A couple of weeks ago my neighbor called to tell me that there were two horses in our hayfield. I looked out the window to our horse pastures, and our two horses were there grazing, as they should be. I asked my neighbor what color they were. He told me one was white, the other was brown (“chestnut,” in the horse world). I realized they were our other neighbors’ horses that had gotten out. I said thanks, hung up the phone, and started towards the door to go out and catch the horses and walk them back over to my neighbors’.

Just as I got to the door my wife walked in. She had just come home from a full day of work and then a long ride on a horse she is leasing at another barn. She looked tired. I told her about the horses.

“Ugh,” she said, “I’ll go get them.”

“The mare has a halter on,” I told her. “Do you want help?” I asked.

“No, you stay inside with the dog. I’ll just catch the mare and the gelding [a castrated male] will follow us back across the street.”

She grabbed the six foot dog leash that would make a good makeshift lead rope and headed out the door.

I’ve been taking care of horses for ten years, but I am by no means a horse person. I know them. To some degree I understand them. But, probably because I don’t ride, I do not share a connection with them. My wife, on the other hand, was born on a horse. She shares a deep, abiding connection with horses that enables her to calmly handle and ride them with grace in almost any situation. In ten years there has only been one time I’ve ever seen her move or act without grace while working with a horse. A horse reared up while on a lead rope and started lunging at her and striking out with his front hooves, clearly aiming at her head. Realizing she was in serious danger, she scaled and threw herself over a four board fence like a rodeo clown.  Quick and agile? Yes. Graceful? No.

Horses are beautiful. They are majestic. They are amongst the most incredible athletes on the planet. But, they are also very dangerous. Every horse person everywhere in the world has at least one story about the time, whether on the ground or on the horse’s back, when so and so horse went ballistic for x reason and nearly maimed or killed them. Horses, no matter how gentle, no matter how sweetly dispositioned and obedient, no matter how “bomb proof,” as many in the horse world say when they are trying to sell a horse that is anything but bomb proof, the reality is that horses are essentially barely restrained volcanoes that can, and do, erupt with little or no warning.

So, I watched from the kitchen window as my wife approached the horses. She had an apple with her. When she was about ten feet from the mare, she took a bite and then held the rest out towards the mare with the apple resting in the palm of her hand. The mare walked forward and took the apple out of my wife’s hand with her mouth, and as she did so, my wife hooked the leash onto the mare’s halter. While this was going on, the gelding was agitated. He was pacing around. The window was open, and I heard him let out a great snort, which is horse for “I’m pretty fired up, and not terribly happy with what’s going on around me at the moment.”

My wife took a step or two backwards, away from the mare, and just as she was about to turn and start leading her out of the pasture, the gelding, who felt that my wife was taking “his” mare away from him, lunged forward and pushed himself between my wife and the mare, knocking the lead rope out of my wife’s hand. Then he pushed forward another step or two, turning the mare away from my wife while doing so. And then, to my horror, I watched as the gelding kicked my wife, who was only a few feet away, with both hind legs, a “double barrel.” As soon as I saw the hooves make contact with my wife’s puny, fragile, 110 pound body, time slowed to nearly a stand still. In excruciatingly slow motion my wife flew up into the air, went sailing about ten feet, and hit the ground in a heap. As I started turning towards the door, it occurred to me that she had made no effort at all to break her fall. She had been, in fact, as limp as a rag doll. Thinking the worst, I believed she would be dead when I got to her.

I ran to the door, frantically pulled my shoes on, and bolted outside. Before slamming the door shut, I turned and screamed “stay” at the dog who was charging out the door with me, all excited and eager to find out why I was scrambling around, what game we were going to play. The dog stopped dead in his tracks, winced, and cowered at the intensity of my voice. I slammed the door shut behind me and started sprinting (literally, and for the first time since about 1994) around the side of the house towards the hayfield.

When I came around the house, I couldn’t see my wife because there was a little rise in the field and she was on the other side of it. As I continued to sprint, I was staring straight ahead to where my wife should have been, but noticed out of the corner of my eye that as soon as the gelding saw me, he exploded from a standstill into a gallop and was moving, increasingly faster, directly towards me. Getting to my wife was all that mattered. Just then, my wife’s head popped up over the rise. She had sat up. Then I saw her quickly, though unsteadily, leap to her feet and start making her way towards me.

She immediately saw the gelding moving now at a full out, ground devouring gallop ever closer to me. Realizing that my wife was not dead, I looked directly at the gelding for the first time, and was, how should I put it, disconcerted. I saw a wild-eyed, but focused, determined 17 hand [five and a half feet at the shoulders], 1400 pound beast thundering (they really do thunder) towards me.

“Bobby!,” my wife called out, “watch out for the gelding, he’s being aggressive!”

Umm, you think? Thank you for that, Captain Obvious.

I watched as the gelding got closer. (I’ll be honest, I was a little paralyzed) I watched his great big nostrils flare as his lungs moved incredible volumes of air with each breath, filling his blood with huge amounts of oxygen that would enable him to keep up that gallop for over a mile if he had to. But, he didn’t have to go a mile. He only had another forty yards, and when he covered those forty yards, he was very likely going to do something like slam into me at full speed. There were only a couple of seconds left.

Thirty yards.

Twenty.

“Bobby!” I heard my wife scream.

Ten.

Luckily, I hadn’t yet left the yard and there is a large oak standing on the edge of the hayfield. At the last second, I scooted behind the tree thinking that would get me out of harm’s way. I was wrong. The horse slowed, turned, and started coming around the tree after me. “Holy shit,” I thought, “this horse is freakin’ crazy!” I ran, and he chased me around the tree. Just as we were about to make another round about the tree, my neighbor, whose horse it was, appeared from across the street, distracting the horse. The gelding gave up the chase and stopped, his head high, his chest thrust out, his muscles and veins bulging. He let out another great snort and then, just like that, it was over. He stood still, trembling, breathing deeply. My wife and the mare walked slowly out of the field. My wife was cradling her left arm in her right, and she was limping.

My neighbor walked slowly up to the mare and clipped the lead rope he was carrying onto her halter. Then he turned and started walking slowly up the street back towards his barn. The gelding slowly and calmly followed.

I turned to my wife and said, “so, that was crazy. I thought you were dead. You alright?”

“That mother f’er! I can’t believe he kicked me. It was totally intentional. He’s such an asshole!”

She was alright.

We walked slowly back to the house. I opened the door and stepped inside with my wife following gingerly behind me, spewing expletives like a trucker.

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in the wedding of two war zone/conflict photographers (an oversimplification of their work) by providing the roasting pigs for their wedding feast. As I have looked at their work on and off over the past couple of weeks, and as the Syria “intervention” has loomed, I have been thinking about violence and war, particularly genocide. About ten years ago, first in undergrad (yes, it took me 12 years to get my bachelors) and then in grad school, I proposed a reconfiguration of our understanding of genocide and its role — ever present, I argue — in war, which I redefine as “group directed violence.” The reconfiguration is simple: In every act of group-directed violence, there is always already an element of genocide, and in every act of group directed violence there is always already an element of Ir- or Hyper- rationality; full blown genocide requires no, nor represents any, break with traditionally conceived rationality, nor does it require a break from, nor representation of, a break with “ordinary,” “everyday” war.

Marking people for death by dint of their inclusion in a group called “Syrian,” and even if ostensibly only “enemy” soldiers (we generally very nonchalantly accept civilian deaths), is born, however slightly, of a genocidal impulse. That kernel of a genocidal impulse is there from the moment we even start to think about launching the first missile, firing the first bullet, or lobbing the first mortar round. War and genocide are two sides of the same coin.

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There is a song that I was introduced to by my cousin a number of years ago called “Boll Weevil,” which is a remix by Greg Hale Jones of an early 20th Century recording of a song about an invasion of boll weevils in a farmer’s field. The song is sung not by the farmer, but by the farmer’s farm hand, who is reporting the infestation to the farmer, who, by the way, paternalistically refers to the farm hand as “my child.” It is a moving and haunting song that I have listened to hundreds of times, and which is quietly playing in a loop in the background as I type this.

One of the central lines of the song is a question, posed to the boll weevil by the farmhand, “Where is your native home?” I have often thought about this question, both in relation to myself in terms of being at home in myself and in relation to the farm — to the pigs, to the farm’s form and function. As it turns out, it is a tremendously heady and loaded question.Piglets looking

For example, to ask the question of oneself, “where is my native home,” is to ask, where, in myself, was I born, or, more pressingly and substantially, where, in myself, did I come into being? It is, essentially, to ask a fundamental question about oneself, “who [where] am I, at my roots?” Where, when all of the fluff is blown and brushed away, did I come into being? Is my native home my childhood? Is it the moment of my birth? Is it the moment of my first words, or my first obviously intentional act? Is it the first moment that I consciously reflect on myself and feel at home in myself? Can I have native home”s”? That is, can I come into being, fundamentally, multiple times, in multiple homes, and feel and be native to each?

I would argue, somewhat shallowly, that the answer is different for everyone. Some people do find their native home in their childhood. Some people do find their native home in their birth. In my own experience, I have been a person of multiple native homes, feeling as if I have come into being, in fundamentally new and different ways, over and over again, and while I might feel settled and quite native in my current home, I am not fool enough to believe I will not come into being in some new native home sometime in the future, perhaps even tomorrow. But for the time being, I find myself here, completely at home in the nativity of myself as a farmer.

Farm roadMy native home is a certain type of labor, it is a certain type of relationship to my body and the uses and functions of my mind, it is a certain type of relationship to my environment, especially the land and space around me and in which I move and work, it is a certain type of relationship to time and the coming and going of the seasons, it is a certain type of relationship to the weather, it is a certain type of relationship to technology and machinery, it is a certain type of relationship to ecological and political questions and problems, it is a certain type of relationship to the product, the produce, of my labor — the pigs — and it is, perhaps most importantly, a certain type of relationship to their deaths. My native home is a home of ebbs and flows, of hardship and triumph, of ease and adversity, and of life and death.

The farm, in both its concrete and abstract forms, is my native home. It is a place, firm and solid, composed of fields and woods, and filled with pigs and the infrastructure to support them, but it is also an idea, composed of cultural, intellectual, and psychological trappings that give it a shape and trajectory; it is an idealistic vehicle in which I travel, experiencing — living — my life as I go. When I wake up and go out each morning to do chores, I encounter the pigs in their real, concrete manifestations, but also in their idealized forms, as bits and pieces, reflections of myself. The choices I make about and for the pigs are choices I make about and for myself. When I take good care of the pigs, I take good care of myself. When I take poor care of the pigs, I take poor care of myself. I find myself in an intricate web of relationships that give shape and form to my native home, to myself.

Never before have I found myself in such a place. There is something about it that, in nearly a decade, I have not been able to quite place my finger on. It is not that it is special, or that I am at home in something praiseworthy, but, rather, something inscrutable about it makes it a home that is radically and fundamentally different than any other home in which I have found myself residing.

Carrying BucketsI toil, and I oversee the lives and deaths of vivacious, gregarious, highly sentient beings. That I find myself at home in such a place is something of a wonder.

 

 

 

 

Photo credit: Zach Phillips

Last year I stopped selling whole and half pigs to individuals and just made wholesale sales, but I have come to realize that I miss the personal interactions involved in selling wholes and halves, so I have decided to get back into it.

The pigs will be ready this summer, sometime between June and August.

The price is $3.00/lb (whole or half) hanging weight,* plus processing fees.** I also require a $200 deposit.

If you are interested in purchasing a whole or half Berkshire or Berkshire-Duroc cross pasture-raised pig, please e-mail me at your convenience at
stonybrookfarm518 at g m ail dot com, or call me at
5 one 8 – two zero 7 – 7 1 six 9.

If you have never done this before, the process is pretty straightforward, you place the order and make the deposit. I then drop the pig off at the butcher on a specified date. At that point, the pig is your responsibility. You need to contact the butcher and let him know how you would like the pig cut up, and then you are responsible for picking it up. Either the butcher or I are available to help you decide how you would like the pig cut up, if you are not sure. I use Marlow’s in Howes Cave, about five miles east of Cobleskill.

*The hanging weight is the weight of the carcass after it has been skinned and the organs, head, and feet removed. The average hanging weight is 200 lbs. (whole), but can range from 175-240 lbs. The typical yield of cuts for your freezer is about 125-170 lbs.

**Processing fees vary dramatically based on how you have the pig butchered. There are fees for making sausage and smoking, so if you have a lot of sausage made and/or a lot of meat smoked, your fees will be higher. Typical processing fees are $175-$225.

For most of my life, all of my life, in fact, I have had an intense desire to be extraordinary — not just to stand out from the crowd, but to be the crowd’s meaning and purpose, and the one that gives it direction. Before you convict me of tremendous arrogance, please let me explain that over the years I have come to understand that this desire is the manifestation of a psychological pathology. The degree of intensity of the desire is not “normal.”

I have worked for years to overcome, to quiet, this desire, and in the recent past — the past two years — I have had a great deal of success, on and off, in doing so. I still hear it, but the voice inside my head screaming at me to claw and scratch my way onto the highest pedestal in sight is mostly muffled, even if only by my conscious will to muffle it. In some ways, I am like the schizophrenic who knows that the voices inside her head are not real and struggles to ignore them.

My success in squelching the desire to be extraordinary is part of the reason that I have taken a break from writing for so long. Even now as I type, I struggle, I question my motives, I wonder why, exactly, I am once again putting myself on display. Is every act of public discourse for me a manifestation of this pathology, or is it possible for me to simply gather a few words together and post them to a blog without hoping that somehow they will shine on me like a halo around my head? I do not want to want to be extraordinary, and so whenever I have a desire to put myself on display, I have to wonder, is this me, untrammeled, or am I being pushed along, blindly in the thrall of pathological desire? It is not easy to know. Seeing through oneself to oneself is like looking through a glass darkly. The murky sight makes clarity impossible.

Given this difficulty, therefore, I have been saying no, I will not write that blog post, I will not give that interview, I will not host that farm tour. I even go so far as to say to myself, no I will not read that book, I will not pursue that thought, that line of thinking. This seems like a decision to treat the symptoms rather than the disease, so let me just say that at the same time, I am working on dismantling the structure of the pathological desire as well, to some effect. It will take time, however, as this is an old, old pattern, perhaps one of my oldest. As I said, it has been with me for all of my (remembered) life.

In the meantime, having come quite a long way, I have developed new desires, the strongest one being the desire to live not an extra-ordinary life, but simply an ordinary life. While swinging so dramatically from one extreme to the other might seem pathological in its own right, this newfound desire for an ordinary life doesn’t seem, subjectively or objectively, to be pathological. It is a response, even though I must admit that on some level it is a contrived response — that cannot be denied. But, even in its contrivance it feels to be a genuine response, as oxymoronic as that might seem.

When I began farming, nearly ten years ago now, I was going to be the farmer’s farmer. I was going to change the face of American agriculture singlehandedly with the force and determination of my body and my words. I was going to make it so that people would look at me and my farm as the model of how to farm and how to be a farmer.

Today, that is no longer the case. Today, I just want to farm. Whereas before I took pleasure in the attraction of the spotlight, and in the thrill of doing something new, exciting, and on the cutting edge of a burgeoning movement, today I take pleasure in the rhythmic meter of daily chores, necessary projects, and trips to the slaughterhouse.  I no longer desire to farm in the limelight. I am content to farm in anonymity, seen only by my family, friends, neighbors, and passersby as they drive slowly along the road behind me as I move on the tractor from one part of the farm to another.

Each morning I look forward to the banality of chores, not because they are a means to the end of being recognized as a farmer’s farmer on the cusp of finding and describing an exciting, durable, and generalizable model of farming alternatively, but because they are an end in themselves. Daily chores are the purposive substance of the farm and the sustenance of the spirit of the farmer. It is in the very ordinariness of farming that I have found contentment. This is not to say that I don’t find this ordinariness occasionally boring; I do, but even when I find the ordinary boring, I experience a cool satisfaction in that boredom.

Many years ago, I came across this maxim of Booker T. Washington’s, “there is no power on earth that can neutralize the influence of a high, simple, and useful life.” For years, driven pathologically, I desperately sought to capture this indomitable influence, this seeming superpower, but in the recent past, I came to realize that this maxim, a maxim seeming on its surface to call for steadfast humility, is in fact deeply, and perhaps in some small way, darkly, hubristic in its evaluation of the life that it calls for.  The end of the maxim is not to live a “high, simple, and useful life,” but rather to capture and wield the extraordinary influence garnered by such a life.

While I have abandoned the pursuit of the maxim’s influence, my imagination is still captured by the vision of a “high, simple, and useful life” as an end in itself, for it is the vision of a profoundly ordinary life, a life of humility, of hard straightforward work, of honesty, empathy, compassion, and kindness. I find this imaginative vision made manifest in farming, and I find this ordinary life a life worth living for itself, and nothing more.

When I think about the debate surrounding the ethics of eating meat, I often wonder why it is so difficult for meat eaters to admit that killing animals (to eat their flesh) is unethical? Truly, I cannot think of one sound ethical argument in favor of slaughtering animals for their meat.

The simplest way to put it is that slaughtering animals for their meat is a socially permissible ethical transgression. Societal permission does not make it ethical, it just makes it acceptable. Slavery was for centuries socially permissible (in spite of the fact that there was always a minority standing firmly against it). Did that make it any less unethical? I doubt anyone today would say yes.

As a pig farmer, I live an unethical life, shrouded in the justificatory trappings of social acceptance. There is more, even, than simple acceptance. There is actually celebration of the way I raise the pigs. Because I give the pigs lives that are as close to natural as is possible in an unnatural system, I am honorable, I am just, I am humane, while all the while behind the shroud, I am a slaveholder and a murderer. Looking head on,  you can’t see it. Humanely raising and slaughtering pigs seems perfectly normal. In order to see the truth, you have to have to look askance, just like a pig does when it knows you are up to no good. When you see out of the corner of your eye, in the blurry periphery of your vision, you see that meat is indeed murder.

Someday, perhaps centuries from now, we will know this and accept this as well and as much as we know and accept the evil of slavery, but until that day, I am and will remain a paragon of animal welfare. Pigs on my farm are as piggy as pigness, the ideal form of the pig. They root, they lounge, they narf, they eat, they forage, they sleep, they wallow, they bask, they run, they play, and they die unconsciously, without pain or suffering. I believe I suffer their death more than they.

The grapple of ethics hooks us and we begin to struggle when we look askance. Do, so, please. See through the false legitimacy of the bucolic alternative to factory farming, an alternative that is but another obfuscating layer of the justificatory shroud that hides the ugliness of raising animals to kill so that we can eat their meat. Look and see who I am and and what I do. Look and see who and what the animals are. Look and see what is on your plate. Look and see that society acceptably says yes, Ethics, I believe, universally, unequivocally, and undeniably says no. How can you justify taking a life for gustatory pleasure? It is in looking askance, consciously, that we take the first steps in our evolution towards becoming the kind of beings who do not construct systems and infrastructures whose sole purpose is to kill beings whose sentience and capacity for an emotional and empathetic life we have barely scratched the surface of.

What I do is wrong, in spite of its acceptance by nearly 95% of the American population. I know it in my bones, even if I cannot yet act on it. Someday it must stop. Somehow we need to become the sort of beings who can see what we are doing when we look head on, the sort of beings who don’t weave dark, damning shrouds to sustain, with acceptance and celebration, the grossly unethical. Deeper, much deeper, we have an obligation to eat otherwise.

It might take incalculable generations of being hooked by and grappling with the ethics of slaughter to get there, but we really do need to get there, because again, what I am doing, what we are doing, is wrong.

For the last seven months, this blog has been wordless. I thought it would remain permanently wordless, believing that I had divorced myself from social media. But, here, today, I find myself tapping at the keys again.

The last seven months have been a great time of change, on the farm, and in my mind. I have shed bits and pieces of the farm and have been disillusioned and enlightened countless times.

I have cried. I have chuckled. I have struck out in anger and frustration. I have nursed and cared with empathy and compassion. I have felt adrift. I have felt more firmly moored. I have felt trapped. I have felt set free. I have lost. I have gained. The farm has been my savior. The farm has been my executioner. The pigs my joy. The pigs my fury.

I have been Sisyphus. I have been Prometheus. I have been Hercules. I have been Achilles. But, most of all, I have been myself, and in being myself, I have struggled to be — to be a farmer, a husband, a brother, a son, a friend…

I have lost hope more times than I can count. I have regained it just as many.

Pigs. I love them. I hate them just as much. I am invigorated by them. I am tortured by them. They  are my totem and my curse.

After five years, the honeymoon is over. I am living real life now, free from lies, free from myth, free from hyperbolically romantic notions about farm life.

Free, finally free. But, it is an enmeshed freedom. I am enmeshed in mundanity, the banality and utter boredom of rote chores.

The thrill of being part of something grand is gone. I know now there is nothing grand about farming; it deserves no cachet. It is a job, like any other. I hate the fresh air, the rumble and bounce of the tractor, the mirthful narfs and antics of the pigs just as much as I hate the cubicle, the water cooler, and PowerPoint.

But…

But in spite of the end of the honeymoon, in spite of the loss of illusion, in spite of the loss of the myth of the grand, I continue farming, on the brink, spurred on, vocationally enlivened.

 

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