Roots

Post originally posted on my pleonast.com blog and on my notes page on Facebook. I am posting a modified version here because it is an essential piece of why “Roots Run Deep.” It was written during the summer of 2011 when I stayed home on the farm after graduating from Purdue and before heading to Penn State because the timing didn’t work out for any internships or full-time jobs. 

Australian Shepherd and Hay BaleMy dog has been following me wherever I go during chores. Part of it is probably because I feed her, but even if she isn’t done eating, she’ll leave her pan of food in the barn and follow me out to the cow pasture. She stays by me while I’m watering the stock, and when I’m walking back and forth from the barn, she stays behind me or to my right side. She’s hardly ever gone to my left, even though I’ve experimented and tried to get her to go to the left. In those instances, she just stays behind.

I’ve never noticed that before. Part of that may be that I just have more time to notice small things like that this summer. Another part could be some of the classes I took at Purdue (I now pay attention to the specific grasses the sheep are eating because I know what they are; the ewes love red clover, but there’s none of that in their pasture, so they snack on the way to their refuge for the day, despite my attempts to push them onward).

I think the main reason, though, is the book I’m reading right now. It’s called Animals and Other People by Louis Bromfield, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a book speak to me as much as this one does. Bromfield founded and built up Malabar Farm, which has now been converted to an Ohio state park. He was on the forefront of soil conservation and sustainable agriculture, conducting many agricultural experiments in the pursuit of better food and healthier natural resources. He’s written several books, but this particular one focuses on the many animals who lived at Malabar and their personalities. Because of Bromfield’s personification of the animals and his descriptions of their loyalty, playfulness, stubbornness, protective nature and other traits, I’ve been taking note of the traits my own animals have, such as Sadie’s tendency to keep to my right.

Also in this book, Bromfield talks about the people who are “teched.” That is, they understand animals to the core, many times more than they understand people. He dives into an explanation of this particular trait in the second chapter, and this was this point at which I fell in love with the book because it speaks my language:

“It took me a good many years to understand to the full what [my distant relative] Phoebe meant by being ‘teched.’ It needed a lot of experience and a lot of observation, but I think I know now what it was that lay behind the remark. I know today that any good farmer has to be a little ‘teched,’ and when I go over the list of good farmers, I know there is not one of whom it could not be said, ‘He is a little teched,’ for it means that he loves his land, his animals and his trees and understands them all. He farms not in order to make money but because of the pleasure and satisfaction there is in it, because it is a destiny he would not change for any other in the world. Success and profit follow, but they are merely incidental….

 “And so the whole big adventure of Malabar Farm came too under the head of being ‘a little teched,’ and out of a philosophy not far removed from that of Phoebe Wise. A ‘smart’ fellow would never have put so much money into so many acres of half-ruined hill land. A ‘smart’ fellow would never have gone out and worked hard to earn that money. A ‘smart’ fellow would never have attempted anything so extravagant as ‘The Plan’ which has taken years and mountains of hard work to bring to fruition. And more than once the ‘smart’ fellows have laughed at what we were trying to do. Fortunately, I come of a hard-shelled family, Scottish and New England by blood, which was never very much concerned about the opinions of others. For generations, most of the members have set a course and to — with the rest.”

In there was a paragraph about the misery of rich men and Bromfield’s philosophy on spending money, and by the time I read down through the “Scottish and New England by blood” paragraph, I was completely hooked.

In subsequent chapters, Bromfield describes the comedic actions of sheep, the “kindergartens” cows keep their calves in to keep them safe, and other actions of livestock, dogs, cats and fowl kept at Malabar Farm. He even described picking up sticks in the hayfield so that they wouldn’t get caught in the mower. He was writing in the 1950s, but I performed that very same task just yesterday. When I read about the sticks, I started grinning like crazy and saying, “Yes! Yes!” (No one else was home.)

Reading Bromfield’s work makes me feel like I’m reading my own story. I love the way he writes and the way he talks of caring for the land. Caring for the land is in my blood, just as much as the Scot is. I learned just three weeks ago that my brothers, first cousins and I are the seventh generation of Browns in this township. Not just this county. The township. My great-great-great grandparents came to our little corner of the county, nestled against the bank of the Wabash River, from North Carolina and stopped here because they liked the hills and hollers. The soil was much better here than in North Carolina, and they began farming. Like Bromfield, my ancestors were ahead of the curve in conservation, making buffer strips for fields and using cover crops. The farm that my great-uncle and aunt (who, interestingly, is also from North Carolina; they met when my great-uncle was driving a Percheron hitch as an advertisement for a national company, and the hitch had taken a trip to North Carolina) live on has been in the family for over 100 years.

The Purdue University “All-American” Marching Band (in which I played the baritone for two years and performed my senior year in the 2010 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade) and Penn State are also in my blood (I will always bleed old gold and black.) My great-grandfather played cornet in the Purdue marching band from 1918-1921, and he taught at Penn State from 1923-1925. He returned to West Lafayette after that, where he was an extension specialist at Purdue for 23 years. He knew someone in every county, and anytime he traveled, north or south, east or west, he could stop at someone’s farm and eat lunch with them. The Indiana State Fair was a big occasion each year, as it is for me as well.

Where the Scot comes in is the fifth generation, my grandfather. Before he graduated from high school, he lived in West Lafayette without his family for three months. Everyone else had moved down to the farm, but he stayed to graduate. Then he laid out of school for a year and attended DePauw. After that, he went to the Army and was stationed in Panama Canal for a bit as a radio operator (Morse code and all). Then, under the GI bill, he went to St. Andrews for a year, and he also was enrolled at Wisconsin to get his master’s degree (I will be the first person in my family since my grandfather to receive a master’s). Somehow, the credits at St. Andrews transferred to Wisconsin such that it only took him a semester at Wisconsin to get his masters.

Grandfather said the choices of universities in Scotland that he would go to were Edinburgh and St. Andrews. Edinburgh wouldn’t let him know until June while St. Andrews took him right away. And just a couple nights ago he said, “And I’m so glad I did.” Not sure whether it was fully education or because he met Grandmother there, but I love that story.

He also spent three summers biking through England, Scotland and Wales, and perhaps some countries on the mainland. He bought his bike in England, and it had three speeds, and there was one place he went where they’d never seen a three-speed bike, and they were amazed.

It’s in my blood to love the sea. Being in Indiana, I don’t particularly have the same love of the sea that I have of the land, but Grandmother grew up in a country where you were never far from the ocean. She excitedly said the other night that since I would be going to Penn State, I would be closer to the sea, and I could visit! I said I wasn’t a sea person (I enjoyed it for a while in Jamaica, but had a bad spell while scuba diving and have been quite happy to be landlocked ever since), and she replied, “Ach, you’ll learn to love it.”

So perhaps I will report back later that the sea is all right.

I suppose I have ocean influences on both sides, for, from my mother’s side, I also have some Dutch ancestry, although I’m not sure who came where when. Grandmother notes that side comes out when I drink tea, as I ask for no milk. “You’re drinking it Dutch today, are you?”

I never thought of it that way until I first asked for no milk. I had simply fixed myself a cup of tea at home without checking to see if we had milk available until after I had added the boiling water to the cup. Then I looked in the fridge, saw no milk and decided to simply continue and see how it tasted. I like it better. It was clear, crisp tea, like a cold winter’s night, no cloudiness, just stars.

But I digress.

The explanation that I was part of the seventh generation here helped make sense of why I am so passionate about Indiana and life in this place. Bromfield writes of how much he loves Ohio, where he grew up (Malabar Farm is in the same county where he was raised), and he often is reminded of France by the climate and speaks of how much he loved that country. And so he speaks to me through his prose. He encourages me to do the best I can here on the farm.

And he encourages me to watch my dog, because there is hardly anything more comforting than having a dog on the farm, watching over you while you are watching over the livestock and land because your life is meant for being ‘teched.’

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