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Garth Brown |

Live like you're going to die tomorrow, farm like you'll live forever

This is the view from the front porch of the old house I live in. We are surrounded by old maple trees, which is terrifying in a bad rain storm, but blessedly shady in the summer. Last summer a huge limb fell off this tree, cutting off power to the farm for three days. Afterward, my neighbor, whose fields and woods are pictured in the photo, (and whose land the tree was on) said that it probably should come down. My neighbor "gave" the tree to me on the condition that I remove it fully from the hayfield before haying commenced this spring. I say "gave" because it requires a lot of labor to fell, cut, and split a tree of that size. In fact, the task was nearly too much for my chainsaw, but that's a different story altogether. The location was so convenient to my place that I couldn't pass it up. It crossed my mind to nip the little sapling sprouting from the base, but decided that perhaps the fates wanted a tree in that particular spot. I also think Don probably would have left it.

Don was the owner of that farm until last year. He died an old man and his children now own his place. His daughter and her husband were the ones who drove out after the rainstorm to survey the damage, one of many trees that came down in that storm. I knew Don well enough to believe he'd have let a new tree grow to replace the one he took for winter heat.

By the time I moved here he'd long since sold his animals, but he had a substantial corpus of knowledge about cattle from his many decades of dairy farming. For example, I once took him out to the pasture to help me diagnose a skin disease in one of my steer. He told me he thought it, "looked like ringworm," just a severe case of it. Then he added something to the effect of, "that diagnosis is only worth about as much as you paid for it". In other words, nothing. I knew this was not the case and said as much.

We shared interests - cattle, farming, hunting - and this made conversations easy between us. My friendship with him in retrospect also seems somewhat improbable. I suppose it is more a symptom of our time, but I never before befriended somebody two full generations my senior.

He did his best to "farm forever" - The last two years or so he was pretty feeble, but he'd still clamber up into his old John Deere when it came time to cut hay. He couldn't toss haybales into the barn's mow, but he could still do the field work, even with poor balance and one eye that bothered him constantly.

Don's heirs have made it clear that I'm free to hunt on his property as I did when he was alive. It's bittersweet to tramp around his land and see ancient pieces of machinery sitting in the pasture rusting away, the old fenceposts rotting down, and the barbed wire fences sagging in spots. In my mind's eye I can so easily see him 45 years ago tightening that same fence, or perhaps 25 years ago unhooking the now rust-frozen disc for the last time. Farms weave so tightly with the people who work them that I will always think of the next door fields as "Don's farm". I didn't grow up farming, and so I can only imagine how intense that feeling of connection to the past must be for folks who are 4 or 5 (or more) generations on a place. The accumulation of stories and decisions must be neck deep on such an operation.

I feel lucky to have known Don. In many ways he exemplified characteristics I aspire to. He cared deeply about his community and his farm. I aspire to his reticence in advising others, his knowledge of his craft, his open-mindedness, and most of all his genial nature and neighborly thoughtfulness. I miss Don.


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