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, 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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36. Waking

When [Jesus] had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” —John 11:43–44

I slept
fitfully, and laden with dreams.
Storms lashed the panes, and winds
howled like grieving women. I could not answer
only claw at vanishing breath
and twisted in sweat-damp sheets.
The knowledge of morning came hard
but now a cool breeze dries my hair (when
did I open a window?) and birds
with morningsong: Come out.
By the door, a lone pale crocus
blooms in the mud.

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35. If

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”… Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” —John 11:21–22, 25–26

If you had cleaned your room like I asked.
If you had not left your shoes on the stairs.
If you had studied.

If you had remembered to lock the door.
If you had been home when you promised.
If you had only told me the truth.

If she had looked before she pulled out.
If she had used her turn signal.
If I hadn’t had that last beer.

If he had seen a doctor sooner.
If he had told me he was sick.
If I had asked.
If I had stopped by.
If I had told him I loved him.

What price second chances? What price
a clean slate?

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33. Homeward

“He who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way; that man is a thief and a robber; but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” —John 10:1–4

After the rain, the gutters
are decked with redbud petals.
The afternoon grows warm.

Outside the church, a line of strollers.
Each child emerging to its mother, and buckled in.
—What did you do today? Did you
play with play-dough? Did you sing any songs?
—Mommy, when we we be home?
—Soon, honey. Soon.

The parking lot grows quiet.
Overhead, a dogwood blossoms.

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32. What remains unseen

The Jews had already agreed that if any one should confess him to be the Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue…. So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and said to him, “Give God the praise; we know this man is a sinner.” He answered, “Whether he is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I know, that thought I was blind, now I see…. Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out. —John 9:22,24–25,32–34

It is hard to remember the darkness.
At night I hear the sounds—
the clink of coins on stone,
the hollow footsteps of the hurried.
Muttered sympathies—or epithets—
a young girl singing from a door, as if to me.
The breathing of cattle when I slept in stables.
Even the rain fell louder,
each drop a conversation.
And the feel of it on my face!
They thought me mad,
looking into storms with empty eyes.
I have not learned to dream in light.

Sometimes I close my eyes and only listen,
feeling my way on hands and bloodied knees,
but nothing sounds as I remember.
My lids flick open of their own accord.

I stand outside the town and wait for work
with all the others. They do not stand too close.
Wagons pass us by in clouds of dust
that look just as they used to taste.

Half a man, I had their pity;
healed, I’ve earned their hate.
Seeing, I remain unseen.

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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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22. For Toby, in apology

Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” …Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” —John 6:60,67–68

We all knew you were dying. Even the cats
paid their respects, nuzzling you where you lay
in the kitchen. You gave us ample signs:
eager eyes grown jaundiced, graveled breath,
your playful body heavy on the bed.

I had eyes, but would not see.
I wanted answers. I wanted a second opinion.
Once more I helped you into the back of the car.

And so I got the call: Your heart gave out
on a table, in an office, alone.
By the time I fought the rush hour to your side
the truth was palpable, and cold.

We’re fools to trade our lives for phantom proof
when truth is there for taking, and for love.

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31. Room 304

Jesus answered… “We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” He spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle and anointed the man’s eyes with the clay, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Silo’am” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing. —John 9:3–7

Shall I tell you that the morning blazed
with sapphire flame—ice cold, but with a warmth
that promised months of glorious summer days

as flowers promise fruit, and grey skies storms—
that cherries, hyacinths, azaleas bloomed
with God’s own rainbow, and an angel’s charms?

Here in this white and sanitary room
where weakness and a morphine drip contain you,
how could my vision, unseen, pierce your gloom?

The only promise here’s that death will claim you.
Still a wafer’s worth of beauty, if you take it,
though all I have to give, may yet sustain you.

We thirst for life, and living cannot slake it:
Still every day’s a spring if so we make it.

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30. The river

The Jews then said to him, “You are not fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” —John 8. 57–58

Older than footsteps, more ancient than its names,
its course flows in and out of lifetimes
and changes in the memory of a boulder
yet bends to squirming fish or wayward leaf
and tessellates the sun at newborn angles.
Don’t come here seeking stillness. Look sharp:
This day, this hour will never come again.

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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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