I. My grandpa's name was Leroy Haines (emphasis on the "lee"). He was the son of a Oklahoma alcoholic, an up-and-coming, self-proclaimed metropolitan man who fancied himself quite the used car salesman before the liquor caught up with him.
My grandpa's father tramped his way up toward Wichita, left his wife to raise a few boys in the days before the world celebrated the grit and bravery of single-motherhood. Sometime near grandpa's coming into adolescence, my great grandmother met and married a Californian and moved west toward better prospects. Grandpa stayed behind, he being raised by good German stock who spoke nary a word of English.
Leroy Haines was strong as an ox, even in his latter years, but I suspect he made a useful farmhand to his grandfather Henke. He once told me the stories of hitching the horses to the plow, of cutting Oklahoma sod from sunup to high-noon until his grandmother interrupted him with a lunch of homemade sourdough, salted pork, and a bottle of beer. At the time, my grandfather was fifteen.
What memories my grandfather had of any boyhood came from the farm. They were memories of work, but boyhood memories nonetheless. These were the times before the war. These were the days before the Red Bulls made their march through Italy, before he shouldered his Browning Automatic Rifle and sent men to heaven and hell alike, before he took shrapnel in the buttocks and earned awkward sponge baths from a nurse who'd been relocated from Spokane to the European theater. His days on the farm were before the anti-segregation sit-ins at the New Orleans Woolworth's, the store where he was a manager. They were the days before his son, my father, flew over the handlebars of a motorcycle and broke his back.
[tweetherder text="A boy's farm days can be a sort of innocent Eden, they bearing the first-fruits of easier memories."]A boy's farm days can be a sort of innocent Eden, they bearing the first-fruits of easier memories.[/tweetherder]
It should come as no surprise, then, that in my grandfather's retirement, he fancied himself a hobby farmer. He and my grandmother Lerene (emphasis again on the "lee") relocated to the Ozarks, moved into a stone house attached to thirteen acres. He kept cattle in the pasture, raised corn and pole beans in the garden, and tended to a few colonies of bees. He had an old farm dog named Buddy who had a thick matted coat and was good for nothing except sleeping. He kept an old plow in the barn, a plow which, to my knowledge, was not once hitched to a his old black horse. The old black horse, also named Buddy, was as skittish as a cow, a worthless equine if ever there were one.
I don't recall whether my grandfather ever produced anything worth saving on the old homestead, but I remember he called it his "gentleman's farm." With a twinkle in his eye, he said it reminded him of his Oklahoma youth.
There are any number of reasons for an Arkansas gentleman to keep an Arkansan gentleman's farm. Some are kept out of some sense of nostalgia, while the more wealthy operate them as tax havens. Some produce usable food, sell organic produce at the farmer's market as a way to supplement income. Other's grow on a come-what-may basis. Whatever the reason, these hobby farms are nearly a dime-a-dozen where I come from. Every now and then, though, there is a diamond in the rough, a real gem among the many hobby farms that dot the region between the Ozarks and the Arkansas river valley.
On Saturday, I visited a gem.
Wild Things Farm is the brain child of a doctor from Fort Smith, or so the story goes. It's a sprawling farm situated just across the Arkansas state line. With two ponds, a handful of alpaca, several variety of goats, two pigs, a peacock, and a partridge in a pear tree, Wild Things is a place for the heart to sing. (Sorry about that musical reference; I just had to.)
Open to the public, the farm has space for little boys to roam, and ways to put them to work. There are picking fields and over-sized buckets for filling. The green beans and blueberries are in season, so on Saturday, my parents and I took the boys to earn their keep.
[tweetherder]No tour of Wild Things is complete without a visit to the yelling goat.[/tweetherder] The yelling goat? See for yourself.
My father and I stood by the fence, laughing like school-children at the goat who bleated as if he were passing a kidney stone. I could have watched the old boy all day long.
After Titus manage a finger-nip from a baby goat, we loaded up the carts and moved to the fields. The boys started in the green bean fields, where Jude gleaned no less than a five gallon bucket of produce. The truth is, though, little boys are less excited about the prospect of green beans, and would rather pick bushels of blueberries for cobbler making. So, we loaded up the cart and made our ways to the blueberry bushes.
Titus is one heck of a blueberry picker. Fact is, he's one heck of a greenberry picker, too. I walked beside him in the field, he picking the unripened blueberries and asking me "this one daddy?" I laughed. "No son; don't pick the green ones," I told him. He'd pick one that was a darker shade of green and we'd laugh again.
We picked until we heard the thunder rumbling over the plains. A gully washer was sweeping in from the west, and so our blueberry picking was cut short. Excluding Titus' green berries, I suppose we gleaned about a pint.
We took our produce to the weigh station at the farm store, and said goodbye to Wild Things Farm. The boys mocked the agitated goat as we pulled down the drive, bleated in the back seat like they were passing their own kidney stones.
It was a good day.
There is something about a farm and a boy, and if I could quite put my finger on it, I suppose I would. The open spaces, the smell of dirt and dung, the nearness of nature--it all seems so simple, perhaps intuitive. I reckon that was the sense my grandfather was hoping to regain after the wars--both World War II, and the war of the marketplace. I wonder whether he was trying to find his way back to the root of things.
I'm not a gentleman farmer, have no plot of land of which to speak. I want my children to experience this simplicity, though, to see a world that's less digital, one that bleats, and nips the fingers, and sounds like thunder moving across the plain of the River Valley. I want them to pick fresh produce, to see the connection between the dirt, the vine, and our dinner table. I want them to see the world as a sanctuary, creation as an analog for the Word of creation.
Perhaps you think this to be un-nuanced or naive, a dim-witted city-slicker's hope. Perhaps the farm is not as romantic as all of this. But on Saturday, we spent a few hours living the simpler life.
And it was good.