Thursday, February 26, 2004

Blame it on the chickens

Two inches of slushy snow overnight, bringing the seasonal total up to about 7 inches... pretty typical for here. In Tennessee 2 inches of slush is enough to close schools, of course.

Since it's hard to work on a snow-covered roof I might take advantage of the time to generate some original content here, who I am and how I wound up here. What are journals if not exercizes in narcissism after all?

"Here" geographically is 39 acres 5 miles WNW of Hohenwald, TN, in Lewis County amid the western Highland Rim. The County is named for Meriwether Lewis, who committed suicide here. Well, actually, according to the local residents his death was "mysterious;" according to the rest of the world it was a suicide. This is hillbilly country but not mountains; an ancient low plateau intricately dissected by the narrow ravines and valleys known locally as hollows (and pronounced locally as "hollers"), all covered by hardwood forests, fields, and small towns. The uplands are around 900-1000' elevation, the bottoms are a few hundred feet lower, and the slopes between them are steep and short. Nashville is 80 miles to the northeast.

The place here extends from the top of the ridge to the bottom of McCord Hollow, has a permanent creek, two (constructed) ponds and several year-round springs, and fronts a paved county road with phone and electricity. Along with the land came a 114-year-old farm house, a classic 1.5 story farm house with a victorian front porch, in poor condition but restorable. The house was built in 1886 by the family of the first County Judge and is considered one of the area's historically significant houses. It had been vacant for a decade after being a rental for the decade before that; essentially we paid for the land and got the house for free. It has been blissfully spared destructive remuddlings over the years and under the dirt, grime, and drywall most of the 19th century structure remains. Putting this house back into livable condition that is harmonious with its original style is going to keep me occupied for many years to come. If I knew how people post these picture I see in their journals I'd put some up...

So what am I doing here? Why did I leave the cocoon of university life to live like a hillbilly and wrestle with weeds? You can blame that on the chickens. Or maybe the potatoes. Or the tomatoes...

Once upon a time, I heard a standard NPR story on agricultural stuff where they outlined how conventional potatoes are now grown, at least in the US. We begin with soil fumigation to eradicate all microbes and essentially render millions of acres of land a sterile culture medium (to control pathogens, of course). Now, sterile soil has very little fertility, as "natural soil fertility" consists largely of crap released by microbes. So the crop is dependent on artificial fertilization, along with large amounts of pesticides, all of which are administered through automated center-pivot systems. The intensity of the chemical applications is such that if an irrigation system breaks down at certain times in the season the farmers will simply abandon that field rather than enter it and subject themselves to the chemical exposure. Finally for the last couple of weeks before harvest the fields are irrigated with plain water to wash the crop and lower the pesticide residues to USDA approved levels. Leaving behind a land mass consisting of sterilized soils laden with agrochemicals, stretching from horizon to horizon (in a landscape where the horizon is very far away...).

This all struck me especially strongly because at the time I was spending many days driving across potato country in the interior northwest, and contemplating the utterly wretched things that were being done to the land to feed us seething masses. I felt like I was back on the old Pulliam place in Bowman, Georgia in 1850 with my great great great grandfather, watching the slaves work the fields. What can you do when your society's economic and agricultural foundations are supported by something you believe to be evil? One man can hardly abolish slavery on a continental scale; that took politicians and armies decades and wars to accomplish. But one man can chose to free his own slaves.

On another job I had the opportunity to see first-hand, every week, the innards of a modern egg factory. I was picking up eggs in Iowa to haul back to Denver for Albertsons and Safeway, 45,000 pounds at a time, eggs neatly packed in cute little styrofoam cartons with pictures of happy chickens on them. And each week I got to see the real hens crammed six to a cage, stacked three high, in 24 hour illumination, with feed going by one end of the cages on conveyors and eggs leaving the other end of the cages dropping onto another conveyor. The shit just trickles down through the cages onto the lower hens until it eventually makes it to the bottom. This one egg factory had millions of birds living like this. And the midwest is covered with these things. Occasionally legs, heads, and wings from dismembered chickens came down the conveyor with the eggs, the remains of hens that had been pecked to pieces by their fellow prisoners. And ever since, I feel guilty every time I buy a dozen eggs.

Now, mind you, I have no objections to the keeping of animals for food. But I think the keeper of these animals has a moral responsibility for their health and comfort. And I do believe that the end consumer has to assume some of the moral burden for what is done to produce and deliver the goods and services he benefits from. I also recognize in this intertwined world it is damn near impossible to extract yourself from all that is done to support our modern spoiled developed world lives. This computer is being run by electricity bought from TVA, most of which is generated by hydro plants powered by the dams that have impounded the entire Tennessee River and helped drive many species of fish to near extinction. Some of the rest of the watts come from coal ripped out of West Virginia by mountaintop removal. Pragmatism is necessary and inevitable. But it does not obliterate moral responsibility. Hell, I drive trucks for a living, burning the fossil fuels and dragging the consumer goods around the continent. But, my decision to drive a truck is not what puts the trucks on the road. It's a million people's decisions that they want their cheap plastic crap and they want it HERE and NOW that puts the trucks on the road. My choice to buy less cheap plastic crap will do more to take the trucks off the road than would my choice to surrender my CDL and quit working as a driver. Other decisions I can make as an individual will have a far greater impact than whether or not I drive a truck laden with cheap plastic crap for other people to buy. And I already made the single biggest choice on that front when I got my tubes snipped insuring that I will never be responsible for the creation of another resource-swilling shit-exhuding human individual. So I keep on trucking and look for ways to do those other things that would make more of an immediate difference.

So... for many years I had wanted to live a life where I had more control over my food chain, my resource use, and more direct involvement with the land and the place and the means by which all these things operate. Academia had proven itself to be a place to talk about these things while in fact living the consummate urban stressed out wasteful miserable life. I wanted to live, not just talk. Trucking had freed me from that world. Many other criteria came in to play, not the least of which had been my frustration gardening in arid continental Colorado where the tomatoes get frozen in May and September and the perennials freeze-dry in the cold, snowless January. Cost of land, proximity to jobs, distance from suburban sprawl, distance from family in Atlanta, those sorts of things came in to play, as did a lot of stuff that could be lumped in as Biogeography. An existing house was also a very important aspect, rather that helping the outer spread of suburbia by putting in new roads and infrastructure to support a new house in an area where none had been before.

So in the end, here I am, watching the snow melt, pondering the next step on the house, and checking the chickens' food and water.


At 11:03 PM, Blogger carlosbenari said...

I hear you, man.

Integrity, they call it. Walking the talk.

I envy you the birds around you...


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