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WISDOM FROM A KENTUCKY FARMER

September 4, 2021

During the difficult days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one of these agencies. This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to Spartanburg Interfaith Hospitality Network, 899 S Pine St, Spartanburg, SC 29302, (864) 597-0699.

For most of human existence, people were hunter-gatherers. They lived a nomadic lifestyle, moving with the seasons to follow the food supply. As the glaciers retreated at the end of the ice age, plant life changed. The need to move so often became less essential. Hunter-gatherer societies would have known which crops were best to harvest in each season.

In his The Ascent of Man, a book and a thirteen-part television documentary, scholar Jacob Bronowski contends that an important factor in the transition to an agricultural lifestyle was the mutation of wheat. When the chaff separated from the grain, wheat could be planted in tilled fields rather than be blown about by the wind. This simple change allowed civilization to settle down. It promoted the development of art, literature, and other cultural expressions.

Archaeologists and paleontologists have traced the origins of farming to around 10,000 years ago, to somewhere in the Indus River Valley in northern India and in China along the Yangtze River.

According to the Hebrew scripture creation account, “The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food…. Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.” (Genesis 2:8-9,15) So farming is identified as the oldest profession, even before sin stained the world. It only stands to reason that our agricultural endeavors should produce a good measure of wisdom.

An example in my experience is Stud Goings. Stud was a tobacco farmer in Monticello, Kentucky, in the mountains near Lake Cumberland. He had a small tobacco allotment and raised Kentucky Burley.  His beagle dog, Luther, was constantly by his side. Stud’s backyard featured an old Ford pickup truck propped up on concrete blocks. A bare dirt path meandered to his dilapidated barn. Along the way, a small vegetable garden flourished in the sunshine. Two dozen or so free-range chickens and a covey of Guinea hens skittered to and fro.  Under a white pine tree oozing sap were two oak nail kegs, turned upside down, intended for sitting. 

“When things become too burdensome,” he explained, “I just sit here in the shade.  I call this white pine the tree of life.” 

It was in that shady spot that Stud rested after he had worked his garden or stripped tobacco. There he swapped stories with his neighbors. 

 The only time I ever worked with a tobacco crop was when Stud was short of help. I happened by his place one Saturday afternoon. A thunderstorm threatened. He was in a big hurry to strip burley leaves and get them on racks in his tobacco barn. I rolled up my sleeves and gave him a hand.

When we finished the work, and the storm passed, we sat on the nail kegs beneath the tree of life. We drank refreshment from Mason jars. My jar was filled with cool well water. I suspect Stud’s jar contained something stiffer. Stud smoked a cigar. “This is where my tired body and my weary soul catch up with each other,” he said.

Stud consulted The Old Farmer’s Almanac every day.  His single-occupant privy had a copy of the yellow magazine hanging by a string from a well-placed nail. Not only was the Almanac good reading material, but the pages provided an emergency supply of toilet paper.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac is a popular reference guide for country folks. It is the oldest continuously published periodical in America, initially printed in 1792 during George Washington’s first term as President of the United States.

The magazine is best known for its weather predictions. The first editor, Robert B. Thomas, closely observed nature. He used a complex series of natural cycles to devise a climate forecasting formula. It produced uncannily accurate results, said to be 80 percent correct. His secret formula is still kept safely tucked away in a black tin box at the Almanac offices in Dublin, New Hampshire.

In 1942, a German spy was arrested in New York City by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Landing in a U-boat, the spy had come ashore on Long Island the night before his capture. A current copy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac was found in his coat pocket when he was apprehended. The United States government speculated that the Germans were using the Almanac for weather forecasts, which meant that the magazine was supplying information to the enemy. The editor of the Almanac decided that the publication would feature climate indications rather than predictions from then on.

Stud relied on the weather indications. He also used the astronomical calendar as a guide for planting his crops and for other farm chores.

Not long ago, I received from a friend a clipping from The Old Farmer’s Almanac. As I read it, I immediately thought of Stud Goings. These were things he might have said.

            · Your fences need to be horse-high, pig-tight, and bull-strong.

            · Keep skunks and bankers at a distance.

            · Life is simpler when you plow around the stumps.

            · A swarm of hornets is considerably faster than any farm tractor.

            · Words that soak into your ears are whispered, not yelled.

            · Meanness doesn’t just happen overnight.

            · Don’t corner something that you know is meaner than you.

            · It doesn’t take a very strong person to carry a grudge.

            · You can’t unsay a cruel word.

            · Every path has a few puddles.

            · When you wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty.

            · Most of the things people worry about aren’t ever going to happen.

            · Silence is sometimes the best answer.

            · Don’t interfere with something that isn’t bothering you.

            · Timing has got a lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance.

            · If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.

            · The biggest troublemaker you’ll ever have to deal with watches you from the mirror.

            · Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.

            · Letting the cat out of the bag is a whole lot easier than putting it back in.

            · If you think you’re a person of influence, try ordering somebody else’s dog around.

            · Live simply. Speak kindly. Leave the rest to God.

            · When you quit laughing, you quit living.

As far as I know, Stud Goings didn’t attend church with any regularity. He did know the Bible, and he did pray on occasion. For the most part, he kept his faith to himself. I realized early on that he didn’t want a preacher prying into his private religion.

Stud and I were fishing for white bass back in a cove on Lake Cumberland late one afternoon.  Out of the silence between us, he spoke, “I need some time like this every now and then, some time when my soul can be restored.”

He reeled in his line and lit a new cigar. After a couple of puffs, he put a fresh minnow on his hook, spit on the wriggling bait, and cast into deeper water.

“Yep,” he repeated. “This restores my soul.”

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

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