It was a dreadful Easter Sunday. Water shattered against the windows of our cabin while we stirred underneath the covers debating whether or not we should get up. Pondering, should we just stay home?
Matt scrolled through his iPhone, reading about churches which had congregated at drive-in theaters and were subsequently slapped with fines for not social distancing.
“Why can I go to Sonic in my car, but not to church?” he said.
I agreed with his point, and so although neither of us had been to church in ages, we decided to dispatch from the comfort of our bed and get dressed for Sunday service at the Pink Cadillac Drive-In.
Half an hour later Matt emerged from the bathroom wearing the only suit jacket he owned. The last time he wore it he was taking a different stand—evicting tenants from the trailer he bought and they destroyed.
He was Johnny Cash if Johnny Cash had the circumference of a twig. I imagined they were alike in their mannerisms. All intention, no fluff.
As I unraveled the pantyhose up my leg a pot of water boiled on the stove with a vengeance, like it had an axe to grind with the pot. I poured its contents into the French press and we waited a few minutes for the coffee grinds to steep.
“I’ll grab a Bible if you grab the coffee.” Matt ran out the door and tried to evade the pelting precipitation bursting from the sky.
We met each other in the car.
When we arrived at the drive-in the gates were still closed. Some cars idled, but the people inside avoided eye contact. If we didn’t look at each other, were we really near each other? Were we really refusing to follow the recommendations?
A forest green Subaru pulled in and a brunette woman in a floral dress fumbled with a set of keys until she found the one to unlock the gate. After retreating from the rain back into her driver’s seat, she led the line of cars through the entrance and into an open field.
The sign at the drive-in entrance had the names of the last movies that had been shown there--The Incredibles and Up, both animated films for children. Paint was chipping around the edges of the wooden frame and the title Up looked wonky. What was supposed to be a magnetized “p” was an upside down “d.”
We pulled into the first row next to an elderly gentleman in a white truck. He was smoking a cigarette, the window cracked half a centimeter to release a stream of smoke.
The lady with the keys retrieved a music stand from her trunk and laid a couple sheets of songs on it. A man, the preacher, joined her and they fished microphone cords around their bodies; his to the lapel of his plaid button-up and hers to the collar of a raincoat.
If times were normal, I’d be sitting in the second to last pew of the First Christian Church my parents attend in Indiana. My youth group leaders from high school would beam like it was graduation day again. I’d listen to platitudes like “you look so grown up” and satisfy curiosities about my new life in Nashville before our family get-together in an outbuilding at the county fairgrounds.
But times aren’t normal, and I’m here with Matt listening to a preacher I don’t know talk about a story I’ve heard at least 27 times. The story about the arrest, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
“It was a terrible Saturday,” the preacher proclaimed. “It was a dark and desperate Saturday that made way for a bright and hopeful Sunday.”
Matt spent one hour collecting wood from various spots around the property.
He found three A-frames in the shed which sat at the cusp of the forested holler (hollow, for the northerners). A stack of 2x4s, salvaged from a mobile home that burnt down years before he bought the land, were stashed underneath the deck that was falling apart.
We would fix it if we had the money. But we didn’t, which is why we chose the DIY route for this project in the first place.
He piled the materials onto the deck where we planned to construct the chicken run and coop.
After two hours of cutting wood into appropriate sizes, it took him the rest of the afternoon to assemble the frame and wrap it once around in chicken wire.
“I’m not going to get this done in time,” he said. His t-shirt was off, exposing his sinewy back. Sweat trickled like a stream between the jagged crevices of his shoulder blades.
He looked disheveled, defeated, desperate from the deadends that had been disguised as shortcuts.
We were preparing to pick up a New Zealand rabbit in Clarksville and three hens in Lebanon. It was 3 in the afternoon and we needed to leave by 4 so we could beat rush hour—if that even still existed.
It had been three weeks since Matt lost his Broadway gigs, since my living room became my office and my couch my desk.
The pandemic had changed our routines and it looked like we might be home more often for a while. What better time to start a small farm?
I wasn’t raised on a farm, but I’ve always been attracted to the farm lifestyle.
From a second-story bedroom in my parents’ suburban home, I had dreamed of roosters crowing and pigs sloshing through the mud.
But that was too messy, too chaotic for my street, which consisted of crisp-cut lawns and roofs with frequently-replaced shingles. You would never see Christmas lights up past New Year’s in that neighborhood.
Here, refrigerators parked on front porches and laundry baskets littered lawns. This place, which is somewhere between “Little House on the Prairie” and “Shameless”, doesn’t ask for your acknowledgement. It doesn’t care if you notice it. Move in or move on.
“The coop is fine for now,” I said to Matt. “We’ll keep the chickens in my dog crate and you can finish it in the morning.”
He doesn’t like to leave projects half-finished. It reminds him of his limitations, of his powerlessness to time and space.
We brought the animals home while racing against a storm. The wind started picking up as we pulled into the cul-de-sac. In the dark we stumbled up the steps to the front porch, each carrying a cardboard box--temporary housing for our new farm animals.
Before we left, we staged two cages in one of two unfinished spare bedrooms in Matt’s single-wide trailer. This would be their home for the evening.
The next morning Matt put the finishing touches on the chicken coop. Placing each bird into it felt like a separate victory.
We gave them nesting boxes, water, and food, then considered our job of starting the animal side of our farm operation a success.
Over the next few days our mornings were predictable and scheduled.
Wake up at 7. Feed the rabbits and hens. Peer eagerly like a meerkat into the coop for any oval-shaped eggs. Select a bunny from one of the crates, gripping it in the crook of our arms with the firmness of a weightlifter’s hands around his barbell.
Throughout my work days, I would shut my laptop periodically to refill water and add more grain to the hens’ tin-can food dishes.
On one such break, I opened the coop to a freshly laid egg. Matt and I celebrated by assembling a spring salad of radish greens, lettuce, various foraged greens, and the egg, hardboiled.
We spent Friday night creating a webpage for the rabbits. Matt planned to sell some soon. His financial plans were becoming more concrete. My dream of owning chickens was finally a reality.
We rested our heads on pillows and the promise of potential.
The next morning, Matt woke up early.
“Stay in bed.” He didn’t have to tell me twice!
My circadian rhythm betrayed me, so I scrolled through my phone evading coronavirus articles like a middle school nerd playing dodgeball in gym class.
Ten minutes later Matt returned. His footsteps lingered longer on the down stride than usual. I thought it was strange that he was ascending the stairs. I figured he was making me breakfast in bed.
We’ve been together long enough that surprises are usually one of a few small luxuries we afford ourselves, like 50 percent off candy after holidays and long drives with a splash of bourbon in our coffee.
He melted onto the side of the bed and his eyes were downcast.
“They’re all gone,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“A pack of wild dogs got them.”
“Got who? The chickens?”
“The chickens, the rabbits, all of them,” he replied.
In one week, we gained everything and lost everything.
It doesn’t matter if it’s your first animal, your newest animal, the animal you’ve had the longest, or the animal who gave you the most trouble. Losing a farm animal is hard.
When you get your first farm animal, you’re prepared for the slaughter. You can ensure it is dispatched quickly and without pain. You’re in control of the knife that slices through the chicken’s neck. You pull the trigger on the BB gun that ejects a pellet into the rabbit’s skull.
Nothing ever quite prepares you for losing your animals to a predator.
And typically, if you lose one, you lose several. A flock of chickens, a colony of rabbits, a herd of cattle.
It’s hard to describe the mixture of feelings that overcome you following a loss this sudden--and almost always gruesome.
First, there’s the guilt. We should have been more alert. Why didn’t we test the coop more?
Then there’s the doubt. Were we really ready to take this step? Maybe we were too naive, too big for our britches. Perhaps we just aren’t cut out for this whole homesteading thing.
Lastly, there’s the mourning. We began remembering the time we had with our animals. Although brief, Matt and I had become accustomed to the sounds of flapping wings, excited chirping, and rapid thumping when we approached our animals bearing grain and greens.
There are people in this world and in this country—people with very loud voices—who believe owning farm animals is not only bad for the environment, but also morally reprehensible. I’m willing to bet none of these people have ever actually owned and cared for a farm animal.
They haven’t rushed to finish an early morning feeding before taking a work call. They haven’t turned down the opportunity to go on vacation with their significant other because one of them must stay home to tend to the animals. They haven’t cleaned out rabbit poop and watched as it immediately provided the necessary nutrients to boost plants in a garden. And they sure as hell haven’t held a lifeless bunny in one hand and grasped a bunch of bloody feathers in the other.
To experience owning farm animals is to never advocate against it. You have to realize there are more people like you who care about animals and their well-being than there are people who will use animals simply as a means to an end.
The Dunning-Kruger effect explains their responses to this way of living clearly. The less these ultracrepidarians know about animal ownership and farming, the more competent they believe they are and the more they try to push their views on others. Unfortunately, they push their views on very influential people such as politicians and CEOs--who also know very little about subject matter—which leads to a grossly misinformed public and drastically misrepresented narratives about animal husbandry.
But I digress.
At the end of our dreadful Sunday when our meat, eggs, and manure production came to a dead stop, our neighbor walked over to see how we were doing. He heard the clatter of tools and planters as we cleaned the blood from the walls and floor of our shed that morning. He saw the garbage bags full of animal remains and bloodied paper towels. He knew we weren’t well.
He extended his arms and in his hands were three pounds of beef from the cattle farm where he worked—now only part-time due to COVID cuts. We knew his family was hurting then too. These three pounds of beef could be all they had on the table if the world didn’t return to normal soon.
But we also realized in that moment the power of loss to bring people together. Loss provides an opportunity to do right by others, to act on principle when you could otherwise relish in your comparative fortune.
It’s far easier to grieve your loss when you surround yourself with a community who understands its impact on you.
As I continue to meet new people in the permaculture community through my interviews for Finding Country Magazine, I have noticed a common complaint: they feel isolated.
One woman from Summertown, Tennessee told me, “It’s like nobody speaks the language.”
In the countless nooks and crannies of the internet, like-minded individuals can find virtual camaraderie around any hobby or interest. However, many permaculture enthusiasts I speak with say they still struggle to educate, entertain, and inspire others in face-to-face conversation.
Why We Need a Better Way to Bring Up Permaculture
Because permaculture is part design and part science, it is difficult to explain to someone unfamiliar with the concept. Despite the obstacles, it may be worthwhile for permaculture practitioners to think more about how they explain permaculture for several reasons:
With the right approach you could be the one who finally connects the dots for someone who could benefit from practicing permaculture.
A Conversational Roadmap for Introducing Permaculture to Others
So, how do you get through people who have never heard of the word permaculture? For starters, drop the name “permaculture.” At least for now.
Like bureaucratic acronyms and buzzwords you’d hear during a business meeting, the word is meaningless to a person unfamiliar with the concept.
If you were teaching someone how to build a house, would you start by asking them to frame an entire wall? Or would it make more sense to start small, and ask them to hammer a nail into a 4x4?
Marketing strategists will tell you about the “buyer’s journey”—the industry process for structuring the message so it meets the customer at their current level of understanding how a product or service might fit into their lives.
I've been in the marketing industry for 6 years and the communications field for nearly 10 years, and I can vouch for this model of getting a message across in a way that not only inspires interest, but also action.
While you may not be trying to sell a product or service when speaking to others about permaculture, you are trying to sell an idea.
If you consider every conversation about permaculture in this transactional sort of way, you will better understand the perceptions, understanding, and engagement of potential permaculture enthusiasts.
The stripped-down version of the buyer’s journey is three parts: awareness, consideration, and decision.
Other diagrams of the buyer’s journey include intermediary steps between each stage, such as interest, intent, and evaluation. I believe awareness and interest, consideration and intent, and evaluation and decision are too intertwined to break apart into new stages of the journey.
I prefer the simplified version because, as permaculture shows us, less usually ends up being more.
The buyer’s journey will serve as a template for my conversational roadmap for introducing others to permaculture.
In the awareness stage, a person is struggling with a problem and may be actively suffering or inconvenienced.
If you run a permaculture operation and someone comes to you for help, they have likely become aware of the sensitivities in our food supply system and are seeking basic advice from someone who knows how to grow food. That person is probably not asking because you are an expert permaculturist (I know I just poked a few egos there). This is why it’s best not to come out the gate using complex terms and vague jargon.
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As a journalist, I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews with people from all walks of life: a tarot card reader in a college town, a Republican party chairman in the Midwest who refuses to fly, and a small town tour guide with a fascination for Greek mythology and ancient architecture.
I’m very privileged to have an occupation that not only allows me to expand my worldview, but also encourages me to explore how different people’s values manifest themselves in the homes they build, the jobs they do, the groups they belong to, and the ways they interact with others—especially me, an outsider with more questions than answers and a member of the media, which is always one of the institutions people trust least.
This month, I sat down with Steve and Wanda Turner whom I’m coining as the “hosts of Hickman County.”
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve interviewed a lot of people in my nearly 30 years on earth, but never have I had an interview end in an exchange of peach cobbler for an azalea until this one.
Wanda told me, “it’s just how we do things around here.”
After spending the better part of an afternoon with Wanda and her husband, Steve, I can tell you that her simple statement sums up the couple’s life mission and legacy—to expose everyone they come into contact with to everything good in life including a close relationship with nature, a caring and kindly teacher, and the gift of hearing song performed passionately.
Wanda raises Boer/Nubian crossbred goats. The Turner's 27-year-old horse, Possum, watches over their herd of 7 goats. | Gabrielle Reed
A little bit more about Steve and Wanda
Steve and Wanda have lived in or around Hickman County their entire lives.
As a child Steve would ride along in his father’s taxi cab, picking up fares in their rural town.
Most Saturdays this would lead them to the local tavern, where the owner often beckoned for Steve to come in and sing a tune.
It was a running joke between Steve’s parents that “the boy” made more than his dad did with a microphone in his hand.
Steve’s childhood and teenage years brought many opportunities to grow his career in the music industry, and he made a habit of seizing them. He won nearly every talent show in middle Tennessee, got his first job as a radio host at ten years old, and sang alongside such legendary acts as Roy Acuff and the Smokey Mountain Boys.
As a young man, Steve even performed alongside Minnie Pearl’s sister who accompanied him on piano. Fun fact: Minnie had a photo of him and her sister hanging up in one of the rooms of her home in Nashville.
Wanda, contrastingly, is a farm girl to her core. She credits her relentless work ethic to the many hours spent planting crops and tending to animals—rain or shine—on the large parcel of farmland her grandparents bought in 1918 located in Possum Hollow in the Nunnelly area.
One of her fondest memories is sitting on her daddy’s lap while he let her hold the steering wheel of his tractor.
Steve enlisted in the Air Force after high school, at one point holding clearance to work with nuclear weapons.
But when it came time to decide whether to continue his service or return home, he drove the old Route 66 back to Centerville to resume his radio career.
One day while catching up with old buddies, he asked if there were any pretty girls still in town and they flipped open a yearbook.
Steve’s finger landed on Wanda’s picture and he said “Boys, I’m in love. I’m going to marry that girl.”
The next day he called her from the radio station, keeping her on the line as he transitioned from one song to the next. Impressing a woman is hard, but he felt his most confident operating a broadcast console. He worked for that same radio station for nearly 60 years, and owned it for much of that time.
“Radio has been in my life since I met him,” Wanda said.
And farming has been a part of Steve’s life since he met her.
“Every July 4th, we didn’t celebrate,” Steve recalls. “We dug potatoes.”
Wanda’s parents are in Heaven now and the farm she and Steve live on was recently given the distinction of being named a TN Century Farm—a designation delivered through a government-university partnership in Tennessee stating that a farm has been owned by the same family for at least 100 years.
Steve still performs as a member of the Grinders Switch Ensemble, a volunteer country band that entertains listeners at the local chamber of commerce every Saturday morning during a live radio program called The Grinders Switch Hour. He sold the radio station last year.
They’re both in retirement now, although if you ask Steve he’d tell you Wanda keeps him busy on the farm. The Turners’ tale reminds us that we have so much to learn from others who have tread a path before. Their determination to live out their passions of music and farming should be an inspiration to us all who believe we can make a living and a difference away from the chaos of the city.
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If you’re like me, you’ve already harvested a few early spring crops like kales, lettuces, and radishes. But if you haven’t touched your garden yet, don’t worry. There’s still plenty of time!
In fact, Google searches about gardening don’t begin ramping up until April each year. Perhaps not surprisingly, interest in gardening content on the internet has steadily declined since April 2004, when Google first began tracking trends in search results.
The surge in interest we saw at the beginning of the pandemic was short-lived. As more and more people receive COVID-19 vaccinations, the concern is waning despite recent headlines about shortages of products ranging from ketchup to chicken.
Slate magazine interviewed Anastasia Day, a University of Delaware graduate student, in 2020 about her dissertation on victory gardens. She said that 1920 was the first year the Census recorded more people living in cities than rural centers.
“People who lived in cities didn’t have direct connection to gardening, except maybe vague memories from childhood,” she added.
The Great Depression put American families in a vulnerable position where they needed to develop independent food production in the midst of economic collapse--which meant tools and supplies were harder to come by.
As each new generation is born and the few remaining Great Depression survivors pass away, our society is further removed from the experience of self-sufficiency. Traits like frugality are rare in our modern consumerist culture, which weeds out Baby Boomer ideology like dandelions in a front yard. A fitting comparison, as dandelions are actually a highly-beneficial plant to have in your yard.
Similar to the way dandelions freely provide benefits for us, the oldest living generation shares gardening knowledge that comes from surviving a decade of widespread poverty. I reached out to homesteading and gardening friends across the country to collect some of the tips and advice passed down to them from their elders.
1. Plant corn when the dogwood blooms
Tip from Jodie Murphy Smith
This tip from Jodie’s grandparent about when to plant corn stuck with her. Most of the year dogwoods are quite inconspicuous and might look like any other tree to the untrained eye. But in late March or early April, dogwoods bloom with a mass of white flowers that is impossible to ignore. They are a great visual cue for gardeners.
It is said that Native American tribes timed their planting according to the dogwood blooms. There could be a scientific rationale for this as well. Corn typically grows best when the temperature is between 75 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Dogwoods begin blooming about the same time temperatures begin rising.
I find it fascinating that this piece of ancient wisdom was passed between indigenous peoples and the early European settlers.
2. Plant your rows from east to west
Tip from Gloria Brizuela
Conventional wisdom would suggest that you plant the rows in your garden running north to south. If you want every row to get the same amount of sunlight during the day, this is the best orientation.
To the contrary, Gloria’s grandparents suggested that she plant her rows from east to west. I was skeptical too, so I did some research. I found that this method is preferred for gardeners who like to plant early and want to be prepared for a potential cold snap, because this orientation helps the rows collect and store heat.
This made me wonder if gardeners were less concerned about waiting for the last frost date when their food supply for the year depended on getting plants in the ground as early as possible. They likely took plant deaths a little easier than most modern gardeners, who avoid planting straight into the ground before temperatures are consistently above freezing.
Another instance when you might choose an east to west orientation for your garden would be when planting wind-pollinated crops such as corn, beets, spinach, and Swiss chard—all members of the Chenopodiaceae family.
This plant family even includes a foragable weed, lamb’s quarter, which often grows wild in most parts of the United States.
The prevailing wind comes from the west to move pollen released by these plants east across the row to aid pollination of female flowers and plant growth.
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