Chapter six–Life on the farm

I want to share with you a little about my life on the farm, and at the same introduce you to the concept of the normalcy bias. All of us are subject to the normalcy bias, and we come by it quite naturally, simply by assuming that the world we find ourselves in is normal, natural, and typical. The world I found myself in, in mid-twentieth century America was, I now see, in many ways very far from the norm of human life, when looked at in historical context. For one thing, I was at the tail end of one phase in our people’s history at a time when the small family farm was still a viable social and economic institution, as it had been (or had seemed to be) for centuries and even millennia, going back to Europe and the Fertile Crescent. By your time, a farm like the one I am going to tell you about is likely to be nothing more than a fond memory, if that.

We moved onto the farm when I was thirteen, none of us knowing the first thing about the farming way of life. My grandparents had sold their high-end home in Santa Monica, California, some thousand miles to the south, and bought these forty acres of orchard and alfalfa field four miles north of the lovely little town of Ashland, Oregon.  This was a gift to their son and his family: finally, a place where we could sink in roots, and hopefully bring some stability into our lives. The house, a one-story rambling ranch style home, fronted Valley View Road, which was paved but not busy. Just south of the house was three acres of fruit and nut trees, which, I believe, the Lemleys, who lived there before us, used mostly for fresh eating and home canning. The main orchard, just on the other side of the alfalfa field, was close to twenty acres, and this was all planted in pears, to be sold at market.

I was there in the living room with grandpa and grandma and mom and dad when they were considering buying the place, and Lemley told about the high prices they had gotten for pears during the war years, and what a boon that had been for his family. It seems they had emigrated from Oklahoma in the dustbowl years of the thirties—dirt poor—but had landed here in the beautiful Rogue Valley, where pears just loved to grow. How they ended up with this place I never learned, or have forgotten, but they hung onto it, and raised a family here by dint of hard work and fortunate timing. As their successors here on the farm, we were no great shakes, lacking both experience and the proper work ethic, but now we had a home, and each of us found in this new life something meaningful.

The main orchard and the alfalfa field were relatively flat ground, but with a bit of a slant.  The ground behind the house was on a steeper gradient and a bit rolling, covering about four fenced acres. The barn, big and unpainted with a huge old loft where the hay was stored, (and where I lost my virginity) was situated on the only flatish ground behind the house, at the bottom of a fairly steep run of ground. I can’t remember if Bessie the cow came with the place or if we bought her at auction, but it was one of my jobs to milk her in the late afternoon; and mornings, too, if it wasn’t a school day. There must have been four milking stalls built-in to the barn, with a board that swiveled from the bottom to lock her head in place. And I generally hobbled her, too, so she wouldn’t kick over the milk pail in a moment of awkwardness or ill-temper.  I remember the radio we had in the milk room to soothe both the milker and the milked. Its case was made of wood, laminated I think, and it had its own little shelf, about head-height, and of course that was back in the days before transistors, when radios came with tubes. We had a big green can of bag-balm that we kept on the same shelf as the radio. First you’d turn on the radio, then grab the can of bag-balm and the bucket and set yourself up on the milking stool. In the early days, before I realized it was necessary to hobble her, Bessie would keep moving just as I got situated, in what I took to be an act of resistance. I don’t think she much liked my milking style in those early days, either, and it did take me awhile to learn how to squeeze her teats in just the right way. You couldn’t just squeeze; you had to squeeze and pull down at the same time. And here is where the bag-balm came in handy, kind of smoothing out the friction between her skin and mine. I also learned to lean my head into her hindquarters as I milked and this seemed to help establish a bond between us—or so it seemed to me at the time.

So, like many farm families, we had whole milk, and once in awhile mom would go to the work of making our own butter. But most of the time we bought margarine—a manmade kind of butter that was then thought to be better than butter. I think it would be fair to say that for us this was a bit of a hobby farm: we made use of some of the opportunities it offered, but we never acted as if our lives depended upon it; never made farming a full-time job.

My mom, Ann, always felt a strong attraction to gardening, even though she grew up as a city girl. During the war years it became fashionable to grow a Victory Garden; the idea was that if people grew many of their own vegetables this would take pressure off the agricultural sector, which could then concentrate on feeding our troops overseas. Mom, in the early years of her marriage, threw herself into gardening—less, I think, as patriotic duty than just for the love of growing things. I can remember her Victory Garden on my grandparent’s residential property in Santa Monica, and how much pride she took in it. So it wasn’t surprising that she would get a garden going on the acreage here on Valley View, where we had a big garden every year, trying different vegetables to see what worked best, and which ones we would actually eat. I don’t know if it was because of that garden, or not, but each one of my five siblings became passionate gardeners as adults, as I did myself. In fact, gardening is more than a passion; I think it is fair to say that, for me, gardening is an obsession that only grows stronger with each passing year, as I learn by trial and error, and also trial and success, how best to participate in this miracle of Nature that starts with a seed and ends with something good to eat.

Because we had the barn and a couple acres of sloping pasture behind the house, we decided to make use of it in the same way many of our neighbors did with their own pastureland: we went to the livestock auction and bought a couple young steers. We raised these from calves until they were big enough to butcher, then took them to the abattoir in Ashland to kill them and cut them up into steaks, roasts, and ground beef. When I was fifteen and had made a little money working odd jobs in the summer, I bought a calf of my own, as an investment. The idea was, you buy a small calf and put it out to graze in summer for as long as the grass keeps growing; then in the winter you feed it some of the alfalfa you grew, baled, and stored in the barn; sometime in spring you’d sell it back at auction and make a tidy little profit. Of course I was being subsidized by my parents in having free access to pastureland and hay, but on the other hand I did quite a bit of work around the place, including bucking two or three crops of hay in a season, which, on fifteen acres, and at about eighty to a hundred pounds per bale, is a pretty good workout. One aspect of that job I’ll never forget is how little bits of hay will fall down your neck as you heave them up onto to the flatbed wagon. Especially in the heat of August, when you are sweating like a pig, all those little stickers that have fallen down inside your collar itch like crazy, in a particularly irritating way, because, with the next bale coming up to be bucked, there is no time to do anything about it.

And speaking of pigs, we had to try that, too. We picked up a little weaner pig at auction and gave him an area partly under cover of the barn and partly out in the fresh air. I don’t think we understood the principles of composting at the time, but we saw our pig as a convenient garbage disposal, and it was another one of my intermittent jobs to deliver table scraps to this curly-tailed little grunter that we named Jethro.  When you live in close proximity to barnyard animals, you come to realize that they are beings with their own individuated personalities, and it seems natural to give them a name to call them by. But I remember one morning with the family sitting around the breakfast table eating hashbrowns, eggs, and bacon, and dad saying: “Well, Jethro tastes pretty good, doesn’t he?” And everyone just stopped in mid-bite and looked at one another. As rookies, we had made a pet of a pig we planned to eat, and now we were consuming its flesh, and feeling “funny” about. Someone got up from the table right then, saying they weren’t hungry; maybe it was my sister, Sharon. I know that I kept on eating, because Jethro really did taste good. But we never raised another pig like that, and I think the reason was that we could eat anonymous meat without a second thought, but the meat of someone we knew was just too much, and left us with a gnawing sense of discomfort.

We had two bodies of water on the property: a natural creek called Butler Creek that meandered through the big orchard, and an irrigation ditch that snaked through the sloping land below the barn. Of course it was easy to tell the difference between the two: to see that one was made by Nature and the other by man. The irrigation ditch carried a lot more water than the creek, and though it was curvy as it ran through our property, because of the slope of the land, it had a uniformity about it that identified it as a human artifact. The ditch felt somehow wrong to me, but I couldn’t say exactly why. It was just a vague feeling I had. Of course I had seen other irrigation ditches in various places, and so I was inclined to consider them as a normal part of the world I inhabited. This was the normalcy bias, doing what it normally does: accustoming me, or any of us, to what we find in the world around us. And for most of us this comes with the added bonus of allowing us to believe, or to assume, that because this is the way the world is at this moment in time this is also the way the world is supposed to be—that there is an inherent rightness to the world as we find it.

At the time, I had not yet heard of Manifest Destiny, and how developing the western United States as rapidly as possible was part of the power politics of nineteenth and twentieth century American life, or how that had a bearing upon every large-scale irrigation project I had seen in California and also here in Oregon.  Nor was I aware that taking water from one place and channeling it to somewhere else was a cultural tradition going  beyond our European roots all the way back to the Fertile Crescent. Neither did I know that irrigation gradually but inevitably ends up destroying soil fertility with the salts it leaves behind, thus making irrigated agriculture a short-term proposition that leaves behind waste and desert land where once grew amber waves of grain.

The normalcy bias has its uses, especially in psychological and sociological terms. It helps us adjust to the world around us. But it also has its limitations, because it fails to put things in their historical context. The normalcy bias tells us where we are, but not where we are in relation to what went before or what is likely to follow. It is a perspective without perspective.