I was down to the farm this past week after an absence of five months because of winter and other obligations. Not much had changed. Nature was beginning to wake up. The Eastern phoebes were building a mud nest over the north bedroom window, where they always do. The redwing blackbirds were calling from the tops of the storm-ravaged elm trees that my father planted eighty years ago. Woodpeckers were hammering at the dead wood. The barn swallows were back from their winter in Panama, and I saw one bluebird.
The purpose of this trip was to prepare a field for burning. This is something that happens with regularity in the spring here. Pastures are burned every few years to make better grass. In this case I was planning to burn a field. The previous owners had turned it into a feedlot. When they ran out of money and sold it, it quickly grew up into weeds because of the rich manure. The weeds grew six feet tall, with a new crop each year. Normally it would be a simple matter to run a tractor with a disk through a field like this and chop up the weeds and then plant the field to something. But because these former owners were careless people who left junk strewn around, no one was willing to risk puncturing an expensive tire. And so the weeds grow and come back every year.
The weeds are not without redeeming qualities. The birds love them. The tree sparrows, field sparrows, chipping sparrows, and Harris’ sparrows, are all thriving in the abundance of weed seed and dense cover. So are the ring-necked pheasants. This is their idea of heaven. And so it would be tempting to leave the field in weeds. After all it only amounts to five acres, or so––too little to make any significant money on. But the farmer in me likes a clean field––likes to see what’s out there beyond the farm buildings. And whatever junk is still out there offends my sensibilities. But to get rid of the junk, I have to be able to find it. So the five acres will be burned. There will be fewer birds as a result. But we are not heartless. We will leave another smaller weed patch.
In preparation for the burning, I am fortunate enough to have a friend with a Bobcat. I got him out there this week and we cleared fire lines around the piece to be burned and we divided it into sections so we could burn part at a time. We are a little afraid of fire, because, well, fire. We also broke up and removed a concrete slab that had supported a cattle waterer out in the weed patch, and then we moved to another part of the field and dug down and capped off a second water line. Bit by bit the agri-industrial complex that the former owners created is being dismantled. But we were not able to burn this week. It’s been dry in this part of the world all winter and the fire index is too high. So we’ll be waiting. Hopefully later in the spring it will happen.
On this trip I also added a couple more boards to the hay barn. I just have three more to go and I’ll be done. Then there’ll be no more plywood covering holes in the barn and no more Dutch doors to build. Then I’ll just have to add some trim pieces and do a patch here and there and then I’ll be ready to paint the whole thing. Finally. But that’s still a few months to a year off. Oh, and I have to add batts to cover the cracks between the boards. My beautiful batts that I’ve hand-made over the past couple years to match the original batts. I’m pretty proud of those. It’s getting to the point where the barn will be tight enough I may actually have to cut a hole for the barn swallows to get in.
In other news, I took a window out of the farmhouse to take it home to repair. This is the little window that looked out from my bedroom, across the fields and into the town cemetery across the section. The view always reminded me of the Robert Frost poem, Home Burial.
My little hometown down there near the farm has taken another step into decline. A Dollar Gen’rl store has opened up. That’s often a sign of ill health for small towns––like a payday loan place opening up––and so it is in this case. The local grocery store had been struggling for some time. The last longtime owner sold it a couple years ago to a young couple who had been pouring heart and soul into making it go. But tragically, the wife died suddenly. And then with the added insult of the Dollar Gen’rl, the husband does not want to continue, and no one has stepped up to buy the store. So this town that has had a robust grocery or two or three since its beginning in the 1870s, will now be without one for the first time. You’ll still be able to buy milk and sodas and chips and bread at the Dollar Gen’rl, but there will be no fresh produce or meats. Of course, many of these folks pretty much live on processed food anyway (he said, cynically).
In some towns when a grocery closes, the local folks actually form a coop to keep it going. But not my people. I guess if you tried to take their guns away they’d put up a fight. But they’re okay with losing lettuce and tomatoes. So they’ll get used to this new normal–driving 15 miles to the bigger town for grub. One person benefited more than others from the new store––the farmer who sold the land for it. And it will be a convenience for others. But it comes with a price.
There are other signs of decline in town. The high school is shrinking. One class has only a dozen students this year. The housing stock is declining as well. Once-proud homes have gone unpainted now for decades, gutters and porches falling off, trash and vehicles in the yard, grass not mowed, saplings taking over, rot setting in. Occasionally a house will burn, through accident or neglect, creating another gap in the view scape. These people, who believe so devoutly in personal property rights, do not have much of a concept of the common good.
The goingest concern in this town now is the hardware store. It’s also been there since the beginning. In the rest of the downtown there’s a small diner, liquor store, two antique stores, a youth hangout, and a drug store and a senior center. The newspaper is gone, and the auto mechanic, and the furniture store, and the clothier. There’s still a bank, but it’s now owned by people not from here. Lots of empty storefronts. I keep hoping that small towns will have a resurgence––that things will get bad enough in the nation that people will move back to small towns and discover that collectively supporting each other is the way out of the environmental and social mess we’ve created. And I keep hoping that small farms will make a comeback as we try to repair the damage that corporate agriculture has caused with its fertilizers, other chemicals, and feedlots.
In my vision, people will go back to raising a few animals and spreading manure and growing their own food and someone will want to live in an old farmhouse again and have a garden. It’s a pipe dream, I know, but still. I think of all the immigrants who might jump at the chance to live in a house in the country. But then I think about how few people of color there are in this town and I think of who most of my people voted for last time, and I wouldn’t wish that on an immigrant family. I should probably give my people more credit, but there’s not much evidence that minds are willing to be changed. These are also the people––going way back––who didn’t like the New Deal. It’s not that my people don’t like government programs, however. Many people are on disability. They accept Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. Others receive farm support payments.
So I keep on, fixing one window at a time, replacing one more board on the barn, cleaning up one more mess of synthetic baler twine and scrap metal. If I were cynical (and I am), I would say that just about the time I get this place all cleaned up from the last owner, I will be old enough and infirm enough that it will be time to sell it to someone else and the cycle will begin all over again. But that’s just me. Maybe there’s a better ending out there.