The house on the farm is gone. After word got out that we were planning to demolish it, it was scavenged to its bare bones over the course of a week. Finally, the might and force of a track-hoe dealt it a final blow. Ross and our friend Clay were down in the hay barn cleaning up when they heard a resounding "BOOM" unexpectedly on a Sunday afternoon. Apparently they wanted to get things going before the anticipated snow. I came over with a video recorder:
I was struck, as I videoed the demolition like a tourist, by a sudden and profound sense of responsibility. My choices wiped away someone's home, and with it, physical manifestations of a memory. Now there is a flat, graded patch of red clay in its place. Despite the consent that comes when a piece of property is bought and sold, I could not help but feel a small pang from the loss, from the gone-ness of the thing. And beyond that feeling came the feeling of responsibility to do right by the place, to build and create something that could justify the destruction occurring before me.
I had always been aware of the responsibilities that come with land-ownership and farming. There is a commitment on a multitude of levels, and for both me and Ross, a profound intention to recreate the land and to assist it to become something better than when we found it. A mere 100 years ago, there was not a tree to be seen where our farm is, in all of Chattahoochee Hill Country. It was all cotton. Everywhere you go, you see ripples in the landscape from trellising and the red clay, indicative of spent soil. All of the dirt that was here was literally spun away into cloth of which there are only scraps left. As I stood and watched this house fall down, I remembered that there is a human element to this responsibility; thoughts, memories, hearts, and minds all needing to be seen, heard, and understood. Mateo Kehler, of Jasper Hill Farm makes some of the best cheeses in this country, if not the world, and he has a proclivity for naming them after the people who were on his farm before him. According to their website:
Constant Bliss [was] a revolutionary war scout killed in Greensboro by native Americans in 1781. He was guarding the Bayley Hazen Military Road with his compatriot Moses Sleeper, who died with him.
Three of Jasper Hill's cheeses are named, Constant Bliss, Bayley Hazen, and Moses Sleeper. This always struck me as a wonderful naming scheme for cheese, but it never quite consciously occurred to me why. As I watched our neighbor standing and watching, it drove home to me that when you farm, you have to respect the land in and of itself, but you also have to respect its people who have shaped it, for better or for worse, and the memories that hang over it.
These memories have to be respected with the land for a reason that did not fully impress itself upon me until just this past weekend when I was attending the GA Organics Conference. While there, I had the opportunity to go to a screening of the film Dirt: The Movie. The film, as you might imagine, is all about dirt, dirt and the human relationship to it. As I watched footage of farmers running from dust storms in the midwest, or else digging themselves out of the heaps of dried out, worn out topsoil that was forever leaving them, I thought of what it took to build that soil. How many plants and animals lived and died on that land to build up the humus, the fertility, the "black gold" as it was advertised. How many aeons did it take? And then, in the blink of an eye, in a single lifetime: gone. Just gone. I remembered as I watched those scenes my own words as I watched the house disappear into big green dumpsters, I looked over at one of the guys on the demolition crew, smiled, and said, "it's easier to destroy something than it is to build it, isn't it?"
A memory is no different from the soil. If abused, neglected, or mistreated, it is lost. It does not ever come back. It takes a lifetime to build, but in a moment, can be gone. I've come to understand over the past two weeks, how inexorably linked the land is to ourselves and our histories, the very things that make for a culture.
I think farming, is at its heart, a series of alternating moments of creation and destruction. I remember, several years ago now, standing in a greenhouse, thinning seedlings, killing little plants so that other plants can grow stronger and healthier; and again, this past summer, thinning radishes and carrots, talking with my neighbor as she and I both struggled with killing the little carrots and broccoli's we had nurtured for weeks so that the strongest ones would be stronger. With animals, the feeling of culling is more intense. We culled our first animal yesterday. One of our chickens had developed a serious infection in both of her feet. Her feet had doubled in size with swelling, and parts were grey-black with necropsy. She was clearly in serious pain. Ross and I were both tempted just to remove her from the rest of the flock, set her down, and let her die, but the cold and the anxiety would only increase her pain. With a flick of her tiny neck she was gone. Weeks and weeks she grew, then, in an instant, she was gone.
Farming is so powerful. The first farmer Ross worked with, saw himself as an agent of destruction, an agent of death, not as some romanticized, pastoral creator and protector of beauty. He was absolutely right to do so. This job and this way of life can be awful. That power to destroy, to end the existence of a thing, is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. But we do it, or I do it, because each choice to end something or not, I think, has to be about the creation of something more beautiful. Any artist will tell you that most art is a series of mistakes and corrections. Lines get culled by other lines or eraser marks or a different color laid over. This process continues until the artist gets to a point of some kind of satisfaction, so that every line, shadow, and color ends up where it belongs. This is farming exactly. You are constantly shaping, reshaping, killing, breeding, altering systems, trying to get things into some kind of shape that makes sense, that works, that tells a story, even. The reason that it is easier to destroy than to build, perhaps, is that building and creating is made up of a series of destructions.
I am realizing the full power of this process, the care one must take in each of those choices. The land, the people, memories, stories, all of it has to be considered. I am beginning to get a taste for what Joel Salatin means when he calls himself a "caretaker of creation." To be such a thing, you must be many things, you must nurture and protect, but most importantly, you must also be an agent of destruction.