It’s late on a Sunday night and I’m too tired to be writing this. I just got back from a trip to Washington, interesting but draining. I came home to find only Dennis here, with a nice pot of lentil soup and a cabbage salad ready for me and the woodstoves all fired up and the chores all done. That’s one of the great things about communes — there’s always someone around to take care of you when you feel like being taken care of. I suppose the bad thing is that there’s always something or someone that needs care, but usually I view that as a good thing, since I like putting things in order and doing things for people. But every now and then, like tonight, I just don’t feel like exuding any care at all. I don’t feel like stoking the stoves or cleaning the kitchen or gathering the eggs or even being particularly civil. So I’m leaning back, just for awhile, and Dennis is filling in the slack.
I was at a meeting at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which is a professional association for all the sciences, and which publishes Science magazine. They have set up a committee on Population, Resources, and the Environment, a very interesting and disparate group, some of whom are old friends of mine, others are old enemies. Quite a few, especially the economists, were attackers of Limits to Growth in the old days. The great challenge and excitement of the meetings is to address problems together, although we’re from different disciplines and speak essentially different languages, and to sort out the truth, the facts, the uncertainties, and the opportunities.
We have been meeting for about two years now, about twice a year, with smaller meetings in between as we work on projects together. One thing we’re doing is a set of papers on world hunger: what we actually know and don’t know about it, what potential food production might be, what’s happening to the soils and waters, and what solutions to hunger can actually be based on the knowledge we have, as opposed to the beliefs or fears or hopes or prejudices we have.
As you might imagine, this is right up my alley, and the team I get to work with includes a nutritionist, a demographer, an economist, a businessman from a grain-exporting company, a hydrologist, a sociologist, an anthropologist, an entomologist, a tropical forest ecologist, and many more. It’s hard work and takes much careful listening and clear thinking. But it’s so rewarding to be shaken out of your conventional way of thinking, to see both the strengths and limitations of other people’s way of thinking, and to do it in an atmosphere of utter respect and dedication. As we all come to know each other, we get better at learning to speak to each other.
For example, a big issue in these meetings is soil erosion. The ecologically-minded among us think it is the most important problem in the world. The economically-minded think it is a nonproblem — we produce more food all the time, they say. And the food gets cheaper and cheaper. What’s the big deal? The ecologists point out that as the soil washes away, it takes more and more fertilizer to produce that food, and the fertilizer comes from fossil fuel. We are substituting the nonrenewable resource of fuel for the renewable resource of the soil’s fertility. And we are unaware of the problem because we are masking it with chemicals.
The word masking drives the economists crazy. The gains in food production are real, they say. That makes the ecologists mad. Food made from chemicals instead of soil isn’t real at all to them, especially since some day those chemicals will be unavailable. The economists can’t see that at all. Something else will become available. Humankind is ingenious and can always come up with a technology to solve such problems.
Slowly we learn not to have that argument but to point to it, to examine the argument itself and ask ourselves what each side can see that the other side can’t, and also to ask why we get so hot under the collar every time it comes up. (I’m one who gets very exercised on this particular issue, as you well know!) Once we admit there are intelligent and sincere people on both sides, then we can start asking what is really at the basis of our disagreement, both factually and emotionally.
And it is basically an emotional issue, not a scientific one. Soil is sacred to me. It’s a whole ecosystem full of mysterious and wonderful little creatures, living in miniscule, intricate communities, which have value in themselves and which also pull off the miracle of producing the nutrients plants need to grow. And they produce it out of garbage — fallen leaves and dead roots and manure and the detritus of the living world. They take death and turn it back into life! I can never get over that! Good topsoil is a wonder to me; really, my feeling for it is close to worship. And to the economists it’s just dirt, at best an “input”, at worst something to hold up plants so the chemicals can get to them. Sacrilege! Heresy! (You can see that this is not a cool, scientific argument based purely on the rules of evidence.)
I suppose I insult the economists by trampling on what’s sacred to them, too. The beautiful automatic functioning of that complex machine called the market. The amazing ingenuity of human society that can substitute fertilizer for soil (I must admit, it is amazing).
Do you think we human beings can ever learn to respect what is sacred to someone else, just because it is sacred to someone else? Do you think it will ever occur to us that when we don’t see what excites someone else, it might be because we are ignorant, rather than because the other person is gullible, or hallucinating, or romanticizing?
Well, I didn’t intend to go off on this philosophical tack, but I guess it’s what I’m full of after the meeting. What I intended to do was tell you about November on the farm.
November is when we bring the sheep up from the pasture, when we butcher the lambs and also when we turn the ram in with the ewes to start making babies. Therefore I have spent a lot of time lately hauling sheep around.
First I traded our ram Polka for a neighbor’s ram, because both we and they had too much inbreeding in our flocks. Polka was a lamb born on our own farm, and the only ram we’ve ever had who wasn’t a complete nuisance. Rams generally treat every moving object except ewes as something to be knocked over — that’s why they’re called rams. We have a barnyard rule that says never turn your back on the ram. Since they can weigh 250 pounds and prefer to come at you on the run, they can do real damage if you’re not watching out for them. But Polka never, never butted us. So we had forgotten the ram rule and our guard was down.
Well, the new ram is a typical terror, maybe a little worse than typical. He has become absolute ruler of the sheep corral, and some of us go in there to do the chores with fear and trembling. We have named him Caspar Weinberger.
I had to pick up another sheep from another neighbor, a new yearling ewe I bought, again to diversify the flock, a white one that was needed because all but one of my ewes are now black. We named her after the woman I bought her from — Faith. That then suggested names for the two ewe lambs I decided to keep from our own flock — Hope and Charity. We thought Faith, Hope, and Charity would balance Caspar Weinberger very nicely.
Then, because we had added three new ewes, we had to get rid of some older ewes, since the flock is already at or a little above the carrying capacity of the pasture. After much agony (every ewe is a member of the family, an old friend, unique and irreplaceable) and long perusal of the record book of lambings and fleece weights, I decided that Vanilla and Angelica were the ones to go. Old ewes are of inestimable value to me, but of no value to anyone else and therefore hard to get rid of. Finally Suzanne and I took them to the Thetford auction, the place in the Valley where all unwanted animals end up. I had never before stooped to taking a sheep there — I had never even been there. It’s a tough place, the prices are low, and of course you have no control over what happens to the animals after they’re bought.
I thought it was going to be horrible to leave the Ladies there, but it wasn’t too bad. We arrived before the auction began and unloaded the sheep into a huge pen already crammed with sheep and goats (they get ear tags to identify them, and the auction price minus 10% is automatically sent to you). I was going to stay and watch the auction, but Suzanne saw me falling in love with two baby Toggenburg goats and a Jersey calf that had just been unloaded, and she hustled me off just in time. We ended up with $68 for the two sheep, and I have made up a story about who bought them that satisfies me completely.
Then we had to take the five ram lambs to Sharon Beef, the slaughterhouse. We have been doing this trip for so many years that it doesn’t bother me at all. We like the people who run Sharon Beef and it’s a clean, careful operation. We unloaded the rams on a Sunday night; the next Friday we picked up 300 pounds of wrapped, frozen, labeled lamb meat — $800 of income for the farm. We dropped the meat right off at the freezers of our customers. We also get the skins back every year, which we scrape, salt, and dry and send to a tanner to be made into beautiful sheepskin rugs — another $250 of income. The money comes right before the December tax bill, so it’s always welcome.
John and Kate, who are relatively new to the farm, would have nothing to do with all the sheep-moving and particularly the slaughtering and skin-curing. But you don’t have to live on a farm very long before you come to terms with life and death, with all the Novembers when you kill last spring’s lambs and start next spring’s lambs. It’s not that you become hard or unfeeling; rather you become accepting. You see life and death as a cycle or a continuum. You see that deaths are necessary for the balance of the farm, so that the ratios of rams and ewes and sheep and pastures will be right. You know that there will be beautiful meat to feed people, that not only the soil but all of nature turns death into new life, that in spite of all the death in the world, life is what persists. The whole process takes on a mysterious beauty and dignity. November with its pervasive death isn’t the exciting high of April when the lambs are born and the daffodils bloom, but it’s the serene time of preparation for April; April couldn’t happen without it.
But then there are some deaths you can’t accept. The little lamb Hope was the one born very late, in July. She was a pretty thing, Angelica’s daughter, and I knew right away I wanted to keep her. She did well down on the pasture and while she was nursing, but after Angelica weaned her and she had to compete with the bigger lambs, I think she didn’t get enough to eat. And I made some bad mistakes; I forgot to worm her, and I didn’t watch her carefully enough. By the time I started to remedy all my oversights, she was coughing and had stopped eating. For more than a week I made her special brews of oatmeal, milk, and molasses and hand-fed her twice a day. She seemed to perk up, and I really thought she would pull through. But I found her dead in the stall one evening. That death wasn’t timely, wasn’t part of the natural cycle of the year, and worst of all was a result of my own stupidity. I was hard to live with for a few days there, and I’m still very sad.
We have already had three good snowfalls, unusual for November. Usually we see the first snowflakes around Thanksgiving; in fact nearly always they are falling when we go out for our traditional long hike after Thanksgiving dinner. But this year there will already be snow on the ground
We’re going to have a big crowd for Thanksgiving. John and Kate are going to their homes for the holiday, but Dennis, Suzanne, and I will be joined by the four Whybrows, our next-door neighbors. And by Wendy and Norman, who used to live here. And by Richard Hyde, the pastor who married Wendy and Norman, and by Richard’s girlfriend. And by Maria and Ude, our Balaton Group visitors to Dartmouth from Hungary and the People’s Republic of China. So it will be a very full house. Half the group, plus Basil our jogging dog, will run the Turkey Trot, Plainfield’s annual six-mile race on Thanksgiving morning. The other half will cook — between us and the Whybrows we’ll have two kitchens busy and two ovens going. And nearly all the food will come from our farm or theirs.
Thanksgiving means a lot around here. On a farm you are very close to all you have to be thankful for.