Like many well-intentioned gardeners who lose track of time amid the cookouts, road trips, business trips, and general lazing about in a hammock on a warm day, I planted a little garden in the spring and proceeded to let it go by the wayside through the summer months.
Despite my negligence, the limited number of plants managed an impressive yield of beans, carrots, cucumbers, and cherry tomatoes. Maybe it was the several pounds of manure and compost I incorporated into the small beds months before. Or maybe it’s simply that nature knows what she’s doing without needing my hand. Not that I had much doubt that nature is pretty good at what she does, but I think as humans we have a habit of wanting to fiddle with things. As I’ve gotten older and learned a bit more, I’ve come to be more certain that this is true.
The last haul of the year from the garden.
As I pulled carrots and plucked beans, I thought of my favorite author the late Gene Logsdon who first got me thinking in this direction.
Born in 1932, Gene had an incredible talent for looking at his surroundings and picking out the idiosyncrasies of his Upper Sandusky, Ohio, farm (just a mile away from his childhood home): the species of trees that will grow first if a paddock is left to its own devices; the order in which his livestock will eat their preferred forages; the countless varieties of grasses and wildflowers in his pastures and when they would bloom and set seed. I was always amazed at how observant he was and how he worked with the ebb and flow of his farm. (I was also amused to learn that he was an avid slow-pitch softball player, a sport that I’ve enjoyed playing since childhood.)
One of the things I love about my job with GRIT is that I get to meet some of the most incredible and inspiring people, and Gene was going to be one of those people. After a couple years as an editor with GRIT, I finally felt confident enough to request an interview with him. I sent him a letter via USPS, and just two days later, I received an email from him graciously agreeing to answer some of my questions. I sent back an enthusiastic reply, expecting another quick turnaround from him.
Two weeks went by, and I did not hear from him. I was worried our emails were getting lost in cyberspace, so I sent him another short handwritten letter in the mail. A few days later, his wife Carol sent me an email with what I’m sure was very difficult news to share with someone you don’t know. She let me know that Gene’s health was not great, and he would be unable to do the interview. I thanked her for letting me know, but I was crushed. I was so close to meeting the author who has had such a profound influence on my views of the world, not only on agriculture, but also on life and death.
One of my favorite things to do—even as a child—is to sit around with the grownups, and listen to their wit, wisdom, and stories. I imagined this as being how Gene and my conversation would have gone had I gotten to meet with him. But of the various bits of “Gene wisdom” I’ve picked up, it’s that things will invariably happen that are entirely out of your control, and you’ll just have to learn to accept them for what they are—in life and on a farm. I can at least say that I’m glad I made the effort to meet with him rather than sit on my hands awhile longer, and then really kick myself for not reaching out to him.
Over the years I’ve read several of Gene’s books, including The Contrary Farmer, A Sanctuary of Trees, All Flesh is Grass (my personal favorite), and Gene Everlasting, his latest work, published in 2014, which delved into the topic of our own mortality. Gene was diagnosed with cancer several years ago, and he continued to write through the whole experience, and eventually compiling it into this book. He was able to overcome the disease, for a time anyway, but on May 31, 2016 he passed away. It was just a few days after having heard from Mrs. Logsdon about his declining health. Dave Smith, who continues to manage Gene’s blog The Contrary Farmer, posted that Gene was writing clear up until just a few days before his passing, and I really admired that.
I first read The Contrary Farmer when I was 16 or so, due largely to the encouragement of my father, and I immediately developed an admiration for Gene’s writings. His big idea was that contrary to popular agricultural belief, a farm can be managed with the simple help of primarily livestock, maybe a tractor, and some labor on your part. Anymore than that, and you start to defeat the purpose of farming. That's not to say farming is easy, but a farmer farms, for the most part, because he or she loves living off the land. If it gets too complex or expensive, you quit enjoying it. We should, more or less, allow the land and the animals do what they know how to do, and we are there as stewards. His words on farming have found great meaning in other areas of my life, and I can say with absolute certainty that it is richer for having read his works.
Though all I have right now is a little patch of dirt to plant my favorite vegetables, I know the day will come when I have my ducks in a row—literally and figuratively—and I’ll be able to put what I’ve learned from Gene and many others I greatly admire to the test on my own little farm. If I’m lucky, I’ll end up pretty near the farm I grew up on, just like Gene.
The view from Thistle Moon Ridge, late autumn.