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Neighborly Wisdom and Self Reliance

In his most recent book, A Place in Time, Wendell Berry writes, "But it is possible, even so, to look back with a certain fondness to a time when the sounds of engines were not almost constant in the sky, on the roads, and in the fields. Our descendants may know such a time again when the petroleum is all burnt. How they will fare then will depend on the neighborly wisdom, the love for the place and its genius, and the skills that they may manage to revive between now and then."  In my farming career - and in my life - I've tried (and generally failed) to articulate this perspective.  Rather than reflecting a sense of nostalgia for the "good old days" (which didn't exist when people were living through them), Berry's statement suggests a real need to pay attention to our past, to our land and to our neighbors.

When we farmed vegetables (which we haven't done for several years now), we tried to convert our system for turning the soil and cultivating our crops to animal power - mules, specifically.  My efforts were not based on a wish that I'd been born in an earlier era; rather, I farmed (and logged) with mules because I felt that these skills would be necessary again - probably within my lifetime.  Without petroleum, I was (and am) convinced that we'll need to relearn this system of farming.  After all, farmers who use horses and mules rather than tractors can grow their own fuel and put the "exhaust" to good use in building soil fertility!

Presently, our agricultural focus has turned to sheep.  While I find some new technologies helpful - like electric fencing, computers and smart phones - I've found that my profitability is improved when I learn skills and approaches to sheep-raising that have existed for thousands of years - skills like herding and walking!

After reading this passage from A Place in Time earlier this month, I've thought about it frequently - mostly as I was building electric fence and walking my sheep from property to property.  I think Berry has articulated three interrelated approaches to farming that I've tried to adopt in my own work and life.

Neighborly Wisdom
In the fictional farming community of Port William, Kentucky, Berry talks of a "membership" - the individuals within the community belong to one another and to the land.  As I grow older, I find myself seeking - and often finding - that I am part of a membership that values our collective attempts to make a living from the land.  This membership doesn't include all of Auburn, obviously, but it does include the small portion of rural Auburn where we graze our sheep.  I've learned a tremendous amount from folks that have lived here much longer than I have -  people like Pat Shanley, who has lived all of his 92+ years just west of Auburn.  Folks like Bud and Jean Allender, who are also native to this place - and people like Betty and Carrie Samson, who've been here long enough to be native, too!  In each of these cases, and in others, people have shared their lifelong connection with the land and with a way of living on it that have helped me learn how to be.

Neighborly wisdom, however, is not monopolized by people that have been here their entire lives.  Rich and Peggy Beltramo, who have been our landlords longer than anyone, have shared their wisdom.  Roger Ingram, my friend and our farm advisor - along with his colleague Cindy Fake - are wise neighbors by this definition.  Other farmers - Allen Edwards, Alan Haight, Bob Roan, Claudia Smith, Steve Pilz - are part of this membership, as well, as are my parents.

Membership implies belonging and investment.  The folks I've listed (and others) helped me feel like I belong here.  They've also helped me see that I need to invest my time and energy in sharing my own experiences - with the next generation of farmers and with the community as a whole.  This goes well beyond farming, I think.  After  deer hunting (unsuccessfully) for the first time in my life this fall, Bud Allender was thrilled to hear about my trip to the Jackson Meadows country north of Truckee - an area where he'd spent time working and hunting himself.  A willingness to work the land (and listen to the land) is the price of membership, I think.

Love for the Place and its Wisdom
I think we must love a place to acquire it's wisdom, partly because the lessons our places teach us can be painful.  For years, we struggled with footrot problems in our sheep.  We tried vaccines, frequent foot-trimming, and other  labor-intensive management techniques to no avail.  I finally realized that our land was telling me that I needed to select sheep that had some resistance to the disease and some resilience if they did contract it.  We've now been able to control the problem effectively.

Other lessons we learn by watching and observing a place over time.  This fall, Pat Shanley told me I could expect to see younger deer on the south end of the ranch I lease from him, and that the bigger bucks always seemed to be on the north end of the property.  He thought this was because the north knob caught more early sunlight in the autumn months, and these older deer claimed the warmer resting spots.  As I began paying more attention, I discovered that Pat was correct!  Pat's knowledge of his place and his attention to its lessons will help me manage my sheep better during this spring's lambing season - I'll save the warmer end of the ranch for the occasional wet and cold weather we get during lambing.

Revived Skills
Farming and rural living have always required a degree of self-reliance.  As Berry suggests, the skills of self-reliance will again become important "when all the petroleum is burnt" - and probably even before the absolute end of fossil fuels.  As a kid, I wasn't thrilled about having to help my folks butcher chickens - but I'm sure glad I know how to do it today!  I'm sure our girls are equally unhappy about having to help, but I hope they'll appreciate the skills (and self-reliance) that they'll take into the future.  The idea that we might fix something rather than dispose of it seems to me to be a skill that needs reviving, too.  Our current economy is based on consumption rather than production - and cheap petroleum is our economic foundation.  Consumption of a finite resource can't go on forever, though.  Those manual skills that actually produce something durable - carpentry, welding, farming, ranching, woodcutting, cooking! (just to name a few) seem to have lost importance in our society.  Those of us who can actually produce our own food, our own heat - our own households - AND who can produce these things for our communities - have a responsibility to pass on these skills.


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