The Child Who Gnaws A Lot

For someone who can’t even chew, my six-month-old sure likes to gnaw. I think that’s why many baby toys and dog toys look identical; in fact, I bet if you put a baby toy in a lineup with five canine chew toys, the baby toy would get off scot-free. Toymakers are marketing to the same demographic, mainly mammals who drool a lot. 

Which is the baby toy?

Both sets of grandparents have asked for guidance on what to get Thomas for Christmas. That’s a good question: What do you get for someone who is perfectly happy gnawing on a cell-phone charger cord? Thankfully, I caught Thomas trying to electrocute himself before he ruined my cord (life lesson learned: never leave a conduit for electrons near a baby). But the question still stands, what do you get a six-month-old? 

I thought about getting him a copy of War and Peace. For one, that title more or less sums up the early experience of human baby–either peacefully sleeping or engaged in wailing warfare over food or the ruined state of a diaper. Second, that book has a lot of pages in it, and Thomas seems most content when stuffing crinkly paper in his mouth. Third, if he starts a Tolstoy book early, there’s a chance he may actually complete it and succeed where his father has failed. I once voiced a critique of Anna Karenina in casual conversation with an English professor (she was a real literary snob if you ask me). She rebuffed my criticism that the ending seemed a little cliche by snorting and pointing out that Anna, after eloping with Vronsky, did not live happily ever after and instead jumped in front of a train. How was I to know I had only read the first volume of Anna Karenina when it alone was over 500 pages?

Sometimes I just wish Thomas would stay the size he is now. His collicky days are over and he is so easy to please right now–just give him a chew toy and he’ll gnaw happily. I’ve also successfully taught him to roll over, which he can now perform for the amazement of onlookers. And, to add his repertoire of tricks, I’m currently teaching him to babble on command and to crawl to improve his fetching skills. 

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Thomas is currently living the pampered life of a modern house dog, which is pretty close to an ideal existence. There have been many times in my life when I’ve envied tail-wagging dogs who are easy to please and unburdened by the worries and stresses of human existence. Now, as a parent, I find myself worrying about what Thomas will worry about. I just want him to live happily ever after, and I can’t imagine him being much happier than he is now as a six-month-old content to gnaw on paper. 

The Child Who Gnaws A Lot

Public Service Announcement: No More Barn Coats PLZ.

Recently several farmers have texted me long-winded messages. Figures–most farmers have notoriously bad texting skills; some even use punctuation and complete sentences. This may be an attempt to overcompensate and debunk the stereotype that farmers can’t spell or write, which is a real dumb stereotype considering sixty-three percent of new farmers are English majors trying to heal the land and grow organic produce. 

But yesterday, for example, I received a beautifully-punctuated message. It was from Vernon Dedham, a local grain farmer, via text message. It had not a single emoticon. It said, “Mr. Bishop, please utilize your public platform, The Misfit Farmer Blog, to stop the scourge of barn outerwear, i.e. coats, given to agricultural producers during the season of Christmastide. My closet runneth over with new barn garments. Yours Truly, Vernon Dedham.”

my barn coat and I.

If you’re under thirty, here’s what Vernon said translated to a proper text: FYI plz stop w/ barn coats cuz clos8 ful :). If you’re over thirty, you can text this to all the millennial gift-givers in your life to preemptively save closet space. 

On behalf of Vernon and farmers everywhere, let me explain. Farmers don’t want a new barn coat for Christmas. The rips, grease stains, and built-in manure smell in our current barn coat might lead you to think that we need, and therefore want, a new barn coat. You might think a barn coat is the perfect gift. But every year farmers are just being polite and faking it when they open the jumbo shirt box, the one with this year’s new edition of a barn coat. 

FARMER: (Feigning surprise) “Well looky here–a new barn coat!”

GIFT GIVER:  “Try it on. Do you think it’ll fit?”

FARMER: (Putting it on for the first and last time) “I think it’ll work.”

The current barn coat is not worn out. It’s broke-in. And the warm embrace of a broke-in barn coat is hard to beat and only gets better with time. I’ve had my barn coat for nineteen years. It has patches, tears, grease stains, and my undying loyalty. I like it so much I’ve even washed it half-a-dozen times in nineteen years. Meanwhile, I have a closet full of brand new barn coats given as gifts, many I’ve only worn once when I was trying them on at Christmas. Eventually, they’ll go to Goodwill when my wife goes on one of her Maria Kondo organizing and decluttering binges. 

Dealing with a Broke-down Brain, a.k.a. Writer’s Block

I had a remarkable thought while hunting a pacifier the other day: If only scientists could harness the energy source that powers a squalling baby and eliminate dirty diapers, we’d have unlimited clean energy. The thought isn’t remarkable in the sense that it’s groundbreaking or even remotely plausible, just that it’s a thought and I haven’t thought much lately. 

I’m not sure what my brain has been doing, but mostly it hasn’t been thinking. It’s been trying to do anything possible not to think, even resorting to watching World Dodgeball Federation videos on YouTube. (Who knew semi-professional dodgeball was such a great spectator sport?)     

You might think that not-thinking would be the modus operandi for writers of a particular sort who plumb the depths of unsophisticated farm humor. To a certain extent, doing dumb things does provide plenty of raw material, but to craft that raw material into words requires neurons and synapses to fire, and lately my brain has been backfiring.

It always amazes me to read about writers who have the brainpower, or really willpower, to write no matter what, every day. One of my favorite writers is Annie Dillard, and she’s an advocate for sticking to a daily writing schedule. In The Writing Life, she says, 

“A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, “Simba!”

And Dillard practiced what she preached, writing every day, reasserting mastery over her manuscripts, so much so she won the Pulitzer Prize–by age 29. Another one of my favorite writers, Patrick McManus, spent two hours every day writing. He died a few years ago at age 85, having authored 23 books. 

Despite my best efforts to write some every day, lately I haven’t been mustering the brainpower. I’ve got a nearly-finished first draft of a manuscript that has, as Dillard put it, turned into a lion. I’m afraid to reopen the document and look at it, much less work on it again. It just seems untamable. The problem is I don’t really know what the book is–is it a semi-truthful memoir of my attempts at farming, a collection of loosely-related and ridiculous short stories, or a manual of what not to do for young farmers. Right now, it feels like a three-headed beast that needs two of its heads chopped off. 

Speaking of farming, I had a farmer tell me once that there are two types of combines: combines that are broke down, and combines that are fixin to break down. I think that accurately describes my writing process. Even when I’m writing every day, there is always the looming feeling out there that my brain is about to break down, not in a bonkers sort of way, just in the I-don’t-have-energy-to-think sort of way. And right now my brain is broke down, and I’m not exactly sure how to get it back up and running again.

For you writers out there, what’s your go-to solution for fixing a broke-down brain?

How my brain feels

Remembering the Prickly Parts

A few years ago, after plowing up an old terrace, I found an arrowhead, a mostly intact quartz tip. I rushed inside to show my wife, but she hardly shared my enthusiasm and seemed more interested in the dirt clods I left on the floor. So, I ended up taking the arrowhead to work to show off, and I just happened to leave it on my desk, where it remains to this day. The arrowhead is a wonderful ice-breaker.  Often farmers will be sitting in my office while I’m scrambling to locate the correct version of the correct form. They’ll scan their surroundings and notice the arrowhead, which will spark much story-telling in arrowhead lore and buy me some time. One farmer said he was digging a hole with post-hole diggers and found a musket ball and an arrowhead in the same hole. This statement was the prelude to an hours-long conjecture session between the two of us on how those two items ended up in close proximity in the ground, which was more than enough time for me to locate form AD7HM-13/42 version 12.3. 

Having had many conversations about arrowheads, I’ve noticed arrowhead storytelling often contains an element of one-upmanship, as each arrowhead is a little larger than the last one mentioned. That said, I once watched a farmer find a truly massive spear tip. To be honest, the farmer needed that pick-me-up. We had already dug several soil test pits along a little branch that runs into Buffalo Creek. The soil, however, was nothing but coarse, no-account sand–not a layer of clay to be found anywhere. The farmer was getting  despondent at the thought of hauling in clay from offsite to build the dam for his irrigation pond. Then the backhoe emptied another bucket  beside a test hole and a five-inch spear tip tumbled down the dirt pile. The find completely changed  the farmer’s glum demeanor. 

 “This probably killed a buffalo,” he said gleefully, as we all stood around and studied the  spear tip. 

  “Could be a thousand years old,” said the backhoe operator, who had disembarked his steed to join in the studying. 

“Maybe ten-thousand,” I said. 

  “Could have killed a saber-toothed tiger,” the farmer said. We all peered down into the hole looking for saber-tooth tiger bones, but, alas, found none. To this day, the farmer still talks about that find and, for what it’s worth, cites me as a witness. He also suspects the spear tip brought him good luck. Despite the sorriest soil I’ve ever seen for a pond site, his pond miraculously held water. 

Likely, that spear tip is of Catawba origin. The North Carolina foothills where I live is mostly old Catawba territory. I won’t pretend  to be an expert on Native Americans, but from what I’ve read, the Catawba were a welcoming and  benevolent tribe, which is no small feat considering the Scotch-Irish settlers tended to be brash and rearing to fight (it was the Scotch-Irish Overmountain Men who whipped the British at Kings Mountain, helping turn the tide of the American Revolution). 

Sadly, the Catawba’s friendliness only hastened their demise. In the late 1600s, the  Catawba here totaled around 4,800 members. A hundred years later, their population had  plummeted to 250. From trading, smallpox spread quickly, ravaging their tribe. In 1775, a trader  named James Adair documented an old Catawba maize field that ran along a river bottom for seven  miles. He marveled that the Catawba must have once been a strong and numerous tribe to clear  and work a field that large. By 1830 when the Indian Removal Act was signed, the Catawba  population had dwindled so low that the government didn’t even bother relocating the few  surviving members through the Trail of Tears.  

One unintended drawback to the no-till era of farming is arrowheads remain hidden. Don’t get me wrong, saving soil is important, but finding arrowheads once reminded farmers of their predecessors here. And for people like me with Scotch-Irish ancestors who likely benefited from the downfall of tribes like the Catawba, it’s easy to glaze over the parts of our past that are prickly as a spear tip.

How to Solve the Farm Problem

By George! I’ve done it. I’ve solved “The Farm Problem.” Well, really my wife solved it after I asked her if she had seen a hammer recently.

“Which hammer?” she asked. 

“Any hammer,” I said, “The red one or the blue one or the neon green one.” The latter was supposed to glow in the dark in case I ever lost it at night. However, I lost it during the day. 

“No, the last time I saw a hammer it was lying somewhere,” she advised.

I went to check all the usual places a pounding implement might lay, hang, or drop on my farm, but after an extensive search, I chalked up another casualty to the Bermuda Triangle for hammers, tape measures, and quarter-inch wrenches that centers over our farm. 

The Farm Problem, you’ll remember, is the fact that farmers can’t afford to farm. This problem has persisted for eons; in fact, some economists speculate it dates back to when the first nomads gave up hunting and gathering and decided to feed the world. And yet, my wife quickly solved it when I returned home with a new orange hammer from the hardware megastore. (Interestingly, I can’t remember the location of a single hammer on my own farm, but I’ve memorized the aisle and bin number for all tools at the hardware store). Upon my arrival home with a new hammer, she said, “We’d have a lot more money if you’d stop buying the same tools over and over again.”

“Oh contraire,” I replied. “You’re forgetting opportunity costs. By buying a new hammer, I save time searching for an old one–and time is money.”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” she said, “I believe there’s an inverse relationship between the time you spend trying to farm and the direction of our bank account.”

“Hmpph,” I said, “Just think about all that money we made selling homegrown tomatoes on the roadside stand. We even had a few Sacagawea coins in the honor box. Those’ll be worth millions one day.”

“What about that old rusty hammer-mill thing you bought,” she asked, “can’t you just make hammers in it?”

“No, absolutely not. A hammer mill does not make hammers. It grinds grain to smithereens so animals can get the full nutritional value of my homegrown oats, barley, and corn blend.”

“They should call it a grain mill then, not a hammer mill,” she said, “Furthermore, you should just put your tools in their proper place–that would solve the whole farm problem.”

And there you have it. Farm problem solved.

Our tomato stand.