could never imagine. For example, when dealing with Melanoplus spretus some farmers hit upon the idea of planting crops that matured in the spring, when the grasshoppers hadn’t hatched or were still small. Refugees from Russia then remembered stuff they planted in the late summer in Siberia they could harvest the next spring, called “winter wheat”. It would form a turf in the late fall, and in the spring swiftly send up fruiting shoots. Tiny, baby grasshopper might stunt this fruition, but they couldn’t stop it. This Kulak idea took off, spreading from farmer to farmer until, even when the grasshoppers were around and the crop was lessened, enough was salvaged so that people had, at least, a little bread.

Environmentalists and Sociologists do like to repeat “tsk tsk” about the mistakes made by those farmers. The buffalo very nearly did become extinct, but through the Grace of God and the alertness of early environmentalists, they were saved. The Sioux nearly became extinct as a people, but through the Grace of God and their own innate toughness, they survived. Prairie sod nearly became extinct, and only remains in scattered parks. A type of grouse farmers called “the prairie chicken” did become extinct, which was sad even for those farmers, who liked to hunt and eat them, but that extinction is now is used as a reason to say, “tsk tsk”. Yet I almost never hear ecologists mention another extinction.

As the year 1900 approached there was a drought, and farmers anxiously looked west for the skies darkening with Melanoplus spretus, but the grasshoppers didn’t come. Farmers were too busy with drought and hail and bankers to pay much heed to this good fortune, but up in the mountain valleys a few looked around, and could see no Melanoplus spretus. Perhaps due to cattle being driven up mountain river floodplains and changing the habitat, the grasshoppers had not merely become scarce. They vanished from the face of the earth. The last one was seen in Canada in 1902.

The extinction of Melanoplus spretus likely contributed to a new and unexpected disaster that hit those struggling farmers, which was the phenomenon of bumper crops. So much wheat was produced that, due to the economic principle of “supply and demand”, the price of wheat fell so low that farmers couldn’t make any money selling it. Of course, even with prices at rock bottom, some profiteering people got rich. (Don’t get me started on the moral decrepitude of such people. They like to claim they “fulfill a need”, but whores “fulfill a need”, and it doesn’t make them one bit moral.) In any case, railways stood to make money by holding a monopoly on the shipments of grain, and commodity markets made money even as prices crashed, and sellers of farming equipment made money repossessing equipment, and bankers made money repossessing farms. At times it seemed the only ones who didn’t get fat off off the bumper crop was the farmers who actually created the plenty.

The farmer is the man.
The farmer is the man;
Lives off his credit ‘til the fall,
Then they take him by the hand
And they lead him from the land
And the banker is the one who gets it all,
Yet the farmer is the man.
The farmer is the man.
Some people disagree
But its obvious to me
That the farmer is the one who feeds us all.

(Song from “Farm Aid” concert, circa 1976)

Farmers are the salt of the earth, for without them we all starve, but as a rule they barely subsist, in materialistic terms. On the great American plains they came and went like dust in the wind. (And I am not talking about a few, but rather millions of families.)

One reason Abraham Lincoln was elected (with less than 40% of the popular vote) was because he offered poor people “free land” via the “Homestead Act”. This act offered any man, from any slum or eastern, hardscrabble farm, 250 acres out west, for not a penny down. All a man needed to do was head west, make his claim for a particular plot, and live there for five years. A no-brainer, right? Millions of families with little to lose ripped up what roots they had, and headed west to lay claim to 250 acres for free.

We can still look at the records kept by those long-ago bureaucrats, and one appalling thing is that roughly half of the families couldn’t even fulfill the stipulation that they live on the land for for five years. Therefore, right off the bat, we have over a million families defeated by the fog of farming’s war. What became of all those families?

Continue on, through disaster after disaster, to the Dust Bowl, when more than a million more farming families were driven from the land. The 250-acre-farm largely became a thing of the past, and entire communities became ghost towns. And one wonders, “Who in their right mind would ever want to be a farmer?”

What this fails to measure is intangible to Socialists, (and also many Capitalists), who measure all in terms of status and money.

Millions of American families came to the prairies, and millions left, and almost none saw a long-term material profit, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some farmers were so amazingly tough that not even the Dust Bowl’s temperatures of over 110 degrees Fahrenheit could defeat them. These survivors were unbelievable.

Back in my drifting days I had the good fortune to be befriended by a retired farmer from Garden City, Kansas, who liked to sip beers and become garrulous, and regale me with tales of how his family survived the Dust Bowl.

His father was a Polish refugee who was too smart to ever enter an agreement that would allow a bank to take his farm, or to ever buy equipment on an installment plan that would allow his equipment to be repossessed. Perhaps he didn’t modernize as swiftly as other farmers, but he completely avoided debt. Even when he experienced complete crop failure, he didn’t owe anyone anything.

The gruff man’s practicality is perhaps best shown by the fact that, when he became aware he had contracted tuberculosis and likely would soon die, he moved to a barn so his children would not be exposed to the bacteria. However he was too ornery to die, and from the barn he commanded his family with the discipline of Captain Bligh. Between dust and tuberculosis he could barely breathe, but neither man nor beast wanted to see him emerge from the barn in a rage, for he was ruthless with his whip. Modern “animal rights” people would likely sue him, and he’d also likely be in jail for “child abuse” for how tough he was on his many sons, but he got his family through the Dust Bowl, to the blessed day the rains returned. (My friend told me that, because the heat and drought had been so chronic in the 1930’s, his childhood created the impression that Dust Bowl conditions simply were how the world was, and that, when the rains returned, it then seemed downright bizarre to look around in the spring and see all the Kansas fields be green.)

When the rains returned the farm, which had somehow managed to survive without an income, suddenly had an income. At this point the father seemed to feel he had won his private war, and passed away, but his strapping sons were not happy, having an income. As best as I can tell, life was too easy. After a decade fighting for survival, bumper crops were like a life without battle for a Viking, or life without football for a linebacker. After Pearl Harbor all the brothers rushed off to fight Japan and Germany. Only one son, my friend, remained to run the farm with his mother, because he was too young to enlist and also because the American government basically ordered him to stay.

My friend was a bit ashamed that he, the “baby”, stayed at home and didn’t fight Hitler, but I pointed out someone had to “feed the fighters”. I said he was the “hero” who fed the “war effort”, both the soldiers and the workers toiling in munitions-factories, but my flattery fell flat. He said he was uncomfortable because he had made enormous profits during the war. He could handle poverty, and even derive joy from such a life, but wealth made him strangely miserable.

Something about this tough farmer’s attitude seems utterly beyond the capacity of most socialists, (and also many capitalists), to comprehend. They cannot conceive of people who are not enthralled by money and status, and who live for something else.

When I asked him what he did with all his money, he laughed. He said that when the rains returned, and Kansas farmers got rich, they traded-in their beat up, old Model-A Fords and drove Cadillacs. Then, when the ground was frozen in the winter, they would go roaring across the wheat fields around Garden City in their fancy cars. Sometimes they’d tie the hood of an old truck to a long rope, upside down, as a sort of sled they pulled behind their Cadillacs, and would drag bunches of gleeful children behind them. When I asked the old wheat-farmer if any children got hurt, he shook his head, and stated the experience educated children about the importance of holding on for dear life.

When I asked if farmers did economically sensible things, such as reinvest their money, he looked bored, and said “Yes”. So many farmers had lost their farms in the Dust Bowl that there were lots of 250-acre-farms to buy dirt cheap, especially if they abutted your farm, but such successful expansion seemed to bore him. He could fluently discuss a mini-Dust-Bowl drought in the 1950’s, and high prices during the Korean War, but he always seemed ready to yawn as I pestered him with such pragmatic questions.

Instead what seemed to really animate him was the subject of his children. When I asked if any of his children became farmers, he sat forward and eagerly told me they were too smart to become farmers, and then began to tick off the colleges they had attended, proudly stating how much smarter they were than he was. After college they all had gone on to prestigious corporations and big businesses he could brag about. It seemed all had become very successful, but to me it seemed his children’s success was due to the “character” inherited from the farming life, even among children who desired to leave farming far behind. Yet I confess that, when I first looked at the old man, I didn’t suspect there was any iron under the rust; he appeared to be an old Yahoo; one might suspect he was a character without suspecting he had any.

Just as I gave this old farmer credit for “defeating Hitler”, even though he stayed “home with his Mommy”, and only produced the huge crops that fed the troops, it also seems to me that the millions of farmers from families who lost their farms in the Dust Bowl also deserve a degree of deference.

Why? Because even as they became homeless they saved millions in Africa, Asia and Europe. They were “part of a process” that turned an obscure Siberian wheat into a huge American surplus, shipped far and wide in fifty or hundred pound sacks, labeled “USA”, often for free as “foreign aid”. As much as ecologists gripe about the diminished ecosystem of the buffalo, there are many people alive in Africa, Asia and post-World-War-Two Europe who might never have been born, had not American “winter wheat” arrived to prevent their grandparents from dying of famine.

Hopefully a few Sioux see that the crazy flood of American farmers onto the Great Plains, as a crazy pale-faced people who basically wrecked the Sioux’s ecosystem and way of life, and then largely vanished over the horizon, was “part of a process”. The suffering of the Sioux is at least in part made bearable because millions in Asia, Africa, and Europe were benefited. (It is also made bearable because in some areas, where the Sioux once became a minority, they now have regained the majority, because they persisted as the farmers fled).

But what did the farmers themselves get out of their struggle?

“Character”. A wonderful classiness, immeasurable by those who seek mere money and status, and who are therefore not much different from old-fashioned Hindu enslaved by their ancient caste-system, where some are deemed “Brahman” and some “Untouchable”.

Socialists often fall prey to such typecasting, and can be as enslaved to class as the most ardent royalist, though Socialists usually seek to make the royal (and the successful) the “bad guy”, who unjustly “oppresses the poor”. Socialists see the solution to such injustice as being to crush the upper class (the “bourgeoisie”) and the middle class (the “petite bourgeois”) (and this includes Yeoman farmers), and to make the poor (the “proletariat”) a sort of new upper class. Yet such socialists only perpetuate the caste-system, though they howl they oppose it. They resemble a person opposed to promiscuous sex, who cannot get his mind off the topic. They cannot escape the trap of dividing people into categories, nor grasp the liberating concept of, “All Men Are Created Equal”.

One of the best tales about the tough times the farming families endured is John Steinbeck’s “Grapes Of Wrath”, which I was required to read in school in 1968. I particularly remember Steinbeck’s amazing, vicious description of the man buying broke farmer’s cars, profiteering from their misfortune. The description was so brilliantly effective that it caused me to become hugely bigoted towards used-car-salesmen for decades, (until I actually befriended one). However Steinbeck ends his tale failing to mention what happened next. He leaves one with the sense that the poor Dust Bowl “Okies” were forever ruined.

Indeed they did suffer a downfall, from a people with middle-class houses and 250 acre farms and state-of-the-art tractors and other farm equipment, to being homeless migrant farm-workers, picking grapes, (before Mexicans with green-cards picked the grapes), and living in rented shacks. But that was not the end, because, though disdained and called “Okies”, they were people with “character”, who raised fine children and grandchildren who changed the world in a way absolutely nobody saw coming. Their children and grandchildren now make far more money than they could ever have made, back on the farm, working on things called “computers” in a place called “Silicon Valley”. Steinbeck never foresaw this, and instead seemed prone towards Socialist solutions. Yet what raised the ruined farmers called “Okies” to plush suites in Silicon Valley was not socialist food-stamps, but rather was “character”.

This “character” seems to be a thing that can be lost, if you become too divorced from the farming life that brought it about in the first place. It does not seem to matter if you are rich or poor. It happens to the rich grandchildren of Okies in Silicon Valley, and to the impoverished grandchildren of sharecroppers in America’s inner cities. Once this difficult-to-define “character” is lost, then even a beautiful, golden state like California, richest in the nation with the best educational system, can crash in flames to one of the poorest and most ill-educated, with an entire new group of “Okies” homeless on its streets.

Certain kind people take pity on children in slums, and their charity allows such youths to spend a summer on a rural farm. The host-farm is usually not an agribusiness, but a more old-fashioned farm. I have even read of inner-city youth being sent to Indian Reservations in the Pacific Northwest, where they learned to harvest salmon from rivers and abalone from the sea. In nearly all such cases the children are permanently, positively changed.

Not that they change in the manner some desire: They don’t abruptly wear suits and attend church, if Christians sponsored their escape from slums, and in fact they may go right back to the gangs and drugs they briefly escaped, but they are different; they are changed; they own the odd thing called “character”. People who study such things things have discovered, through “follow-up-studies”, that more than a decade later many of the now-mature recipients of such experiences still claim a brief vacation on a farm was “the most influential experience of their life.” But what was the influence?

As the owner of a back-to-nature Farm-Childcare I am into my eleventh year of dealing with clueless children. Not that such such children, even at age three, are not far smarter than I am, when it comes to the subject of how to operate a computer or a cellphone. However they haven’t a clue where food comes from. They are amazed (and delighted) to learn carrots and potatoes come from “dirty dirt”. They are amazed (and delighted) to discover eggs come from a chicken’s “stinky butt”. Sometimes, to the horror of their parents (and requiring amazing diplomacy on the part of my wife), these children are delighted (and amazed) to see that meat involves “killing”.

Although parents are vaguely troubled by a political-incorrectness inherent in “dirty dirt” and “stinky butts” and “killing”, in the end the parents thank me. Why? Because they have seen a undeniable blossoming in their child. But I try to tell them I am not the cause. I did not invent the fact carrots come from “dirty dirt”. I did not invent the fact that eggs come from a “stinky butt”. I did not invent the fact all meat comes from “killing”. I am not the Creator; I am just showing what He has already done.

I did not create the pines, and I did not create the wind, but when I take a frenetic kid out and he gets dreamy and far calmer, looking up and listening to the wind in the pines, parents treat me like I changed the child. It actually was something far greater than I. All I do is show children what already is.

But it is not merely the children in slums, and the children of overworked parents who use a computer for a babysitter, who stand to gain from being reintroduced to the farm and the outdoors. It is also the grandchildren of Okies who work in Silicon Valley. They are as deprived as the ghetto-abiding grandchildren of sharecroppers who have never plowed or planted, and who see only asphalt. But, sadly, the deprived of Silicon Valley are blind to their deprivation, and actually scorn the heartland’s earthy citizens as “Deplorables.”

Many in Silicon Valley embrace socialism, some with the fervor of Mao’s “Red Guard”. They have either forgotten, or never studied, their own Socialist history.

When Mao felt the Red Guard had outlived their usefulness, what did he do with their youthful zeal? He had the army round them up and shipped them off to rural areas to be “reeducated.” (In essence the result of Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” was that China became a police state.) There is a delicious irony in the way Mao praised the benefits of “life on the farm”, though he disliked the Yeoman Farmer as much as Stalin did, and strove to replace the self-reliant farmers and artisans, whom Jefferson admired, with the “collective”.

Sometimes I like to play the devil’s advocate, and to ask how my Farm-Childcare is any different from a Gulag. Am I not snatching children from the video games they desire? Initially many children loudly express their dislike of the outdoors and announce an unwillingness to walk even fifty yards. Am I not a sort of brutal Mao to urge them onward, and isn’t my “reeducating” a sort of brainwashing? I can only answer that the children seem to quickly adapt, and that they wear smiles, and sometimes they don’t even want to go home, which isn’t observed too often in Gulags.

When I think more deeply I enter debatable territory, but will throw a few ideas out to be mulled over. One idea is that I allow far more freedom than a Gulag, and in fact freedom is at the root of what I attempt. While children seem made nervous by a complete lack of boundaries, they like freedom within certain limits; IE: They don’t want to be left alone to meet a bear or coyote in the woods, but they like being left alone to build their own forts.

Children like having a rough idea of the rules under which a sport is played, but also like having the freedom to spend half their time arguing about the rules (which is how I played baseball as a boy.) Rather than “organized” sports, my Childcare has “disorganized” sports. While I do oversee the sports, to prevent bloodshed, I try to stand back as I oversee freedom. And, as I stand back and watch, it seems to me that one important quality of freedom is that it involves experiencing and playing-with limits and limitations.

It is quite fascinating to watch children play with limits and limitations, (even when the limit they are testing is me.) Sometimes, for example when building a fort, they are dealing with a physical limitation and are young engineers, attempting a Tower of Babel, and then bursting into tears when it falls down and they are confronted with “Murphy’s Law”. Other times they are dealing with social limitations, for example when determining the ownership of a stick which looks perfectly ordinary to me, and certainly not worth arguing about. Sometimes they ask for help and sometimes they want to “do it themselves”, but always they are “part of a process”, involving a subject and an object.

As I stand back and watch I notice a difference between the children who “get along” and those who “don’t get along”. It seems to involve the difference between a willingness to be “part of a process”, and a craving to “control the process”, and this often seems to involve whether the child’s faith has been nourished or shattered. (Unfortunately we have a severe drug-problem in New Hampshire, and some small children have witnessed parents become unconscious or even die, and these unfortunate tykes are raised by grandparents who send them to my Childcare.)

Of course as soon as I broach the topic of “faith” I risk provoking broadsides from both Atheists and Believers, but I must say that a child who has had their faith nourished tends to be cheerful and to trust others, while a child who has had their faith shattered tends to be a bit of a bully, (in several different, manipulative ways), and to chronically distrust others. The first tends to trust being “part of the process”, whereas the second is suspicious and wants to “control the process”. The first has “character” which the second lacks. Lastly I should stress that the “faith” does not seem to be encouraged by constant flattery and “participation trophies”, but rather by the actual experience of ups and downs, accompanied by the security of knowing they are watched over by people who will help if asked.

At this point I likely should come completely out of the closet and return to the point I made earlier, when I stated I am not the Creator; I am just showing what He has already done. Furthermore He is not done; He is still doing, and will help if asked.

While it may be politically incorrect in the minds of some to say so, I’ll conclude by stating this: Children are very small and helpless, playing under a Sky that is giant and can be merciless, yet they often play as if with a close friend, whom they trust more than any mortal. As a “Child Care Professional”, I often just stand back and watch “the process” in awe.

Sadly, though I offer a beautiful witness, Silicon Valley does not want to hear me. Google has in some ways “disappeared” me from its search engine. Likely their action is due to my past “Sea-ice” posts, which dare to point out certain Alarmist “proofs”, (that Global Warming is a threat), are failing to manifest in the predicted manner. This makes me a “denier”, and Google apparently feels this justifies their basically enacting a childish censorship, tantamount to the children at my Childcare shouting, “La-la-la! I’m not listening!”

This is sad because Google was formerly the best search engine, but now they are choosing to make their engine malfunction. They soon will be surpassed by another, for even a competitor slow as a turtle can pass a rabbit, if the rabbit lays down on the job.

I am not particularly hurt by Google’s disdain. I’ve been an obscure poet all my life, so obscurity is a landscape I’m familiar with. I don’t feel “marginalized”, for I’ve experienced margins are important and “part of the process”. Even if Google seeks to bully me with the power of a trillion grasshoppers, I am not a victim. I am a beneficiary. Why? Because I am in touch with the Thing that made Okies great, while Google, (the Okies who became great), have lost their grip, and may well be like a trillion grasshoppers soon to become extinct.

What has this to do with gardening?

Despite the fact nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong, for a while last spring, I found myself possessing a peculiar confidence. I think I may have had symptoms of what some Christians call “Blessed Assurance”. Rather than throwing up my hands and quitting the garden, I went out to weed and salvage what I could. The results were remarkable.

In material terms the weeds may have won, in certain areas, but in the areas I salvaged, the cold and wet and muck and mud, which was bad for warmth-loving corn and squash and beans, produced a superabundance of other crops: Spinach and lettuce and two types of peas, as the potatoes grew twice as tall as last year. The actual statistics will wait for another post, but children were able to munch edible-podded peas to their heart’s content, and collect sandwich bags more to take home and munch with parents, which helps my Childcare look different from (and perhaps superior to) other Childcares.

In spiritual terms I simply became a far better weeder, for rather than being discouraged and quitting, I kept weeding. My attitude was adjusted. It is difficult to say why. It was as if it occurred to me that, if parents would pay good money to see their kids go back-to-nature, then maybe I should go back-to-nature as well. If it benefits the kids, it should benefit me. And yes, it did. Even before the material superabundance began to manifest, I was reaping a crop of tranquility.

There is something about this tranquility that utterly eludes the mindset of the socialist, and also the small brains of the more greed-centered capitalist. It involves the awareness that a farmer is basically an ant, compared to the Creator who actually controls. Rather than control farmers are to some degree resigned to being “part of a process”. Where some like to think they are in control of power, and money, and even the climate, this tranquility concedes we actually have all the power of a three-year-old child walking a summer evening’s lawn wearing pajamas with feet.

Once again summer holiday’s big sky
Presses down warmth with joys I sought to take
Prisoner, when as a boy I would fly
Out classroom windows and into an ache
Made of pearling clouds. What a sweet wonder
It was to no longer see teacher’s scold
And instead see schools locked. What sweet thunder
Spoke from clouds, as birdsong made me bold
With cascading choruses, as with arms
Swinging I walked fleet and, daily taking
Cliff-climbing chances, hunted bee-drone charms
That beamed from big sky to heal heart’s aching.
It mattered not to young fishers like me
That I was the prisoner in love to be free.

Part 4

Once I adopted my “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game” attitude, I was astonished by the way my garden improved. If you demand perfection you become so upset by the lack of it that you throw up your hands in despair and stop weeding, but if you are resigned to failure, and only weed because you feel closer to God in a garden, you keep weeding. Very soon the perfectionist’s garden is choked by weeds, while the failure’s garden starts to look much better.

Also getting out and weeding seemed better for my health than staying home and ventilating the frustrations of a perfectionist, by raving on my blog. Although I was initially weakened by my summer cold, and so sensitive to pollen I weeded with a third of the speed of a grandmother, my lungs improved, my health returned, and I got a good tan, (which enabled me to avoid feeling defensive about “white privilege”, and thus likely increased my psychological sense of well-being). Although I posted nothing, (and suppose caused some at Google deep concern by giving them nothing to censor), I began putting on weight for the first time in over a year, as I learned how to use my new, fake teeth.

I felt I had stumbled upon an answer. Because I was less focused on results, the results were far better. The difference was this: Formerly, when I focused on weeding a long row of potatoes, I gritted my teeth and endured the job in a stoic manner, and at the end of the row was basically exhausted, but gained the small satisfaction of a check-on-my-list. But when I did not focus on the end of the row, and just weeded for the joy of being outdoors and in the sun, I did not grit my teeth, and wasn’t stoic, and needed no check-on-my-list. Consequently I weeded far more with less effort, and was much happier, at first because I was deriving joy from the process and not the results, and secondly because unexpectedly the results were obviously better.

Admittedly some of the ways I de-emphasized my results did reduced my production, and were largely motivated by the fact I initially disliked weeding. I doubt my ancestors approved. But they had ten children and were allowed to whip them if they didn’t weed. Lacking such advantages, one thing I did was to plant my rows far apart, so I could just run my rotor-tiller between the rows. The land might have produced more if I had my rows closer together, but that would have involved more hand-weeding. I still had to hand-weed around individual plants, but it was wonderfully satisfying to have long brown strips of weedless soil between my rows, looking like I’d hand-weeded for hours, when in fact I’d merely walked behind my puttering rotor-tiller fifteen minutes.

I also didn’t need to hand-weed around individual plants so much because, after I initially tilled he soil, I unrolled long, black strips of stuff I call “weeder-fabric”, and then cut little notches or slices in it to plant my seeds. The stuff was expensive, but so is hiring people to weed. The fabric lets the rain through, and you don’t have to whip it to make it work.

Between these two examples of my laziness as a weeder, and the fact I was finding far more joy in weeding when I weeded, the weeding-war became quite surprisingly serene. I was even considering changing the title of this post. The peak of this serenity involved a comment from my wife.

At this point I should mention I was so in love with my wife, when we first met, that I neglected to get her to sign a prenuptial agreement involving weeding. Nor can I whip her, for it turned out she knows karate. Therefore she never weeds. Somehow she still has, occasionally, the nerve to suggest that a weedy garden reflects badly on our Childcare, the same way she suggests an unmown lawn reflects badly on our Childcare (though she never mows). Consequently I tend to be touchy about the entire subject of weeds.

I can be content in my garden, communing with God, but when I see her approach I abruptly bristle with defensiveness. A man must chose his battles, and even if he says “yes dear” to his wife 90% of the time, there comes a time a husband must stand his ground, even if his wife wife knows karate. But a month ago my wife blind-sided me by saying something I never expected. With a look of disbelief and even confusion she gazed over my garden and murmured, “Your garden actually looks good.”

So of course I immediately became hugely cocky, which is something you should never do, with a farm. One must never forget they are involved in a war. But such a sense of serenity decended upon me that I did what in Kansas they call “slack off.” I forgot I am not in control, and felt I had things “under control”, and became, in my own small way, a “socialist”.

Three social events that have nothing to do with weeding occurred simultaneously. First was a family event called “Strawberry Weekend”, which among some family members seems to be as important as Christmas. The second was a reunion with my older siblings. And third was my middle son’s wife going into labor with her first child, two weeks before her due-date.

I am aware my excellent use of foreshadowing has made you aware that the coyotes were lurking in the woods, eyeing my chickens and just waiting for me to drop my guard. However please indulge an old man, and allow me a moment of weakness. Though I am well aware there is no such thing as “vacation” for a farmer in the summer, I agreed to have our staff cover for me at our Childcare and to feed my goats and chickens, as I spent a day and an overnight reminiscing with my siblings at a motel on the coast. My Puritan ancestors likely all rolled in their graves. Even though, as good Christians, they may not have weeded on The Day Of Rest, I am fairly certain they came home from church and sat on their porches, watching the corn grow with their shotguns across their knees.

I first became aware things were not going to go as planned when my wife, who ordinarily is far more businesslike than I am, vanished from the Childcare. I received a slightly garbled text on my cell-phone, attempting to be businesslike about rescheduling so she could drive to Maine. My daughter-in-law was in labor.

While my wife insists I was very helpful, when I was present as my second two sons were born, in all honesty I confess I have never felt so helpless. Responsible, yes. Helpful, no. In any case I had no desire to again be a cheerleader, and remained behind to hold the fort at the Childcare. In theory. In fact I was distracted and did a lot of nervous pacing. My staff did a great job covering for me, and even the children seemed understanding. The older children remembered my daughter-in-law from when she worked for us one summer, and I think they explained things to the littler ones. Even midst my distraction I noted a lot of whispering going on. This left me free to seek outlets for my nervous energy.

One thing I did was get down on my knees, which seemed a good place to be when one you care for is in labor. And then I weeded. It’s amazing how much weeding you can get done when full of nervous energy. As my granddaughter was born countless weeds died terrible deaths.

It likely seems unsentimental to say so, but it seemed to me that, if one insists upon being a nervous wreck, one might as well put the energy to good use and get some weeding done. And as I thought my pragmatic thought I imagined all my Puritan ancestors in heaven were nodding.

Glancing around, I noticed the final children were leaving and my staff was wrapping things up. My cellphone had alerted me to the fact all had gone well. I stood up and stretched, and contemplated what sane, sensible and pragmatic deed I might do next. Then I got in my car and drove through rush-hour traffic up to Portland, Maine, to spend not much more than fifteen minutes admiring the mother and child and new father, and then drove empty roads far more swiftly back down to New Hampshire, arriving home a little after midnight

It was time well spent. For one thing, it was great to step into the bubble of joy eminating from a young couple becoming a family. Though my son spoke of the awesome responsibility he felt, his eyes were soft and dreamy. His wife was exalted by the relief from pain, and the escape from danger, and the triumph, and the wonder of the new life she held in her arms.

Not that I’d particularly care to be in their shoes. Youth thirsts to climb mountains I feel no need to climb. But as I entered their bubble I remembered childbirth is like an island of joy in a sea of troubles.

I became very serene as I drove home through one of the longest and latest twilights of the year. I was thinking I was towards the end of a journey my son is just beginning. In some senses I’m handing the baton on to a new generation who will continue the race. Though the labor of childbirth is over, a new labor is just beginning for my son, but perhaps is ending for me, and perhaps I am upon an island of joy all my own.

For some reason my son asked me to dredge up the words to a song I used to strum on the back porch after long work-days, when he was just a boy. As I drove the words came back to me, and I began singing it:

Somewhere high above this little
Valley where I earn my living
Is a world that’s so forgiving,
But I cannot go.
I have a row to hoe.

How I wish I could go up there.
Climb that mountain. Breathe that air.
Hear those angels make their music
But I cannot go.
I have a row to hoe.

I have children; they need raising;
Some days scolding; some days praising;
Although I’d rather be lazing
Where I cannot go
Until my children grow.

How I wish I could go up there
Climb that mountain. Breathe that air.
Hear those angels make their music
But I cannot go
Until my children grow.

Years will pass. It’s no use countin’.
Some day all must climb that mountain.
Stand where love is like a fountain
That forever flows
Fragrant as a rose.

Then at last we’ll all be up there
On that mountain. Breathe that air.
Hear those angels make that music
That forever flows
Fragrant as a rose. (circa 1996)

My sense of humor began to kick in as I left the highway and drove the summer streets close to home, where the stray cats always look surprised to see anyone out driving so late. My own serenity amused me, for, while I suppose I could drop dead tomorrow, if I really felt I was at the end I wouldn’t have planted a garden last spring. All the same, I did not complain about the peace I felt. As I got out of my car at home home and paused to heed the distant coyotes yipping and caterwauling (more clever foreshadowing) I decided islands of joy in seas of trouble were good things, for otherwise how should we ever cross the seas?

I lack the lust and yearning ambition
I once had, yet now hear peace’s sweetness.
Not that I sit in my armchair wishing
To never arise, but a completeness
Blesses my life. I watch the young hurry
To start families; see woman wince in labor
And then sigh with babe in arms; then worry
With husbands at bills; debate a neighbor
About fences or a salesman over price,
And I have no yearning to again start
Such projects. Sometimes it just plain feels nice
To be done, and own a quiet heart.
This sunrise seems to be one of those days.
My lone desire’s to hum my Lord praise.

WEEDER WARS –Part 1–

It doesn’t matter if you don’t call yourself a “farmer”, for even if you merely raise a lone tomato or cucumber on a patio or porch, there will come a day your idyll is interrupted by aphids, or a ravenous tomato-hornworm-caterpillar, and on that day you will understand farming isn’t peace. It is war.

To a certain degree this is life as usual. It doesn’t matter if you are starting a garden or engineering a bridge, “Murphy’s Law” will state “Whatever can go wrong will go wrong”, and you will have to deal with unexpected foul-ups and unintended consequences. In moderation, this is fun, much like the stress of solving a crossword puzzle. Many assume gardening will involve moderation and be fun: There will be weeds but they will be weeded in a leisurely way, with dignity. Nope. Sooner or later it is war; total war.

One aspect of warfare is that not every attack results in victory. More ordinary is for an attack to result in resistance.

In terms of gardening, what this means is that when you pull some weeds, it is seldom a rout, with weeds fleeing in panic. In fact weeds often counter-attack. They think they have every bit as much a right to fertile soil as your tomato. Just who do you think you are, depriving ragweed?

In like manner, just because you put up chicken-wire, it is seldom a discouragement to predators. Just who do you think you are, depriving a mother fox food for her kits? In fact farmers have a wry saying, “If you want to know if there is wildlife in your neighborhood, get some chickens.”

In fact a farm is a lot like a fifteen round fight; you can’t expect to win every round. The problem is that some novices find it appalling, when they are knocked back on their heels and it is fairly obvious they are losing a round. It doesn’t fit their idyllic preconceptions of how gardening should be. A single sweltering day, or single swarm of midges, is enough, for some, and turns their confident advance into a panicky retreat. It is for this reason many gardens that look lovely in April become a thick and luscious bed of weeds by July. The gardener has lost the war.

Back when half of all Americans farmed, people were more reluctant to throw in the towel in the first or second round of the fight, because the consequences of losing were grave. There were no food-stamps, and poor people were not fat. Even if the bank took your farm you didn’t escape farming, for you had to go live on the “poor farm”. Often what you grew was all you had to eat, and people would struggle on despite much adversity, for a few small potatoes was better than none. As hard as such farming was, people were seemingly grounded in basic realities which the modern Socialist has forgotten. Where the Socialist promises to tax the rich and give the poor lots of free stuff, the old-time farmers knew nothing was free. The old-timers knew you “reap what you sow”, and that even such reaping didn’t happen unless you spent month after month fighting round after round.

My early life knew some amazing adventures which some would call “hardship”, and somewhere along the line I stopped taking anything for granted. Certain people I counted upon failed to keep the trust, so I became unwilling to rely on anyone but my foolish self, and God. For the most part my foolish self-reliance generated fiascoes, yet I always seemed to emerge from the rubble older and wiser, and for that God gets the glory.

To some degree my old age and (so-called) wisdom has involved a retreat into a sort of fall-back position. I am more inclined to adopt the attitudes of my great-grandparents than anything modern. In this manner I am like many New-Age idealists (and like Hippies of 1969, dreaming of idyllic communes), but the difference is that I don’t expect an idyll. I expect a fifteen-round brawl.

In dealing with this battle farmers have come up with various sprays: Pesticides and herbicides and fungicides, but what is really needed is a “socialisticide”. Socialists can be pests, when you put the rights of your chickens ahead of foxes, for they complain you are neglecting foxes, (when they aren’t clamoring for greater rights for your chickens.) How is it a people who have never farmed can assume they have authority over people who do? I’d like to spray them all down with “socialisticide”, when I’m in a grumpy mood.

I am saved from this grumpiness by my wife. Somewhat to my own astonishment I recently recognized my beloved is a socialist. But it is for all the right, non-materialistic reasons, based upon the “Book of Acts” in the Bible. Where politicians get insanely rich “helping” the poor, my wife’s brand of socialism sees our marriage’s skinny wallet gets skinnier. To some degree some of her charity is selfish, for “charity begins at home”, and she is big on “family values”. I am often asked to ignore an important farm-job, such as weeding, to attend an event that “supports the family”, such as a grandchild’s birthday.

I am reluctant to procrastinate, when it comes to weeding, for a weed which you can pinch from the soil with ease on Monday swiftly develops a root system by Friday that requires eye-popping effort to remove. My wife fails to understand this, for she rarely weeds. She also fails to understand my panic, when weeds are growing and ignored, and accuses me of caring more for weeds than grandchildren. (Such shots-to-the-heart are typical of Socialists.)

Like most good husbands I chose my battles, and the rest of the time I meekly say, “Yes Dear.” However I felt my tolerance getting stretched to the limit when I was asked to ignore farm matters for “good business practices.” My wife was staging a Socialist event called “A Preschool Graduation” at our Farm-childcare.

Absurd. Of what use is a diploma to a five-year-oId? And how can it compete with weeding the broccoli? Weeding produces a crop, whereas a five-year-old’s diploma produces nothing. (Sadly often a twenty-five-year-old’s diploma produces the same nothing.) However my wife stated diplomas produced “satisfied customers”, and that customers, and not my broccoli, was what truly fed us. I muttered we were teaching five-year-olds to value the wrong things, (in an inaudible manner), and said, “Yes dear” more loudly. My wife didn’t much like my tone.

I was then expected to “spruce up the place”, which involved making the productive farm look like an unproductive suburb. Rather than the important work of weeding , I had to “groom” the farm. I did a fine job, mowing and “weed-whacking ” edges and planting non-edible flowers and clearing trails of fallen trees and putting up balloons and banners, but the entire time my broccoli was screaming, “Help us! Save us!”

Finally the Socialism was done with, the children performed songs and parents were enthralled and diplomas were handed out and people ate a fine meal and the satisfied customers trailed off into the sunset, and I could at long last get down to the real work of catching up with my weeding. Immediately it rained.

Now it just so happens I can’t weed in the rain, because it spreads bacteria and fungus and diseases (especially with beans). Also I had to undergo oral surgery and have the roots of five teeth extracted from my upper jaw, and there were complications, and I was reduced to a diet of soft boiled eggs and gruel, which likely weakened my resistance to a summer cold passing through the Childcare. As my fever spiked at 101 degrees I was glad it was raining, for it gave me a good excuse to set a record for the number of naps a old man can take in a single day. But then my fever dropped and the forecast promised a single sunny day in a very rainy spring. I prepared to leap from bed and attack those weeds.

It turned out a side effect of this particular summer cold is that ones lungs are made hyper-sensitive to pollen, for a while. A number of local folk I spoke with complained about how they could not shake the congestion and hacking cough. I concur, but think they were too stoic and modest in describing how crippling the pulmonary inflammation was. I’ve never had asthma, but felt like I was having attacks. My nose streamed mucus in a way highly annoying to my wife, as she feels a dripping mustache does not lead to “satisfied customers.” My coughing fits can only be described as fits of hysteria; the coughs were so rapid they sounded like a machine gun, and one time, driving twenty miles an hour on a country lane, I nearly went off the road.

But I was not going to let some dumb cough slow me down. I muttered the old motto, “When the going gets tough the tough get going”, and figured some energetic exercise would clear my lungs. After I “hucked a looey” or two of phlegm, I’d be fine. The bell rang, and I headed out to fight the next round.

It was a bit like I walked into an uppercut to my jaw, though in fact it was a wall of pollen. Rather than clearing my lungs, exercise gagged me. My coughing was unproductive, and also embarrassing, for it was a senile “ih-ih-ih-ih-ih-ih”, yet so prolonged I couldn’t inhale. When a fit dropped me to one knee, I imagined a referee began counting, “One…two…three…four…”, and also a sardonic voice in the back of my mind stated, “Well, you are always telling people you want to die with your boots on.”

Fortunately I was saved by the bell and retreated to my corner, which was a shady place out of the sun. And when you are in the shade you can see things you can’t see out in the sun. I could see the air was filled with dust, fine yellow dust, streaming in the wind. Looking down at puddles from recent rains I noted each puddle was rimmed with yellow. Even as they shrank in the sunshine their little coasts were made golden by pollen. The scientist in me concluded that plants that have no use for bees, and pollinate using wind, have evolved some sort of self-restraint. They know better than to release pollen in the rain, when it will be beat down, and withhold the release until the sun shines. And, when it has rained a solid week, this means an amazing amount of pollen gets released when the sun finally shines. The coach in my corner concluded we would be wise to avoid breathing, so I fought the next round sitting on my rider mower, catching up on cutting-the-grass.

Of course, as I sat on my duff on the puttering mower, I could look over at the garden and hear the broccoli weeping, “Help us! Save us!”, and I eventually heard the coach in my corner propose weeding in a pinkie-raised way that required no hacking hoe and heavy breathing. And we did a little of that, as the sun dimmed in streamers of cirrus overhead, and the west darkened with the rising purple of approaching thunder. But what really stuck in my head was the moment I sat in the shade, and looked out to sunshine, and suddenly understood how thick the pollen truly was. I said to myself, “There’s a sonnet in this”.

Midst my misery; my sneezing summer
Cold; my snuffling self-pity; weaker
Than a kitten; glum and getting glummer,
My heart required humor be it’s speaker:
“If we’ve got to die, let’s have our killer
Be pine pollen, streaking yellow in the wind.
These swaying trees aren’t like the miller
Grinding flour steadily, but have grinned,
Held back ammo all a rainy week, and then
Let pollen go like a cavalcade of gold
Dust in the wind. Why gripe you’re choked, when
Sun-stirred breezes make twigs prance uncontrolled?
The green-gold pine pollen’s such a wonder,
Golden against rising purple thunder.”

LOCAL VIEW –Planting Potatoes–

We’ve had a few glory days, when the sun bursts out and the world is so abruptly beautiful that you want to skip and sing, but for the most part our spring has been cold and wet. It might even be snowing when I get up tomorrow morning, with temperatures down around 36ºF. And it’s May 14th!

Just because the weather is drab, it doesn’t mean we can’t keep busy. The little fuzz balls that were chicks have graduated and looks like hens, and are too smelly to keep inside, though it’s still too cold at night to completely wean them from the heat lamp inside. So in the morning we move them out to their new pen, and in the evening have to move them back. Ever herd hens? It keeps you busy.

The chickens are at the stage where they are learning to scratch and peck. This becomes their job, once the garden is established and the plants are growing. They prowl about, scratching the soil and pecking, scratching the soil and pecking, occasionally pausing to scrutinize a leaf, cocking their head half-sideways to examine a caterpillar who is desperately attempting to look like something besides a caterpillar, and then deftly jabbing it and wolfing it down. They do a good job of keeping pests at bay, and also discourage some weeds by eating their seeds and cultivating the soil with their incessant scratching and pecking, scratching and pecking.

Now, however, such scratching and pecking is less welcome, as it would break off the tender shoots of sprouting seeds. This is especially true of potatoes. Chickens can’t be allowed in the potato patch until the shoots are around six inches tall. Then they abruptly go from being a foe of potatoes to being a friend, because they hunt potato beetles.

Last year I had no chickens, and because I failed to hunt and squash potato beetles on a daily basis, my crop was poor. You can just leave town for a few days, and a few bunches of innocuous-looking, orange eggs, each egg about the size of a fat period on a page, on the underside of a leaf:

turns into a hundred disgusting, slimey larvae, which grow with amazing speed and can completely defoliate a plant by the time you return to town.

Then these larvae turn into the more attractive adults, which lay lots more eggs. 

A generation of beetles takes about a week or two to go through its life cycle, and a few beetles can become a major infestation with surprising speed. I witnessed this last summer. Then, because your crop underground depends a lot on how lush the foliage is above the ground, you shouldn’t expect much when you dig.

The trick with potatoes is to feed them a lot, and make sure they don’t get dry in the days when the sun bakes in July. They are heavy feeders and thirsty plants. For the most part you get most of your potatoes by the seed-potato that you plant, though I have had a little success getting some extra potatoes by hilling them early, and deeply. If you keep them moist and add lots of manure and wood-ash to the soil they grow so quickly they don’t get “scabs” on their sides. (“Scabs” are worst when the soil gets too dry, but one very rainy year the soil basically turned to mud, and my potatoes turned to slime, so I  suppose it is also possible to over-water.)

I used to cut up my potatoes, with an eye on each piece, and then dust them with sulfur or fungicide and let the wound dry in bright sunshine, before planting, but more recently I seek the smallest seed potatoes in the bin where I buy them, and skip the bother of cutting them. (I have a theory cutting in some way traumatizes the tubor, and makes bacterial infection more likely, but the truth may be I am more lazy as I get older.) I look for potatoes about the size of an egg. Just because you plant a small potato it doesn’t mean the potatoes you harvest will be small. The potato’s eventual size seems to involve how well fed and watered they are, and how few potato beetles eat the leaves.

As a rule-of-thumb each eye will produce one shoot, and each shoot will produce three potatoes, so a small potato with three eyes can produce nine fat potatoes, if you put in the time and effort. I prefer to sit back and watch my chickens put in the time and effort.

Over the years I have learned small kids at our Childcare are fascinated by planting and later harvesting potatoes. Something about digging them in the late summer and fall is completely engrossing, and the “older” children of four and five spoke with great authority to the younger ones aged three about the massive crop we would harvest in ten weeks (blithely unaware last year’s crop was pathetic,) as we planted them in the cold drizzle.

Perhaps the best thing was that we forgot it was cold, and rainy, and that it had been days since we’d seen the sun.

LOCAL VIEW –Pampering Chickens–

Put down your coffee before you read on, for I am about to say something astounding, and I wouldn’t want your coffee to come out of your nose or spray the computer screen.

Sometimes, even though I am the air-headed poet, I am the only pragmatic and efficient person around. This is very stressful. Poets should not be exposed to such seriousness and gravity. Poets are suppose to skip and traipse, but perhaps it is part of the suffering of a poet to occasionally have to trudge and plod; to occasionally have to be the practical, efficient and boring person in a situation.

Partly this is due to mixing farming with poetry. I wanted to be like Robert Frost. Though he did have the misfortune to get incarcerated at an University later in life, some of his best poems were written when he was younger and got his hands dirty:

                  MENDING WALL
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Robert Frost; (1874-1963) Published 1914

My wife would strongly disagree that I am ever the practical one, being of the belief I need to be inspected before I go out into the world, to be certain my shirt is right-side-out and I remembered to put my teeth in. Sometimes she seems to remind me not to forget things no man has ever forgotten in recorded history. It used to exasperate me, but I have come to see it as caring. What exasperates me is the insinuation that she is never the impractical one, and in need of caring, due to her own sort of poetry.

My wife’s poetry involves a tendency to see a reason for celebration in somewhat mundane events. I probably would limit holidays to Christmas and Fourth of July, to avoid all the bother of cleaning the house, but my wife has a joyous streak, and finds a reason to party to a degree where she sometimes resembles a burn-out. For example, I present to the court the following evidence:

My youngest grandchild just turned one. This may be a sentimental day for my daughter, as the boy is her first child, but I figure the child is at an age where he won’t remember the event, and is more interested in tearing wrapping paper than in what is underneath. It seems to me that one should limit the time and energy put into such an event, especially when we need to plant the potatoes. But does my wife put on the brakes?

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It is around this time I become the pragmatic old grump. I mean, do we really have time to blow up 200 balloons? And what are you going to do with 200 balloons when the party is over?

And should the children at our Farm-childcare be running about joyously playing-with and popping 200 balloons? What, pray tell, does this have to do with farming? With using the brief sunshine of a rainy spring to work out in the muck that is the garden?

I mean, as much as I’d like to dress in a white linen suit with a black-ribbon-tie like Colonel Sanders, and drink mint juleps on a plantation porch as others do the work, I haven’t sold a hit song yet, and until I make my million I must be practical.

One thing we did to make our Farm-childcare more interesting, in the constant rain, was to buy some cute, fuzzy chicks. But they grow with amazing speed, and as their cuteness shrinks their reek increases. Someone must build a coop away from the main building. Being the only practical poet around here, the job fell on me.

 The long, rectangular structure is fronted by thick, hardware-cloth of strong wire, which will allow the chickens to sleep without being nabbed by foxes or weasels or coyotes or raccoons. (A bear would be another matter.) The chickens learn to walk to the coop and roost in there even before the sun sets, (as they have very poor night-vision, and are all but blind in twilight). I then shut and latch the door, making their pillbox impenetrable. In the morning I will let them out, and they will be “free range” chickens in my garden, eating various bugs, until around the time tomatoes get red. Chickens are attracted to red, and peck holes in ripe tomatoes, so I built a pen to coop them in August, roofed with mesh to protect them from a chicken-hawk that lives nearby. (Chickens have what seems to be an instinct to keep an eye to the sky, and free-range birds hurry for cover, if anything large,even a vulture, passes over.)
The structure is simple and pragmatic, but I soon noticed peculiar additions. Why are those branches tied to the side? And do chickens really require swings?
And what’s that thing down at the bottom of the post?

A xylophone!? A flipping xylophone!? Are these chickens going to be as musical as thrushes?

And do chickens really require a bench with gnomes? A hummingbird feeder at the top of a post? How do you know chickens even like hummingbirds? Did anyone ask the chickens? The hummingbirds? And hey! That’s my grandfather’s old wooden step-ladder! Did anyone ask, before turning it into an elaborate perch!?

I’m not sure I approve of what kids are learning at my Childcare. I’m not sure I approve of what the chickens are learning, either. But I will confess that it does the soul of an old air-head good to, once in a while, be the sensible one.

As the clouds rolled back in I did make progress in the garden.

 

LOCAL VIEW –First Frost–

We have had a summery fall, with a few summer-like waves of refreshing Canadian air, welcome because they push out the heat and humidity, but the southern warmth quickly pushed back north, hot and muggy but usually dry, until at long last a southern surge  brought us some rain, which our parched landscape accepted with a deep sigh of gratitude.

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That single band of warm rain, bececting the southern border of New Hampshire, gave us more rain than we’d received in the entire month before. It was slightly less than three inches. So parched was our landscape that the brooks didn’t even rise. The land sucked it up like a sponge. The drought wasn’t ended. But at least the woods didn’t crisply crunch as I walked through them, after that extended torrent (between 4:00 and 8:00 AM), and I wasn’t searching the historical records for evidence of state-wide forest fires any more. Instead I worried southwards, about hurricanes. (Notice, in the map below, the ex-tropical storm off the Carolina coast.)

20160919-satsfc As the welcome wall of moisture swept north, a flimsy, poor-excuse-for-a-cold-front basically faded away over us, as we sank back into a tropical flow from the south. Up in that flow came a poor-excuse-for-a-hurricane. It had no rain, and no wind, but wonderfully strange skies. They were hurricane skies, without the hurricane.

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When it really became obvious the skies were different was when the skies gave way to a hurricane sunset. When I was young, old-timers warned me to be wary of sunsets that were not just red in the west, but crimson wall-to-wall, from west all the way overhead and down to the east, especially at the time of the “line storm” (when the sun crosses the equator).  “Red at night, sailor’s delight” was not true for the “blood sun”.

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In a sense it was as if a atmospheric gap passed over us with a sign on it, “This Space Is Reserved For A Hurricane”, but no hurricane chose to utilize its reservation.  I found it odd. It seemed especially odd because several tropical storms have milled about over warm waters without showing the slightest inclination towards the explosive development that sailors once dreaded. In like manner fronts have approached New England this summer, and had signs on them, “This Space Reserved For Severe Thunderstorms”, and we got not even a sprinkle nor a grumble.

Only a true Alarmist would gnaw their nails about no hurricanes and no severe thunderstorms. It is a blessing, (though we could have used a little more light rain). However I thought it was wonderful that, even though we did not get a “line storm” right at the solstice, (the time the terrible 1938 Hurricane passed though New England, completely changing the landscape in three hours), a sort of Space-reserved-for-hurricane passed over at the right time, with a hurricane sunset. It made the old-timers I once listened to seem less out-dated.

When I was knee high to a grasshopper, the old-timers I annoyed were all born in the 1800’s, and could remember when sailing ships were still common. Right up into the Great Depression men in New England made decent money shipping cargo up and down the coast on schooners. They lived lives Insurance Companies would now frown upon, and endured the whims of the weather, and therefore knew things about what the winds do that we have forgotten, now that we use satellites in outer space to tell us which ways the winds blow, and seldom step outside and wet a finger.

Now I’m the old-timer, but even though I’ve lived much more of my life outdoors than most modern people do, I’m not as smart as those old sailors were. Also, when it comes to satellites, I’m not as smart as the young. At times I think I epitomize the worst of both worlds. However perhaps I am a bridge between the two worlds.

One thing the old-timers knew about, back when more than half of all Americans lived on farms,  was that when the nights get longer the Canadian air-masses, so welcome during the summer, when the nights are too short to do damage, gain power. It is the power of longer nights, leading to frost. Frost does great damage to the productivity of a garden, and the old-timers would anxiously sniff the air on cool nights, even in August. By September they expected frost, and this was especially true when conditions were dry, (because moister and lusher foliage has a power to resist frost which drier foliage lacks.) Around here the first frost was expected around the solstice, and any extension of the growing season was deemed good luck.

However the modern forecasters, parked indoors by their computer screens, were completely blind-sided by our first frost this year, on September 26. This sort of surprised me, because usually those fellows will use the slightest excuse to puff their self-importance, setting off wailing warnings on weather-radios, and many’s the time I’ve been awoken at three AM by my weather-radio warning of the slight possibility of frost in mountains fifty miles north of here. This year there was no warning. Low temperatures were predicted to be around 40°F (+4.4°C).

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If people with gardens actually depended on the government, they might be pissed off, because with adequate warning a sprinkler can be set out in the garden, and a slight spray of water can extend the growing season. (Not that things grow much more, as the sun gets lower and weaker. One year, close to the water on the coast of Maine, I managed to protect my garden nearly to Thanksgiving in November, and what amazed me was how stunted the growth was. It was nice to have things fresh from the garden, but I recall the Swiss Chard grew short, squat leaves, like triangles.)

The small scale farmers around here don’t need the government to tell them to expect frost in late September. Either they protected their tomatoes,  or else they said, “the heck with it.” When the frost came without an official warning, the really angry people, I expect, were the little old ladies who had their hot-house plants out on the patio, and saw them killed, because the weathermen didn’t warn them. And it is such ladies, and not farmers, that the weathermen should kowtow to, for such ladies have the big bucks and donate to PBS and the meteorology departments of colleges.

Me? I wasn’t angry. I expected frost. It happens. Heck if a change of government will change the date of the first frost. It happens. It really seems primitive and savage to me that some think anyone but the Creator controls the weather. I see little difference between savages who think throwing a virgin into a volcano can control nature, and those who think buying curly light-bulbs and separating green bottles from brown bottles can control nature.

I mean, if you believe in such stuff, shouldn’t you just go to the Creator, and say, “Begging your pardon, Creator, but could you please make it snow this Christmas, after folk have finished their shopping?” Isn’t it a little bit insulting to the Creator to think you can control Him? “Your attention please, Creator, I have purchased curly light bulbs, and henceforth You will do as I say!”

I was part of a generation that felt it could boss the Creator absurdly. “Your attention please, Creator, I have purchased a tablet of LSD, and henceforth you will expand my consciousness as I say!” (What a fiasco!) Therefore, now that I am an old-timer, I am less inclined to tell the Creator how to run the universe.

I am more inclined to attempt to emulate Abraham Lincoln. When asked if he wanted the Creator to be on “our side”, his polite, considerate (and, by modern standards, politically incorrect,) response was, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

In order to be like that, one has to be humble. One has to be able to confess they are not in control of all things. In such a situation one should heed little children, because they have no control whatsoever. Call it Karma or whatever-you-will, they have no control of the situation they are born into.

There actually was a Child-care philosophy that was all the rage, a while back,  that focused on giving children more of a sense they were “in control.” Rather than saying, “Get in the car”, you were suppose to say, “Would you like to get in the car?” The aim was to stimulate a child’s creativity (as if they needed any help with that!) The fear was that, by bossing children around, you were crushing their talents. What was discovered was that too much freedom made children feel abandoned. Walls were not seen by the child as being like a prison’s, but instead walls sponsored a cozy sense of safety. A child did not want the deep responsibility of being in control of everything. They wanted to trust those details to the grown-ups.  

The trust of children is quite amazing to witness, in cases where the parents have serious problems, and you might think a child would prefer foster care. Even when parents are heroin addicts and both are in jail, a little child will prefer them to  saintly foster care. Parents are a “given”, just as weather is a “given”.  Just as we don’t control the weather, children don’t control their fate, yet they are a heck of a lot more optimistic and cheerful than most adults. Like the captains of old schooners, they sail through situations that would turn an insurance adjuster a deathly shade of green. Therefore I watch children carefully, to see how they respond to a first frost.

 

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Is that young man cursing Big Oil, or Big Green? Is he cursing Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton? Or is he not cursing anyone at all, and instead just filled with wonder?

As I get older I get younger. Maybe it is because I have to deal with kids so much, or perhaps senility is creeping in. Increasingly, cursing seems stupid. Increasingly, wonder seems wise.

When I think back to the old-timers I knew in my youth, it seems they were less troubled by not being in control. Just think how anguished a modern insurance agent would be about a cargo vessel with no engine, dependent on the whims of the wind. Yet the old-timers simply accepted the whims of the wind as a given, and worked like mad responding. In like manner, a first frost got everyone working like crazy to save what they could from the garden.

Perhaps it is working with computers so much that makes people think they are in control. People have the sense that they only need to rewrite the program, and any glitch will be fixed. Before you know it people are attempting to create a reality that is “risk free”.

That is not how the Creator made the world. A “risk free” environment is a bed you can hide beneath, and even there you are mortal, and, after hiding for seventy years, you die.  At some point one wants to come out, and face the sky, and maybe even sail.

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Now stand back, all you bankers of men’s hearts,
For I am going to stay the wheels of time
And command leaves stay green, when first frost starts
To spill paints across the hills. I’ll climb
The clouds and yank the slumping sun back north.
My hair will turn dark again, without dye.
I’ll again gush ardor, (whatever that’s worth),
And make fall’s maudlin poems be a lie.
I’m tired of autumn songs being so weepy
So I’ll derange the seasons with tulips
And wake poor bears just when they’re sleepy.
The only frost will involve my mint juleps.
And then, when asked why I’ve altered Creation,
I’ll just explain it’s my standing ovation.

LOCAL VIEW –Sidekickery–

The weather map is blind to what went on in New Hampshire today (May 19). Or, well, they do put two orange dashes on the map, to show something or another was passing through.

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Radar is not much better, just showing disorganized showers drifting from the west to the east.

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However here on the ground you could feel a relenting of the bone-dry, greatly modified arctic air, and a hint of summer move in. The fronts may be “ghost fronts”,  but between the first and second line of showers (faintly seen in the above radar) was the memory of some sort of warm sector. It felt as sweet as forgiveness.

The sprinkles of rain were barely enough to settle the dust, but it felt like a different sort of drought was ending. The air wasn’t just warmer, it was moister. It didn’t chap your eyeballs any more. My stiff, old joints felt looser, and I pottered about the garden at twice the speed I usually potter. That may not be very fast, in the eyes of the young, but by my standards I was really flying.

Things quicken in May, and already asparagus is popping up, and rhubarb is ready to pick. Kids at my Farm-childcare pester me to pick them a stem of rhubarb, which around 75% of the kids find appealing, and which they munch like very sour celery. Around 95% of the kids find the poisonous leaf appealing.  Not that they eat it. Rather it serves as a hat.

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You would not believe how the kids fight over these hats. They do not cost me a penny. Any parent who ever feels guilty for not not buying the latest Disney Toy for their child should rest assured children will whine and weep just as much over toys that Disney does not make a cent from.

In fact the boy in the yellow raincoat (who wishes to remain anonymous) does not have a rhubarb hat (though he munched that entire stalk of rhubarb in his right  hand.)  I came up one rhubarb leaf short, when picking. The lad then made such a fuss about how his sister (also anonymous) got a hat and he didn’t that I picked him a burdock leaf, and told him rhubarb was for fairy princesses, but tough gremlins wore burdock. The boy in the middle then began contemplating whether he really wanted a sissy, fairy hat, or whether the situation was unfair, and he should demand justice, and whine that that he wanted a gremlin hat, too.

All the whining and complaining I face is likely very much like the whining and complaining parents face in stores, but on a farm it costs nothing, whereas in a store it costs part of a parent’s paycheck. As far as I am concerned parents should draw the line. At most they should buy one toy a year from a store, and no more. It is a well known fact children often derive more joy from the cardboard box the toy came in, than the toy itself. Children will not be deprived if the parents saves money. They most certainly will not be deprived of chances to whine and complain, for children find ways to fill that need without the parents needing to spend a fortune. Parents will have ample opportunity to deal with that need. Parents should bankrupt Disney by buying no toys, and giving their child rhubarb and burdock leaf-hats instead. Parents will wind up richer, and need to work less, and then they can bankrupt me, by caring for their own kids, which will make them richer still.

Until parents catch on, I’ll continue to have the sheer audacity of charging them for the joy of spending time with their kids, and teaching children joyous nonsense, such as that burdock leaves are gremlin hats.

I actually shouldn’t have any burdock leaves in stock in my toy store, for I have tried to eradicate burdock on my farm, because when autumn comes children have a way of being mischievous with the burrs, by  flinging them into another child’s hair. This may even be what spreads the seeds all over the farm. I even caught one malevolent little girl advising another, younger girl that it was “stylish” to put roughly a hundred burrs in her hair. The agony of removing all those burrs was something I hope to never endure again. Therefore, every spring, we dig up burdock and peel the bark off the roots to eat the tasty inner core.

I should mention that people into herbal medicine claim burdock has all sorts of healing benefits. I don’t know about that. I only know the plant is awfully bitter, except the inner part of the root. The outer part of the root is awful. My pigs won’t touch it, and they root up most everything.  Also children won’t touch it, except for the inner part of the root. So that is as far as I go.

I have great respect for people who study herbal medicine, but I think the real herbalists own a sort of uncanny gift I recognize, but don’t have.  I could study herbs until the cows come home, but it would lack some crucial “knowing”.  Lots of New-Age hippies have never really understood this,  and do study herbs until the cows come home,  but definitely lack the gift.  In fact, to be blunt, some even make the subject of herbs dirty. How they can make such a beautiful subject filthy amazes me. I suppose it has something to do with a focus on sex and drugs, rather than on nourishment and healing, but at times they make me ashamed of my own generation, and at other times, when you see me leaning on my hoe and looking at the clouds, such thinking leads me far away from my garden.

Often I am brought back to earth by the voice of a small child at my side, wanting to know “whatcha doing?” Usually it is obvious what  I am doing, so I usually answer them, “Making a pizza.” They then grin and exclaim, “You are not!  You are hoeing the potatoes!” (or whatever.) In fact my answer, “making a pizza” has become a tradition, but one nice thing about four-year-old’s is that jokes don’t get old with them. You’d think they’d learn, but they still always ask me, “Whatcha doing?”, which has convinced me it is just their way  of starting a conversation.

Often a child is sent to me, even when I am off duty,  because they are having a bad day and disrupting the activity of the group. I suppose getting sent to me is like being sent to the principle or headmaster, at a school, but they are too young to really deserve any punishment. My wife is of the opinion it is asking too much of a small child to expect them to fit the regimes of organized activity from 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM, and many times they simply need a break. To that I would add that sometimes they just need to have a good cry.

In any case, I suddenly find myself with a small sidekick, and this has led me to think about the subject of sidekickery. It seems a very American thing, and different from Europe, where there seems to be more stress on knowing your place, on class, on  who is “royal” and who is “common”. I have never been big on that, which may be why some say I lack class.

I don’t really like being a leader, but also don’t like being a follower. I’d rather be a sidekick, and I’ve gotten rather good at it over the years. I think it was a skill I developed back in the days when hitchhiking was a common way to get around. It seemed a matter of courtesy, and an expression of gratitude: To be entertaining and make intelligent conversation and/or be a good listener while sitting beside people, whether the ride was five miles or five hundred. At first I was usually  the passenger, but later I  was the driver. Then, as I worked a wide variety of jobs, I found the skill useful when I was “the new kid” at a workplace, and also useful because conversation often was the only way to keep the sheer monotony of some of the jobs from driving me crazy (and sometimes it didn’t work, and then I’d be part of crazy conversations.)

One of the most important, and most American, aspects of being a sidekick involves a recognition that the person beside you is an equal. They might be richer or poorer, smarter or more stupid, taller or shorter, but the ordinary senses of inferiority and superiority are held in abeyance,  and, with egotism out of the way, higher things can become apparent, as one sees it be self-evident that God created all men equal.

This is not to say we are not different. When my sidekick is a four-year-old girl the differences are obvious and enormous. But if I put the child at ease, they walk beside me chatting away as if we’d been friends for twenty years.

This is not to say I don’t have authority and keep control. (Hitchhikers don’t grab the steering wheel.)

And most importantly this is not to say that I have the same gifts. Gifts are one of the most interesting things about small  children, because they all have them, yet are blissfully unaware of the given. When a small child is gifted with perfect pitch and a beautiful voice they take it for granted, and are unaware there is anything special about their singing, unless told. Often they will be perfectly happy singing with the tone deaf (though the next day they may demand the other child be quiet).

Some gifts are obvious. A small Mozart impresses everyone, for music is something we accept as a reality, even if we are not gifted. Other gifts are less obvious, and, if we ourselves don’t have that particular gift, we are quite likely to disbelieve it even exists. If we have a Man-from-Missouri attitude, and demand others “prove it”, we may in fact be asking the impossible. Can a color-blind person demand others prove color exists?

One of the best examples of this involves dowsers. I lack that gift, and was convinced the ability to dowse was sheer humbug. Then, at a small country fair, a dowser was displaying his ability, and I was rolling my eyes in my usual manner and deeming the fellow a skilled con artist, when, while the dowser wasn’t looking,  my three-year-old son picked up the man’s dowsing rod, (actually a couple of stiff, L-shaped wires), and wandered over to the place where the dowser said there was water, and the rods responded. I felt my son had succumbed to the powers of suggestion, and made my small boy walk this way and that, and the rod kept responding at the same place. It was spooky.

Then I saw the dowser looking at me with a knowing sort of smile. He asked me if I was the child’s father, and I said I was. He asked me if I had the gift of dowsing and I stated I definitely didn’t. To prove it I took the dowsing rods and walked about and absolutely nothing happened. Then the man asked my son to touch my elbow as I walked, and to my great consternation the two L-shaped rods suddenly swung and crossed as I walked over the certain spot where water was. Double spooky.

I demanded an explanation. The dowser couldn’t explain it. It was just something he had noticed: When a person with the gift of dowsing touches his father, his father temporarily has the gift, even if he doesn’t believe the gift exists.

It was a very humbling experience,  because I tend to see myself as being a person with an open mind, and scorn people who believe with blinders. I ask for evidence and proof, whereas some believe with blind faith (whether it be in a religion or in Global Warming), and I had plopped “dowsers” into the “blind faith” category.  Now the tables were turned. I was suddenly the dullard Horatio, and a Hamlet was telling me, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” It was obvious my mind wasn’t so open, after all.

Be that as it may, I am what I am, and must base my decisions on what I know. I will never say I know water is located where a dowser says it is located, because I do not know it. That is not my gift.

But I will have a smidgen more respect for people who are different than I am. I will allow them the benefit of the doubt. And this is especially true when they are four years old.

*******

I have been very busy, and four days have passed without this post being finalized. I should have just posted it as it was, but something was unsaid, and stirring about in the back of my brains.

 Although I don’t have the gift a true herbalist has, I have been weeding gardens since I was a small boy. In fact my first way of making a bit of extra money as a boy was to weed for neighbors. I suppose you can’t do that for over a half century without knowing which weeds are a nibble, which make a meal, and which cause a rash or are poisonous.

Some things I learned from my father, who “stalked the wild asparagus” before Euell Gibbons wrote the book. My father read “Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America”, and liked to impress people by producing a dinner from their woods or from their beach, if he was visiting their summer house. Euell Gibbons liked to do the same thing, which he called “a wild party”.

Hippies like to take credit for the “back to nature movement”, but actually such fads have occurred often thoughout history, and Euell Gibbon’s book was a best seller in 1962, during a pre-hippy surge of interest. At that same time my father had heard of a young woman who wanted to work on her master’s degree by going to the Amazon and studying the herbs that natives used, to see if their primitive medicine involved any drugs modern medicine might utilize. She was being discouraged, but my father used his influence to encourage her and make the journey possible. (This was one of the many things he did that I never heard about, until after he died.)

My father had more respect for “witch doctors” than some might expect in a surgeon, and I often noticed he had an uncanny ability to work the subject around to local cures and old-wive’s-tales, when talking with patients, or even while chatting with a stranger he bought a newspaper from. He had a skill at putting his patients at ease, when they were very nervous about facing surgery, and if their native language wasn’t English he knew how to say, “Does it hurt here? How about here?” in an amazing number of other languages.  I learned a lot about being skilled at sidekickery from him, besides learning about wild foods.

This put me ahead of the curve, when hippies wanted to “go back to nature” in the late 1960’s, and were starting communes, to some degree very much like their homesteading American ancestors. Most communes didn’t last very long, once youth found how much hard work was involved, but there was a general sense the world was going to face a huge disaster of some sort, especially after the first “Earth Day” in 1970, when Paul Ehrlich predicted, “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”

I recall reading a National Geographic back then that had graphs and charts that showed we would run out of oil by 1980. Therefore I suppose it was only common sense that I should study edible wild plants further. I  wanted to be able to eat when the supermarkets were empty. Then, as the years past, the worry seemed a bit silly, and Paul Ehrlich looked like a man who profited off fear and foolishness. (This may be why I have always had caution, regarding Global Warming claims.)

In any case, I am now an old man who tends to munch the weeds in his garden, and of course the kids at the Farm-childcare are curious, and ask a lot of questions. I am amazed by how often I don’t know the answer. I have to be careful, because I’d be in deep trouble if a child ate a poisonous plant, and on one occasion I did have to hurry to the web after a child ate a partridge berry,  which I myself avoided because I had a vauge knowledge they were “medicinal.” (Partridge berries turned out to be a mild tranquilizer, apparently used by rural woman during childbirth.) Now children at my Childcare delight in showing their parents the way to tell a checker berry from a partridge berry.

One plant I discovered I didn’t know the name for was locally called “witch grass”, but didn’t match the “witch grass” that appeared on the screen of my computer. It was one of the first grasses that appeared in the spring, and I noticed not only cows, horses and goats, but dogs, foxes and cats would eat it as soon as it appeared. So did I, as a boy. Apparently it is a “spring tonic”, and makes up for a chronic vitamin deficiency that grows during the winter, when there are no berries, and green vegetables aren’t available.  I had no idea that was what I was doing, as a boy; I just liked the flavor, and also the loud, clarinet noise you could make by holding a flat blade between your thumbs and blowing. Later I liked it because I made silver dimes and quarters weeding it from people’s gardens. Locally everyone called it “witch grass”.

I assumed it was called “witch grass” because it was bad like a witch, to have it in your garden. It spreads underground with rhizomes, and if you rotor-till it you basically break up the rhizomes and turn one plant into fifty. I developed a knack for following the rhizomes underground, and was a good kid to have in the neighborhood, if you hated the weed and also hated weeding. However one day I told my father it was called “witch grass” because it was evil, and this seemed to rub the man’s fur the wrong way, because I received quite a long-winded history lesson in return.

I think there may be a certain shame in New England about the Salem Witch Trials, and a certain inherited cautiousness about leaping to conclusions. I know my father was more hostile towards judgmental priests than towards old ladies who knew their herbs. He explained to me that a “witch” was the same thing as a “doctor”, in the old days, but priests didn’t like sick people getting better outside of their church. They especially didn’t like people getting better whom their church hadn’t been able to cure. They got jealous.

Priests felt they held a monopoly on healing, because Jesus was the Great Physician, and priests didn’t understand that the Creator created herbs for a reason. Often an old lady could get in trouble simply by serving a person who showed signs of vitamin C deficiency a rose-hip tea loaded with vitamin C. The priests felt “God should get the glory” but actually wanted the glory themselves, and did inglorious things, such as burning elderly healers at the stake.

Apparently the roots for the word “witch” was a word that meant “holy” in ancient times, and “wih” meant “holy” in old German. In Germany “wih” was pronounced “Vih”, (Gestapo: “ve vill be vatching you”), and therefore a person burned at the stake was a “victim”. Basically the word “witch” wasn’t originally as bad as it became. This is true for other words as well. (The words “divine” and “devil” have the same root). Something strange must have happened back in the mists of time, which we only remember as the legend of Satan falling from heaven with half of the angels. For some unknown reason it became necessary to make a distinction where before there had been unity.

Later on, during the Little Ice Age, when times were bad and crops failed, priests had a bad habit of abusing this distinction, and looking around for someone to blame for the fact prayers went unanswered, needing a scapegoat they could punish. Towards the end of this horrible abuse of Truth the Salem Witch Trials occurred, and became a warning to all, of the dangers of mass hysteria.

The little I heard of this history as a boy impressed me greatly. Not all the lessons were good:  For example, “A bunch of screaming girls can overpower the logic of adults.”

Much made no sense. For example, it was said that a person “owned by the devil” could not recite the Lord’s Prayer. On the steps of the gallow Pastor George Burroughs spoke his final sermon, ending with the Lord’s Prayer, and onlookers were in tears, but his accusers only needed to say that the “black man” was telling him what to say, and he was hung.

Another insanity denies the scripture, “If we confess our sins He (Jesus) is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” In Salem to confess your sin got you hung, (and in many cases what was confessed was what we would call a “shortcoming”).

But the guy who grabbed my attention when I was young was an 81-year-old man named Giles Cory, who refused to confess. He refused to plead innocent as well, for he knew that if he “plead” everything he owned would be taken by the government, and the people named in his will would get nothing. When accused of being a witch he refused to plead innocent, and refused to plead guilty.

In such cases, when a person “refused to plead”, they were stripped naked, laid on their back in a pit with boards on top of them, and heavy rocks were put on the boards, until the person either plead innocent or guilty. It didn’t work with Giles Corey. All he would say is “More weight.”  (Legend has it that the sheriff actually  stood on the rocks and looked down at the poor old man, whose tongue was protruding from his mouth, and, after pushing the tongue back into Giles’s mouth with his toe, asked Giles if he was ready to plead, and Giles only responded, “More weight, and curse all Sheriffs of Salem.”  Then he died. This is trivia, but that sheriff, and all following sheriffs of Salem, suffered from, and died of, heart ailments, until the sheriff’s office was moved to another town.)

As a youth I thought Giles Corey was totally cool. Rather than confessing my sins like a good Christian, I wanted to be like Giles. This was especially true when my Math teacher asked me if I’d done my homework.

With this horrible example of humanity in my homeland’s history, you might think people in New England would avoid witch-hunts ever afterwards, and to some degree we have. I can recall as a small child how a man in our neighborhood, who had attended communist meetings as a student, was attacked by anticommunists, and how proud my parents were that the entire neighborhood stood up to defend the man from the “witch hunt”. But the simple fact that the witch hunt could even happen showed humanity is reluctant to learn.

My Dad was sensitive to the problem of slow-learners,  because when Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. first suggested invisible germs might be the cause of puerperal fever in 1843, he faced a backlash.  Holmes lived until 1894, and was the mentor of my father’s mentor, who lived until 1946, and therefore the backlash against the idea of “germs” was something my father knew a lot about.

One word Oliver Wendell Holmes coined was “anesthesia”,  for it was a new idea at that time that it might be good to reduce a patient’s pain. Some doctors opposed dulling the pain of childbirth, and the famous obstetrician Dr. Charles Delucena Meigs warned against the morally “doubtful nature of any process that the physicians set up to contravene the operations of those natural and physiological forces that the Divinity has ordained us to enjoy or to suffer“. In other words, God wants women to suffer and doctors shouldn’t get in His way. It was a case of a young and hopeful idealist coming up against a so-called “conservative Christian.”

Not that my father believed in any hippy pseudoscience regarding herbs. He believed doctors should stick to scientifically provable facts, and had a fierce dislike for any sort of psychology that was based on theory alone, especially when there was no sign of improvement in the patients. However he did have respect for old ladies that noticed when their family was healthy after being served certain foods or teas. He felt such grandmothers had powers of observation that were quite scientific, even if they seemed uncanny to others, and a “gift”.

I suppose he was right. I just feel that at times our ability to be “scientific” happens so fast that it seems to occur unscientifically.  For example, students of music can point out the music of Bach obeys fabulous rules of harmony, but Bach wrote the music so swiftly it is impossible that he was referring to any rule-book; he simply knew the rules by heart, in a way we describe as being “a gift”. Likewise, when any musician is improvising, and at their best, they are obeying rules more swiftly than a super-computer, and relaxing as they do it. It is a gift.

In like manner, some people simply have a gift, concerning herbs. Usually it is women, but perhaps that is because women are often the cooks. All I am certain of is that I don’t have that gift. All my knowledge of herbs is more along the lines of trivia, boyishly gathered over the years, and still being gathered. For example, just yesterday I learned the real name for “witch grass.”

It took me a long time. Do you have any idea how many kinds of grass there are? I gave up, but then later decided to google “the worst weeds”. Bingo. Found it.  “Elytrigia repens”, also known as “quackgrass”.Weeds 2 IMG_3010

It should be obvious that my gift isn’t in recognizing the value of herbs. In fact the above, wandering prose shows you how how long it takes me to get from “what is that weed called?’ to the answer, “Quackgrass.” In truth, my gift lies in Sidekickery. I am the sort of hitchhiker a fellow with many boring miles to cross was glad to pick up, because I could take a simple subject like “a common weed” and turn it into a long tale, and the miles would fly past.

The other day, however, a four-year-old girl became my sidekick, and she was not the slightest bit interested in my gift. I knew she was going to wind up with me, for one of my best employees responds to a child’e misbehavior with a booming, joyous laugh, and I heard that laugh a lot from afar, as I was off-duty in my garden, gathering a wheelbarrow of small stones to dump into an annoying pothole in the driveway. My mind was focusing on the many uses for stones, and I was thinking of writing a post on the subject, when I heard the wonderful, booming laugh from nearby, and waved in a certain way that means, “Send the kid to me.”

Mind you, this girl had been completely unable to obey any rules all morning. Wrestling is forbidden, but she kept jumping on the boys and happily tussling. The group is suppose to “stay on the path” but she would dart into the underbrush. When children run ahead they are suppose to “wait at the gate”, but she wouldn’t. And so on. She had absolutely no ability to “stay focused,” and surely would be diagnosed as having some sort of “attention deficit”, until she joined me. Then, abruptly, she had a one track mind.

She kept asking me, over and over, “Mr Shaw? Can you eat this?” nor would she allow me to be garrulous, as I answered.

I was a bit wounded, for I did want to be garrulous, and wanted to talk about what I was doing: Picking up stones. I wanted to talk about stonewalls in New England, and the various types, and the block and tackle used for moving huge boulders, and the poem by Robert Frost, but she would have none of it. Therefore, using my skill in sidekickery, I shifted to her subject, but even then I was too long winded. As I gathered stones and tossed them into the barrow, our conversation went like this:

“Mr. Shaw, can you eat this?”

“Sure. That’s mint. But is isn’t a meal. It’s a spice. Nobody eats mint as a vegetable. Cow’s won’t touch it, and goats only nibble a bit. This is the case with many…”

“I don’t like it much. How about this?”

“No, that is goldenrod. It has a pretty flower, and Henry Ford gave Thomas Edison a Model  T with tires made from rubber from goldenrod, but…”

“How about this?”

“That is yellow dock. It’s OK. Tastes of lemon and makes your mouth dry, but loaded with potassium, and herbalists say…”

“Ptui!  I don’t like it. How about this?”

“That is dandilion. It is called a lion because it is the king of herbs and cures more than you can shake a stick…”

“It tastes like lettuce.”

“Yes, bitter lettuce, and it gets more bitter as the summer passes…”

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“What about this?”

“That’s wild mustard. It’s a member of the cabbage family, and…”

“Peppery!”

“Yes. Try the flowers of that one over there. Its seeds are interesting because they are flat and heart shaped rather than…”

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“Mmm! Like sweet brocolli! How about this?”

“I don’t know what that is. And what is the rule when we don’t know?”

“Don’t eat it. But what about this one?”

“That is chickweed. It makes a good salad, but…hey! Don’t take such big mouthfuls!”

“I like it! It’s good!”

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“Yes, but it is fibrous. You should chop it up or you’ll wind up with a cud like a cow.”

“I like that. It’s like chewing gum.”

“Well, if you don’t mind….and those weeds sure are doing well this year. Chickweed seems to like a cold spring with just a mist of…”

“And what is this?”

And so it went. The girl took full advantage of my gift of sidekickery, as I marveled over how focused she was, and wondered if she might have a gift, regarding herbs.

I also wondered how teachers can ever think that, just because a child does not want to attend to the subject they want to teach, the child has a “disorder”.  The child has a gift, but the teacher is not teaching anything that pertains to the gift. If a disorder is involved, might it not be TAD, “Teacher’s Attention Disorder?”

Other teachers may refuse to admit they suffer from TAD, but I sure do. I never get to teach what I really want to, and instead must be a sidekick. Perhaps that is why scripture says we should “suffer” the little children. But I don’t even do that right, because even when they interrupt my garrulous utterances, their innocent lack-of-wisdom is a lot more interesting than all I know.  There is some suffering, but it is outweighed by joy.