Closing time

It’s been fifteen years since I started The New Agrarian. At the time it wasn’t even a blog; blogs were still new and experimental in 2002, if you can recall such a thing. I had a notion, then, of a magazine that would merge intellectual and practical approaches to farming and all the issues and practices surrounding it — something published, printed, with contributors and editors. For various reasons, that never happened. My life took a different turn, and I’m not sure there would ever have been much interest in such a thing: people seem to be interested in either the practical or the intellectual.

The interest in my writing about backyard ducks kept this site alive long after I’d given up its original purpose, and I’ve never quite found another compelling reason to keep it going. I don’t have anything more to say about ducks. There’s a ton of advice and how-to out there on the internet about gardening and, well, about practically everything, and I’m not sure it would be worthwhile for me to add to it. I’m not a lifestyle blogger and don’t care to be. I still have things to say about urban and suburban agriculture, but not enough to justify a blog. And despite my efforts to frame my writing as agrarian, the title of the website confines and brands what I write here in ways that aren’t always appropriate or desirable.

And so I have decided to close down The New Agrarian. Nothing is going away; all the old content is moving to my eponymous site at davidwalbert.com, and I’ll set up automatic forwarding shortly. I’ll continue writing about the things that have interested me over the past few years — craft, technology, tradition, literature, cooking, woodworking, and even gardening on occasion — so if you like what I’ve written more recently, please follow me there. And I think I’ll hang on to the domain name, so who knows? The New Agrarian may someday be resurrected as something more like what it was always meant to be. Anything is possible.

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What homeschool science looks like

This year I’m teaching my daughter physics, and though you might think it would be easy for a guy with a degree in physics to teach eighth-grade physics, it is not. It is undoubtedly easier than it would be if I didn’t have a degree in physics, but that’s not a high bar, you know? Much of physics beyond the most elementary observation is deeply mathematical; you need at least first-year algebra to make any sense of it, and at least a year of calculus to make a lot of sense. And to the extent that there are simple, practical, hands-on ways of exploring deep concepts, I didn’t learn them in college. So, for example, I did lots of fancy calculations of torque but never built a trebuchet, and I learned to analyze the role of a capacitor in a circuit but never built a Leyden jar. Teaching middle-school physics, then, has been an opportunity for me to fill in some rather distressing gaps in my own education, and to think about what I did learn in new ways.

To wit: In planning our unit on electricity and magnetism I stumbled across a book called Safe and Simple Electrical Experiments, by Rudolf F. Graf. Since it was published in 1960, “safe” assumes something slightly less than the helicopter parent’s standard of child care, and “simple” assumes a child whose brain has not been squeezed completely to mush by electronic devices: all the better! You have to think to do this stuff, and fiddle with things when they don’t work the first time, and there are delightful instructions on how you can give your friend an unpleasant but allegedly harmless shock. On the negative side, some of what were considered household objects in 1960, such as vinyl records, may not be as easily accessible in 2017. But there are nearly always substitutes if you hunt for them.

As our culminating project, we built a working telegraph. I will let Dear Daughter explain it herself. (Video after the jump.) Continue reading

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Conserving our self-image

I like birds, as you may notice if you read much around here. I find them fascinating. I’m alternately amazed by and fearful for the complexity of habitats and migratory patterns; I worry about the impact on them of things like wind farms and urban lighting and even overzealous tree-pruning. The brown-headed nuthatch may not be most people’s idea of charismatic megafauna, but I like them.

brown-headed nuthatch
Photo by Anne Davis licensed Creative Commons.

So, not surprisingly, among the many other emails I get from the many other subscriptions I’ve long since come to regret, I get emails now and then about bird science and bird conservation.

This morning I got an email from the Audubon Society with the subject “Preserving America’s Conservation Legacy.” Note the wording: not “conserving America’s natural places” or its natural beauty or natural heritage or even preserving conservation itself but preserving our conservation legacy. Not about protecting birds, but about our proud history of protecting birds, which is not quite the same thing. Continue reading

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Herbs for meate and medicine in North Carolina

The following is slightly adapted from a talk I gave at Duke Homestead State Historic Site in Durham, North Carolina, in June 2012. I have not included citations as there would be quite a few and they likely aren’t desirable in this context, but if you’re looking for a reference, please contact me.

herb garden
The herb garden at the George Washington Birthplace. Photograph by Virginia Travis licensed Creative Commons.

Few Americans today venture much deeper into herbal medicine than the occasional cup of chamomile tea or bar of oatmeal soap. We don’t even cook with herbs nearly as much as we once did, unless we’re cooking Mediterranean, and hardly anybody has an herb garden. But a hundred fifty years ago or more in North Carolina, you’d have used herbs for food, for medicine, for aromatics, and for dyes. And many herbs had multiple uses. You’d have used thyme to flavor a stew or enhance a salad, but you might also have used it to (as the great herbalist Nicholas Culpeper said) “purge the body of phlegm” or eliminate intestinal parasites. You might have used bloodroot, a local wildflower, to make a red dye for clothing, but it could also be used as a mouthwash. Roses smelled sweet, as Shakespeare famously said, but they could also flavor cakes or cure a headache. From the common pine to the lovely rose, from wild lettuce to English thyme, almost every plant North Carolinians have known has found a use at the table or in the medicine chest — and sometimes both, because food and medicine were often one and the same. Continue reading

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Tools, adaptation, and seriousness of work

The stuffed wingback chair in my office puts me at eye level with my woodworking books, which was not deliberate but maybe not entirely accidental either. Last week I noticed a book I’d forgotten I’d bought: The Village Carpenter, written by Walter Rose in 1937, a memoir of life as a carpenter in an English village in the late nineteenth century. There’s a great deal here that interested me, both as a woodworker and as a rural historian, and I may have more to say about it later, but what struck me most was the relationship Rose describes between the workers, their methods of work, and their tools—the ecosystem of the craft, you might say.

Several years ago, as I tried to get back into serious woodworking, I realized that if I was going to continue I was going to need to sharpen my saws, which were a decade or more old and growing too dull to use effectively. But I couldn’t find anyone who could sharpen a handsaw for me, and I knew I wasn’t going to figure out how to do it from books and videos alone. So I took a class on sharpening hand saws, and I dutifully took along my old, dulled crosscut saw for practice.

It turned out that my old, dulled crosscut saw could not be sharpened. “Modern” saws of the sort sold by big box home centers are made of steel tempered too hard to be sharpened with a steel file. They’re designed to stay usably sharp for a long time… and then to be thrown away and replaced.

Most of us, in other words, aren’t even used to the idea that tools have to be maintained. Continue reading

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Smart tools, dumb craft

I have a new microwave, or rather I have an old microwave that is new to me. I don’t like it. It is bigger and more powerful than my old microwave. I didn’t need a bigger and more powerful microwave, but I don’t object to the size or the power. Actually I wasn’t entirely convinced I needed a microwave at all; I use it for very few things. Mainly I defrost meat, because I am good at putting together dinner on the fly but bad about planning ahead; and soften butter, because my daughter likes to bake, but, well, ditto.

I don’t like this microwave because it has too many single-use buttons and multi-step programmed procedures and not enough basic flexible options. I don’t mean that it is too complicated as such, because some tools have a lot of functions and thus need complicated means of interaction. The problem is that its interface is far more complicated than it needs to be, and sufficiently complicated that its design actually interferes with intelligent use.

Here’s an example. If I wanted, with my old microwave, to soften a stick of butter to cool room temperature, I could simply “defrost” it for about 20 seconds. I had only to lower the power and set a time. On the new one, there isn’t a simple way to lower the power; there are only options for various specific foods and purposes. So I have to press “soften/melt,” then watch a scrolling digital readout asking me to press a number for whether I’m softening or melting, and then another number for what sort of food item I have, and then a third for how many sticks of butter. The old process required me to press four easily readable buttons (defrost, 2, 0, start) and worked perfectly, because I’d experimented a bit to see how long it took to soften a stick of butter. The new process takes a good ten seconds to get started and halfway melts the butter, so that I have to stand and watch it through the (typically streaked and greasy) glass. And if I want to soften half a stick, I’m out of luck. Same for defrosting less than a pound of meat. It simply isn’t an option. And while there may be some way to make the machine do what I want, I’ll have to find a manual somewhere online to figure out how, because the “custom” settings aren’t.

I was thinking, yesterday, about how I would solve this problem. One way would be to plan ahead and/or just use the gas stove, but that’s not really in keeping with the spirit of the age, so take it as a design problem. Here are some observations: Continue reading

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The devil of false precision

Eating lunch today I noticed on my bottle of soy sauce the words expiration date on label and, an inch away, a dot matrix stamp: 2019.03.28 14:48.

I expect that the stuff was bottled on March 28, 2016 at 2:48 pm and that it’s supposed to be good for three years from the date of bottling. But that’s not the same thing as saying it’s good until March 28, 2019 at 2:48 pm. Certainly a machine can record the exact time of bottling, but the idea that the soy sauce is good for exactly three years, for three years down to the minute, is absurd — as if, at twelve minutes to three on a particular March afternoon two years from now, the contents of the bottle will instantly develop a fuzzy blue mold and smell distinctly of gasoline. Obviously that’s absurd.

For one thing, it was bottled in Taiwan, so it would actually expire at 1:48 am EST and not in the middle of the afternoon.

“Three years from date of bottling” means three years, give or take. Give or take what? That’s the question. Six months, maybe? I would assume that they kept a bottle around for three years and it seemed to be okay. I doubt it’s very scientific at all. But it’s so easy just to take the present time, add three years, and stamp it on the bottle.

The expiration date on my soy sauce is not in itself a big deal. (I’ll use it within a few months anyway.) But this kind of arbitrary precision is everywhere — the practice of assigning a number to something, giving it as many decimal places as we can, and then slapping it on a label, noting it in a chart, entering it into a database — where it takes on a kind of magical invincibility, a rightness that can no longer be questioned or challenged. There are cases where this might have disastrous consequences, but more important is the impression of invincibility. Knowledge is power; false precision is an implication of knowledge; therefore false precision is an assumption of power. False precision is one way that science and industry and government claim power over us. But wallpapering the world with false precision builds false confidence in our own abilities, individually and collectively.

Every measurement is an estimate. If I were king of the world, I’d decree that every published measurement must be accompanied by a margin of error, e.g. “Expires on 2019.03.28 14:48 ± 6 mos.” It would be honest, it would be accurate, and it would remind everyone many times a day of the limits of human knowledge.

(And no, since you ask, I cannot think of anything better for a king to do than to demand accountability and humility from the powers of the world. Can you?)

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Further perils of authenticity

Completely by accident awhile back I ran across this ad from Life magazine:

Heinz ad, 1958

Heinz ran that ad in August 1958, at the height of the popular interest in Pennsylvania Dutch food, when that cuisine was being made over in the popular imagination into a mishmash of generically comforting old-timey domesticity. And, of course, co-opted by the Culinary-Industrial Complex, because what hasn’t been? Today you may just (and justly) reel in horror from the thought of vinegared baked beans or of canned tomato soup with canned corn and a pretzel floated on top. Purists of 1958 might weep over the cheapening of a long tradition of sweet and sour accompaniments to a Sunday dinner or holiday feast, an array of homemade pickles, salads, and preserves. Store-bought wouldn’t do. By the time I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, though, aside from an occasional batch of home-pickled beets, the nearest I got to that tradition was commercial pickles on a salad bar. So to me, authentic Pennsylvania Dutch pickles meant a jar of locally processed chow chow.

a jar of chow chow

Today, even that much tradition is fast fading away, and some benighted soul clinging to the last tattered shreds of uncertain heritage might search in vain for chow chow on a salad bar, even if he hadn’t up and moved to the South.

One man’s authenticity, in other words, is another’s bastardization. And that paradox isn’t the product of industrial food. Continue reading

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The mad farmer, after the election

Every Wednesday, as part of our homeschool curriculum, I read a poem with my daughter. We talk about what it means and whether we like it (and why). Sometimes we analyze it. Then she responds by drawing or painting.

Last week I had intended to read G. K. Chesterton’s “For a War Memorial” in observance of Veteran’s Day and the Feast of St. Martin. But it was the day after the election, and she was upset and worried. So we read, instead, a couple of Wendell Berry’s “mad farmer” poems: “The Mad Farmer Revolution” and “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”

the mad farmer plows up the parking lot in front of the polling place
In a parking lot / he planted a forest of little pines.

I think we both felt better afterwards.

Practice resurrection, friends.

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Short people got reason to live after all

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., October 30, 2016.

Gospel: Luke 19:1–10

It’s funny what we remember and don’t remember from childhood. The church my family attended until I was seven years old is a complete blank to me. I can’t recall the name of my Sunday School teacher or a single thing I did there. I do, however, remember three very important lessons from those days. One, Jesus loves me. Two, the animals went in two by two. And three, Zacchaeus was a wee little man.

In case you’ve forgotten, or never had the joy of singing the “bible song” about the little dude, or, like me, couldn’t quite believe your memory when it was jogged, here are the lyrics, sung to something not unlike the tune of “Old King Cole”:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
A wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see;

And as the Savior passed that way,
He looked up in the tree,
Zacchaeus you come down
For I’m going to your house today.

The author’s no Bob Dylan, and I feel like there’s something missing in this version of Luke’s gospel, but, you know, there’s no better way to remember something than to set it to music. And so even today, even this very morning, children all over America are learning that Zaccheus was a wee little man.

Poor Zacchaeus.

So the guy was short. Do we have to go to “wee little man”? I keep wanting to say it in a bad imitation of a brogue, as if he were a leprechaun. Imagine what it would be like to spend your life being referred to as a “wee little man.” (Imagine being referred to as a “wee little man” two thousand years after you’re dead!)

Zacchaeus probably didn’t have to imagine it. Even in Luke, “short” seems to have been his identifying characteristic, and given that human nature sadly hasn’t changed much in two thousand years, I suspect that he may have been mercilessly made fun of for his lack of stature in life as well as in death. It happens. Children will mercilessly make fun of one another for pretty much anything, given the chance. So will adults, for that matter.

If you’re Zacchaeus, if people greet you with “hey shorty” or look over your head, pretending not to see you, if they always pick you last for dodgeball games and pass you over for promotions… if, in short, nobody ever seems to take you seriously… Well, what do you do? You could learn to laugh them off. You might choose to believe your mother when she told you the other kids were just envious. You might meekly curb your ambition, accepting that you would never command the respect of your tall friends.

Zacchaeus didn’t do that.

Zacchaeus became a tax collector.

We know what tax collectors were in first century Israel. Agents of the occupation. Traitors to their people. Flanked by Roman soldiers, they collected taxes from hard-working Jews and, to provide for themselves, tacked on whatever bonus they liked. Since Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector but a chief tax collector, we can assume he provided for himself quite well indeed…. at the expense of those rotten little so-and-sos who never took him seriously.

Oh, they’ll take me seriously now, all right.

Zacchaeus was not only a wee little man. He was a mean little man. If being short held him back, he could always get meaner.

Zacchaeus got revenge. Continue reading

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Current Projects

  • Graces and Laments dawn on snow

    A series of short poems written in response to passages of the Gospel of John. It's a work in progress, and it's as much a discipline as a project meant to be completed. You might say that my goal is to listen for resonances of the day’s reading in the world; John is so other-worldly that I feel, frankly, his Gospel needs a bit of grounding.

Featured Posts

  • Herbs for meate and medicine in North Carolina herb garden

    An adapted version of a talk I gave at Duke Homestead State Historic Site in Durham, North Carolina, in June 2012.

  • The mad farmer, after the election the mad farmer, planting a forest of little pines in the parking lot outside the polling place

    Practice resurrection, friends.

  • Raising backyard ducks: Final thoughts (for now) ducks emerging from their pen

    Much has changed since I first started raising ducks and chronicled my experiences here in 2002. To close it out — for now, at least — I stage a brief interview with myself about the experience of raising ducks. There’s also a movie.

  • Boycotts, action, and penance

    What I would suggest, therefore, is this: Whenever you sign a boycott or a petition, any time you email a corporation or a Congressperson to ask that they change their own behavior or force a change in someone else’s, first think of five things that you could have done, relative to the same issue or a closely related one, in the past month, but did not do. Then think of one thing that you could do, and do it. The five things ensure that you don’t get to feel self-righteous about your action; the one ensures that you take personal responsibility for the issue.

Recent Poems