Our Love-Hate Relationship With The Red Cedar Tree

From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

As with the New York Yankees, country people either love red cedars or hate them. One side says that red cedar is a fast-spreading weed tree and is a host for a disease harmful to apple trees. The other side maintains that red cedar is an attractive windbreak tree with useful, beautiful wood and berries beloved by many birds.

Years ago I fell in love with a Kentucky girl, and then I fell in love with the red cedar trees that adorned (or scourged, depending on one’s view) her family’s farm. When Carol and I married and moved north, to Ohio, we brought some red cedars along so that something in our farm landscape would remind her of home. The trees were already headed north anyway, the seed carried by birds which love the berries. Her brother, who had an orchard on their home farm, almost threw a fit. He protested that red cedar is a host for apple cedar rust which is harmful to apple trees, especially yellow varieties. I countered that his orchard was surrounded, literally, by red cedar trees, and he still got tons of apples including yellow ones, so what’s the big deal. In the end, he shrugged at my contrariness and helped me dig up some seedlings to take north.  As he finally admitted, he thought the pesky tree was pretty too.

That was over thirty years ago. Today our little farm’s fence rows are lined with red cedars twenty feet or more in height. Although the trees are spreading like weeds wherever left undisturbed,  just as they do in Kentucky, I am discovering so many advantages from them that I am for once glad for being contrary.

So far, we have had no trouble with cedar apple rust on our apple trees. Perhaps I am just lucky. Talking to orchardists, however, I don’t find anyone very concerned about the disease. Some apple and crab varieties, Red Delicious especially, are almost immune to it.  (You can google cedar apple rust and find out more than you ever wanted to know about controlling it.) The fungus is easy to identify on red cedar because it appears as a bright orange cluster of gelatinous spaghetti-like efflorescences.  Quite attractive unless you grow apples for a living.

Being a pioneer tree, red cedar, which is really a juniper (junipera virginianus), spreads quickly on cleared land and then gives way in a century or so to hardwoods that eventually grow up and shade it out. That is why there are so many red cedars in the mid-south. They are retaking abandoned farm land or where hardwood forests have been cut over, just as nature intends them to do. In the meantime they provide wonderful wildlife cover, erosion control, a good winter food supply as well as nesting sites for birds, and fairly good fence posts.  At least twenty species of birds feast on the berries. On our farm, bluebirds, which used to migrate south for the winter, now stick around and seem to get along quite well on those berries and those of a far worse weed pest, multi-flora rose.

Unlike other weeds and weed trees, red cedar seedlings, when mowed off, do not regrow so they are easy to control in pastures. They will grow fairly well on poor land and as far as I can see, are practically indestructible although limbs will break off rather easily to heavy wind or ice. Seedlings transplant easily. I have occasionally pulled them out of the ground without digging and replanted them rather carelessly and they still took root. Another plus: livestock won’t eat red cedar (unless starving) so you can plant them for a windbreak and the animals won’t graze them down.

As a fence row tree, they make wonderful shade for livestock in hot weather and shelter from wind and snow in winter. (See photo)  The animals, loitering in the shade, keep weeds from growing up under the cedars. Planted about 12-14 feet apart, the trees branch out and fill the gaps between them, and the branches grow so thick that they make an effective barrier for livestock but especially deer. The branches growing rather densely, prevent deer from jumping a livestock fence underneath them. As the trees age, they tend to lose their lower limbs, like all old trees do. But new seedlings continue to grow up next to the older trees to maintain a fairly good barrier. Originally, I planted the trees next to woven wire fence. Now the fence is deteriorating but the tree limbs twining through the woven wire take its place to some extent. As necessary, I replace parts of the old fence with wire panels and secure the panels to the tree trunks with plastic twine. The tree branches are so thick that inserting the panels under them is often difficult. But once in place, they don’t need much support other than the branches of old trees and young seedlings growing up through them. Red cedar trees can last a long time and so can the wire panels, so the fencing that I am now doing is rather permanent. Too bad I can’t live another seventy years to brag about it.

Red cedars, grown this way, often make more than one trunk, which is good for turning livestock and deer.  But the lesser trunks can and do break over in storms. These I cut and trim for fence posts. Cedar, with its oily sap, makes a fairly long-lasting post at four or more inches in diameter. Red cedar posts are often a commercial woodland crop in the mid-South.

The wood itself is in demand for lining closets and trunks to ward off clothes moths. In our area and farther south, Amish sawmills sometimes have red cedar lumber for sale in small amounts so I suppose local lumberyards occasionally have some wherever red cedar flourishes. The wood is usually expensive. If you have your own trees, it is best to make lumber out of them with a band saw, not a circular saw, since the bandsaw blade wastes less of the precious wood in the saw kerf. Another of my brothers-in-laws makes wooden boxes and other knick knacks out of red cedar (see photo). The deep maroon wood with yellow sap wood  are most eye-catching.

Red cedar trees were the only kind of Christmas tree my wife knew growing up. Her father cut one every year from their farm. Now we are continuing that custom. We and our son and his family can now harvest young red cedar trees from the original fence row trees at Christmas time. All of us and neighbors make wreaths and other Christmas decorations from the blue-berried boughs of the old red cedars. The berries are quite attractive (see photo)  and the foliage has a heavenly aroma.

We’ve noticed of late that cooking magazines are carrying recipes for meat sauces that use juniper berries for flavoring. Junipers other than red cedar have bigger, fleshier berries and serve that purpose better. But red cedar berries could also work, I’m thinking. It would just take three times as many berries as the recipe calls for. Some books say  that red cedar berries are “slightly toxic,” but I’ve eaten them on occasion and not suffered any ill. Nor have zillions of birds. Gin, as you know, is flavored with juniper berries, and I imagine there are lots of folks who would say that gin is “slightly toxic” too. Hmmm. I wonder if I could distill gin from red cedar berries?
See also Peach Trees Light Up The Old Hen House – And Vice Versa
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Image Credit: Gene Logsdon
Gene’s Posts
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The Pond at the Center of the Universe

From Gene Logsdon (1991)

The man standing stone-post-still on the shoreline of The Pond was watching a muskrat swimming on the water surface, its wake forming a V-shaped ripple of scarlet fading to indigo against the sunset. Without turning his head, which might scare the muskrat into diving underwater and scooting for its den, the man also watched, out of the corner of his eye, a great blue heron drifting down out of the sky toward him.

He was used to seeing the heron on its nightly trip up the creek valley, headed back to the rookery where most of Wyandot County’s herons, silent and solitary by day, gathered to roost. But this time, the huge slate-gray bird, its wingspan over five feet, was doing something wary great blue herons do not normally do. It continued to drift down in the twilight, made a pass over the pond, and then turned straight at him as if to land on one of the posts that held the homemade pier he was standing on. Forgetting the muskrat, but still not moving a muscle, the man watched aghast as the great bird hovered above him, like an avenging angel, and perched right on top of his head.

Not many people would have the steely nerves to suffer, without moving, a great blue heron’s talons gripping his head, but this man, my brothter-in-law, is not known in these parts for reacting to anything in an ordinary manner. He had already realized that no one was going to believe him unless he caught the bird. He started inching his right hand up the side of his body. Slowly, slowly, slowly. Gotcha! With one swift grab, he snatched the heron’s legs in his hand like a chicken thief removing a hen from the roost and bore his prize homeward so that all the neighborhood might see and believe. His family gathered round, ignorant of the danger involved. None of them knew that great blue herons can skewer an unsuspecting human’s eyeball right out of its socket with one lightning stab of its beak. This time, fortunately, its captor wore glasses and when the heron jabbed at him, it only knocked the glasses from his head. When another onlooker reached for the glasses, the heron speared him in the hand, having endured, it seemed, enough human attention for one day. A quick decision was reached. In the case of herons, better two in the bush than one in the hand. The bird haughtily stalked away, looking like the dignified old lady who hoped no one was watching when the wind momentarily blew her dress over her head. Then it regally pumped its wings up and down, slowly lifted itself into the air and flew away.

Life at The Pond, as we have always called it, has been full of such adventures. One of my sisters, who lives where she can see The Pond out her window, watched a cormorant repeatedly waddle out on the diving board, raise its wings slightly in the typical way cormorants do, and dive in. My sister assumed the bird was diving for fish, but she was not sure. “It looked exactly as if it were just having a good time,” she says. “And who knows. Maybe it was.”

Another day, I arrived at The Pond for a hockey game to see about a dozen little nieces and nephews sprawled out, face down on the ice. My first thought was that they had finally done it—killed each other in one grand hockey massacre. Closer examination, however, revealed that they were peering down through the crystal-clear ice at a trio of snapping turtles, their carapaces as big as meat platters, clearly visible scarcely two feet below, lolling on the pond bottom as if it were June. If we all laid there without movement, fish would congregate under our bodies, obeying an instinct to hide under logs, which they now mistook us for. The ice had become a giant television screen, tuned to nature’s own PBS station.

Three generations of our family have worked, played, fought (the only verb that properly describes our hockey games), picnicked, swum, camped out, made out, and celebrated holidays around The Pond. Most of all it has been a haven where any of us could come when the need to be alone hit us, to sit and slip out of the consciousness of self and into the arms of a little wilderness that thrums and hums with enough activity to keep a naturalist occupied for a lifetime or two. It is not an accident that Thoreau gained inspiration for his best nature writing on the shores of a pond.

A pond, surrounded by meadow and with a grove of trees growing nearby, attracts and concentrates an amazing diverstiy of wildlife. In this humdrum corn-belt country of north-central Ohio, The Pond has hosted, by my count, over forty different kinds of wild animals, not counting hockey players. In addition, we have identified at least 130 bird species around, on, or above The Pond. I have not begun to learn the names and numbers of different insects, the most fascinating pond wildlife of all. There is a little water bug, for example, by the name of Hydrocampa propiralis, which likes to eat the leaves of water weeds. However, it can’t swim or is too lazy to try, and so, like a good American, it uses technology instead. It builds itself a tiny boat out of bits of leaves, and sails off into the wild blue yonder.

As I play Thoreau and watch the life of this little wilderness in action, there evolves in my inner vision, a scene of seething, roiling, dynamic consumption. The Pond is an endless, entwined, labyrinthian dining table, at which sit the eaters being eaten. Barbaric as that vision seems, it is the accurate view of nature, a view without which ecology remains only a vague word, incomprehensible to both environmentalists who wish to protect nature and entrepreneurs who wish to subdue and exploit nature. The Pond teaches that life is not so much a progression from birth to death but a circle of eating and being eaten, the chemicals of one body passing on to form another. A frog becomes a charming prince or vice versa, not by a kiss but by the magic of the biological chain of life.

I sit on the bank and peer into a clump of cattails. As Yogi Berra said: “You can observe an awful lot, just by watching.” A muskrat chomps on the rhizomes at the bases of the cattails. The rhizomes are good for humans, too, if cooked like potatoes. (The young pollen spikes, steamed, are offered as gourmet food in fancy restaurants, and “ears” of this “cattail corn” sell in specialty West Coast supermarkets.) However, the muskrat must enjoy its delicacy with one eye over its shoulder, watching for mink, for whom muskrats are a delicacy. (Muskrats make good human food, too.) The mink, in turn, had better be alert for the great horned owl nesting in the woods next to The Pond. The owl is not at all deterred by the odorous oil the mink can unleash, skunklike, when disturbed, and Mrs. Great Horned Owl’s young would appreciate a change in diet from the red-winged blackbirds she has lately been snatching off the cattails where the birds roost.

Sunfish hide among the cattails, where they hope the big bass will not find them. The sunfish look for snails to eat, which in turn are feeding on algae. If the sunfish watch out only for bass, they may not notice the little Eastern green heron standing like a statue at the shoreline, ready to grab and gobble them. And if they elude both bass and heron, the kingfisher, which sits on the dead branch of the shoreline hickory tree, may dive-bomb into the water and spear them. If the kingfisher is not around, beware of cormorants practicing for the Olympics.

The algae, meanwhile, compete with the cattails for nutrients in the wastes dropped by muskrat and heron and redwing. A frog sits among the cattails, too, half hidden by them and its own camouflage colors. The frog doesn’t know that the cattails and the other pondweeds protect it; they just make a convenient place to hide while it waits to snatch flying bugs attracted by the pondweeds’ flowers. On the upper stalk of a cattail, a dragonfly perches, waiting patiently to make dinner of a mosquito buzzing by. In The Pond, dragonfly larvae feed on mosquito larvae while fish feed on both. Attached to the cattail stalks under water, often in symbiotic nutritional relationship to them, are diatoms and blue-green algae being eaten not only by snails, but various insects and worms. Other types of algae—filamentous algae drifting in the water—become food for bullfrog and toad tadpoles. The snapping turtles, themselves being parasitized by leeches sucking their blood, will eat some of the bullfrog tadpoles, and I will eat some of them after they grow up to be frogs. And, by and by, I shall eat a turtle, too.

Even those plants and animals that die a “natural” death—the most unnatural death of all—do not escape the feast at nature’s table. Bacteria eat decaying matter on the pond bottom, and produce ammonia. Other bacteria “eat” the ammonia and turn it into nitrites. Still other bacteria turn the nitrites into nitrates. The algae and plankton then eat the nitrates and turn them into proteins, carbohydrates, and minerals in them begin the long climb up through the biological food chain. If that sounds complicated, understand that I am oversimplifying the process exceedingly.

The largest or most cunning eaters at the head of the table are kept from destroying the whole food chain because they are the most vulnerable to changes or shortages in the menu—as the dinosaurs once proved. The exception to the circle of diners is rational man, who is clever enough to find sustenance in almost any part of the food chain, but who also has the chilling freedom to rise above it, to act against nature. Thus, man, when he does not understand the full impact of his awesome powers, becomes nature’s greatest danger.

As I watch, The Pond becomes a giant magnet attracting the wildlife around it. The barn swallow skims the surface of the water for bugs, the raccoon and opossum fish from the shoreline, the deer come down to the water for a drink, a black rat snake basks in the sun, having already raided a redwing’s nest and satiated itself. A cedar waxwing flutters above the water for bugs. A wood duck floats on it, diving for food. A fly catcher darts out over it and back again to a tree. A buzzard soars high above it all, watching me, hoping that my stillness means I’m dying and that it can get to me before the undertaker does.

My father built The Pond in 1950, with his little Allis Chalmers WD tractor and its hydraulic manure scoop substituting for a bulldozer. Whether he knew it or not—not having any technical engineering experience in such matters—he picked an almost perfect spot for a farm pond. About a fourth acre in size, The Pond drains water from hardly a ten-acre watershed, almost all of it in woodland so that no silt-laden water from cultivated farmland, saturated with fertilizers and toxic chemicals, can wash into it. Most amateurs want to build a dam that catches the runoff from many more acres than that, which means a large pond, which is hard to take care of properly, and an expensive mechanical spillway, plus an even larger emergency spillway to keep water from overflowing and washing away the earthen dam. The Pond has no pipe and concretebox spillway at all, only an emergency grass spillway, off to the side of the dam, which, despite expert opinion to the contrary, has proved to be all that is necessary, barring some catastrophic flood. Our kind of pond, using an earthen dam to hold the water, is called an embankment pond. The other kind of artificial pond is referred to technically as an excavated pond, easier to build and maintain because it is hardly more than a big hole dug in the ground. Many excavated ponds can be found in north-west Ohio on generally level ground, or dug into big hillsides in the more mountainous sourthern regions, or along highways where the soil was excavated for roadbed construction. Embankment ponds are more characteristic of gently rolling country where small ravines cut through low, but relatively steep, hills.

Neighbors stopped by during the summer construction work on The Pond to speculate about when, or if, it would fill with water. Uncle Ade finally reached a verdict.

“It won’t fill up for two years,” he wailed. He always talked as if he had to drown out the roar of a grain harvester.

“And it’ll dry up every August,” Uncle Lawrence chimed in.

Dad, who did not get along very well with either Lawrence or Ade—or, come to think of it, anyone else—paid no attention to them as he scooped the dirt out of the ravine and pushed it into a pile for the dam. The Pond was overflowing by Thanksgiving.

The Soil Conservation Service (SCS) agent also stopped by to cast dubious eyes on the project. He offered to survey and design the dam properly, which Dad took as a kind of effrontery.

“Don’t need government help,” he said.

“But if you let us design it, the government will pay a third or more of the cost,” the technician explained.

“Yeah, and if I do it your way, it will cost me three times as much, too,” Dad snorted.

As a result of Dad’s stubborness, our dam leaked a little, not having the prescribed clay core in the center of it. It had a number of other minor flaws, too, but with some repairs now and then where muskrats tried to dig holes through the dam, it has neither washed away nor gone dry in forty years.

Dad would not take the wildlife experts’ advice on stocking the pond either. The standard stocking practice in those days was so many largemouth bass to so many bluegills, which, time would prove, led to a pond overpopulated with bluegills that did not grow to practical size for either eating or catching. (Nowadays, you can stock your pond with hybrid bluegills that are sterile or with channel catfish that do not usually propagate new generations in ponds.) Dad put only largemough bass in The Pond, big lunkers he caught someplace else. Anyone who hooked one of those lunkers had to throw it back in. :You’ll see,” he said. “they will cannibalize most of their own young, and so we’ll have no overpopulation and the remaining bass will grow to good size.” The wildlife experts sniffed their disapproval and left. One day in 1957, several of us caught ninety-eight bass, all of a pound or more in weight, which seemed to us to settle the argument in Dad’s favor. (About that time we did heed the advice of the SCS and planted “living fences” of multiflora rose on the farm, which eventually turned into a living hell of briars. I have not much listened to expert advice since then.)

The SCS had more luck with citizens less contrary than my father, which would include nearly everyone except me. Even if its multiflora rose and autumn olive are turning many Ohio pastures and woodlots into one huge living hell of briars (someone has suggested that there might be some good come in it—the multiflora in eastern Ohio may eventually stop the flow of East Coast garbage into the state), the Service can boast justifiably that it has designed and helped build an estimated 9,000 artificial ponds and small lakes in Ohio. No one seems to know how many artificial ponds there are in the state altogether, but SCS officials in Columbus estimate about 10,000, counting those not assisted by SCS, “and maybe more.” The federal pond-building program was probably the most beneficial government effort for the public good ever funded, so, naturally, it has been all but dropped. Farm ponds can, in some cases, slow the runoff of water to rivers, alleviating the effects of floods and decreasing the amount of soil erosion. The water that is held back may recharge groundwater or evaporate back into the atmosphere to recharge the hydrologic cycle. The ponds further benefit society by taking out of cultivation land that often should not be farmed anyway, ravines and hills that profit-squeezed farmers would otherwise be planting in erosive row crops. Also, ponds near houses and barns can be used for fire protection, and thus lower insurance rates. Many ponds, particularly in the northwestern part of the state, as around Defiance, are used as source of house and drinking water to get away from high-sulfer well water. In many parts of the state, particularly in the southern hilly regions, ponds were built for livestock water even before the SCS came into being. Some ponds are also used for irrigation purposes.

But although Dad was full of ideas for growing fish commercially in our pond, and using the water, enriched with fish manure, to irrigate a super-duper market garden below the dam, The Pond has been used only for recreational and social purposes. It has been the symbolic, if not real, center of our family’s activity. All nine of us siblings still live in this rural county, six of us and our families more or less clustered around The Pond. Thousands of other Ohio ponds have served the same purpose for other families—a close-at-hand vacation spot and health spa. The only accessory The Pond lacks that can be found at other ponds is a cabin beside it. Next to The Pond lies what might be mistaken for a large lawn were it not for the bare spots that mark the bases and the pitcher’s mound. In summer we play softball, in fall football, and then the scene shifts to the ice for the hockey wars. In addition to the ubiquitous pier and diving board, The Pond has a small area of concrete apron on the shoreline where the third generation waded and played as tots, free of the mud, and with a sandpile beach above it. Steel posts, set in the concrete apron to hold the net that kept the children from wandering into deep water, stick dangerously above the ice during hockey season, and we have talked for years about cutting them off. But now a fourth generation is coming along, and the posts may be needed again.

The muddy bottom is the bane of all farm ponds, and the best way to avoid it is with a pier and a raft anchored in the middle of the pond, which is what most people do. My cousin, who happens to own a stone quarry, decided he would dump a few loads of crushed stone into his pond to make a mudless bottom. Ton upon ton upon ton he dumped. The stone just seemed to disappear into the bowels of the pond. The beach he made needed almost yearly additions of sand, too. What sand did not sink mysteriously into the earth ran off into the water and then sank mysteriously into the earth. He finally realized that, even with his own stone quarry, it was costlier to try to turn a farm pond into a swimming pool than to build a swimming pool.

His pond, known as Eagle Park for at least three-quarters of a century, was the scene of the original hockey wars before they moved two miles away to The Pond. The wars at Eagle Park involved the whole community and were dominated by Dad’s generation, especially Uncle Lawrence, who flew up and down the ice on racer skates, the blades of which were eighteen inches long. To keep playing after dark, we soaked straw bales in oil and burned them, one behind each goal. One afternoon, Uncle Lawrence, bored with hockey, drove his old, wooden-spoked truck out on the ice and skidded around in giddy circles, whooping like a kid. He finally overdid it and slammed the truck into the bank sideways so hard that one of the wooden wheels snapped in two. Undaunted, he fetched a tree branch out of the grove and wedged it in under the axle to serve as a sort of sled runner in place of the wheel. Still whooping, he drove the jalopy home that way.

Eagle Park in the 1920s and thirties really was a park, with a baseball diamond as well as the large pond for fishing and swimming, and a nice grove of hickories for picnicking. Across the road from it was a little red-brick schoolhouse, crumbling away today, which I suppose was the reason the park came to be there in the first place. Grandfather Rall built the pond, and he did not do it for frivolous reasons like providing the community with a park. He needed water for his sheep. He drained the pond once, and even though I was only a little boy then, I can still remember big catfish wriggling down the sheep paths below the dam in a couple inches of water, looking as out of place as a bishop on a manure spreader. Grandfather grazed sheep not only on the pasture around the pond but on the ball diamond, too. Waste not, want not, he said. Eagle Park had its own baseball team, which had the reputation of whipping all challengers. Fritz Cassel, who attended that little red schoolhouse and would later serve twenty years in the Ohio legislature, says he was the water boy. Literally. “Whenever a ball was hit into the pond, I had to go after it,” he says.

Since nearly everyone in the neighborhood was a farmer then, whenever the ice was thick enough, work stopped, whether it was midweek or weekend, to play hockey. Weekend was not a word in our vocabulary. I wonder now, after all these years of progress and prosperity, how many rural neighborhoods have a free park all to themselves, kept manicured at a profit by sheep, and with the time to enjoy it? When we were poorer, we were a whole lot richer.

The hockey wars shifted to The Pond largely because Dad installed lights that allowed us to follow our madness far into the night without fear of running into burning straw bales. And it continued for a while to serve as a community watering hole as well as a family gathering place, just as Eagle Park did and many ponds in Ohio still do. The Pond hosted lodge meetings and church groups (although not immersion baptisms as Eagle Park once did), and especially school parties. These parties moved from pond to pond, depending mostly on which owner had young people at the right age for such activities. But gradually, most of the ponds have become, for the time being, anyway, forgotten little domains of wild nature where only those with old memories go now and, long to, as James Whitcomb Riley said of his day, “Strip to the soul and dive once more into the old swimmin’ hole.”

But if the countryside empties of people, it fills with more wildlife. The deer that sift out of the woods for a drink at The Pond were unknown in the days when catfish swam down sheep paths. Canada geese, once very rare in these parts, have become a destructive pest around farm ponds. And even ten years ago, no one would have thought a cormorant possible here, let alone working on his half-gainer. Life is a wheel forever turning. Whatever goes around, comes around. I have a hunch even the young people will come back someday after they realize the cities have deluded them.

But one wild species, Homo hockiatis, is definitely dwindling, being found in all the county only on The Pond, and then only in reduced numbers. Will a whole crowd of them ever flock again to The Pond to beat each other with hockey sticks or sit on the bank by the fire drinking hot chocolate? I think the peak year was 1957, when even in February we were all still eager for one more game. Snow had fallen six inches deep on the ice, however, and a warm wind was melting it and the ice. Uncle Lawrence decided the only way to remove the wet snow quickly was with our Allis Chalmers and its manure scoop. Dad did not think much of the idea, but he went along with it. After all, this probably would be the last game of the season.

Since the tractor had little traction on the ice, Lawrence would start out in the grass, careening along in road gear till he got to The Pond, then drop the blade and let the weight of the tractor slide it and a scoopful of snow to the other bank. Halfway through the job, halfway across the pond, the thawing February ice gave way, and the tractor sank four feet into the water, while Lawrence sat astride the seat, whooping hysterically. “You’re still the craziest man I know,” Dad yelled at him, shaking his head. “Me crazy?” Lawrence roared with hyena-like laughter. “This is your tractor, not mine!”
See also Gene’s The Man Who Created Paradise
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Excerpted from At Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream 1994 |
Gene’s Posts
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The Percheron On The World’s Most Famous Farm

From Gene Logsdon
Excerpted from The Draft Horse Journal, Summer, 2002
In Memoriam, Andrew Wyeth, July 12, 1917 – January 16, 2009

This is a fairy tale story that is not at all a fairy tale. The story has so many parts to it that I scarcely know where to begin. Louise Kuerner’s horse, Dentzel, the Percheron referred to in the title, lives on the Kuerner farm in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, a farm immortalized on canvas by Andrew Wyeth, widely viewed as America’s foremost living painter and by many art lovers as one of the best artists anywhere in any time. He has used the Kuerner farm’s building, animals, fields and people hundreds of times as subject or models. I might argue that Dentzel is now the most famous draft horse in the world too because recently, Wyeth painted him in a work titled “Karlanna,” and a watercolor study done for the final painting called “Fenced In.”

Dentzel’s other distinction in life is that he is currently the only draft horse to be driven (by Louise) in the enormously popular Parade of Carriages that precedes the Point-to-Point  steeplechase races at Winterthur in the state of Delaware every spring. “At 17.2 hands, he’s the biggest horse in the parade,” says Louise, laughing. “But that’s what I wanted. A big horse. When my first horse, Pony, died, I thought I didn’t want to go through that heartbreak again. But when I found Dentzel, I just had to have him. He was even sick when I first saw him, not a smart way to buy a horse, but we nursed him back to good health and he’s been just splendid ever since.”

Louise is married to Karl J. Kuerner, a rising star of an artist himself. (A recent painting sold in the six figures.) He has painted Dentzel many times in his own work. “Well, he has to pay for his keep some way,” Karl says jokingly. Louise’s pastime and passion is driving horse-drawn carriages on the farm and over the many trails along the Brandywine River nearby. She is a regular participant in the Parade of Carriages. She gathers with other drivers at George Weymouth’s farm (another accomplished artist) nearby and together they drive their horses and carriages to the Parade at Winterthur about six miles away.

That Karl is an artist of recognized merit is an intricate part of the fairy tale that is not a fairy tale. To explain, I must start at the beginning of the story, or at least one of the beginnings. Wyeth named his painting of Dentzel, “Karlanna” after Karl and Anna Kuerner, the artist Karl’s grandparents, now deceased. They were the first Kuerners on the farm that was to become so well known throughout the world. Wyeth used them as models for some of his most masterful paintings. The Kuerners, poor immigrants from Germany after the First World War, had to overcome almost overwhelming financial and personal odds to get themselves established on their farm. Having known them myself, I would guess that Dentzel, standing so stolidly and unyieldingly inside the scraggly pasture fence in Wyeth’s paintings, reminded the Wyeths (Betsy, Andrew’s wife, usually titles the paintings) of that steadfast, stalwart, stubborn farm couple who figured so prominently in Andrew’s work. At any rate, as the last unexpected turn in the fairy tale story that is not a fairy tale, who could have ever predicted that the relationship between this hardscrabble farm and one of America’s greatest artistic geniuses would result in a Kuerner grandson, Karl J., becoming a well-regarded and successful artist too. The wonder of this for me is that both Andrew and Karl continue to draw inspiration from the same little farm. Karl once told that while discussing this rather amazing fact with Andrew the latter commented: “And we haven’t even hit the tip of this iceberg yet.”

There was a clue that the fairy tale might  turn out this way. The first Karl, whom I shall call Old Karl in deference to his son, Karl Jr. and his grandson Karl J., the artist, had a brother in Germany who was also an artist. The tendency did run in the blood. It also helps to explain why Old Karl allowed the painters from the nearby Chadds Ford school of art (The Pyle School of history) to roam his property with their brushes and easels. Other farmers in the neighborhood in earlier days looked with displeasure on “those weird people” poking over their fields. Old Karl made them feel at home. Another famous painter, Peter Hurd, who was, as Old Karl told me, “crazy about horses,” boarded  his riding horses on the farm right along with Karl’s drafters and paid the rent by giving Karl a paining. N.C. Wyeth, the very successful illustrator and painter and Andrew’s father, painted on the farm too. According to Henry C. Pitz’s book, The Brandywine Tradition,  N.C. incurred the displeasure of a bull on one of his countryside painting jaunts and escaped only by jumping into a farm pond. This might be part of the reason why his paintings never lapsed into the fuzzy “peace and plenty” tranquility that affects so many artists charmed by scenes of rural life.

But it was with Andrew Wyeth that Old Karl formed the most endearing and enduring  relationship. He even gave Andrew a key to the house so that he felt free to come and go as he wished. While the Kuerners worked at farming, Andrew worked at painting.  “He wanted solitude, to be left alone,” Old Karl told me. “We tried to keep it that way. We farmers understand that.”

But the Kuerner farm has a story to tell quite apart from the artistry that blossomed on it. The farm can serve as an excellent model for telling the history of agriculture in America up to 1990. The house was built, according to Old Karl, around 1706. Even a person of average height must bend down to go through the entrance doorway, a nod to the fact that people were definitely shorter three centuries ago. The house was used as a hospital for wounded American soldiers during the Revolutionary War and apparently Washington and Lafayette made it their headquarters during he Battle of the Brandywine. That alone is enough to make the farm a special place.

I have little knowledge of what occurred on the farm between then and the 1920s when the Kuerners first rented it and then bought it, but so much did the farm continue the traditions of earlier agriculture that when I first visited it in 1967, it might as well have been 1867. Everything I saw there reminded me of my grandfathers and the long tradition of pre-industrial farming that I almost missed. I understood when Helga Testorf, Wyeth’s model for the famous “Helga paintings” and Old Karl’s nurse in his final days, told me later that when she, also an immigrant from Germany, first came across the railroad track and saw the farm spread out before her, she was so enchanted that she resolved immediately to live somewhere close by.

I was writing a book about Andrew Wyeth at the time. His art on display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, had smitten me. For the first time I had found an artist who in both his work and his articulation of his view on art made sense to me. I knew that his views about the creative impulse applied to writing too. I thought that I could discover how to write better if I could learn enough about Andrew Wyeth. Both from that notion and from being a farmer myself, I found the Kuerner farm to be a magical place. There was no other word that worked. I saw all round me Wyeth paintings in the flesh, so to speak. It was as if I were viewing Michelangelo’s David, and the statue came alive and spoke to me.

But more than that, if there can be more than that, the farm was also a museum of sustainable farming only slowly and grudgingly giving way to modern technology and the advance of the suburbs. Like an Amish farm, it was able to operate to a certain extent independently of the mainstream economy. Until the mid-1940s there was no electricity on the farm and with the way the farm was operated in 1967, it could still have functioned without it. The water in the house and barn was piped from the never-failing spring on the hill across the road. It flowed first through the house and then the barn without any technology or expense of power except gravity. The water never froze. For three centuries it had just kept running that way. The barn took advantage of the same free power of gravity in another way. It was built into a steep hill. On the back hill side, the Kuerners could enter the top hay loft floor at ground level and unload without much need for lifting power, and then feed downward from that floor level to the second floor and then on down to livestock on the bottom level…

The Kuerners still heated and cooked with wood. Even in her nineties in the 1990s, Anna continued to rise at night to chop kindling in the woodhouse off the kitchen, talking to her cats in German. There was a smokehouse to keep the meat; a springhouse to cool the milk. One of Karl’s and Anna’s daughters, also named Louise, told me that when she was growing up on the farm, sometimes a frog would jump in the pan of milk cooling in the spring water. “Worse that that,” her brother, Karl Jr. chimed in. “Once Daddy noticed a frog swimming in the milk when he got to the cream station. He grabbed it and stuck it in his shirt before anyone noticed.“ Both of them laughed hilariously at the memory….

This was the marvelously self-sufficient world that Andrew Wyeth discovered when, as a boy, he walked over the hill from the Wyeth property, which abuts the Kuerner farm. It was a world totally different from his own rather upper middle class surroundings, but one far from the “simple life” or “bucolic serenity” that upper middle class people fancy they will find on farms. The Kuerners liked to tell, giggling, how  their mother started fires with drawings and paintings that Andrew left in the house, scraps that would be worth thousands of dollars today.  Andrew learned that the Kuerner Farm could be filled with darkness of the spirit as well as light, of tragic sadness as well as joy, of hardship more than ease—a family depending on their wits to survive both nature and what we euphemistically refer to as mainstream economics.

I can amuse myself for hours meditating on how this fortuitous meeting between a practical farm family and a dreamy artist from upper middle class society could produce art so down to earth, so reflective of the real farm culture the world now seems to be abandoning. Whatever mystery is involved, people with roots in rural life sense something in the paintings that they understand but cannot name. Wyeth is as popular in Russia and Japan as he is in America because the Russians and the Japanese are even more aware of the passing of traditional rural life than we are. There must be hundreds of millions of us…. One of the strangest sights I ever saw on the Kuerner Farm was a group of diminutive Japanese visitors walking rather confusedly across the pasture fields, seeking in vain for what they saw in the paintings.

For that reason I must be careful that I do not read into a painting just what I want to see there. I think of the one that Andrew gave Old Karl, one of the first he did on the farm, when he was only 16 years old. It is a rendering of Old Karl’s workhorses (they were Percherons too) and a hired man, plowing… It would be easy to interpret the painting, “Spring Landscape At Kuerners” as a rush of sentimental romanticism or of true sorrow for the passing of horse farming and the passing of the family farm… I made that mistake at first. But as Andrew told me, he is not interested in farming as such, nor does he try to make historical or sentimental statements with his paintings. He just embraces what he sees and how he sees it and then works on it as if he were portraying, as he puts it, “my own little world.”… In this case, Old Karl told me, the young Wyeth was struck by the way the sun’s rays at a certain angle made the sweat on the horses glisten with an almost unearthly glow. Many farmers who have worked horses are familiar with this sight. That is why, I think, so many people with roots in farming love Wyeth’s paintings and why some urban art critics, not fortunate enough to know that culture, do not… With a similar ignorance, they don’t see much difference between a Wyeth painting and say, a Currier and Ives illustration.

But here’s the irony that forever baffles the student of human behavior. Practical Old Karl sold that painting for $12,000 so he could buy a tractor. The person who bought it turned around and resold it to a collector for $65,000 as Wyeth tells in it in his Autobiography. Today the painting might sell for over a quarter million. But Old Karl wanted money to buy a tractor and he wanted it now. Imagine: the farmer sells a priceless painting that immortalizes plowing with horses in order to buy a tractor. That’s the history of farming in one sentence….
See also Gene’s Organic Art?
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming |
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