What the Sunrise Will Show

April 10, 2020

A storm blew in late last night, dropping trees and powerlines and sweeping the porch of all chairs, bowls, and benches. At 5 a.m. I took a short walk to take stock of the yard and barnyard areas before returning to my desk to type this post. Now, waiting for sunup to take full inventory of the damage seems to echo the world at large: we are all waiting with apprehension for what lies in the wake of the storms.

It is not often that this blog can be accused of prescience, but on February 1st I wrote this:

This past week, off the farm for work, I chanced into a conversation with a computer scientist experienced in modeling disease outbreaks. For a couple of hours, we parsed the data of the coronavirus, looked at his modeling of the numbers, discussed the true fragility of a global economy. He had, with the exception of his current trip, canceled all work-related travel for the next eight weeks. The system will be overloaded during that period, he predicted.

I found myself wondering if it was wrong to find a kernel of hope in the prospect of a global slowdown built on the bones of a possible pandemic. Ten years after the great recession brought housing expansion in our valley to a halt, the maw of our species is being stuffed once again as wooded lots are bulldozed and foundations laid. This frenzy too may end only with the close of the day. The sun sets on everything, eventually.

Little more than two months ago, this virus was something that was happening “over there.” In that short span of time, how much life has changed for most across the globe. Now it is here where we find the illness and the death. One of the casualties this week was Tom Waters. An old friend, Tom was a man who could wield a mean super-soaker in a water fight, but he was perhaps better known as a dedicated fighter for affordable housing in New York City. “Gone too soon,” as they say….

Meanwhile, here in rural America the medical impacts still seem far removed. The economic impacts, though, are immediate. As the economy has shut down, demand for my neighbor’s work as a handyman has largely dried up. Who wants a deck built when they are unemployed? The many small factories in the area have reduced staff or closed as the global supply chains that deliver parts are disrupted. My own off-the-farm job is shuttered for the time being, leading to speculation about the overall impact on bricks and mortar businesses. (Not that just-in-time shipping and parcel delivery seem a solid bet now that we have witnessed their real-time weaknesses.)

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As the world at large careened down the tracks at high speed with clown conductors, I spent the past few weeks on the farm carrying on like so many others. Planting spring gardens, harvesting late winter greens, grazing the flocks, working the bees — from time to time, when the light hit just right, I caught the merest glimmer of what a saner world could be.

We are all, by necessity, spending less and driving less. We call neighbors and family more often. We consolidate our own grocery lists with shopping requests for older residents, dropping necessities off on front porches. Many of us are now living at a slower pace, a walking cadence that feels, in a pandemic, healthier.

This world may just have the chance to become both different and familiar: world-turned-upside-down different and familiar in that it becomes intimate, again. Death and disruption, and their accompanying fear and loss, have always been with us, but so has the opportunity for renewal and hope.

With the latter in mind, I will re-emerge in the wake of the storms and begin clearing the branches from the fencelines, repairing shed roofs, resolving this time to make a better farm and be a better neighbor. But like everyone, I’m still waiting for the light to clarify what needs to be done.


Teaser photo image: The bee hives after the storm

Brian Miller

Brian Miller lives in rural east Tennessee with his partner, Cindy. Since 1999 they have owned and operated Winged Elm Farm: a 70-acre working farm of pastures, orchards and mixed hardwoods. They direct market pork, lamb, mutton and beef to customers in Knoxville and Chattanooga. A native of Louisiana, Brian’s guiding influence in life is to know that everything begins with a roux. Brian blogs at The South Roane Agrarian. He is the author of Kayaking with Lambs: notes from an East Tennessee farmer.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, rural communities, small-scale farmiing