Sunday, April 12, 2009

The militant industrial complex

I didn't get to make bubble and squeak on Friday night. Instead we got not-very-good take out pizza from one of the several outlets in Unity that supply it. We were pretty tired, poor things, and, after the usual twenty-thirty minutes of lamb-watching and a chat with neighbor Jean, we flopped on the couch to watch bad TV until it was time for an early night.

Meanwhile the neighbors were out being productive, tidying up, burning scrap wood on a bonfire, and generally making good use of the later daylight hours. This despite the fact that Jean is far older than a lady should ever have to reveal, while her handyman Brian is in his fifties.

If I'd had more energy, I might have been able to help out, and I sure could have used to burn some of our own brush on that bonfire. A missed opportunity. But I was bushed and so was Aimee.

This time of year, that kind of thing happens a lot around here. Our work lives, which for nine months of the year follow the usual dysfunctional overworked American pattern, are slightly out of sinc with the seasonal round on the farm, and this makes for occasional difficulties like us (usually me, but increasingly Aimee) falling asleep on the couch in full daylight at 7 pm, when there are acres of jobs to do outside, or being up and wide awake (like right now) in full dark at 3 am, when the only thing that can be productively done is catching up on emails, paperwork, grading, or blogging.

The primary problem is that all the stress and overwork of the end-of-semester crunch leads to poor sleep habits. The secondary problem is just too much work. In order to properly fulfill our responsibilities, we have to work at least ten hours a day Monday through Friday, and sometimes twelve, when we really could use some energy and daylight time to make a better start on spring farm work. Actually, Monday, for me, tends to start at 5 am with my usual early morning email correspondence, letter and report writing, and the like, and finishes at 8 pm when my last class is done. Every other day is 5 am or earlier through 5 pm, more or less. Aimee tends to work from 7 am through to 7 or 8 pm, or later, every weekday.

Saturdays, for me, are usually free but not always. There are always events, like Open House, or, next week a statewide SAR event I have to go to. Aimee always has grading on both Saturdays and Sundays.

I have a big report to finish, due Wednesday, which I could profitably do right now, so I guess I'm procrastinating. But procrastinating at 3 am on a Sunday is clearly my business, and mine only, so I don't feel so bad about it.

Still, even with what are obviously serious jobs, we still manage to find some time to get the farm up and running.

Aimee has the tomato and pepper plants and other starts growing in pots on a shelf in the south facing window in my den. There are grow lights to help keep them warm and well lit. And she does all the laundry, shopping, and baking, and most of the cleaning. We always have home-made bread, one or two loaves a week. She picks and sorts the eggs. All this gets done in the time she has between grading introductory biology and genetics papers from about 100 students.

I do most of the farm work.

Once I had gotten an OK night's sleep on Friday night, I was able to pry Aimee away from grading, and we were off to the feed store to stock up on store oats and sweet feed. We picked up our usual 1,000 lbs of Arroostook County oats (about $120), and two bags of 16% protein coarse sweet feed. Our sheep love this stuff, although they shouldn't have much -- we mix it 5 or 6 to one with the local oats to add vitamins, selenium and other minerals. About one pound of this mix each daily, with all the hay they want, is their breeding and nursing season diet, and it makes for sturdy, healthy, trouble-free lambs. We also picked up the protein licks we like to use for extra protein, vitamins and minerals when we switch to the summer diet of green grass and a little oats for the nursing mothers. We checked on the availability of weener pigs at the Farmer's Union -- discontinued this year, so we will have to use the agricultural advertisers again to find our summer feeders. That's always an adventure, since we tend to find a new place every year.

Farm supplies in hand, Aimee wanted to get some groceries, tolerating my presence on a grocery shopping trip just barely, and then we came home. I then turned my attention to organizing and tidying jobs. I shoveled the store oats into the feed bin, always a good workout. I put away the rest of the grain. I took the big white cap from our utility trailer that I made in the fall, and converted it to a useful sheep/pig shelter or arc, this in anticipation of getting a new trailer this year.

I began getting the sheep's springtime pen ready. With the longer evenings, they are getting rambunctious and hard to get in the barn at night -- last night I needed to use Haggis the not-very-good sheepdog to help me and the mischievous buggers ran around the north paddock about five times before they would go in the barn. They don't really need a barn for shelter anymore. We could easily still get snow, but it wouldn't last long, and it couldn't kill a newborn lamb because all the lambs have now been born. So they can go into the big pen we have in the center of the farm, which has a small shed if they want to get out of the rain, and now the second shelter I just made too. This will be fine for them to eat hay in until there is some green grass to eat, and will save work in rounding them up since they'll be in the pen already. I also want to rake and harrow the north paddock and seed it with clover and new grass this year, so it will be good to get them out.

That was enough work for a stressed-out guy who hasn't been sleeping well, so I took a nap from about 2pm through 3.30. Then I started over. I tore down the grape arbors in the garden, and dismantled them for lumber, and pulled all the dead grape vines up, or down out of the one American elm that lives in the veggie garden. I took up the fence between the garden and the north paddock, and started to bulldoze, using the loader bucket on the Kubota, pushing all the vines and other organic trash over the stone wall into the brush piles on the other side.

I'll put the fence up again when I'm done raking and picking up and tilling and composting these new garden lands, twenty or so feet further into the north paddock than it was.

This exercise is part of a plan to extend our overall garden space by about a third. It certainly did produce more space. And the sheep were happy to get through the fence and eat even some old dry grass from all the edges and verges in the garden.

So far so good.

But once the bulldozing began in earnest, there became revealed some of the trash the previous occupants used to just dump out in the yard. This is not the ancient, nicer sort of antique-y trash of old bottles and cans. We have plenty of that, and it's relatively OK to deal with. No, this is the recent kitchen and house trash from around 2001 and 2002, when the old lady who used to live here was ill and a shut-in, looked after by her developmentally disabled slightly younger brother, and it's nasty stuff.

What seems to have happened is that the brother, who did all the heavy chores, would get told to take out the trash, and he would obediently take it out and, once out of the house, just dump it out indiscriminately on the land somewhere. There was no particular place he would pick. Mostly we find this trash, bagged or not, close to the house, within 100 feet.

We've taken out whole dumpster loads of this stuff already. This is just the last little pocket, a spot we had managed to ignore because of the grape vines that hid the trash. The trash itself is naturally getting cleaner and more sterile as time goes on, but there's still food and clothing and other crap in there, all decayed and moldy.


(There's also a lot of older trash further away from the house that we are picking up too, including a much older dump site, circa 1950 or so, about thirty feet wide at the foot of our hill, which will have to wait until my firewood logging/pasture clearing operation gets that far, maybe by early summer.)

But for now, I have to pick up more trash, bag it, and take it to the transfer station. Nasty work. Which by 5.30 pm defeated me, and I went in for more pizza and bad TV. Feeling, however, a little refreshed from the exercise and fresh air.

And this is how we keep making progress. In between all the stress and overwork. In some ways, it's the antidote. Industrial life, with all its high pace and disruption and destruction, is the trash in the yard and the poor night's sleep, and the stressed-out wifey crying in the car on the way home from a bad day's work.

The real life is underneath somewhere, a soft soil that grows good food and fuel and fiber, and healthy lambs who play in the sun. Many people never get to see it anymore, which is terribly sad. But we are lucky, as well as hard-working, and not particularly prone to drugs or cigarettes or bad TV or emotional denial, or indeed any of the usual blinders, and so we are privileged to see it and feel it.

But you have to pick up the trash first. Once you sort through all the superficial trash, pick it up, and get it out of the way, you can find the soil of life itself again. And because even a modest farm costs more than it should, you have to work for money too, to pay for the farm. So you have to find a way.

One option we have is just to work less hard. Our lives would be much nicer if we worked only as hard as the average American college professor. Most Unity College professors only work about this hard. But most of them aren't as involved as we are in making this little Maine college the best college it can be. Which, funnily enough, as well as also contributing to the general sustainability of society, is also a job of trash-picking: picking up and sorting through all the intellectual and administrative trash that accumulates in any educational institution, trying to find the soft productive intellectual soil underneath.

Patrick Geddes, an important British intellectual of the early 20th century, once said something to the effect that the only real human wealth was in farms and gardens and sustainable housing for people organized around farms and gardens, even in the cities. The rest of what we consider wealth, or capital, is really just there to facilitate farms and gardens and sustainable housing.

Now there's a radical notion whose time might just have come.

Because what people really want from an economy, first and foremost, is a safe, pleasant sunlit home, food, fuel, clean water to drink, and some sense of community. Our homes should have nice things in them, for sure. But the physical home must come first, to keep the family safe and well and sheltered, and then the food and fuel, then the nice things, and the nice things should be things that serve well and are made to last, not to waste, certainly not to throw away out on the land, effectively reducing the amount of ground there is to grow food and fuel and fiber for clothing and shelter.

A prerequisite is the mental stability to see all this for what it is, to see what really matters.

Unfortunately, a lot of us are unable or disinclined, like the brother who took out the trash, for want of time and money and mental stability, to see all this for what it really is. In particular, we are unable to see how dependent we are on that soft fertile soil that grows real wealth once the rain and sun come each spring.

Maybe I'll take some pictures tomorrow so you can see what we're up against here with the trash.

It really is more than just a metaphor.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Welcome to our Farm Blog.
The purpose of this blog is for Aimee and I to communicate with friends and family, with those of our students, and other folks in general who are interested in homesteading and farming activities.

The earliest posts, at the very end of the blog, tell the story of the Great Farm, our purchase of a fragment of that farm, the renovation of the homestead and its populating with people and animals. Go all the way to the last post in the archive and read backwards from there to get it in chronological order.

After getting tired of spam comments (up to a dozen or more per day), I required commentators to be Google "registered users". You can write me at if you have a serious comment or question and are not a registered user.

Spammers -- don't bother writing -- there's no way I will post your spam to my blog. Just go away.