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Chanticleer: A Memoir of Light and Love

May 13, 2015

An Excerpt

By Marney Jane Blair

chanticleer coverI hold yellow and maroon seeds. I planted their parent plants six months earlier. Now that the green bean plants have created the pods for their young, the plants will wither and die.

By Halloween, all the annuals will die and leave their offspring to survive the cold winter. I love to hold the fruits of our labors. Running my hands through the barrels of corn and sorghum seed stored in our barn, I travel back in time to the early spring. Lisa and I planted all this season’s plants by hand, each seed cupped gently in our palms.

We planted three acres this year. For the corn and beans, we use a wooden stamp to make a diamond pattern in the bed. We place each seed in a divot in the moist soil, crawling next to each other on our hands and knees as we move down the row pushing the seeds into the warm bed. Our meandering conversation warms the seeds as they move from our palms to the soil. After placing each seed in the divot, we gently cover it with a mound of dirt.

Hands are the real tools of a farmer. These tools are sensitive and can serve as a conduit between the farmer’s will and the object she is touching. Sorghum and sesame twirl in the fingers as they cascade into their furrows. Squash seeds need a thumb to press them into a mound. The flax, an oily seed, requires a certain fling of the finger to set it free. If she cares to,
a farmer can move love for that object through her hands.

My wife’s hands are strong from years of hard labor, but they’re also sensitive like the artist she is. In the same day she can build a chicken coop and gently rub salve on my tired back. The skin on her right hand is scarred from burns endured as a young adult. Her hands, like her solid hips and shoulders, thick salt and pepper hair, and fearless eyes, project strength
and confidence.

photoLisa arrived on this land before I did. When she was a young adult, her father had taught her to target shoot on the site that our house now occupies. She knew the oak groves that fed the deer and wild turkeys. She knew the thick brush that lined the creekside. In her late thirties, she decided to make it her home. Lisa’s mother, passing on her inheritance to her daughters, provided the financing for what became a two-year project to build a house. Her brother-in-law provided the design, but Lisa provided the labor. A hard job for a man, an even harder job for a woman.

When I first stepped into her home several years later, I could see the loving craftswomanship. Even though we had met just a few months earlier, I knew that we would build our dreams together. I could sense that we would be each other’s muse, and that our hands would weave a magical tapestry of life.

Together we could see the beginnings of a farm.

* * *

“Look Marn, this would be a fantastic spot for the first growing area!” Lisa said, as we walked through the tall grasses and around a large outcropping of boulders. She had walked this field many times while she was building her house, and she had had her eye on it. She knew the types of plants that grew here and how the water moved during winter rain storms.

“Let’s stand here and see,” I replied. I listened to the wind move through the grass. We both knew that an open flat field with full sunlight and good drainage would be a good start for our row crops. I imagined the acre reflecting the primary green of corn and beans, the blue green of chickpeas, and the vibrant green of millet. I took the shovel I was carrying and plunged it into the moist soil at my feet. I set my right foot on and then my left. The shovel with my weight traveled at a slow, steady, satisfying rate. I flipped the clod of precious earth over. We let our knees touch the ground as we bent over the aromatic clod of loamy clay soil.

“That smells good,” Lisa sighed.

We looked at each other and smiled. We felt confident about the future but also humbled by the enormous responsibility we were taking on. The spader that my tractor would pull would forever alter this land we were standing on. We had a strong obligation to do right by nature. Mistakes were inevitable but integrity would be essential.

And this was how we built our farm. Each chicken coop, fence line, orchard, and milking barn built by our hands and celebrated as part of a living entity. A living, integrated farm. Some of the buildings are whimsical. Some of the fences meander, and the stanchions in the milking parlor curve to the shape of the cow’s neck.

We built our first fence out of manzanita, a scrub that grows throughout California. The woody part of the plant is dense and gnarled. The bark is smooth and apple red. Because not a single branch is straight, the fence undulates with the earth beneath it. What joy, what freedom to build such a fence! We were in heaven. The construction took us weeks. It was very unconventional, and the lack of convention set our imaginations bubbling with other ideas. What type of gate, we wondered, was worthy of such a fence?

The inspired answer was a fulcrum gate, a gate that doesn’t swing on hinges but rather moves effortlessly from one balanced point, the fulcrum. We constructed it from larger, thicker, and older manzanita. At the end of the gate is the counterweight. Angle iron that has been blacksmithed into a hook eye moves through a drilled hole on the large beam of the gate. Attached to the iron are whimsical, round clay figures. Together they supply the correct amount of equalizing weight for the gate. When one opens the gate, it feels light as a feather. But it also requires the gate opener to be present, for the gate can quickly get away from you. It needs and draws attention. The art is functional and animated.

* * *

marneyArt was always part of my life.

My mother Beverly was an artist. The hands that held me to her warm breasts, the thumbs that snapped together my clothes belonged to an exceptional artist. As a young child I watched her place the oil on her newly stretched canvas with long, confident strokes, moving color, form and feeling around the huge eight by fifteen foot space. She was pulling some visual scene from memory and sharing it with us. I watched in silence and awe.

When I was growing up Mom would tell us the story of playing in the corral. While her brother Charles was happily occupied practicing his lasso on the calves, she lay with her head resting on a calf’s belly, her face turned to the warm Oklahoma sky. The calf’s steady breath lured her into a meditative muse. She watched the clouds move by and the dancing of the light between blue, gray, and white. She watched the dust sparkle in the bright sun. The scene dazzled her. It marked the beginning of a life of visual exploration.

Art was always part of this California farm as well. My mother passed the torch from her creative hand to mine. My canvas was the soil.

Marney Blair is a farmer. For the last fourteen years she has made a living from this land in Northern California. The bounty nourished her. Seven years ago she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a retinal eye disease that usually leads to blindness. The memoir takes the reader on a journey deep into nature. It is the light and color that radiates from the natural world that helps to heal her.

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Marney Blair


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