Friday, March 23, 2012

"Saving the Planet"

Ok, it's settled. I'm finally a believer. I've been a doubter up until this very evening. What am I talking about? Global warming, that's what.

I was sitting outside just after dark this evening cooling off after an awfully hot day for the 23rd of March and heard the first (at least for my ears) whip-or-will of the season. Now when you hear the first whip-or-will, it's time to be planting corn.

Now, I've never planted corn in March before. When I was on the farm I always liked to have some in  by the 15th of April, but we're still three weeks away from that. And I'm sure I've never heard a whip-or-will this early ever. Why, I remember along about 1977 going by John Eby's Long Island corn field one early morning the first week in June and the waist high corn was covered in frost.

But this whole winter has turned out to be the winter that wasn't. We had several cold windy days and one little snow, but as a whole the season was a dud.

Now you might ask as we used to ask each other when I was a kid, "Are you bragging or complaining?" Well, I'm certainly not complaining; I don't enjoy the cold. But I did feel real sorry for the spring peepers this time around.

Usually you hear the first spring peepers the last week in February. This year they peeped a little several times in January and early February during some unusually warm spells. Only to have to go quiet  when it turned cold again. They may be so confused by now it will take some good counseling to get them back on the level.

Anyway, when the creatures out in nature that don't listen to the news or read the paper start changing their habits, I sit up and take notice.

So as I said, I'm a new believer. But the cause of global warming?? Here's where we may differ. Is it man-made? I doubt it. I rather imagine it's just one of those cycles that have come and gone for as  long as the earth has been created.

But here's the good news; I know just what can help the situation. We need to do more logging. WHAT?, you say? Yes, you heard right; more logging. But don't trees take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen?

Yes, you're right; in a young healthy forest that is happening. But when a forest does that, it stores carbon. What do you suppose happens in an old growth forest? Old trees die and fall over and when theybegin to rot the carbon starts leaking back out. In fact, in some old growth forests there may be so much decaying wood that the carbon dioxide being released is greater than the oxygen that's being created.

Now I'm not advocating cutting down all the redwoods, etc. I love trees myself. When I was logging I  once even left a patch of nice trees in a pretty spot especially in honor of my cousin Mary Sue, who could barely stand it when we kept cutting all the timber off their farm. I'm just saying that in general, a well managed forest where there is proper harvesting being done is the one that is putting the so much needed oxygen into our atmosphere and purging the carbon dioxide out.

So what's the bottom line?

 Save the planet! Cut more trees!

 (Then, of course, you can always bring the logs to our sawmill)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

"Speaking at the University"

Speaking at the university, you ask?? So how did this country boy with only his high school diploma (and just barely managed that; which to my shame was a motivation problem) manage to speak at the university?

Well, it's a long story. I will have to tell you about Clara Booker, and I can't tell you about Clara without telling you about Clara's mama. So we might as well get started.............

We learned to know Clara when we managed the dairy on Covered Bridge Road. My first memory of Clara was when she came down to the farm wanting several bales of straw for some yard work she was doing. I helped her  load a few bales into the back of her SUV all the while wondering how she was going to get all that straw back out of her carpet.

Clara had just moved down from Maryland and had built a house a mile up Covered Bridge Rd. from the farm. Clara was a person you just couldn't help liking. She was a tall woman, I'd say six feet at least. She had that mellow resonant voice that is typical of so many black people and had a big contagious laugh that started from somewhere down near her soul.

Sometime later Clara's mama came to live with her. Old Mrs. Booker was probably (at least in her younger years) just as tall as Clara. And she had the longest fingers; they seemed almost an inch longer than mine.

Mrs. Booker was getting pretty feeble and was beginning to lose her short term memory. Clara worked a  later shift job and worried about her mom leaving a stove burner on or about her falling while getting ready for bed, so she got Mary lined up to go up in the evenings and check up on her mama.

Now old Mrs. Booker may not have remembered whether she had left the stove burner on or not, but she could sure remember things from long ago. Our whole family would go up sometimes and she would tell us her stories.

She had lived in a coal mining camp near Beckley, West Virginia. This was before the days of the unions and some of the camps were little better than living in slavery. But the owner of the camp they lived in took better care of his people and was a stickler for keeping the housing area neat and clean. He would see to it that all the houses got a fresh coat of paint every year.

She told of a young couple that lived next door who were always arguing and fighting. One day when the husband left for work they were in the middle of yet another disagreement and the parting words the wife yelled at her husband were, "I hope you get killed in the mine today!" Well, it turns out he did. She said it was awful to hear that young woman screaming after she had heard the news.They took her away and she never found out what happened to her.

Mrs. Booker worked for a doctor and his wife taking care of their two children. She said the doctor and his wife treated her very well, but when the children were alone with her they would say racially insulting things.This went on for a long time. She never mentioned it to the parents, but one day the mother happened in and overheard some of the things her children were saying.

She was upset with her children and proceeded to discipline them. She told Mrs. Booker that she was going to spank them until Mrs. Booker said it was time for her to stop. Mrs. Booker said she thought to herself, "Lord, they won't live!"

We had gone along one evening to visit with her and Myron had taken his violin so we could do a little singing. I've always loved spirituals so we launched into "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot".  We hadn't got far along at all until she was adding a deep (for a woman) mellow baritone part. When we got done I said, "Mrs. Booker, you've done some singing before tonight!" She laughed and said, oh yes, she had been a been in a singing group for many years. If I remember right it was a group of four men and her.
She was quick to tell me though, that she didn't care much at all for all this new-fangled music in churches today. Way too jazzy, she said.

The months passed and Mrs. Booker's time on earth was nearly done. She landed in the hospital; it was only a matter of time. We would check with Clara every so often to see what was happening.

Not long before this Mrs. Booker had heard a song on the radio about a train; the train that would take you over to the other shore when your time was up and if you were ready. And she wanted this song sung at her funeral.

One evening just a few days before she died Clara came in to check on her mama. When she came by the nurses station she asked them, "How's mama doing this evening". Oh, they said, she kind of got out of her head this afternoon, got kind of agitated talking about some train, and we had to sedate her."
Clara told me she thought to herself, "Look at that, Mama tryin' to cross over and they done gone and sedated her!" And then that great big contagious laugh.

We made sure we went to Mrs. Booker's funeral. Clara and her three sisters sang. Four part harmony so mellow and sweet it sent shivers up your spine; "People get ready, there's a train comin'!"

Rest in peace, Mrs. Booker; I hope we get to sing together in the sweet by and by.

Some years later we moved off the farm and Clara went back to college. Actually taking seminary classes at Virginia University of Lynchburg, which happens to be the oldest institute of higher learning in the city, established in about 1890. And to make this more unusual, this was a black college that got its start less than thirty years after the Civil War.

 Now I've never thought that a woman's place was preaching, but I'll have to admit that Clara would probably make a good one. She said her pastor said the men weren't stepping up to the plate so she should go for it.

One day I get a call from Clara. She is in a church history class studying the Reformation and they are having a session about the Anabaptists.  Her professor was saying that the Mennonite people are all up around Harrisonburg. She said she piped up and said, "Oh no they ain't!" So she asked me if I would come and give a presentation on the Mennonites to their class at seminary.

And so I did. It wasn't as scary as it sounds. There were about seven or eight in the class counting the professor, Dr. Coleman. They were very interested in what I had to say and asked questions.

I told them how the Anabaptists were despised by both the Catholics and the Protestants. How in Switzerland, even after the death penalty no longer existed other severe measures were taken against them. How many were put in prison or sent to sea as galley slaves. How they were frequently branded on their heads to identify them as undesirables, and those who reported them to the authorities would  often receive a reward. How Anabaptist children were considered illigitiment and had no rights before the law, not even being able to inherit their parents property. I got a good round of that hearty black laughter when I told them, "Yall weren't the only ones to have some hard times comin' up!"

I talked about some things like non-resistance and told them the Dirk Willems story. About our strong beliefs on the separation of church and state. On the veiling for women.

I told them that (in my opinion) we have some real strengths. But along with that we have some weaknesses as well. And sometimes the weaknesses are the downside to the very same strengths.

Like the sense of brotherhood we have. How I could travel across the country and be welcomed by people that may not know me personally, but have some connection within the vast network of friends and relatives that make up the Mennonite community. But also, that when you are a first generation Mennonite it can feel like you may never quite "fit" because you don't have that network.

And another strength is how we Mennonites get  practical about applying the principles of the Bible to our daily christian walk. Which is something sadly lacking today in most mainstream churches. But then if we're not careful our focus can be so much on the applications that we lose our focus on the principles themselves. We can become a little like the Pharisees; very religious but missing some of the most important points.

 So that's the story of how I got to speak at the university. I enjoyed it immensely. I look back on it as one of the highlights in my long and mediocre career!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"A Salute to the Silo"

I was sitting in church last Sunday and just happened to glance out the window (I need to do this occasionally to reestablish my ties with the outdoors) where the main thing on the horizon is cousin Dwayne's silo. In just a few seconds time I had a bunch of memories about my relationship with silos, some good and some not so good.

Now don't preach me a sermon about daydreaming during the preaching. How many of you are still remembering what the title was of the sermon you heard on Sunday? The title of ours was "Paul on the Way to Damascus, On the Way to Jerusalem, and on the Way to Rome". So there.

And as I said it just lasted for a few seconds. It's amazing how much you can think about in a few seconds. And then I've thought about a few more things since.

My earliest memories of silos were the 14'x40' Ribstone silos that my Uncle Bud and my Uncle Robert both had on their farms. The "silo unloader" was whichever of my cousins turn it was to throw down the silage. And then another cousin loaded the wheelbarrow and wheeled the silage into the cows. It was really aggravating if you were the one who was supposed to be doing the wheeling and your brother up the silo was poking along and wasn't throwing enough silage down to keep you busy. I remember once the cousin down below was getting madder and madder at the poky one up the silo that he finally headed up to straighten him out. Of course, then the one up the silo started throwing silage down furiously.

 There were five boys in Uncle Robert's family and four in Uncle Bud's, so there was no shortage in manpower for the feeding operation. My cousin Leon once stuck a pitchfork pretty much all the way through his foot and was up the silo yelling bloody murder 'till my dad crawled up, put his foot on top of Leon's and yanked the fork out.

Getting the silage up the silos during silo-filling time was interesting also. The bravest guy was the one who climbed the outside of the silo (no ladder or cage, just climbing on the silo hoops) and with a rope pulled up the filler pipe. That was hooked to the blower which had a fold down table that was a wide as the back of a truck.

The trucks had what was called a "false end gate" that you slid to the front when the truck was empty. Then there were cables that were hooked to the gate and went to a pipe fastened on the back of the bed. When you came in to unload you backed up to the blower table and hooked a "donkey engine" (a small geared down electric motor) onto the pipe at the back.The engine would turn the pipe, which would wrap up the cable, which would slowly pull the false end gate and the silage would fall out the back of the bed into the blower. Of course, if you left it unattended it would fall off in big clumps and plug the blower, so someone had to stand there with a pitchfork and keep it falling evenly.

And it was great fun to drive the truck as you drove alongside the chopper and tried to keep your speed matched to his so no silage would miss the truck and land on the ground.

By the time I had grown up enough to work for my cousin-in-law Milo, silos had gotten considerably larger, cousin Dwayne had a 20'x60' and Milo had a 20'x70'. You couldn't very well empty one of these with the old trusty pitchfork; you had to have a silo unloader. Which was a great improvement on one hand and a whole new set of aggravations on the other.

You had to somewhat take the unloader apart and winch it up to the top of the silo before filling it. You had to make sure all the silo doors were put back in place. Woe to you if you had left one out that was now halfway up the silo. It was always terribly dusty in the silo chute. I could get almost panicky when you would dislodge a bunch of old dusty dry silage; it felt like you couldn't breathe. I remember stopping sometimes about halfway up and sticking my nose up to a hole in the chute where a rock had went through , and taking deep breathes while waiting for my panicky feeling to subside.

There was a so-called "distributor" at the top of the silo pipe which was supposed to spread the silage around evenly. But they never seemed to work that well. It was disheartening to climb up and look in after you were done filling and the silage would be real high on one side and way low on the other. Then you had to get the old pitchfork out and get it level, or the silo unloader wouldn't work.

And you had to watch out for silo gas, too. Silo gas is a heavier-than-air gas that sometimes forms and can be deadly. I remember seeing the telltale brown stained silage and finding dead sparrows at the bottom of the chute. I would always climb up several doors above where the silage level would be and look in first before actually going in. And we usually left the blower hooked up and had it running to add fresh air.

The silo unloader consists of two augers with teeth on them that are running in opposite directions. They chew the silage loose and pull it to the center where it feeds into a fan which blows it out the door and down the chute. The whole contraption is pushed round and round the silo by a set of "bull wheels".

Which is wonderful when it works like it's supposed to. But they can be awfully cantankerous. I wouldn't be able to tell you the number of times you're trying to get the evening feeding done and the silage quits coming down.  Oh man! Usually the problem is the bull wheels have spun out, so you crank the silo unloader up maybe twenty cranks hoping they will get going again. Maybe one time out of ten that will work; the other nine times you have to go up and fix it. (I've never been tempted to play the lottery; my luck has always been bad)

Once I was trying to get the feeding done as I just mentioned. It was getting dusky and sure enough, the silage quit coming. The cranking up trick didn't work, so up the chute I go. If it was dusky outside, it was pretty near dark inside that chute. I started on up hoping by the time I got to the silage level my eyes would be adjusted enough to see what the trouble might be.

I hadn't gone very far and was just about to put my hand on the next rung when something made me pause. There was a dark shape on that rung that looked to be on the way down.  There were some great big black snakes that hung around the silos and barns, with all the grain that attracted mice, they had a great life there. Anyway, this was the grandaddy of them all, all six foot of him and about as thick as  my wrist. And seeing he had probably been on his way down  before I had started my way up, I thought it only courteous of me to give him the right of way. You know, sorta like a one lane bridge. If the cows had to wait a little for their morning feeding it wouldn't hurt them too much just this once.

Another time I was feeding the heifers at cousin Dwayne's farm and the silo unloader quit running altogether. We never had a proper control switch there; we just flipped the breaker to start and stop it.

It was almost dark this time also. I flipped the breaker back and forth. Sometimes there would be a loose connection in the breaker box. No luck. So I begin to climb.

It is very dark in the silo; I can't see a thing. I crawl thru the door and onto the arm that runs over to the unloader. I jump off down to the silage level. Well, in my flipping the breaker back and forth I had forgotten which way I had left it.  And when I jumped off the unloader arm I made the silo cord wiggle and the bad connection that was instead in the silo cord plug made contact and the silo unloader roared to life.

Talk about a few seconds of sheer terror.  I'm in midair and underneath somewhere (I still can't see a thing) is this unloader with its augers and its sharp teeth. I had the presence of mind to remember which way the unloader rotated in the silo, so I carefully walked that direction. I walked till I bumped into the drive shaft that ran to the bull wheels. Then I knew where the augers were so I worked my way to the center and felt for the cord and finally got it unplugged and got the unloader stopped.

Once in the same silo I was throwing down with a pitchfork because the silo unloader was on the blink. When I had thrown down what I thought should be enough I looked down the chute and it had plugged up and I couldn't get out. I crawled up to the top of the chute but the ladder that went down the outside was halfway around the silo from the chute. The only way to get there would have been to go hand over hand hanging by your fingers on the silo blocks and I didn't quite have the guts for that. So I sat up at the top like a flightless pigeon and yo-hooed out of a crack every so often until Dwayne happened to finally hear me and came and dug me out.

These days as dairys get larger  the upright silos are sitting idle and farmers are using bunker silos instead. I think both of the silos where I had so many adventures and put in so much toil are now standing empty; lonely old monuments to the past. Even with all their aggravations, I can't help but feel a little nostalgic about them.

Then of course, I haven't had to get the cows fed for quite a few years now.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"Back to the Earth and Natural Foods"

I'm here to tell you, we were "back to the earth" before back to the earth was cool. You read about the increase of all kinds of allergies and ailments in children these days. And partly to blame, researchers say, is that these children are growing up in a too sterile environment.

Just to put it simply, we didn't have that problem. I think the way I grew up I've probably been inoculated against pretty much everything except maybe rabies and holler horn. If I was roaming around the woods and got thirsty I drank from the next creek I came across. Once I drank from a creek and after walking further upstream found the bones of a dead heifer in the water.

Maybe we were deficient in something; one thing we liked to do is break off a piece of the cow's salt block to lick on. Of course we were always particular about only licking on just the freshly broken side and not the side where the cow had licked.

And as far as whole grain natural food, I just sort of naturally had a hankering for it even at an early age.

I can't even remember how I developed a taste for the cross-sections of "corn on the cob" out of the corn silage. My dad and mom rented a dairy farm up until I was six years old and I was sick once and couldn't go along out with my folks to do the chores. So I begged my mom and she brought me in some corn to eat when they had the chores done. (I'm wondering how many of yall had a mama that good?)

Some years later when I was working on the Zehr dairy, we put up some corn silage a little too green and the corn "juice" began dripping out of the joints between the upright silo blocks. I figured since I liked the taste of the fermented corn grain, maybe this juice would be good stuff. So I rigged me a little spout and caught some of it in a container. Whew! I don't know what the makeup of that juice was, but it didn't have the same flavor as the corn grain. Experiment failed!

It's kind of sad though; these days the newer forage harvesters have on board kernel processors which crush all the kernels. This makes it more digestible to the cow but has no sympathy for the corn silage corn on the cob lover like me.

Another taste I developed was for petunia blossoms. There is a weed called sheep sorrel that has a tangy flavor that I enjoyed. I hadn't had any for years but tried some just a few days ago. Yep, still good. There is also a little clover plant (don't know the name) that was especially good after it had bloomed and formed little seed pods that look like miniature okra.

I used to like the cow feed at my uncle Bud's dairy. It was fresh ground at Wydner's Mill on Main Street, Rustburg, and had molasses mixed in with the grain. You had to chew kind of gently, swallow the soft stuff and spit out the less digestible cob pieces. Still today, if Mary makes some really whole grain cookies or something I'm apt to say, "Man, these things are cow feed." And that's not necessarily slamming them, I just happen to remember the flavor.

And I had forgotten it till just now, how when mixing up the milk replacer to feed the baby calves I couldn't resist helping myself to some of the lumps out of the not quite mixed up milk.

So are you surprised I'm still alive? I may catch the consumption tomorrow, but I feel fine presently. Funny thing though, you should see me when I leave a public restroom these days. Wash my hands good, with soap. Bump faucet off with back of hand. Have paper towel ready to dry hands. Open door using paper towel like a glove, then try to throw towel in trash can while holding door open with foot.

Reminds me of old Harry Mitchell. He hauled logs on an old two-ton truck usually from somewhere near Rustburg to the sawmill in Brookneal. By the time he got to Gladys it looked like a funeral procession with him leading the way.

Harry was a slow driver but also had a phobia about germs. His hands had a raw look about them from frequent washing. I never saw it myself but was told how he would stop at the Gladys Mini Market and would wait outside the door till someone else would open the door, and then he would jump in behind them without having to touch the door himself.

Country germs are one thing. Public germs, now, they're another.