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Review: Kayaking with Lambs

October 10, 2023

bookcoverKayaking with Lambs

by Brian Miller

Kayaking with Lambs is an easy book to read, but a hard one to review, because it doesn’t really have a trajectory; it doesn’t build to a conclusion. It’s a series of vignettes of farming life, organized according to “office of the hours” although it seemed to me the vignettes were glimpses of life on the farm at various hours of the day and seasons of the year. You could read it in any order and it would have the same effect.

Brian Miller has been farming in eastern Tennessee for a couple of decades, with a focus on livestock. He talks about sheep, pigs, chickens and his farm dogs, about neighbors and customers and The Kid, his teenaged helper (more than one of these over the years).

One of the blurbs in the front of the book mentions poetry, and while these vignettes are not in the form of poems, they share with poetry the careful word choice and deliberate evoking of mood and imagery. What Miller does in this book is introduce to a reader the answer to the question, “What’s it like to be a farmer?” Specifically, the old-fashioned kind of farmer, who grows most of his family’s food as well as a surplus to be traded for someone else’s produce or, more usually these days, for cash to be used for myriad needs.

Many of the moments—and days, sometimes—that he so adroitly sketches are pleasant, even awe-inspiring. But not all. Sometimes he’s down in the mud on a freezing day trying to fix something, or chasing over half the county to reclaim escaped piglets. Sometimes the scenes are amusing, if only in retrospect, like the titular one in which he’s trying to rescue a lamb caught in an inaccessible spot between two sticker bushes, with a flooding pond on one side and barbed wire on the other, using a kayak that’s too small and ready to swamp.

One scene that stuck out for me was a new neighbor from a city who told him that all southerners—meaning her new neighbors—were stupid. When he asked if she knew he was from Louisiana, she said, “Yes, but you’re different—you’re smart.” Apparently she didn’t realize how offensive, as well as ignorant, this was. And maybe that’s one part of what this book is about: the reality that farming is not for the ignorant. There’s a great deal of knowledge that goes into it, especially the mixed kind where you need to know about horticulture, animal husbandry, butchering, building, mechanics and fencing, as well as sales and marketing. If those who’ve been doing it for generations don’t always use good grammar, this is not evidence of stupidity or ignorance.

Chris Smaje said he loved this book, and I think those living a similar life will enjoy it. So will the wannabes who subscribe to Mother Earth magazine and read permaculture books. It’s not a how-to book, but would be useful reading for someone contemplating buying land and trying the farm life, to give them a sense of what it’s like. Certainly there are more practical instruction books for that—but this is one that lets you smell the midnight air, taste the pork dinner, watch the twelve-point buck sauntering away on a distant ridge, listen to the sound of falling snow and the honking of geese.

Mary Wildfire

Mary Wildfire lives on the Hickory Ridge Land Trust in West Virginia with her husband Don. She endeavors to grow more and more of their food, while continuing her quest to figure out how to save the world. Currently she’s writing novels set in the near future, because she thinks the depiction of a positive future is dangerously neglected.