Saturday, March 20, 2021

Writing a Libretto

 Some years ago we were looking at a farm for sale in Utica, MN.

As soon as we hit the rambling rural backroads of “Amish Country” we found ourselves pressed against the car’s windows in a spellbound silence. One particular sight that is seared on my memory is that of a young towheaded boy nor more than 4 or 5 years of age, tending a bon-fire of trash in the backyard of one of the white farmhouses. It struck me instantly that to our “English” sensibilities, both the fire and the fact of the child working were something distasteful and frowned upon as too risky…at the same time I found myself keenly desirous of the pluck and initiative of the little fellow in the blue trousers, both for myself and my own children.

In stark contrast, the “farm” we visited ended up being something of a rural leisure estate. The family had come, hoping to “raise their children in the country” and had left. All that remained now were the trampoline, the large home, with its cable TV hook-ups, and the multi-car garage and boat storage. There were no signs of fields tilled, trees planted, or even a garden.

There are two ways of living in the country “for the children’s sake”. One involves them as partners, and makes them as much a goal as any crop, and the other manages them like an retired old gelding that is put in a paddock with food and water and left to itself for the rest of the time. Living in the country does not magically make for a family filled with “down home values” and a serious work ethic. Joel Salatin’s 1st and 2ndcommandments for family friendly farming are “Integrating children into every aspect of the farm” and “Love to Work.”

“Children in diapers need to be involved with the activities. I have no idea how many times our kids fell asleep in my arms on the tractor seat. I’m sure someone will jump on me about safety here, so let’s talk a little about safety to get it out of the way…..The simple truth is that a life worth living is fille with risk. Anyone who wants to eliminate risky from his own life or the life of his children does so at the cost of taking the zest and fire out of life. The rough and tumble part of life teaches wisdom and caution. One of the things we’ve noticed since our children were tiny was their caution compared to the recklessness of non-farming children.”

                                                                      Joel Salatin, “Family Friendly Farming”

People squeamish about risks need to listen to more opera. Or sing it.

I’ll never forget a college chum’s birthday party in CA. She came from a singing family. One of her cousins was a tenor with the San Diego Opera. We were stretched out on the ground in front of the grand piano in their living room, with all the languid loveliness of college girls unencumbered by any serious responsibility or self-awareness. All of the sudden Ernie began to sing. My chest wall began shaking with the physical vibrations of his vibrato. I was shocked by the confrontational reality that was opera- at point- blank range. It suddenly felt like I had been living my life at half-volume, half-pressure, half-heart. The music made me aware of the rewards of confrontational risk. You cannot sing full-throated without taking risks.

When she was 1, Pavarotti’s rendition of “Nessun Dorma” became my daughter’s theme song. She would brandish her baby spoon whenever he belted “Vincero! Vincero! Vincero!!!”  We were making bread the other day listening to him and she looked up with a grin and said: “Mama, isn’t it great to be alive?”

More from Joel Salatin:

“If you teach a child that he’s above mucking out the manure or pulling weeds you’ll raise an arrogant, uncompassionate hard-to-please master.”

“Require and allow children to work. And work with them……Parents, don’t cheat yourselves into thinking you’ll have the same bond over recreation and entertainment that you would over work. The emotional depth and the import of work is far greater than a shared recreational experience. That’s just play. And please don’t think I’m suggesting that we should not play or participate in recreation. I do, however, believe it is greatly overrated in our culture, and has tended to cheapen the value of the human experience.”

                  - Joel Salatin, “Family Friendly farming, a Multigenerational Home-based Business Testament”

In our own family with our children, and the unique age gap between our older and younger daughters, we find ourselves marveling at the particular gift of work that is specific to the different age groups. Yesterday we seeded 25 flats of brassicas and flowers. We found that the time flew by, largely because of the genius the two little ones have for making dirty work fun, and the deftness which the two older ones have at making detailed work efficient. The little ones stripped down to their skivvies and helped Papa fill the flats with soggy metro mix, and the older ones rolled up their sleeves and painstakingly placed tiny broccoli seeds in each cell. Label. Place. Mist. Cover. Spray. Shelve. Done.

This is definitely a case where small farm/domestic economy differs from industrial economics, or from any model which pushes for more efficient production and invests in time and labor- saving devices without thought for the human quotient.  If I had a vacuum seeder I could do the job perhaps as quickly or more quickly by myself, but I would stifle the larger goal of raising my children alongside me in work and play. I would lose the conversations about Fabre and Agatha Christie.

“I can’t remember which one the murderer used….what is that poison that smells like bitter almonds?”

“Oh! I know that one, I just read about it in my Fabre.” (brings a newly seeded flat of kale to the shelves where she slides it under the lights. Grabs a book from the table.)  “Yes, here it is: the cherry-bay.”

 There would be no singing along to the “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”  in the kitchen, reveling together in the smells of lunch in the oven and sap on the stove. Perhaps most importantly, we would lose the cultural collective memory of farming and how to live and work together as a family. Gene Logsdon was always remarking on how the Amish view their labor as part of their gain, their net profit, not loss. This is part of the genius of the Amish way of life, and that of the small family farm. 

There is no real secret to it, except that the crop being raised is not just oats or peas or organic vegetables, but also people.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Write Stuff

Spring Landscape at Kuerner's 1933 oil on canvas
by Andrew Wyeth
 MN Senator Amy Klobuchar is aghast that children during this pandemic have had to resort to learning with pencil and paper. She's after a 94 Billion dollar internet expansion bill.

Andrew Wyeth once said:

"My pencil is like a fencer's foil."

Young Bull 1960 Drybrush on paper
Andrew Wyeth

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Happy March!

The house smells like a sugar shack.

The children are covered in Metro Mix 360.

The onions and parsley have sprouted.

The wind is blowing and the thaw is on.

The cows cavort.

It must be spring.

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Ground Driving Lady Nugget Muffin (in 3 parts) or "God Hates a Coward"


My Uncle is a cattle rancher in Montana. He wears button down collared shirts, cowboy boots and a handle- bar mustache. Always. For us, growing up in suburbia, he became a kind of mythic figure.  Any time Dad thought we city-bred softies needed a little inspiration he would regale us with stories about working on his brother’s ranch, being treated for the first time to the delicacy that is “Rocky Mountain Oysters” and the rip-roaring calf wrangling fun of branding time.

Looking back, I now realize that there were a lot of lessons that my brothers and sister and I distilled from those dinner table tales. For instance: If you clock a guy in a bar room brawl, buy him a drink afterwards. And: A gentleman always takes his hat off in the presence of a lady, and holds the door for her.

To some these proverbs may seem archaic, but we had a real sense that they were necessary for survival in the “wild west”. Now I’m more sensitive to the fact that they might be necessary to knit together the fabric of any community anywhere.

New Bit
Old Bit
As is everyone’s cache of family lore, these stories were swaggering, salty, and heavily embellished. Growing up we had a fenced in backyard with a maple tree in it. Our experience with livestock was our corpulent waddling guinea pig. We named our bikes, and pretended they were horses on the open range. We would listen, spellbound, to stories of the hills of a little town just south of the Canadian border in central Montana, of saddling up and moving Black Angus across the rolling landscape to new ground, wrestling with drought, getting the hay in, and building fence.  Because the hero of these stories was our Uncle, and because his ranch had been the very same place where our Grandma had learned to ride on a retired racehorse, and had rolled up her sleeves to drive the hay wagon in the hot sun when the men left for the war, it felt like it was our story too.

As we swallowed down our last few lumps of tuna fish hotdish, we would find ourselves resolving not to be such pantywaists anymore. Every family ought to have an Uncle from out west. Puts hair on yer chest. Balances the current universe awash in skinny jeans and pastel merino sweaters.

I told my Uncle about our fourteen year old Tennessee Walker- about how she was a gift horse, where she came from, how she was trained, how she wasn’t, her old bit, her new bit, lounging, ground manners, questions, comments, concerns. 

“Do you think it’ll be too crazy, trying to introduce her to ground driving and a new bit at the same time?”

His response was simply:

“Try it. See what she does.”

I felt like Almanzo Wilder in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “These Happy Golden Years”, when Cap Garland turned and tossed the words “God hates a coward!”over his shoulder at him as he stood in fog of indecision.

Horse people will read this with eyes rolling. Still, I venture to put this out there because it is an illustration of what can be done with limited resources, beginner’s knowledge, and rusty hands.

 Like most things in farming, working with horses is mostly a matter of putting in the time. Time spent gives the familiarity that greases the wheels, so to speak. Of the 3 Jersey Cows that we have purchased over the years, two of them came from herds well over 500 and were not used to much one on one attention. Asking # 279 to go from a conventional dairy setup with loafing sheds in winter and twice a day machine milking to “Honey” or “Buttercup”, Queen of the farm, with hand milking, being halter trained and led in and out of a stall each evening and morn is a big ask. The adjustment period averages 2 months. Right when you think “this isn’t working. I’m selling her,” she settles in as if she’s always been there.

With them, the change came on gradually, largely due to us showing up at the barn and pasture at the same time each day. Our habits were deliberate and regular. It was easy for her to grasp what we expected of her. Simply put: we just put the daily time in. That’s what we were finding with our horse too. That’s how it became not just training sessions for her, but for us as well.

Day 1

The first two months were spent working on ground manners: leading well, voice commands, and working on the lunge line. At first she seemed to think lunging was supposed to be an exercise in running. My goal was to make her content with boring. I was after a predictable and well stretched out walk. A long whip to accentuate my movements helped in the beginning. It was an early aid to getting her to walk out from me in the wide circle, verses avoid work by coming in to my body. Increasingly I was only using the whip as an extension of my arm, and soon not at all. My goal was to get the maximum response from the most minute request.  Eventually it became a delicate dance. It seemed all I had to do was think about asking her to change direction and she would. She was always willing to join up. Many days I came away from the barn certain that she knew more than I did, and this process was going to be about training me. I had the feeling that the more I worked with her, the more consistent and clear my body language became, and so in a sense were lunging each-other.  Soon she seemed to grow bored quickly and lose focus and attention. It was obvious she was up for a new challenge.

“You have to keep a hot horse tuned in to you, and that means you have to be interesting. When I school hot horses, I do lots of changes of directions and transitions to keep them listening and not anticipating what is coming up next.”

Bob Hart Jr.

(from an  March 1998 EQUUS Magazine Article “From Hot to Brilliant”)

After two months of building trust and establishing good communication via daily grooming, foot care, and lunging her, we put her saddle on her, fastened the new bit to the bridle, and found to our surprise that she seemed to accept it eagerly. The bit has some copper in it, and she seemed to find this more comfortable than the twisted steel of her curb bit, because, just as advertised, it caused her to salivate more and lubricate the bit.

10 years ago I sent a letter to the Catskills of NY addressed to the (infamous?) high wire artist Phillipe Petit. I invited him to come and install a wire across our Quonset barn for a rural tightrope walk, and to stay for dinner. “I wish you would write a book on backyard wire-walking, so that every parent out there with the need to find something for their children to do, will have a manual from the man himself!” I wrote him.

 He was so kind as to write back and graciously decline my offer but mention that he had written and illustrated a book I might find of interest: “WHY KNOT? How to Tie MORE THAN SIXTY INGENIOUS, Useful, BEAUTIFUL, LIFESAVING, and SECURE KNOTS!” It is a book for winters in front of a woodstove fire. It is the book that inspired the bow-line knot we would use for when we attached the rope lines to the bit, and for making “Figure of Eight stopper knots” at the end of the lines, should things go a bit, shall we say….fast and dicey.

“Adopted as a healing charm in ancient Egypt, the Figure of Eight Knot was found in Middle Kingdom burial sites. Probably because of its symmetric, interwoven shape, the loosely shaped Figure of Eight Knot has been a symbol of love for a long time, especially during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.”

                                                                                                 ---Philippe Petit---

This knot seemed appropriate for two reasons: first, because trying to teach “Lady” to ground drive would be coming full circle for us. We used to farm with a team of Fjord Horses, and began to really love our work from the moment they first came into our life and our farming, re-shuffling our garden plans from 50 and 100 foot rows, to 400 foot long rows. They became a game changer for ground preparation (manure spreading, plowing, discing), cultivating, and harvesting. Anyone who has ever experienced the difference a horse drawn potato plow makes in harvesting tubers previously lifted by hand will know the unmitigated wooping- with- joy- to- the- heavens elation we felt when horses entered the picture on our market gardening farm.

Secondly, because “Lady Nugget” is currently more of a GO horse than a WHOA horse.

The first day went far better than we dreamed it would. She had no problems with the bit. Her main concern seemed to be the fact that Shane was walking behind her. And she needed some getting used to the feeling of the ropes occasionally touching her legs and rump. This was good practice for the traces on a work harness, and was part of the “sacking out” that we were going for. She seemed willing. Though, at first, she was so nervous it took a lot to check her pace. Shane applied a seesawing motion to the lines. This is something Doc Hammill recommends. It certainly seemed to jog her out of panicking and keep her mind engaged. The figure of eight knots proved handy as Lady leaped forward over a log and seemed bent on trotting. Shane’s lines slid through his hands and he closed around the knots, as he worked for the muscle memory, recalling the art of talking to a beast through rope.

The day was so filled with so many new things for her that we had the impression she had no time to think how else to react other than to do what we were asking. The only trouble we had on Day 1 was getting her to walk up.

 Many books will tell you to have someone walk alongside her with the lead rope, but we were finding that these multiple layers of communication were confusing to her. I think a lot of people underestimate how sensitive a horse is to something as mundane as a lead rope. Any time you have a rope clipped to a horse they can feel a lot more than you are even aware you are telegraphing. I have noticed many times that when I give generous slack on a lead line, and simply move my body with intention and confidence, I get more cooperation and better ground manners, than when I closes my hand completely around a rope and try to manhandle a result.

Our main goals for day one were simply for her to move out when asked, and stick a stop. Both took some doing, and a bit of patience while she learned to accept communication from behind. Each time we saw her offering to acquiesce in the slightest we’d ease up on the pressure.  In his book about passive leadership, Mark Rashid calls this “finding the try.”

“Any time you’re willing to fight with horses,” he said in a low, unwavering tone, “they’ll always be willing to fight back. The thig is though, even during those fights the horse is still trying to figure out what you want. The sad part is, because you’re so busy fighting with them, you’ll never feel those tries.”

                                                         -Mark Rashid quoting his mentor “The Old Man” in Horses Never Lie

She’s a quick learner and this worked well. Suffice to say Day 1 was a success. It was evident to me that despite her nerves, Lady was genuinely interested in learning something new and pleasing us with her efforts. This remains the ebb and flow of our relationship- her nervousness seeming to be a “deal breaker” but her simultaneous aiming to please encouraging us to persevere. Sometimes I think what we’re tapping into here is the nature of the horse as a prey animal. This is why this process is so fascinating, and why it feels like we’re being trained as much as she is.

As I walked her back to the barn after our first day ground driving,  I said to her: “Well, Lady, looks like you just won a spot on this farm.”

(Names in this piece have been changed due to privacy considerations.)

Just a Spoonful of Sugar (GDLNM part 2)

 DAY 2

Wasn’t it Mary Poppins who said, “well begun is half done”? Or was she quoting Aristotle? That promising little tidbit was flickering about in my mind as we strode out to the paddock for round two. Unfortunately, our second attempt at ground driving was to be anything BUT practically perfect in every way. 

It began well. No issues saddling or bridling. But it soon became evident that she was waiting to throw a fit. It was as if that horse had spent the night thinking the whole thing over and was anticipating how to get around having to obey those long lines.

 First, she demonstrated no intention of stopping on command. She pranced every stop, she sidestepped in pretty little dressage motions instead of walking up. She give dainty little half bucks and rears. Eventually she turned and faced Shane. When I watched her I had a vague memory of Lynn Miller writing in his “Training Horses Training Teamsters book, that when a horse turned around on you like that it was either your fault for hooking something up wrong or time to get a different horse. I was beginning to think the latter- but then I noticed our rigging the lines through her stirrups was pulling her head lower than it looked like she was

comfortable with, creating another layer of pressure that was unnecessary. We ended the session on as good a note as possible- a couple laps around the paddock and a “sort of” stop near the fence, and called it a day. We were off to the hardware store for some snaps to rig up some “loops” for the lines to run through higher up on the saddle.



The next afternoon when we got to the paddock Lady Nugget Muffin was all lathered up snorting and restless. There was a big dent in the fence, a T-post bent. It looked like she had been racing laps around her paddock and had slipped into the fence and then shot off for some more, locked in a nervous frenzy of fear. “Easy girl, easy. What is it? What happened to you?” We rubbed her down, brushed her. Scratched her withers and looked back along the tracks. A man and his exuberant dog out for a hike were making a deft retreat.

She would not stand still for saddling, swinging her 1000 pounds from side to side. I had my very hat knocked off my head as I attempted to tighten the girth. I looked across at Shane. It seemed like one of those days for giving her a friendly pat and retreating to the house to bake cookies and live to see another dawn.

But Shane looked eager. “Maybe he knows something I don’t” I thought, as I retrieved my hat and handed him the lines. “This, I gotta see.”

I could hear Mario Lanza singing “Ah sweet mystery of life!” in my head as I watched what happened next.

Lady seemed grateful for something to focus on, as if the work itself were calming her down, giving her an avenue out of the deadlock of nervous energy. Every time she showed signs of sidestepping or turning around, Shane would rein her out of it in the other direction coupling the change of direction with a kiss and a “walk up”. Time and again he showed her the appropriate response was giving her “a way out” of whatever was bothering her. The snaps higher up on the saddle were working for us better than the stirrups had, and man and horse were looking comfortable with each other. Soon she was lowering her head and relaxing into that calm partnership that makes for a day’s work well done and well won.

The day was a lesson is how even when you  don’t have the perfect set-up, the perfect situation, the perfect horse- or perfect know-how, you still may find yourself with the perfect opportunity for a breakthrough.

Lightning Rods GDLNM part 3



Since day 3 we’ve had moments like those of Day 2 and moments like those of the “breakthrough day”. But it’s been like a plane slowly taking off, gaining altitude. Each day we work with her seems to make her calmer in the stall, builds up more mutual trust. I think the trust part has been at the heart of this entire exercise. After all, we were total strangers to each other only a few months ago.

The unnerving thing about this gift horse of ours is how much she seems to pick up from us, whether we are aware of it or not. You can almost tell what kind of a mood her handler is in, from the way the horse is carrying herself, walking alongside whoever happens to be leading her out of the barn in the morning.

One day we came out for a training session after I had spent the night at my grandma’s deathbed. I was tired and grumbling; frustrated with the experience of several hours of painfully acute impotence and seeming futility. I had watched the features and body language of a woman I dearly loved for the better part of a day and a half, searching desperately for signs of communication as she slipped farther and farther from this world. When we reached the paddock Lady would not come to us or allow herself to be caught- at least not by us, while we were feuding.

“She’s nervous. She’s dangerous.”

“She’s not dangerous. You’re nervous.”

“Maybe this isn’t going to work out. Do we really want to be putting all this time into this? Should we just give it up?”

All the pent- up feelings of waste and impotence at the nursing home welled up inside of me. I felt a ferocious need to control something, to make something happen. I grabbed her halter and drove her around the paddock alpha herd boss style. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. What began as a work of bullish pigheaded “I’ll show you!” faith ended with a white flag of surrender. “I can’t do this today.” I handed Shane the rope and headed for the house vowing to sell the horse first chance I got.

That afternoon Shane had the best training session with her yet.

“I don’t think we should sell the horse.” Shane said later that night.

 I broke down.

“I don’t want to sell the horse,” I said. “I just don’t want my grandma to die.”


Since that day Shane has taken Lady out of the trial confines of her paddock and worked her out in the open field, going up and down the imagined rows of the future potato field and pumpkin patch. Each time he does this it’s like he’s writing a love note to the future, a pledge of good things to come, ground to be cultivated, crops to be harvested. He’s showing her how to fit in on this farm. They are building mutual trust.

 If we ever have days when Lady doesn’t seem interested in coming up to us and being caught, I slow everything down, mosey out to the middle of the paddock and take a beat. I look at the trees, the clouds, the steers, the fields- anything but her, until she shows an interest in me. Then I return some interest in kind. Eventually when I see her trying to stop circling me I walk away and around in a circle back to her and we both stop. Ready to begin. It takes 10 more minutes of my time. Well worth it.

We’ve learned that the days we want to throw in the towel with the horse are days when something else is going on- something which is bothering us and which we are telegraphing to the horse or allowing ourselves to be distracted by. It strikes me that these are the days when we most need the horse, and the work.

Ron said it well the day we met him and Lady:

“Doesn’t matter what’s going on with you-whatever troubles you’re having in your life. Get on a horse and the troubles go straight out of you, through the horse down into the ground.”

I suppose that makes them lightning rods. In that, horses are a lot like farms in general. So many moments working on a farm feel filled with futility and folly, for every bit you learn, or every year you gain in experience, you are humiliatingly aware of the dizzying mountains of knowledge that you lack and need. It’s easy at times to forget that that very thing is often what makes farming so rewarding.

Sometimes it seems as if, like a horse, the farm also is a lightning rod for every lint scrap of trouble and toil, every twine ball knot of worry and struggle…but then too, working the farm, it all goes into the ground and mercifully you find you are the better for it.