Culture


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

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.

 

This morning, as I look out the window at a pasture quickly growing full of frolicking lambs, I am feeling very much that it might be wrong to eat meat, and that I might indeed be a very bad person for killing animals for a living.

The local farm and food systems movement suffers from multiple personality disorder. One of its personalities is the foodie, who approaches the movement as a vehicle to increase his or her sensuo-aesthetic pleasure, with more or less regard to socio-political questions depending on his or her socio-political perspective. Another of its personalities is the localizer, who views the movement through the lens of the foodshed radius and food miles. Another of its personalities is small is beautiful — small farms, small artisan processors, small distributors. Another of its personalities  is the broadener, who approaches the movement with a critical eye on its shared personalities. The broadener wants more out of the movement. The broadener wants the movement to expand beyond foodie-ism, beyond local-ism, and beyond small-ism, to a robust, durable, fair and just, and deeply embedded system that challenges, really challenges the stranglehold that the industrial food system has on us.

If you look at the literature. If you look at the news media. If you look at the blogoshpere. If you look at Twitterdom and Facebookland, you’ll find foodie-ism, local-ism, and small-ism the dominant personalities, with a smattering of broad-ism here and there.

You’ll find plenty of foodies slobbering over whipped Mangalitsa lard, braised pork snouts, and sliver-thin raw beef’s liver. You’ll find plenty of localies  committing themselves with verve to the 100-mile challenge. You’ll find heaps of praise for all things small-ish.

What you’ll find little of — and perhaps this is going to start a fight, or get me flamed, but so be it — is a critical line of thinking that asks  a simple question: Can foodies, can localists, can smallists feed our foodsheds? What does whipped Mangalitsa lard have to do with feeding people? What is the true foodshed radius of 10 million people? At what cost “small is beautiful?”

There is no question that the dominant personalities of the movement have gotten us where we are today. But, where is that? At a substantial and exceedingly definitive crossroads. We stand at this crossroads with a deceptively simple question looming before us, “what is important to us?” The answer(s) to that question will determine our choice of direction, and will determine the personalities of the movement for years to come.

I don’t want to be misunderstood, so let me be clear, there is a place for the sensuous pleasure of braised pig testicles, there is a place for tight radii, and there is a place for smallness. If, however, what is important to us is that the movement move, then that place is not at the top, that place is not dominant.

I have no problem with multiple personality disorder, it can be, in fact, a good thing. I just want to have our multiple personalities engage each other in a critical discussion about what is important to us. Which of our personalities, and there are multiples of us that I didn’t describe above — do the paleos have a place in all of this? What about the vegans? — which of our personalities should be dominant. Again, what is important to us?

As a broadist, I know what is important to me, and since I am a reformed localist and smallist, I have a sense of what is important to them. However, I am not sure about the foodies. Sometimes I think all that really matters to them is sensuous pleasure, gastronomic hedonism, couched in the language of localism. But, no matter, it is not hard to imagine that many, even most, foodies care about more than just their palates.

I would make the argument that what should be important to us, which direction we should take at this crossroads, is taking the considerable momentum that the foodies, localists, and smallists have given the movement and turn it into something grand, something powerful, something that can move and change cultures.

We need to expand and broaden our view of the movement so that we can see that the movement needs to broaden and expand. On the horizon, down the path beyond this crossroads, is change, within our reach, just a short walk away — short, yes, but difficult, full of obstacles, not least of which is the current hierarchy of our personalities.

Change, real change. It sounds so alluring, but, by itself it is just a meaningless jumble of letters. What does change mean for the movement?

First, that it will truly be a movement, rather than something that we, perhaps out of romanticism, call a movement.

Second, that the movement, with its broadened and deepened view, will see that it is first and foremost a deeply ethical movement, and that its broad ethics trump the parochial ethics of foodism, localism, and smallism. The movement has an ethical obligation to feed all people in its foodsheds, especially those most harmed, most marginalized by industrialism, not just the small percent of us who embrace foodism, localism, and smallism. The movement has an ethical obligation to surrender its parochial interests to the broader interests of the masses — and it is the masses — while at the same time challenging, pushing, changing those interests. Furthermore, and bluntly put, the movement has an ethical obligation not to advocate for the impossible — foodism, localism, and smallism can only feed themselves, no matter their intentions, regardless of how fervent.

Third, real change means getting real food — recognizable, familiar, comfortable — into the hands of tens of millions of people who otherwise would never see it and might otherwise never want it. This does not mean I think Chipotle should be the model. Given the choice by the Corbin Hill Road Farm farmshare program, the people of the South Bronx came out in droves for simple, fresh, real and good produce. Participation leapt from about 250 last year in its first season, to 1500 shares this year.

Fourth, change means trial and tribulation, it means feeling uncomfortable about scaling up instead of scaling down, it means feeling uncomfortable about extending the radius way out there, it means feeling uncomfortable about recognizing the particularism of foodism — foodists are a rare breed, and by all means, we should let them flourish and go weak in the palates over the latest iteration of pork belly (or is pork belly already so last week?).

Fifth, change means the future, a rich future, changed, by us, with our principled commitments.

Sixth, and finally, change means work, hard, hard work. First we need to convince ourselves and then we need to convince as many of the rest of the population as possible.

So, as ever, let’s get to work, let’s get to work feeding ourselves, all of our selves — with ethics, ecology, and justice.

Amongst animals, elephants are one of the most social. Not only do elephants form strong, lifelong, memorable bonds in life, they also seem to have some semblance of a reverence for their dead. When elephants come across elephant bones, the herd will pause and each, or many, of the elephants in the herd will take a turn at the bones, sniffing them, curling their long, large trunks around them and picking them up and then gently setting them down. They do this quietly and, it seems, purposively. They do genuinely seem to be revering the dead elephant whose bones lie on the ground in front of them, with memories.

I saw a video once of a circus elephant, rescued, yes, rescued, and living at an elephant sanctuary in, I think, Tennessee. The sanctuary employees placed a new elephant in a pen next to the other elephant, and all of a sudden, the first elephant, who was the older of the two, started going absolutely ape shit, screaming and grunting and stretching its trunk out through the bars of its pen to try and touch the other elephant. Surprised, because apparently this is unusual behavior, the sanctuary employees did some research and discovered that many years before, I don’t remember how many, those two elephants had spent some time, some very small period of time, like a month, together at a circus. The older elephant remembered her friend, after all of those years.

One of the ways that I justify slaughter to myself is by saying that when a pig disappears from another group of pigs and goes off to slaughter absolutely nothing happens. The remaining pigs, be they sibling, child, cousin, friend, or whatever, pay no attention, once the novelty of the trailering process wears off. The pigs clearly don’t miss the missing pigs. The death of the pig creates no “personal” or “community” angst amongst the living pigs. And, for me, as it relates to slaughtering animals, this lack of reverence for the departed is permissive, although to be truthful, no argument in favor of slaughter for me is definitive — as always, as it relates to slaughter, I am balancing on the edge of a knife blade.

Pigs, therefore, are very different than elephants, so are sheep, so are goats, so are chickens. Having never raised cows, I cannot say how they are. Elephant reverence and social memory make it so that I feel that it is not okay to slaughter them for food or kill them for sport. And, my preference for how we should act when elephants encroach on farm land, destroying subsistence farmers’ crops, is to make the necessary efforts to safely and humanely relocate the elephants.

The farmers living amongst elephants feel very differently. The farmers want the elephants dead, plain and simple. In subsistence farming the difference between bringing a crop in and losing it — to elephants or otherwise — is not about the difference between making and losing some money, it is about the difference between eating and not eating, it is about potentially starving, it is, at the very least, about being truly and deeply hungry. Nevertheless, I have maintained my prohibition against killing elephants over crops, or, at least I did, until just a few minutes ago when I saw a video of the GoDaddy.com CEO on an elephant hunt in Zimbabwe.

I knew that I would not like the man, so I listened with the sound off. At 2:33 in the video, after the gratuitous trophy photos, the interesting part starts. The local villagers come out, in droves, to butcher the elephant so that they can eat the meat. As the day wears on, people from further away show up. By the time the meat on the elephant is gone, the butchering has turned into an absolute frenzy, and in the end, there is not enough for everyone. (Note: it is likely, considering the day-glo orange Godaddy.com hats people are wearing, that the butchering event is as canned as the hunt, but the enthusiasm of the people to get their hands on some of the elephant meat is clearly genuine)

The people clamoring for the meat are not lining up to share in some foodie delicacy. They are hungry, plain and simple, and meat, judging by the clamoring, seems to be very much a rare treat, be it for their nutritional systems or eating pleasure.

By the time the video ended, I was disappointed — with myself, for daring to deny people a means to substantial nutritional sustenance out of an ethnocentric sense of ethics. So what if the other elephants would miss their dead friend? Would not the people in the video miss their dead friends if they starved? Would not the people in the video suffer horribly if they were to be ravaged by nutritional illnesses? Who matters more, the elephants or the people? I am sorry ethical vegans/vegetarians, but I am ashamed to even ask that question.

I still hate the idea of killing elephants for sport, and when possible, I would prefer the elephants be relocated, but now, between the elephant or the hungry, I choose the hungry.

The video is here.

(hat tip: melissa mcewen)

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