Feb. 11 2016
From the Farm

Six weeks after the Winter Solstice I find myself considering Stewardship. To get at it, I need to scrub the subject clean first of any overtones involving the support of organized religion and second of the overtones of societal structure; this is neither about tithing nor about lordships and peasants and those in between.


Instead, it’s about our house.

What you see is the north face of what was an outside wall when the house was built. Over time that wall had become ruinous and it was necessary for the restorers to put the stones back together. The black marks are the residue of the tar that must have been used originally to seal off the roof of the porch from the rest of the building, but when it was restored the stones were laid in according to the judgement of the mason rather than a recreation of something no longer necessary. Originally the porch roof must have had two pitches, or so it would seem by the different angles of the tar. We can see the marks left by the mallet and chisel used to shape the stone.


The house was built in 1876, A. D. 1876 as the stone at the top of the gable tells us, by A. W. Nordeen. The Nordeens had been Swedes. Now they had become Americans. One fine day a year or two earlier, A. W. and his helpers—family?—went a quarter mile southwest and began cutting limestone out of the vein they had found in the grass. Did they build the barn first, or the house? Is that a moral question? When the house was built, the room on the north side was the kitchen. You can see the two wooden plugs set into the stone from which necessities could be suspended, spoons, maybe, or pots. The house was illuminated by kerosene and candles, of course, until the day that the Rural Electrification Administration got here, in the nineteen thirties or maybe post-WWII, and someone got out the mallet and chisel to make a box to hold the switch and a groove for the wiring. How wonderful to see electric light in the kitchen for the first time! You can get up even earlier to see to make breakfast. You can wash dishes effectively later at night. You don’t have to put up with lamp cleaning, wick trimming, and the smell of kerosene.

Unless you really want to.

Two weeks after we bought the Nordeens’ farm, the barn blew down: there was no hay in the loft to stabilize it. It took us five years to clean it up and another four to decide that it would become a rose garden. One side had held horses and the other side a cow for milking: just the places for roses, but the middle part, an aisle for equipment or a work area, did not have a deep foundation appropriate for roses, so it is grass. The aisle had sloped down for moving equipment or livestock for the Nordeens, but our friend Logan was able to build steps.


Our sheep are Border Leicesters and rules are laid down telling us what characteristics are necessary for a sheep to be registered as such, so that even though a sheep may have registered parents, it may yet not look right. Border Leicesters have been around since the 1760s so any offspring since then has involved choosing whether or not it is appropriately configured to send its genes into the future.

When we build fence across a pasture, we ask ourselves: is this the right place for a gate? Have we positioned it so there are shade trees on both sides? Are the two sides equal in size? Can we concentrate enough sheep here to benefit them, the grass, and the soil? And when we add on to our watering system we hope we have put the spigots where they’ll be the most useful.

All this bears on the subject of stewardship, but I think Stevenson got it right. Do you recall “Where Go the Boats”? He’s thinking of children making boats and setting them afloat on a stream:

Dark brown is the river

Golden is the sand.

It flows along for ever,

With trees on either hand.

Green leaves a-floating,

Castles of the foam,

Boats of mine a-boating –

Where will all come home?

On goes the river

And out past the mill,

Away down the valley,

Away down the hill.

Away down the river,

A hundred miles or more,

Other little children

Shall bring my boats ashore.

Who are these other little children? We are.