Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Ballad of the Brokenhead

I've referred to this story obliquely in this blog's title. I thought it high time to include ithere. The story came to me thanks to local historian George Lalor, the insights about the impact of the shift from subsistence hunting to fur-profiteering came from the late Cree elder Percy Bird, the melody and the rhythm for the verses came from Bob Dylan's "Masters of War," and the rhymes came from staying up too late one winter night.

Ballad of the Brokenhead

I live on the banks of the old Brokenhead,
A river with a name and a story of dread.
Long before you, and long before me,
These banks were the home of the Little Poplar Cree.

One day a trav'ler brought news from the East
Of the pale white faces, hairy like beasts,
Who traded in goods indescribably rare;
Their long sticks of thunder could fell prey anywhere.

Their blades and their pottery never broke, never burned;
But to trade for this prize, a new way must be learned:
To kill every beaver, every otter and mink,
To pile up their hides, and let their meat stink.
What can't be undone
is oft left unsaid
What can't be undone
is oft left unsaid

They'd have to kill more than their families could eat;
What would this do to the harmony sweet
Of taking from the river no more than you need?
The old ones feared curses and sorrows of greed.

The hunters grew restless as questions were raised;
The young men had expected their ambitions be praised.
"But what of the women, the old and the young?
Who will protect us when you go for the gun?”
"When the willow's in bud, we'll leave you alone;
when the willow leaves fall, our canoes will come home
Then should ever our foes trespass on our lands,
We'll reach out and fell them with fire in our hands.

And in the fall it was true, as the willow leaves fell,
The men sighted their homes, but caught no homely smell;
No fires were burning, no children were heard;
From the inside their lodges came no greeting word.

Dread warriors of the Sioux the camp had detected
And made easy prey of the Cree unprotected.
The white sand had swallowed the flow of blood red,
Where scattered and shattered lay the Cree's broken heads.

Now I'm haunted by spirits here long before me
I'm haunted by the cries of the Little Poplar Cree,
I'm haunted by the words of the old ones who said,
“Take no more than you need from the old Brokenhead.”

Brokenhead, Brokenhead
What can't be undone is oft left unsaid
 Take no more than you need from the old Brokenhead

The Little Poplar Cree who hunted these shores,
Where the otter still plays and the eagle still soars,
Are gone like the mist that lifts in the morning
From the river whose name is a chill mournful warning.

Brokenhead, Brokenhead
What can't be undone is oft left unsaid (x2)
Take no more than you need from the old Brokenhead (x2)

Brokenhead, December 2010


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Titanic Metaphor

The Titanic disaster was the bursting of a bubble. There was such a sense of bounty  in the first decade of the 20th century. Elevators! Automobiles! Airplanes! Wireless radio! Everything seemed so wondrous, on an endless upward spiral. Then it all came crashing down."

- filmmaker James Cameron

This mother of all shipwrecks, is, among other things, a motherlode of metaphor: the sinking of the "unsinkable," the flagship of industrial engineering and fantastical luxury, the very vessel of technological hubris; the once largest moving man-made object on Earth, too massive and cruising too fast to pull out of a collision course with a large, cold, hard fact of nature, of which the humans could only see the tip.

A hundred years and hundreds of dives later, this ship still holds many haunting metaphors, depths to be plumbed. I want to spend this anniversary thinking about the lifeboats.

A lifeboat is an interesting presence. A reminder that the much bigger boat on which it rides could fail, and that survival could depend on this much simpler, radically scaled-down version of the big ship. What other institutions carry such overt warnings and preparations for their own demise? Imagine a school, or a government, a business or a church openly prepping its students, citizens, customers, parishioners: There is a chance that this will all come undone. In the event of our institution's collapse, the essentials needed to preserve life are the following....

Noah built a boat like that once, much to the ridicule and chagrin of his neighbours. The ark was an embarrassment to their civic faith, their belief that their society had grown too big to fail.

But the sea suffers no fools, and sailors have learned that times do come to abandon the big ship, and get into those little boats.

The Titanic, famously, had far too few lifeboats. The White Star Line gave meticulous attention to the design of the Turkish baths and to the ten course dinner menus on their luxury cruise ship, but not to the essentials of preserving life. In the more than two hours it took for her to sink, desperate, painful decisions had to be made. Some women would not to get in the life boats, refusing to leave their husbands, for whom there was no room. One man dressed as a woman so he could jump the cue. Few third class passengers, male or female, ever made it onto the boat decks.

Now that I think about it, the interesting thing about the Titanic lifeboats is not that there were too few, but that there were any at all. There persisted a seafaring culture of caution, a humility before the sea, that even the opulent and overconfident "unsinkable" Titanic could not completely cast aside.

What are the traditions still carried in the DNA of the wider culture that caution and prepare us for cataclysm? Well, the biblical tradition, handmaiden to Empire though it has admittedly been, is really one of the most honest and sober accounts we have of the corruption and the collapse, again and again, of Empire: the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans - sometimes their machinations benefit the Jews, most often they hurt them, but never do they last.

The Bible contains a history of the Fertile Crescent's "cradle of civilization" as seen from the underside of the great powers. From this view is revealed not only the ugly violence of these grand civilizations, but also their vulnerability. Even Israel's own national history is often told in a way most unflattering to its officials and their schemes. Again and again, the Bible warns against seeking security in the designs of "the nations." Security, counterintuitively, is to be sought in an unseen God, and in compliance to a covenant of justice, drawn up with a people much smaller and poorer than their come-and-go imperial neighbours.
Is this our culture's lifeboat?

Wes Hartley, the leader of band that played on while Titanic went down, at first played showtunes, at the captain's behest, to mollify the nervous passengers. But then, when the unthinkable turned inevitable, he turned to hymns. The final song, with which Hartley prepared himself and the others left on board to enter the deep was, "Nearer My God, To Thee."
I was thinking about the Titanic nine years ago, when Ploughshares Community Farm was not yet a place, and barely a notion. Drawn to do something rural and agrarian, and ready leave behind more urban, more activist pursuits, I journalled, “I am giving up on shouting over the orchestra or winning the ear of the captain. But maybe some of us could see about improving the seaworthiness of those lifeboats.”


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Big O, little o... (Part II)

At the very end of Judah's existence as a kingdom, when its defensive and diplomatic stratagems were all played out, the prophet Jeremiah hoisted the yoke of an ox to his shoulders and walked the streets of Jerusalem, in a dramatic enactment of Judah's future. People were appauled.

I think about this story as I contemplate yoking oxen to work our fields. The very idea is an affront to the narrative of progress.

The official court prophet Hananiah grabbed the yoke from Jeremiah's hunched shoulders and angrily broke its bars. Jeremiah's "word from the Lord" predicted a future of servitude under the Babylonian Empire. Hananiah's "word from the Lord" insisted that any such humbling would be brief; that Judah's manifest destiny was to carry on the Davidic line in an unbroken trajectory of growth and success. Servitude could never define the throne of David. It was unthinkable that the Lord could let a son of David - his Annointed One - suffer the humiliation predicted by Jeremiah. History (and Jesus) showed Jeremiah the true prophet.

Gas prices went up by 8 cents a liter this week. Already there are those arguing that this jolt to the economy is artificial and uncalled for. It is the result of market "speculation." Suddenly, rankled Americans are borrowing arguments from the despised socialists: these out of control gas prices need to be legislated down. A few lone voices in the wilderness offend us with a more blunt assessment: Oil is finite; so oil-eating cultures must be also. We cannot make cheap again what we are busily making scarce.

Back to the oxen, then. Here's what I've learned:

When compared with horses, there are a number of reasons why oxen have historically been the traction animal of choice for small-holders. Cattle offer the triple benefits of milk, muscle and meat. Of these, milk and muscle power improve the livelihoods of poor farmers far more than meat. I remember reading a sociology paper that argued that this was the root of beef-eating taboos in India. In a hungry year, an Indian peasant might be tempted to slaughter his cattle to feed his family the rich protein walking around in his bare fields. But the short-term gain is far outweighed by the long-term supply of milk protein and work-energy offered by a dairy-traction animal.

Another advantage is that an ox yoke is a simpler and cheaper device than horse harness. Harness is tricky to make: lots of precise measurements and lots of stress points that need excellent fastenings. A yoke is basically a (carefully shaped) thick wooden beam with an iron loop or two. A lot of the simplification is possible because an ox has horns. These prevent the yoke from slipping forward over the head of the animal when braking or walking downhill.

But the biggest selling point for me is that the typical fear response of oxen is opposite that of horses. Horses tend to bolt, oxen tend to balk.  Picture a stampeding herd of wild mustangs fleeing their predators, then picture a group of musk oxen circling tight around their young and holding formation against nipping, harassing wolves. Scared oxen stand still.

As a novice teamster and father of  two girls I want to involve in my farm adventures, I would much rather deal with an animal that is occasionally difficult to get moving than an animal that one day takes off with me, with sharp and heavy field equipment clattering menacingly behind.

As for breeds, I am learning about "dual" and "triple purpose" cattle. Cows, like everything else in the industrial economy, have become single-purposed specialists. Holsteins put everything in their body into milk; Angus put on meaty pounds, quickly.

For oxen, the ideal is a mix: animals with the easy handling of a dairy animal, but the bulk of some of the beefier cattle. I am learning about old breeds: Milking Shorthorns, Dexters, Brown Swiss and Gelbvieh - breeds more befitting an ancient, energy-constrained, small-farming future.

I should acknowledge somewhere soon here that I could not be contemplating this transition to a more ancient normal on my own. What I am learning about oxen, I am learning with the help of friends. I have the strange privilege to have as friends two graduates of the Tillers International ox-farming school, Russ Dyck and Bernard Cook. And here at Ploughshares, I have Matthew as a co-conspirator on oxen. Everytime I make a phone call or read something new, Matthew matches me stride for stride with his own research and enthusiasm. Alone, I would not have the hutzpah to try this. But together...we seem to be, as the saying goes, equally yoked. Together, we might pull this off.

There's a pair of Shorthorn-Brown Swiss calves expected in Vita, that, if they're both male, and if another regular buyer opts out, could be ours for $75 a piece.

Why do we want to farm like peasants? You might say, I suppose, that we are actually coming to believe in a kingdom wherein the meek inherit the earth. In the land of progress, this is heresy, we know. Please don't be angry with us.