The Eightfold Agrarian Way

The “Eightfold Agrarian Way” is an outline of an agrarian philosophy for the twenty-first century. It is both a catalog and a prescription: a catalog, because it began as an attempt to find the common ground in three thousand years of agrarian thought; a prescription, because I believe that the philosophy I found is as valid for the future as its first authors thought it for the past. But it is only a beginning, a starting point for further discussion and debate.

Hobby farming

If part-time farmers want to be taken seriously, they have to take themselves seriously. It starts with a word.


Originally published in The Northern Agrarian, April 2008.

In the woods behind my house is a clump of daffodils. Each year they emerge with the first false temptations of spring and for a few brief weeks throw bright yellow sparks from the still-brown floor of the forest, garishly urging the calendar onward. Then their blossoms wilt and return to the ground, and I forget about them.

I have lived in this house for ten years, and the woods in which the daffodils bloom are, in a legal sense, my woods. But I didn’t plant the daffodils, and I don’t know who did. In ten years I have barely set foot beyond the fence that encloses the back yard — a fence I built to keep in my dogs but which has fenced me in almost as effectively. The daffodils are at most twenty feet on the other side of the fence, and each year when they bloom I think I should tend them, or fertilze them, or plant more. Each year I do nothing.

This spring, for the first time, I squatted next to them for a closer look.

baby snowpeople

Let it snow. No, really

Saturday we had significant snowfall for the first time in four years: only an inch and a half, but enough that I no longer need fear that the Monkey will begin to think the stuff a fairy tale, like Santa Claus and supply-side economics. In a normal winter we get a little snow — seven-plus inches is the annual mean — but it hasn’t snowed as much as an inch since 2004. Having grown up with doorknob-high drifts and blanket forts on snow days and twice-layered jeans that soaked through sledding and left crimson cold burns on my thighs, I’ve had to lower my standards for “significant snowfall” these latter barren years. Now I get excited by flakes no bigger than my dog’s dandruff, and my daughter, having no standards at all, makes do with whatever she finds: the five inch-high snowperson adorning our porch rail attests to the determination of a child who can read chapter books about polar bears but has never set foot in snow deeper than the tread on her boots:

baby snowpeople

Sad, but one has to make do with what one has. I filled the bird feeders, gave the ducks fresh straw, checked to make sure I still owned a snow shovel, and settled in to enjoy the show. Even the basset hounds, who had never seen snow either, loved it — a clean slate for scents, I suppose — although if we get a real snow one day, I am going to have to knit poor Everett a jock strap.

puppy Everett

Welcome, Everett

We lost both our dogs last year, and although Sadie, the new girl, is a wonderful dog, a house isn’t a home without at least two basset hounds. And so:

puppy Everett

This guy happened to be available five days before Christmas, and so here is is. We named him Everett, after Ulysses Everett McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but should maybe have named him Marvin, as in Starvin’ Marvin, because he approaches a bowl of food like a Visigoth to Rome. When not hungrily eyeing herds of cattle he has a quiet confidence that I think will make him an excellent dog, and he seems to be pretty smart; at ten weeks old he will already sit on request. (Not “command” so much because he’s only ten weeks old, and also because he’s a basset hound.)

Sadie adores him and has played with him constantly, when she isn’t sleeping on the couch with him. They’re already Best Friends Forever. One dog is a pet; two and you really are sharing your home with another species. I missed that. Merry Christmas to me.

Incidental lumberjack

Mid-afternoon a tree fell in the yard. No wind, no rain, only the slow crescendoing crack of something gone very very wrong and then a rustle and — wait for the thud, but no thud. The tree hung over the yard, balanced precariously in the crotch of a low shrub and, twenty feet higher, a branch of a poplar. From the house its support was invisible and the angle of its pause impossible, as if it had thought better of its fall once begun. A heavy tree, dead for some time but unrotted and still solid, and if it was coming down soon enough one way or another I preferred it not fall on the dog’s head or on mine, so I dragged out the chain saw and trudged through the underbrush. I had to cut the tree on the upstroke, the saw at the height of my head, to keep it from crushing the fence when it fell, but it split neatly and the two logs fell on either side of the fence, one only slightly bending the wire. We need to rebuild a couple of our garden beds if we intend to use them again and now we have logs to bound them, and the work made me feel sufficiently useful that I felt justified in having a Manhattan, with two cherries, before dinner.

Over, gracefully

Hiking the hills above the Eno River. By a stream that feeds the river the long stem of a wildflower, heavy with blossom after a sudden rain, hangs in a gentle arc a foot over the path. Sadie pauses to sniff. She could go around the errant stalk or shove its petal-weight aside, but she hesitates a mere moment before leaping like a cat, quickly, delicately, her basset legs splayed briefly along the curve of her body, the flower undisturbed.

Feynman, heavier built, could never have lept a twelve-inch obstacle from a standing start, but could she, ever the showman, she would have glanced up at me afterwards to make sure I’d been watching. But from Sadie there is no glance, no need for my applause. She lands with less drama than her bulk would imply and trots on, nose to the ground, content, her moment of grace meant only for herself.

We are what we don’t discard

Cleaned out the shed that doubles as storage and workshop, the workshop half mostly theoretical the past few years as the storage expanded and my time contracted, and was unable to explain the choices I made about what to keep and what to throw away. When I was in graduate school and had less stuff, less money, more time, and a need to compensate for my endemic uselessness, I saved everything — odds and ends of hardware, bits of rope, scraps of wood, the wheels off an old lawn mower. And I used most of it, the lawn mower wheels finding their way onto a moveable grazing pen for the ducks. But no shed is infinite. Four lawn ‘n’ leaf bags await next week’s garbage pickup.


  • a step stool that I built in 1998; I designed it badly so that it tips over whenever you step on it, and haven’t used it since the turn of the century
  • staining rags, work gloves, and knee pads chewed by mice
  • two broken lamps that I don’t like but have been meaning since 1994 to fix
  • the balls from my childhood croquet set (the mallets are long gone)
  • sixty or so egg cartons purchased when the ducks were still laying regularly (actually I composted these)


  • countless pieces of wood too small to be of any use
  • five dozen mason jars, in addition to the dozens actually in use in the house
  • four gallon bottles of antifreeze, each more than half full

I can admit my failure to build a decent stepstool and that the ducks are getting old and won’t be replaced, but I can’t shake the vision of endless shelves of pickles and applesauce and sauerkraut I know perfectly well I don’t have time to make. But I like the idea that I could, just as I like the idea that I could build a desk or some bookshelves in my newly accessible workshop.

I could write the shed as metaphor, that when you are young a shed is twelve by sixteen feet of possibility, that the junk in it is not junk but the physical manifestation of your experience stored as raw materials for the future, and that at some later age you reach a point where your accumulated past chokes the life out of the future. But that would be silly. It’s just a shed.

Cake. Pinups. Cherry.

In Plymouth, a little town off the Albemarle Sound, I stopped for coffee. This is how old Plymouth is: It is so old that the streets leading from the highway downtown to Water Street are named for presidents. Washington Street was blocked off for roadwork, so I took Adams downtown and Jefferson back out. On Water Street I found the Plymouth Bakery, where one table was occupied by two men and a woman, probably in their seventies. One of the men was hitting on the waitress, who was maybe sixty. Her name was Cherry. She asked if they had saved room for a piece of cake.

Pretend men tell no tales

The Monkey hands me a beanbag.

“Um, thanks.”

“It’s a flyer,” she said, and bounces off to the living room, where she has arranged a dozen of her stuffed animals on chairs and the couch. She places a beanbag in front of each animal.

“I’m passing out flyers to all my animal friends,” she explains, in case I hadn’t figured this out on my own.

“That’s great, honey,” I say, wondering where my daughter got the idea to pass out flyers, hoping that she is playing political activist and not Jehovah’s Witness or guerilla marketer. “What do the flyers say?”

She stops and looks at me with as much disdain as a three year-old can muster. “Pretend things don’t say anything, Dad.”

Fair enough.