Matt Colvin offers an apology and a retraction. It is well worth reading, both for its content and for the example it sets.

After I read it I thought about another apology, namely Plato’s record of the defense Socrates offered to the Athenian senate. Part of the accusation against Socrates was that he purported to be wise, and was misleading the youth of Athens and otherwise raising a ruckus via his wisdom. His response was that in fact he had no wisdom, and that the rumor that he considered himself wise was baseless.

He went on to trace the source of the rumor to a prophecy by the oracle at Delphi, who once proclaimed that Socrates was the wisest of all men. Socrates was astonished, knowing he had no wisdom, and alarmed, not wanting such a reputation. He figured the quickest way to disprove the prophecy was to find someone wiser than he was. The search for such a person didn’t go well, though; each time he found folks who had reputations for being wise—politicians, philosophers, poets, artisans—Socrates’ questioning of him revealed that in fact there was no wisdom there at all. (Which didn’t please the politicians, philosophers, poets, and artisans, turning them into enemies who floated calumnies against him, leading to his false reputation for wisdom.)

The puzzle remained: was the oracle correct? Giving the oracle the benefit of the doubt, Socrates finally understood the prophecy to mean that he was the wisest of men simply because he, unlike the rest, understood that he had no wisdom at all:

This investigation has led to my having many enemies of the worst and most dangerous kind, and has given occasion also to many calumnies, and I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name as an illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.

And so I go my way, obedient to the god, and make inquisition into the wisdom of anyone, whether citizen or stranger, who appears to be wise; and if he is not wise, then in vindication of the oracle I show him that he is not wise; and this occupation quite absorbs me, and I have no time to give either to any public matter of interest or to any concern of my own, but I am in utter poverty by reason of my devotion to the god.

Matt makes more or less the same point by opening his apology with this:

The older I get, the less I know.

I was pleased to read Matt’s apology, and especially the reasoning behind it, because of a trend I described in part of an email to Matt:

Many of us are guilty of placing undue burdens on others through our own self-righteous certainty that we’ve reasoned out the One Right Way. I’m no exception. I’ve learned that through hard experience, and I’ve been working in the last few years to not only understand the true extent of Christian freedom, but also to write of my own experiences without binding the consciences of my readers, intentionally or accidentally. I think the Reformed community is beginning to reap the whirlwind in this area (e.g. the backlash against patriarchal teachings), and I hope we will begin to find suitably irenic ways to couch our testimonies before the watching world writes us off altogether.

A week away

When Chris and I started playing music together, there were quite a few times when we would leave for days to attend some musical event, usually a school. Pete Wernick’s jam camp, Pete’s banjo camp, Augusta Heritage school, Swannanoa school—all would take us away from home for a week, sometimes longer. It certainly tried the patience of the rest of the family, but at least in those days what work Chris and I were doing at home could be put on hold for the time being.

No more. Now with the daily farm work, it is a real stretch for us both to be gone for a week. We will still suck it up and make do while Chris is gone to teach at a school for a week (which will happen twice this summer). But the days of attending music schools as a pair are over; we have neither the time or the money to spare for it.

Except for jam camp at Merlefest. It’s a deliberate exception, and one I can’t completely justify, except to note that every one of the six jam camps we’ve attended has paid off in unexpected ways, and returned much more to us than the time and money invested. We skipped the 2006 Merlefest camp, and while we didn’t regret it I’m sure we missed out on a lot.

Then in 2007, after eighteen months in Kentucky where we still hadn’t met any local musicians to jam with, it occurred to me that jam camp was worthwhile simply because it gave Chris a chance to immerse himself in his fiddle playing for four days. Guitar and banjo are something he can keep up just by playing with me, but bluegrass fiddle is a different beast—it needs to happen in the context of an ensemble. Chris worked hard to prepare for the 2007 camp, and the preparation plus the camp experience led to a marked improvement in his fiddling. This year the preparation wasn’t as intense, but he has been playing the fiddle regularly at our Friday performances, and once again the camp experience took him up a level.

We left for camp Saturday morning. Camp didn’t begin until Sunday evening, but we had an opportunity to perform for a Lion’s Club convention on Saturday afternoon in Norton, Virginia, about halfway to the camp location. Not only did the performance pay, but it provided a hotel room as well, so on Sunday we were able to get up and take a leisurely drive to North Carolina. In fact, we arranged to end up in Boone for an early lunch at the Dan’l Boone Inn, one of our favorites. As always the food was fine—fried chicken, country steak, country ham biscuits, fresh vegetable sides, strawberry shortcake for dessert.

We puttered our way to Wilkesboro and then to the YMCA camp outside of town, so as not to show up too early. We still arrived around 1:30pm, and figured we’d just set up camp (we saved money by pitching a tent rather than sleeping in a cabin) and reading until it was time for Sunday supper, the official beginning of camp. But Dave, a camper we had met last year, had already arrived, and so it seemed appropriate that we start a jam. We played songs and chatted, and as other campers arrived they joined in. This went on until 5pm or so, when we figured we’d better get on with setting up our gear.

One odd thing was that we were waiting for the previous group to clear out, a bunch of North Carolina Presbyterians who where having some sort of praise and worship retreat. The bad news was that signals had been crossed and the group thought they had the camp as long as they wanted on Sunday; even after learning that it wasn’t true, they weren’t in any hurry to wrap up their event, and the crowd didn’t start to disperse until after 5pm, making the setup for jam camp rushed. The good news, sort of, was that during one of their breaks quite a few of them came over to hear me and Chris and Dave play, and asked if we would play some gospel songs, which we were glad to do. As they were leaving the fellow who had organized the event came over and told me that they planned to be back at the same time next year, and asked if we would be willing to do a short performance for them at next year’s retreat. Who knows if anything will come of it, but it was pleasant to be asked.

Besides the opportunity for Chris to fiddle, one of the things that had drawn us back to camp in 2007 was that Pete Wernick had been toying with the idea of adding an intermediate track to the camp, and we wanted to help him see if such a thing would work. It did work, very well, and so for 2008 he publicly advertised the intermediate track, split into two parts: one sub-track would allow folks to focus on creating higher level, more polished jams, while the other sub-track would allow them to focus on developing ensemble skills. The short version of the difference is that folks in the first track might play twenty songs once, while those in the second track might play one song twenty times, i.e. practice it.

Early on the jam campers are grouped into small ensembles, where they spend about half the official camp time working on their jamming. Ensembles are formed twice, with the first one having an intentionally broad mix of skill levels and personalities, partly to give less experienced people the benefit of playing with more experienced ones, and partly to give everyone the opportunity to meet and deal with various kinds of awkwardness. Our first group was such a one, and we were happy enough with it, but we had also noticed that our two international campers, a couple that had come all the way from Spain, seemed to be having some trouble fitting in. So Chris and I asked one of the teaching assistants if we could form a small group with just them, and he agreed.

Heri and Maria turned out to be some of the best players at the camp, as well as delightful people in their own right. Heri knew very little English, and we knew no Spanish, so Maria had the burden of translating for us all. But most of the time was spent playing songs—they taught us some, we taught them some, and after a couple of hours our attitudes were relaxed and our playing was tight. At the end of the camp I realized that of the four best jam sessions Chris and I were in, Heri and Maria were part of all of them, and only that first time did we deliberately seek them out. So I think we did help to integrate them into the overall experience.

When the second groups were formed, Chris and I opted for the ensemble skills track, and were fortunate enough to be grouped with John and Charlie, the mandolin and banjo players we had worked with last year. Charlie is a very good banjo player with a solid command of the Earl Scruggs repertoire, while John is a good mandolin player who was the most motivated of any of us to work hard and build up his skills. So it wasn’t long before we had narrowed it down to one particular song (“Nellie Kane”), and we spent almost all the rest of our time together practicing our performance of it, working out the sequence of the breaks, troubleshooting problems with the various instruments, helping John with his lead singing, and even working out the choreography around the microphones. The camp culminates in two events on the last day, one of them a “Jam Camp Opry” where each group performs a song for the rest; our performance of “Nellie Kane” was still quite a few notches below the professional level, but given our starting point and the time we had available for practice it was pretty good.

The other culminating event is a performance by all the jam campers on the Merlefest Cabin Stage, a small stage beside the main stage where short performances take place to keep the audience occupied between band performances on the main stage. The jam camper performance begins with Pete Wernick and his instructors playing a song. Next Pete describes the camp, and then forty-five campers file onto the stage, introducing themselves and taking their place. Finally the campers play two songs they’ve practiced, and that’s it. A special treat for me this year was that Pete asked me to play bass during the instructors’ performance, which is probably as close as I’ll ever get to performing with a ba
nd at MerleFest.

After the performance camp was over, and campers were invited to stick around the festival for the rest of Thursday’s performances. But Chris and I had a special mission. We had found out that Pete’s band Flexigrass would be performing for a closed fundraising event that evening at the festival site. We had never seen the band live, and this was likely to be our only opportunity (they were playing the festival, but we weren’t going to be around for it), so we asked Pete if he would mind if we crashed the event to hear them. He agreed, and so we got to sit off at the side of the stage for that show. It was well worth asking for the favor.

Friday morning we were headed out, but not before helping Pete’s wife Joan (who is also one of his instructors) at a MerleFest-sponsored outreach performance at an Easter Seals day care center. Chris and I and a couple of other long-time campers went along to help, and had a great time even though the average age of the audience (not counting teachers) was three or four.

Not getting to the big city too often, we had to stop to do a couple of errands on the way home. First there was an awfully expensive thirty minutes spent loading up a flatbed cart at Sam’s Club in Bristol. Then we headed over to the Bristol Herald Courier, where every couple of years we stop in and buy up rolls of leftover newsprint—the machines can’t run without newsprint, so they have to stop using a roll of paper before it runs out, leaving them with many, many almost-empty paper rolls that they are willing to sell us for a dollar apiece, probably one-twentieth of what we would pay for the same amount of newsprint from a packing supplies company. We stuffed what we could into the van, which turned out to be thirty-two rolls, a many-years supply for us. The van was riding low as we pulled into the driveway, and it isn’t clear where we’ll store them all, but they are a treasure to us nonetheless.

Increased interest in gardening?

I’ve been keeping my eyes open for stories like this one. So far I haven’t seen too many. But here’s an anecdote for you.

This past week my two pastors were out looking to buy a tiller, so they could expand their own gardens. They stopped at Lowes and asked where the tillers were at; the clerk told them they were sold out, and said that if he had had more in stock he could have sold another forty that morning. Thinking that was odd, they went across the street to Tractor Supply, where they found only one tiller left, a small model that had been marked up significantly from the usual price. The clerk there told them that there were no others left, and that if more had been in stock he could have sold another sixty that morning.

A bit worried, they headed down the street to Sears, where there were plenty of tillers, all on sale. I understand they bought themselves a nice one.

What the world eats

Since food prices and availability are on folks’ minds right now, I wanted to relink this Time photo essay which gathers sixteen families from around the world together with a display of the food they eat over the course of a week. One thing I noticed is that there is a pretty strong correlation between the amount a family spends on their food and the number of brightly colored packages in the photograph.

Farm report

It’s been awhile since I wrote here about what we’re doing on the farm. Here are some of the things that come to mind.

  • Last November we planted 1/8 acre of garlic, about 8000 cloves. With the previous crop a lot of the cloves didn’t germinate, but this time around most of them came up, maybe 90%; if so, that should yield about 1800 pounds. We planted it in raised beds covered with black plastic, the rows between mulched with unwanted hay; if we decide to grow garlic at this scale yearly, we will probably switch over to using porous reusable landscape fabric with holes for planting burned into it. The garlic is thriving, and should come out of the ground in early July.

  • It was a very wet winter. The water was welcome after last year’s drought, but it also made spring plowing an iffy thing. Luckily there were a couple of dry stretches where Chris was able to till and to build enough raised beds to see us through the spring. We will try not to press our luck again, and instead be more diligent about building raised beds in the fall for the spring.

  • We dried off our two milk cows in early March, and we really miss the milk. But it did allow us to for once get away from the house as a family—for a day trip, anyway. We expect one to freshen the last week in May, the other during the following week.

  • One of this year’s projects is to try selling direct to the public, both at a farmers’ market and through home delivery. So we’re planting a variety of crops in order to have a selection available. Among the new crops is strawberries. We ordered 300 plants, and planted them in two fifty-foot raised beds covered with the landscape fabric I mentioned above. If they do well, we’ll not only sell them fresh but also processed, in particular as the barely-sweetened preserves that we’ve come to like.

  • About two weeks ago we planted one hundred pounds of seed potatoes, about 600 all told. Just the month before I had read an article about greening up potatoes before planting, by keeping them in indirect light at around 70-75 degrees for up to a month. We decided to try it, and set the seed potatoes out on some wire shelves in the kitchen for about four weeks. Nearly all of them sprouted, and I’m hoping the head start will help provide a better harvest than we had last year, which was pitiful. We planted them in mulch again, this time using some unwanted hay (too hard to get enough sorghum mulch from fifteen miles away). If it works, I don’t know what we’ll do next year, since I expect all hay, unwanted or not, to be in short supply.

  • Chris has built us a homemade greenhouse, using nine metal hoops that Jerome Lange had but didn’t need; he made them by getting thirty-foot lengths of pipe, then bending them around a silo. Today he secured the second layer of plastic over the hoops; now all that remains is to put up some makeshift doors using sheets of plastic that can be pulled back. The greenhouse is 18 x 48 feet, and about ten feet tall. That is much more space than we need for seedlings; we will probably use at least half of it as a cold tunnel, for winter crops.

  • Chris is also building a set of compost bins, with which we will implement a composting plan found in one of Sir Albert Howard’s books. Compost has become increasingly valuable to us, and as the mountain of compost we bought last year continues to shrink, we need to learn to create our own.

  • The hens are laying around 30 eggs per day, or about 17 dozen per week. We started providing them to our neighbors; our pastor and our elderly next door neighbor get them for free, the rest pay $1 per dozen. Customers include two Amish families.

  • We’ve decided that we eat about fifty chickens per year, so we plan to raise seventy-five, with twenty-five to either give to friends or to sell. What we sell will go for a low price; it is one more small opportunity to provide our neighbors with good, affordable food.

  • Given our experience with our first beef cow, we expect that the two we are raising now will end up around 1000 pounds by late fall when we send them to slaughter. One will feed us for a year, and we’ll be looking for folks who might want to buy some portion of the other. Another two calves will be along in about six weeks, though we hope at least one will be a female, in which case we will raise her as a milk cow.

  • Likewise, we expect one of our two pigs will supply a year’s worth of pork, and so we’ll be looking for folks who might want some portion of the other.

  • Tomatoes will be an important cash crop for us this year: romas, Carolina Gold (yellow, low-acid), and cherry tomatoes. Seedlings were started yesterday in the greenhouse. We will try to produce them throughout the season via successive plantings. We may also try to process some of them for sale.

  • Raised beds really are the way to go; the soil stays loose, they retain moisture well, yet also drain quickly after a heavy rain. But they are difficult to build by hand. The rotary plow attachment for our BCS tractor has been a real blessing for this; it’s still hard work, but probably requires 1/10th the time and effort to create a bed.

  • Keeping the cows on pasture all winter worked, but they tore up the ground significantly. If the funds are available, this fall we will probably build stalls where they can spend the winter. This will also keep the manure out of the field (where it doesn’t break down in the cold weather) and concentrate it so that we can feed it into the composting system.

No need for neighbors

I have major disagreements with Bill McKibben’s thinking, but he’s a good writer who often ponders matters that I am also pondering, and so I’ll always read his articles. Here’s one which teases out some implications of a provocative thesis: cheap fossil fuel has made us the first people on Earth with no need of our neighbors.

Think, in the course of an ordinary day, how often you rely on the people who live near you for anything of practical value. Perhaps carpooling your kids to school or soccer. If you live in a rural community, there may be a volunteer fire department, which keeps your insurance affordable. But your food, your fuel, your shelter, your clothes, and your entertainment most likely come from a distance and arrive anonymously at that. A meteorite could fall on your cul-de-sac tomorrow, disappearing your neighbors, and the routines of your daily life wouldn’t change.

Now imagine how different things have been for almost all of human history. Two hundred years ago, if an American wanted to eat a hamburger for dinner, he needed to be able to convince his neighbors to, say, help him build a barn in which to store hay to feed his cows all winter. And to help him harvest his wheat crop. Likely they would have come together to thresh it—there wasn’t a surplus of machinery. A neighbor would have slaughtered the cow and another would have baked the bread, unless it was all done in the family.

While driving into town today to do the week’s shopping at Wal-Mart and Tractor Supply (a chain of farm stores), I once again thought about what it meant for me to be buying from absentee corporations in order to keep expenses down. And the answer came to me: not much. That is, for all of the things I had come to town to buy, it would be nothing but a symbolic gesture to try to buy those things from “local” vendors, who aspire to the same things to which the absentee corporations aspire. My Chilean bananas, Idaho potatoes, disposable diapers, eight-inch ivory candles, King Arthur unbleached white flour, bathtub stopper, Purina chicken feed, plastic calf bottle, and Nestle semi-sweet chocolate chips might as well come from Wal-Mart as from a local Wal-Mart wannabe.

But that thought was accompanied by another one: the list of things I come to town to buy is shrinking, partly because of what we are able to provide for ourselves, and partly because of what we can obtain from our neighbors. We buy a lot of food in bulk, plus what dry goods we can find, from the Mennonite stores in South Fork. We get early lettuce and greens from Jerome Lange (and we give him eggs and extra beef, and milk when we have it). We get feeder pigs from a neighbor up the hill. We bought half of last year’s hay from our next door neighbor, and the other half from a neighbor up the road who had to sell quickly because he had been called up to Iraq. One of our pastors just gave us ten two-year-old pecan trees from a bag of 150 that the forestry service had sent him; we planted them today. A friend from Alabama sold us our Great Pyrenees puppy. Our friend Jimmy Ellis and his son Wes built us our barn, and fetched us the cattle panels and T-posts we used to fence our pasture. Our friend Jerome sold us his farm pickup, knowing we couldn’t survive without one; we use it to periodically deliver our walk-behind tractor and plow attachment to his place so he can build raised beds  Our friend Ron Short sold Chris his first car.

I could go on, but the point is simple enough. There are plenty of opportunities around here to direct our economic resources to helping our actual neighbors; no need for symbolic gestures. And as our neighbors become able to supply the needs we now supply through Wal-Mart, we’ll redirect our purchasing accordingly. But if it isn’t something I can buy from an actual neighbor, I won’t worry about whether it’s Wal-Mart or Kroger or the local IGA that ends up getting my money. No more symbolic gestures.