A Big Mistake and A Satisfied Smile

Beginning in the first days of this past winter, and on through to early spring, I was fortunate to have regular visits on the farm from American woodcock. They dominated my early mornings and late evenings, led me to crawling through tall grass, sitting in rain, listening in the dark, and showed up in my writing time and again. One of the woodcocks’ final appearances led to this little piece, published in the Spring 2016 issue of TasteBuds Magazine. It has not been archived on the website yet, but copies are available around the greater Chattanooga area. Pick up a copy, or visit the website to read other writers’ thoughts about food issues.

A Big Mistake and A Satisfied Smile

Twenty years ago I stood on a back porch in northern Illinois watching the summer sun set over a sea of mature corn stretching to the horizon.

“This is what I love about farm country,” remarked my host–a middle-aged woman with deep corn farming roots. She took a deep breath, drank in the scene, and settled into a very satisfied smile.

The prudent response would have been to share her smile, perhaps nod in acknowledgment of her heartfelt comment. I was not prudent.

“I find it troubling…”

I was interrupted before I could finish what I was sure would be a brilliant and inspiring explanation of why a single-species, chemically-dependent landscape, devoid of biodiversity and functional ecosystem, could never bring a smile to my face.

Over the next few minutes I was lambasted with all the reasons why farming is important, how I wouldn’t have food on my table were it not for farms, how liberal hippies like me think we can have perfect peace and love, and have utopian dreams delivered on silver platters as the deer and antelope roam a golden plain at the end of a triple rainbow.

It was not one of my finer moments, and I deserved the scolding. The truth of the matter is that my friend and I were both right… and both wrong. We do need farms, and we can feed ourselves without denuding the landscape of biodiversity. We do need to control some pests, and we can do that with balance.

I blew an opportunity that evening to have a healthy conversation about what is good and right about her heritage, and how the future could be even better for all of us.

It is easy to see in retrospect that even if I had begun differently, my effort to convert a corporate GMO farmer to an organic grower of kale, kohlrabi, and heirloom tomatoes was a pipe dream, but we could have walked away from each other with new perspectives to think about. Instead, I walked away labeled (perhaps correctly) a delusional hippie, and have not seen that friend since.

That conversation is on my mind this evening as I leave the house, and walk out past the gardens to a maple tree on the edge of the north pasture. This landscape, as varied topographically as it is rich in biodiversity, couldn’t be more different from a corn field in Illinois. Straight ahead of me the land crowns to form the western quarter of the pasture. To my right, it rolls down into a drainage, pitches up slightly, then slopes steeply off to the eastern border. An ephemeral seep is enough to keep the drainage soggy for most of winter and spring. I don’t mow this part of the pasture as frequently as the rest, allowing rushes to mingle with wildflowers and grasses.

I scan the landscape briefly, but my focus tonight is on the crown just ahead of me, and I raise my camera to take a few test photos.

The wind has been gusting much of the day, and dark clouds are fast approaching from the south. I cozy up to the north side of the tree, hoping to find a lee from whatever rain may come. A small pine embraces the trunk of the maple, extending its arms around me as well, providing minimal camouflage and the temporary illusion of safety from the storm.

No sooner do I snap my test photos, than a few small raindrops tick on the brim of my nylon hat. I wrap the camera in a towel, put the rear lens caps on the binoculars, and settle in for a show I will attend regularly over the next several weeks.

Moments like these perfectly illustrate why I love living in farm country, and I suspect that what I am feeling is not dissimilar to what my Illinois friend feels in her special moments on the land. I know she loves the solitude and self-sufficiency, the feelings of independence and of doing something good for the world. She also probably finds comfort in the sound of a giant combine on the horizon bringing in the harvest.

Of course, my friend is a farmer, while living on the farm no more makes me a farmer than having a piano in the house makes me a musician, but I am fortunate to reside on this small hobby farm, and being here brings me a peace, a solitude, and a connection to the natural world that inspires my writing.

As I scan the landscape, wind gusts are growing in their intensity and I suspect tonight’s performance might be canceled, but it is pleasantly warm and I am dressed to handle a bit of precipitation. When the performance is not canceled due to weather, the near high ground is the most used theater, and I am committed to sitting it out until dark.

Just as I check the towel to make sure my camera is safe, the first actor takes the stage. The show is on.

Meep… Meep…

The call comes unexpectedly from my right, beyond the seep. I listen, waiting for the opening song to transition into the first dance.

Meep… Meep… Meep… Meep… silence…

During the pause, two more actors enter the theater, and more calls begin over my right shoulder near the gardens. In this theater I have never seen or heard more than one actor at a time and my spirit rises.

Meep, Meep, Meep, Meep…

I turn my head in the direction of the new voices, and two American woodcock take flight. On quick whistling wingbeats, the pair of stubby birds sprint south, one chasing the other over the house. Soon, they are out of sight and sound, and I look back to my first bird, who is still calling.

I check my watch and jot down the time in my journal. As I cap my pen, the hoarse, nasal voice surrenders to a soft, ghostly fluttering. The dance has begun. Recognizing my chance, I stand up and run to the apple tree by the gardens, where I pause to listen.

Overhead, a soft whistling swirls in broad circles. Wshha, wshha, wshha…

I step back from beneath the canopy of the apple tree and look to the darkening sky, but see nothing. The sounds fade until all I can hear is chorus frogs in the seep. I stay put, scanning the sky. The brief rain stops.

Far overhead, a gentle whisper returns. Rapidly it corkscrews towards me, gaining in speed and volume until the crescendoing whisper is a flutey warbling voice in front of me just beyond the rushes.

Through the apple boughs I watch intently, catching a blur of a bird descending quickly to the ground on the near side of the drainage 75 feet away.

The calling begins immediately.

Meep… Meep… Meep…

I stretch out prone on the damp grass and belly-crawl under the apple tree, then between two pines on the edge of the open space.

Meep… Meep… Meep…

He turns, sending out his beckon in all directions.

Meep, meep, meep, meep…

Wshha, wshha, wshha, wshha…

As he spirals back into the sky, I crouch and hurry out into the rushes. The ground is unexpectedly dry, and I take a prone position, hidden from sight.

My spot proves perfect! He lands just outside the tall grasses on the other side of the drainage, and once again I am belly-crawling, feeling like a lion on the savanna creeping up on unsuspecting prey.

When I reach the edge of my cover, he is no more than fifteen feet away. His raspy calls are sharp now, biting through the heavy wind. Without a tripod, it is too dark for a photograph, but even in the retreating light, I can see him clearly through the binoculars – a short, plump bird with no visible neck, his head sitting on stout shoulders. A large black eye set in a buffy ring dominates his head. His breast is the color of my weathered Carhartt field coat, his back speckled with dark browns and light khakis. His most striking feature is a long, slender beak, easily twice as long as his head. With every raspy call, his rapier beak opens and closes like the jaws of needle-nose pliers.

Meep… Meep… Meep…

For a moment, I think back to northern Illinois where I first encountered woodcock performing their ritual in a forest preserve. I wonder if they once performed in what is now the sea of corn behind my friend’s house, and if she would find the same joy in this moment as I do.

I am lucky to have woodcock performances beginning as early as December and continuing through spring in Northwest Georgia. In Northern Illinois, the show is only booked in theaters for a couple of spring months, and I don’t imagine there are theaters in vast corn fields.

If I found myself back on that porch today, had the opportunity to begin that conversation anew, my response would be very different than when I was a starry-eyed young hippie. Today, I would begin by sharing with her how, long before there was corn there, on certain spring evenings, we might have stood right there and heard an odd raspy voice calling from out on the savanna… Meep. Meep. Meep.

From there, I might talk about the biodiversity and wildness that can coexist with corn farming, how the same land that produces vegetables and cattle, eggs and pork, can also attract woodpeckers, possums, and salamanders. I might talk about how sparrows and shrikes like fencerows, and how hawks and butterflies love open meadows. I might tell her about the small property I inhabit, where deer and gray fox appear nightly, and at least five species of frogs fill spring nights with a brilliant chorus.

Of course it wouldn’t be fair to compare the biodiversity of even the most intact Midwest savanna with the richness of the Cumberland Plateau, and certainly there is a place for corn farming, but must we sacrifice all biodiversity to have it? Can a corn farm not also have hedgerows and woodlots, prairie islands, free-flowing streams… in short, habitat and diversity?

Perhaps one day my Illinois friend and I will reunite and I can invite her to Georgia where, together, we can crawl through the tall grass to see woodcock dance in the fading light before retiring to the porch to listen to chorus frogs and spring peepers. If that does happen, I will turn to her and say, “This is what I love about farm country,” and she will see me take a deep breath, drink in the scene, and settle into a very satisfied smile.

Added Value

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

Added Value

          “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.