That’s Mr. Horace Bixby, and if the name rings a bell, it’s the bell in the pilot house of the steamboat in which he taught Sam Clemens the art of piloting.
Sam had difficulties grasping the fact that an inch of rain on the upper river would change the topography of the dangers below the surface of the lower river—snags, sand bars, rocks, reefs—as well as the physical appearance of the markers, a grove of cottonwoods, maybe, or a farm. And of course Sam had to learn the river, up and down, daylight, twilight, and dark. The book is Life on the Mississippi, and if it is new to you, stick with it until you have dealt with Charles William Albright.
So why am I thinking of Horace Bixby? The days before the outbreak of secession and the war were difficult, of course, and no one can tell a story like Sam—but more than that I can see that Mr. Bixby can be thought of as a metaphor—a savvy, determined, commercially minded, fully American, commanding presence. And here we are with Gael’s and Vicky’s film about Elizabeth Eakins, and if we are not careful, Elizabeth might be thought of as a metaphor.
Now, you can pick and choose your metaphors as you wish, but as I see it, to think of Elizabeth as a metaphor is to miss her reality, and rather than sketch in the snags and reefs of the creative process on a commercial scale, I will remind you of some of the principles she and I have experienced and learned to articulate in the agricultural world.
They are not metaphors. Some will sound familiar.
- It’s the eye of the master that fattens the sheep.
- Oats are for energy and while they require lots of work, sheep will more readily eat oat straw than wheat straw.
- Two short chains are better than a long chain and two short hoses are better than a long hose.
- When you are siting a hydrant, put it as far up a slope as you can: easy drainage is good especially in the winter.
- Buy your replacement puppies one at a time, because siblings will not have enough attention for the lessons the older dogs will teach.
- Livestock guarding dogs can be seen to influence where sheep go, and sheep will often pause until the dogs signal safety.
- Get kittens in bunches.
- Be aware of the ratio of cats to a mouse-free environment, but it need not be mathematically expressed.
- Feed cats generously near the environment they guard, but not so generously that their hunting instincts are dulled.
- In a cat-free or low-cat environment, country folk will often raise the hoods of their vehicles to discourage pack-rats.
- Raccoons don’t discourage easily. Better that your neighbors plant corn and leave a row or two unharvested.
- After precipitation, sheep will limp, not all but enough to be worrisome if you want to worry.
- Alfalfa is a wonderful feed.
- Sheep and dogs tell time by the position of the sun, and on murky days their sense of promptness is diminished.
- Don’t fall down.
- Coyotes excel at evaluating risk, not on roads, but everywhere else.
- If, on a moonless night on a vast expanse of grassland in Kansas you hear the drumming of hooves, do not assume they are zebras. His admirers will recognize Occam’s Razor, that we should not invent things to explain otherwise explainable results. Another expressed it this way: sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
- No one is as important as a neighbor. Say Yes when asked.
You see what I mean, I hope: grit, not metaphor. And it’s a lovely film.