Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Farming and Philippe Petit

The same man who bridged the gap between the two towers of the world trade center wire dancing on a cable 3/4 inch thick built a barn in the catskills using only 16th century tools to house his practice equipment and juggling hoops. I thought of him recently, as I walked the tow hitch between the manure laden trailer and our trusty '92 Dodge, my feet gripping the steel through the soles of my caked wellies in a mock tight rope walking routine.

No doubt he would certainly approve of the day's doings...he is a self proclaimed "conquistador of the useless" which is a scandalous way of talking about doing things for their own sake rather than capital or personal gain...facilitating balance, my fingertips traced semicircles in the October thoughts gift wrapped in irony. We were hell bent on the earthbound task of covering an acre of land with composted horse manure while heaven hung with thoughts of Philippe Petit, Man of the Air, High-wire artist, egoist, atheist, and artist. A man who sees bell towers, skyscrapers, mountain tops and marvels at and masters the space between them, while clinging to a cable, a wire, a rope with toes and sole.

Farming needs more Philippe Petit.

As Winter approaches, and Mother Nature flirts with first snows...the farmer is either ready or not. He has either put up and put away enough to last him till Spring...or he has not...and in either case his soil still needs him. Back and Forth across the tow hitch from trailer to truck bed forking out manure onto next year's veggie acreage I am conscious of the seeming insanity of it...and at the same time dead certain of its necessity. There was a time when we would have spent days at the kitchen table (you know, the proverbial one that the politicians are always talking about, where you do your worrying...) trying to figure out a way to get our hands on a bonafide labor saving manure spreader...but now we've come so far into this affair with the needs of our soil...we tend to just grab whatever's to hand and heave ho. It is a tightrope walk; fulfilling Fall farm needs of fencing and soil amendments while cash poor and winter squash rich. The lull in the frantic pace of the CSA season gives the mind time to wander and dip its proverbial toes in the tempting "solution" of off-farm careers with their salaried cushions of comfort.

" I keep attacking pyramids. Each time finding the way blocked by a portal called Mediocrity. Jealousy. Intrigue. compromise being the key. I preffered to lockpick them, climp around them. Dynamite them. Not necessarily in that order."

Philippe Petit, On the High Wire

But the needs of the farm now for the fruit of the farm later require one last push of solid devoted effort.

What commerce do a wire walker and a farmer, firmly planted on the sod have with one another you ask? The organic farming movement might do well to adopt his credo (for the same can be said of a truly sustainable agricultural endeavor:)

“The essential thing is to etch movements in the sky, movements so still they leave no trace. The essential thing is simplicity. / That is why the long path to perfection is horizontal.”

Subsitute "land" for "sky" and you have it. I thought of that quote one day when a visiting friend stood aghast at the thousands of little bak choi and broccoli transplants we were setting out last Spring. "How ever do you get all this done?" Thinking to myself that her very arrival was going to make it morepleasant and more possible that day, I thought of the long path to perfection being horizontal...accomplished eventually by a simple series of one foot in front of the other...plodding away towards something finished, and whole, and occaisonally, the stuff of good legendary lore.

"What counts is this: to stay straight and stubborn in your madness."

10 years ago my only ambition in life was to join the circus. I was enthralled by the idea of making a career out of something which was exists for no other purpose than to delight, to instill wonder, and to show forth for all to see the marvelous beautiful things the human being can do. It seemed only natural then, that eventually I would become a land locked farmer. Feet firmly planted in the pig pasture, the chicken coop, and the manure pile. Scratching out our mad wonderings in rows of veggies and fields of grass. I recognize a brother in the juggler, the mime, the wire walker. He practices the art of ordered chaos. He is disciplined in his reception of the indifference or arrogance of his neighbors, delights in the wonder of his customers, he marries responsibility to wild dreaming and walks a thin cable stretched taught between poverty and compromise.

"You must not fall. When you lose your balance, resist for a long time before turning yourself toward the earth. Then jump. you must not force yourself to stay steady. You must move forward. You must win. The wire trembles. The tendency is to want to calm it by force. In fact, you must move with grace and suppleness to avoid disturbing the song of the cable."

There are lots of (great) discussions going on here: our current economic and agricultural situation here in the U.S. and in the world at large...
and here:
about an alternative solution to the capitalism, socialism, and communism...

But one of the most satisfying things I've read lately attempting to get at some solution for our current agricultural crisis is here:

Towards the end of the interview, Lynn Miller takes off on a seeming tangent, drawing out a story of a memory he had as a child standing watch over a buried pig, roasting beneath the soil, a right of passage as he braves the "terrors of the night" and heckling the end, he concludes, Supporting boutique agriculture is not the long-term solution. Reading a whole, real, book front to back is. In other words: there is no agriculture without true culture and vise versa

I would add to this, that delight in things for their own sake spurs responsible stewardship of the land. A fire to warm yourself by, and fed with wood from a managed woodlot, a landscape rimmed with windbreaks, patchworked with rotated crops, soil struggled over, with a relentless appreciation for the micro world that is dirt...these things spring from the playful heart that delights in things as they are, dreams of them as they can be, and fights for them as they should be...

Which is why I walk my tow hitch tightrope with a pitchfork in my hands and Philippe Petit in my head...

"Life should be lived on the edge of life. You have to exercise rebellion: to refuse to tape yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge - and then you are going to live your life on a tightrope. "


  1. Beautiful and challenging. Comes at a good time for us as we struggle along the tightrope. Winter is indeed a blessed time of rest, but you're right, extra time means time for the mind to wander...and worry. Thank you for this.

  2. "Life is always on the wire. The rest is just waiting" Carl Wallenda, Trapeze Artist.
    God Bless your struggle Brendan and Aleyna!

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