The following is a reprint of an article I wrote for the TasteBuds local food guide in Chattanooga last year. This week, I received a very nice note from some Iowa folks who picked up a copy while passing through the area recently and were moved by the piece, so I thought maybe others would enjoy reading it as well. I hope you enjoy it, too. At the end of the article is a link to the entire TasteBuds issue, if you would like to read more. -Jim
“Hang a left just past where the Miller tobacco barn used to be. The barn is gone, but you’ll see the old stone foundation and a pile of weathered barn boards. Go about three miles. Then, right before where they straightened the road… that’s where you turn in. It’s where Widow Taylor’s oak tree was. That’s where you turn in. You’re too young to remember, but that tree was the biggest thing in the county ‘fore lightning finally took her out, back in the aughts. I think losing that oak put the final nail in Widow Taylor’s coffin. You know she got married under that oak? So did her momma. Her great granddaddy planted that tree… You might remember the stump–bigger around than a supper table…”
I tried my best to remember what I was looking for– a pile of wood, evidence of the old road curving off into a pasture. There were three or four more turns and a story with each one. Unfortunately, I had nothing with which to write, and this was the last phone booth en route, so I would have to remember it all. Fortunately, I did not forget the stories, and it was the images I carried from the shared memories that helped me recall each of the details I needed to find my way. Soon, I was sipping ice tea on a back porch and catching up with an old friend.
Of course, folks whose history is connected with urban environs use landmarks the same way, but with a Starbucks on every corner and a Walmart every few miles… well, it’s just not the same. Plus, I’m pretty certain that hearing stories about the time he got a flat tire at the fourth McDonald’s on the left, the day he had to return a barbecue grill with a faulty ignition to the Ace Hardware by the Wendy’s, or that horrible morning when the barista at Starbuck’s put soy in his latte instead of whole milk would not have had the same indelible mark on my memory.
I know what you’re thinking. We have smarty pants phones now, and GPS technology. Who needs fallen down barns and old road beds? Well… I do. I think we all do. Not because I don’t have a smart phone or GPS, or because I love reading maps and enjoy getting lost, but because there is something intrinsically valuable in the history of a people in a place, of a sense of place, and nowhere is this more evident, more grounded, more real than in farm country.
My friend who gave me those direction twenty-five years ago possessed more than just memories of a generations-old community. He was the living history of a place where people were tied to the land in a way that is becoming rarer today.
Wendell Berry wrote about that connection and the need to hold on to it in the opening verse of his poem, The Record.
My old friend tells us how the country changed:
where the grist mill was on Cane Run,
now gone; where the peach orchard was,
gone too; where the Springport Road was, gone
beneath returning trees; how the creek ran three weeks
after a good rain, long ago, no more;
how when these hillsides first were plowed, the soil
was black and deep, no stones, and that was long ago;
where wild turkeys roosted in the old days.
“You’d have to know this country mighty well
before I could tell you where.”
Every community changes, but in farm country, where people rely on the land, the lives of people and the land are interconnected in ways that don’t happen–that can’t happen–in cities served by factory farms.
My great, great uncle John Meyer was a truck farmer in Chattanooga, TN for much of the twentieth century. He grew vegetables on a farm where Howard High School now stands on the Southside, delivering his produce to local restaurants, markets, and homes. He held onto that land until the “road-builders” came along to build interstate 24 through town.
Uncle John made daily runs around town with whatever he harvested in a given morning. When he showed up at a market or restaurant to find they had needs he had not expected, he would make a special trip back in the afternoon with the desired products. He knew his customers by name, and he tried to grow what they wanted. When Uncle John’s customers couldn’t pay, he personally extended them credit.
Just a few years before his death in the late nineteen-seventies, Uncle John gave my cousin Steve an interview, which Steve recorded on cassette tape and later transcribed by typewriter. When Steve asked his grandfather about the depression, I expected to hear of horrible struggles, but to my surprise Uncle John said that he heard there was a depression, but he didn’t really feel it.
Uncle John’s economy was based on relationships with the land and with his customers which were also his neighbors. In that world, credit could be extended by handshake, rather than through banks. Profitability of the farm was based on weather, demand, pestilence, and hard work, rather than a rising stock price. Because his was a land-based cash economy, and he was willing to share in the struggles of his customers who also shared in his, collapsing markets weren’t his concern. His economy was local, his fate tied directly to the fate of his community, and their collective fate to the land that provided their sustenance. This was the way of all farmers once upon a time, and this is still the way of the small, community-based farmer.
The connections brought about by these local, farm-based economies don’t stop with community relationships and shared economic fates. In Aldo Leopold’s essay The Sand Counties, he explores the value of the land in central Wisconsin. Once mostly marsh, the region was drained for agriculture only to find it unsuitable for traditional farming. Many of Leopold’s neighbors failed at farming and abandoned their land, but others–the more stubborn ones–stuck it out.
Leopold suggests there might be some “some deep reason back in history” for the farmers who decided to stay, an innate sense and comfort of place. “Do economists know about lupines?” he asks. “I have never met an economist who knows Draba…” Finally, of one of Leopold’s favorite birds that thrives in the sand counties, he writes, “The economists have not yet tried to resettle woodcocks.” The farmers that steward these lands see value beyond economic in the sand counties.
On a recent afternoon I stopped by a friend’s farm just a couple miles down the road from the small farm I am looking after to do a little resettling of my own. For a couple days, his hens had been laying their eggs on top of a rat snake who very much appreciated their daily deliveries. I gently pulled the snake from the nest, slipped him into a feed sack and carried him to a place nearby where his predation would be more appreciated.
Before corporate ways took over most of the farming in our country, this was more the norm. Farms tended to be more functional ecosystems, where lupines, woodcocks, and even snakes were allowed their place and recognized as important parts of the bigger picture. Farmers may not want snakes in the henhouse, but it is possible to recognize their role on the land.
Farms need not be sterile, monocultural gardens. There was a time when it was also the norm not to plow under every woodlot, leaving hedgerows for wildlife habitat. There was a time when encountering an occasional fox or snake, welcoming spring wildflowers and frogs and so many other signs of wildness, were considered assets on the balance sheet of farm living.
Fortunately, not all farms, or larger communities, have lost that value. You can find it represented at any number of farmers markets in the Chattanooga area where your farmer does his best to partner with you, his customer, where CSAs bind communities back to each other and the land, where your eggs might have been harvested from atop a rat snake that was not killed for doing what snakes do. So, when you stop in for your produce, eggs, milk, cheese, and meat, take a moment to ask your farmer about the stories behind your food, or even better, ask her for directions to the farm and take a trip to see for yourself.