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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Rural Life

Air Date: Week of

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Most farmers farm for a living. But our commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg says his daily barn chores don’t bring him a salary, but something far less tangible.


CURWOOD: We typically think of farmers as a stubborn, practical lot. Picture the stern and utterly determined farming couple who look out from Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic. But our commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg, who farms a five-acre spread in upstate New York, goes about his business with a different kind of purpose.

KLINKENBORG: A couple of weeks ago I found a small settlement of lice on one of the pigs. It was only about the width of a pencil eraser, but even that was too big. I got out a stiff horse brush and gave that pig and her companion a serious brushing, which is one of the great joys in a pig’s life. Then I raked out all the old hay in the pig house, closed the two pigs inside with a fresh hay bail to tear apart, and hauled the house off to a different part of the pasture.

I brush them every time I feed them now, and I haven’t seen any lice since. Eventually as I’m brushing the pigs flop over on their sides and lie there, barely breathing, eyes closed, legs practically quivering with pleasure. I try to remember to watch just how much affection I let myself feel for them. Affection is what we’re really farming up here, farming it mostly in ourselves.

Snow fell late the other afternoon. And as it thickened all around me I realized that there is nothing more definite in the world than the top line of a red pig against the snow. I can always see the self-interest in the animals and perhaps they see it in me too. But there’s something else, as well. Badger’s joy when he bounds out of his kennel in the morning is unspeakable. Is it freedom or is it me? The horses drift their flanks in my direction when they muzzle up to their hay. Is it just a scratch they want or do they have something to tell me?

The chickens crowd up against the chicken yard fence to watch as I approach with the feed bucket. And I have to admit that this is small-town self-interest at its purest: the look of the line in front of the payroll office. But there is always one, a speckled Sussex hen that will let me hold her under my arm. Why she lets me do that, I have no idea. Why I like to is easy: the inscrutable yellow eye, the white dotted feathers, the tortoise shell beak, and above all the noise that she makes. I have no idea what the Sussex is saying but it sounds like broken purring.

A clean barnyard is its own reward, and the way the pigs exalt at feeding time is itself a source of exultation. But there is still no chore as pleasing as gathering eggs. Most of the serious chicken books have charts that measure cost-effectiveness in the poultry yard, the ratios of feed to eggs to dollars and cents. None of the books say anything about gratification, even though a newly laid egg looks exactly like something for nothing.

CURWOOD: Verlyn Klinkenborg writes about the rural life for The New York Times and is author of a new book by the same name.

[MUSIC: David Grier “Jeff Davis” Panorama, Rounder (1997)]



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