The Urge to Work the Soil

Our John Deere Equipment in St. Croix Cove, Nova Scotia, as the morning fog is lifting

Growing up in the rolling hills of North Carolina’s Piedmont in the 1950s meant that you were not far from the land.  Most people had a connection with the land in those days. I can remember hog killings

Two quotes from my book,  “The Road To My County Country,” seem appropriate,

“The land was what gave life to us all, and where we go when life is gone.  The land was at the center of all, and how could understand anything without first being on the land?  You take whatever road you can find to get to the land…”

“If we were not going to be lawyers. What would we be? There could be only one answer. You had to go back to the land to find yourself. It was only there you could sort out what was good and what was bad.  There you could find out what was important and how to live life the way it should be.  That the roads had turned back to dirt was a good thing.”

If it sounds like I had a serious case of sixties disillusionment, it is likely a fair diagnosis.  I grew up in the South, spent four years at a military school, saw a series of political figures I admired assassinated,  and my college years at Harvard took place during the turmoil of the Vietnam war. Part of my college education included getting billy-clubbed while walking to our favorite hamburger place. Until that moment the students occupying University Hall were of little interest to us. That changed instantly and the only things that had much certainty when I graduated was that I did not want to be a lawyer and a charging line of state troopers was to be avoided at all costs.

That  someone who grew up wandering the woods could only survive four years in the city was no surprise.  The strange light of the city was never for me. I loved the deep dark woods and could fish silently with a friend all afternoon and never feel lonely. If camping under the stars as a Boy Scout ignited my love of the outdoors, trips to Alaska and Nova Scotia made life on the edge of wilderness one of the few certainties in my future.

“Our family had no history of lawyers, but we had a long and proud history of farmers.”

After it turned out that I they did not need me for fodder in Vietnam, I went back to the land.  In 1971, I was determined to learn how to farm and how to treat the land well. Helen and Scott Nearing’s “Living the Good Life”, Louis Bromfield’s “Malabar Farm,” and Steward Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalogue” were my bibles along with advice from those who had been farming their whole lives.  Perhaps we were lucky those first couple of years when we had an unlimited supply of composted chicken manure for the garden, but we learned how to grow stuff including hay, pigs, cattle and what seemed like enough broccoli to feed the world.

That the land I found was in Canada on the Nova Scotia shore of the Bay of Fundy was even better. Life in Nova Scotia in the seventies reminded me a lot of life in North Carolina in the fifties when I was growing up. Still other than having long hair until my mother sheared me on one of her visits, I never came close to being a hippy.  I thought electricity, running water, indoor toilets, and especially hot water were good things and worth having.  I had relatives in the fifties who had electricity but no indoor toilets and they still warmed their water with wood.  One of my first family memories is my great grandmother sitting by her wood cook stove while reading the newspaper.

Most of all like Louis Bromfield, I could not see how to farm without a tractor so I ended up with a John Deere diesel tractor, a three furrow plow, disc harrows, a seven foot cutter bar, bush hog, hay rake and a manure spreader. A hay baler came with the farm I bought. All the equipment including a front end loader, rear blade, and post hole auger cost $10,555. The farm was $6,000 and my first few head of cattle were $1,500. I already had a pickup truck and my uncle built us a hay trailer. Fifty years after I started farming for under $20,000, I seriously doubt you could get started for less than $250,000.

For the next eleven years, we had huge gardens and grew much of our own food even butchered our own animals for a time. Our cattle breeding operation which eventually ended up in the hardwood hills north of Fredericton, New Brunswick, grew astronomically. Eventually there were four big tractors, a round baler that could put up sixty tons of hay in a day. It took a hay rake twenty-one feet wide to feed the baler. We put up over 300 tons of hay a year with just one seventy-year old neighbor helping me part time. Our farm produced at least twenty-five 700 to 800 pound yearlings each year for beef and an identical number of yearling heifers as breeding stock along along with our most profitable product a dozen or so performance tested yearling bulls that sold for up to $1,500 each.  Even with a family of five, it was a challenge to eat more than a side of beef each year so we never went hungry.  At our peak we had two hundred head of cattle which is way more than a few cattle.

What was high on the list when we moved off the farm and I went to work for Apple?  As soon as we could afford it, we hired a backhoe to dig out some of Halifax’s rocks so we could have a little garden.  It wasn’t long after we moved to Roanoke, Virginia, in 1989 that we started planting things in the bed pictured above. Tomatoes by the house followed soon after.  When we headed off to the coast in the fall of 2006, we managed to plant tomatoes the next spring.  Eventually we grew unbelievable amounts of vegetables in tiny space. You don’t have a grow an acre of vegetable to get your fingers in dirt. We are about to prove that once more even though we are now in our seventies.

Our Rock Wall Garden in Roanoke, Virginia

In 2021, we moved again, this time we move back to NC’s Piedmont and its challenging red clay soil.  It has taken a while but  we now have a wall lined up and by next spring we should have some plants in the ground once again.

A Life On The Edge

Tree Canopy, Rich Park, Mocksville, NC

The small town about twenty-five minutes from where we live today was in my young mind on the edge of a wilderness. The area was very different over six decades ago. When I was a small boy, the land there was very rural and not just a bedroom community for Winston-Salem.

The books I read in those days about Daniel Boone and eventually the television shows I saw about Davy Crockett only reinforced that view of wilderness at our doorstep. Daniel Boone was something of a local legend. His parents had a cabin about five minutes from where we live today. We also have a Boonville in the area.

My great grandfather ran Styers ferry that crossed the Yadkin River back in the early part of the last century. There was ground behind the homes along Styers Street and Shallowford Road where we lived. Mostly the vacant land grew up in broom straw since no one farmed it regularly. Once in a while a homeowner would carve out a garden for a few years. Farming in Forsyth County was on the decline even back then. It would remain strong just across the river in Yadkin and Davie Counties.

I guess those were my hunter-gatherer years because I was uninterested in gardening or farming, but I loved to wander the deep, dark woods with rock outcroppings and small brooks at the base of the hills. It was a paradise for little boys who had yet to be seduced by TV, video games or smartphones . In the summer we would stop by home only long enough to eat. The idea of staying inside on a beautiful day was as foreign as the idea that the Yankees might lose a World Series.

In the evenings, we did come out of the woods and often played capture the flag in the string of yards that we called our home turf. When we got older some of us started going to a Boy Scout Troop several miles away. Eventually, adults and a few of us with our recent scouting experience brought Troop 752 back to life. Being a Boy Scout was a great experience and camping out in the woods and cooking over an open fire made it even more special. In the summer going to Camp Raven Knob was like going to another world in what appeared to a real wilderness.

The last thing that I did with my old troop and by then I was senior patrol leader was to hike Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road. It was a little over twenty miles and it is still the most that I have ever hiked in a day. It made me appreciate how hard it was to be a pioneer.

After the hike I went away to military school. It was not Boy Scouts, and there was no camping in the woods. There was a lot of marching. As a boarding student I got an early introduction to dorm life. I was very happy to go off to college, but I promised myself that I would never let dorm life again take me away from the out of doors. I was pleased when our freshman Geology class went camping and loved that a roommate’s father had a cabin on some wild land near Plymouth, Massachusetts. Maine and its rocks and coast became a favorite refuge.

The pull of the outdoors was so strong, that four of us managed to wander off to Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island during an extended Thanksgiving break. I felt like I had found home. The wildness of the place, the water and rocks seem to be just what a soul battered by college during the sixties in a big city needed. I had been trending towards wilderness for a while. An overland trip through Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana and eventually into the Canadian Rockies and up the Alcan Highway to Alaska had shown me real wilderness. I loved the taste and the challenge of being on the edge of civilization.

Sometime during my last months in college, a plan germinated. Nova Scotia became my goal. After a couple more trips to the Annapolis Valley, I bought an old farmhouse and 140 acres on the North Mountain along the Bay of Fundy coast of Nova Scotia. It was my first adventure as an adult living beyond just beyond civilization. It was not the last.

Some friends helped me partially renovate the two-hundred-year-old house framed with hand hewn beams. In the end as all but one drifted back to civilization, the house became my project and along the way I learned to do practically everything a good homesteader might need to know from butchering a steer and hogs to gardening, wiring, plumbing, welding and making hay. Two Labrador Retrievers, one named after an Alaskan town, Tok, and the other named Fundy, after the Bay of Fundy became my constant companions.

Eventually, I married a talented southern lady who was not afraid of gardening and canning, living on a farm, or driving a tractor. We moved to better cattle country in the hardwood hills north of Fredericton, New Brunswick. There we built a cattle herd and the barns to handle calving and our fast-growing yearlings.

Tay Cree, New Brunswick at the time was a wonderfully wild place. We had no fences at the back of the farm. There was no place for the cattle to go. We cleared old hay fields and eventually were baling close to 600 big round bales for our herd of 200 Red and Black Angus. Our three children was born while we were living on the farm and we buried our two Labs there in the apple orchard during our last years of farming.

After ten years of farming and the heavy hit of 20% interest rates, we dispersed our cattle and I took a city job. Eventually, when I went to work for Apple, we moved off the farm to Halifax, Nova Scotia and then to Columbia, Maryland, but those were the last cities to grasp at us and they only had us for five years,

In 1989, we moved to the side of a mountain overlooking Roanoke, Virginia. Lots of wild country was to the west of it. Our next Lab, Chester, and I cleared miles of trails on the mountains that gone back to wilderness after being farmed when my grandfather was running Styers Ferry. In 2006, we headed to the North Carolina coast and I know my son felt we lived beyond the edge of civilization there on the coast. There were places along the far stretches of the beach that felt as wild as any spot on our farm in New Brunswick. Maybe it was a different kind of wild but it was still wild.

In 2021, we came back to North Carolina’s Piedmont but we remain on the edge of civilization tucked away just down the road in farm country. There’s a huge field across the road from us and you don’t have to travel far to find cows and farms. I think this rural area is where I belong at this stage of life, but given the chance, I might head to wilderness once again if it gets too crowded here. We managed to get away from the coast just before they cut all the trees down turned much of it into a huge housing development. For that I am grateful.

We might travel a long way in life but usually we come back to what made us comfortable. Big trees and a touch of wildness will always make me happy.

Mowing Your Way Through Life

Our Backyard In Davie County, North Carolina, March 2022

How did people manage in the first half of the twentieth century before there were yards to connect them to the soil around their homes? I suspect that they were working in their gardens and fields. By the time I was growing up in the fifties in Lewisville, North Carolina, yards had become important. The condition of our grassy yard often stood between me and a trip to my uncle Henry’s fishing ponds. My mother who claimed the only yard she had as a child was packed dirt swept with broom straw wanted our yard neatly clipped. In driving by our old home, I am little disappointed the town did not put in sidewalks in front of our house during my youth. It would have eliminated the slope on the front yard. It was by far the hardest part of the yard to mow as a youngster.

Going away to military school (high school) and then college got me out of mowing yards for almost a decade. My first home after graduation was a two-hundred year old farm house located in a sheep pasture on the Fundy coast of Nova Scotia. No sheep came with the old farm house but long grass did not bother me as a young farmstead owner. When I first moved there in the summer of 1971, the yard was the least of my worries. Getting hot water plumbed in and running so we could stop taking showers at the local campground was close to the top of the list. The second summer I had a tractor with a nine-foot-wide bush hog which I used to mow around the house a couple of times a summer. That was all it needed in my days of being single. After all, I mowed plenty of mature grass or hay, starting with the twenty acre field behind the house which served as one of the few backyards in my life away from home.

Then came the summer of 1973, and I married Glenda, the love of my life from the world of well-manicure yards in North Carolina. Her mother often mowed their yard twice, the second time against the grain, just to catch any grass that might pop up after the first mowing. Sometime during the summer of 1974, Glenda and my neat-lawn-loving mother who was visiting us formed a conspiracy. They drove down the mountain to Bridgetown ten miles away and came home with a Toro push mower. I spent much of the next forty-forty years sharing the task of mowing whatever yard happened to be attached to our personal home.

For the ten years or so when we lived on our farm in Tay Creek, we had a nice riding lawn mower which was adequate for much of the yard. Even Glenda did some mowing. When we lived in Halifax, our yard was postage-stamp sized. By the time we arrived on the mountain in Roanoke, Virginia, I had come to somewhat enjoy mowing. There are those times in your life when something as simple as mowing a yard can be very satisfying because you can actually see what you have done.

One of the immutable laws of mowing is that the farther south you live, the more miserable the task of mowing can be. Sometimes, even the most careful home yard person can end mowing in the oppressive heat of the day like I did more times than I want to admit after we moved to the North Carolina coast. As I wrote then, there is a true brotherhood of Southerners (both men, women, and teenagers) who have mowed yards when they never should have.

Mowing is one of those circular things in life. In your early years, you are too young to push a mower, so it seems fitting that in the later years of life, it is also okay to be too old to push a mower. You come to a point when you are faced with either hiring someone to mow the yard or buying a riding mower. Since I spent many years straddling a John Deere farm tractor, we chose not to revisit those days after a back problem slowed me somewhat. For a couple of years, I shared the task with our mower of choice, choosing the spots that required a push mower for myself. However, it was an easy transition to giving it all up. When we made our 2021 move from the land of coastal centipede grass back to the fescue grasses of the Piedmont, we left our third Toro mower with the father and son team that was doing our mowing. I even gave them my gas-powered trimmer.

When our current mowing team shows up, I know the noise will be over with in a few minutes as opposed to the hours that it would have taken me with a push mower. I still enjoy our green space especially the backyard which is the nicest we have had since that twenty-acre field that came with our first home. 

Partners in Cooking and Life

A Loaf of My Sourdough Bread

When I was chasing cows around our farm in Canada, I would have laughed if someone told me that I would replace my wife as the bread baker. I still remember the days that she would bake four or five loaves of oatmeal bread and the kitchen smelled heavenly every time I entered during the day.

I know that cooking together with my wife has become a great joy. We have found a few regional recipes to carry with us as we have wandered from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to Virginia, the North Carolina coast and back to the rolling hills of the Piedmont.

The meals that we have cooked are almost always based on simple ingredients. We are blessed to have grown up in families that were close to the land. Fresh vegetables and food direct from the farm or sea often have delighted us and made our meals special.

We were blessed to have grown much of our own food for over a decade. We have never lost those skills or the appreciation of truly fresh food grown in soil that has had enriched with compost that we have made.

For much of our life, we were too busy to do much more than get food on table. That has changed. (Read More)

Dirt On My Hands

Our first off-the-farm garden in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Spring 1986

I farmed for over ten years, but I did not grow up on a farm. I graduated from college in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as those of us who went to Harvard in sixties and seventies are fond of saying. The closest I got to farming there was my focus on colonial American History. My family did have a rich history of being close to the land and my grandfather was a miller and then a dairy farmer. I never knew him.

I grew up with a mother who spent most of her free time digging in the dirt. She loved flowers and they responded to her love. Roses grew for her in places no one else could get them to grow. Tomatoes were the only vegetable that we had room for at my childhood home, but they did incredibly well.

Growing up, the only digging in the dirt that I did was to get worms so I could go fishing. I was completely uninterested in growing anything. That certainly continued through my college years. The change and how it came about are something of a mystery even to me. When it happened is easier. The change happened sometime between August 1971 and January 1972 when I started ordering seeds from a catalog. (Read More)

Not the Last Farmer’s Market

Mocksville, NC Farmer’s Market, November 3, 2021

We actually started going to farmer’s markets as a couple when we were living north of Fredericton, New Brunswick. We went to see people and to pick up a few things that we did not grow on our own farm. Even more so than most farmer’s markets, there were homemade items interspersed with farm produce. There were no food items that we really needed but I think we went home with baskets to use with our own garden produce. Still we enjoyed the market especially the people.

Maybe it was because we had dirt under our fingernails and a close connection to producing food but for whatever reason, visiting farmer’s market became a life-long passion. Read More

Life is changing

One of our four rescued marsh kittens that have delighted us during the coronavirus crisis.

The COVID-19 crisis has undermined my optimism, broken some of my connections with others, and altered my view of our country. All that has happened and the crisis is far from over. In spite of the advice to stay home, the last couple of weekends we have seen the first significant wave of beach people with license plates from New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Georgia, and even Florida. We also know that we have plenty of North Carolina visitors and likely most of them come from some of our state’s own hot spots. Things could get much worse in our coastal paradise.

I feel like the pandemic is peeling away layers of my psyche like the layers of an onion. Things have changed and what ends up as our new normal is still an open question. Read more

Crystal Coast COVID-19 Update

The beach at the Point in Emerald Isle during happier times

This is definitely not the spring that we hoped for here on the Southern Outer Banks. Just after my birthday in early March the world seemed to enter a new more dangerous era. In spite of our location where the sand meets the sea, we are not immune. There have already been five cases identified in Carteret County, four of them from international travel.

By now we have usually kicked off the countdown to the beach season by having the Emerald Isle Saint Patrick’s Day Festival followed by the Swansboro Oyster Roast. Both events were cancelled this year to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus). We can be thankful that our area leaders understood the gravity of the situation.

Our streets and stores have been steadily emptying out over the last week as people began to practice social distancing. People seem to be getting the message that staying home is the best thing that you can do.

Saturday, March 21, 2020, was the kind of day that makes you want to work in your yard with temperatures well into the seventies. We did that and enjoyed immensely. Our beds are now ready for beans and tomatoes which we will plant the first week of April. Even though we enjoyed our first salad from the garden on Sunday, colder air embraced our area and it almost seemed like mother nature had figured out that things were not right and changed the weather to match the mood of seriousness.

Sunday also brought the first time we attended church by using chromecast to stream a YouTube sermon to our den television. With public access parking to the beaches closed and all restaurants either doing takeout or closing down, life remains out of sync with the seasons as trees bloom and yards begin to green up.

Fortunately, our gardens are doing well. At least we will not lack for lettuce or other green stuff for the next six weeks. In spite of the gardens, life is just not the same. Certainly, this is the first time other than hurricane season that I am telling people to stay home and not come to visit our beautiful coast. While I miss the beach, I know that our absence from the sands will help this crisis end sooner rather than later. I continue to enjoy the memories of better times through photo albums like this one from a hike on the Point at Emerald Isle in May 2017. I will continue to post pictures to keep the memories of sand and surf fresh.

We should all remain hopeful that there will be a summer beach season, but a lot depends on how well we do at staying away from each other. The alternatives as this simulation show are not encouraging. It is imperative that we stay away from each other until this crisis slows.

My newsletter from Sunday, March 22, with some additional details is at this link.

Pinch me when it is over

afterflorence2wm

The fall of 2018 has not been a fall to cherish.  Fall is usually a wonderful time on the Crystal Coast but unfortunately, the slow movement of Hurricane Florence over the North Carolina coast set the tone for the fall.  Along with Florence, we have had more than our share of rainy and windy weather.  Read more