23 June 2008

April Isn't Completely Crazy

Those of you who know Russ know he's a farm boy at heart. He knew what N, P, and K stood for before he knew what money was. (Really!) Moving to a farm is, perhaps, an extreme reversion from the life he's led... but not out of keeping with his personal history.

Those of you who know April would rightly think I've lost my head. Here are my two major disqualifications for the life of a farmer, however mini that farm might be!

A: At a young age I became a city dweller. The Tucson metro area was half a million people when we arrived, it'll soon top a million. I grew up thinking that shopping at 10 pm was a right that all people enjoyed. "Fresh" food came from Mexico.

B: My garden nickname is Plantkiller.

I also have another cross to bear if I am to live down south... I am a Yankee. I don't mean a north of the Mason-Dixon / west of the Mississippi small-letters yankee. I mean New England, ancestors on the Mayflower, dour, stinting Yankee roots. My great grandfather was a three-services-a-week Methodist who thought smiling was a sin. My parents- though long removed from the northeast- don't count Massachusetts or Connecticut as 'real' New England.

This does not make for a pretty picture for a Virginia Planter's wife, now does it?

But, I too have agricultural roots. That dour ancestor grew all his church-day baking beans and his son-in-law grew all the other vegetables the family ate. My mother's grandparents were farmers of the newly immigrated Old MacDonald's Farm type. My early female role models all sewed for practical purposes, canned, gardened, and "put things away." This wasn't some hobby but just what people did. Every one of those now-deceased people would call my urban, buy it at midnight, grocery store fed upbringing a great success of the plans they laid nearly a century ago.

But, like a grafted rose, roots are roots. They're necessary for nourishment and when the bit you grafted onto them starts to wither in the heat and drought then the real plant begins to emerge. My great grandmother might have desired a hybrid tea but the part she put into the ground was a plain old Rosa Rugosa.

All my hobbies point to a more traditional life. I am an opinionated and traditional cook. I know how to preserve things in jars. I could sew all my clothes if I wanted to. I try to garden and I'm fairly good with animals. I even had a pet goat as a wee child! The whole agricultural side will be a difficult thing for me... no doubt there will be amusing blunders... but I have one other secret weapon in my old-fashioned repertoire: I can read.

Look to the sidebar and you'll see what I've been reading over the last few months. Books like My Weeds have no value as instructionals on growing particular plants but they do explain a lot of "why" plants die or misbehave. (After reading this particular book I suddenly became less of a plant killer!)

So, my sanity more or less accounted for, let us go on the the other big hurdle. Yankeeism. It's OK. I know we have a rotten reputation outside of our own boundaries. There's good reason for all the stories about us being cold and stingy. Those Puritans went to a cold and uncomfortable part of the world for a reason... it felt good to be miserable. Jived with their theology. All the people who liked a good party and didn't feel guilty about it went south.

The rules are actually very similar:

For instance, there is a definitive way to answer a social question in both cultures. A Yank wants your honest opinion no matter what (otherwise he wouldn't ask) and a Southerner wants a polite answer to keep the conversation going. There are a few exceptions, of course, but the rule holds.

The serving of a meal is an unbreachable ritual. Plates, cutlery, serving dishes are set out, passed, or otherwise used in defined ways. Neither way is incorrect, but it's best not to forget which home you're in that day. So too is the use of a kitchen. You see more kitchen visiting in places that are very, very cold most of the year.

Clothing is everything. Northern New Englanders consider practicality of the utmost importance. Winter teaches us young that flannel is a unisex fabric. We aren't elegant, but we're dressed for what needs to be done. The South gives elegance the higher regard. People who don't feel guilty about having a party also don't feel guilty about putting on the style. I'll don a new hat to that idea but I'd never wear a floral dress to anything but a major life event in Maine. What would the neighbors think?

Actually, there is one rule that is exactly the same. "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story." Storytelling is important in both cultures. (Unless you were raised by Scandinavian immigrants. Listen to A Prairie Home Companion if you don't understand why.)

Living in Virginia will be a little like living in Scotland or even like my recent visit to the Republic of Georgia. I'll adapt to their ways and their forms of speech. There's no use in insulting or arguing with the people I live around, after all, I might need their help sooner or later. Their customs aren't what I was raised with but they might prove interesting, useful, and pleasant. What I won't do is stop being who I am... a New Englander raised out West. There's no use in trying to pretend otherwise... I have no family native to the South, let alone western Virginia... and my new neighbors are unlikely to forget that I'm an incomer. The good thing is... a Southerner is polite enough to invite the new folks around for a piece of pie.

Which is why I'd be insane to do this... if we were going to live up north.

21 June 2008


Russ has lived in the Southwest (if you can count time served in Dallas and grad school in Austin) since arriving at the University of Arizona for the fall semester, 1969. April moved to Tucson at age 10 and has been on arid lands for two decades. Certainly most of Russ' friends expected him to remain here, live or dead. It is a fair question to ask why we're moving to a farm in rural Virginia. You're likely to know that Russ isn't much of a writer (April is a far better wordsmith) but since he's writing this, the time honored tradition of borrowing from a superior authority will be invoked. One of Russ' old friends, Vicki B., suggested reading Barbara Kingsolver's 2007 bestseller, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

A word or two about Ms. Kingsolver's personal history might be in line. She was raised in Kentucky, graduated from the University of Arizona, spent much of her adult life there before she and her family pulled up stakes and moved to the western end of Virginia. Dang, ain't that some kind o'coincidence? Really, the only difference between 'em is she's famous already and he ain't never gonna be --- oh, and that sex thing --- she is a she. Anyways, her experience might be relevant and is thus quoted below.

"We were leaving it now in one of its uglier moments, which made saying good-bye easier, but also seemed like a cheap shot--- like ending a romance right when your partner has really bad hair. The desert that day looked like a nasty case of prickly heat caught in a long, naked wince.
...The cacti, denizens of deprivation, looked ready to pull up roots and hitch a ride out if they could. The prickly pears waved good-bye with puckered, grayish pads... Even in the best of times desert creatures live on the edge of survival, getting by mostly on vapor and their own life savings...
Tucson had opened my eyes to the world and given me a writing career, legions of friends, and a taste for the sensory extravagance of red hot chiles and five-alarm sunsets. But after twenty-five years in the desert, I'd been called home...
We wanted to live in a place that could feed us: where rain falls, crops grow, and drinking water bubble right up out of the ground... [Tucson is] a bountiful source of everything on the human need checklist, save for just one thing --- the stuff we put in our mouth every few hours to keep us alive. Like many other modern U.S. cities, it might as well be a space station where human sustenance is concerned. Virtually every unit of food consumed there moves into town in a refrigerated module from somewhere far away."

There you have it. Heck, if I could write like that you can bet the farm that I would. But I got to communicate with photographs, so tongue-tied as I is. And nobody can hardly a livin' off of pictures. Maybe raisin' lavender and mushrooms will make a living and Russ won't have to talk to nobody but the dogs and the goats (and they're mighty forgiving of poor communication skills, you know, dogs especially. They learn how to understand our language as youngins but are able to forgive the poor dumb adult humans for not being able to utter a single bark that makes any sense).

14 June 2008

Cupar House empty

Yesterday April watched the removals van roll down the Burnside with our house contents. They will store them in Edinburgh until we have possession of Stratheden Farm and will be sent directly there (there's no room at the Santa Fe inn for more furniture!). We're most grateful to our friends Carolyn, Peter & Aase, Jim, Pete, for lending a helping hand in the packing process and support. A very special thanks to Chris and Anne who took April to the Edinburgh airport motel, making April's life so much easier; our cable tows are pretty long.

The estate agent also visited on Friday (the 13th) and appraised the little place at more than $20,000 above what we had expected. There have been two other units (in the total of eight) at the Tannery Court which have sold this year so he had a sound method of determining the price. If he is anywhere near correct, the Tannery hoos will fully fund the guest cottage and studio on the Farm.

Our industrious (and bright, beautiful, sweet, etc.) friend and former neighbor Daisy will whip the little place into a sparkling interior for the prospective buyers. Thanks, Daisy, we know you will do a perfect job.

I feel like an old friend has died. Cupar was so very good to us and despite its small size, the wee hoos provided everything we really needed. Not likely that we'll ever live in a pre-Roman town again with all of its ghosts and bogles (and neds). The bare stone, the harled walls, the white washed walls, a town in monochrome tones that only a photographer can love.

09 June 2008

Where is Floyd, Virginia?

Friends, some of you keep saying you've never heard of Floyd County, Virginia, or its county seat, the town of Floyd. How can that be? Our friends are among the most over-educated, erudite folks on the face of this planet. Well shucks, it hurts us to admit it but maybe our friends don't know everything.

Now if you already know the precise location of Floyd and the farm, do not waste your time by reading further! If, however, you do not, (and we'll never mention names...) ---

For the GPS-heads and the navigationly challenged out there, the entrance to our farm road is:
N 36 53 44.2 W 80 22 07.3

Homeland Security recommends we do not publish such a precise location of the house in case of missile attack by terrorists and who are we to doubt their expertise in such matters? For those of you not technologically enabled, the little red A in the black box near the bottom center of the map (shown above) locates the farm. It is 200 miles from scenic Asheville, North Carolina; 290 miles from Washington, DC; 345 miles from Columbus, Ohio; 360 miles from Lexington, KY; 540 miles from Mantle Rock Center and Museum in Marion, KY, and just 1,700 miles from Santa Fe.

From a web site:
"Floyd County has a land area of 383 square miles and is located in the Blue Ridge province of the southwestern part of Virginia. The county seat, The Town of Floyd, is one hour southwest of Roanoke on U.S. 221. Floyd is one hour west of Martinsville, and 90 minutes north of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

The county's terrain is rolling and the official elevation is 2,500 feet [the highest elevation is Buffalo Mountain at 3,971 feet; the Farm is 2,633 feet according to our GPS unit]. Thirty-one miles of the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway form the majority of the eastern border of the county. Because Floyd County is the point of origin for its rivers and streams, there is only a slight flood hazard in the county."

"Floyd County is situated atop a high plateau of the Blue Ridge Mountains which divides the eastward flowing from the westward flowing waters. It is said that no water flows into Floyd County. The county is drained primarily by Little River and its tributaries which flow into New River below the Claytor Lake Dam and, in turn, by way of the Kanawha, the Ohio and the Mississippi, into the Gulf of Mexico."

Now, friend, has this slaked your intellectual curiosity?

07 June 2008

Adios Caledonia, Howdy Virginny

As this is being written, April is in the air from the Republic of Georgia to Heathrow thence to Edinburgh and onward to Cupar. Her goal is to pack up our little hoos on the burnside and be ready when the removals company from Edinburgh arrives on Friday the 13th. You see, we have decided to sell our little foothold in Scotland, a gut wrenching decision but financially as clear as the air here at 7,000' in New Mexico. The council tax on the little place is ludicrous - nearly $2,000/year on 720 square feet or about the same as the taxes on Stratheden Farm (53 acres and a 2,700 square foot house). Although we moved much of the house contents to Santa Fe in 2004, we kept the little place as a going concern, as a way of staying physically connected to Scotland, hoping that Russ might find a job there (and as a place for our friends to stay while visiting Scotland). For both of us, the time spent in Scotland was the best of our lives but there seemed no way to stay there. The dream would not become substance.

I'm thankful for George Bush. Yes indeed, because the dollar dropped from $1.32=1 Pound on the day we bought #8 Tannery Court to currently $1.98. Thanks to George, when we sell the house and convert the Pounds Sterling back into US Dollars, we will make an almost 50% gain (which has, of course, no tax consequence in the UK). When we decided to buy a place in Cupar rather than rent, the decision wasn't about a good investment but minimizing loss. Rent on a decent place would have been at least 300 Pounds a month, all down the rat hole. Instead, why not buy a small place, make it our own by painting, remodeling, whatever we desired, and then hope that by the end of Russ' studies, it would not have lost too much value, at least not to the tune of 300 Pounds/month. As the Divine Plan would have it, our 'loss hedge' became the best investment we have ever made.

With any luck, it will sell by the end of summer and we will have generated enough funds, dear Reader, to build a modest solar (off grid) guest cottage at Stratheden Farm for your comfort when you come visit us. The main house will have a guest room with its own bathroom but would it not be ever so more convenient to have a little self contained place if you are there for a month watching the autumnal colors sweep through the Blue Ridge? Or perhaps fly fishing in the 1,000 feet of trout stream that delineates the southern boundary of the Farm. You may come and go, hoop & holler, rise & shine or sleep in as your heart dictates, without disturbing the Master of the Farm. One of the greatest joys of life is good friends and we have more than our fair share - and sincerely hope that they will come and enjoy the beauty and solitude of the Farm with us.

Also in the little free-standing structure, a small minimal studio for Russ - and others. Since so many of our friends are photographers, having a studio and minimal darkroom available might encourage them to produce some masterpieces while visiting, no? Besides generating income by agricultural production, it may be possible to seasonally conduct small, intense landscape workshops. The cottage would serve as the living quarters for the workshop leader with the studio as the classroom. Yes, Kerik, Tillman and Bill, this means YOU.

Time to brew another pot of Typhoo.

06 June 2008

A Dream dies, a Dream is born

Unseemly as it may be, this is an airing of family dirty linens. My grandfather Field was, among other things, a farmer, and was truly a scholar of many things but he was especially noted for his knowledge of trees. Around his house, he planted many unusual trees that he discovered in his journeys. The University of Kentucky used to bring graduate students to see some of his rarer specimens.

When I was perhaps twelve or thirteen, he was having trees planted on the two of his farms. He seemed like a man beyond ancient age to me and I quite indiscretely inquired why would he plant a sapling he would never live to see as a mature tree. He quoted Thomas Jefferson to me, after asking if I knew who he was - "Too old to plant trees for my own gratification, I shall do it for posterity." [to answer your query, no I did not remember it verbatim and had to seek it out] He explained further that his posterity were his descendants, especially his grandchildren, and that they (myself and one other at the time) would live to enjoy the beauty of these tiny saplings as mighty trees and moreover, they were hardwoods that had value as lumber and if funds needed to be generated, these trees were effectively a check filled out by Papaw and greatly post-dated. I have rarely known anyone as far-sighted. Bless him for the attitudes he shaped in me.

It was not to be, however, as several years ago three of the four grandchildren were disenfranchised from the two farms; all legal, fair and square, my Grandfather's intentions were circumvented. I would not want to be present when Papaw eventually greets this person on the other side of the dark vale. To say we felt robbed is an understatement and it engendered a tremendous anger in yours truly, not so much the loss of the farm, which was dear to me (I'd worked there many summers and knew it like the back of my hand) but because Papaw's hopes and dreams for the grandchildren had been undone. To be honest, I had always presumed that I would spend my last years on earth in a corner of that farm unless that big snapping turtle got me while swimming in the five acre lake...

A firm believer in Divine Intervention and a Divine Plan, my anger failed to allow me to see that this was just another part of the will of the Creator and was absolutely in my best interest. Had the family farm not been jerked away from me, April & I never would have found this farm in Virginia (near where Papaw's people lived before the Revolutionary War). More recent events, such as how we came to look for a farm in Floyd and Patrick counties (thank you Breon and Travis), are most certainly very direct Divine Intervention, and finding this farm surely was as well. Faith in the Creator is always repaid, it just may not be clear to the mortal mind at the time.

My years are numbered as well. At 58, I have already outlived one grandmother. My Dad lived to only 67 and his Dad only to 69. Nonetheless, as Papaw lived and Jefferson advised, I'll plant trees for posterity, knowing that someone (who will never know of my existence) will appreciate them one day. In the short term, the birds and four-leggeds shall take refuge and sustenance from them and we shall share their joy.

I never before knew the full value of trees. My house is entirely embossomed in high plane-trees, with good grass below; and under them I breakfast, dine, write, read, and receive my company. What would I not give that the trees planted nearest round the house at Monticello were full grown.
--Jefferson to Martha Randolph (from Philadelphia), 1793