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Farm To Farm

In less than a decade residing in Anderson Valley I've seen hens, lambs, pigs, and calves springing up in backyards like weeds. We are now experiencing the second wave of the “back-to-land” movement.

This time the thinking is not ideological. It is logi­cal. The current trend towards backyard poultry, urban gardens, and small scale meat rearing is riding the crest of economic failure glaringly more obvious every day.

“It's only a matter of time,” we all know.

The equation is simple algebra. There is no way an economy can succeed indefinitely when less than % of a population is feeding the other 95%, especially when something like 59% or more of that lonely 5% is imported from countries that are singing and swinging hoes in competition with the American dollar.

I believe the roots of this current crisis can be traced to a nearly universal inability to perform basic algebra. “I'm sorry, but you have to stick with it until you can balance equations,” I tell my now 13 year-old son who prefers rebuilding two-cycle engine motors to doing his math homework. “If you're ever going to be able to think straight, to succeed in life or relation­ships, you need to understand basic algebra.”

Not like I'm a shining example in mastering finan­cial empires or dabbling in relationships with women. That's not the point. I firmly believe that the ability to balance equations will for the rest of a person's life influence his or her success in human dealings. Only up through algebra and geometry am I stubborn, though. I could care less if any of my sons meddle in calculus.

After nearly two decades of research I have deduced that I am what you call a stubborn ass. I fol­lowed math like a member of some fan club until we got to the calculus stuff, where it might have been the hormones in my bloodstream that interfered the most with my absorption of the numbers you need to build bridges, rocket ships, and freeway overpasses. Maybe at 15 it all went south, down the river to New Orleans.

Our calculus instructor was this 60-something year old man on the verge of retirement, Dick Stickles. He was “Mr. Stickles,” but with a name like “Richard Stickles” he was dubbed, “Dick Stickles.” No way for him to shake it.

For all that, Dick Stickles was a gentleman, and began every hour long, seventh period of calculus with a general invitation for us in the class to gab about what was going on in our lives. Several days a week, trying not to overdo it, I would mention hiking around the old Fosbrink homestead that was adjacent to my parents' place.

“Lillie Fosbrink,” Dick Stickles would say, nostal­gia magnified by the lenses of his black-rimmed glasses that harkened back to the college yearbooks of the late 1960s that my parents kept in mildewy isola­tion on our bookshelves. “Lillie Fosbrink.”

Lillie had been in the nursing home until the sum­mer before my senior year of high school, when she'd passed away at 94. For decades, from the 1930s until the early 1970s, she'd been one of the Literature and Composition instructors at Seymour High. In all her life she'd never gotten married. Rather, she'd raised more than a dozen orphans on the old homestead.

My friends and I hiked all over that farm while Lillie resided in the nursing home. The house as well as the barn and other outbuildings were log cabins matted with clay sometime prior to 1870, we imag­ined. The blacksmith's shop was as it would have been in 1930 or whenever Lillie's father had fallen cripple or died. There was the cider press ready for action, the chicken coop and horse barn abandoned as if a vol­cano had erupted and killed all the human inhabitants. The old barn lots were grown up with maples and tulip poplars, the underbrush thick with poison sumac, and we found multiple species of morel mush­rooms sprouting through the floor of decaying leaves in late April, every spring.

When Lillie passed away, they had an auction at the Fosbrink homestead. Antique dealers from the surrounding states converged like buzzards to the corpse of a fallen ewe. My sister purchased an old trunk containing about a thousand one-page letters back and forth from Lillie to her family while she attended Indiana University in Bloomington right up until the start of the first World War when her brother was sent off. Reading the letters, dated and barely skipping one in a week for several years, was like reading a novel, like reading Dos Passos. This was before the advent of text messaging, and people used verbs and adjectives that betrayed the luxury of com­municating via handwritten letters transported on trains, the measured breath of country time. Every page was dated.

“She was more than just a teacher,” Mr. Dick Stick­les would tell us. So was he. In retrospect, appar­ently he had a hunch that only one in twenty of us would ever utilize most of the stuff we were jiving about in Calculus. It should also be noted that his wife had passed away from some obscure form of can­cer several years before, and they'd tried every con­ventional and alternative treatment known to human­ity to no avail. He was a good man turned extremely lonely and full of empathy. “They ought to make a movie about Lillie.”

I knew Lillie's homestead better than anyone. There was this four-acre field adjacent to our land that was shaped like a doughnut with a wild persim­mon tree in the middle. The persimmon tree was maybe 80 feet tall. In October we and our neighbors would lay tarps all around the base to catch the soft, splattering fruit before they got mixed up with our extremely sandy soil. We made pie and bread with the persimmons.

My friends and I hunted squirrels and cottontail bunnies in Lillie's overgrown barnyards, and we shud­dered with imaginary voodoo when confronting the overalls that might have been hanging in the closets since Lillie's parents had passed away in the 40s and 50s, or whenever that element had gone up in smoke. She had literally left most of the farm untouched, so it stood as a remnant of what life was like prior to and during the Great Depression.

When she died, some local entrepreneurs in the corporate farming tradition purchased the property and immediately clear cut the forests that had been preserved for hundreds if not thousands of years. They leveled the hand-hewn log cabins, barns, and such, and planted a modern hog farrowing house that sounded like bloody murder 24/7.

For their part, my parents erected a privacy fence but it didn't blockade the wails of the pigs.

The corporate ag neighbors cut down the giant wild persimmon tree and joined the three acre field with the rest of the acreage.

Mr. Stickles gave me a C for Calculus. I think the “C” was for “Calculus.” I had not the foggiest notion what was going on with all those numbers and letters representing values, but I faithfully filled out equa­tions that were the same length and shape as the examples. So he didn’t flunk me.

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