Friday, April 26, 2013

The secret of my un-success, or great advice I won't be following

I caught this inspiring passage in The Greenhorns' New Farmer's Almanac last night:
In whatever you engage, pursue it with a steadiness of purpose, as though you were determined to succeed. A vacillating mind never accomplished anything worth naming. There is nothing like a fixed, steady aim. It dignifies your nature, and insures your success.
This sounds about right, and it is a variant of great advice I've heard--but not heeded--my entire life. If wisdom comes with age, and wisdom has anything to do with accepting that which we cannot change, then I am wising up to my nature. I can't take advice that is at odds with who I am fundamentally.

This is not to say that while I garden, or play piano or guitar, or write poetry, or take an online class on complexity, or make home movies on my iMac--or any of a great number of other things I do with a sometimes moderate level of proficiency--that I won't be attentive and present and pursue excellence in that moment. But I am a generalist, and I don't want to change that. My attentions drift and dart and as long as I keep moving, I'll pick up some things.

The line I take issue with from The New Farmer's Almanac, then, is "A vacillating mind never accomplished anything worth naming." I've heard (and I'll buy it) that the days of true Renaissance people are gone.

There is simply too much to know in the 21st century, too much information, too much specialization is possible, for any [normal] person to be an expert in more than a few pursuits. Excellence takes practice. It takes time. It takes exclusive devotion. So much for expertise in my own life.

I guess my response now has to be, oh well. Leonardo da Vinci was the quintessential Renaissance man, and I've always been amused by this lamenting biographical note of Giorgio Vasari's:

He might have been a scientist if he had not been so versatile. But the instability of his character caused him to take up and abandon many things.
Oh well! Here's to instability of character. Besides, I've got loads to do today.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

April's Farming Publications Set Me Straight

"Of course this year will be better than last! Every farmer knows that. Every year."
                                                         --My grandmother, two weeks ago

I have a sheet of paper on my fridge that's meant to remind me why I'm here, on rural Indiana farmland, without my job teaching creative writing--why I left everything I know for a life I knew next to nothing about. Like most manifestos written in a moment of clarity, it now blends into the environment and I rarely notice it. Item one: I want this to be a place where the work keeps my head clear and I can sleep well at night after a day of honest, self-guided work, knowing that what I did that day fits with my values (among which are sustainable living, soil health, and less consumption for consumption's sake).

I could rattle off a list of reasons this list has started to feel like a remote wish. They would sound like excuses, and technically they are. In my defense, some of my excuses are good ones, but I'll skip them all for now.

The first year I lived here, I did nothing but read about what Depression-era organic pioneers Helen and Scott Nearing called "The Good Life"--a life of virtuous hard work that eschewed consumerism. I read almost exclusively about this and had nothing if not a sense of purpose. Because ... (I have my reasons) that sense of purpose was lost.

But this was a banner week for fresh farming publications. The inaugural issue of Modern Farmer came out and it is as delicious as I imagined.

The photography and layout are just as beautiful as their web pages, and of course their philosophy is perfect. Here's Ann Marie Gardner in the letter from the editor:
There is a global cultural movement taking place. Organic has gone mainstream. There is a growing curiosity, even concern, about the source of our food--how it is produced and distributed, the ethics of big ag and the sustainability of small ag. Even as farming becomes cool, and beehives and rooftop gardens spring up across urban landscapes, rural farmers in the United States and abroad still toil against very real problems: droughts, lack of access to land, regressive policies. A global economy means that our food supply chains are all connected--we can't ignore the international implications of our personal choices.

On top of that, The New Farmer's Almanac (2013) from The Greenhorns came this week after a long delay (their first almanac).

The introduction by Severine Von Tscharner Fleming gave a fantastic overview of back-to-the-land movements and our tendency to glorify by-gone days of farming, dating back to Virgil's 29 BCE lamenting the loss of a golden time in agriculture. Besides the great historical perspective, I was reminded of what brought me here:

Under the sky, under the stars, we have time (what a privilege) to consider our lives and what we can do with them. It is possible to quiet the mind, especially with so much time screwing and unscrewing hoses, moving fence, watering seedlings with regular swoops of the sprinkling wand. In this way, stillness and reflection coexist with routines and chores, observation brings in new themes of inquiry, every day is a catalog of small, useful insights, which we can attach to visual cues alongside the inventories of grain, hose, bits and valve, and brainpower to design our own personal theories of change.

Our first chickens come in two weeks. We have no idea what we're getting into, but I'll be next door in my Dad's barn helping him construct the chicken ark (or chicken tractor). My back and arms are sore from pulling up an erosion fence two days ago--a job that took a sledgehammer, cinder blocks, chain, and a giant lever. When that was done, I spent several hours with a shovel and a garden rake preparing the ground for the spring vegetables (late start this year due to the cold).

I'd write more, but I need to bundle up (it's 40 degrees and rainy) and head over to Dad's barn. If what I've said here hasn't amounted to anything profound, I'm hoping the work I do with my hands today does.


Here it is so far:

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Under an Anonymous Sky

The following poem was a finalist for the Iowa Award in Poetry in 2004. It has been submitted a few times since, and was rejected by The Sycamore Review today. In honor of National Poetry Month, I'm giving it away!

Under an Anonymous Sky

The evening becomes evening.

but I am leaving the shore
in my skin boat

the earth opened and a dwarf popped out.

He is afraid of the stares of men, which are too quick and piercing for him, and he retreats into the sky like a string of colors.
His toes are made of crystal, so he can hide them, and the boys could not find them.

It should be explained that they were taking the head to show to the others.
So it thought, and it said, “I will turn into the moon.”
It called, “Open the doors, I want to get my things.”
The head cried.  It called out, “At least give me
my two balls of twine.”
The men shouted, “You going to the sky, head?”
It didn’t answer.

After that a marvelous thing.

snow snow
rain rain
never mind

I hope to God it rains and snows

I greet you, white morning,

take me, take me with you, take me

Selected from W. S. Merwin’s translations, 1948-1968. Excerpts taken in the following order from Song for the Dead: Roumanian Anonymous folk Poem; Into my Head Rose: Anonymous Eskimo; Ichi the Dwarf: Anonymous Quechuan Peru; The Rainbow: Anonymous Quechuan Peru (nonadjacent fragments assembled together); The Creation of the Moon: Anonymous Caxinua Amazon (nonadjacent fragments assembled together); The Glory of Taliesin: Anonymous, Welsh circa 6th century; Swallow: Greek, Anonymous; Maido: Anonymous, Greek, modern ballad collection; The Song of Cellach: Anonymous, Irish, 12th century; Song of Exile: Anonymous, Greek, modern ballad collection.