In late afternoon, looking over the pasture from my mother’s hillside grave, our farm may be the most beautiful place on earth. The pasture rolls away for a half-mile until it meets the 60-foot limestone bluffs of Bayou Meto Creek. The bluffs are obscured by a line of trees whose tops blend seamlessly into the tall trees along the top of the bluff, giving the illusion of a Sequoya-dwarfing tree line. The summer has been wet and the Bermuda grass is thigh high, heavy with seed heads. Our llamas, lying in the shaded field, are all but invisible except for their long necks rising above the grass like Scottish sea monsters in a green fjord. Far in the distance, almost to the tree-lined bluffs, 70 Katahdin and Hampshire sheep graze motionlessly, as if in a photograph. Two black and white turkeys along with about 50 young chickens free-range through the grass at the foot of the hill. This is the place where I have lived for 30 years and the farm that has been in our family for a century.
My 93-year-old mother died a year ago, and we buried her on the hillside overlooking the pasture where she played during her summers as a little girl. She would come up on the train from McGehee with her mother to visit her grandparents and cousins here in the Tates Mill community. When the weather was hot they would sleep on cots under the trees around the old log house, where I live now. As a Delta child my mother would marvel at the absence of mosquitoes though her delight was tempered by the abundance of flies, which is still true.
We have fenced our pastures into large paddocks through which the sheep rotate on a weekly basis. This breaks the parasite cycle, fertilizes the fields and rests the land. We are building our herd and keep all of our ewe lambs, but we have little use for all but a couple of rams. In the world of livestock, a very, very few males have it made and the rest are mutton. I gave up hunting years ago because it bothered me to kill animals. Now with my wife, Kaytee, naming all 70 of our ewes and rams, it has fallen to me to slaughter the rams we don’t sell. It is a task I approach with some dread. Yet there is a satisfaction to it, the pleasure of learning something new and a sense of self-sufficiency. At a recent dinner party we prepared sauteed red bell peppers in capers and garlic, a Caprese salad with heirloom tomatoes, rosemary potatoes, Kentucky Wonder pole beans and a leg of lamb. The only thing that didn’t come from the farm was the capers.
I slaughtered my first young Kathadin ram for the dinner party. His name was Brownie, he was tame, and it was relatively easy to get him penned up near a huge 250-year-old white oak with a strong, low limb from which we would hang and butcher the carcass. I called an Iranian-born friend, David Hadidi, and he and several expat friends showed up on a Saturday morning to teach me how to slaughter a lamb.
After the hoist and meat hooks were in place, I had planned to shoot the lamb, but my Iranian friends said it was better to cut Brownie’s throat so that the heart would pump out the blood, improving the quality of the meat. One of the men flipped Brownie on his side, tied his feet together and then proceeded to talk calmly to the animal and stroke it. Finally he covered its eyes, careful not to let it see the knife and stabbed deep into the throat cutting it all the say to the neck bone. Bright red blood was everywhere, pumping out onto the ground, staining the soil a reddish brown. The animal struggled for 20 or 30 seconds, his breath gurgling through the sliced windpipe. Then he died. We hoisted Brownie up by the hind legs, ran the meat hooks between his tendons and hooves and proceeded to skin and gut him. Very little went to waste. David collected the liver, heart, kidneys and testicles, instructing me to start the grill. Even the lungs were saved to cook later for the dogs. Meanwhile, one of the men cut and wrapped the legs and shoulders from the still hanging carcass. At the grill, David sprinkled the organ meat with kosher salt, sliced it and slid it onto shish kebob spears. Laughter and reminisces of the old country followed, lubricated by pitchers of mimosas and grilled lamb testicles that had the flavor and texture of very, very tender, sweet chicken.
I live in two worlds, commuting into the city every morning for satisfying work that centers on selling ideas, both commercial and political. It is a job that is intensely social with a stimulating and occasionally trying variety of people. Afternoons, I return to the farm to more work, only this work is solitary, made up of soil, tomatoes, heat, irrigation, peacocks, sheep, insects, coyotes and heavy physical labor. Mornings before work I deliver heirloom tomatoes, red bell peppers and pounds of fresh basil to the restaurants while Kaytee picks and sorts perhaps 200 pounds of tomatoes. Weekends I’m selling chickens at the Beebe flea market, converting the tomato seconds into quart jars of marinara sauce or canning Kentucky Wonder pole beans for winter. Kaytee is likely out in the pasture hugging on her sheep while disinfecting those with hoof rot. By late August my wife and I are exhausted by the heat.
I am living where I will be buried. I work soil that has fed my family and my ancestors and to which I will return. In July my brother and I worked my father’s ashes into the lush asparagus beds and basil plantings. During his short bout with cancer we talked about it, and it was a thought that delighted him. Now I smile when I see the health and life in those plants.