What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
I have been slowly working on a section of fence line that follows the contours of the land in order to section off the pastures where our animals graze from the streams and wetlands. It has taken me years to see through the eyes of our livestock by taking note of their paths and trails and by using these as guidelines for the barriers. In New England most of the secondary roads follow circuitous routes along spines of granite ledge as they dip and wander across declivities and knolls, passing alongside brooks and marshes before veering off into deeply wooded glens. As the old time Yankee farmers are wont to say, ‘you can’t get there from here’. To understand why the roads were constructed in this fashion requires a knowledge of the past; animal trails begat footpaths which led to trails for carts and traps that eventually made way to the automobile. One follows the other because there was, deep in the past, a reason for the wildlife to take the path it chose leaving the ground smooth beneath their hooves and paws. Here the ground was too damp and soft so the trail hitched upwards, there the boulders fell in a tumble from the mountain above and so it jogged left and so on. Man, following the prey took its trail and widened it further from his passing until other men with larger conveyances arrived to discover them and make them wider still. In the end we pave or gravel the earthen surfaces to make it possible for motor vehicles to pass over, wondering at some point from behind the wheel or while gazing from the window as we pass, ‘who would create such a winding road?’
Most of what I do I do alone. It is often tedious, sometimes difficult, but it gives me time to reflect on a world of thoughts. As I spool out wire from the Spinning Jenny there is a soft hiss as it passes across the tall grass, musical and soothing. When I look up the cattle are grazing in a slump, tails switching methodically, heads bowed to the earth. Each year the changes occur; subtly, slowly, but constant. The forest falls to the saws, the ruined stumps and shattered branches sink back into the soil as vetch and clover cover them under a blanket of emerald green. The hillsides buried under a canopy of deciduous woodland are revealed as they undulate upwards towards the summit of our mountain, covered in gray boulders. Because it is through the labor that I put in myself it never seems to keep pace with my plans and all I see some days is what I haven’t done, what is still unfinished and incomplete. On other days when the breeze is just right and my work is going well and the birds fill the air with melodious calls to one another I feel as though I am living in Eden, that every movement is part of some greater purpose and that I am truly part of God’s plan. When this happens I try to take stock of what it is that we’re trying to do and why it is so important to continue despite the sore limbs and bleeding fingers and bone tired weariness I feel these days and simply drink it all in as an act of faith.
When we bought the farm it had been out of agricultural use for three quarters of a century and Nature had reclaimed the work of Man. Where wide-spread fields lined by bouldered walls had once produced crops of hay and grain there was little evidence but for the half buried stones placed one by one a hundred years ago. On the tops of flat stones there were sprays of shattered acorn shells, signs of the squirrels and chipmunks feasting in the shade. Each year we have tried to reclaim a bit more by cutting back the undergrowth, grazing the goats and sheep on forbs and vines until the grass can establish a hold on the thin soils. Then we cover the exposed ledge with masses of carbon laden shredded bark and wood chips produced by the logging excess and cover this with composted manure from the deep pack out of the winter sheds. For a while these wide swaths of darkness look like wounds, but slowly, inexorably as soft rain and warm sunshine ply them the emerald green of nitrogen soaked growth envelopes each patch and eventually knits together as a single field. For six years I have taken these steps, one square foot at a time, acre by acre until it resembles a landscape in Cornwall.
Last week two young women from the next town came by to visit. They are brand new farmers and they wanted to see what we had done. In their twenties, fresh back from a sojourn in Chile where they worked with peasants on terraced potato gardens I assume that they perceive the world in a different way than I do, but none of that comes in as we walk the fields. I explain how we use the animals for double or triple duty — the hogs till the newly cleared stands as if they were on payroll, they produce two litters of piglets to sell each year and in the end wind up as delicious sausage, bacon and chops. The cattle produce some of the finest manure, beautiful calves each year as well as fillets, ribeyes and NY strip steaks. The flocks of chickens are rotated behind the cattle two or three days to pick the cow patties apart to feed on grubs and larvae, spreading the fresh manure for us. After six or seven weeks we process them twenty five at a clip, by hand and bag the whole birds to eat throughout the winter. Each young woman smiles throughout the entire walk, asking questions, taking note of this or that and saying over and over that we are ‘living the dream’. They don’t see the things I do, the unfinished shed, the remains of the burned down barn pushed into piles at the edge of the back forty, the incomplete fences and gates and it makes me proud to see the farm through a new set of eyes, to understand that what he haven’t done is obscured by what we have and as we say goodbye I give them a chicken, a pound of ground beef and package of Italian sausage to share with their friends. After they’ve gone I go back to my fence with renewed vigor, not because I think I can ever finish what we’ve started, but because I know someone else will.
I haven’t written much lately because I have been aware of the changes going on in the larger world around us and I haven’t wanted my thoughts on these developments to leak into what I have to say about the world I live in on the farm. I have been chastened in the past for writing the wrong things about topics that are too controversial for men like myself to discuss and I do not want to repeat that experience again, so I have kept my own counsel. What I can change is limited to the time I have, the resources at my disposal and the skills I have developed over the years and even these are inadequate to the tasks. My opinions and beliefs are from another time and are best left unsaid; my work will have to speak for me. I do know this, however. Change is a constant. All life is a progression from chaos to order and back again. Life, degeneration and death are followed in turn by life, degeneration and death and on scales both too small to notice and too large to ignore. When we look too closely, immerse ourselves too deeply we lose the bigger picture and see only one side of the equation. All life requires death, all creation a previous destruction. Human societies are no different than the cycles of plant life and each has in its flowering the seeds of its own destruction. If we can somehow see past our own efforts and daily toil we can see into the future because that too is written on our past. One day the roads we built upon the footpaths laid on the foundations of animal trails will once more become what they were and the fields I have laboriously scratched from this hardscrabble land will be overtaken by the columns of stately maples and beech, reclaimed by the cycles of time.