Summer 2011

We did not attempt much at Level Road this year apart from a few turnips and onions in the lower plot and asparagus, garlic and onions in the upper  (in theory irrigated by collected rainwater). Mainly because our neighbor from … Continue reading

10-10-10: Viewed through the moving window

Headed back to Crystal Beach on US19 in Georgia. Cotton and Peanuts being harvested. On the way up we saw huge machines scooping up the cotton plants and then blowing the separated cotton bolls into a cage in the rear which appears to compress the stuff. The bolls end up in oblong shapes with a rain cover dotting the fields. When they truck them to the gin a large number of bolls will escape out the back lining the sides of the highway with white fluff.

Peanuts appear to be harvested after the plant has been lifted from the ground. Tractors then pull a device that frees the peanuts so that they can dump them into a yet another oblong conveyance. The peanuts do not appear to escape during transport.

Please note these are just observations made from a moving vehicle by two individuals who know nothing of commercial agriculture. Striking, though, is the mechanization of the processes, and the obvious dependence on the fossil-fuel infrastructure that has captured the attention of all the Peak oilers out there. I read somewhere that during World War 2 farmers used wood alcohol to fuel their machines owing to the scarcity of petroleum. How many trees equate to how many peanuts? How many cotton shirts? At what point does Georgia resemble deforested Haiti? The Second Law of Thermodynamics will raise the price of a commercial jar of peanut butter to infinity if this is carried far enough. Then again, maybe we will be saved by commercially-scaled algae-based biodiesel.

As the cotton harvesters ply their trade one sees the ghosts of a former economic structure associated with The Lost Cause. We wonder whether the peculiar institution that has marked the USA would have evolved out of existence as the machines improved in ability and price. Surely not as early as 1863, although there are historical revisionists who counter that the Civil War was unnecessary to eradicate slavery, that it would have died out on its own both because of technological progress and because of the moral progress that saw the English-speaking world take the lead against the institution.

That’s grist for another mill. As we descend from the Southernmost Appalachians through South Georgia we note there really is a world full of farmers and cash crops and weather so hot for so long that even with the occasional rain that pushes up the new green shoot, the soil beneath is baked hard and the dead brown pasture crackles underfoot. The Summer of 2010 was not kind to our gardens. Indeed, that big blob of oven-like heat from July through September impacted even the irrigated commercial farmers. What grew in abundance this year was Goldenrod. Yet amid the devastation Red Spider-Lilies inexplicably shot up at random out of the parched earth.

So the natural rhythms continue, and like boats beating against the current we planted onion sets and garlic this past weekend, punctuating our labors by gathering black walnuts now dropping from our two mature trees. We are told that it is possible to extract the meat by hammering the walnut fruit through an appropriately-sized hole in 5/8” plywood. We shall file a report later regarding this hypothesis. Continue reading

Horseshoe Bend, Heat, and History

July into August 2010 and parts of the Eastern USA suffer the worst heat in memory.  Alabama along the Tallapoosa River was no exception, and rather than risk heat exhaustion clearing brush or waging war against various kudzu incursions, I finally made the journey to Horseshoe Bend National Military Park.  The temperature was between 95 and 100, and even within my air-conditioned vehicle the heat could be sensed transferring from the windshield into the interior space.

At the park entrance I stopped to explore the visitor center/museum.  A cannon, freshly painted in baby blue sat by the front door commanding attention.  Inside were books and pamphlets and a small museum.  I was the only person in the shop.  A uniformed Interior Department employee soon appeared to greet me, explained that the park could be toured by automobile, and said by the way, they are about to fire the cannon out back.  Apparently the firing of the cannon is one of those events that occur from time to time along with other more elaborate demonstrations of things as they were in 1814.  Having grown up in Baltimore and knowing first hand what the Star-Spangled Banner was all about, I felt that some metaphysical circuit had closed and I was there just in time specifically to witness the firing of the cannon.

I walked out the back door and noted a group of about 6 figures down a small hill dressed in what had to be uncomfortably warm clothing complete with wide-brimmed black hats:  not quite stovepipe, but headed in that direction.  They were engaged in some sort of ballet with yet another baby blue cannon and a baby blue box about 10 yards or so behind the cannon.

There was a bench just outside the door so I sat there and viewed from a distance, as I did not want to get too close when the cannon fired.  The ballet continued for a few minutes with no apparent sense of imminent conclusion, so I went back inside and walked about the small museum and historical display.

There was much presentation and discussion of the mound-building indigenous cultures that preceded the arrival of the Europeans.  One thing that caught my attention was a display of the foods which sustained the mound-builders and later the Creeks, whose Red Stick faction were responsible in part for my being in that particular place at that time.  Pumpkins, beans, squash and corn – the very foodstuffs we tried to grow.  There must be some logic to all this.

I heard a raised voice from outside and fearing the cannon was about to go boom I went back out the door and sat on the bench again.  Indeed, the ballet seemed to be resolving into a more urgent order about the cannon.  One of the troupe appeared to touch something to the base (breech?)  – I know nothing of cannons circa 1814 – and there was an extraordinarily loud report that reverberated through the park and a huge puff of smoke that wafted from the cannon through the trees.  I thought that the psychological impact of just the noise and smoke would have been enough to discourage the Red Sticks.

The ballet was over and the troupe was clearly starting to disassemble the order of things.  I walked tentatively down the hill hoping to get a closer shot with my camera-phone (now that I heard what this thing could do I was really impressed) and one of them beckoned me closer.  He turned out to be very talkative, and was quite appreciative that I was their audience for the afternoon’s re-enactment, however brief.   I posited my cannon-as-psy-ops theory with which he agreed somewhat, but the Creeks by then were familiar with firearms so the emotional impact would not have been so great.  Turns out Jackson only had two cannons – a three pounder like the one by the Visitor Center entrance – and the one just fired, a 6 pounder.  The projectile was merely a metal ball, and the destruction was via kinetic energy only.  No bombs bursting in air here.  The re-enactment used no ammunition, of course, and only a half-charge of powder.   The battery ballet was similar to that which would have obtained in 1814, although the real artillerymen could get off about three rounds per minute.  The re-enacters were not attempting to emulate a battle-like tempo.

The Red Sticks were outnumbered 3-1 but did not exactly become cannon fodder, as the artillery had little effect on the wooden fortifications.  Only after the encircling infantry – with their Cherokee and Lower Creek allies – crossed the river and attacked them from the rear did Jackson order a frontal assault, and the rest is, as they say, history. And not very pretty history either. I pointed out to my talkative battery commander that the Spaniards in South America were successful for the same reason – political divisions among the indigenous. How else explain how a relative handful of Spaniards could have overcome millions?  Of course, at that pregnant juncture in history we cannot discount the psychological effect – like a six pounder heard and felt for the very first time  — of these aliens arriving at one’s doorstep, as strange as an extraterrestrial landing on the White House Lawn.  Hopefully our ETs will be unfamiliar with the history of the collision between the European and indigenous American cultures, and will not seek to exploit our many divisions in order to conquer.

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Tending One’s Own Garden

Food crops need sun, water, and attention.

Next year we shall be more careful choosing where to plant, as our efforts this year have been undone somewhat by planting in areas with too much shade.  I guess that’s why they call them “sunflowers.”

The small irrigated test garden received more water than the large plot but the shade cast by one of our several black walnut trees proved too much for the collards, beets, and second-planting onions.  We had success earlier in the season with turnips as well as first-crop onions, but as the sun shifted in the sky and the trees came fully into leaf the available photons diminished from our seat-of-the-pants calculus done in early Spring.

In the lower un-irrigated plot we have managed to harvest pie pumpkins, and there are melons ripening on the vines.  But all are scrambling to find more sunlight.  The corn and beans have been unimpressive, although their lack of enthusiasm we feel has as much to do with the absence of rainfall.

The yellow squash and recently the cucumbers have produced well.  They were planted in the locations with the most morning sunlight, away from the shade of the pines.

All respond immediately to water. The pumpkins and squash will flower overnight, and the bees will show up for work in the morning.  The challenge next year will be designing a second rainwater collection-storage-distribution system away from the already in-place roof collector of the little cabin.

We consider the Irish Spring soap suspended in the air around our gardens to be a success story, as there is no observed deer damage.   For that matter, there appears to be no other critter damage.  It could be that the quality of our produce did not meet their standards.  The experiment shall continue next year. Continue reading

Carry Water

We were musing on some old Persian rugs that our daughter will be deploying in her apt in Jax Beach. I was orating post-cocktail (becoming rarer these days) that the imprecision of older pieces was not necessarily the result of naïveté but rather just plain old sloppiness. Leigh countered that the women had probably been out carrying water all day long – I piped in “and chopping wood for the stove” – such that they were so bone-tired they barely knew which end of the loom was up.

Then we remembered the past weekend at the motel in Roanoke where we stay while chopping wood and carrying water on the farm.

This time we could only secure lodging on the second floor. So we carried water from the second floor down the stairs to the truck to the farm so that our stunted corn and beans might make it through the drought that we now know of first hand.  And heard about from the organic farmers at the former gas station and overheard from others at TJ Rockers over dinner discussing the failure of their rattlesnake beans.

Large swaths of the landscape which should have been covered with corn in Georgia were covered instead with dry brown stalks. These were fields where rainfall instead of irrigation should supply that which is most necessary.  Now absent in the early summer of 2010.

The rain band started somewhere South of Dawson, toward Albany. South Georgia into Florida is green. Crystal Beach is soaked after a week of showers.

The cataclysm in the Gulf continues without relief. Gulf Coast communities used to worry about salt water intrusion into the aquifer. Now we wonder if the oil contamination will spread to the ground water, and how far inland it will extend. Continue reading