News From the Farm | July 13, 2015

We had a farm dinner this past Saturday night, hosted here on the farm. There were 50 or more attendees – a wide-ranging assemblage – customers from farmers markets and CSA, or browsers who came upon the farm seeking closer connection to field and food. It was a wonderful dinner produced from Full Belly Farm products – tomatoes, melons, salami and ground bloody butcher cornmeal for the tortillas. My son Amon and his partner Jenna were the chefs and created a savory dinner and very enjoyable evening.

I was seated with Terril and Eva Ellis, our neighbors and friends who, in their 80’s, have lived next door for many years and have filled their lives with treasures found in a lifetime of imagination and creativity and efforts to deepen the beauty and diversity of their farm. Our conversation was about the lessons learned through experience: things to pay attention to, or best avoided. Eva’s family grew up near Placerville. Her father was a rancher who used to hang just-slaughtered meat and provisions in the back of his wagon and take Eva on visits to the remote farms and homesteads of the foothills, checking on aging miners, or those with no one to take care of them as they grew old. Eva is not one to volunteer information, yet has rich stories about a land that has changed and whose eternal beauty may be all but forgotten. She has stories of the people who lived there, most now long gone, and their contributions to creating and transforming the place of her youth. She willingly shares clear memories unearthed with simple questions or patient listening.

Terril is a colorful character, who at 83 has had more than his share of near death experiences, poverty, hunger, success, failure and the lessons gleaned by experience and hard work. We talked of his growing up as a poor child in Willows California in the northern Sacramento Valley. He shares stories of migrating waterfowl so thick in the sky that the noise of their rising and flight was deafening – in numbers so large as to darken up the whole sky. He tells of his barefoot poverty and hunger with his sister and single mother, foraging the land for anything to eat – crayfish, turtles, small birds, baked worms, ducks, pheasants or common weeds. He would roast whole bluebirds or finches on sticks and eat them whole after the feathers had burned off. He became a marksman and archer. As a businessman, he watched the changing landscapes of Northern California and was a skilled electrician running a large electrical company, contributing to the growth and wiring of Vallejo and surrounding east bay cities.

Together they backpacked in the Trinity alps and brought busloads of Vallejo children to their farm each summer to ride horses, learn tracking, grow a garden or raft in Cache Creek. They planted apples, pomegranates, figs, pecans, peaches, and quince, grafting borrowed wood and bringing unusual and rare varieties to life, and then hauling pickup loads of vegetables back to Vallejo to give away to the elderly, to rest homes, to churches and to those who were in need.

We are fortunate to be their neighbors. Full Belly harvests some of the trees that they took the time to plant and nurture. They are a generous and gracious couple, willing to share their journey for the time it takes to ask and listen. I read a Wendell Berry poem and was reminded that the information age may need more time to listen, to ask, and to continue the knowledge of lessons learned from fully lived lives – not virtually, but through the pleasure of hearing stories told, and watching memories come to life with the telling.

Memories connected to place, to land, or to the work done on that place, are at the heart of a permanent and sustainable agriculture. Honoring one’s ancestors and those who have added to the collective record thoroughly enriches our lives. Land is at the heart of the culture arising from the living and the telling. Planting and passing along is a timeless act of generosity and responsibility, enriching both those who plant and those who taste and then give thanks.

–Paul Muller

The Record

My old friend tells us how the country changed:

where the grist mill was on Cane Run,

now gone; where the peach orchard was,

gone too; where the Springport Road was gone

beneath returning trees; how the creek ran three weeks

after a good rain, long ago, no more;

How when these hillsides first were plowed, the soil

Was black and deep, no stones, and that was long ago;

Where the wild turkeys roosted in the old days.

“You’d have to know this country mighty well

before I could tell you where.”

And my young friend says: “Have him speak this

into a recorder. It is precious, It should be saved.”

I know the panic of that wish to save

the vital knowledge of the old times, handed down,

for it is rising off the earth, fraying away

in the wind and the coming day.

As the machines come and the people go

the old names rise, chattering, and depart.

But knowledge of my own going into old time

tells me no. Because it must be saved,

do not tell it to a machine to save it.

That old man speaking you have heard

since your boyhood, since his prime, his voice

speaking out of lives long dead, their minds

speaking in his own, by winter fires, in fields and woods,

in barns while rain beat on the roofs

and wind shook the girders. Stay and listen

until he dies or you die, for death

is in this, and grief is in it. Live here

as one who knows these things, Stay, if you live;

listen and answer, Listen to the next one

like him, if there is to be one. Be

the next one like him, if you must.

Stay and wait. Tell your children. Tell them

to tell their children. As you depart

toward the coming light, turn back

and speak, as the creek steps downward

over the rocks, saying the same changing thing

in the same place as it goes.

When the record is made, the unchanging

word carried to a safe place

in a time not here, the assemblage

of minds dead and living, the loved lineage

dispersed, silent, turned away, the dead

dead at last, it will be too late.

— Wendell Berry