Jim Thompson wrote deep, dark, violent, murderous noir, and then sometimes he wrote something very close to a love song to small towns, to farmers, to states like Nebraska that never get much love from anyone at all. At least not in print. Heed the Thunder is a number of things, but this is what I loved about it (not so much like King Blood, which brings these two together in a meditation on frontier and race violence).
This is a glimpse down a street I shall never see, homes I can’t walk into and a mix of architecture and old nostalgias in a place I have never been and a community I can only stretch to understand. A critique of capitalism and its creation of debt and its destruction of the soil. Unexpected, at least to me. A lovely reminder too, of the European traditions of thinking forward to future generations.
The road down which he drove was lined with houses which bore somewhat the same resemblance to each other as children with the same mother but different sires. There were New England houses, rich with gables and shutters; middle-Eastern houses with shingled turrets; porticoed southern houses. There were even one or two houses which showed chinked-in logs in their facades, which were, purely, except for their ambiguous additions, Western.
They were all different, and all alike. Whatever the home state or homeland that had inspired them, necessity and conservatism had forced them into a definite if elastic pattern. Roofs were strong, anchored and angled to defeat the wind. Paint had been applied generously and generously maintained; and colors ran mostly to blue and yellow and brown. Porches were either closed in or adaptable to closing. Foundations were thick and deep, and frequently extended a fractions of an inch outward from the house proper. Like a burial mound, at the rear of each residence was the grassy, cemented, or bricked hump of a cyclone hole. Nothing was flamboyant. To build markedly better than your neighbor was bad taste; it would create talk, arouse envy, and mark you with the mortal sin of extravagance. To build shoddily was as bad. In these close-knit communities, little of the inside and none of the outside of a man’s home was his castle. Erring in judgment, one might remodel or rebuild, but to do so was to repent before a public that would never forget.
To the outsider, the street might appear unchanging, but not to Sherman Fargo. The Methodist preacher’s wife had picked the grapes from her arbor. The gate at the Widow Talley’s place was hanging on one hinge. (Some of these dudes had probably probably worn it out.) Doc Jones was digging– (36)
Beyond his extensive descriptions of architecture and its relation to a small town community? A remarkable grasp of farming, of philosophy, of debt and capitalism, of the destruction of the land that would bring us to where we sit today amidst climate crisis. All of it written into a short dialogue between a German farmer and a salesman.
But I am not like the others, in this way: I do not make a practice of farming from one year to the next… Now, you say next year will be good for wheat. Maybe you are right—”
“It’s my sincere opinion, Mr. Deutsch, that this will be the biggest—”
“So. And maybe you are right. Maybe next year will be bigger, too, and the next, and so on for ten years. I plant wheat for ten years and every year I make big money and what do I have at the end of it? Nothing.”
“Nothing? How do you figure—”
“I would have no farm. The soil would not stand it. Now, you say you are not implying that I should plant wheat fo; ten years, but there is the principle, you see. The temptation to grab the immediate profit. And I cannot farm that way because I know it is wrong. I have a crop-rotation plan, and that is what I go by. That plan extends one hundred and sixty years into the future.”
The salesman so far forgot his tact that he guffawed. Or, perhaps, be believed that the farmer was joking with him.
“A hundred and sixty years!” he laughed. “Why, you won’t even be here then.”
The farmer nodded, slowly, staring at him. “That is right, Mr. Simpson. I will not be here.”
Simpson reddened. “Excuse me. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. It was just kind of—uh—so funny—”
“Yes, I suppose it is to show any thought for the people of one hundred and sixty years from now—our great grand-children and their children, shall we say.”
“But look at it this way, Mr. Simpson. Suppose I merely plan to exhaust my land during my own and my children lifetime. It will be getting worse and worse all the time we are living from it, will it not? It will not go bad all at once. When we have lived half our lives, we shall only be able to take half as much from it as we could at the beginning.
“I guess you’re right about that.”
“Do you ever read any of the bulletins of the Department of Agriculture, Mr. Simpson?”
“well, sure,” lied the salesman, “I’ve read some of ’em.”
“There is one on dry-land farming in the United States—you should get hold of it. According to this bulletin, the farmer in this country can expect to receive a return on his vestment of about 3 per cent a year. That is from crops, livestock, everything. . .”
Simpson laughed again. He saw no possibility of making a e, and he was getting tired.
“Three per cent!” he scoffed. “Why, Mr. Deutsch, I can ow you farmers right in my territory that cleaned up—.”
“But this is for every year,” the German interrupted, ently. “The average for the bad and the good years. And I think it is a little bit high. It does not sound like a great deal, ut over a period of forty years it amounts to about sixty thousand dollars on an investment such as mine. And in one hundred and sixty years it amounts to almost one quarter of a million dollars—and this land will still be earning its 3 per cent one hundred and sixty years from now. . . But I am getting away from my point. If my land, at its flush, earns only 3 per cent, what will its earnings be over a period of forty years if its life is only that? About 1 per cent, eh—less than enough to exist on. And what will be the position of my children and theirs in this valley?” Simpson put the lines back around his neck and laid his hands to the plow handles. “I’ve certainly enjoyed this talk,” he declared. “I think it’s about time I was getting back to town, though.” Deutsch smiled, then laughed openly. (136-137)
He called and they came into the mirror of the window, seemingly fighting for remembrance even as he fought to remember them. They came brashly and shy, swaggering and halting and prissing, laughing, smiling, frowning, grimacing. Good, bad, and indifferent: the real people, the people of the land. And then they were gone, the last of them; and as he burned them forever into his memory, he pressed his face against the window and fought to hold the land:
The land. The good land, the bad land, the fair-to-middling land, the beautiful land, the ugly land, the homely land, the kind and hateful land; the land with its tall towers, its great barns, its roomy houses, its spring-pole wells, its shabby sheds, its dugouts; the land with its little villages and towns, its cities and great cities, its blacksmith shops and factories, its one-room schools and colleges; the honky land, the Rooshan land, the German land, the Dutch and Swede land, the Protestant and Catholic and Jewish land: the American land—the land that was slipping so surely, so swiftly, into the black abyss of the night. (297)
Thompson, Jim ( 1991) Heed the Thunder. New York: Black Lizard.
I am backdating this to the day we saw we came to this beautiful place but writing this late (maybe late, who knows how late) in lockdown (25 May). I long for a beach, air, space, emptiness, woods, trains, travels, pubs, new things.
A cold, windy day of great dark clouds and blue sky, we hoped to find the beach empty. The older I get, the emptier I like my beaches. Formby was surprisingly full of people along much of the beach itself, but for the most part spread across the long horizon’s sweeps like Lowry figures. But in the glorious dunes there were few people, and the bright sun and deep shadow showed the beauty of low wind carved hills.
Across wet hard-packed beach the wind swept wide rivers of dry sand, swiftly racing undulations of changing currents and rivulets that stung against my shins.
We saw many dogs with joy quivering in every bound and wet shake.
People did fill the woods, one of the last places that red squirrels can still be seen. We did not see red squirrels, only a notice that we might encounter them dead or dying among the pines of squirrel pox. Devastating on many levels.
Nor did we comb the waters edge as the tide ebbed out for the prehistoric footsteps, not knowing that was the only place they could be seen. I’m still a little heartbroken about that. Walking to Formby from the train we missed the informational boards positioned for the passengers of cars, but even for them it wasn’t all that clear.
I loved that this was also a productive landscape, a world of small holding (or so it was once) and asparagus beds — ah, asparagus! How I love asparagus. There is a plaque for the Aindow family, a rare local name. The plaque tells us:
William Aindow… with his brothers Ellis and Douglas and sister Joan, he leveled new fields next to Victoria Wood. The Aindows also grew asparagus on part of Pine Tree farm and a long pointed strip of land next to Jubilee Wood called tongue sharp piece! It was here they had their sheds ad a couple of caravans where they stayed during the main asparagus season.
Horses were used on the Aindows’ farm into the 1990s. The narrow drills suited horse cultivation and the horse would move between the ridges without damage to the roots of the asparagus plant. When the ridges were formed by tractor cultivation, they tended to be wider. It wasn’t always easy to plough or harrow with a tractor o the sand because of the risk of getting stuck, especially when the sand was dry.
The ridges of their fields can be seen here:
A splendid walk, if cold and the wind, well the wind was really something.
I’ve been wanting to read Oliver Rackham‘s History of the Countryside since my smallholding adventures. Now comes springtime, my upcoming birthday, finally a day to breathe after possibly the most punishing period of my working life…
I miss my blog so much.
Reading Rackham I am filled with such a glorious and enormous weight of knowledge, centuries of human activity intertwined with these myriad ecologies of soil, water, rock, flora, fauna. The ability (still untested of course) to better read a thousand years or more in the landscape. This is mostly just a collection of delightful facts which are rather better interwoven in the book. But this is much shorter.
First, this delightful thought.
Insights may also come at random from travels made, or documents read, for some quite different purpose. I went to Texas to discuss Cretan archaeology, and what I saw made me revise my views on hedges.
Another — the argument for history’s continuity over brutal violent change, the roller coaster of civilization and darkness we were once taught:
Many recent excavations reveal a gradual changeover with little apparent effect on the landscape; sometimes, as at Rivenhall (Essex), it is not easy to tell at what point the Roman Britons turned into Anglo-Saxons. The ecological evidence strongly favours continuity. When the curtain is raised by Anglo-Saxon documents, much of what we now regard as the ‘classic’ English landscape was already there, had already acquired its regional differences, and as far as we can tell was not new. It increasingly seems likely that, at least since the Iron Age, every inch of the British Isles has either belonged to somebody or has been expressly set aside for communal use. Not just main roads but wide areas of fields and lanes are Roman (or earlier) antiquities, and survived the Dark Ages almost intact. (xiv)
He divides the lowland English & Welsh landscape into Ancient Countryside and Planned Countryside, with various uplands (where I live now) — I find this transforms how I see countryside and England itself. So it’s not just a string of delightful facts after all.
Hamlets & small towns
Ancient isolated farms
Hedges mainly mixed, not straight
Roads many, not straight, often sunken
Many public footpaths
Woods many, often small
Pollard trees, if present, away from habitation
Many antiquities of all periods
Open field either absent or of modest extent and abolished before c 1700
Most hedges ancient
Many though often small woods
Non-woodland trees oak, ash, alder, birch
18th & 19th C isolated farms
Hedges mainly hawthorne, straight
Roads few, straight, on surface
Woods absent or few & large
Pollard trees (except riverside willows) absent or only in villages
Antiquities few, usually prehistoric
Strong tradition of open-field beginning early and last into Enclosure Act period
Most hedges modern
Woods absent or few & large
Heaths rare; little bracken or broom
Non-woodland thorns and elders
I quite love these, simple, quite obvious ways of reading the landscape and of course they explain so much. The ridge and furrow I loved — not as old as I thought, went tearing through ancient landscapes and over burrows and standing stones…maybe I don’t love them quite as much. I can’t decide.
He challenges accepted views of deforestation with two quotations, one from John Evelyn talking about the ways that the new voracious Glass and Iron-works have destroyed the woods and another from Defoe about the inexhaustible woods all around. He writes
Unfortunately many historians confine themselves to the written word or, worse still, to the literary world; they are reluctant to put on their boots and see what the land itself, and the things that grow on it, have to say. (6)
It turns out that most of the iron- and glass-works managed for hundreds of years on coppiced woods and that in truth, there was no great loss of woods at this time. The woods that were lost were lost primarily to agriculture. This is a constant theme, that it is all well and good to write histories of what people thought about the landscape, but ‘let us not confuse this with the history of what people did with the landscape, still less with the history of the landscape itself or of what the landscape did with people‘. (23)
He describes the Anglo-Saxon charters, the perambulations used to delineate the boundaries — they are amazing. He gives this example:
First up from the Thames along the merfleot [=boundary creek]; to the pollard stump; so to Bulung fen; from the fen along the old ditch to Cowford; from Cowford up along teobern [the river Tyburn] to the wide army-road; from the army-road to the old post-built St Andrew’s church; so into London fen; along the fen south to the Thames to mid-stream; along the upstream by land & shore back to the merfleot. (from the year 959)
The wide-army road is High Holborn, the fen around Fleet Street. These details give me such happiness, seeing old lines of water and earth beneath the city I know so well.
He talks of the rural maps of the 1860s and 70s, ‘which attempt to record every hedgerow tree and the details of every building…the zenith of rural mapmaking in Britain and perhaps in the world‘ (19). Notes the various traditions of preserving the boundaries, like Great Gransden where they dug a hole in a certain spot and held the Vicar’s head in it. There is so much to love about England.
There is also a real sense of how much has been lost by the rise of mass agriculture of the 1950s and 60s — he writes of four kinds of loss.
There is the loss of beauty, especially that exquisite beauty of the small and complex and unexpected, of frog-orchids or sundews or dragonflies. The loss of freedom [of highways, movement across the landscape]…The loss of historic vegetation and wildlife…the loss of meaning. The landscape is a record of our roots and the growth of civilization. Each individual historic wood, heath, etc. is uniquely different from every other, and each has something to tell us. (26)
All due to big agriculture, ‘the makers of chemicals, fertilizers and machinery‘. I sometimes worry about the touches of nostalgia to be found here, but he’s not wrong about this. He’s also quite entertainingly curmudgeonly. Like his footnote complaint about the historical accuracy of producers of historical films: ‘they do not allow Charles I to fly in a plane, but they do let him ride among Corsican pine plantations or Frisian cattle!‘ (31)
There is a list of extinct animals — the aurochs, sad they are gone, and wolves. Even sadder. But this is fascinating:
In Anglo-Saxon times, unpersons (!) and men on the run were declares wulvesheafod (wolves-head) and if caught ended on a wolves-head tree. (34)
Then there is this partial list of what Henry III had for his Christmas dinner — him wot finished off the last of the wild swine in England (his demands for immense amounts of all kinds of things we no longer eat recur throughout the book, though at times contrasted with similar if not such extensive demands of lesser gentry)–200 wild swine from Dean and 100 from Pickering–he ordered the last remaining wild swine, found in the forest of Dean, killed for a friend (what a friend!) in 1260.
The polecat was also known as the foulmart. Amazing. Except that it is not actually a cat, though it is cute and endangered.
There is also the remarkable information about rabbits, but I might do a separate post about them. I had no idea rabbits were so interesting.
Another fabulous footnote (though you know I disagree utterly):
The horse-chesnut, Aesculus hippocastanum, is quite unrelated (and poisonous) introduced in the sixteenth-century from Albania. It is still unmistakenly exotic and has not become wild. It is a sad example of a once glamorous species, associated with oriental romance and spectacle, being deprived of its meaning through being made the universal tree of bus-stations. (54)
God I know so much about woodland now. Also forests, which often had no trees at all, only deer. I know about coppicing, pollarding and all things brilliant about managing woods as a renewable resource. This chart, ah this chart:
The first evidence (he says in the world but I am not holding my breath) for woodsmanship — those amazing early Neolithic causeways across the Somerset levels, oak structures with underwood poles of ash, lime, elm, oak and alder. The causeways…my heart beats faster, wooden walkways across the fens now buried but how I wish I could have seen them.
Some lovely stuff about the local vernacular of building, the differing fashions not always dependent on local materials — thus Cambridge built primarily in wood (apart from the colleges) despite the presence of easily worked stone. He writes
‘The only generality is that, where a region has not much timber building, it will be urban…Timber was an architectural medium: a ‘wealth of exposed beams’ looked picturesque and expressed prestige; it was not necessary to hold up the structure’. (86)
And was of course plastered over again as fashion changed. He continues:
Most medieval buildings are made from large numbers of small oaks; ever timber, large or small, is made from the smallest tree that will serve the purpose. The carpenter chose trees of the sizes required and squared them up, usually leaving the corners rounded (‘waney’). Oaks, then as now, were crooked and carpenters made ingenious use of the irregular shapes into which they grow. This was from choice: carpenters could saw big oaks lengthwise into several beams when they had to….(86)
Again we return to errors of economic historians, who describe woods destroyed for fuel, particularly for the iron industry between 1550 and 1700. But it didn’t happen, they never touched timber trees only underwood, and drew this from their own woods managed over long periods of time. He even describes the ways that merchant ships were built of timber, but HM Navy preferred to scrounge from the wood-pastures. He writes ‘H.M.S. Victory, built 1759-65, is ingeniously put together from great numbers of the smallest, and therefore cheapest, practicable oaks (91).
The myth evolves from the big shift in rural society and economics — when wood became understood as primarily timber and not as energy. This shift, partly due to the rise of cheap coal, is is when the sustainable management and harvesting of woodlands shifted to purely timber production. And oh the damage that that has caused.
I hadn’t realised that most older woods will have earthworks along their boundaries, built to keep animals out and protect tender young shoots and leaves. These remain, though sometimes they have been overtaken by secondary wood expanding outwards and across the boundary. Things to look for I never knew to look for. And a splendid note: ‘(no Forest was complete without a resident hermit).’ (147)
We come to older ways of parceling out and working the land. Reaves…I had never heard of reaves, yet my love of Dartmoor is great.
Reaves tell a story of country planning on a gigantic scale: of an organization able to parcel out tens of square miles as it pleased, and which set its rules of geometry above the practicalities of dealing with gorges and bogs…(156)
They seem to have been in full use from the Bronze Age — and similar systems have been found elsewhere, including Nottinghamshire and Berkshire. Splendid.
This chart that shows how lynchets are created, some of them from the neolithic:
So after all the open fields, and the effect they had on the landscape aren’t quite as exciting as I once thought. Still, they do reflect a degree of collectivization of land and organisation of labour, which makes them really interesting. Rackham describes 7 cardinal features:
Divided into a multitude of strips, with each farmer’s strips distributed regularly or randomly throughout the field
These strips aggregated into furlongs and those into fields. All farmers grew the same crop in each furlong, each 3rd field left fallow
Animals of all farmers released to graze the stubble and the fallow field
farmers shared in labour of cultivating each others strips
Hedges few, and no enclosed circuits
Strips ploughed to form ridge-and-furrow
Regular meetings held to decide cultivation practices, fine dissidents
There is so much there to love.
Along with this diagram of how ridge and furrow are made:
Interestingly enough there’s no clear date for when it started. Some believed the Anglo-Saxons brought it with them, but there is apparently no evidence in Germany that it was in existence there earlier than in England. Some date it to after the Norman conquest. The largest concentration of them is at Uffington Scarp, and Rackham argues that attention to the Anglo-Saxon charters shows convincing evidence that the open-field systems existed at the time — and therefore this distinction between planned and ancient countryside already existed — through their descriptions though there is no specific reference to open-fields. He also notes that similar systems can be found in Scandinavian, Welsh and Gaelic cultures in the UK and French, Germanic, Slavonic and Greek cultures in Europe.
He writes ‘Open-field, with its rapid spread, has all the marks of a Dark Age invention.’ (178) I don’t know why, but wondering just how that happened gives me chills.
We go on to hedges. I love them. There is some evidence of the Roman management of hedges of hawthorne and occasionally they were given names in the Anglo-Saxon records (ealden hegestowe – old hedge-place). Lovely.
Not so lovely, the great enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries required so many plants it became a big business and initiated the founding of several nurseries. They mostly used hawthorne and only hawthorne for speed and cheapness, unlike earlier hedges planted with various trees and shrubs.
I love, of course, the knowledge that hedges can be dated fairly well by identifying the number of species of plant present there — from among a certain list of plants. Some have been identified as 1000 years old, with up to ten of these present. He gives a number of exceptions as well, so you always want your hedge to match clues from the surrounding countryside.
A wonderful chapter about individual trees, in farmyards, villages, woods. Trees with names. The splendid black poplar which I shall seek out. The long life of stag headed trees.
Another chapter on Elms — there are more elms than we have name for as they primarily reproduce through suckers but occasionally something new altogether is produced through seed. He writes:
Without the restraining influence of sex on evolutionary change, elms (like dandelions and brambles) have produced a multitude of different forms. The taxonomist, devising Latin names, cannot keep up with this process). (232)
I quite love that.
Highways — and not modern car-filled horrible highways, but the ways that people cross the land. He contrasts England with Greece and writes
The much more stable road system of Britain is partly the consequence of our climate and multitude of rivers, which require paths and roads to be structures and not mere routes; it also reflects English and Welsh, rather than Scottish or continental, attitudes to rights of way. The idea that ownership of land includes rights to keep the public off it and to be rude to well-behaved trespassers is partly due to the general increase in landowners rights in the last 200 years; but traces of this idea can be found in documents from earlier periods and in the landscape itself. (248)
Again, a fascinating mention of the wooden trackways across the Somerset levels, but not enough. A bit about Roman roads — like they weren’t all completely straight, just the ones the army was building. Though they are mostly straight, to be fair. I love the idea of traveling old roads.
A little about purprestures — or people building into roads. A little about the trenches of Roman roads and the trenches and open spaces built along medieval roads to stop the predations of highwaymen. All of these histories can be seen now in varying forms — primarily the alignment of current roads, fields and parish boundaries. The formation of heath, with its stripes and polygons, and of moors and grasslands.
The fact that moles were once called moldywarpes.
There is more documentation of villagers coming together to undertake the work of irrigating meadows — not as at home to water them primarily, but to carry fertilizer in the form of calcium leached from the springs. Curious. A whole section on ponds, dells and pits. I was losing steam a bit at this point, but when I next encounter such a thing I shall remember. Or know where to look. Like marshes, fens and the sea.
New Mexico (and Colorado’s) acequias are communal irrigation ditches — from another book I brought with me, though never did start reading on the trip. I later discovered the wealth which we drove through unknowing:
the gravity-driven, earthen-work irrigation networks handed down from late antiquity–remain the pivotal material basis and ecological precondition for the existences and sustenance of a four-hundred-year-old bioregional culture. (58)
They emerged out of the tortured history of the Southwest before Anglos arrived, out of the land grants and the traditions of Iberian settlers borrowing from the moors, as well as indigenous farming practices. There is such an amazing richness and melding of very different traditions here, but all connected to living in arid lands. From another article by José A. Rivera, found online here that gives more of the historical background.
Acequia technologies and irrigation methods employed by the Hispanic settlers in the new province were melded from diverse sources. Historians agree that these antecedents included the irrigation practices common to the arid regions in the south of Spain, particularly Andalusia, Castilla and Valencia, based on traditions from the Roman period; the superimposition of Arabic customs and techniques during the seven centuries of occupation of Spain by the Muslims from north Africa and the Middle East; the influence of Pueblo Indian agriculture as observed by early Spanish explorers and expeditions; and the irrigation horticulture of Mesoamerica brought by Mexican Indians who accompanied the Spanish caravans along the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro.
Similar to the aboriginal peoples before them, hispano irrigators of the upper Río Grande revere water and treasure it as the foundation of the community, and from inception they have utilized water as the main structural factor in spatial and landscape modification.
In a roundtable discussion also presented in the reader, Devon Peña gives a concrete example from a newer study of 8 specific farms:
The oldest one was founded before the Oñate Entrada [the first Spanish explorer’s entry], it is part Indian and they have probably been there for a thousand years, but now there is intermarriage between the San Juan Pueblo family and the Chicano family, so that land has been worked for over a thousand years and yet they have a six-foot soil horizon, and no plough pan: the hydrologist on our research staff says that the gravity-driven earthen work irrigation system … actually create soil, rather than destroy soil, especially when it is a multigenerational art form. (18)
Art form is exactly what it is.
Back to Peña’s examination of how the acequia sits within the landscape in the specific article:
The acequia irrigation system is based on the use of water released by the gradual melting of winter snowpack…The capture by humans of this renewable energy, like beaver works, concentrates ecological processes that expand the riparian life zone, creating new habitat and movement corridors for native flora and fauna…The patchy long-lot mosaics and wetlands resulting from subirrigation are renowned examples of anthropogenic wildlife habitat. Other important ecosystem benefits of the acequias include the maintenance of water and soil quality and the preservation of agrobiodiversity through heirloom seed-saving. (58)
The acequia is a profound accomplishment because it exemplifies the possibility that local cultures sometimes fulfill “keystone” functions in eco-systems by providing habitat for numerous species of native flora and fauna. (59)
He quotes Nazarea (1999) as describing this mosaic as “an almost compulsive need to link up and connect’, yet another example of networks, interconnectedness, emergence. All these things I am become more and more obsessive about.
This map from the New Mexico Acequia Associations shows that much of our drive from Chama to Pecos Ruins at least was through lands managed by the patchwork of local acequia associations along the Chama and the Pecos rivers.
On the Rio Arriba acequias, :
The acequia is a communally managed institution that is organized under the authority of local customary practices…the acequia as a civic institution for local self-governance has emphasized three normative principles: (1) the use value of water to the community, (2) mutual aid, and (3) cooperative labor. (60)
Here they were organised into the Sociedad Protectora Mutualista de Trabajadores Unidos, the Protective Mutualist Society of United Workers, SPMDTU. This is broader than the acequia associations and continues in many land-grant villages, there is actually a resurgence of it in Antonito, which made me happy to hear. (68) Here are fields and sunflowers we passed on the train:
I love this description of how farmers organize memory through landscape, one cannot be separated from the other:
During the field research, the farmers began to narrate memories that were clearly organized according to a set of cognitive maps — mental pictures of their home places. (64)
I loved also the use of James C. Scott’s idea of métis, or local practical knowledge — again knowledge intimately bound up in a physical landscape. Peña writes:
…métis has technical and sociocultural dimensions. The practical knowledge in a given locality is not the sum of local knowledge a community creates to produce a range of right livelihoods located in place. Métis inclusdes knowledge related to expressive oral traditions and these nearly always encompass moral and not just technical qualities. (72)
So we move from acequias in the landscape and the greater region, to the ways in which acequias contribute to the making of place:
The acequia is not just a sustainable, regenerative, and renewable irrigation technology. It is a political and cultural institution that intersects with the place-centered identities and environmental ethics of the local community. The acequia is the material and spiritual embodiment of people making habitable places. But it is not without its antithesis in the degradation of homeland by the forces of modernity and maldevelopment. (61)
Maldevelopment — I like that word. Because of course there are no great profits to be made from these systems, and they are very much under threat. Peña goes on to describe the attempt to carry out the massive logging of contested lands in the Sangre de Christo mountains — exemplary of how greed works. Behind it all, showing how history continues to resonate through the landscape:
Zach, “Junior”, was the second generation owner of the Taylor Ranch and a direct descendant of President Zachary Taylor, himself notoriously well known to us as the army general who led the war against Mexico in 1845-48. (62)
The logging of tens of thousands of acres has immense effect on traditional irrigation systems dependent on managing the regular melting of snow over a period of months, yet anglo-American law and tradition finds it hard to encompass such things.
The enclosure of the commons, the fencing of the land to prevent locals from exercising their traditional use rights, becomes an act of violence because it deprives people of their liberty. The barbed-wire fence is invoked as a symbol of the loss of an open landscape that was once an undisturbed part of the community’s identity. (65-66)
There even exists a fascination with the materiality, the physical artificial of barbed wire itself. I doubt anyone not from the Southwest knows just what an art form was made of vicious wire meant to divide. This board is from the mining museum in Los Cerillos, but Tombstone’s courthouse museum once had a whole room dedicated to it, and I have seen them in a number of other places:
Still, I love that acequias continue the fight to exist — to read more you can start with the New Mexico association. I love that throughout New Mexico the boundaries of old land grants are marked. My dad must have worked to support acequias when he was working in Taos back in the 70s, I wish I could ask him about that now. He used to bring in food and supplies in to at least one of the land grant occupations during that time too. I was born in Taos, I know it doesn’t connect me in too concrete a way to these things, but it is a connection of the heart.
[Peña, Devon (2002) ‘Endangered Landscapes and Disappearing Peoples? Identity, Place and Community in Ecological Politics,’ pp 58-81 in Adamson, Joni, Mei Mei Evans and Rachel Stein (eds) Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics & Pedagogy. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.]
I should have known medieval farm illustrations might still be relevant to my own farming experience — found in the Lutrell psalter above all, which is unbearably wonderful. Also full of grotesques and wondrous creatures, everyday life is not forgotten. Here is catching lambs and ewes after the sheep have been herded up tight tight between hurdles — otherwise it is near impossible:
This is, to be honest, a little spooky as it is exactly what we actually did, though the hurdles look a little different these days. Those look like buggers to manage, I confess. Also, they should be as tired and dirty and scraggly as me, but if you’ve been doing it longer maybe you can do it better in style.
Then there is the use of the little hook blade — not to harvest grain as here, but to clear pathways, wonderful things:
To be fair, I did not in fact plough anything, but I have hunted out the old ridge and furrow patterns of open fields, seen all over the Peak District farm I worked on. Below is how they were formed and sown. Dogs, to be clear, do still chase birds with similar lack of success, but there were no clouds of birds settling across the newly turned earth as I have read about here, and once experienced magically in Mexico:
When working in the permaculture garden, Rob pointed out to me a Bruegel painting where someone was obviously peening a scythe in the front left corner — a method still used to give a new edge to the blade when the metal has blunted enough that whetstones are no long able to hone it.
This makes mowing look lovely — mowing weeds isn’t quite the same, but the piles are much the same and the work teaches you just how wonderful such rest and food can be:
There are few things in life better than Brueghel paintings, whether by the elder or the younger, especially for understanding a landscape and how people fit into it, how they shape it.
Tractors are mostly used to cut and bale hay for long winters, but we did some smaller bales — still mechanized, but heaved around and stacked by hand. No grain though.
We’re still feeding chickens, and building them secure homes in the hopes that the foxes won’t get them.
No feeding of squirrels though.
I believe this kind of work is for the gentry, but who can tell?
Raised beds? I spent so much time working on raised beds just like this one, and the space looked just the same:
Here as well — we had no knot garden, but edged and dug the earth using the same tools:
I am rather certain that is some pollarding of the tree happening at the top right, and look at those sheep!
This look has been a bit desultory, I am sure there are many more!
I am a day behind, so this is actually yesterday’s post on cows. And some mysterious news is taking me up to Glasgow on Thursday, so time here is cut short! I am a little sad, because I still haven’t written on the farm itself, but I will tomorrow. Today?
They are really big.
Especially these cows, beef cattle, Herefords. I found this on the Hereford cattle website, containing all you want to know about why these are good cows to have (though they are trying to sell you Herefords, it’s true):
Identity: Throughout its history the Hereford has maintained its distinctive white face and red coat. All cross-bred Hereford cattle feature a white face, a distinct advantage for easier traceability and future predictability. Foraging Ability: Docility: Hereford cattle are famous for their good temperament… Adaptability: Ease of Calving:
Fertility: Ease of management: Quality Beef:
So there you have it — the black cattle in the herd have been crossed with Holstein-Friesian cattle, the kind of cow most often pictured in the books belonging to small children and on Ben and Jerry’s ice cream tubs. You see a field of these cows? You’re probably safe to go into it.
When you sell cows for meat they are graded on how much fat they have. How can you tell if your cows are too fat? You look at the bulge where their tail meets their body. These cows are getting up there.
We were moving the cows to a new field, but needed them to spend some time in the bridle path connecting the two eating the grass there as well, so the plan was to have Leo at one end and myself at the other in case a walker came along wanting to use the bridle path.
Cows DO like moving into the next field.
So they entered the passage fairly easily, bringing the sheep along with them. The sheep are in full agreement with the cows on the moving-into-a-new-field thing.
So easy, right? I stood there, got out my kindle with some joy after appreciating the view for a few minutes and idly pondering life and cows.
It turns out Cows DO NOT like remaining in fairly narrow paths between fields.
With a thundering, they all came racing back towards me. In discovering whether the grass was greener on the other side, they had ALL left their calves behind in a clump at the end of the old field, which we hadn’t quite realised. That combined with not liking narrow enclosed spaces is what sent them running back we think. Straight at me. A fence in between, but still.
Cows are really big.
One skidded a few feet in the mud (it’s been raining for days and days, finally some sun that afternoon). Trying to stop.
Finally after great commotion they gradually reunited with their calves. Milled around a bit.
They eyed me with varying degrees of suspicion and resentment:
They headed down to the other end, came running back to me again. In the process trampling the nice new grass. The sheep had had enough.
The cows decided rather than enjoying the new grass around them, that they really wanted to come into this field.
They brought horseflies with them. I fucking hate horseflies. I have a few new welts. I also have more empathy with cows, who were covered in the things.
They trampled down the grass, left great ruckings in the ground, stripped leaves off of trees, and when their hour was up, we let them into the next field along. They seemed very happy there today.
After such a day — and that day the other group all got out of the far field and we herded them back along the road — I have realised that while I like cows all right, I do not love them. In the face of the kind of admiration raised amongst those around me, which I witnessed as we stood around for a rather long time staring over the fence at the said cows, I had to acknowledge I was lacking something. A beautiful something.
I shall leave you with a poignant image of bovine longing, and you can decide whether you have it or not.
I spent most of the morning weeding, but only after the feeding. The lambs were happy to see me, and Sandy is no longer my favourite. Those goddamn docks keep seeding and I have been speeding to lop off their heads and chop them down — I have discovered that the only way to be safe with flowering docks is to send the whole of them to the muck heap as they seed up and down every stem. Every time I look closely at the mulch pile on the raised bed I see the still-living flower heads growing up from the stems I cut a week ago quite certain I had removed the flowers. Wrong.
Lessons learned. Emergency in the making? Just like every hogweed and nettle flowerhead. It is too late now, I should have been doing this a month ago. I should have known better.
And did I tell you the tractor caught on fire yesterday, or was it the day before? It did. Fault with the wiring which is hopefully fixed, and it’s raining today so it should be just fine right? But I didn’t see it myself, so it’s almost like it didn’t happen, still, I am collecting emergencies. There have been infinite and ongoing small ones, but I have set a limit on size and scale you see — so I thought perhaps the milk for my morning coffee getting pinched this morning from the fridge didn’t quite make it into the list, because by after lunch my bitterness had gone.
The rain fell fairly relentlessly so I spent much of the morning in the polytunnel, destroying docks and burdock and mizuna run amuck and creeping thistles.
This afternoon, Leo and I cleaned out the cow trailer with a broom, a brush, and little more than a trickle of water. I remembered the pressure washer with great affection and even longing. Scrubbing and scrubbing and I am so tired. A little after four we went to let the cows into the middle path, but before we could send them through the hurdles we had to rig up, we were swept off to help deal with a proper spectacular emergency as the cows in the far field had got out, and were in the neighbour’s silage field. Off we went to collect them up — it was nice sitting down in a car. Very nice indeed. I had time to remember how beautiful it is here. Then we collected the cows, walked them down the lane (the cars had to stop for us and we ambled along cow-paced and it was the highlight of the day) and into their proper field. Bob fixed up where they had broken loose. We found the two cows we thought we were short, they had stayed in the field. Endless evening emergency search averted.
I wish I had pictures.
Almost 7 we got back and the poor lambs and Sandy and Lilly the kid still needing to be fed.
As you can see from the picture that heads this post, the wunderkind left his blue hat in this very smelly barn of muck. I do not know who he will be without it, I can imagine him without it only with very great difficulty. This barn happens to be where we chop wood which is how he came to leave it. Now it stands as a lonely, colourful testament to his abhorrance of getting dirty or work of most kinds. A lost testament to his dreams.
I can’t mock him too much though. I myself must confess that after only a week here I am rather pining for a slap-up dinner commencing with cocktails where I shall be fully clean, and wearing a dress and nice shoes and the food shall have fancy names and maybe there shall be some words I don’t know, and there shall be lights and mirrors and wine and good smells and I shall be out. I don’t think it is just this place making me feel this way, I believe it is more of a cumulative emotion.
There is a burning circle around both of my wrists from nettle attacks across the gaps between my gloves and my jumper/coat (depending on how much it was raining at the time). But I wrecked great havoc on them today. I am changing my strategy per request to prioritize flowering/seeding nettles along with the docks, so it won’t have quite the daily before and after affect. Ah well.
This morning I also shared a special moment with the goats, because for the first time ever I realized that I was able to say andale cabrona completely appropriately, and Lilly the Kid came peering out before her bully brother pushed through:
I also split some wood and spent over an hour sweeping up and collecting the wood shavings from the chain saw. I collected two bags full for the outdoor compost loos, and sprinkling them after use does indeed almost entirely get rid of the smell! No wonder they were used on the floors of all those bars and eating establishments…God I miss Philippe’s in LA, what I wouldn’t give for a french dip sandwich with cheese, a lemonade, and a piece of apple pie.
No baby animals today, the Steiner wonderchild did them (very very slowly, like everything else), but I did get to start work recovering a lost garden. Hopefully I’ll have time to clear it and start some lovely things growing between other chores before I go!
This morning really started with Molly providing some comic relief by standing on the roof of the wood shed:
But then we came to where I hope I will be able to point to and say I left this place better for having been here.
You come to a wire gate alongside some of the sheds, keeping the herbs and veg that once grew here safe from marauding chickens that run loose in the yard.
It’s some time since anyone spent any time down here, as you can see from the passage down to the gardens — though of course these weeds come up so ridiculously fast:
Arriving at the end of this passage is a very long lost garden, a huge undifferentiated swath of nettles and docks and hogweed and others.
This is looking back from the other direction:
The wunderkind began an attack on this later in the day with a strimmer — again, I so so missed the scythe. It is so much more useful as it cuts closer to the soil, apart from the noise and the petrol. You work your way along the edge of this towards a garden a little less lost, a series of raised beds, and bark put down between some of them to preserve the paths. What I also wouldn’t give for the little semicircular blade that would clear the paths…ah well.
Continue further — on your right, and down below you find Lilly and her mean father, Arthur:
You turn left to see six or eight more beds, with a polytunnel behind them needing reclaiming:
The view from the other side:
Quite a task! But first, I had to focus on cutting off all the flowering heads of the dock and hogweed before their seeds were dispersed across the farm.
Hogweed is quite interesting — I missed the media frenzy about Giant Hogweed, imported here from Georgia — this grows over ten feet, sending up huge white umbrels of flowers and its sap can cause horrible burns across your skin that may take days, weeks or years to heal properly.
The giant hogweeds are usually referred to by one name, Heracleum mantegazzianum. Research by RHS and other botanists shows that, while this is one of the species, there are as many as four other giant hogweeds at large in Britain some of which are biennial and others perennial. However, when tested all these had high levels of furanocoumarins (the chemicals which cause burning by making the skin sensitive to sunlight) and so all pose a risk to public health.
There is also a native hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium, which will be a familiar plant to gardeners and those who like to go walking in the UK. It can grow to six foot or so when in flower but is nevertheless a much smaller plant than giant hogweed. It can cause rashes and other skin complaints but reactions tend not be as severe as with the larger species.
The giant hogweeds were introduced into Britain and Europe from the Caucasus Mountains in the nineteenth century. The earliest documented reference to their introduction into Britain that has been traced is from the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew Seed List of 1817 where giant hogweed, under the name of Heracleum giganteum was listed among seeds supplied to Kew by the Russian Gorenki Botanic Gardens. They were soon introduced into the horticultural trade and being aesthetically impressive plants, were widely planted in ornamental gardens throughout Britain. Unfortunately they quickly escaped from cultivation with the first naturalised (‘wild’) population recorded in Cambridgeshire in 1828, and are now widely naturalised as invasive species throughout much of Britain and Europe.
What they don’t note is that the shoots of the native hogweed are apparently quite delicious steamed and buttered. I definitely want to try that. In picking them, however, they are still not pleasant to handle so gloves must be worn. They can’t be strimmed, because that can send the sap shooting across your skin (again a scythe wouldn’t have that problem) with force, which makes it even more painful. They have to be dug out one by one — I didn’t do that today, just walked around the very considerable field that has recently been mowed picking off the flower tops.
Here is some alongside the little bit that has been left as woodland, and where willow grows aplenty for use by the wood and willow-worker who has workspace here.
I picked a plethora, and tiring as it was, I got to explore the far end of the field where I had not yet been (except when I was sitting in the tractor). I found another badger sett! A lone one, but seems to be well used.
The views are stunning, back down across the farm:
Across the other field that will at some point become hay:
It started raining in the middle of this, and has not yet stopped. I did a little more work on the lost garden, but left my ipod in the caravan so have no work-done picture. We have a half day tomorrow, so I will get one then I suppose.
Long day, but a good one. In other news, my last rejection apparently wasn’t quite as bad as I thought it was yesterday as I skimmed it over. But I still haven’t been able to read it again myself. Time for all things.
Just communities. Just cities. Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.