Augo Augo

Nature At Work

  • Nature At Work - Augo
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    Pictured here is Ross Brockley, a farmer near Lincoln, Nebraska, at his table on a hot summer day. Many years ago I met Ross during a video shoot for a local band on his property. At the time I found him abrasive and intimidating, but I was very interested in what he was doing on his farm. Or, perhaps I was interested in what he was not doing, relative to the vast majority of ag folks in Nebraska.

    Later I ran into him at a bar in Lincoln and we had a conversation about rabbits. He was interested in raising some for meat. He needed a hand and he talked of the riches available in the rabbit meat market. I began working for him that weekend, though we never got around to the rabbits, nor the riches of any market.

    In this photo essay I will be taking you on a tour around his farm, sharing photos taken with my telephone as well as some thoughts about Ross's land and it's place in rural America. I'm glad to do it, as this farm has become a special place for myself. I am certainly not the first person to feel energized, educated, humbled and reaffirmed by a portion of land, but this is the place that did it for me, and I hope you enjoy my reflections on it.
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    Ross hauls a mobile chicken coop through a field of sunflowers with his bobcat. Hens on his farm are employed for both their eggs and their ability to control grasshopper "problem areas." The bobcat is employed for almost everything else. Barb Brockley, who married Ross over a decade ago, refers to the bobcat as his "mistress." I believe it is referred to as "Rhonda" during impositions regarding his fidelity to Barb. From my perspective, he does his level best to balance an equal amount of attention to both.
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    What I refer to as a "thinkin' chair" at the Brockley farm. There are many throughout the place. Most are actually buckets or logs.

    Last year my friend Brad and I were traveling the empty country roads of Butler County, Nebraska. While he drove he was reflecting on his travels through Africa and India, as well as his return to Lincoln over the previous years. "People talk about how the world is overcrowded. The world is not overcrowded," he remarked, motioning at the expanse around us. "People just crowd each other because…" He paused to search for the correct rationale. "They're stupid."

    I welcomed the brevity of his reasoning, terse and oversimplified as it was. Pondering human geography is a rabbit hole that knows no depth, and Butler County only has so much road and gasoline. We'd probably still be driving had he elaborated.

    I did agree with Brad, though. Rural areas continue to lose inhabitants, especially in America. Heritage and culture gasp for air while cities swell with folks seemingly content to be paper pushers by day, Netflix viewers by night.

    We stopped in Ulysses, a sleepy (or maybe actually asleep) burg where Brad owns some land. There was once activity here. Somebody built a business district here for a reason. As far as I could tell not a single building houses a business in Ulysses today. All that is left is a pop machine in a door way. Brad is collecting bricks that are falling from the storefronts.

    My heart aches thinking of the amount of beautifully milled lumber rotting away in abandoned homes and businesses across rural America, and how it should still be of use to somebody invested in a community. But worse on the heart, is when sitting in a thinkin chair on the farm and feeling the empty square mileage around me, believing that it could be inhabited by people who sustain the production of food and goods variable enough to serve the majority of needs of everybody in that space. The potential that Brockley's farm ignites in my imagination leaves me worried that the remaining rural population in America sustains nothing valuable for itself, and only frozen pizzas and candy bars for everyone else. The last century has been a complicated turn of events for us.

    That's enough thinking for now.
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    In the company of Mabel the dog, a beer is had after spending a day working on a new stone patio at Ross Brockley's farm. One of my favorite things about this place is that nothing is square, nothing is level, nothing is plumb. Everything is, of course, mostly functional, but I have found that the state of our constructions either delights or drives visitors mad. I can often tell if a visitor has a keen eye for tidy carpentry and craftsmanship. They are usually the people who are very quiet and slightly shuddering.

    But I love it. You know how canyon walls are made with wind and water? Just like that, Ross's farm is made by Ross. We may not be "neat," or owners of tape measures, but things end up where they belong.
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    Many things are seen on Ross's farm that would have been very difficult to imagine on one's own accord. Who would have guessed, for instance, that goats would enjoy eating orange peels from a local grocery store that makes its own juice? I can tell you, watching goats chew orange peels is a delightful experience.

    I think a lot of us see a lot of the same things over and over again from day to day. It stifles the imagination. On the farm I have found that the act of allowing convention to fall by the wayside provides much more appreciation for this world and its joyful surprises.
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    A couple years ago a New Yorker passing through Nebraska pulled a zipline between two trees and over a new pond at the farm. It changed everything. Daily recreation time multiplied exponentially as summer days grew warmer. More people visited. The local barn swallows especially seemed to enjoy the new perch over water. It's the sort of thing a small farming community would rally around, if there was one here. There is no better way to end a day of farm work than with a zip into the pond with friends. There is no better way to start the day either.

    If you look closely below Ross in this image, you can see the edge of a neighbor's massive corn field. The choices involving land use and Ross's activities in general are in stark contrast with neighboring choices. Here comes an editorialization:

    I'm not trying to make a moral judgement. Well maybe a little bit I am, but I do understand global food markets and how corn is in everything, and how people are just doing what they need to do to raise families in rural places etc, etc, etc. I get that. Without a doubt, corn production is a very huge part of Nebraska's young heritage, but is it so ingrained in our psyche already that it is the only thing we know how to do with the land here? Do we even realize we have a choice with what to do with this land we've claimed? We do have a choice. We have choices that benefit the strength and growth of small, bustling agricultural communities, and we have choices that involve larger numbers in the bookkeeping and leave us with fewer neighbors and devoid of the communities needed to develop a cultural legacy.

    During an ethanol boom when every square foot of land in Nebraska was getting put to corn, we took an unused part of the farm and built a pond. We surrounded it with potatoes and cucumbers and we went swimming. We're still alive. When I take a zip over the crops towards the cool water, I admit my subconscious is often shouting to itself, "Ross! This was a good decision!"
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    Ross poked his head through the gas station's door and hollered, "You're not serious about this no shirt thing, right?" The woman at the counter waved us in. If there's one thing I've learned, a lack of shirts will not come between a farmer and his morning coffee. The coffee purchase was made without any further disruptive event, and the kind woman at the counter even supplied us with free conversation about our plans for the day.

    I seem to currently live in a big city and one thing it supplies me with is plenty of rules. My feeling is that rules, usually placed with good intention, often actually deprive us of the opportunity to learn discernment between threats and harmlessness. It is a relief to find someone with the wherewithal to be malleable on occasion.
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    Ross fires up Pepsi--his daily driver. Once lost in West Virginia and then regifted as a wedding present. I'm pretty sure the only thing left of the floors are old clothes and receipts stiffened with mud. The side view mirror seems positioned for Mabel the dog to check her make-up. The brake lights? Unneeded as long as you don't brake. The bumper sticker? "A rind is a terrible thing to waste: COMPOST"
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    Happy Friday evening everyone. If you do your best to keep banker's hours, you are probably feeling that special Friday evening merriment right about now. Good for you. Enjoy it.

    If you are old enough to be reading this you have probably lived long enough to hear a farmer observe that he or she doesn't get weekends. Sometimes I get the feeling that this observation is peppered with the bumptious implication that a farmer's occupation is especially virtuous, like a pastor's or a firefighter's. I would not argue with that, but I would suggest that such virtuous occupations often eliminate the itch for weekends anyways. Husbandry is satisfying. Doing it Sunday through Saturday is not especially hard on the soul.
    That is not to say that on Ross's farm we would ever decline to partake in the aura of a Friday evening. Fridays were usually reserved for fires and reflection, guffawing about the world news or friends relationships, and enjoying a grilled dinner with fresh stuff from the garden. Just like the bankers of the world, we tried to keep Friday nights for relaxation and libation, and Saturday mornings for moving slowly in a haze of dull pain. Hey, we can't hog all the virtue in this world--there wouldn't be any left for the firefighters!
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    The worst day of the year on the farm, by far, is rooster butcher day. Roosters are terrible. They're total jerks. They're loud, hungry, and horny. Think of the most despicable college party scene you've ever witnessed or heard about, multiply it's repulsiveness by 100, and you might understand the motivations of roosters. Ugly souls for a fact. If you spent a day watching a group of roosters you wouldn't want to have anything to do with them. And yet, a blade to the neck feels over the top. I can't tell you how many times I've heard Ross utter the words, "I'm sorry. Sorry bud." Why the remorse? Because even these galoots live well while they live. It is very difficult to deprive something of its paradise. The deed is done at night, when the birds are completely incognizant. They don't see it coming. By the time they realize they're upside down in a road cone, it's lights out.
    Chicken dinners all winter ease our contrition.
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    It was in early 2012 that Ross had an epiphany after reading a book by Sepp Holzer, an Austrian farmer. The book spoke of a practice called "hugelkultur," which revolved around the idea of burying wood in trenches, creating a berm that stretches with the contours of the land. The ultimate goal is to retain water, as we all know that where there is water there is life. In the trenches under ground, the rotting wood acts as a sponge during rains, and being covered from direct sun by topsoil, contributes to significant subsoil moisture for weeks or months after a storm.
    This epiphany turned my primary occupation at the farm into "wood gatherer." We dug trenches and buried wood all spring. If you are wondering where we got all the wood, I can tell you there is wood everywhere. Really, there is so much wood. Trees are prolific, and they shed often.
    I was pretty skeptical at first. Ross explained it to me like this: "Look at a fire, and you can see the enormous release of energy from just one log floating away in a cloud of smoke. What we're doing is putting that energy into the ground, and releasing it slowly as the log rots over a decade." We had one big rain event in the first week of June, and no rain for months after that. It was a historical drought year. The ultimate test for our unirrigated "hugels." Grass and trees scorched in the heat (as did the corn around us--it was a very ugly scene) but our crops in the hugels hung on to their green hue. My eyebrows would raise when I'd poke the hugelkulturs and feel moist dirt on my finger. At the same time enormous fissures were opening in the sun baked pastures. It was incredible. Unbelievable. Digging the first bumper crop of sweet potatoes that fall--well it was a scene of manic laughter. We were sold.

    Ross continues to build new hugels on his land every year. No wood is spared, not even old patio furniture.
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    These potatoes were probably dug shortly after a rain. Here they are drying on the floor of a porch.
    When I first started working with him, Ross was charmed by my enthusiasm for potatoes. I love spuds and I make it no secret. Following one of our first potato diggings together, and being prone to small-time gambling, Ross bet me $50 that I couldn't eat 20 baked potatoes in one night. I won the $50 dollars but had to take the next day off due to digestion problems, so my net gain was a belly full of taters.
    That's a true story.
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    Ross working the chainsaw. More than anybody I've ever met, Ross moves with confidence. He trusts himself and his intuition, which is represented in his actions and decisions. Some surely think he is a wild man. I believe a more accurate way to describe him is being of the wild. What I mean by that is, he does not have a symbiotic relationship with nature. He is nature. This conclusion is the only way I have been able to reconcile with his fearlessness and the wit of his whims. I've seen foxes and birds and other critters' behavior. Ross's behavior is no different.

    I think we are all that way at the start, but we lose it, or the environs of our lives deny our access to it. Our ideas of success, comfort, cleanliness and power do not parlay into a deep presence within nature's operations. Years on this farm will fix that.
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    My previous post talked of Ross's harmonization with the cosmos. Well that is not to say that accidents don't happen. Here, we needed to get the wheelbarrow over a log. Ross thought he had created a ramp by dropping some plywood on the ground. What he actually created, though, was a teeter-totter. When the wheelbarrow crossed the log, the weight of it flipped the plywood directly and forcefully into Ross's shin. It seemed to me that Mabel had the nursing taken care of, so I snapped a picture.
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    Ross pauses for a portrait with an impressive haul of sweet potatoes.
  • Nature At Work - Augo
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    Mabel and Ross survey the damage after a heavy rain spilled the new pond over our earthen dam. Lesson learned. The dam was rebuilt taller and wider and with a spillway, which I hear functioned properly during a storm earlier this month.
    The washout unearthed hundreds of crawdads, and from that we learned something else: Watching chickens discover crawdads is a lot like watching a baby discover ice cream. Hilarious and very messy--borderline disturbing.
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    Mabel is not proficient in untwisting the wires that act as gate latches on the farm, but she has no problem getting around the place.
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    A fly trap is set on the back side of the composting toilet. More than once a turkey has used a corner of this outhouse to hatch eggs and raise a small flock, hence our coinage of the best ever colloquialism for doing a number two: "It's time to go talk to the turkey."
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    I know it's a sin to speak of winter at the end of May, but allow me to just briefly express my gratitude for the dormancy and quiet of the dreaded season. For all of its faults (the list is endless), winter provides a great deal to us all.

    First, snow does an incredible job of chewing up autumn's leaves, adding new material to the ground.

    But second, and probably just as important, the hushed temperament of most winter days gives us all the perfect excuse to do likewise. We all quiet down. We sit and watch and wait. We move slower by necessity. I love seeing the seasonal changes in behavior expressed by the people around me. It seems to be some of the last real proof that we all still have a little nature in us. Like a parent, seasons take us by the hand and show us how to conduct ourselves.
    I know it lasts about two months too long and come March going outside feels like you're chained up in a dungeon, but I hope when that first snow falls in about six months, you find the peace in you that can only be found by sitting, waiting, and watching. Stay busy when nature allows, but please, hold it down when she puts the finger to her shushing lips. It's good for you.
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    Ross spends his winters cutting firewood, catching up with friends, writing jokes for comedy routines, keeping a little bit of water thawed for the animals, and organizing big dreams for spring.
  • Nature At Work - Augo
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    Ross releasing the egg mobile occupants into neighbor Kevin's alfalfa field. Bad day for the grasshoppers.
  • Nature At Work - Augo
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    "It's over." Words that echo in my head, as I have repeatedly heard Ross say them to bindweed that he has just dug out of a garden. In Nebraska, bindweed is among the top of the list for dreaded invaders of farms and gardens. If you get it pulled, you keep it with you until you have the opportunity to drop it in the middle of a road--or a fire.
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    Ross laying down for an afternoon nap. It's good to see him rest on occasion. He has double the amount of energy that I do, and I'm 20 years younger. I think he is just very happy with what he has going on at the farm, and the nature of the place constantly confronts him with new surprises and new ideas. It's a hard place to sleep on. Dreams are fun and all, but being awake on his farm is a lot more interesting. It is a rare place in these times. That said, I believe today's younger generation has a chance to make places like this less rare. It will be our choice as rural American land falls into our hands.
  • Nature At Work - Augo
  • Nature At Work - Augo
    The one thing I'll never enjoy about the farm is leaving it. Mabel knows this and always finds a good place to rub it in as I pull away. Life takes me many places. I'm glad that it will always take me back here. A note to Mabel: I'll be home soon dear.