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Monthly Archives: January 2020

For years I’ve been flying over the continental US, looking down on crop circles and major rivers from 30,000 feet, wondering what was going on down there.   A few times I drove across the country by car, moving, but always on interstates, always in a hurry.

Apalachicola, Florida    January 15, 2020

When my wife and I decided to take our beater van east for Christmas, we agreed that we wanted to travel slower, using smaller highways, and to travel only in daylight, (a real constraint on travel time in December).  We were aided by our cell phone navigators, set to “avoid highways”, which often put us on the old highways and back roads not much traveled these days.  In the end, we managed to cover 8200 miles, crossing parts of 25 states in a total of 29 days on the road.


Iowa, December 14, 2019

Fort Madison, Iowa December 14, 2019

My plan had been to write a blog post every few days while on the road—a plan that worked fairly well during the trip east, when we were twice stopped by snow and had a few extra hours off the road to rest.  I used the time to download picture from the camera chips, and gather my thoughts enough to write a brief blog post.  But the trip south and west did not involve any snow days—we did stop in to see a few family and friends along the way—but not enough time to gather my thoughts.


Nebraska, December 12, 2019


We’ve been home for about 5 days now, and I’ve just managed to go through the 27,000 photos I took—about 21,275 of them through the windows of the van.  I exported them to a chip, and am watching them in random order on a small digital picture frame.

Of course, life does not occur in random order, and looking at 21,375 photographs twenty years ago would have required a mountain of paper.  But photographs have always been about seizing moments out of the stream of time, then viewing them later in a different context.


Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, December 18, 2019


Of course, I could have set up a dashboard camera to record every foot of highway we traveled down—as at least some people are doing, to provide evidence in case of accidents.  But using a hand held still camera allows some choice of viewing angle (straight ahead through the windshield vs looking out a side window, plus the ability to aim to the side of the road) and the selection of the instant of exposure.


Maryland, January 9, 2020

Of course, there is the issue of safety.  Shooting pictures through the windshield from the passenger seat is not a problem, but since my wife and I split the driving evenly, and I was not willing to forgo photographs of half the trip, I needed to devise a way to make photographs that didn’t interfere with my ability to keep the van on the road.  My method was to keep the camera on my knee, and to raise and trip the shutter with the camera off to the side, without attempting to view the image in the camera.  Needless to say, the camera frequently was not level, but it was usually close enough.  I have auto focus lenses, but these frequently spend time “hunting” for the focus point, and often settle on the dirt on the windshield, not on the more distant subject I want to focus on—so I used an old manual lens.  The problem there was that on the repeated trips to and from my lap, I would sometimes inadvertently move the focus on the lens—a problem solved with duct tape.  And I discovered that of the two camera bodies I carried on the trip, one could adjust the exposure much more quickly than the other—so that became my default camera.  And I put the camera down during times that driving required my full focus—in snowstorms and heavy traffic.  In addition, my wife was very adept at alerting me to hazards she thought I wasn’t reacting to fast enough—a service I sometimes return.  But I do think about the worst vehicle accident I was ever involved in—incited by a temperamental tape deck that diverted the attention of the driver (not me) who allowed his front wheel to fall off the edge of the road, followed by rolling the car down an embankment…

I did do some writing on the road, and will share some of those thoughts in the near future.

I grew up on a small farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  Some of my earliest memories are of time in the barn.  My dad had a very small dairy herd, 14 cows.  In winter, the body heat from the cows would keep the barn warm and moist, and I remember the smells—the breath of the cows, wet and sweet, the smell of the molasses in the ground feed, the dust from hay and straw, the acrid smell of silage, and the smell of fresh cow manure.  Above the cows was the hay mow—one of my jobs was to pull the bales out of the stacks and drop them through a hole in the floor so they could be fed to the cows.  In summer, I helped my day bring the hay in from the fields, always on the hottest day of the summer, or at least it seemed—we didn’t have an elevator, so the hay had to be heaved up into the mow, and stacked.  In addition to the big barn, the farm also had a pig house and two small chicken houses.


Iowa, December 2019


My dad sold his cows when I was 11, and the barn was never quite the same after that.  He raised steers for a few years, but there was no twice daily milking to be done—only feeding once a day.  He tore down the pig house and the chicken houses.   After a few years, he stopped raising steers, and the barn had no animals.   The barn had a cistern to capture rain water for the cows, but it developed cracks, and the water seeped into the back stable.  Eventually the water rotted the bottom of one of the tree sized girders that held up the barn, and the whole barn began to sag.  Plus the wood shingles on the roof rotted and the roof began to leak.  By the time I left the farm for graduate school, the barn was mostly empty, though for a few years he continued to make hay and sell it to some local neighbors who fed it to horses.   After he stopped making hay, he filled the barn with discarded furniture he brought home from the local college where he worked as a janitor.  However, there were still pigeons living in the barn, and everything got covered with layers of poop.


Illinois, December 2019


For years, I was embarrassed at how the barn had fallen into disrepair under our watch.  But it wasn’t just our barn that was in trouble—many other barns on surrounding farms were also failing.   I recall talking to an Iowa farmer, who noted that the increased mechanization had reduced the physical work required for haymaking, which had previously limited the size of his dairy herd.  In response he had added more milking cows, hoping to increase his income, but found that other farmers had done the same, resulting in a glut of milk and falling prices.

The increased mechanization of hay making—making large round bales weighing half a ton—or automated gathering and stacking systems for smaller bales—made the old style hay loft and hand stacking obsolete—it was too slow, required too much labor.  Which, in turn, meant that the old barns were outdated.  Newer barns were built to house lager groups of animals and facilitate mechanized feeding and manure removal.


The modern barn, Lancaster County, December 2019


Driving across the country in December through farm country, I paid attention to barns, photographing them through the windshield.  Almost everywhere, the old barns have fallen into disuse.  Many are unpainted, falling down, or have been completely demolished, and only isolated concrete silos remain where barns once stood.  Functioning farms have become larger, with new steel pole barns for storing hay, and large grain metal grain bins for feed.  Silage is stored in large trenches covered with white plastic and old tires.


Indiana, December 2019


In Lancaster County, where I grew up, there are quite a few barns that remain in good repair, for two reasons.  Amish farmers who still farm with horses still have small farms, and use the barns to store hay and house animals.  The barnyards there are still covered with manure in winter.  But non-Amish farm barns are either in complete disrepair, or have been “Martha Stuartized”—painted and decorated to look nice, but their spotless barnyards show they are obviously are not used for any farming function.


Look what they done to my barn, Lancaster County, December 2019


I suppose I should be grateful to the affluent property owners who have the money to put on new roofs and paint the old barns—they are preserving at least the look of the old landscape—but it also makes me a bit sad.  Barns were made to be functional, and whatever is inside the newly refurbished barns, it isn’t hay and cows.  Some have been converted into storage areas for businesses, some are used as party spaces (the barn wedding has become popular), but I suspect that most are just used for storage.  Particularly sad are the old barns stranded in the middle of suburban developments or industrial parks, where they seem as mournful as shipwrecks.  How did they veer so far off course as to wind up here?

I suppose what I resent the most isn’t the disappearance of the functioning barn so much as the end of small farming as a viable lifestyle.  It seems to me that both humans and animals have suffered with the industrialization of agriculture.  I recall my father knowing the personalities of each of his cows—some were gentle, others always kicked at the milking machine and my dad—they weren’t pets, but they were part of the family.  I can’t see the same kind of relationship between a farmer and his cows when the herd size is 2000, and he hires illegal migrants to do the milking.

Of course, my father also worked extremely hard, and for very little return on his effort.  Each year when my mother returned from the tax accountant, the farm showed a clear loss.  The only way to be a “real farmer”—that is, one that made a viable living from his farming—was to get big.  Two of my uncles decided to take that path, buying big tractors, building large chicken houses and pig houses, and both of them ended in bankruptcy.  Which is, unfortunately,  the usual way farmers end their careers…

In high school, I remember reading Authur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”—the title referred to suicide by automobile, when a salesman grew too old to compete.  The old barns, falling down or pimped out, stand as monuments to the end of the small farmer.


Industrial Park and Barn, Lancaster County, December 2019